Merion Golf Club steeped in history, tradition

Posted: May 06, 2013

The driveway around Merion's handsome clubhouse directs visitors not with standard traffic indicators but rather with small signs discreetly inscribed with the golf club's iconic logo, a directional arrow, and one simple word, "Please!"

That understated civility is a Merion trademark. It's reflected in the rules governing the golfing shrine: No hats under cover. No collarless shirts or sockless feet. No denim or cargo pants. No use of electronic devices. No mulligans on the first tee. No range-finders on the course, where - no surprise - there are no yardage markers or tee directions.

Last week, as member John Capers III ascended the stairs toward the climate-controlled room where much of Merion's 117-year history is stored, the hushed clubhouse's pockmarked floorboards groaned indelicately beneath his feet. Those ancient planks, like the golf course itself, have survived numerous eras and renovations.

"Occasionally at club meetings, someone will complain about the pockmarked floor and urge that it be replaced," said Capers, 70, who likes to note that he was a Merion member "in utero."

"But invariably someone will get up and say, 'Replace it? Those spike marks might be Bobby Jones' [spike marks].' And that's the end of that discussion. People here know and care about the history."

Despite all the attention paid to its wicker baskets, the scotch broom in its bunkers, and the East course's annual ranking among America's best, what makes Merion unique are its history, traditions, and culture, along with the passion of its 1,000 members to preserve them.

No airs

In a changing 21st-century golf world characterized by mammoth-headed metal drivers, the compact little golf club that straddles Ardmore Avenue remains a charming brassie.

"By modern standards, it's certainly not fancy," said author Harlan Coben, who set one of his Myron Bolitar mysteries, Back Spin, at Merion. "But I just love the woodwork, the locker room, the whole place. There's a real simple elegance about it. The first time I went there, I nearly got lost because the sign at its entrance is so small I missed it. It's like the place is saying, 'I know what I'm all about. I don't need to put on any airs.' "

In the 1990s, when many private clubs were radically altering their courses and standards to meet the challenges posed by new equipment and shrinking memberships, Merion officials were busy restoring the course's greens to their original dimensions.

And they've been just as careful about insuring that the stately white clubhouse retains its slightly musty, old-money, Main Line charm. If the semicircular patio bar that adjoins the first tee is the 19th hole, Merion's clubhouse is its 20th. "It's an extension of the golf course," said Capers.

Whether all that makes the Haverford Township institution stuffy or sophisticated depends on your perspective. But one thing is certain: As Merion prepares to host its fifth U.S. Open this June, the club and its mania for manners and history figure to be as fascinating a subject as the tournament itself.

Most golfers are aware of Merion's reputation and its knack for producing great champions in the record 18 USGA events it has hosted. Those two things, said contemporary golf architect Pete Dye, are closely related.

"Merion is not great because history was made there," said Dye. "History was made there because Merion is great."

Just magical

Fourteen-year-old Bobby Jones played in his first U.S. Amateur at Merion in 1916, returned to win the event in 1924, and six years later did so again to complete his still unequaled Grand Slam. A limping Ben Hogan won his comeback Open there in 1950. Lee Trevino defeated Jack Nicklaus, who was part of the winning 1960 World Amateur Team there, in a 1971 Open playoff. David Graham played a near-perfect final round to win the '81 Open.

"You can literally take every generation of golfer from the turn of the last century to today, and they've all played here," said Capers. "Not many places can say that."

It's also true that not many places possess a preservation fever as red-hot as Merion's. Capers and others nurture the club's archives as meticulously as course superintendent Matt Shaffer cares for its greens and fairways.

For months now, TV reporters and writers from around the world have been examining Merion's history and traditions as they prepare their Open coverage. Their searches have been aided by that archive, a trove of extraordinary documents and artifacts, all carefully cataloged and constantly updated by Capers and others.

In addition to all the golf clubs, plaques, and Merion-related memorabilia, it houses 800 books, the minutes of meetings dating back to 1865, when the Merion Cricket Club (which gave birth to the breakaway golf club in 1896) was founded, 100,000 documents, 10,000 photographs, countless records and artifacts from its tournaments, membership rolls, handicap sheets, schematics.

On one shelf is a row of leather-bound volumes, the handwritten diaries of Joe Valentine, the club's first course superintendent, and his son, Richie, who succeeded his father in 1968 and stayed until 1989. Those books detail such minutiae as how much gasoline and chemicals were used each day, what alterations were made, how many workers were needed. During the Great Depression, Joe Valentine noted in one, those workers were paid "14 cents an hour."

"This place is just magical in so many ways," said Mike Davis, executive director of the U. S. Golf Association. "It's historical. It's an architectural treasure. And from a golf standpoint, I think you could easily say it's a landmark."

Capers estimated that perhaps as few as 1 percent of America's 4,415 private golf clubs maintain archives.

"Most clubs do some pictures on the wall. . . . Other clubs might have a few filing cabinets somewhere of club history," he said. "I can guarantee you our archive is better than that of any other private club in the world."

Flower baskets?

So diligent, in fact, is Merion's dedication to its remarkable past that recent research has caused the club to revise two significant elements of its own creation myth.

"These stories develop a life of their own," said Capers. "It's disconcerting when you're the purveyor of them and then you're proven wrong, which I have been on many occasions. I used to tell a story about [Merion architect Hugh] Wilson going to England and spending time with the American ambassador at the Court of St. James's. There were three little putting greens there, and the ambassador's wife put three shepherd's crooks topped with flower baskets in the holes. And that was how the wicker baskets came about. That stuff was off the wall, but who knew?"

What we now know is that those trademark red and orange baskets, which serve as flags on the East course, weren't, as originally thought, in use when the course debuted in 1912. And their inspiration was neither the ambassador's wife nor their appearance in at least two historic Scottish paintings.

"All we know is that by 1915 [then superintendent] Bill Flynn had received federal patents on wicker baskets," said Capers. "In all likelihood it was something Flynn had seen somewhere and, being an entrepreneur, he jumped on it."

Similarly, Wilson almost certainly didn't take a club-funded trip to Scotland and England before he designed the famed East course, which opened in 1912.

"Wayne Morrison, who's been a great researcher in these and many other matters, went through all the trans-Atlantic sailing records, and Wilson is not on a single manifest prior to 1912," said Capers. "We've also gone through all the minutes of the Merion Cricket Club [from which the golf club sprang] from 1894 to 1930, and there's not a single mention of Wilson going or of their paying for his trip."

A tiny article unearthed in a British newspaper revealed that Wilson apparently did go to England and Scotland in 1912, but by that time Merion already had been designed, graded, and seeded. Besides, Capers noted, architects of that era loved to borrow one or more holes from famous British courses. And there's no Merion hole that resembles any from across the Atlantic.

"So we're left to guess at what inspired him," said Capers. "What we now believe is that he just took this V-shaped piece of land, those original 111 acres, and laid it out the way he saw fit."

Tinkling glasses

During Open week, the USGA will commandeer the clubhouse. While members won't have access to the dining facilities, it's likely another Merion tradition will continue. The "Tinkling Glass" phenomenon is what golfers call the daunting drive on hole No. 1. That's because the patio that includes the bar and a dining terrace abuts the first tee.

"Because you can hear the tinkling of glasses while you're hitting," said Coben, "it's one of the most famous first shots in golf."

When it comes to maintaining the club's other customs, Merion has been fortunate. It withstood the latest recession with hardly a bump. Its membership remains large, stable, and active. And, rather than chafe at their old-world logic, its younger members have embraced the many restrictions.

"In fact, it's a lot of the younger members who are the biggest supporters [of the no-electronics rule]," Capers said. "These kids work constantly. They're expected to be on call 24-7. Here, they can literally say, 'I'm going to Merion. You can't get in touch with me.' "

There have been, however, a few concessions to changing times. Merion in the last half-century has taken a hard look at its demographics and made efforts to bring the age level down.

"As a result, it's turned into more of a family club than it used to be," said Capers. "We have Sunday evening cookouts throughout the summer. One of the staff suggested a Camp Merion. Now the parents can come in, dump the kids out on the first fairway, where they blow bubbles, play with rings, and that kind of thing. Then the parents can go have a couple drinks."

All they need remember to do is turn off their cellphones.


>Inquirer.com

Archivist John Capers III shows off Merion's history with memorabilia, photos, and souvenirs at inquirer.com/sports


Contact Frank Fitzpatrick at 215-854-5068, ffitzpatrick@phillynews.com. Follow on Twitter @philafitz.

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