The Tale of Two Philly Gems: Majestic Merion, Part 1
By Stephanie Wei under Wei Goes Golfing

Baxter, me and Chester on 18th green at Merion: Yes, we’re wearing matching caps and yes, that’s a ballmarker on the bill

No, I’m not being a total jerk with this picture — Baxter and Chester requested that their faces be removed (typical WASPs!).

Last Saturday was a special day for me: I played a top-ten ranked golf course (if you believe the annual rankings) for the first time in my life. Merion, site of the ’13 US Open, is ranked seventh, according to most recent edition of Golf Digest‘s “America’s 100 Greatest Courses.” (I plan to play them all at some point.) And the following day, I hacked my way through the 76th-ranked track, Aronimink, the home of the ’10 AT&T National.

It’s not every weekend I get the chance to play two of the best courses in suburban Philly, not to mention the country. Believe it or not, I hardly had a tour of America’s most famous courses. I’ve played all over, but it was mainly for tournaments and Cypress Point or Shinnecock doesn’t usually host 100+ junior and/or college golfers. Point is, despite my vomit-inducing game, it was a real treat to play both Merion and Aronimink. I’ll focus just on the former today.

Where to begin? Well, first of all, Merion isn’t nearly as pretentious as you’d imagine. In fact, it was pretty laidback and unassuming. I mean, I wore leggings and the powers-that-be were OK with it! To be honest, I was a little concerned and brought rain pants just in case, but when I’d heard that the atmosphere was relatively chill, I figured it’d be kosher. Oh, and the best part? There wasn’t a moment that I felt awkward or uncomfortable. I always dread pulling up to a new country club, especially when it’s the first time I’m meeting my host and I don’t know where I’m going. (For the record, everyone I’ve met this year has been awesome. Duh, right? After all, they hosted a lowly blogger!) Hell, I don’t even feel comfortable going to the club I grew up playing on anymore.

Pulling up to Merion, I stopped to take a picture (I know, I’m so unrefined!)

After a delightful lunch, I was standing next to the practice green when a member spotted my Yale headcovers and asked, “Do you go to Yale?” I replied, “I did go to Yale. I graduated in ’05.”

“Were you on the squash team? My daughter is there now and plays squash,” said Yalie member.

“No, I was on the golf team.”

“Even better!” he said. “This is Preston Cunningham*, he went to that other school.”

We chitchatted for several more minutes, talking residential colleges and other Yale-related stuff that no one else cares about. I felt right at home.

And then it was on to the first tee with Baxter and Chester. I went to pick up a scorecard and was joined by Chester, who isn’t a Merion member. We both spotted something peculiar in the box — along with scorecards and pencils, there were some strange-looking white napkin-like sheets. I asked Chester, “What are those for?” He had the same perplexed look on his face and (half-joking) said something like, “They’re to put on your face if you’re not white enough to play here.” Turns out they are actually towels to wipe your hands before you tee off. You wouldn’t want to dirty your perfectly ironed light-colored slacks with grease from lunch!

We played from the “Middle” tees, which measure 6,103 yards, but as I was warned, don’t let it fool you, it’s a long 6,103 yards. As an aside, people wonder why I don’t have a handicap. Now this has very little to do with the real reason (laziness and this is first year I’ve played enough in a long time), but thing is, it’d be difficult for me to keep an accurate one.

Most of the time, courses don’t have a rating/slope for women that play from the men’s tees. At Merion, the scorecard says that it’s 75.8/152 for women from the “Forward” tees, but what is it for the “Middle” tees? I’d imagine something in the range of 77-160. These figures make me feel better about my lousy score.

The first hole is a relatively easy dogleg right par-4. I split the fairway with a nice drive, setting myself up for a little nine iron for my approach. Too bad I hit like three-feet behind the ball and drop kicked the shot, which left me with another forty yards to the pin. I made the mistake of letting my pitch go past the hole, leaving me with a downhill putt from where I three-jacked for a double-bogey. Great start!

My first par came on the par-3 no. 3. It was playing around 175-180 yards that Saturday (if I recall correctly). I choked down on my 3-hybrid and thinned it to about ten feet. I missed the downhill birdie putt, but I took the par — I can’t remember if I made a long comeback putt after blowing it ten feet past the hole or if I just had a tap-in. I had quite a few three-putts. There were times that you could do nothing but walk away with a three-putt if you were on a certain part of the green and the pin was on another.

Me at an awful swing position hitting my tee shot at the par-3, No. 13 (but I did par it — I remember because there weren’t that many!)

I quickly learned that lines and angles were important to a successful round at Merion. My friend Jim Frank told me the night before, “You’re forced to think through every shot.” (He also wrote a great review of his round at Merion in May.) Basically, you need the right line to set yourself up for the best approach into Merion’s tricky greens. A missed tee shot (which I unusually struggled with) is severely punished, meaning you’re not going to hit the green in regulation so you best hope for fantastic recovery shots and even better touch with short wedges.

To honor the spot on No. 18 where Ben Hogan hit an incredible 1-iron on his way to his comeback

Baxter explained that Merion is best described as a three-act play. The first act (the first six holes) is the Drama. The second act, holes 7 through 13, is the Comedy because they are short in distance and the easiest part of the course (which is still rather challenging). Finally, the third is dubbed the Tragedy for its difficulty, also making it one of the greatest finishing stretches in golf.

Me hitting the modern-day 1-iron near Hogan’s plague

I chopped my way around for an 83. I was actually surprised when I added up the numbers. Merion is a par 70, so sometimes you feel like you’re doing worse than you score because you’re not making pars, but it’s amazing the difference it makes. I enjoyed the round and experience for all 83 shots, though. But I couldn’t help but wish that I’d brought my A game — or at least my B game — to make it all the more marvelous. Hopefully, I’ll get my shot at redemption sooner rather than later.

Oh, I’m almost forgetting my favorite part of the course: The pins have wicker baskets instead of flags. Wicker baskets! Now if that’s not old-school and golf-y than I don’t know what is.

Thanks to Baxter and Chester for the laughs and great day.

(Thanks to Kyle Auclair of insidetheropes.com for help on the Photoshop job!)