From Golf Digest Architecture Editor emeritus Ron Whitten:
I've long contended that if you really want to study authentic architecture of the early giants of golf course design, you should seek out the nine-hole courses they did. Nine-hole clubs don't usually have much money to spend upgrading their courses. A lot of them still have their original irrigation systems, their original greens and maybe even the original sand in the bunkers.
A perfect example is Marion Golf Club. It's just down the road from The Kittansett Club, one of America's 100 Greatest. In fact, you pass right by it on the way to Kittansett, if indeed you have an invitation to play that classic seaside venue.
If you don't have such an invitation, stop at Marion. It was the very first design of George C. Thomas Jr., who went on to create some of the best courses in California (and the United States), including Los Angeles Country Club, Riviera and Bel-Air. But you'd never know it from Marion, which is dry, stark and funky with flat fairways, circular greens and squarish bunkers. It's a step well back in time.
Thomas built this nine-hole course in 1906, when the game was still played with wooden-shafted clubs with the ball teed up on a wet pile of sand. He staked out the nine holes in an old farm field, where decades before, rocks had been dug up, hauled to the side and piled in long parallel fence rows. Rock walls were fair game as hazards in that era, so Thomas ran fairways right over and through walls and positioned nearly half of his greens beside or beyond them. He covered some walls with as much dirt as he could find, to make them more playable for unlucky duffers who'd land next to them. Today, it's still steeplechase golf. A local rule does allow a free drop away from any rock encountered on the hole you're playing.
The rock walls are what gives Marion Golf Course its unique character. There's a five-foot-high wall of turf and rock stretching across the front of the green on the 175-yard third, with just a narrow walkway opening providing even a glimpse of the flag and putting surface. On the 180-yard eighth, a similar wall has a wider opening, the void looking big enough to accommodate an old, abandoned roadbed, but still narrow enough to ricochet the occasional low screamer.
My favorite is the dinky 115-yard ninth, hard by the parking lot and modest clubhouse. A high, wide, flashed face of a sand bunker obscures view of the green from the tee. Only when you approach the green do you realize that the back edge of the bunker is yet another rock wall. The sand is literally swept nearly to its top. Once past it, you realize the wall is the only thing keeping the sand from spilling onto the sunken green. It is an archaic, whimsical, marvelous hazard, one that even Pete Dye would not have had the nerve to build.
Which says something about the litigious nature of today's society, I suppose. Not for nothing does Marion's scorecard announce on its cover, "Play at Own Risk!"
Marion is not Merion. It is far from a great test of golf. It's only 2,695 yards maximum, playing to a par 34, with just one par 5 (the fourth, only 460-yards long, but with out-of-bounds all along the right) and only one par 4 over 365 yards.
The turf is a mish-mash of grass and weeds. Some fairways are spongy. The greens putt slow. And I highly recommend it.
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