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Q&A: Jeff Silverman

The writer discusses his latest book, Merion: The Championship Story

January 2, 2014

Much was made of Merion GC's rich history when the U.S. Open returned to the club's East course in 2013 after 32 years. Justin Rose won a memorable championship in June, joining a roster of greats -- Bobby Jones, Ben Hogan and Lee Trevino among them -- who have prevailed there. For author Jeff Silverman, a contributing writer at Golf World, the 2013 Open was the final piece in an extensive puzzle: his exhaustive chronicle of the suburban Philadelphia club. We talked to Silverman about the recently published Merion: The Championship Story.

I didn't weigh the book, but at 510 pages it has heft. How long did this lengthy labor of love take you?
Weight was an important factor. I weighed five pounds at birth. The book is almost six. Given that I was in labor -- from early 2010 to this fall -- a lot longer than my mother was with me, that seems altogether fitting.

Do you see wicker baskets in your dreams?
I do. And until Matt Shaffer, Merion's extraordinary superintendent, attaches backboards to them, I still won't be able to hit one  asleep or awake.

Any surprises or roadblocks?
The big surprise  and I was surprised  was that there were no roadblocks. Like all clubs, Merion has some darkness in its corners, but I was invited to shine a light, especially in the opening chapter, which explores how the club fell from the championship radar screen after the 1989 U.S. Amateur before returning to center stage. Both the East course itself and Merion's relationship with the USGA were in disrepair, and both required systematic addressing.

Was it your idea to tell the history of the club through the history of its championships?
Not originally. I was really brought in to build on and update Merion's previous history, but the more I explored the championships, the more gold I found in the mine. The Opens. The Amateurs. The men. The women. It became impossible for me to separate Merion from its championships, but, by the same token, in telling the championship story, I was also able to weave in the story of the club and its members at every juncture.

How much did Merion's own extensive archive help you tell the story?
Without the archive, I think I'd still be researching the 1920s. It's an Aladdin's Cave of information, and easily accessible information. It's also a fun place to hang out. Where else can you make a few strokes with the putter David Graham used to win in 1981?

Obviously Merion's five U.S. Opens  and the Bobby Jones U.S. Amateur  get their due, but you detail all of the club's other important events too. What stands out?
I'm partial to four things. One is the story of Elsie Cassatt, the first in the line of Merion's fabulous women players, the record of the first tournament event she played in, and the images of her with her dog, one a pastel by her aunt, the great Impressionist artist Mary Cassatt, and the other a photo of her with what appears to be the same dog years later. The second is how 1909 champion Dorothy Campbell Hurd became a member of Merion in the early '20s to rebuild her outdated game under the tutelage of the club's head pro, George Sayers, son of the man who first taught her; she proceeded, in 1924, to become the oldest winner of the U.S. Women's Amateur. The third is the fact that no one ever witnessed Sayers' successor, Fred Austin, play a single round in his long tenure at the club. The fourth is the unlikely tale of the '89 Amateur champion, Chris Patton. At nearly 300 pounds, he may not have looked like a force to reckon with on the golf course, but he certainly played like one. And in talking to him, I found his understanding and appreciation of the demands of the East course second to none.

There are so many cool photographs. I love the one of Ike Grainger and Lloyd Mangrum, the USGA official and the golfer forever linked by Mangrum's costly rules infraction in the 1950 Open playoff, and how it's inscribed: "To Ike, May we never have bugs again -- Love & Kisses, Lloyd Mangrum." Do you have a favorite image in the book?
For the chapter about the 1916 U.S. Amateur, I found a photo  which runs over two pages  of former champion Robert Gardner and future legend Bobby Jones on the eighth green in the afternoon of their third-round match. Gardner is putting, scrambling to save par. Jones, on in two and inside his opponent, can only watch. History informs us that Gardner made and Jones missed, and Jones later credited that moment with the chilling realization that he'd been reduced to what he called "a dogged victim of inexorable fate." What an existential burden for a 14-year-old to shoulder.

The book concludes with your account of the 2013 U.S. Open, which in the end produced great drama and a fine champion despite logistical challenges. Do you think the Open returns at some point?
If anyone believes the Open won't be coming back to Merion, please call me. I can either sell you a bridge or book your bet.

Merion: The Championship Story is available for $125 plus shipping.

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