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History's familiar turf is out for more

Merion gets set for 2009 golf highlight.

Merion Club member Steve Smith (right), vice-chairman of operations for the Walker Cup and Green Superintendent Matt Shaffer discuss the sand and vegetation of a green-side bunker at the 12th green. ( Clem Murray / Staff Photographer )
Merion Club member Steve Smith (right), vice-chairman of operations for the Walker Cup and Green Superintendent Matt Shaffer discuss the sand and vegetation of a green-side bunker at the 12th green. ( Clem Murray / Staff Photographer )Read more

The view from the 11th hole of the Merion Golf Club has not changed substantially in nearly a century: Cobbs Creek chuckles and bubbles over smooth, buffed stones around three sides of the lima-bean-shaped green, and a deep, unforgiving bunker looms just to the left.

"If Bobby Jones came back here today, he would recognize every hole - especially this one," says Matt Shaffer, whose title is director of golf course operations and whose job is maintaining one of the world's most historic athletic venues.

Just to the left of the 11th tee, a large stone holds a plaque commemorating a famous moment in golf: Jones' clinching the 1930 U.S. Amateur to win what is now a Grand Slam - four major championships - but was then called the "Impregnable Quadrilateral."

When golf's greatest holes are enumerated, the short list always includes the 12th at Augusta, the 17th at St. Andrews, the 16th at Cypress Point - and the 11th at Merion. Every blade of grass at Merion resonates with history, and Shaffer enjoys reciting it, but these days nearly all his attention is on the future. In September, Merion will host the 42d Walker Cup Match, which pits the best American amateurs against a team from Britain and Ireland.

It's a late fall day at Merion, and the air has some winter in it. Most of the trees are skeletal, and the clot of traffic on Ardmore Avenue is clearly visible. Eying the pitched and undulating green with something close to affection, Shaffer says: "These greens are my baby. Forty minutes of every hour I work are spent on the greens. The Walker will be won and lost on the greens."

Shaffer is a connoisseur of turf-bentgrass, bluegrass, fescue, rye - sniffing its bouquet, rolling it on his tongue, and sending it back if he doesn't like it. He has been preparing the course since spring - timing when he cuts greens, how he cuts greens, when to aerate them, what fertilizer to use, when to use it.

"We want the course to peak in September," he says, "but everything we can do will be done by June. After that, we'll be at the mercy of the weather. Everything we're doing is predicated on normal weather. We can only hope for that."

Nevertheless, he makes two promises. "The greens will be stout. That means fast. The players will think they're putting on glass. And we won't forget about those nasty bunkers. People have sprained their wrists trying to get out of those things. Hugh Wilson was diabolical."

Wilson was a club member selected in 1911 to design a new course, which opened the next year. He studied courses in his native Scotland, and incorporated several features at Merion. These include the steep, cavernous bunkers, which came to be known as the "white faces of Merion."

Merion's clubhouse, which is near the 14th tee, reaches even deeper into history than the course itself. Its genesis was an 1824 farmhouse that has been steadily expanded into an imposing white building in the Colonial Revival style that looks like a postcard lost in the mails for a century.

Just outside the entrance to the men's locker room is a plaque, placed there in 1992, designating the club as a National Historic Landmark. "This site possesses national significance in communicating the history of the United States of America," it reads.

The list of about 2,500 landmarks so designated is heavily populated by presidential homes, estates of business tycoons, churches, battlegrounds, literary birthplaces and grave sites, hotels, colonial churches, inventors' workshops, warships, and communal farms. There are only two golf courses: Merion and Oakmont Country Club near Pittsburgh.

The clubhouse is a gallery of golf history with trophies, old photographs and an archives. A fire is cracking its knuckles in the living room, and seated facing one another on flowered sofas are Shaffer; Rod Day, chairman of the club's Walker Cup Committee; committee members Steve Smith and Olin Belsinger; and John G. Capers, Merion's archivist.

Day, whose father and grandfather preceded him as club members, says the Walker Cup is named for George Herbert Walker, a great-grandfather of the current U.S. president and a grandfather and the namesake of the former president. Walker was president of the United States Golf Association when the series was begun in 1920. The cup is contested in odd-numbered years on alternating sides of the Atlantic.

The Walker Cup Match (the official name) pits two 10-man teams in 16 singles competitions and eight foursomes in which two-man teams alternate hitting shots. The United States leads the series, 33-7, and there has been one tie.

"Merion is the perfect course for the Walker Cup," Day says. "There are only 20 players and only three days of golf, including the practice round, so you don't have the crush you have with other major tournaments."

Day folds his arms across his chest and slouches in the sofa, ready to throw another monologue on the fire. But the others speak up, and soon they are leaping into each other's pauses.

Smith: "The course is small - 126 acres. Other golf courses go 300 acres and higher. Jack Nicklaus once said, 'Acre for acre, Merion may be the best test of golf in the world.' . . ."

Belsinger: "Every hole is different. No two holes at Merion are even remotely alike. . . ."

Capers: "The pins are topped with wicker baskets instead of the usual flags. Hugh Wilson probably saw something like this when he went to Scotland. But the safest answer on the origin of the baskets is that nobody knows. . . ."

Shaffer: "We even have a designated wicker keeper. They're painted four times a year. . . ."

Day: "For three days we will be the center of the golf world. These are the best amateur players in the world - and they are every bit as good as many of the professionals. . . ."

Smith: "We've hosted 17 USGA championship tournaments, more than any other course. . . ."

Belsinger: "This is the most unique tournament in golf. It's a social event as well as a golf competition. Basically, we have to entertain the world of amateur golf. There are a lot of social events leading up to the weekend. One tradition is dinner parties for small groups of guests at members' homes. The logistics - transportation, food, security - are imposing. . . ."

Capers: "You know, Bobby Jones began and ended his career right here. He made his first national appearance here in 1916 at the U.S. Amateur. He was 14 years old. And the last competitive hole he ever played was right out there on the 11th when he won the Grand Slam in 1930. . . ."

Shaffer: "Getting the course ready is demanding work, but I have a lot of tools in my box. In 2005 we installed underground sensors that give us information on moisture, temperature and salinity. These enable us to know about problems before they show up on the surface. We don't have to wait for dead grass to appear. . . ."

The conversation turns to Merion lore. There was the time Bobby Cruickshank was winning the Open in 1934 when, on the already famous 11th, he hit his shot into Cobbs Creek. Miraculously the ball struck a rock and ricocheted onto the green. Ecstatic with his good fortune, Cruickshank tossed his club up and yelled, "Thank you, Lord." Just then the club came down and hit him in the head. He never recovered his poise and lost the lead and the tournament. And in the 1971 Open, Lee Trevino beat Nicklaus in a playoff after playfully tossing a rubber snake at him to ease the tension on the first tee.

In addition to Jones' plaque on the 11th, there's a similar commemoration on the 18th fairway. The 1950 U.S. Open at Merion had Ben Hogan fighting back from injuries he suffered in a near-fatal car accident the previous year. On the 72d and final hole, Hogan was in extreme leg pain and needed to hit a shot of more than 200 yards into the wind to force a playoff. He did it and went on to win - and the photograph of that shot, taken from behind during Hogan's follow-through, is probably the most famous image in golf.

Jones and Hogan aren't the only famous golfers to perform their best at Merion. Former President Dwight D. Eisenhower played one of his finest games ever in 1963 when he teamed up with Arnold Palmer for a charity match against golf pro Jimmy Demaret and actor Ray Bolger. Eisenhower's performance included a 45-foot putt for a birdie on 17. He and Palmer won the match.

The captain of the American Walker Cup team is a Merion member - George "Buddy" Marucci, a 56-year-old career amateur who also led the 2007 U.S. team to victory at the Royal County Down Golf Club in Northern Ireland. Marucci, who resides in Wayne, was runner-up to Tiger Woods in the 1995 U.S. Amateur competition.

"Other than the Open, the Walker Cup is the crown jewel of the United States Golf Association," Marucci said. "Although the U.S. holds a commanding lead in the overall series, it has been extremely competitive in recent years, with the last three matches decided by a single point. Merion is a great choice not only because of all the history, but it is a phenomenal golf course, and it will be a severe test of all the golfers."

Once the Walker Cup is in the history books, Merion will begin preparations for the U.S. Open, which will be played there in 2013 for the fifth time - and the first since 1981. Woods is likely to break Nicklaus' career record of 18 major victories within the next few years. But should he slow down in this quest, Merion would be a great place for him to complete it.

If You Go

The Walker Cup Match will be held Sept. 12 and 13 at the Merion Golf Club, 450 Ardmore Ave., Ardmore. Ticket inquiries can be made by calling 484-708-1050. Tickets can also be purchased online at