This discussion group is best enjoyed using Google Chrome, Firefox or Safari.

Michael Chadwick

  • Karma: +0/-0
Merion's Naturalism
« on: June 08, 2022, 06:22:03 PM »
The Nature Faker, the title for Wayne Morrison and T.E. Paul’s biography of William Flynn, is a befitting depiction of a Golden Age architect who knew—among the best—how to accomplish golf course construction in a way that mimics nature. After playing Merion for the first time, I was amazed at how the course looks as though it was “found” in the landscape, with each hole’s elements—bunkers, fairway, green complex—tied in beautifully to the property’s undulation, slope, and shape. Every single hole appears draped across the land, in the same way courses like Sand Hills or Ballyneal are described. But this is a parkland course, not built on the kind of links-like soil found in the Prairies, and certainly significant construction has gone into making Merion what it is today.

There’s something enigmatic about how natural Merion is rendered that I want to further consider. It’s characteristically different from Oakmont, NGLA, Riviera, and other fellow Golden Age exemplars where, no matter how faultless those courses may be, their physical construction is immediately recognizable. Merion is puzzling because while you know it’s been physically created, its achievement makes you feel like the holes have always been there.       



One reason Merion is so successful at this, I think, is because the shape of each hole never clashes with the overall shape of the land on which its routed. Both sides of Ardmore Ave feature an efficient and brilliant routing of holes flowing in harmony. Though every hole could be an example, 4’s up and over the hill par-5 is a stark counterpoint to the canted par-4 5th—yet they are parallel to each other!


7 and 8 both hug OB property lines running hard of the right hand side, and the optimal approach angle is as close to the right as possible.

9, with 10 behind

Another great example is the 9th green and backdrop of 10. Both the green and next hole mirror each other’s shape, doglegging from low point (lower right) towards high point (upper left) with bunkering protecting the inner corner. It’s as if the 9th green is a miniature of the 10th hole, and instead of it feeling repetitive or uninspired, to me it expresses the best shape pertaining to what that area of the property offers.


Not one white-faced bunker seems built out of the land or a protrusion above grade. Rather they appear as if turf were scraped away from natural declivities and hollows. Upper lips are aligned with the slope of adjacent landforms, whether its a horizon or a tie-in to nearby fairway or green. The sand is typically below grade, but again, a bunker’s depth is frequently coordinated with the grade of its entrance side, so that they don’t come across as artificially deep. Entering most bunkers from their low entry points takes a single step down. Their shaping, size, and depth are all in concert with their immediate surroundings.



When it comes to the green complexes, balance is achieved on the number of aerial requirements (holes 3, 4, 8, 9, 11, 13, 16, 17) and ground approach options (holes 1, 2, 5, 6, 7, 10, 12, 14, 15, 18). With exception to the par 4 8th, the only greens that are surrounded on all sides by rough are the par 3s, or holes featuring a fronting creek that logically stops the flow of fairway short of the green. For every other hole, the mown entires to the green feature seamless transitions from fairway, apron, and putting surface. A hallmark of Merion, and one I’ve never seen done so subtly well anywhere else, is how the green complex follows the same line of grade from fairway. You can see it particularly well by tracing the cut of rough from the fairway as it runs towards and around the green. There is never a sudden rise of bulge; it’s always gradual, and the slope remains consistent well before the green complex begins, making each putting surface seem on the same plane as fairway, as opposed to a built-up complex looming above the fairway as so often found elsewhere.


These are just a few examples for why I think Merion remains among the consensus top ten courses in the country, for its ability to appear as a minimalist Golden Age masterpiece on a site you might not instinctively associate as being the best fit for natural, lay of the land golf. Yet for Hugh Wilson and William Flynn, it was the immediate surroundings, the macro and micro contours, ridges, and depressions, that expressed the lines and shapes they’d follow for their masterpiece’s constructed elements. The land and the course enhance the characteristics of each other, like iron sharpening iron, demonstrating not only how perfect the acreage is for golf, but of Wilson and Flynn’s ability to wield it into something even better. It was a faking of nature established out of respect for the land, with the trust that the property’s characteristics would yield a better golf course than any design smashed against its natural movement. Time has proven them right. 
Instagram: mj_c_golf

Joe Bausch

  • Karma: +0/-0
Re: Merion's Naturalism
« Reply #1 on: June 08, 2022, 06:28:46 PM »
@jwbausch (for new photo albums)
The site for the Cobb's Creek project:
Nearly all Delaware Valley golf courses in photo albums: Bausch Collection

Tim Martin

  • Karma: +0/-0
Re: Merion's Naturalism
« Reply #2 on: June 08, 2022, 07:04:00 PM »
Michael-That’s a wonderful review. I think some opinion pieces are in your future. Well played!


  • Karma: +0/-0
Re: Merion's Naturalism
« Reply #3 on: June 08, 2022, 07:18:06 PM »

Very good review.  I’ll be over there on Saturday and Sunday to watch the Curtis Cup. It will be nice to see the course without all the US Open infrastructure there and to not be working.

Michael Chadwick

  • Karma: +0/-0
Re: Merion's Naturalism
« Reply #4 on: June 08, 2022, 07:27:33 PM »
I realize I should add a question to prompt more discussion: what other classic US courses do you think have similar relationships with their land, as Merion does? Prairie Dunes comes to mind for me.

Does any other US course, in your opinion, do it better than Merion?
Instagram: mj_c_golf

Peter Pallotta

Re: Merion's Naturalism
« Reply #5 on: June 08, 2022, 09:01:00 PM »
Thanks, Michael - an excellent snapshot, and very fine report. I'm glad you had the opportunity to play it.
It's hard to believe that 20+ years have passed since Tom Fazio undertook the most significant renovation-restoration in the course's then-90 year history, ostensibly aimed at bringing it back to what it looked like circa 1930 (when Jones completed his Grand Slam there), ie with many trees coming down, the greens enlarged, and fairways widened to near their original scale -- but also (most contentiously) with the bunkers being reshaped and their ragged/naturals edges smoothed out.
« Last Edit: June 09, 2022, 02:17:16 AM by PPallotta »


  • Karma: +0/-0
Re: Merion's Naturalism
« Reply #6 on: June 09, 2022, 08:55:16 AM »
Probably the post of the year.  Thanks, Michael!

Some shameless self-promotion here but these two IMO pieces go into great detail about the evolution of Merion East as well as Hugh Wilson's design philosophies and tendencies and I'm very proud of them for anyone interested in learning more on the subject.
"Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent" - Calvin Coolidge


  • Karma: +1/-1
Re: Merion's Naturalism
« Reply #7 on: June 09, 2022, 09:15:30 AM »

That's a good review.

To your point about the horizons of the bunker lips, that's something my crew thinks about a lot when building courses.  It's a detail that shapers tend to think about more than designers.

The reason Hugh Wilson got there and maybe Donald Ross didn't, is because as an amateur, Wilson was not afraid to use bedsheets to help him visualize the lines of the sand, and get them right during construction.

Rory Connaughton

  • Karma: +0/-0
Re: Merion's Naturalism
« Reply #8 on: June 09, 2022, 09:51:28 AM »
I enjoyed that, Michael. Thank you.
I've never been to Shinnecock so I'll limit the answer to Flynn parkland courses in general.
I haven't played enough of Tom's courses to haul him in to this but certainly Stonewall and Beechtree
(sorely missed) spring to mind. I'll leave Pac Dunes out since it is another thing altogether.


  • Karma: +0/-0
Re: Merion's Naturalism
« Reply #9 on: June 09, 2022, 09:52:44 AM »
Michael, I'm envious of your observation and skillful translation to words on a screen. Great job!

Merion is spectacular.


  • Karma: +0/-0
Re: Merion's Naturalism
« Reply #10 on: June 09, 2022, 10:59:10 AM »
Michael, thanks for taking the time to do this. Brings back a lot of good memories.

I can't imagine there are many courses I'd like to play daily as much as Merion.

Mike Hendren

  • Karma: +0/-0
Re: Merion's Naturalism
« Reply #11 on: June 09, 2022, 11:23:23 AM »
Thank you Michael. While I have not played Merion I did spend several days at the 2013 U.S.Open.  I left with the opinion that I have not seen a better course anywhere. 

« Last Edit: June 09, 2022, 01:05:23 PM by Mike Hendren »
Two Corinthians walk into a bar ....

Brent Carlson

  • Karma: +0/-0
Re: Merion's Naturalism
« Reply #12 on: June 10, 2022, 12:42:18 AM »
Thanks Michael for an inside look at the naturalness of Merion.  The land moves a lot more than I was expecting.  Also despite the small acreage not once in your photos do holes seem too close together.  For those familiar with Merion - is the dammed part of the creek in front #9 green a part of the original design?  I wonder if that was dredged at some point.


An Error Has Occurred!

Call to undefined function theme_linktree()