In My Opinion
The Missing Faces of Merion
A Reexamination of the Origins
of Merion East (1909-1912)
Author’s Note. When Hugh I. Wilson first built Merion East, the course was largely a “rough draft.” The core of the course was in place, but the Construction Committee left many of the bunkers and finishing touches to be added later, after Wilson’s further studies and after the course was exposed to the rigors of play. Merion East continues to evolve to this day. I encourage you to look at this essay in a similar light. While by no means a great work like Merion, it too is a work in progress. The core of my thesis is in place, but I hope and expect that my analysis will evolve as I continue to study the topic and as others challenge my ideas. Thank you in advance to those who will read, consider, and constructively challenge the work. Also, thanks to Ran Morrissett for providing me with a forum within which to express my views, and to Tom MacWood, not only for his encouragement and help, but also for the example he sets through his own dogged devotion to finding the facts. To those who have graciously proofed the draft version or patiently and civilly discussed these issues with me, I will thank you by leaving your names out of this-no use your taking the heat for my indiscretions.
Scope. This initial essay focuses on the origins of the famous East course at Merion Cricket Club, from 1909 until the course opened for play on September 14, 1912. It does not provide every last interesting detail from this period- Details like the $10 annual increase in fees charged to those who would use the new facility (for golf or skating) are fascinating, but they are outside the scope of my analysis and therefore mostly omitted. Likewise, an analysis of the extensive early evolution of the course after the opening is outside this essay’s very narrow scope. In fact I barely even begin to discuss the holes in the ground on opening day. These important analyses, whether written by me or someone else, will have to follow.
Synopsis. While Hugh I. Wilson is credited with designing the great Merion East course that opened in 1912, he did not plan the original layout or conceive of the holes. H.H. Barker first sketched out a routing the summer of 1910, but shortly thereafter Barker’s plans were largely modified or perhaps even completely replaced by the advice provided by the famous amateur golfers, C.B. Macdonald and H.J. Whigham who provided their written opinion of what could be done with the land. Richard Francis and H.G. Lloyd of Merion also contributed to the routing plan. After the course was planned and land finally purchased, Merion appointed Hugh Wilson and his “Construction Committee” to build the golf course. Immediately thereafter, the Construction Committee departed for NGLA so that Macdonald and Whigham could teach them how to build the golf holes at Merion East. A few months later, before Merion began major construction, Macdonald and Whigham again visited the site and further helped Wilson and his Committee with the plans. In the spring and summer of 1911, Wilson and his Committee built the golf course, leaving many of the hazards to be built later. In the spring of 1912, Wilson traveled abroad to study the great golf holes and to get ideas for the course. He continued to work on the course for years to come. Whatever our modern impressions of the singularity of Merion’s original design, multiple reports indicated that the concepts for at least some of the original holes were derived from great golf holes abroad. At least one report indicated, “Nearly every hole is patterned after some famous hole abroad.” Other contemporaneous commentators singled out the famous “Redan” and “Alps” holes, noting that each inspired a hole at Merion. While my research is in the early stages, my preliminary view is that many of the original holes at Merion East were based upon the conceptual underpinnings of the great holes, as understood by Macdonald and Whigham.
The Legendary Merion East: A World Class Course Rooted in a Masterly Routing
Merion East is not America’s oldest, but it may well be America’s most legendary golf course. No club has been chosen to host more United States National Championships than the Merion Golf Club, and Merion’s East course has served as the backdrop for dozens of American golf’s most important national and regional events, including “Chick” Evans’ American double at the 1916 Amateur, young Bobby Jones’ phenomenal debut in the same tournament, Jones’ first Amateur victory in 1924, the final leg of Jones’ “grand slam” in 1930, Ben Hogan’s storybook post-accident win at the 1950 US Open, and Nicklaus’ and Trevino’s historic duel for the US Open Championship in 1971, where not a single golfer broke par for the four days of regulation play. Despite unsubstantiated concerns that today’s long hitters have outgrown the course, Merion successfully hosted the 2005 Amateur Championship on its East course, and will host the Walker Cup Match in 1909 there as well. In 2013, ninety-nine years after Merion East served as the site of its first major championship, Merion East will serve as the site of the United States Open Championship for the fifth time. While far from complete, this list reminds us the East course has achieved a level of fame matched by few if any other American golf courses. Even the bunkers, known throughout the golfing world as “the white faces of Merion,” are famous on the East course.
It is no secret why the U.S.G.A. has repeatedly returned to the hallowed course on Ardmore Avenue. Merion East is not only a great and historic tournament setting, it is routinely considered to be among the best ten or fifteen courses anywhere. In his authoritative Confidential Guide to Golf Courses, acclaimed golf course designer and author Tom Doak gave Merion East a rare “10” on his “Doak Scale,” and Golf Magazine currently rates the course as the tenth best in the World.
While the course’s bunkers and features are beautiful and its list of great tournaments impressive, Merion East’s most impressive characteristic may well be its brilliant routing. In the 1989 Edition of Merion’s excellent club history, Golf at Merion, Desmond Tolhurst described the routing as “masterly.” The holes fit “onto the land as compactly as a jigsaw puzzle” so that “players only had to step a few yards between any green and the next tee.” Indeed, the original course, historic clubhouse, and outbuildings all fit snuggly onto land measuring just less than 120 acres, and the small parcel was bisected by Ardmore Avenue.
The routing utilizes virtually every natural feature on the small site to its fullest potential, and is perceived as a brilliant study in the utilization of natural features to create compelling and strategic golf holes.
As Tom Doak wrote in his Confidential Guide to Golf Courses:
[S]omehow Merion has an aura of perfection that other courses lack-every nook and cranny of the property is so well utilized, it is about the only course I know of where a self professed golf architect would be hard pressed to suggest any concrete changes that might improve the layout. For that reason, I believe it is one of the first courses any young golf architect should study, and I am in awe of Hugh Wilson, the man who designed both Merion courses but practically nothing else.
Jack Nicklaus was more succinct when evaluating Merion East: “Acre for acre, it may be the greatest course in the world.”
The Legendary Hugh Wilson
The unlikely hero of Merion’s creation story is bright young insurance man named Hugh I. Wilson. In January 1911, Merion appointed Wilson, the former captain of Princeton’s golf team, to chair the committee in charge of constructing Merion East. Through careful study, hard work, and a willingness to seek out the most knowledgeable experts available, Wilson became an important figure in the early history of American golf. He not only oversaw the construction of and changes to Merion East, he was also involved in the design and construction of Merion’s West course, among others. In the process he became a leading agronomy expert, helped found and served on the board of USGA’s Green Section, contributed to the section’s magazine, and was an active proponent for the implementation of proper agronomic principles and techniques. He was also instrumental in bringing quality public access golf to Philadelphia, campaigning for and helping design Cobb’s Creek, a quality public course located along the same creek as Merion.
Sadly, Wilson died prematurely in February of 1925, at the age of 45. He was remembered fondly in that month’s Green Section Record, the publication he was partially responsible for creating:
It is with profound sorrow that we announce the death of Hugh Irvine Wilson, which occurred on Friday, February 3. He was a member of our Advisory Board, and in a large measure was responsible for the formation and success of the Green Section of the United States Golf Association. He was properly considered one of the best-informed men in the country on problems relating to the construction and maintenance of golf courses . . . Not only did he have a wealth of practical, first-hand, experience, but he was also a close student, and in his research work he visited the principal courses abroad in seeking complete information. Probably no one has been consulted more frequently by those interested in this work. His passing represents a distinct loss, not only to the Green Section but to golf interests everywhere.
After describing Wilson’s tremendous personal attributes, the remembrance continued:
The mature results of his studies in golf architecture are embodied in the East Course at Merion, which was remodeled under his direction in 1923-1924. It is safe to say that this course displays in a superb way all of the best ideas in recent golf architecture along the lines of its American development. For a long time to come the Merion course will be a Mecca to all serious students of golf architecture.
While the moving remembrance noted that Wilson directed the redesign of Merion in 1923-24, it did not mention what is commonly considered his greatest accomplishment: the initial design of Merion East. Indeed, I have been unable to locate any record to indicate that Hugh I. Wilson actually considered himself the designer of the Merion East. Nonetheless, history has since credited Wilson with the design of the course, a remarkable feat considering that Wilson had no design experience at the time.
Merion’s Creation Story
Merion’s Creation Story, starring Hugh I. Wilson, was expressed in Tolhurst’s club history and similar versions appear in just about every publication that describes early Merion. Supposedly, after appointing Wilson to head the Construction Committee, Merion sent him abroad to study and play the great courses so that he could lead the effort to design and build Merion’s “new” permanent course. Before departing on his study trip abroad, Wilson wisely traveled to Southampton, New York to visit with C. B. Macdonald. Years earlier, Macdonald had taken a similar journey in search of templates to duplicate at his National Golf Links of America. While Wilson was not interested in copying template holes, he nonetheless went to Macdonald for advice and suggestions as to Wilson’s itinerary. Thereafter, Wilson traveled extensively, spending seven months overseas playing and studying the great courses. When Wilson finally returned from his trip, he was well prepared to design a golf course for the ages.
According to Tolhurst, Wilson’s “trip to the Old Country had paid off.” Armed with “reams of sketches and blueprints” of the great holes, Wilson fashioned his “masterly” layout. The design was not only excellent, it even compared favorably to Macdonald’s masterpiece at NGLA. Like Macdonald, Hugh Wilson had been profoundly influenced by the great golf holes each had studied overseas. However, unlike Macdonald at N.G.L.A., Wilson did not merely duplicate these great holes as if from a template. Rather, Wilson’s design work at Merion was original. The great golf writer Herbert Warren Wind put it this way.
While not detracting the least from C.B. Macdonald’s obvious abilities as a golf architect, it is debatable whether he understood some of the fundamental principles as well as Wilson. There are no blind holes at Merion, for one thing, and his touch in adopting the features of the famous British holes appears to have been surer than Macdonald’s.
While Tolhurst tried to be a bit more diplomatic, even his equivocal effort to distinguish between Wilson and Macdonald expresses a strong preference for Wilson’s subtle integration of great principles, as opposed to Macdonald’s supposedly blatant copying of the holes.
It has been said that Hugh Wilson grasped the principles of Scottish and English course design and conveyed them in his work better than Charles Blair Macdonald. However, to compare Merion to the National Golf Links is somewhat of an apples and oranges proposition. Macdonald set out to ‘model each of the 13 holes (at the National) after the most famous holes abroad,’ that is, to duplicate these holes. Wilson never intended to design Merion under such constraints. . . . Wilson admitted that the concepts sprang from the holes he’d seen in Scotland and England . . . Yet none of the holes at Merion is an out and out copy.
“Wilson,” a rank novice, “had absorbed the principles underlying the great holes, then applied them to the terrain at his command.” As a result, he created what would become an absolute masterpiece.
Or so the story goes. But as is often the case with creation stories, this one is a blend of myth and reality. In reality, Wilson neither planned the routing nor conceived of the holes at Merion East. The course was planned months before Merion even appointed Wilson and his “Construction Committee.” Wilson and his Construction Committee were not appointed to design the course or conceive of the holes, but were to do what the name of their committee implies, construct the golf course. They laid the course out on the ground and built it according to plan.
Moreover, while Wilson did travel overseas to study the great courses, he and his Committee had finished building and seeding the course months before Wilson’s departure. When building the course, the Committee had wisely left many of the hazards to be built later, and while traveling overseas Wilson got ideas for the finishing touches on the new course. But while artificial hazards and stylistic touches were added after Wilson’s return from Europe, the core of the course was in place before Wilson studied the great holes from which he supposedly received his inspiration for the design.
Finally, while the original routing plan for Merion East may never be located, we can piece together enough of the early history to know that H.H. Barker sketched the first routing plan, but it may have been superceded by C.B. MacDonald and H.J. Whigham, who played a major role in planning the course. Richard Francis and H.G. Lloyd also contributed.
A history of the earliest origins of Merion’s East course follows.
Golfing on Land Leased and Borrowed, Merion Fails in its Efforts to Purchase Current Site
Members had been golfing at Merion since 1895, when they had laid-out a nine-hole course on 100 acres of land leased from the Pennsylvania Railroad. In 1900, Clement A. Griscom, the shipping magnate and a prominent member of Merion, generously began allowing the club to use a portion of their estate to expand the course to 18 holes, free of charge. By 1909, the Board of Governors of the Merion Cricket Club had recognized that golf had come to stay, but that large tracts of land were becoming scarce while real estate prices rose. So Merion began to take steps to secure a permanent golf site.
Merion Cricket Club appointed a committee (the “Site Committee”) to secure a permanent location for a golf course, preferably by purchasing Merion’s existing golf course site. According to Merion’s Board of Governors, “It was impossible to secure the present course, as the price at which it could be acquired, was more than the Club was able to pay.” So the Site Committee began seeking out alternative sites.
Developers Speculate on Merion’s Golfing Future
Around the same time, two ambitious developers “received information that the Merion Cricket Club was desirous of obtaining a permanent golf course.” (Philadelphia Record, Nov. 1910.) The developers already owned over 140 acres on College Avenue next to Haverford College (the “Johnson Farm” property) and put together a consortium of wealthy men to secure neighboring properties through the newly formed Haverford Development Company. Among the investors in the development company was a group of men from the Merion Cricket Club, lead by H. G. Lloyd, who was also a member of Merion’s Site Selection Committee and would later be a member of Hugh Wilson’s Construction Committee. By summer 1910, Haverford Development Company had secured approximately 300 contiguous acres including the Johnson Farm property.
The information received by the developers turned out to be prophetic. Merion did indeed need a new course, and what is now Merion East came into being as part of the developer’s real estate scheme. I have not yet discovered when Lloyd and the other Merion members became involved with Haverford Development Company, but their early involvement would explain where the developers got their information about Merion’s need for a new course.
The Developers Offer Merion a Site for a Golf Course
According to Merion’s Board of Governors, the Site Committee had reported on several possible permanent sites, but only one site was both accessible and affordable. On July 1, 1910, the Site Committee reported that Haverford Development Company had secured a tract of land of “approximately three-hundred (300) acres” and had offered Merion “100 acres, or whatever would be required to lay out the Course.” The land bordered both the Haverford College and Ardmore Avenue railway stations on the Philadelphia and Western Railroad.
The developers had offered the land to Merion at great discount, $726.50 per acre, less than half the developers’ average per acre cost for the entire property. They conditioned the sale of the property on Merion’s agreement to promptly build a golf course, and were willing to take a substantial loss on the sale in the hopes that proximity of the golf course would greatly increase the development value their surrounding property. To Haverford Development Company, the land for the golf site was a loss leader meant to attract buyers for the surrounding land. The Board explained, “They feel that the proximity of the Golf Course will so enhance the value of the remaining 221 acres as to more than offset the loss on the 117 acres secured by the club.” For the developers, Merion’s course would be a showpiece in their development. They even promised Merion that all of the bordering houses would be built facing the golf course.
H.H. Barker Plans a Golf Course
To make the offer even more enticing, the developers even tried to supply the golf course, or at least the architect and design. They brought in a professional golf course architect, H.H. Barker, to inspect the site and to draw up a plan. Barker, originally from Yorkshire England, was a well-known golf professional at Garden City Golf Club. He had been a protÃƒ©gÃƒ© of Sandy Herd and, just as Herd had, Barker left a promising amateur career to turn professional. According to Walter Travis, he and Barker had often discussed golf course design at Garden City, and Travis had encouraged Barker to pursue a career the golf course design business. Barker’s design career was cut short when he returned to England in 1915 to join the Royal Air Force. Prior to that, he may have been the best-known professional golf course architect regularly practicing in America, and was probably second only to C.B. Macdonald among both amateurs and professionals. At the time he planned the course for Merion, Barker claimed to have already planned upwards of 20 courses. In the July 1914 issue of Outing magazine, the great British champion Harry Vardon wrote that Barker’s Mayfield Country Club in Ohio was the best course in America.
According to Tom MacWood, Barker’s other designs include Country Club of Virginia (Westhampton Course,) Waverly Country Club in Oregon, Spokane Country Club, Rumson Country Club, Columbia Country Club (1910), a remodel of Detroit Country Club, Mayfield Country Club, Country Club of Asheville (NC), a remodel of East Lake Country Club, Youngstown Country Club, Raritan Valley, Arcola, Brookhaven, Druid Hills (Ga), Winnetka (with H.S. Colt,) Roebuck Country Club, a remodel of Newport Country Club, Palm Beach Country Club, Westhampton (Long Island, with Seth Raynor.) He also had reportedly planned or remodeled three courses in or near Philadelphia.
According to Barker, he inspected the Ardmore avenue site on June 10, 1910, and on the same day wrote, “The land is in every way adapted to the making of a first class course, comparing most favorably with the best courses in the country, such as Myopia and Garden City.” He also included a sketch of a proposed layout and wrote that course would be ready for play in the autumn of 1911, provided he could begin work immediately. Haverford Development Company forwarded Barker’s letter to the Merion’s Site Committee, and the Committee reported it to the Board.
H.G. Lloyd Offers Merion’s Members A Chance to Share the Potential Profits
Making the deal even more enticing, and to allay any appearance of double dealing or impropriety, H. G. Lloyd and Haverford Development Company gave Merion’s members a chance to share in the potential profits of the development under the same terms as those members who were already invested. As H. G. Lloyd put it in a letter to the membership:
The members of the club who subscribed to the stock of the Haverford Development Company . . . did so with the understanding that all other members should have the right to become subscribers on precisely the same terms and conditions as themselves. The reason for this was that they were unwilling to put themselves in the position of having received what may prove to be a privilege not enjoyed by every other member.
Merion’s members would not only have their own course, they might eventually profit from it as well.
Merion’s Site Committee Brings in Macdonald and Whigham
Apparently not content with Barker’s routing plan, the Site Committee brought in two renowned amateur golfers and golf course designers, C.B. Macdonald and H.G Whigham, to inspect the site. The Site Committee explained their qualifications to the Board of Governor’s as follows:
These gentlemen, besides being famous golfers, have given the matter of Golf Course construction much study, and are perfectly familiar with the qualities of grasses, soils, etc. It was Mr. Macdonald, assisted by Mr. Whigham, who conceived and constructed the National Course at Southampton.
After inspecting the site, Macdonald provided his (and Whigham’s) written opinion “as to what could be done with the property.” With Macdonald’s letter, the Site Committee now had two written recommendations about what to do with the property; first from Barker, and then from Macdonald and Whigham. The Committee must have preferred the latter, because according to Merion’s Board, the Site Committee’s report “embodied Macdonald’s letter,” and the Committee’s recommendation was based largely upon the views expressed by Macdonald.
The Site Committee’s recommendation to purchase had a few important caveats. They wanted the land at a slightly better price than had been offered. Also, the development company had contemplated selling Merion 100 acres, but now, after Macdonald’s review and recommendations, the Site Committee required specific parcels measuring nearly 120 acres.
It is probable that nearly one hundred and twenty (120) acres will be required for our purposes, and provided they can be obtained at not exceeding $90,000, we believe it would be a wise purchase.
The committee did not request an approximate acreage, but “required” specific land measuring “nearly 120 acres.” As will be discussed below, this was because the routing had already been planned.
While the Site Committee tried “to impress upon the Board the fact that . . . prompt action [was] necessary,” immediate action turned out to be impossible. Haverford Development Company did not yet own all of the “nearly 120 acres” that Merion now required for their purposes. The company controlled approximately 300 acres, but Merion needed two specific parcels totaling 24 acres that were not part of Haverford Development Company’s extensive holdings. The purchase would have to wait until they could gain access to this additional land.
Merion Purchased the Land they Needed for their Golf Course.
It has been widely assumed that Merion bought the land before Merion East was planned. To the contrary, Merion bought the land upon which their golf course had already been envisioned. Macdonald and Whigham had chosen the land for NGLA in a similar fashion. They first inspected the land and found the golf holes they wanted to build, and then they purchased that land. In Chapter 10 of Scotland’s Gift, Macdonald explained that he had chosen the best land for golf from a much larger 405-acre parcel.
The company agreed to sell us 205 acres, and we were permitted to locate it as to best serve our purpose. Again, we studied the contours earnestly; selecting those that would fit in naturally with the various classical holes I had in mind, after which we staked out the land we wanted. (p. 158, emphasis added.)
In all likelihood Merion also made the purchase based on where the golf holes fit best. The major difference between the approaches at Merion and NGLA? At NGLA, Macdonald and Whigham did not veer off the large parcel from which they were to choose the course, while Merion had to go outside a 300-acre tract to two additional parcels to suit their requirements.
Haverford Development Company Acquires 21 Acre “Dallas Estate”
While Merion’s requirement of the two additional parcels may have delayed the purchase, the development company acted quickly to resolve any apparent impasse. On August 14, 1910, the Inquirer reported the pending sale of the “Dallas Estate,” a 21 acre parcel bordering the southwest corner of Haverford Development Company’ holdings. On November 4, 1910, the Inquirer reported that sale of the Dallas Estate had settled for $25,000, and that the purchaser, Mr. James Freeman, would build a large house on the estate.
But despite the reports about Mr. Freeman and his supposed plans for a house, ownership of the Dallas Estate immediately passed to Haverford Development Company. In fact, within 11 days of the November article reporting Mr. Freeman’s supposed purchase, the development company had not only secured the Dallas Estate, they had also sold an option on the parcel to Merion Cricket Club. Given this quick turnaround, Mr. Freeman (if he existed) may have been acting clandestinely on behalf of the development company, which was perhaps hoping to avoid having to pay an extortionate sum for land crucial to their deal with Merion
Regardless of how the development company secured the Dallas Estate, this purchase was critical to Merion’s future golf course. The former estate is the site of the current third green, the fourth tee and part of the fourth fairway, the sixth green and most of the sixth fairway, seventh hole, the eighth tee and part of the eighth fairway, and the fifth green and part of the approach.
Merion Secures 117 Acres from Haverford Development Company
On November 14, 1910, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported that Merion had acquired “130 acres” of land for a new golf course. According to the article, H. G. Lloyd had been a “prime factor” in bringing about the purchase, and had brought in MacDonald, Whigham, and Barker to inspect the site before Merion agreed to the purchase. Also according to the article, all three “pronounced that the ground the equal of Myopia, Boston or Garden City, Long Island.” In fact, the parcel was 117 acres, and it was Barker who had made the comparison to Myopia and Garden City, in his June 10, 1910 report.
The next day, November 15, 1910, the Board of Governors of the Merion Cricket Club informed the membership that Merion had “secured” 117 acres straddling Ardmore Avenue, and that the site would serve as the permanent location for a new golf course. Merion had acquired an option on the property, and the sale would not be finalized until early January 1911. Merion included the following diagram with the announcement.
The bulk of Merion’s purchase (about 96 acres) had come from the 140 acre “Johnson Farm” parcel, west of Cobbs Creek on both sides of Ardmore Avenue. The development company had owned this tract outright for a number of years, and it is likely that this was the bulk of the 100 acres that Haverford Development Company had originally offered Merion for their golf course. The rest came from the just acquired Dallas Estate, bringing the size of the parcel to 117 acres.
But the “Plan Showing Proposed Golf Course” is a few acres short. The Site Committee had sought “nearly 120 acres,” not 117 acres. The Plan does not include one small tract – a little less than three acres – that the Site Committee needed for the course. Like the “Dallas Estate,” this last small parcel was not under the control of Haverford Development Company at the time site committee recommended its purchase. Unlike the “Dallas Estate,” the Merion may have been unable to secure this parcel prior to the date Merion secured the rest of the land.
Merion’s Unsecured Three Acres
Like much of their original golf course in Ardmore, the remaining small tract of land needed for Merion’s “permanent course” was controlled by a railroad. The Philadelphia and Western Railway owned almost three acres located west of their track, east of Cobb’s Creek, and running north of Ardmore Avenue to a little past the old historic farmhouse that would become Merion’s future clubhouse.
The railroad parcel was small but important, as it would become the site of the original green and approach on the long dogleg par four 12th hole, plus the entirety of the original 13th, the tremendous short hole with a large undulating green surrounded by Cobb’s Creek on three sides and bunkers on the fourth. According to Pennsylvania Railroad Atlases dating from 1908 to 1937, the Philadelphia and Western Railroad continued to own this small parcel long after Merion built their golf course. The maps may be erroneous, and I have yet to confirmed how and when Merion gained access to this land, but this land was used for the original course, yet was not part of the 117 acres secured by Merion in November 1911.
While the Plan for Proposed Golf Course does not include the routing plan, when viewed in light of another crucial piece of the puzzle, it does reveal that the course had already been planned at the time the document was drawn up. This piece of the puzzle was not hidden in archives or lost to history, but is another commonly known yet misunderstood component of Merion’s creation story.
Richard Francis Fixes the Routing Plan
According to Tolhurst’s excellent history, in 1950 Merion’s Richard Francis recalled his major contribution to the layout of the course. Francis, an engineer, would serve on Wilson’s Construction Committee, and later become a foremost expert on the rules of golf, writing a groundbreaking book on the subject and serving for many years on the USGA Rules Committee. But most importantly for our purposes, he was also the mastermind behind a crucial land exchange that enabled Merion to better fit the last five holes into the routing.
According to Tolhurst, Francis wrote:
The land was shaped like a capital “L” and it was not very difficult to get the first 13 holes into the upright portion – with the help of a little ground on the north side of Ardmore avenue – but the last five holes were another question…. The idea was this: We had some property west of the present course which did not fit in with any golf layout. Perhaps we could swap it for some good use?
Francis immediately ran the idea by H.G. Lloyd, proposing that Merion exchange land west of the routing for the land now used for the fifteenth green and sixteenth tee. Lloyd agreed, and “a few days later the quarryman had his drills up where the 16th green now is and blasted off the top of the hill so that the green could be built as it is today.”
Given Francis’ description of the timing of the quarryman’s blasting, and given that he eventually served on the Construction Committee, it has long been assumed that the “swap” occurred while Construction Committee was in the process of building the course. But the supposed land exchange must have occurred much earlier, before Merion secured the land, which was before Merion appointed Wilson and his Construction Committee.
As quoted by Tolhurst, Francis wrote that Merion gave up “land west of the present course which did not fit in with any golf layout;” land which was later “covered by fine homes along Golf House Road.” In exchange, Merion received a small section of “land about 130 yards wide by 190 yards long – the present location of the 15th green and the 16th tee.” No doubt Francis was describing the land between the present practice area and Golf House Road, a small triangle of land that perfectly matches Francis’ description. More importantly, the land was acquired while Merion was putting the finishing touches on the routing plan for the course. So the date of the supposed “swap” will allow us to determine when the final touches were being put on the initial routing plan.
Surprisingly, as one can see in the land plan above, Merion acquired this small projection of land as part of the 117-acre parcel designated “Merion Golf Course” in the Plan. Merion optioned and purchased the land for the 15th green and 16th tee as part of their option and purchase of the bulk of the golf course property. Property records confirm this. The supposed land swap must have occurred prior to mid-November 1910, when Merion obtained an option from Haverford Development Company. This was six weeks before the purchase was finalized and the Construction Committee appointed. The “swap” was not a swap at all but actually a small but significant reshaping of the large parcel Merion intended to purchase from Haverford Development Company. Before the purchase, the parties must have agreed to shave off a portion on the right side of the parcel and added the projection of land for the 15th green and 16th tee.
Francis and Lloyd had been fine-tuning the layout plan before Merion secured the land. Francis described his epiphany as having occurred while he was looking over a “map of the property.” He also noted that the land Merion gave up “did not fit at all in any golf layout.” So by this time the planning process was well underway, and the “swap” allowed them to better fit the last five holes into the plan for the routing. “It was not very difficult to get the first 13 holes into the upright portion – with the help of a little ground on the north side of Ardmore avenue – but the last five holes were another question.” The Francis land “swap” allowed them to complete the routing plan. All before November 10, 1910.
So, by mid-November 1910, the layout had already been planned. I have found no evidence that Hugh Wilson had been at all involved in the purchase or the planning at this early date. To the contrary, as will be discussed below, the historical record indicates that Wilson became involved in early 1911, after the purchase was finalized.
Merion Completes Its Purchase
In early January 1911, Merion’s Board of Governors announced to the Committee that Merion had completed the purchase contemplated in the November 15, 1910 report. On January 7, 1911, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported “The Merion Cricket Club will have one of the best golf links in the country when their new course is finished . . .. [L] ast November option was secured . . .. Financial difficulties were finally overcome on the property and the land has been purchased and settled for.” Merion finally owned land for their new course, or at least all but the three acres apparently still owned by the railroad.
Experts at Work Preparing Plans for the Course
The Board of Governors also announced to the members that “experts are now at work preparing plans for the course which will rank in length, soil, and variety of hazards with the best in the country,” and the Inquirer reported the same. Unfortunately, neither the Board nor the Inquirer identified just who these “experts” were. While it is possible that the paper was referring to Hugh Wilson and his Committee, it is also highly unlikely, unless the Board was engaging in pure hyperbole. Hugh Wilson was by no means an “expert” when it came to planning or building golf courses. Rather, he and his Committee were complete novices. In 1916 Wilson wrote that:
“The members of the committee had played golf for many years, but the experience of each in construction and greenkeeping was only that of the average club member. Looking back on the work, I feel certain that we would never have attempted to carry it out, if we had realized one-half the things we did not know.”
According to Hugh Wilson himself, the Construction Committee was not even formed until early 1911, until after the land was purchased. So on January 7, 1911, Wilson and his Construction Committee either had not yet been appointed, or had just been appointed, and so they were by no means “experts at work preparing plans.”
The only “experts” who had evidently been involved up to this point were Barker, and Macdonald and Whigham. It seems unlikely that Merion was referring to Barker, as I have found no evidence of his involvement other than his report and his initial plan for the layout from June 1910. Plus, his plan was for a 100-acre course, and the current plan was for a course of just less than 120 acres, including almost 24 acres that were not even controlled by the development company when they hired Barker to plan the course. Plus, the Site Committee’s report to the Board encompassed Macdonald’s letter, and their recommendation was based largely on Macdonald’s and Whigham’s ideas on what could be done.
Moreover, the timing and the synopsis of the site committee’s report both strongly suggest that requirement for the specific “nearly 120 acre” site came about largely as a result of Macdonald’s and Whigham’s inspection and subsequent letter. Lastly, Macdonald and Whigham remained significantly involved even after Merion purchased the land based on their recommendations. In fact, Wilson’s inexpert Construction Committee would soon be departing for Southampton to meet with these two gentlemen who were considered at the time to be the foremost domestic experts on golf design.