Rubber snakes, 1-irons and Wicker Baskets: a history of Merion Golf Club

Matthew Moore takes a look at the colourful history of Merion Golf Club, from its British influences and wicker basket pins to legendary 1-irons and high jinx with rubber snakes…

Once in a lifetime a golf trip grants memories that stay with you forever.

Mine came at the turn of this century.

In June of the year 2000, along with nine teammates from the University of St Andrews Men’s Golf Club, I toured some of the finest golf clubs along the East Coast of America.

Over 19 days we travelled along freeways and over turnpikes from New York to Philadelphia and Boston, via Rhode and Long Islands, in a convoy of white mini vans bursting with golf clubs, blazers and luggage.

I plan to write more about the golf courses we played – Pine Valley, Shinnecock Hills, Baltusrol, National Golf Links of America, Quaker Ridge, Yale University Golf Club, Somerset Hills – true Cathedrals of the American game – but today it’s simply about Merion.

map of Merion Golf Club
Merion Golf Club – venue for the 2013 US Open Championship

A name so pure and simple. Merion, it could be a rare blend of wool or a desirable sports car, instead it’s the venue for the 2013 US Open Golf Championship and one of the world’s best golf courses.

I rate it in the top-5 best golf courses I’ve ever played, a beautiful piece of art, blending many of the finest influences of British golf courses – roughened up bunkers, narrow fairways, sloping greens – with a forgiving North American climate and a hidden tranquil setting.

Merion Golf Clubhouse
Merion is a walking course with compulsory caddies

For a full hole-by-hole guide of how to play Merion, read Thomas Marr’s piece Magic of Merion – for its colourful past stay with this blog.

The eyes of the golf world are on Merion this week, so here’s a potted history lesson of Merion and its US Opens.

Merion’s History in Brief
Golf at Merion started life when the members of Merion Cricket Club, in Pennslyvania USA, discovered the game of golf.

At first they built a little 9-holer for recreational play in 1896, to go along with lawn tennis courts and the cricket pitches.

In 1910 the club officials sought out a 111 acre property in nearby Ardmore and commissioned Scottish immigrant Hugh Wilson to design a full 18-hole course.

Now Mr. Wilson had never designed a golf course before so he packed his bags and headed for Great Britain on a fact finding mission to visit some of the oldest golf courses in the world.

He got a little help and some scribbled notes from a man named Charles Blair McDonald – the rising star of American golf course architecture – and later the designer of the National Golf Links of America on Long Island, N.Y.

The course Wilson built was 6,235 yards long and is still called The East Course at Merion Golf Club.

Scorecard Merion Golf Club
The wicker basket – the moniker and logo – of Merion Golf Club

Wicker Baskets

Most people know about the famous wicker baskets that are used instead of flags at Merion, but do you know where they came from?

When Wilson visited England he saw sheep farmers and herders using these long poles with wicker baskets on top. They kept their lunch in them so the animals couldn’t reach it and to his credit Wilson brought the idea back with him and created history.

He was obviously a marketing and branding expert too because the wicker basket became Merion’s iconic logo and USP (unique selling point).


Wicker basket flagstick Merion
A Merion caddie with a famous wicker basket pin


Historic US Open highlights

This year it hosts its fifth US Open Championship – the previous four threw up some of the most famous stories and iconic images in golf lore.

  • In 1971 Lee Trevino threw a rubber snake at Jack Nicklaus before they teed off in a playoff
  • David Graham became the first Australian to lift the US Open at Merion in 1981
  • Ben Hogan’s legendary 1-iron shot to the 18th green in 1950 – just 16 months after a car crash shattered his pelvis – got him into a playoff, which he won the next day against Lloyd Mangrum and George Fazio. His legs were heavily bandaged and he played every shot in searing pain.
photograph of the 18th hole at Merion
The 18th hole at Merion – scene of Hogan’s famous 1-iron shot


Ben Hogan's plaque 18th hole Merion Golf Club 1950 US Open 1-iron
Ben Hogan’s plaque 18th hole Merion Golf Club 1950 US Open 1-iron

The greatest achievement in golf
Perhaps the most famous of all golfing achievements took place at Merion in 1930, when amateur Bobby Jones completed the “Impregnable Quadrilateral” – winning the amateur and professional championships of Great Britain and the United States of America in a single season.

He holed out for par at Merion’s 11th hole to defeat Eugene Homans 8&7 in the final of the US Amateur and by so doing completed the greatest achievement in the history of golf.

American Golfer Bobby Jones
Robert Tyre Jones Jr 1902-1971 – Impregnable Quadrilateral of 1930

Today winning all four majors in a season is called the Grandslam of Golf, but then, before The Masters existed – Jones himself created that tournament – this was the Grandslam and it is a feat that will never be matched.

picture of 11th green at Merion Golf Club
The 11th hole at Merion – scene of Jones’ Grandslam winning putt

Merion Today

Today, Merion is a walking course – no carts – and most of the time you have to take a caddie – which can cost you upwards of $100 but save you countless strokes.

The course is short by modern standards with plenty of short par fours and just two par-fives.

There is a sublime short hole, the 13th, at only 115 yards. It’s devil is in its detail, in the clever bunkering – much of it left rough and ragged with super soft white sand and grass shrubs growing in the sand traps.

13th green at Merion Golf Club
Short but sweet – 13th hole at Merion Golf Club

The fairways are tight, between 24-25 yards wide and there is lots of undulation, hollows and sweep in elevation, especially at the quarry holes – #16 and #17 – played across a former mine cast.

16th green at Merion Golf Club
#16 at Merion Golf Club – the “Quarry Holes”

Fierce finish
The final five holes are the hardest closing stretch I’ve encountered in the more than 500 golf courses that I’ve played, including many major Championship courses, British Open venues and Augusta National.

Hole 14 at Merion Golf Club
14th at Merion – the start of a fierce finishing five holes

Some pundits predict there will be a record low score at this year’s US Open but something tells me that this will be a supreme test of accuracy, nerve and intellect – not a barrage of bombs and percussion of putts dropping.

I didn’t manage a birdie when I played, shooting 79 (+9) from a scratch handicap, and felt pleased with that.

scorecard at Merion Golf Club
Matthew Moore’s scorecard at Merion Golf Club, June 2000

If the past list of winners, Olin Dutra, Ben Hogan, Lee Trevino, David Graham – is anything to go by, it will take a strategist, artist and a warrior to finish first at Merion.

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