Whose Mystique Was Greater: Hogan’s or Merion’s?

Miracle at Merion Cover Art

Barrett's new book gets to the roots of Merion bluegrass. (John Garrity)

“Are your rankings influenced by reputation?” asks a reader from Berkeley, Calif. “Do courses get points because they’ve been written about in magazines or photographed for book jackets?”

The answer, as usual, is yes and no. The Cal Sci algorithm is rigorously scientific, so it can’t be “influenced” — if by influence you mean subtle bias in favor of a region, a certain architect or an old college friend who has snapshots of you in a compromising position with donuts. On the other hand, the algorithm recognizes “media exposure over time” as a critical variable in measuring course quality. The par-3 sixteenth hole at Cypress Point has appeared on hundreds of book and magazine covers, while the par-3 ninth at Ft. Meade (Fla.) City Mobile Home Park Golf Course has appeared on none. Maybe that reflects an unavoidable social-class bias, but I still infer from the lopsided coverage that the California course is by far the better track. That’s one reason, but not the only reason, why exclusive Cypress Point is currently our 13th-ranked course.

Similarly, our placement of the equally-private Merion East at No. 36 is supported by David Barrett’s new book, Miracle at Merion: The Inspiring Story of Ben Hogan’s Amazing Comeback and Victory at the 1950 U.S. Open. Most of Barrett’s compelling prose is dedicated to Hogan and his dogged opponents, but the book is nevertheless a must for golf-design nuts or, for that matter, anyone who owns both a wing chair and a persimmon driver.

“Merion has to be in my top three in the world, although I’m not sure I’m good at articulating why” David told me over the phone last week. “I’ve played it only once, and that was in 1981. But Merion West was our home course when I played for Haverford College, so every day during golf season we drove right past the East to get to the West. It was kind of frustrating, to be honest, although the West is a wonderful course in its own right.”

David praised the East course for its “great charm” and heaped the usual encomia on the since-modified Hugh Wilson design, calling the layout “challenging,” “varied,” and “fun. And then you’ve got the quarry holes. Those three great and tough finishing holes really elevate the course.”*

*Merion’s altitude, according to The Rolex World’s Top 1000 Golf Courses, is a mere 351 feet. But David may have been speaking figuratively.

“Among the great courses of the world,” he added, “the East is unusual in that there is a road, Ardmore Avenue, that goes right through it. You may not be able to play Merion, but anybody can drive through it and take a look.”

Ben Hogan, who in the summer of ’50 was still recovering from his near-fatal crash into a Greyhound bus, would have been happy to view the East Course from the road, like a tourist. “The trouble with Merion is that it always has you on the defensive,” he told reporters at his hotel on the morning of the U.S. Open playoff.* “There’s no way you can take the offensive against it.”

*Hogan’s Sunday playoff with George Fazio and Lloyd Mangrum didn’t start until 2 p.m. because of Pennsylvania’s blue laws.

“After the playoff,” David told me, “Hogan said that he only went at the flag one time in 90 holes — and he hit that one into a bunker. As with many Hogan quotes, you have to take that with a grain of salt — he did have some short birdie putts along the way — but the U.S. Open set-up definitely had everybody playing defensively. Seven-over 287 made the playoff.”

Miracle at Merion, from Skyhorse Publishing, is $24.95 at bookstores. Ticket prices for the 2013 U.S. Open at Merion East have not been announced by the USGA, there being no way to predict if there will be another miracle.

Top 50 on TV: Nothing this week, but a tip of the ball cap to Jonathan Byrd for his winning ace on the fourth extra hole of the Justin Timberlake Shriners Hospitals for Children Open in Las Vegas, Nev. (It was right across town, come to think of it, that Chip Beck shot the second-ever Tour 59 in the third round of the 1991 Las Vegas Invitational. Maybe they should change their advertising from “loosest slots” to “loosest greens.”)

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