Global Golfer’s Thomas Marr got a little help from his friends to arrange a round at 2013 US Open venue Merion five weeks before the season’s second Major!
Here is his Hole by Hole guide to Merion to one of the most famous inland courses in American golf…
How often have you heard the one about the friend of a friend who knows someone somewhere who can maybe make your dreams come true?
Well, that’s how I found myself – a boy from Scotland’s Isle of Skye – teeing up at Merion, the ultra-exclusive American private club and venue for this year’s US Open Championship – just five weeks before Tiger, Rory, Phil, Luuuuuukkkkkkkkeeeeee and Kooooccccchhhhhh contest the season’s second major.
I arranged my trip to the East Course at Merion through an old university friend who worked in Philadelphia after graduating.
Rob connected me to Carl, a member at Merion Golf Club, and he invited me and another US-based golf buddy to play the famous East course.
After several international phone calls it was confirmed, tee-off 11.36 on May 1st.
Known as über-exclusive you can only play Merion if introduced and accompanied by a member.
Low key arrival
Arriving at the course was a low key event. There was no security to speak of.
A simple wooden sign confirmed I was on the right road. The only evidence that I truly was in the right place was the sight of a miniature trademark red basket, atop a white post, on a manicured lawn in front of the clubhouse.
I parked round the back, switched off the engine and got out of the car, shocked I hadn’t needed to negotiate a barrier or a guard with a gun.
The first thing I heard was the clattering of construction workers assembling grandstands and marquees; everything needed to cope with the 25,000 daily spectators the USGA are expecting from June 13-17.
With perfect timing, my friend Andrew arrived just after I did. Living in different countries – and both having young families – means we only meet up twice a year at most. Golf matches together are a rare event nowadays.
Andrew had hastily arranged a day off work and hired a car for the 150 mile drive from New Jersey.
We walked to the clubhouse, half-expecting to be stopped by a suspicious member of staff with questions about why we were on their property, as would be normal at any of the best private clubs in any country.
Instead, we were greeted by the caddies and on reaching the clubhouse we exchanged pleasantries with a couple of members before venturing inside, unopposed.
The first person we spoke to properly was the locker-room attendant. He asked if we were going to be playing golf.
Made to feel welcome
When we said yes and volunteered our tee-time he welcomed us, offered us lockers for the day, and then took us on a tour of the facilities.
There was no fuss and no awkwardness; we were welcomed like members enjoying our weekly game.
Immediately at ease, we went around the whole clubhouse in 10 minutes and ended up in the pro shop where we had a look at the souvenirs available to remind us of what was sure to be an unforgettable experience.
Carl arrived at 11am as promised and welcomed us to his club. Our caddies, Dan and Pat, arrived then too and took charge of our bags and then we were there, standing expectantly on the first tee.
First tee nerves
I’d read in the build-up to the round that the first tee was imposing because of how close the members would be sitting while I prepared, nervously, to strike my first shot of the day.
The rumour was true; the patio is almost on the back left of the tee. Fortunately, there were few people watching as we teed off and got our round underway.
Editor’s Note *The hole yardages below are for the 2013 US Open course, Thomas played from the shorter member’s tees
Hole 1 – 350 yards, Par 4
An easy hole in comparison to the rest. There’s a generous fairway and the hole plays uphill and left to right.
The green is raised and a fairway bunker and mounding near the front right of the green hides most of the putting surface. There’s not much to aim at.
The hole is a definite birdie chance for the pros although the green is tricky. It slopes right-to-left with quite a severe ridge through the centre, front-to-back. It should play an easy long-iron and then a wedge to the green. Longer hitters might well have a go at the green from the tee.
I started with a 7 after a shaky drive and three putts.
Hole 2 – 556 yards, Par 5
An elevated tee gives a magnificent view of the 2nd, 4th and 5th holes and the attractiveness of the view makes it easy to lose focus.
The hole appears arrow straight from the tee but after the drive, the fairway moves slightly to the right and bends right to left at the end.
After a good drive, the next shot should be aimed right of the green to leave a good angle to the pin. The landing area of the tee shot is uphill and makes the hole play the full yardage.
Out of bounds is to the right all along the hole. This is another birdie hole for the pros as the green is relatively flat.
I went OB off the tee but managed a bogey with the second ball. I deserved better. 8.
Hole 3 – 256 yards, Par 3
The first short hole. The hole plays slightly downhill from a raised tee but it is difficult to gauge the elevation because of the small ravine and water hazard it crosses. The tee feels more-elevated than it really is.
The green is huge and the back right portion is hidden from view from the tee – a recurring theme at Merion.
We played to a front left pin and it was only about 3 yards from the left edge. If players hit their shot anywhere long then the chip back is downhill and fast. Nobody should miss this green to the left either. I made a par by getting up and down and it helped me settle.
Hole 4 – 628 yards, Par 5
The second and last ‘long’ hole. The tee shot is very difficult; a blind drive to a very right-to-left sloping fairway.
Lots of shots will finish in the same area on the left because of the undulations. The hole plays sharply downhill to a small green fronted by water and surrounded by bunkers.
The other feature is a huge fairway bunker which comes into play and the second shot is often played with the ball above the players feet. Anyone who misses the fairway with their tee-shot needs to decide whether to try to carry the main bunker or lay up short of the water.
This is a great three-shot hole and while a par 5 is relatively easy, the pros will need to work hard to make birdie. Eagles are possible but only for long hitters who execute two perfect shots.
Hole 5 – 504 yards, Par 4
A long straight hole but the fairway is an s-shape and favours a draw. However, the fairway slopes right to left, subtly for the most part but severely on the left-hand side.
A small water hazard on the left of the fairway awaits any over-drawn shots. The difficult green is deceptively flat but it is the most severe on the course. It slopes right to left, and front to back.
Par will be a good score here, and the hole will play over par during the Open.
I drove far left into the trees. After a good third I still had a 40 ft putt from the back of the green and two for a bogey five.
Hole 6- 487 yards, Par 4
A shortish hole but narrow with bunkers and trees on both sides of the fairway. Tricky fairway bunkers are in play for the pros and the green has bunkers short left and pin-high right.
The green is one of the easier ones to read at Merion.
This is a potentially tricky hole but should yield birdies for the pros if they can find the fairway from the tee. I played some bunker tennis all the way down the hole and scrambled for a bogey.
Hole 7 – 360 yards, Par 4
A short uphill hole with a narrow green and difficult bunkers on the right. Out of bounds runs all down the right-hand side.
Pros will reach this with a lay-up and a short iron. It’s one of the easier holes but there’s still trouble lurking where bunkers and severe run-off areas and trees await misguided shots.
A birdie chance for the pros. More bunker trouble and another bogey for me.
Hole 8 – 359 yards, Par 4
The tee shot is partially blind as the shot goes over a slight rise.
The fairway is s-shaped and favours a left to right shot. The approach is downhill to a small obscured green. All shots must carry a huge bunker at the front of the green. Similar to the 7th, this is a birdie chance for the pros.
Our host Carl suggested that the tee will be moved forward for at least one round during the US Open to encourage the pros to try to drive the green.
It’s a narrow target but I can see them taking the risk. Finding the front bunker from the tee would leave them an easy up-and-down, as long as the ball doesn’t plug when it lands.
Hole 9 – 236 yards, Par 3
A great short hole – a mid-iron and downhill. There’s water short of the green and lots of small bunkers around the surface.
The green is a narrow target, especially when the pin is on the front and the hole is measuring 236 yards for the tournament. Three will be a good score here and this will play over par for the Open. The pros will play this from a longer tee and should also be using mid to long irons depending on the wind.
I hit a solid 6-iron to the centre of the green and parred it.
Hole 10 – 303 yards, Par 4
A short par 4 with a sharp dog-leg to the left. All the pros will try to drive this green. It will be a classic risk/reward hole with eagles and double bogeys in the statistics in equal measure.
Hole 11 – 367 yards, Par 4
This is one of Merion’s signature holes as it was the scene of an unforgettable moment in the history of world golf. It was on the 11th green in 1930 that Bobby Jones completed “the Impregnable Quadrilateral”, a phrase coined by the New York Sun’s golf writer, by winning the matchplay final of the U.S. Amateur.
This was his 4th major of the season and completed the Grand Slam, as he had already won the British Amateur, Open Championship and US Open before triumphing at Merion.
Like Mr Jones, I avoided the water at the front right of the green. Unlike Mr Jones I also missed my putt for par.
Hole 12 – 403 yards, Par 4
A dogleg left to right hole which also plays uphill. The green also slopes left to right and is a tricky one to chip onto if the approach shot misses the short grass. Par will be a good score here during the Open.
Hole 13 – 115 yards, Par 3
A sublime short hole with a tricky saucer-style green. This hole is blind although you can see the basket on the pin from the tee. It will play only 115 yards or so for the pros at the Open.
This might well play under par for the week given how good pros are with their wedges.
However, the green will help to offer the hole some protection as there are few straight or flat putts. Enjoyed making an easy par here.
Hole 14 – 464 yards, Par 4
A medium length hole, uphill, slight dogleg right-to-left. OB on the left is a threat if the tee shot is too aggressive. The flattish green is easier than some of the others on the course.
This is a good birdie chance for every Pro unless they hit a wild drive. I managed regulation par hitting fairway and green.
Hole 15 – 411 yards, Par 4
A great driving hole. The hole starts from an elevated tee and swings from left to right with out of bounds all down the left.
Bunkers are perfectly placed at elbow of the dogleg. The ideal shot is a fade off the left side of the fairway. The green is elevated and there are severe bunkers short and on the right.
Hole 16 – 430 yards, Par 4
The first of the famous quarry holes. The tee shot is slightly blind but not too demanding.
Anyone who misses the fairway is faced with a decision- should they take-on the difficult approach; across an old mine which is now a waste area complete with bushes and bunkers and surrounded by jungle?
It’s an intimidating shot, even from the fairway. This is the last realistic birdie chance for the pros given the tees that will be in use next week.
Hole 17 – 246 yards, Par 3
This hole played just over 230 yards from the tee we used and the green looked tiny from there.
The pros will play this from 25 to 30 yards further away – making it around 254 yards in length – and hitting the green will be an achievement for all of them.
The other feature about this hole during US Open week will be the spectator grandstand on the left; it was unbelievably close to the green.
My first reaction was that it had been built in the wrong place but it was almost completed so one would assume that the builders knew what they were doing.
Don’t be surprised to see lots of people using the left hand side drop zone during the Open.
I hit this green on the right hand side but three-putted again for bogey.
Hole 18 – 521 yards, Par 4
The finishing hole at Merion is another, like the 11th, which is etched in history because of the iconic images captured from its fairway.
It was on this hole in 1950 that Ben Hogan hit a majestic 1-iron shot to the centre of the green on his way to a par 4 that would get him into a play off for the US Open. He would go on to win the title in a playoff the next day.
An image of his follow through after that 1-iron shot is one of the most famous golf pictures ever taken, and the most-often recreated pose by visitors to Merion.
The 18th hole was a test for me from the members tees but the professional’s tee is approximately 75 yards further back than the one I used and it really brought home to me just how far the modern golfer bits the ball.
I hit a driver followed by a 5 iron to reach the green.
The pros will apparently hope to get the ball over the big hill in the middle of the last fairway (about 30 yards ahead of where my well-struck drive finished) and hope that their ball reaches the bottom of the slope so that they have less than 150yards for their approach shot.
There won’t be many birdies on this long par 4.
I finished with a bogey 5; a good drive, a leaky second shot which went right of the green, a poor pitch and two putts.
All in all, this was an unforgettable golfing experience. The palpable sense of history around Merion gave me a feeling similar to the goose-bumps I get when playing the Old Course in St Andrews.
Memories of Hogan and Jones are everywhere and these, along with the iconic baskets and the warmth of the welcome, combined to produce a day of golf and a set of memories which cannot be matched anywhere else.
I hope Merion will prove a challenge for the US Open field and it will not be eaten up by the 300+yard drives and spinning golf balls of today’s top players.
The intricacies of the greens and the difficulty of the soft, soft bunker sand will present a challenge unlike that posed by many golf courses anywhere else and it deserves to play host to a truly memorable US Open.
Some pundits have predicted a U.S Open scoring record will be set this year, which I don’t mind just so long as it’s a Championship as memorable as those contested and won by Jones and Hogan 83 and 63 years ago, respectively.
I cannot wait to see how things work out when play begins on 13 June.
To find out more about the colourful history of Merion Golf Club – read the Editor’s blogpost Rubber Snakes, 1-irons and wicker baskets