Merion Golf Club – East Course

6,126 yards, 144 slope, from the Middle Tees

Course:  In Ardmore, PA, just 20 minutes southwest of Philadelphia proper is the esteemed Merion Golf Club.  Merion was established in 1896 and consists of two courses, the East and West, both designed by Hugh Wilson.  The East opened in 1912 while the West opened in 1914.  The East is the more well known and regarded course, hosting a number of major championships and is known as one of the best courses in the world.  Currently ranked 12th on Golf Magazine’s best courses in the world, Merion typifies what a strategic course should be and is the gold standard for the mantra that length is not necessarily vital for a course to be challenging.  Moreover, at a scant 126 acres, Merion is almost miraculous at maximizing the land upon which it is set; at no point in time does the course feel cramped, short or contrived.  By intricate routing and using the hills, ridges, and creek as adroitly as possible, each hole comes as naturally as the next without interference from the others.  The majority of the par 5’s are over 500 yards, the par 3’s range from 115 to 205 yards (from the Middle tees) and there were a number of par 4’s I was hitting a longer iron, hybrid or fairway wood on the second shot.  The variety of shots, the sequence of holes, the strategy required for each shot; all of it’s a remarkable accomplishment when you have all the land you can imagine, let alone a little more than 120 acres.

Merion is steeped in history.  Through the decades, it’s been the scene of legendary golf moments, including when Bobby Jones completed the Grand Slam here in 1930; Ben Hogan hit his historical 1 iron on the Eighteenth in the final round of the 1950 U.S. Open, ultimately going on to win (the iconic photograph of that 1 iron shot is one of the most famous in any sport) after his against-all-odds recovery from a serious car wreck that nearly crippled him; and the playoff between Trevino and Nicklaus in the 1971 U.S. Open, where Trevino famously tossed a rubber snake at Nicklaus before they teed off.  Bobby Jones won his first major here and his last competitive round (he retired after winning the Grand Slam).  Most recently, it hosted the 2013 U.S. Open and the Walker Cup in 2009.  For the 2013 Open, Merion showed that it could remain challenging for the tour pros despite the advances in technology and distance.  In fact, while it seemed that Phil Mickelson would finally win a U.S. Open going into the final round, it was the shortest hole on the course that was his undoing, the short par 3 Thirteenth.  Indeed, Merion is and continues to be a hallmark of golf in the United States, a beacon of golf as it should be.

Hogan holding his finish after the 1 iron shot on the Eighteenth

Adding to the fascination of the course is that Hugh Wilson designed it.  Wilson had never designed a course before, so when he was asked by the club to construct the course, he dove into research, consulted with stalwarts such as C.B. MacDonald, and took what he remembered from his trips across the pond in his design.  Wilson’s work clearly shows that he had an intuitive understanding of the principles of links golf.  There are very few blind shots at Merion, only OB on the perimeters of the course and a wide open layout relying on the natural terrain for its challenge and strategy.  Adding to Wilson’s aura is the fact he only designed a handful of courses; Merion East and West, Cobbs Creek Olde, Seaview Bay and the nine hole course at Phoenixville Country Club.  Donald Ross finished construction of Seaview, so really there are just a few courses of his, all in the Philadelphia area.  I have played all but Merion West and while there are consistent themes in all of them, there are some very notable differences.  After playing these others numerous times, I was impressed with the remarkable differences, and some similarities, of Merion East with them.  While there’s a small sample out there, Wilson’s designs are some of my favorite to play.

Personally, Merion is the course I know best without ever playing it.  I live very close and my jogs (back when I was in some semblance of shape) would take me along the course on Ardmore Ave. and Clubhouse Rd., where I’d see the famous wicker flagsticks that don’t reveal what the wind is doing and the “white faces of Merion,” which are the bunkers for their flashing nature and sporadic groupings of grass in them, giving the appearance of a face.  I was there for the Walker Cup and I volunteered for the US Open in 2013, walking the course the entire week and watching how the tour pros played it.  In fact, I was up late one night watching the Golf Channel and they were running a retrospective on the 2013 U.S. Open.  One of the turning points of the tournament was Mickelson birdieing the Seventeenth during the third round, which vaulted him into the lead.  They showed that birdie and sure enough, in the stands, cheering like a madman, is yours truly.  I had never heard a crowd cheer so loud at any sporting event ever after that putt rolled in, not even in 2008 when the Phils won the World Series.  For extra torture, I would drive by it on my way to work and back home for a number of years, seeing group after group on the course and even seeing how the course was prepared for the Open.  A serious case of being so close, yet so far away from actually playing it.

For those who have been following along, 2017 has been a season of golf I would never be able to fathom if someone asked me.  I’ll get into it a little more in my 2017 review, but my great fortune continued with an opportunity to play Merion.  So on a glorious Sunday with stunningly perfect weather for golf, I drove the daunting 3 minutes to the club, pulled into the parking lot I’ve had to drive past millions of times prior, and enjoyed one of the best rounds of my life.

The First is a 339 yard par 4 (from the Middle tees).  The first thing to note about the First tee is that it is right next to the patio where member are dining and have a front row seat to your shot.  It is widely known as one of the more harrowing opening tee shots, as it feels like the entire clubhouse is watching you tee off.  And that pressure is very real.  I was able to stay focused, however, and hammered my tee shot down the middle of the fairway.  I saw it as a sign that the course was welcoming me.

As for the hole, it’s a shorter dog leg right with well spaced bunkers on either side of the fairway, with  the third set on each side pinching the fairway as it turns to the green.  The green itself is deep and narrow, primarily running from front to back and bunkers on all sides.  The tee shot is vital in setting up a nice approach, otherwise you are scrambling in a hurry from one of the bunkers or the rough.

I’ll just apologize up front; I didn’t take photos of every hole.  A reason to come back, although the course will be closed for a little over a year for work on the greens and I believe a tunnel under Ardmore Ave.  Either way, photos of the course are ample online.

The Second is a 515 yard par 5.  Crossing over Ardmore Ave., this uphill par 5 is straight away and runs parallel with the street.  The tee is a forced carry over Cobbs Creek with a large bunker on the left and OB along the right near the street.  On the tee, I couldn’t help but think of Stricker shanking his tee shot on the fourth round, dashing his championship hopes, so I promptly hooked by ball in the opposite direction onto the fairway of the Fifth.  I then badly hit my second shot even more left into the rough, almost off the Fifth fairway.  Next shot got me 100 yards to the green, then within 10 feet.  My caddie was excited for me to make the putt for what would be a wild par, but the putt veered a few inches to the right.  Alas, I was still happy with the bogey!  Bunkers are strategically placed on either side of the fairway leading up to the green and the green itself has two bunkers on either side.  Strategically, the course does very well in becoming exponentially difficult if you miss the fairways and greens.  Knowing when to use restraint and when to press on recovery shots is part of the fun here.

A word about the caddies.  They are excellent, well experienced and a joy to be around.  Mine was outstanding, guiding me around the course, giving me great reads and kept the round refreshing.  Merion is known for their excellent caddies and mine was one of if not the best I’ve had.

Approach shot to the Second

The Third is a 168 yard par 3.   A classic well done Redan where the green tilt from left to right is very fast and the bunkers on either side are penal for different reasons; the left greenside bunkers is shallower, but the green runs away from you while the bunker on the right is much deeper even though the green runs towards you.  And landing on the green form the tee probably isn’t enough to assure par; knowing what part of the green to land on is just as vital.  A superb par 3.

The Third

The Fourth is a 559 yard par 5.  The fairway tilts substantially from right to left with a bunker blocking most of the fairway, including past it.  The second shot is one of the free blind shots on the course, as you hit over the bunker, which is on a ridge to the fairway on the other side, which runs downhill to the green.  The green is essentially a fortress, protected by a creek in the front, seven bunkers surrounding it, and sloping form back to front.  A classic and solid example of the green dictating every shot before it, as being in a position for an ideal approach to navigate the well protected green is paramount.  Th caddie is truly worth their weight in gold for this hole alone and the approach shot is one of my favorite.

Second shot territory of the Fourth
The other side of the ridge, with the green below
Still traversing the Fourth
A look at the left side out towards Ardmore Ave.  The views are terrific in every direction

The Fifth is a 404 yard par 4.  Similar to the Second, the tee shot is a forced carry over Cobbs Creek.  The fairway slopes from right to left and that tilt is a dominant feature of the hole all the way through the green.  Trees on the left side and a well placed bunker on the right leading up to the green, the slope making it necessary to aim for the right side of the fairway and watch the ball fall and roll towards the left.  The green is large and continues with the slope, making any pin position on the right side treacherous.  The number one handicapped hole, and rightly so.

The Fifth
A look at the green from the Sixth tee

The Sixth is a 413 yard par 4.  A fantastic example of Hugh Wilson’s acumen of tee placement and its relation with the fairway here as the tee shot is to a fairway that bends slightly to the right with large bunkers on the right, where the tees are facing.  The fairway then is kind of a punchbowl, sloping up on both sides uphill to the green with bunkers on either left and right side, as well as the far side.  The tee shot seems to dictate the difficulty of the approach shot very well.

The Sixth

The Seventh is a 348 yard par 4.  Trees and the perimeter of the course line the right side while a large bunker on the left side below the green starts to tighten up the fairway.  Smaller bunkers line the right/upper side of the green and the green has quite a bit of movement from right to left.  A fun approach shot and green.

Moving down the fairway of the Seventh 
Approach shot territory

The Eighth is a 342 yard par 4.  Continuing to traverse the perimeter of the course on the right side, the fairway is shaped like a reverse “S” and starts downhill to a large bunker, which abruptly ends the fairway.  The approach will be aerial to carry the bunker, and the green runs from front to back.  Another greenside bunker is off to the right and a little longer, making sure the approach is as precise as possible.  Another great approach shot that penalizes as great as the miss and the green complex is a fun one.

Approach shot territory 
End of the fairway, with the green on the other side of the bunker

The Ninth is a 160 yard par 3.  A downhill par 3 with a forced carry over Cobbs Creek to a green with a ridge running through the middle and menacing bunkers on all sides.  Pin positions can make this hole exponentially more difficult, especially if it’s tucked over on the left side, and the only miss that could turn out ok is off the far side.  Reminiscent of the approach on the Fourth, accuracy is fairly vital here.

The Ninth in the background

The front nine does not have a weak hole.  Every hole stands on its own with subtle challenge and strategy, requiring a lot more precision than it initially appears.  Spectacular routing and variety as well.  I would rank them 4, 3, 5, 7, 8, 1, 9, 2, 6.

The back nine starts with the 291 yard par 4 Tenth.  An elevated tee shot dominated by trees is deceptive, as the fairway is wide and those long enough can get it past the bunker on the left side.  The fairway turns left and uphill to the green.  A deeper, much larger bunker is on the left side of the green while a longer trench like bunker wraps around the back and right sides of the green.  Based on its length, there are several ways to attack this hole, which gets much tougher off the fairway or in the greenside bunkers, especially with the slope of the green, which generally runs from back to front.

The Tenth

The Eleventh is a 348 yard par 4.  A famous hole in more ways than one; it’s the hole Bobby Jones captured the Grand Slam, and in my opinion, is the hole where Tiger Woods began his slide after coming back to world number 1 in the third round of the 2013 US Open.  Tiger seemed to injure his wrist on a root of one of the trees on the left side and while he finished the tournament and ultimately the season, winning golfer of the year, to me he was not the same after that hole, experiencing a myriad of injuries and disappointing performances.  As of this writing, he is mounting another come back, so I am pulling for him.  With respect to this hole, stay away from the roots on the left side!

The tee shot is elevated and one of the rare blind shots on the course, as the fairway dips downhill.  The fairway is generous and as is the case with every hole, there is a very pressing need to hit the fairway off the tee, as the approach shot is a challenging one, over a creek that runs diagonally form the left side to the right side of the green and a bunker on the left side.  The green is small, further emphasizing the precision necessary to land on the green.  Fantastic use of the creek and the small hill to create a simple yet challenging par 4.

Approach shot territory of the Eleventh

The Twelfth is a 351 yard par 4.  Going back in the direction of the Eleventh tee, the fairway dog legs right and uphill to the green.  Bunkers are on the left and trees are on the right while the tee shot must carry Cobbs Creek.  The green is elevated from the fairway with bunkers on the left and right side, both below the green.  Unfortunately (or fortunately for the sake of learning more about the course firsthand), I hit the best tee shot of the day here, leaving me with a short iron into the green.  I missed the approach shot into the left greenside bunker, then over carried that bunker shot far and right of the green.  It was my only triple bogey of the round, but showed me how prickly these holes can be even with the slightest miscue.

The Twelfth
Approach shot territory

The Thirteenth is a 115 yard par 3.  The shortest par 3 on the course and where Phil Mickelson essentially lost his hold on the US Open crown, the green slopes severely from left to right and is surrounded by bunkers.  An excellent example of a short par 3 offering a daunting yet fair challenge, if that makes sense.

The Fourteenth is a 396 yard par 4.  The fairway takes a total of five turns by my count, wiggling its way to the green slightly uphill with bunkers strategically placed on either side with bunkers on the left, right and far sides of the green.  The fairway is also on the narrow side, so negotiating that with the turns, bunkers and rough ensures sufficient challenge.  The green is quite large and has a couple subtle sideboards, generally sloping from back to front.  A broken record at this point, but yet another spectacular par 4.  This area of the course is also especially tranquil, as you’re amongst the natural landscape, the sprawling estate mansions along Golf House Road and the famous clubhouse.

Approach shot at the Fourteenth

The Fifteenth is a 358 yard par 4.  A dog leg right that runs along Golf House Road, just like the Fourteenth, with bunkers on the right side coming into play off the tee.  The fairway then dog legs right and uphill to the green, which has bunkers on the left and right sides, with the white faces in all their glory.  With lots of movement on this green, simply hitting it isn’t enough to assure par, so take note of the pin position.

The Fifteenth
Moving down the fairway

The Sixteenth is a 407 yard par 4.  A dog leg left where the fairway is wider for the tee shot then narrows as it turns and gets closer to the green.  The green is actually set to the left of the fairway altogether, above a quarry site, presenting a semi blind approach shot to the green, which is a forced carry over the quarry.  You have the option of continuing on the fairway for a shorter shot to the green, or taking the forced carry shot to the green, which has a false front and slopes from back to front.  If you end up in the quarry, you’re essentially dead in the water in a bunker with the green severely above you, or in deep fescue.  Strategy and ball striking precision abound here.

The Seventeenth is a 205 yard par 3.  A drop shot forced carry to the green, which slopes from left to right and is surrounded by bunkers and has a false front.  I watched the entire field play this hole during the third round of the 2013 US Open and there were few pars.  Those ending up above the hole on the left were lucky with bogey while most tried to end up short or on the right side of the pin. Scrambling was fairly difficult for them.  Of course Phil Mickelson birdied the hole by going past the pin then sinking a longer putt, which at the time seemed like the green light for him to seize his first US Open win.  What makes this hole distinct to me is the bunkering.  There are a healthy amount of longer drop shot par 3’s out there, but the bunkers and green complex sets this one apart and instills a subtlety and demanding wedge game that makes you start thinking of where to miss instead of where to aim.

The Eighteenth is a 407 yard par 4.  One of the more demanding tee shots as you need to carry the quarry on the right center.  The fairway on the other side runs downhill, before going back uphill to the large green.  The hole plays longer than it appears and is yet another rich in history, hosting one of the most famous shots in golf when Ben Hogan nailed his 1 iron into the green and forcing a playoff in the 1950 US Open, going on to win it.  As you climb to the green with the flagpole and clubhouse in the background, with the sounds of those on the patio, you realize just how marvelous of a round and course you’ve just experienced and feel all the much enriched person for having been through it.

A look at the Hogan shot relative to the green
The green
The remarkable clubhouse

The back nine has the same variety and balance as the front, with short and long par 3’s and par 4’s, turning in both directions, some forced carries while others allowing the ground game, all strategic and generous with allowing various styles of play.  My humble ranking would be 14, 11, 16, 15, 10, 12, 13, 18, 17.

Generally, Merion East is the king of subtle strategy, smartly designed and placed in an ideal setting.  The course ensures only those that play well score well, yet does it as elegantly as I’ve ever seen.  The golfer that scores poorly is more apt to blame himself than the course and will want another round for redemption, only to find himself mucking in an entirely different set of maladies not previously encountered, and wanting to perform the exercise over and over, enjoying himself all the same.  It’s a perfect walking course as well with a very fitting routing.

With a generous membership that understands how special their club is and its place in golf, as well as a tremendous stable of caddies and friendly staff, Merion instantly became a favorite.

Gripes:  Nothing.  The course will be closed for at least the next year, so I’m looking forward to seeing how it is after the work is done.

Bar/Grill:  The patio is one of the best places for lunch/drinks I can think of and the mugs of beer are reason enough to take some time to take part.

Clubhouse/Pro Shop:  Well sized with a great selection.

The iconic locker room

Practice area:  Grass range and a couple putting greens.

Getting there:  From downtown, take 76 West, get off at Route 1 (City Line) South, turn right at Haverford Ave., left at Ardmore Ave., and you’ll see it as soon as you go over the railroad tracks.

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