- Ardmore, Pennsylvania
- Hugh Wilson (1912) & William Flynn (1912-1943)
- 6th in the US (Golf Digest)
- 15th in the world (Golf)
Merion is, well, everyone knows of Merion, but most people don’t actually know that there’s two golf courses at this storied club. The West, down the road, is also a Wilson/Flynn, and the East, which is the one most of us have heard of. Needless to say, my expectations were high going in. I had a great day planned with two of my best golf pals and our host, who was a rockstar (which only enhanced the experience by a mile!). Back to the golf. Let’s jump into this wonderful little golf course.
Act I: The Drama
Merion’s East course is divided into three acts. Like a Shakespearean play, each act tells a different story and provides a different task. However, Shakespeares play are five acts (18 holes isn’t divisible by 5!). To start the golf course, you’re greeted with a 350 yard par 4.
Many have talked about how difficult the first tee shot is. No, not because it’s tight or long (obviously not), but because of how close it is to the patio of the clubhouse restaurant. You are steps from people having lunch. Thankfully, we teed off at 3:00 on a rainy October afternoon, so not too many people watching!
The opening hole gracefully moves to the right around a pair of fairway bunkers. A greenside bunker on the right side forces the player to go to the outside corner for a better angle.
After crossing Ardmore Ave, the first of two par 5’s on the golf course await. 589 yards on the card, it’s a long par 5 with O.B. all down the right and fairway bunkering on the left.
As I blasted one O.B., my host told me “you haven’t played Merion until you’ve hit one onto Ardmore Ave!” Happy to say I hit the ceremonial ball O.B. then, although it didn’t help my score too much.
This is kind of the first introduction to the scale of Merion. In the suburbs of Philadelphia, you wouldn’t expect this much movement, but it’s quite uphill on the second shot! Avoid the bunker for the second shot and you should be good to go.
The green angles to the left, in typical fashion. The closer to the right (and O.B.) you go, the better your look into the green becomes. With a wedge, however, not a huge deal.
Somewhere early in the stages, Merion, like National Golf Links of America, had template holes all over. There was a Sahara, Redan, Eden—some of them or soft renditions. Somewhere in the early stages as well, C.B. Macdonald, the pioneer of templates in North America, was involved. The third, originally, was thought of as a reverse redan template. Today, it doesn’t play too much like a redan.
At 219 yards to a green cut on the other side of the gully, it’s a beast.
I haven’t wrote too much about the greens yet, but they’re very difficult. There’s a ton of movement, and often times, there’s massive ridges running through the middle of the green that can make it very difficult to get to back pins. On the 3rd, with a back left pin, we saw that in action. A closer look at the green complex on the 3rd with the beautiful wicker basket.
The 4th is a monster par 5 at 628 yards. The aiming bunker cut into the hill is a perfect line to rip one over.
Words don’t really describe how difficult this second shot is. Frankly, it could be the most difficult layup shot on a par 5 I’ve ever played. A huge bunker cut at the top of the hill is perfectly placed. The length makes this an issue, even though it’s 200 yards or so to the green from there. If you play over it, you don’t see the ball land and you’re playing from a downhill lie. If you lay back, you’re dealing with the bunker and a potential blind third shot with a long club in.
The green is quite big with lots of pin locations, but there’s a copious amount of bunkers surrounding the green, and Cobb’s Creek fronts the green as well.
This is such a strong par 5. Par here is an excellent score. And that’s the last of the par 5’s! Merion ends with two par 5’s coming in the first 4 holes. From here on out, it’s 3’s & 4’s. You can get a sense of the scale below.
And the elevation profile. It really shows you how downhill the hole actually plays
The 5th, once described by Tom Doak as the world’s only “perfect par 4” would be the best hole on almost every other golf course in the world. It very well could be the best hole here, but there’s a couple contenders to me. At 504 yards, it’s a beast with a creek slithering along on the left. The hole banks hard to the left, with the fairway’s right side higher than the left side by about 15 (!) feet. hitting it up onto the right side is ideal.
From there, the hole continues to pitch hard to the right. A bunker up on the right hand side catches balls that need to be laid up (hazard, bunker, or rough, whichever). A line just over the the left edge of the bunker is ideal to kick the ball down.
I wish I would’ve got more photos of this hole because it is so good. But funny story: I actually drove through the night from Toronto to get to Philadelphia, picked up my friend who took the red eye from Edmonton, Alberta, and went and played Cobb’s Creek with a couple of local GCA enthusiasts the morning prior to Merion. It was a big day, I might’ve missed a couple photo opportunities.
Hole 6 is another difficult par 4 that we played around 440 yards. The US Open tee is out of commission, I believe, which would’ve been around 490. Two bunkers left and one aiming bunker right help you navigate the blind landing area.
The approach is a bit more low-profile than the first couple holes, but a false front stops balls. It’s a good green with quite a bit of movement towards the front.
Act II: The Comedy
What’s really special about this golf course is the routing. You don’t notice it through the writing, but 2 goes to the outside, then you turn inside for 3, 4, then 5 wraps back in between 4 and 2, and 6 comes out near hole 2 before turning to the outside of hole 4 for 7-9. Merion’s routing loops in on itself, but it wasn’t always like this. Here’s the previous version:
Quite a bit has actually changed from this original routing thanks to William Flynn. Hole 1 is different. The routing has also been switched up a bit. On that photo, holes 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7 are actually 6, 7, 4, 5, & 3 in that order. Additionally, 10, 11 and 12 are very different on todays golf course, but we’ll get there. Below is the current routing.
The 7th starts the “Comedy” stretch of the golf course. Where the “Drama” gets the golf course onto a mixed bag start, the “Comedy” portion is made up of four short par 4’s, a long 3, one short 3, and a mid-length 4. It’s a great stretch of holes to make birdies. One of the beauties of Merion is that good players know they need to make birdies here to make it through the final Act, while members may sneak in a couple pars in this stretch and be happy with it.
Anyways, the 7th is 360 yards with O.B. to the right. One bunker on the left is probably best avoided, and this is the bunker you stood next to on the tips for hole 4.
The green it perched up, pitching hard to the front. With a wedge or short iron in hand, it can be difficult to control spin.
The 8th is a very good golf hole. 356 yards, a bunker right and left are staggered. Depending on the yardage you choose to play off the tee, one of the two will be in play.
A bunker short left and the restored ditch from Gil Hanse on the right front the green here. It slopes hard towards the ditch on the right. With a pin on the right side, it can be tough to keep the ball below the hole.
The 9th is a monster par 3 at 231 yards with Cobb’s Creek fronting the green and a huge bunker that the green wraps around on the left.
Here’s a different, closer to angle to hopefully show the undulation of this green. It’s a lot.
The 10th is a fun, drivable par 4 at 303 yards. Swinging hard to the left around a bunker on the inside corner, a layup (if you elect to layup) will have to flirt with the four bunkers on the outside corner for the best angle.
A big bunker short of the green from the tee and left from the fairway is the main defence. The green is more subtle in nature than the past couple, so a great birdie opportunity.
The 11th is most likely the most famous hole at Merion. Bobby Jones in 1930 completed the grand slam on the 11th green. Since then, it’s obviously become a milestone hole. At 367 yards, it’s a short hole playing downhill. A shared bunker complex on the left with hole 12 might be in play for some, but I imagine most will get it down the hill.
To a small green tucked behind Cobb’s Creek, it’s a very fun wedge to hit. As long as your ball doesn’t stay on the downslope, you’ll be good!
Part of the restoration, Gil Hanse & his team raised this green to prevent flooding from Cobb’s Creek, which has happened (so I’m told) fairly regularly if they get a rainy spring.
The 12th is a 403 yard par 4 doglegging up the hill that the 11th fell down. Three bunkers on the outside corner are wonderful aiming lines, but don’t get in them!
The fairway cants hard to the right, which actually helps the ball travel closer to the hole and sets up a fade to a green angled to the right. There is so much movement towards the front in this green that being under the green is paramount. Had it not been misting all day, I could see someone putting off the front of this green pretty easily if they’re above the hole.
The 13th plays on the other side of Armore Ave, and you won’t cross it again. It’s a very short par 3 at 115 yards, but ask Phil Mickelson—it’s not easy!
From experience, don’t hit it in that front bunker. Again, there is a ton of movement in this green, and almost collects like an upside down saddle (at least on the right side).
Act III: The Tragedy
After the drama and the comedy set the stage, the tragedy is all ready to ruin your round. It’s 5 holes of absolute madness.
The 14th is a 425 yard par 4 swinging hard to the left around a bunker that’s 275 to carry. A slew of bunkers on the outside corner of the hole await as well, and if you get really anxious, O.B. is way left. Getting the ball in play here is paramount.
You’ll notice on the approach shot instead of the wicker baskets it’s now the white flags. The club collects these wicker baskets and switches them out towards the end of the night because fraternity members at nearby Villanova University challenge other rushing members to steal a wicker basket to get access to the fraternity. Crazy!
This greens best characteristic, in my opinion, is the back left portion of the green, which is very cool and adds a fun pin position.
The 15th, a 411 yard par 4 swinging to the right, is harder than the yardage lists. O.B. all on the outside corner of the dogleg is certainly in play. It’s a different take; typically O.B. is seen on the inside corner (even last hole!) and you work on not turning it towards the hazard too much. On the 15th, you make sure you turn it away enough!
Playing up the hill, the approach shot up is a difficult one to judge. Again, a ton of movement towards the front of the hole, and certainly in the front portion. Staying below the hole is the best call to action.
The 16th starts. areal ‘meat & potatoes’ tough as nails finishing stretch. At around 440 yards, it’s not overly long. Getting the ball in play is so key here. If you miss, it’s not good.
From there, you chuck up a Hail Mary mid to long iron to a big green over the quarry. For the record, I hit it into the quarry and it wasn’t good. I did make a good up & down for 7, but that’s beside the point.
To make matters harder, the green has a massive ridge running through the middle that makes anything in the back half incredibly hard to get close to.
For those who miss the fairway, or have too much stick in for their second, the restored bail out on the right (which is actually 15 tee) is a perfect spot to play the 3rd from. Here’s a view of the quarry. Again—don’t hit it in here.
The 17th is a 246 yard (!!!) par 3. Working its way back down into the bottom of the quarry, it plays. a bit down the slope.
A fairly big ridge in the front portion of this green stops a lot of balls from running up. It’s said that this dip in the fairway/ridge in the green is inspired by the Valley of Sin at St Andrews. If it wasn’t hard enough, the green is surrounded by bunkering.
The 18th is a monster par 4 to finish. 510 yards, it requires a carry of 240 or so yards over the carry just to get the ball in play.
Playing over some wonderful rolling terrain, the 18th is a wonderful finish to an epic day at Merion.
So that’s Merion! It’s a very strong golf course. Speaking on the golf course, Jack Nicklaus famously stated:
Acre for acre, this may be the best test of golf in the world
No doubt, Merion at 126 acres is a very impressive golf course. It still blows my mind that on such small acreage, you never feel cramped, and the scale is quite big. After Gil Hanse’s restoration, it’s looking and playing great. One of the most special days in golf for me, and a course I’ll remember forever!