Herbert Warren Wind’s three ideal courses: Seminole, Cypress Point and Merion
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This story is Herbert Warren Wind in his element. He writes knowingly about golf history, architecture and the people who hold the game together. He contributed occasionally to Golf Digest from the early 1970s through his retirement in 1990. For most of his life, he was a staff writer at The New Yorker specializing in golf and the racquet sports. Herb took a brief leave to write for the fledgling Sports Illustrated in the 1950s but eschewed the short deadlines and returned to the more languid pace of a literary magazine. He was known for composing at great length—as one friend said, a story about the 1986 Masters would start with the separation of the continents, progress smartly to the Neanderthal Age, then deliberately wind its way through the study of pharmacology that produced a drugstore owner in Columbus, Ohio, who sired a son named Jack Nicklaus.
Herb was a low-handicap golfer who once played in the 1950 British Amateur. The range of his books demonstrated a mastery of the subject—from The Story of American Golf to the classic instruction of Ben Hogan’s Five Fundamentals to everybody’s favorite architecture treatise, The World Atlas of Golf. He died in 2005 at 88 but is annually memorialized at the Masters, when we recall that it was HWW who named Amen Corner. In this piece, he focuses on three great golf courses that serve as role models for the American sport. One of them, Seminole, will emerge from its guarded privacy as the host of the TaylorMade Driving Relief match on May 17 and as the site of the Walker Cup in 2021, putting the course on television for the first time.
Footnote: I should add that Herb wrote this essay as one article—as it appears here—but the editor, Nick Seitz, published it as a two-part series in April and May 1980, for two reasons: It was too long to fit in one issue of Golf Digest, and Herb was an expensive writer, so Nick could slide the fee by the accounting department as two halves. —Jerry Tarde
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During the 1950s and 1960s, when we were enjoying an unprecedented Age of Affluence in this country, we threw away rare opportunities in many directions. We most certainly did in golf. With the game booming and entrepreneurs of all stripes eager to build courses that at some later date might be mentioned in the same breath with St. Andrews or Pine Valley, something went terribly wrong. A few very good courses emerged, but, by and large, the typical product was what has now come to be known as the fake championship course. The name derives from the fact that the men promoting them invariably referred to their babies as “7,000-yard championship courses”—7,000 yards was the magic number, the awesome length of many of the courses on which the United States and British Opens and other major competitions were played.
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However, the similarity ended there. On these rushed-through, artificial courses, there was no golf to speak of. It was just slog, slog, slog. As often as not, the fairways ran in a straight line from tee to green and were as flat as landing strips. The greens resembled each other as closely as Tweedledum and Tweedledee. The bunkering was repetitious, and the water hazards bore no relationship to the terrain. The star of the show, once the bulldozer operator had departed, was the publicity man who often succeeded in selling gullible golfers on the idea that because they were playing a course almost as long as Carnoustie or Oakland Hills, they were dealing with the same challenges that confronted Hogan and Snead, Palmer and Nicklaus.
Today when the golf ball can be hit huge distances—perhaps too far—a course has to be fairly long to test the top players. Nevertheless, sheer length does not a superior golf course make. What does, essentially, is the character and the shotmaking values of the holes, and they are the result of good, sound design. The men who know golf have long understood this. For this reason, if you ask them what are the best courses in the United States, in their top half dozen they will usually include three relatively short courses: Cypress Point, Seminole and Merion. Cypress Point measures a little under 6,500 yards from the back tees, as does Merion. Seminole is a bit longer—about 6,500 yards from the standard tees but close to 6,800 from the backs. [Editor’s note: In the latest edition of America’s 100 Greatest Golf Courses, in 2019, Golf Digest ranks Cypress Point No. 3, Merion No. 6 and Seminole No. 12. Their current yardages were listed as 6,524 for Cypress Point, 6,996 for Merion and 6,836 for Seminole.]
The point is this: The average club golfer can play these three courses with enjoyment and with no sense of being overpowered, yet at the same time a professional or a crack amateur has to summon his best shots to equal par for the round. Because these three courses represent golf at its finest and most stimulating, it seems to me that by studying them attentively we can all learn—in this period when lengthy courses still tend to be overvalued—what golf and golf architecture are all about.
Let us begin with Cypress Point. Like Merion and Seminole, it has a special quality about it. To savor this it is necessary to know something of its genesis. Cypress Point occupies one of the westernmost projections of the Monterey Peninsula, which thrusts itself into the Pacific about 125 miles south of San Francisco. For years the bulk of the peninsula’s acreage was owned by the Del Monte Properties Company, which first made the area synonymous with superb golf when it built the Pebble Beach course in 1918-’19.
In the mid-1920s, Marion Hollins (the United States Women’s Amateur champion in 1921, who had gone to work selling real estate for Del Monte Properties), Byington Ford (at one time the mayor of the neighboring village of Carmel), and Roger Lapham (a fourth-generation shipping magnate and a part-time administrator for the Federal government who is probably best remembered as an outstanding mayor of San Francisco in the 1940s) formed a syndicate that purchased 170 acres from Del Monte Properties for $150,000. The land, about four miles from Pebble Beach along 17 Mile Drive, was worth much more, to be sure, but the company thought that another course would be a good thing for the duchy, and it liked the fact that many of the people involved came from prominent San Francisco families. Some of them would surely want to build homes near their club.
Seth Raynor, the golf-course architect hired by the syndicate, died shortly after he had begun work on the project, and Marion Hollins selected Alister MacKenzie to succeed him. At the time, MacKenzie, a Scot who had been a practicing physician before changing professions, was in the process of acquiring an international reputation. He came to California early in 1926 on his way back from Australia, where, among his other commissions, he designed Royal Melbourne, one of the world’s great courses. MacKenzie, you might say, was at this moment at the top of his game. (Augusta National, still a few years to come, would be his next big assignment.) From the outset, MacKenzie recognized that the land he would be working with at Cypress Point was an extraordinary cornucopia of many kinds of natural beauty, and he did a masterly job of utilizing it with sensibility, imagination and audacity.
When the average golfer thinks of Cypress Point, the holes that come first to mind are the 15th, 16th and 17th, which are perched on a rocky headland above the Pacific. The 15th, a 139-yard par 3 across a deep chasm, is not at all an easy hole to par, for as often as not there is a formidable west wind to reckon with, and the green is well bunkered and cleverly contoured. (The greens at Cypress are seaside bent, the fairways a mixture of Kentucky bluegrass, redtop and seaside bent.) The 16th, over the past half century the most photographed hole in golf, is a par 3 of 233 yards, almost all of it a dangerous carry across the foaming ocean, with the tee set at the edge of a high promontory. Here the prevailing westerly wind blows against the golfer and from right to left. The 17th, a 375-yard par 4 that doglegs sharply to the right, is also one of a kind. What makes it unique is the cluster of seven cypresses commanding the fairway; the golfer is required to place a drive with extreme care to avoid being stymied by the cypresses on the approach shot.
These are spectacular holes—one of the most thrilling sequences in golf—but the other 15 are a marvelous mixture of characteristically inland American holes with tree-lined fairways, holes that swing up into hills covered with Monterey pines, a number of holes with a British seaside flavor, and a few dunesland holes unlike any others in this hemisphere.
The Cypress Point Club formally opened its course on Aug. 11, 1928. A little over a year later, word about how exceptional it was was carried home to the various corners of the country by golfers who had gathered at Pebble Beach for our Amateur Championship and who made it a point to get in at least one round on the new course next door. Bobby Jones, who played an exhibition at Cypress Point, made a typically astute judgment when asked to compare the two courses: “Pebble Beach is a more severe test, but Cypress Point is more fun to play.” Cypress Point made such an impression on Jones that in 1931, when, after his retirement from competition, he was preparing to build his dream course, the Augusta National, he chose MacKenzie to act as his co-designer.
In Jones’ day, Cypress Point was about the same length it is today—6,464 yards. No land for expanding the layout has been available for quite some time, but, even if it had been, the club would probably have opted for keeping the course just as it was. Down through the decades a few new tees have been added, and one green (the eighth) has been altered, but that has been the extent of the changes. Under favorable conditions, some very low scores have been shot—Gay Brewer holds the record with a 62, and Jim Langley, the club professional, has had a 63—but very few golfers take the course apart despite its shortness. [Casey Reamer is the club professional today.] Quite the reverse. Harold Anderson, a recent president of the club, kept charts during the 1970s on how the pros fared on the three courses they played in the Crosby tournament, and his records bring out that many scored lower on Pebble Beach and Spyglass Hill, the heavyweights, than they did on Cypress Point.
What are the attributes that make a course of only 6,464 yards a study challenge? No one is better qualified to answer this than Lewis A. Lapham, a son of one of the founding fathers, who has been involved with the course since the summer of 1926. As a long-hitting Yale undergraduate, he was requisitioned by MacKenzie to drive hundreds of balls off rubber mats so that the architect could determine the best spots to place the back tees. Lapham, who really knows his golf—he put in five years in the 1970s as the chairman of the PGA Tour’s Tournament Policy Board—analyzed Cypress Point in the following fashion when I talked to him not long ago:
“To begin with, one of the chief strengths of the course is that nearly all the holes offer the golfer alternate routes to the green. If he wants to take the conservative route, fine. On the 16th, for example, safe 4-iron onto the fairway out to the left. MacKenzie, in his wisdom, set up the holes so that the golfer can bite off as much as he chooses. If a big hitter attempts to carry a corner to position himself for an easier second, he is suitably rewarded if he hits a strong, accurate drive. If he plays a poor drive, though, he suffers a severe penalty. Just about all the holes possess this beautifully balanced strategic design, so there’s not the premium on long hitting you find on many courses.
“You must control the ball at Cypress Point. You can pay a high price if you stray from the fairway. The grass in the rough can be coarse and clumpy, but, more than that, in the rough your ball can end up in elephant grass, thick lupine bushes and fine white sand that is loose and fluffy—the ideal sand for fried-egg lies. Then there’s the dreaded ice plant. The most famous patch lies along the cliffside edge of the 17th. You’re very lucky if you can dislodge your ball from the slippery stuff in one shot. You can take a great many shots. We all have.
“Last but not least, there’s the wind. It makes selecting the right club difficult. The westerly we get is behind you on the first four holes and then against you the rest of the way. In a south wind, which is our storm wind, it can be pretty tough out there. To give you an idea, when you play the short carry on the 16th in that wind, you have to hit a 4-wood, and you have to hit it well.”
Lapham put a hand under his chin and was silent for a moment, collecting his thoughts. “All those intriguing holes MacKenzie built at Cypress Point test a man’s capacity to play the game of golf. He must stay alert, and he must be able to hit a lot of different golf shots. It doesn’t hurt to be a good wind player and a good sand player—many of the best golfers at the club, such as Charles de Bretteville and Sandy Tatum, are. It also helps to be a good putter: The greens can be fast, and some of them are hard to read.
“Even when I am playing badly, I love the ambience of the club and the course. The savvy old caddies, many of them commercial fishermen. The absence of golf cars—the club has only nine, and you must have a doctor’s certificate to use one. The cypresses. Watching the tide and the surf. I love the exciting use of the natural terrain. Those tight tee shots on the eighth and ninth. Coming around the corner on the 12thand feeling the wind in your face. The diversity of the scenery, the quietness, and, it goes without saying, the seals, the sea, the otters, the deer, the birds. You’re in a world apart. I feel I have a proprietary interest in Cypress Point. I think most of the members do.”
Seminole, which is situated on the Atlantic about 15 miles north of Palm Beach, is the work of another master architect, Donald Ross, a Scot from Dornoch. Ross had been in this country for about 30 years when he built Seminole. Subtropical in appearance, what with its dark green Bermuda-grass fairways and greens, its brilliantly white bunkers and its palms and rubber trees, it is a far cry from the courses one generally associates with Ross—the original four at Pinehurst, his longtime headquarters, and the hundreds, literally, that he laid out on rolling countryside in the northern part of the country, mainly between Minnesota and Massachusetts.
Appearances can be deceiving. Seminole, along with Pinehurst No. 2, is the quintessential Ross course. It might look mild and manageable—the fairways are wide, the rough is civilized, the undulations restrained, the greens large—and because of its reasonable length from the standard tees, the average player can sometimes salvage a par after a poorish drive. Nonetheless, the course demands golf of the first order. Unless a player positions his tee shots carefully, he will not be able to regularly hit and hold the splendid variety of stiffly bunkered greens, and strokes will inevitably start to slip away fast.
Though the course measures only 6,778 yards from the back tees, when the long-driving tournament stars drop in, they find it all they can handle. Low scores are such a rarity that old Seminole hands are still aghast that Claude Harmon, the club professional for many years, once got around in 60. On a calm day, Seminole is an enjoyable challenge for golfers of all degrees of skill, but it would not be the celebrated test it is were it not for the southeast wind off the Atlantic that sweeps across the holes. More about this later. First, a little background music.
The Seminole Golf Club is about the same vintage as Cypress Point: It opened its course for play in October 1929. The two clubs share other similarities. The bulk of their members, aside from being well-off and social, have a considerable knowledge of golf and a deep affection for it. They have taste, too. Both clubs, for example, eschewed expansive adaptations of the Alhambra or Mount Vernon in favor of small, comfortable, charming clubhouses. Seminole’s is Florida Spanish, built of terracotta-colored concrete. Designed by Marion Wyeth, it typifies the variations Wyeth made on the style that Addison Mizner established during Palm Beach’s palmy days. Incidentally, Seminole has 325 members. Its entrance fee is $10,000, and the annual dues are $1,100. Cypress Point has 235 members, its entrance fee is $15,000, and the dues are $95 a month. Because of Florida’s hot and humid summers, Seminole is closed from mid-May to November, which probably explains why it is less expensive than Cypress Point, which is playable the year round.
Allan Ryan, who came to Seminole in the early 1930s, has been its president since 1971. He knows the history of the course like few people. “When Ross arrived, the area was just a jungle,” Ryan recalls. “The property had every kind of Florida wildness. A crew of 180 men worked on it for nine months. They went into the swamps with hip boots and hacked down the heavy brush. They used teams of mules to move the earth into place, and they shaped the greens by hauling the earth in pans. The course is a triumph of drainage and irrigation. Ross, you know, constructed three small lakes. They come into play, directly and indirectly, on nine of the holes. I am still thoroughly amazed by the job Ross did.” [Seminole is known for its heritage of strong club presidents: Ben Hogan’s friend George L. Coleman followed Ryan; then came Barry Van Gerbig, Tim Neher and today Jimmy Dunne III.]
There are no weak holes at Seminole and many very good ones, but nearly everybody who knows the course agrees that the best and most representative hole is the sixth, a par 4 only 390 yards long that invariably shows up whenever someone lists the top 18 holes in the United States. An impressively original hole, it has a two-level fairway, the left side rising well above the right.
From the tee, all the trouble on the sixth is on the left: four good-size bunkers menace that edge of the fairway. It is a mistake, nevertheless, to simply play down the right side, for this increases the difficulty of the approach shot. Ross, you see, devised a green that slants out of the fairway from left to right at about a 1 o’clock angle. To get home from the right with your second, you must carry a chilling succession of bunkers. The bunker farthest from the green cuts deeply into the fairway, and the others patrol the entrance to the green on the right and then move along the right-hand side of the green. To keep you honest, there are two bunkers to the left of the green.
The correct way to play the sixth, if you have the ability and the nerve, is to hit your drive as close as you can to the bunkers on the left. Then all you have to do is to play a crisp approach over the first or the second bunker in the long white line. From the back tees, the pro at Seminole, Jerry Pittman—he succeeded Henry Picard, who succeeded Harmon—usually hits a 3-iron or 4-iron for his second when the wind is against him and as little as an 8-iron or a 9 when it is with him. [The highly esteemed Bob Ford is the professional today.]
Occasionally the wind at Seminole comes out of the north, but the prevailing wind, as noted earlier, is from the southeast. It changes direction and force quite often, but however it blows it had a decisive influence on how the holes play. On the 17th ,a par 3 that is 175 yards long from the back, Pittman uses a 2-iron to a 5-iron. On the 18th, a 417-yard dogleg left on which the tee, like the one on 17, is set on a sand ridge above the beach and the ocean, he plays anything from a 3-wood to a 4-iron on his approach.
“The southeast wind sweeps across from left to right on both these holes,” Pittman says. “It can be a strong wind, but you don’t feel it on the 17th tee because you’re sheltered by the growth of sea grape. When you move down the fairway, you feel its full force. By that time, of course, you’ve already seen what it’s done to your shot.” In a north wind the 18th can be a tartar. Pittman remembers playing in such a wind with Jack Nicklaus and George Burns, two of the most powerful hitters in the game. Neither of them was able to get home with two woods. In any wind, and from any of the tees, the last two holes at Seminole provide a properly rigorous finish.
One of Seminole’s best-known members and staunchest admirers is Ben Hogan. No one is more effective in describing its appeal and its worth. “It’s one of the few courses I know that I don’t get tired of,” Ben said last autumn. “The wind is different nearly every day, and that changes all the shots. I used to play Seminole for 30 straight days when I was preparing for the Masters, and I was just as eager to play it on the 30th morning as I was on the first.
“Seminole is a placement course,” he continued.
“Most of the holes bend one way or the other slightly, and you must place your tee shot on the right side or left side of the fairway to have the best angle to the green on your approach shot. I was always a spot player—that is, I played to a spot on the fairway and then to a spot on the green. That’s the fascination of golf for me—placing the ball in the proper position, and then come as close as I can to playing precisely the kind of shot that’s called for. You just don’t hit a club—say, the 4-iron—the same way all the time. There are 10 different ways to hit a 4-iron. At Seminole, you get the chance to play all the shots there are. I like that and the fact that you can visualize clearly what you have to do.
“If I were a young man going on the pro tour,” Hogan added, “I’d try to make arrangements to get on Seminole. If you can play Seminole, you can play any course in the world.”
One more thing. As Hogan and its other enthusiasts seldom fail to mention, the ingenious routing of the holes contributes immeasurably both to Seminole’s enchantment and its difficulty. Seldom to two holes in a row move in the same direction. Quite the contrary. The sequence, full of twists and turns, varies so abruptly from hole to hole that it brings to mind the complex pass patterns that Lynn Swann of the Pittsburgh Steelers runs, and the unpredictable gyrations that John Havlicek of the Celtics used to resort to in order to lose his man and get free. Particularly on courses like Seminole and Cypress Point, where the wind is such a factor, a fine routing pattern can change a good course into a remarkable one.
The Merion Golf Club, which is situated in Ardmore, Pa., about a dozen miles from downtown Philadelphia, is different in several basic respects from Seminole and Cypress Point. To begin with, it is a rather large club with 700 members, 500 of whom play golf. (The entrance fee for a family membership is $3,500, plus the purchase of a $600 certificate. Annual dues are $1,320. It is one of the best buys in golf, considering Merion offers 36 holes of golf and that the East Course ranks as one of the best in the world.) Though few suburban stretches in the United States are as lovely as Philadelphia’s Main Line, Merion, nevertheless, does not have the atmosphere of a secluded oasis as do Seminole (which is north of Palm Beach) and Cypress Point (which is on the Monterey Peninsula, three hours by auto south of San Francisco). They are, in essence, home-away-from-home courses, far from the madding crowd.
For another thing, whereas neither Seminole nor Cypress Point has been the scene of a major championship, Merion’s East Course has held the U.S. Amateur four times and the U.S. Open three times. Bobby Jones made his national debut there in the 1916 Amateur (at age 14) and completed his Grand Slam there 50 years ago by winning the 1930 Amateur; Ben Hogan, only 16½ months after his almost fatal automobile accident, won the 1950 Open there; Jack Nicklaus won the individual honors in the second World Amateur Team Championship there in 1960, and 11 years later he was edged out there by Lee Trevino in a dramatic playoff for the Open title. I would think that more truly historic moments have taken place at Merion than at any other American golf club.
Merion has officially been the Merion Golf Club since 1942, but in a way it goes back to 1865, when 16 young Philadelphians founded the Merion Cricket Club. In 1896, the club ventured seriously into golf, laying out a rudimentary nine-hole course in Haverford. A second nine holes were added in 1900, but it soon became apparent that, what with golf growing at a healthy rate and with the rubber-corded ball requiring longer holes, a more commodious course was needed. In 1910 an L-shape plot of approximately 120 acres of farmland (which also included a worked-out quarry) was acquired in Ardmore. It had its shortcomings. The soil was clayey, there was rock below it, and two piddling brooks drained terrain that rolled a bit but was distinguished by an almost total lack of fine trees. Despite these handicaps, the new Merion—the East Couse—was transformed from a fairly ugly duckling into a swan, mainly through the efforts of two exceptional men, Hugh Wilson and Joe Valentine.
Hugh Wilson, an insurance broker, was at 31 the youngest member of the five-man committee charged in 1910 with building the new course. Cultivated and intelligent, Wilson, a former captain of the Princeton golf team, was dispatched to Britain by the committee and spent seven months studying the top English and Scottish course, the better to make the new Merion more than just another course. On his return, he threw himself into converting the not-too-promising acreage into 18 first-class holes. He succeeded so well that he is considered by many to be as gifted a golf-course architect as this country has ever produced, although he was, to be sure, an amateur architect who built only one other course, the shorter and far easier West Course at Merion. Interestingly, it was Wilson who finished the last four holes at Pine Valley after the death of that other outstanding amateur architect, George Crump. Wilson, who was beset by bad health most of his life, was only 46 when he died in 1925.
Joe Valentine, born Giuseppe Valentino in Abruzzi, Italy, in 1884, started his long relationship with Merion in 1907 as a member of the greenkeeping crew at the old Haverford course. He was the construction foreman when the new course was built in 1911 and 1912, and took over as the course superintendent in 1918. He continued in that post until his retirement in 1961, when he was succeeded by his son Richie.
Valentine is probably best known as the man who in the 1930s discovered Merion bluegrass, a hardy dwarf variety of Kentucky blue that quickly became one of our favorite fairway grasses and, after the Second World War, a popular American lawn grass. He understood turf management like few men. Over the years he upgraded the quality of Merion’s greens (mainly South German bent) and its fairways (mainly bent and Merion blue), and gradually turned the crusty old farmland into one of the best-conditioned courses in the world and one of the pleasantest to be on and to play.
Valentine and Wilson made an extremely compatible and effective team. During the early 1920s, when they constructed several new holes that replaced some of the original holes whose fairway were crossed by Ardmore Avenue, they also worked on a number of other holes that Wilson thought would benefit from some remodeling. The picture that has come down to us of the pair in action has Valentine spreading out a large white sheet before a green in the position Wilson has decided on for a new bunker, while Wilson hurries back down the fairway to check out how the projected bunker will look and play from the tee-shot landing area.
After Wilson’s death, the Philadelphia golf architectural firm of Toomey & Flynn carried out several minor alterations on the East Course. However, since 1930 and Jones’ epochal Amateur, Merion—when one speaks of Merion, one always means the East Course—has remained just as it was at the time. So from a certain viewpoint, the course is about the same age as Seminole and Cypress Point. It is a course that describes frankly to the golfer the assignments it is setting him. Only three greens cannot be seen from the tee. The greens are well bunkered, and many of the hazards, bearded with Scotch broom, edge close to the putting surface. Of the 120 bunkers on the course, a high percentage are brightly flashed—the famed White Faces of Merion.
We are ready now for the heart of the matter. Two questions present themselves: What makes Merion such a stirringly good course for the club golfer? And what makes Merion, despite its lack of length, a valid championship course as well? For the 1971 U.S. Open, for example, it measured only 6,528 yards, but no one in the field broke par (280) for the four rounds. If we address ourselves to answering the second question, I believe we will also answer the first. [For the 2013 U.S. Open at Merion, the course played at 6,996 yards.]
To begin with, one reason the long-hitting professional golfer finds Merion anything but a pushover is the pressure it puts on him to play exacting tee shots. No fewer than eight of the 12 par 4s are either doglegs or holes where the swerve of the fairway calls for an accurately positioned tee shot. The 15th, a par 4 of 378 yards, is a perfect example of this. To carry the heavy Open rough and reach the fairway, which breaks acutely to the right, the golfer must be careful not to bite off too much of the dogleg. On the other hand, he can’t be overly conservative and bite off too little, for then his drive might run through the fairway and into the heavy rough on the far side—and, sometimes, through the rough and out-of-bounds.
It takes a perceptive golfer to cope with Merion. He must know when to try to bust a big drive and when to play a cozy 3-wood off the tee. He will fare best if he accepts the fact that this is a course that minimizes the advantage a power hitter has on most courses. He must also bear in mind on each tee what side of the fairway opens up the entrance to the green. This is critical, because Merion’s greens, after many years of conscientious superintendence, are extraordinarily firm. As Richie Valentine said recently, “I don’t want the golfers to throw their approaches into a catcher’s mitt. Into a fielder’s glove, yes.”
The greens are at their firmest, naturally, when they have been prepared specifically for a championship. For the 1971 Open, Valentine went at his ministrations this way: Three weeks before the tournament, he top-dressed them with a 16th of an inch of sand; eight days before the tournament, he began cutting them to 5/32nds of an inch; during the tournament, he cut the greens twice each morning, the second cut crisscrossing the first. His 500-pound rollers saw a lot of service during that period. As you can appreciate, only an approach with true backspin could hit and hold those greens.
Coping with Merion’s fast, contoured greens, it goes without saying, is never an easy matter. A two-footer is no tap-in. The golfer must read the break correctly and stroke the ball at the right speed. Working sand into a green, by the way, not only makes it resilient and fast but prevents it from getting marked up by golf spikes.
When the Open is played at Merion in 1981, Richie Valentine believes that the course should stand up well to the mass assault, as long as the greens are good and firm. If it should rain hard before and during the championship, then Merion, which has never been taken apart in the three previous Opens it has hosted, will be no match for the field, and very low scores will undoubtedly be shot—scores comparable to the 66-67-68-68—269 that Nicklaus put together in the second World Amateur Team Championship on a Merion that had not only been set up rather generously but was soggy from heavy rains. It was a sitting duck for a player as inspired as Nicklaus was that week.
Hugh Wilson had a most sophisticated golf mind, and it takes a while to decipher how to play Merion. The golfer ultimately learns that on many of the holes he must flirt with danger to gain the best position for his shot to the green. Let us take the second, a straightaway par 5 of 535 yards. Out-of-bounds markers follow tight along the right side of the hole from tee to green, and so you would think that the wise route to the green would be down the left. It isn’t. There is a succession of bunkers and trees on the left that can cause you all sorts of trouble. Ideally, you should drive down the right side of the fairway and then hit your fairway wood also down the right, for the touchy little green opens from the right.
The fifth hole, a 426-yard par 4, can mislead you, too. A creek edges along the rough on the left side of a fairway that slopes from right to left. Noting the hazard, your instinct is to play out to the right. No sirree. The farther right you are, the steeper the sidehill lie and the more difficult the approach shot. The green is best approached from the left, and the golfer with nerve and talent plays as close to the left rough as he can.
Two more typical instances of Merion’s deceptiveness are provided by the seventh and the eighth. On these short par 4s, even though the right side is menaced by out-of-bounds, the seasoned Merion man tries to keep his tee shot down the right. It gives him a flatter fairway lie and a much better angle to the green.
At Merion, as at Seminole and Cypress Point, you must concentrate every step of the way. It is not hard to do this on such arresting holes as the 11th and 16th. On the 11th, a 370-yard par 4, Cobbs Creek cuts in front of the green, then twists and flanks the green on the right. On the 16th, the 430-yard Quarry Hole, the wide, deep and forbidding old quarry must be carried on the second shot to reach a green sited well above the level of the fairway.
Merion finishes not with a whimper but a bang: five tough holes climaxed by the 18th, rated by many authorities as the game’s best par-4 finishing hole. It is a beauty—458 yards down a chute off the tee into a dipping fairway, out-of-bounds along the left, the green at the crest of a gradual upslope. (In your mind’s eye, do you still see Hy Peskin’s superlative photograph for Life magazine of Hogan on the 72nd hole of the 1950 Open, hitting that magnificent 1-iron from a slightly downhill lie and ripping it onto the side of the green?) [In the 2013 U.S. Open, Merion’s 18th hole played as long as 530 yards.]
Charles (Chip) Oat, a young member of Merion who has a decided flair for golf architecture, is of the opinion that on the 18th, the ideal tee shot would be one that ends up so close to the left rough that the golfer’s feet would be in the rough, the ball on the fairway. “Same thing on the fifth, the 14th and the 15th,” Oat, a man of no halfway measures, declares. “Then you have the best line to the green.
The executive director of the USGA, P.J. Boatwright Jr., who set up Merion so well for the 1971 Open and will be setting it up again for the 1981 Open, has summed up Merion’s lure this way: “I like it as well as any course I know. On hole after hole, you are presented with a chance to play shots that epitomize golf at its best. When you play them well, it is a source of indescribable gratification.” [The 1981 U.S. Open was won by David Graham with a score of seven-under 273.]
Though Merion, Seminole and Cypress Point has separate and distinct personalities, they share a number of things in common, as you might have noticed. Let us go over a few of them.
—They are a treat for golfers of various levels of ability because the strategic concept of their holes makes proper positioning of the ball and not the ability to hit it a mile the cardinal requirement. In their individual ways they encourage initiative, but intrinsically, they are courses that reward golf senses and ball control. Conversely, a golfer must recognize his limitations because, if he overreaches himself, sooner or later he will be severely punished. Each of them has some great and exciting holes, but even on the plainer holes the shot values are sound. Each has a wide variety of holes. And each has a stretch of memorable closing holes.
—A beautifully designed course is nothing if it does not receive first-class care. These three courses do. The men who have nurtured them down through the years have clearly realized their responsibilities. A statement by Ben Hogan comes to mind. Hogan, a member of Seminole, was talking about the course with a friend not long ago. “Ever since I began golfing there in the winter, Seminole has always been in excellent condition,” he said. “A couple years ago, when George Coleman became chairman of the green committee, he had a new watering system put in, and I think that today the course is in even better condition than it was before. The greens are now as good as any I’ve ever putted on.” (Bill Whitaker, the course superintendent, deserves much of the credit for this.) George Coleman, by the way, was the head of the green committee at Cypress Point right after World War II. The course was terribly rundown. He saw to it that the necessary new equipment was acquired, and Cypress Point was quickly brought back into A-1 condition.
—Few changes have been made on these three courses during the past half century. Most of them have been done to make the courses more like the architects meant them to be. Take Seminole. Only one change of any consequence has taken place: In 1978, a bunker on the left edge of the second fairway was put back in. Donald Ross’ sketches showed there had originally been such a bunker, but along the way it had somehow been removed. Ross had evidently inserted that bunker to make the golfer play out to the right, from where he had to carry the bunkers in front of the green to get home. When the old fairway bunker on the left was restored, the fairway bunker on the right, which had been moved forward, was pulled several yards back, where it should have been. [All three courses have had some modifications made—at Cypress Point in 2004 by Jeff Markow, at Merion in 2018 by Gil Hanse, and at Seminole in 2017 by Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw.]
As was noted earlier, most of the members of these clubs are very well-to-do people who are in a position to do exactly as they wish. Such privilege can often lead to a sybaritic life whose values are debatable. It should be pointed out, however, that there are and always have been well-to-do people with a good deal of sense and spirit and brains, and when they love something, they give it everything they have.
I bring this up, for it struck me as I looked into these three clubs how passionately devoted to them their members are. They are very much aware of their good fortune in being able to play a course designed by a great architect when he was in top form, and they realize that one cannot replace courses of this caliber any more than he can any artistic masterpiece.
When I reflect on the close attachment to these clubs that their members have, I think first and foremost of Cypress Point and Lewis Lapham. Now 70 and semiretired, Lapham makes his home in Greenwich, Conn., but each year he spends a week or more renewing his old friendship with Cypress Point. His family has always felt that way: his father, Roger, was the first chairman of the club’s board of directors. “My father made it clear that he wanted to be buried near the course,” Lapham told me a short time ago. “He had a home overlooking the first green, with the ocean in the distance. When he died at 83, we buried his ashes close by the house and the course.”
Two weeks after I had met with Lapham, I had a note from him. He wanted to tell me that his 10-year-old grandson had recently played Cypress Point for the first time. “That makes four generations of Laphams who have played the course,” he wrote. “Not only that, but his caddie, Joe Villines, has caddied for his father, for me, and for my father.”
The mention of Joe Villines brings to mind that not only the members but the people who have worked at these three courses in many capacities frequently fall under their spell. Villines and many other caddies—Bob, Blackie and the legendary Turk, just to name a few—have been Cypress Point landmarks. Cam Puget was the pro there for 41 years, Tony Layton the maintenance superintendent for 45 years, Frank Cano the greenkeeper for 45 years, Lawrence Mignano the club manager for 38 years and Sam Solis the assistant manager for 25 years. They were completely at home at the club. That is where they wanted to be.
On a recent visit to Cypress Point, I saw the last of these old club figures, Joey Solis, who will be retiring this spring. Joey started out as a caddie at 11 and has been the caddiemaster for 43 years. He holds sway in the tiny golf shop, which is only about 20 by 40 feet. When you enter it, you are wafted back to the era of Douglas Fairbanks Sr., Bobby Jones and Paul Whiteman. There are no piles of sports shirts, sweaters, slacks, hats, gloves and other clothing monopolizing the space. All I remember being on display were a few sets of clubs and a few windbreakers. The cases on the counter were given over to golf balls and tees and a selection of candy bars. During my talk with Joey, the only interruptions came from young caddies who wanted to buy a Milky Way or a Butterfinger. Nothing had really changed in 50 years.
Merion, Seminole and Cypress Point, being exceptional courses, make the point exceptionally clear, but as countless thousands of golfers know, an association for many years of one’s life with a course of worth and charm works its way deep into a man’s soul. He comes to feel an emotional relationship with it. It becomes part of his life. It is there all the time.