“It was good to get back to Merion. No other course on which the Open is played provides such a strong tie with the past. It was good just to gaze at the unchanged pillared clubhouse, with its black shutters and its old-fashioned green-and-white striped awning over the veranda.” Thus, Herbert Warren Wind wrote in 1971 when the U.S. Open returned there at the time. His words are still perfect today. It was indeed very good to get back to Merion this past year for the U.S. Open.
As you would expect from such a historic course, books about Merion are varied, detailed and interesting. The combination of the recent U.S. Open and the newly published Merion: The Championship Story have spurred us to write about its books. Merion has hosted more U.S.G.A. championships than any other club in the United States.
Golf at Merion 1896-1976 (D & J H12340) was Merion’s first club history, published in 1977 on the club’s 80th anniversary and written by Richard H. Heilman. Heilman was a retired insurance executive and past president of the club. The book is softcover and covers Merion’s history from its early days, including the transition from the Cricket Club to a golf club. It has some interesting historical black and white pictures including when President Eisenhower and Arnold Palmer visited the course for a charitable exhibition match in 1964. The history incorrectly states that course architect Hugh Wilson got the idea for wicker baskets from visiting Sunningdale, and brought the idea back. Wilson probably got the idea from courses in the British Isles such as Prestwick and Stoke Poges. Merion originally opened with traditional flags and the wicker baskets are credited to William Flynn, who filed a patent for them in the United States.
Golf at Merion is a more extensively researched and comprehensive history written by Desmond Tolhurst and was published in 1989. Tolhurst was a Cambridge graduate, golf book author and a contributing editor to Golf Magazine. The first edition is a limited edition of 1,500 (D & J T10990) and was published with a slipcase in July 1989. There was also a standard trade edition (D & J T11000) issued only with a dust jacket only in August of 1989. The books come with an as-issued errata slip laid in.
Note the Merion logo on the cover of the book which has ‘1912’ under the Scotch broom, representing the year the East course was designed. This is different than the current Merion logo which has ‘1896’, the year the original course opened at its former location in Haverford. The Merion Golf Club wasn’t formally organized as a separate entity until 1942.
Golf at Merion (D & J T11030), an updated version of the 1989 history was published in 2005, by Desmond Tolhurst and Gary A. Galyean. This edition of the book was limited to 2,000 copies and was published in a hardcover with no dustjacket. It is the most comprehensive of the three histories and includes a detailed color hole-by-hole rundown of the East course.
David Barrett’s Miracle at Merion was a worthy winner of the U.S.G.A. Herbert Warren Wind Book award in 2010 and recounts the story of Ben Hogan’s historic win at the 1950 U.S. Open.
Merion: The Championship Story was published in 2013 and written by Jeff Silverman. The book is an impressive 502 pages. The book was published after the 2013 U.S. Open so that it could include that tournament in the book. Surprisingly, given Merion’s history, no book had previously focused on the tournaments held there. Silverman is a professor of English at nearby Villanova University and he knows how to write. Given the material (one of the greatest golf courses, the Hogan history, Jones winning the Grand Slam) it would be easy to say that the book would be great no matter what. Silverman has done something special with the material, however, and the book is truly exceptional.
Silverman’s writing style is understated but powerful. Consider this excerpt about Jones’s career, which is reminiscent of Wind: “From Merion to Merion – the 1916 and 1930 U.S. Amateurs that bracketed the championship career – Jones entered 52 tournaments and won 23 (all while earning degrees, raising a family, passing the bar, building a law practice, and never so much as taking a nickel out of the game other than from a friendly wager). No career winning percentage comes close. In five Walker Cup appearances, he posted nine victories against a single debit. As playing captain in 1928 and 1930 he lead his teams to a resounding 11-1 and 10-2 routs. He never missed a cut in any tournament he entered. He never lost to the same amateur twice in match play. For eight years running, he wore at least one national crown. Yet, Jones played less golf than the average businessman. He’d often go months without practicing.”
A fascinating story about Jones’s final round to win the Amateur, on the tenth hole (he would win the grand slam on the next hole), both he and Gene Homans took sixes on the easy par four to halve the hole. Jones circled both the sixes and wrote “Ha Ha” next to it on the scorecard, which is pictured in the book.
Legendary Golf Clubs of the American East also dedicates a chapter to Merion and like all its course descriptions and pictures, it captures the essence of Merion very well, especially what it is like to be a member and the traditions of the club.
No mention of the literature regarding Merion would be complete without shouting out Jerry Tarde, editor of Golf Digest, who in 1981 perfectly and succinctly described Merion as “a three-act play: the drama of the first six demanding holes; the comedy of the next seven; and the tragedy of the last five.”
Herbert Warren Wind’s 1971 Sports Illustrated article titled “Return to Merion”, whose quote leads off this newsletter is also worth seeking out, his use of language is an art form.
Jones during the 1930 Amateur. During the tournament he was surrounded by fifty Marines for his protection and crowd control. The Marines were stationed at the nearby Philadelphia Ship Yard.
I am lucky enough to live close to Merion and have played it half a dozen times and rank it among the top five courses in the world. I find the hole Bobby Jones won the Grand Slam on, the eleventh, to be particularly difficult due to the very small target you have to hit to, on a green surrounded by water on three sides. What makes Merion such a great course is the strategic nature of every shot you have to hit. It is not good enough to be in the fairway, you have to be in the proper spot and on the proper side in order to have a shot at the green. It is not good enough to be on the green, you have to be in the right portion of the green to have any chance of scoring well.
Another interesting tidbit about Merion is that the wicker baskets on the front nine are painted red and on the back nine, orange. They are removed each night because the course runs through an established neighborhood and there are many ways to simply walk on the course and potentially take a basket. A Merion wicker basket sold at auction recently for over $5,000.
Arnold Palmer Plays Merion (D & J P21100) was produced in 1971 by Arnold Palmer Enterprises and is a 44 page softcover that was prepared in preparation of the 1971 Open held at Merion. It has a picture of Arnold hitting a shot on every hole at Merion and describes how you should play the hole. About the seventeenth hole, Palmer says, “The hardest part of the longest par 3 on the course will be getting on the green…it’s one of the more difficult holes, with a hollow in front of the green, deep rough on the left and sand traps almost completely surrounding it.” Players from the 2013 U.S. Open can surely attest to that.