ARDMORE, PA., July 1, 2011— The PGA Tour is visiting Aronimink Golf Club this week for the second consecutive year. Aronimink is one of the classic courses the PGA Tour has quietly brought back into the fold the past few years after systematically purging the old guard in place of TPCs and the like (or in my case, dislike). Yet just a few miles up the road from Aronimink, an even better venue awaits the U. S. Open in 2013.
I had the extreme privilege and absolute pleasure to play the East Course at Merion Golf Club earlier this week and was simply not disappointed. When asked what my initial thoughts about the course were, all I had for an answer was, “Just as I expected – fantastic.” It certainly was nice to experience golf at the upper echelon of private clubs yet there was also plenty to apply in my day to day practice as a golf architect that transcends all classifications of golf course operations regardless of price point.
Merion East has one of the most impressive roll calls of eighteen memorable U.S.G.A. events, none more impressive than Bobby Jones completion of the Grand Slam in 1930 or Hogan’s victory in 1950. Hogan’s iconic image wielding a one-iron on the final hole is just that and to walk the fairways of this hallowed ground is truly a special feeling. The “it” factor is strong at Merion and hopefully “it” will still be there after the 2013 Open.
Unfortunately, early reviews seem to reveal a bit of a dis-connect between what the U.S.G.A requires of its venues (extreme length) and what is best for the club. The battle to retain that “it” factor is already underway as the course slowly transforms itself into a major venue. One can only hope the members stay true to the course’s values and do not go the way of past Open sites like Baltusrol and Congressional.
Unlike those courses, the East Course sits on just 125 acres and will never have “long and large” attached to its name. Yet length is what it needs most in order to survive the onslaught of the greatest golfers on the planet. At least that is what is generally understood and why you will see new tees jutting out into the line of fire of the seventh hole (in the case of number four tee) or being added on the back side of a practice green (in the case of number fourteen).
Tom Fazio has been hired to propose whatever work he sees fit to accommodate the U.S.G.A. So far, in addition to the tee box additions for four and fourteen, other tee boxes have been added on par threes. Unfortunately, there was absolutely no attempt to replicate the simple character of the existing Merion tee boxes in the work so far. Granted, more square footage is needed than what is currently provided but free-form, two tier shapes clash greatly with the runways and ovals that dominate the East Course.
The rolling Pennsylvania farmland property is the heart of Merion, yet the soul of the golf course is unquestionably the sand bunkers. Whereas some of William Flynn’s White Faces of Merion have been lowered in places, the placement of these hazards is what puts this golf course in my all time top-five list. Flynn was a master at juxtaposing bunkers on alternate sides of the entrance to many of the greens as well as landing areas, creating intimate spaces that instantly relate to the golfer and create a strong sense of place. Strategically, the simplicity of carrying sand to gain an advantage is present in all its glory.
Fazio did propose a rugged and rough grass appearance to the bunker faces, putting teeth into a layout which will never get to 7,500 yards. Sadly, the U.S.G.A. may be leaning toward eliminating this look for a more manicured style. Apparently it is a “construction issue” more so than a “rules issue” when it comes to Golf House. I guess that means change is coming. Instead, let’s hope the U.S.G.A. leaves well enough alone and really makes the entire sand bunker complex a true hazard.
An unexpected surprise is the incredible collection of putting surfaces. Considering the size of the property, I always assumed that the greens of the East Course were all postage stamps. I couldn’t have been more wrong. In fact, the average putting surface is probably in the six-thousand square foot range. False fronts abound and there are many two- (or more) foot slopes to putt over as well. The subtle breaks are just as confounding, especially when confronted with green speed size. There is even a mini-Biarritz feature on the seventh green. These may possibly be the most interesting greens I have played. The variety doesn’t get much better.
So what can us peasants take from an experience at Merion and apply to our own golf courses? Matt Shaffer, the golf course superintendent, proudly has a variety of grasses throughout his tees, fairways, roughs, and greens. The constant battle to maintain a monoculture does not exist at Merion and the members have seemingly embraced the green patchwork quilt. The bottom line is that the playing surfaces are all excellent from tee to green regardless of grass variety. Fast and firm is the mantra at Merion and it shows that over-watering for artificial conditions is not the best approach. For the average golf course, there certainly is a cost savings to be had with this approach.
The club has also successfully managed out of play areas (what I would call no-mow zones) with rough grasses that greatly contrast with the green playing surfaces, minimize everyday maintenance, and also allow for a fair recovery.
I can’t wait for the 2013 U. S. Open. If the club stays true to its own vision and does not change the bunker faces or fall to more lengthening pressures from the U.S.G.A., then it will be as different as any Open previously. Considering the support for Pinehurst No. 2’s recent transformation, it certainly makes sense not to mess with what Merion is already all about.
About Richard: Richard Mandell runs Richard Mandell Golf Architecture in Pinehurst, North Carolina (www.golf-architecture.com). Educated as a Landscape Architect at the University of Georgia (he is licensed in both North and South Carolina), Richard has close to two decades’ experience in designing new golf courses and renovating existing ones. Richard may also be the only golf architect in the world who is a certified arborist. He co-hosts a weekly golf radio talk show in Pinehurst and continues to teach a class on Golf Architecture at North Carolina State University which he started in 1997. Mr. Mandell also wrote the award-winning book, Pinehurst ~ Home of American Golf - The Evolution of a Legend (International Network of Golf Book of the Year – 2007).