Tag Archives: Merion

Top 50 Staff Blanketed Merion

“I see that Merion Golf Club has soared in your course ranking since the U.S. Open,” writes a gentleman from Pabst Blue Ribbon, Nev. “Is that because Merion looked good  on TV, or did you actually have a course rater on the ground?”

John Garrity at Merion

Top 50 founder and CEO John Garrity led the course-rating team at Merion. (Darren Carroll)

Great question, PBR. I was in Ardmore, Pa., following every shot, and so was Top 50 vice-president and ratings chief Gary Van Sickle, who led a team of qualified second-raters from Catch Basin, our Kansas City headquarters. To insure that we could carry out our mission without undue friction, the USGA assigned us a work station just off the first tee. Believe me, there was no chance that our staffers would nod off with those Pro V1s and Bridgestones whistling past their noggins.

So no, Merion didn’t jump from No. 32 to No. 18 because it looked good on TV — although it did look very, very good. “Merion is no regular track,” Van Sickle wrote in his 82-page post-tournament report. “Better looking by the minute … the course. A number of holes are on high ground, they’re … all right. The course drains … and the grounds crew has done a phenomenal job. I’m upgrading the course … Should be … brick-hard … this week. Merion will … rise up …”

I usually recuse myself, relying on our Cal Sci algorithm (and a little-known NSA program that monitors country-club budgets) to properly weigh the data, but I fully support our team’s conclusions. Specifically, I liked that Merion’s woodsmen had felled hundreds of trees since my last visit.* Many of those trees had been on the golf course for decades, cluttering the view, clogging the lanes of play and wreaking environmental havoc on Merion’s tees and greens. The cutting of all those trees, along with their removal, gave stately old Merion a fresh, clean look. 

*I covered the 1989 U.S. Amateur for Sports Illustrated.

Merion's 15th hole

Merion’s 15th hole charmed Van Sickle’s platoon of second-raters. (John Garrity)

Was Merion too difficult? Did the USGA cross the line with its punitive setup of skinny fairways, ungraduated rough,treacherous greens and tangly collars?


Top 50 on TV: Nothing this week, but the PGA Tour, minus a weary Justin Rose and an injured Tiger Woods, will cavort in the AT&T National at 51st-ranked Congressional Country Club in Bethesda, Md. Meanwhile, our chief Asian correspondent, Duke Ishikawa, reports that preparations for the 1914 World Amateur Team Golf Championship are not going smoothly. The WATGC, better known as the Eisenhower Trophy, will be played in Karuizawa Prefecture, Japan, on the 51st-ranked Robert Trent Jones-designed Karuizawa 72 course owned by the Prince Hotels chain. Duke writes:

In the middle of February, this year, we visited the Karuizawa Prince Hotel and talked to the general manager, who told us, “We have reserved our facilities for two weeks during the championship, but no budget from the Japan Golf Association has come yet. That makes for us big trouble, because of uneasiness about the future. We only have a year and a half for preparation.”

“The Eisenhower Trophy is not the Olympic Games or World Cup soccer,” Duke continues, “but it is still a world-class event. The host country has a big responsibility to the other 80-or-so countries. However, the JGA has a very limited income.” Citing “unbelievable rumors,” Duke describes a JGA board of directors riddled with personal agendas and conflicts of interest that render it incapable of properly staging a big-time competition.

We need to know where the money is coming from. Otherwise the JGA is very irresponsible indeed. But the golf business has been so bad in Japan because of big deflation and the bad economy. I interviewed several local golf course managers recently, and all of them said, “We are not going to cooperate with the Eisenhower Trophy in 2014.”

Citing the “low ability” of JGA directors, Duke concludes: “We are just afraid the Eisenhower Trophy will not be successfully held in September, 2014, in Japan.”

Recognizing the seriousness of these concerns, I have forwarded Duke’s Karuizawa-72 file to Catch Basin’s Reassessment Department. Any changes to that course’s ranking will be posted without delay.

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Muddy Merion Holds High Ground

ARDMORE, PA. — With the first round of the U.S. Open interrupted by thunderstorms, the Top 50 in-box has been flooded with questions about our rating system. “You seem to adjust your rankings hourly,” writes a gentleman from Maui’s Iao Valley. “Will Merion wash out of the Top 50 by noon?” Another fellow, corresponding from Cherrapunji, India, which gets roughly 500 inches of rainfall per year, writes, “I can’t wait to see Merion go over the falls.”

US Open Grandstand

Inclement weather has only slightly dampened spectators’ enthusiasm for 36th-ranked Merion. (John Garrity)

Contrary to their expectations, Merion Golf Club clings to its position at No. 36 as thunder booms and rain pelts the fabric roof of the US Open Media Center, where I am moonlighting as a correspondent for my former employer, Sports Illustrated. This despite the fact that Merion’s creeks are spilling out of their banks and its greens resemble rice paddies in monsoon season.

Normally, the Top 50 algorithm takes the relevant weather data from all points of the compass and adjusts the rankings on the fly; and yes, “unplayability,” whether due to rain, wind or subniveal rodents, usually consigns even the greatest courses to the lower tiers. But we operate with a “major championship exemption” that freezes the ranking for iconic golf courses on days of competition. We do this because the majors are televised world-wide, providing entertainment to millions, if not billions. So while a Merion or a St. Andrews Old might be temporarily unfit for golf, they maintain a firm hold on viewers, who love those images of collapsed hospitality tents and workers vacuuming brown water out of greenside bunkers.

The exemption applies only to the days of competition. This past Monday, for example, torrents of rain forced a shutdown of Merion’s 11th hole, the short par 4 where Bobby Jones closed out Princeton’s Eugene Homans in the 1930 U.S. Amateur to complete his Grand Slam. Reduced to 17 soggy holes, Merion promptly plummeted to the second 50.* By Wednesday afternoon, however, sunny skies and brisk winds had dried out Merion sufficiently to restore its Top 50 ranking.

*Unfairly so, in my estimation. Seventeen holes of Merion is better than 18 holes of many of the stretched-out tree farms that pass for major-championship venues these days.

I should add that Merion’s ratings bounce-back was in no way influenced by the splendid meal I enjoyed Tuesday evening at Minella’s Diner in nearby Wayne, Pa. (My open-face hot turkey sandwich was piled high with genuine sliced turkey and real turkey gravy, which so surprised me that I teared up and considered overtipping.) Off-site attractions almost never figure into our course assessments, the obvious exception being goods and services provided in return for promotional consideration.

Merion's 16th fairway

Merion’s famous “quarry hole,” the 16th, can take a good drenching. (John Garrity)

Top 50 on TV: Merion last hosted an Open in 1981, but I had the pleasure of covering the 1989 U.S. Amateur, won by Chris Patton. My story began thus:

Until Sunday, the East Course at Merion Golf Club in suburban Philadelphia was hallowed ground—the site of 14 previous USGA championships, the shrine where Bobby Jones completed his Grand Slam in 1930, the vale of tears where Ben Hogan came back from a bloody car wreck to win the 1950 U.S. Open. Henceforth, Merion will also be remembered as the place where a college senior built like Refrigerator Perry won the 89th U.S. Amateur, beating a balding Tennessean in shorts with a swing so ugly that birds stopped chirping to watch.

For the record, the “balding Tennessean” was Danny Green.


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Merion Tops Van Sickle Bucket List

SI senior writer Gary Van Sickle took an apologetic tone in a recent e-mail. “Forgot to give you my must-play list,” he wrote. Then he shared his list. Then he apologized again. “I’m sure I left out some big course I haven’t played yet, but this was right off the top of my head and, as you know, there isn’t much left up there.”

Castle Stuart 10th Tee

Castle Stuart: Come July, Eurotour will pay the piper.

He continued: “Colonial? I’ve walked it so many times, but I’m not sure if I’ve actually played it. There’s still eight states I haven’t played golf in, but I’m working on it. Amazingly, Kansas is one of them. Also the Dakotas and most of the Pacific northwest, except Washington.”

Gary drew up his list of “great courses I have yet to play” in response to my own bucket list of must-play tracks, which was, in turn, inspired by “Travelin’ Joe” Passov’s wish list on Golf.com. Gary, like Joe, has played more than a thousand golf courses and, like me, he prefers to change his shoes in the parking lot. That may explain why Gary hasn’t gotten invitations from the most exclusive clubs on his list.

Anyway, here’s Gary’s bucket list:

1. East Course, Merion Golf Club, Ardmore, Pa.  (“Covered my first U.S. Open there. David Graham beat George Burns.)

2. Bandon Dunes Golf Resort, Bandon, Ore. (“Haven’t been there yet.”)

3. Bandon Dunes Golf Resort, Bandon, Ore. (“The second course. Or is it the third?”)

4. Bandon Dunes Golf Resort, Bandon, Ore. (“Isn’t there one they sing about in kindergarten?”)

5. Sand Hills Golf Club, Mullen, Neb. (“Haven’t been there either.”)

6. Seminole Golf Club, Juno Beach, Fla. (“If Bob Ford is their pro in the winter, it’s got to be a good club. Hard to believe a course in Florida could be anything special, though. It’s freakin’ Florida.”)

7. National Golf Links of America, Southampton, N.Y.. (“Who doesn’t love windmills? They’re fantastic in miniature golf.”

8. Fishers Island Club, Fishers Island, N.Y. (“Not even sure where it is, but everybody raves about it. I suspect it’s like Tickle Me Elmo. Fantastic when nobody can get one. When the shelves are full of them, it’s just another toy.”)

9. Philadelphia Cricket Club, Philadelphia, Pa. (“Bamberger is a member there. Screw him.”)

10. The Camargo Club, Cincinnati, Ohio. (“Reminds me of my favorite knock-knock joke. Who’s there? ‘Argo.’ Argo who? ‘Arrr, go f— yourself.’”

“That’s my American list,” Gary wrote. “I could start talking about all the great courses I’ve missed in Scotland and Ireland, but there’s too many, and it’s just too sad to think about.” And finally, after thinking about it: “Castle Stuart!”

I have played only one of the courses on Gary’s list — Seminole — but four of his wannaplays are in my Top 50. This proves that courses can’t buy or bribe their way into my rankings.* It’s also a good test of Travelin’ Joe’s theory that a golf writer can shorten his bucket list by publishing a Ten-Courses-I-Need-to-Play column. (An invitation to  play Prairie Dunes has already fallen into Joe’s hopper. Can Cape Kidnappers be far behind?)

*Although I’m always willing to parse the Top 50 over a sandwich and 7up at the halfway house of any course in GOLF Magazine’s Top 100.

I, meanwhile, have heard nothing from Indian Army 9-Hole Golf Course (Ladakh) or any of the other courses on my own wish list, posted a couple of weeks ago. Is it too soon to write my Ten-Most-Overrated-Golf-Courses column?

Top 50 on TV: Nothing this week, but the European Tour has confirmed that Castle Stuart Golf Links of Inverness, Scotland, will the new venue for the Scottish Open. The Eurotour’s decision was almost certainly driven by two-year-old Castle Stuart’s Top-10 ranking in this space. In appreciation, the technical staff at Catch Basin has boosted Castle Stuart two rungs to No. 7, replacing Pebble Beach Golf Links as the world’s best cliffside course. The Cal Sci Algorithm will be jiggered to reflect the change.

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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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