Small wonder: Merion (East) is golf’s most intimate championship layout
Unquestionably, the freedom to smash drives all over the yard is liberating. On occasion, however, it’s cathartic not to have to swing out of your shoes. Sometimes it’s fun to play small ball, to place thoughtful shots in the proper spots aboard a course with gently undulating terrain and close green-to-tee connections. A handful of elite courses deliver this sense of pleasant confinement. The small-scale championship course that comforts us best, even amid its relentless challenge, is Merion.
The East course at Merion in suburban Philadelphia is a pint-sized living museum of architecture and tournament history. Designed by Hugh Wilson in 1912 and modified over the next dozen or so years, Merion has played host to five U.S. Opens, most recently in 2013. Not once in those U.S. Opens did the course measure more than 7,000 yards. Only once did the winner break par for 72 holes—David Graham in 1981.
“Acre for acre,” said Jack Nicklaus, “it may be the best test of golf in the world.”
Merion’s intimacy stems from its compact routing on just 126 acres—compared to the average of 150 acres for an 18-hole course. Holes are proximate to one another, and to neighborhood streets, sometimes alarmingly so. Yet, they fit the available terrain as snugly as jigsaw puzzle pieces. It’s tight, but never claustrophobic. It’s not that the holes are all short or the greens so small—though many are; rather, the design features of the individual holes practically demand that restraint be exercised on every drive and with every approach. Many rough-choked landing areas are semi-blind and fairways swerve in unexpected ways, the perfect defense to muscle without corresponding mental acuity. In other words, throttle down or pay the price.
The intimacy is immediate, with the 1st tee positioned so close to the members’ veranda you can hear the clinking of glasses. Bubbas and Brysons can now drive the 1st green, as the hole measures just 358 yards, but so awkward is the recovery for those who miss that the prudent play is inevitably a perfectly plotted 225-yard drive down the left-center, which affords a superior angle to approach the green.
Playing between 554 and 589 yards, slightly uphill, the 2nd would seemingly warrant big hitting from the tee. Again, though, the power play is tempered by the looming presence of Ardmore Avenue to the right. The 360-yard 7th cozies up to someone’s backyard, overhanging tree canopies and all, its fairway a mere six paces from out of bounds. At the 367-yard 11th, renowned as the hole where in 1930 Bobby Jones won the Grand Slam, a layup drive is necessary to avoid Baffling Brook, which starts 226 yards from the tee. What follows is a pitch to a wee wisp of a green protected on three sides by the brook. And at either the 115-yard or 128-yard tee, the tiny 13th seems an adjunct of the clubhouse, as if it were a practice hole.
Tom Doak once concluded that Merion “somehow has an aura of perfection.” Merion’s cozy confines—akin to small, perfect shrines such as Wrigley Field and Fenway Park—elevate its character to exalted heights.
3 Other Diminutive Dynamos
Often overshadowed by neighboring Royal Melbourne, Australia’s Kingston Heath is packed into a mere 125 acres. Gil Hanse claims it’s the perfect example of a great course built on modest land: “The architect (Dan Soutar with Alister MacKenzie on bunkers) took what the site possessed, the sand, the scrub, the vegetation and enhanced that property by features that sit down at ground level. Truly great work.”
Rhode Island’s Wannamoisett is a rare par-69 in the Donald Ross oeuvre that’s crammed into 104 acres. Yet, it packs a wallop with long, strong par fours and speedy, undulating greens. Fresh off an Andrew Green restoration, the 1931 PGA Championship venue is also home to the prestigious Northeast Amateur, where winners have included Ben Crenshaw, Dustin Johnson, Luke Donald, and Collin Morikawa.
Shoehorned into a 130-acre site and drenched in the Lowcountry charm of Myrtle Beach, Caledonia Golf & Fish Club stretches just 6,526 yards, but architect Mike Strantz made every yard count. Golfers are cocooned by gnarled live oaks framing every fairway, yet the overall variety is astonishing. Wetlands, waste bunkers, and the Waccamaw River lend additional strategy and eye candy to the proceedings.
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