Merion Golf and Cricket Club

Merion LogoIn 1914 the members of the Merion Golf and Cricket Club tapped one of their premier players, Hugh Wilson, with the responsibility of creating a championship golf course on a mere 110 acres of hilly ground outside of Philadelphia.  This was no small task considering he had no previous experience in course design.  He took a trip to England to study the construction of the great courses of the British Isles and came back inspired that his first stab at golf design could be a success.

           With the invaluable help of a young William Flynn as his lead construction man, later one of the most prolific designers of this Golden Age of course design, the two of them created one of the memorable tracks one will ever play.   Except for Pine Valley, Oakmont, and Pebble Beach, there are no other examples of such quality design by an individual on his first try. 

Merion has a certain mysterious quality about it that kind of creeps into your mind long after you have left the course. The sequence of holes defies any obvious pattern which gives you a sense of arbitrary fate as you work your way through the course.  There are no distance markers on the course either on the tees or in the fairways-no indications of pin positions.  Fortunately, there are a group of the most knowledgeable caddies you will find anywhere, and they know the distance from every blade of grass on the course and the break on every putt down to the most subtle nuance.

This is a course that asks you to show great patience, to wait for the opportunities as they occur.  You cannot force a good score, you must knead one out of the layout with great patience and adept shot execution.  There are very few tricky holes, all the challenges are quite obvious, but they are also quite real.  If you try to bite off more than you can chew you will likely choke on the effort.  Carefully pick and choose your challenges and when you set your mind to taking one, do not waffle on that decision-you must play every shot with great confidence or the course will eat you up.

With both five pars in the first four holes you find yourself searching for rest holes the last three hours of your day.  You are going to be rudely disappointed because even the shortest par fours, and there are a plethora of them, do not provide you with obvious scoring opportunities.  You can have short irons and wedges in your hands for second shots all through the first thirteen holes but it better be from the fairway and you better keep those approaches beneath the flag sticks.  The last five holes are as harsh of a finish as you can imagine.  It is full prevent defense of your scorecard the rest of the way to the clubhouse.

The most obvious characteristic of this course is the impeccable quality of the putting surfaces.  The greens are the finest I have ever seen, very fast, very true with lots of pitch and yaw.  The condition of the course is equally impeccable-it looks like a fine manicured yard everywhere you look.  Another signature characteristic is the severe bunkering-the bunkers are deep and often strewn with wild sage grass.  The best strategy is to stay out of the sand entirely and when you get in one take the most conservative path to exiting it.

The full Merion experience begins when you get out of your car and ends after a refreshing post game shower.  There is a special hamish relationship between the members and their long standing employees that run the place.  An informal atmosphere exists without much of the pomp and circumstance typical of an old line club.  The floors are uneven and creaky and there is a bit of a musty odor pervades the place-it feels like a comfortable visit to your grandma’s place when you were a kid.  The members themselves take great pride in the tradition and care of this place.  Try to take a mulligan off the first tee and they will show you the door.  My host was walking the fairways bending over to pull offending weeds from the turf-a bit of greens keeping vigilantism.

          The signature of Merion are the wicker baskets atop the flag sticks.  Makes it tough to get a wind reading on the green from the fairway.  Unsubstantiated rumor says that Hugh Flynn, on his pre-design trip to the review the great courses of Britain, saw shepherds tending their flocks with long staffs with hollow wicker baskets on top where they would stash their lunches to keep them away from prying animals.  He thought that was a cool look and came back to the states with this notion for unique flag sticks.  With the help of local artisans he had them made and patented and today they are guarded as treasure, taken in every night at the end of play to insure no one comes hunting for souvenirs.

          Playing this course is much more than a simple round of golf, it is a golfing experience.  The place is steeped with tradition and memories of golf’s greatest players making great shots in major championships.  You cannot help but get caught up in the ghosts of championships past.  Take in all this ambiance as you stroll these fairways and enjoy the special character of this hallowed place.

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Designer: Hugh Wilson (1914)

Tees          Yards   Par    Rating Slope

Blue           6482    70      73.5     149

Middle        6103    70      71.6     144

(Click to read hole-by-hole descriptions of Merion Golf and Cricket Club)

Bedford Springs-Old Course

Established in the late 1800’s this place is a small scale version the old line rich man’s retreat, on the order of a Homestead or Greenbrier, full service food, accommodations, golf, spa, family recreation, and all. It has a much more casual presentation than those others but that may be a function of the new day more than anything else.  A very comfortable atmosphere-well managed-it makes for a perfect two-day getaway from the hub-bub of urban life.

Par 3 “Tiny Tim” even has the chocolate drop mounds (

The golf course is quirky but very interesting.  It is the result of the efforts of three architects over a thirty year period-and it has been recently updated in 2007 without changing the effective old style character of the links.  Spencer Oldham did the original 18 holes in 1895 featuring chocolate drop mounds, geometric S-curve bunkers, and donut bunkers.  In 1912 A.W. Tillinghast got his hands on it and scaled it back to a nine-hole course with his own architectural features.  In 1923 Donald Ross took it back to a full 18-hole track and you can see raised greens with lots of tiering, artistic bunkering constellations, and, most distinctively, a creative and strategic use of the Shober’s Run that meanders throughout the entire golf course.  The renovation work in 2007 was done by Forse Design Company of Pennsylvania who are known for doing period restoration and  renovation work throughout the US and Canada-they have recently had their hands in renovation work to the Broadmoor-East Course in Colorado and the Newport Country Club in Rhode Island-sites of  recent U.S. Senior Opens and U.S. Women’s Opens respectively.   They did a wonderful job retaining the characteristics of all three of these fine architects while making it a very playable and a challenging golf experience.

The entire course is in the flood plain of the Shober Spring Stream and sits nestled between the foothills on either side.  There is a good bit of meandering back and forth so the holes do not route in a typical outward and inward loop.  For a course set in the foothills there are not that many severe elevation changes on holes and you get surprisingly few side hill or billy goat stances during the round.   As with most old style courses the track does not sprawl-the next tee is a few steps from the last green and the round has a tidy-compact feel to it.  Green surfaces are totally updated-very quick-lots of pitch and undulation and oddly shaped which makes for really small targets from the fairway.  You will do some pitching and chipping to save pars.

The green speed is the course’s major defense considering the tiering and undulations you will face.  But at the same time these characteristics provide you with a good correction mechanism for your approach shots if you pay attention to green topography and use it accordingly.  Big hitters will be frustrated by the many times they cannot just haul off and hit as much as they can-position off the tee is extremely important to getting the best angle of attack into the greens.

The last characteristic worth noting is the balance of the types of holes and the sequencing.  Five Par 5’s, Five Par 3’s, and 8 Par 4’s (only one over 400 yards) means you are hitting lots of finesse shots through the day and the mix is pretty random.  There is a sequence from 2 to 6  where you play par 3, par 5, par 3, par 5, short par 4-other than the driver on the second par 3 you have no long shots for five holes.  From 9 through 14 you have a similar 5-3-4-4-5-3 run but in the midst of this one you have two of the longest holes you play all day.  My point is you have to be very mentally agile to play this course effectively-there is no natural rhythm to the course other than the constant sound of the babbling of the ever present Shober’s Run.

Bedford Springs, Pennsylvania

Architects: Spencer Oldham (1895), A.W. Tillinghast (1912), Donald Ross (1923), Forse Design (2007)

Tees                 Par            Rating            Slope            Yardage

Medal                72               73.4               140                6785

Ross                72               71.9               136                6446

Tillie                  72               69.3               130                6023

Oldham            72               69.8               122                5106

(Click here to review Bedford Springs hole-by-hole descriptions)

Laurel Valley Golf Club

A golf course with a long and rich tradition that belies it’s mere 50 years of existence.  Most of us remember this as the place Dave Marr won the PGA and associate it with Arnold Palmer as his adopted summer home course when back in Pennsylvania.  The members will tell you that it is Palmer’s aura that is most responsible for the reputation of this place-after it was built in 1959 under the watchful eye of Dick Wilson it was Arnold who went to the PGA and told them this would be an appropriate place to host their championship.  It has built on that reputation hosting the National Four Ball championship in the 1970, the National Team Championship in 1971 and 1972, the Ryder Cup in 1975,  significant events from the Pennsylvania-Ohio-West Virginia region, the U.S. Senior Open in 1989, and the Senior PGA in 2005.

When you walk the hallways of this demure clubhouse, the pictures and memorabilia make you fully aware how seriously the members take the rich history and tradition of this place.  There are paintings and photos everywhere full of bouquets of pink sport jackets-an unusual touch for a macho corporate hangout.  Don’t miss the photo library on the walls around the informal bar-there is a classic shot of an intense Arnie and Jack as playing partners in the National Four Ball back around 1970. The locker room is very classy-old wood lockers bearing name plates of PGA and Champion’s Tour players.  This place just has a very traditional good old boy feel to it.

(Click here to see a few of the gems from the Laurel Valley photo gallery).

View across the first tee (

The club was originally built as a business man’s club for corporate parties and events during a face-lifting renaissance in Pittsburgh in the late 1950’s.  The club is only open from May through October-it completely shuts the doors for the late fall and winter-a business model that seems hard to sustain without considerable annual member backing.  It is a golf facility only-food service to support the golf and events and some cottages to house out of town guests.  The lay of the buildings to the rest of the property was very well thought out-there are sitting areas providing views of the property and surroundings that are truly spectacular.

The course is built on a 260 acre tract of land in the foothills of the Laurel Ridge and Chestnut Ridge mountains. It does not have much topographical feature in it’s tactical play, though the visual back drops can be dramatic.  The design has a Florida feel to it with abundant sand and water, Dick Wilson wended the course through the low grounds deploying massive fairway bunkering and adjacent water hazards to keep the player’s attention.  Fifty years of tree growth have cloistered the holes considerably, but recent renovation has brought back the more open playability as it was originally intended.

Tough tee shot on #10 (

One thing that can certainly be said about this is that the course can play very long from the two back tee markers.  At the 6600 yardage of the white tees it is an ample test for most mortals-the additional yardage can make for some excruciatingly long par fours.  Like most courses of this style driving accuracy is key to decent scoring opportunities.  Playing from the fairway bunkers or tough angles in the rough is a sure prescription for bogies and worse.  For the most part the water is manageable but there will be times during the day when your judgment for carry will be called into play and more often than not bravery is not the sensible route.

Full majesty coming down #18 (

There are many interesting individual holes on the course-the par threes in particular have lots of nuance and subtlety to them.  Not too many “wow” holes but some of the scenic backdrops will catch your attention.  What really elevates this to championship caliber are the greens-they are very swift with ample undulation that seems to shrink the accessible opening on most of the cups.  Very few putts go directly up the walkway and into the front door-you will be using diversionary tactics all day to find the bottom of these cups.  The caddies are excellent here and you need one if only to tell you where you can leave the approaches into these greens.  The pitching and chipping are particularly difficult because some of the swiftest approaches are not obvious to an inexperienced eye.

Ligonier, Pennsylvania

Architect: Dick Wilson (1959)

Tees             Par       Rating    Slope    Yardage
Blue             72          75.7       148        7327
Black           72          74.1       138        6982
White           72          72.8       135        6606
Green          72          70.1       130        5899
Red             72          73.5       127        5548

(Click to see complete Laurel Valley hole-by-hole descriptions)

Saucon Valley-Old Course

Saucon Valley was created as a playground for the wealthy steel guys in the Lehigh Valley section of northeast Pennsylvania.  The Old Course is an elegant simple layout designed by British Architect Herbert Strong known for designing courses with little disruption to the land.   As a result the course meanders across rolling hills framed by vintage old trees and it looks like it just belongs in the natural surroundings.  This course has held six USGA national championships  a U.S. Amateur, Senior Amateur, two Senior Opens, and two Women’s Opens as well as innumerable regional and local events of importance.

Sahara #6 Par Five

This facility has 54 holes of championship golf, as well as short course for developing players and seniors.  A primo golf facility with a long and storied tradition you cannot help but be overwhelmed by the golf pedigree of this place.  Walking the locker room or the halls of the clubhouse there are lists and lists of the rosters of championships contested here and plenty of other memorabilia that makes this feel like an ad hoc golf museum.  They even have a luxurious 13 room guest house which accommodates guests at the club in a comfortable informal way.

This course is not a beast but it is a stiff challenge that will test all of your skills. To me the bunkering is the most obvious distinguishing characteristic.  It is free form-no real patterns to the bunker placements but they are placed in places in the driving areas and the green constellations that make successful play a matter of good strategy and precise execution.  The bunkers are very deep-even in the fairways-so there are times you must relent and play a shot that will not get you to the green or at the flagstick.

Turtle #11 Par 3

The greens are very unusual-wide variety of shapes and sizes with plenty of segmentation and slope to keep you honest in your approach shots and approach putts.  If they speed them up to 12 on the stimp you are in for a handful.

I just loved the flow of the course.  Both nines start out with expansive visual holes that are extremely inviting and are then followed by short technical holes that will demand focus and execution.  The stretch from nine to fourteen looks very forgiving on the card but you will be challenged big time through this stretch not to make any unforced errors.  Fifteen through seventeen are all long and strong  so there is no relief to the end.  The finishing hole will grow on you-especially if you make a par-it is short but very demanding-any wayward play on this hole will do damage to your scorecard.

(All photos from website)

Bethlehem, Pennsylvania

Architect: Herbert Strong (1922)

Tees               Par          Rating         Slope        Yardage

Blue                 71            73.1            138            6800

White               71            70.7            135            6337

(Click to see complete Saucon Valley Old Course hole-by-hole descriptions)

Saucon Valley-Grace Course

Zig-Zag Opening Hole Par 5

This was the second course built at Saucon, just after World War II, when it was decided that eighteen holes were not enough for the growing membership.  William Gordon worked for a number of eminent architects and had a hand in Seminole, Maidstone, and Garden City Golf Club.  This was a family affair, he did the course with his son David. The course is named for Eugene Gifford Grace who found the club and was a very strong influence in the development of Saucon Valley for over four decades.

Number 10 Par 5

The course was laid out around the perimeter of the Old Course but it does not share much of the same topographical character.   To me, it is a bit of Florida layout with trees.  The basic topography is flat as a pancake but the Gordons did some real creative work with the green areas and it is anything but boring-a very nice walk indeed.  Overall conditioning of the course is excellent, bent fairways and who knows what greens.  As of 2010, the greens are worn out and in need of redoing, but a full renovation of this 18 is due when they finish the work on the Weyhill Course in the spring of 2011.

Challenging finishing Par 4

The course is plenty of challenge from the White tees at 6302 but it is probably playable from the Blues as well.  The general nature of the course is that it is expansive to the eye but the real playing areas are much more confined.  You have to be careful off the tee or you will end up with lots of fairways missed two steps off the cut with some difficult shots from there.  Honestly this course is a pleasure, you get challenged without getting run over and good play is rewarded.  Enjoy the walk.

(All photos from website)

Bethlehem, Pennsylvania

Architect: William and David Gordon (1958)

Tee                  Par          Rating        Slope        Yardage

Blue                 72            72.4            136            6684

White               72            70.8            133            6302

(Click to see complete Saucon Valley Grace Course hole-by-hole descriptions)

Oakmont Country Club

Opening Hole Par 4 (

Much like Merion, Oakmont is a total golf experience-the club house, the golf shop, the operations of the golf facility, the caddies, the whole nine yards are steeped with rich tradition oozing from every nook and cranny.  It is not just the impressive pictures of past champions who have won here like Jones, Sarazen, Snead, Hogan, Nicklaus, Miller, Els, Cabrera, Sheehan, and Creamer-it is not even the overwhelming appearance of the handwritten scoresheets from those events (little known trivia is that Calvin Peete finished fifth the year Larry Nelson won his U.S. Open here).  It is the whole aura of the place, creakie floors, un-airconditioned locker rooms, the porches wrapping the clubhouse and looking out over the golf course, all of it makes this an authentic relic that cannot be replicated.  When you go here you just have to take the time to meander around and take it in-breath some musty air-look closely at the wood lockers that have been there since the depression-talk to the help-they know the traditions and are glad to share.

#3 Pews Par 4 (

From the golf design side, Henry Fownes clearly accomplished his goal of making this one of the hardest tests of golf in the country.  The large furrow marks in the bunkers are gone, but the lightening fast, undulating putting surfaces are there, the dense rough and the occasional heather field are there, the 160+ bunkers are there and in play throughout,  the hilly terrain that takes a shot hit without confidence to places you would rather not know is there.  The overall balance of an extremely difficult, fair test of golf is what you get.  The modern equipment may give you the extra distance to shorten some of the long holes, but truthfully the test is in tactics and execution not in distance.  Look at the list of winners-Melnyk, Nelson, Mahaffey, Sarazen-these were not men with prodigious length but men who hit it in play and can play around the greens.  The secret to Oakmont is hitting it in the fairway off the tee and pitching and putting to save pars from below the hole.

From the blue tees, length very seldom seems to be a factor.  Angle of attack or approach seems to always be a factor.  The driving areas are visually expansive but are always confined by bunkering usually on two sides.  You get none of the cloistered feeling of trees encroaching the playing area.  There are plenty of big old trees but most are just background.  Beside the bunkering plentitude, the greenside bunkers are very severe.  With a sixty degree you can get out of all of them but getting close will be a challenge.

#5 Testing Par 4 (

You cannot think of Oakmont without trembling at the thought of the warp speed of the greens.  Stimpmeter measurements aside they are just flat out fast.  I have heard criticism that the greens are too undulating considering how fast they are maintained and this is something I agree with.  But it is a characteristic of the course and you just have to accept it.  As troublesome as the downhill putts are I think the real challenge is hitting the uphill putts hard enough.  On all courses with fast greens the differential in absolute speed between a downhill and uphill putt is way greater than on a course with slow greens and this differential will drive you batty.  You just want to smack yourself upside the head with your Odyssey every time you leave an uphill putt short-and you will do it all day.

Besides keeping your drives out of the rough, and this is a must to have any chance for pars, I think effective pitching and chipping is where the scoring is at.  Again the fast greens will carry shots without conviction off to the aprons and you must be able to up and down from there to make pars you thought you deserved.

Storied finishing hole at Oakmont (courtesy of Alan Levine/Lowl Productions)

When you are done here you will likely feel beaten but not unfairly beaten just beaten because of lack of tactical conviction or shot execution.  Like the Gold Course at the Golden Horseshoe this is a course to play again and again-it will tantalize you and occasionally treat you kindly, more often than not you will walk away shaking your head at what could have been.  But then again that is the lure isn’t it.

Oakmont, Pennsylvania

Architect: Henry C. Fownes (1903)

Tees                           Par           Yards          Rating        Slope

Championship            71            7255            77.5            147

Blue                            71            6436            74               134

(Click to see complete Oakmont hole-by-hole descriptions)

Mystic Rock-Nemacolin

This Pete Dye creation is another addition to the death defying style courses that the man likes to create.  It reminds me very much of Bulle Rock which is of the same vintage.  Sweeping panoramic holes with big intimidation factors but really only moderate challenge when you strip away the veneer if you play at an appropriate tee length.  If you choose to play further back do so at your own peril since the difficulty notches up considerably.

This place was the home of the PGA Tour’s 84 Lumber Classic for a number of years and they did substantial renovation and redesign in 2004/2005 to meet the challenge and conditioning requirements of the tour.  The black tees measure a whopping 7550 yards with a slope of 152-if you do not have your name embroidered on your bag you have no business playing back there.

Tranquil 10th Green Par 4 (

The basic lay of the course is very characteristic of its surroundings-rolling terrain with dramatic vistas and more rocks then you can imagine in any stone quarry.  The rocks accent the water hazards-the forced carries, the tee boxes-even the outhouses.  The stone budget alone would have built most courses in the sixties.

Signature Boulders 16th Hole Par 5 (

The green arrangements are really challenging.  Most involve a dramatic approach but all have bail out areas and alternate routes for the player not up for that challenge.  Lots of undulations, a few buried pacaderms, and, though some of the greens are in the 50 yard long range, you never get much depth to shoot at so you have to pay attention to the approach angles.

Tough Carry into 12th Par 3 (

The driving is the most challenging aspect of the course.  Wayward ones pay the ultimate price-re-teeing-but even the one that is slightly off line will make the approach to the green considerably more difficult.  You must pay attention to the hazards in the driving areas-if you have the nerve to play adjacent to them you will have a much easier approach at the flag.  At 6300 you do not need to jack them long-normal drives will leave you medium to short irons.  But the green sets will make you concentrate on those approach shots because there are some huge bunkers, swales, and even an occasional hazard you do not want to visit if par is your goal.

Farmington, Pennsylvania

Architect: Pete Dye-1997

Tees    Par   Rating    Slope    Yardage

Blue     72     73.8       138         6791

White   72     71.6       137         6313

(Click to see complete Mystic Rock hole-by-hole descriptions)