A great golf hole is a delicate conspiracy of man and nature. It is difficult but fair, ruggedly scenic but well-conditioned, risky but rewarding—and sometimes even privileged and historic. At right and on the following pages are nine such holes, the first nine of America's Best 18. Each hole is in the same position that it occupies on its own course and each, through some combination of the standards cited above, is better than any of its counterparts in the country. The holes, which add up to a dream course, were chosen by Sports Illustrated after consultation with three men who have seen hundreds of U.S. courses: USGA Executive Director Joseph Dey, Professional Byron Nelson and Amateur Charlie Coe. While in the final process of selecting the Best 18, Dan Jenkins, an 8-handicap golfer, played them all. He describes the holes, and tells how—alas—he fared.
PAR 4 360 YARDS
Every golfer knows what a good starting hole should be. From the tee markers down to a gimmie putt, it is a hole that best suits his own game. The tournament professional wants a birdie hole, the low-scoring amateur seeks a cinch par, the high handicapper looks for a lot of room for his intriguing variety of trick shots and the public course player simply hopes for some grass. The perfect first hole should lure the golfer, should excite him, should test him just a little and should give him a good chance of walking away satisfied—he has, after all, 17 more to go. To fit this exceptional purpose, there is no better No. 1 in America than that on the East Course of famous old Merion.
Merion. Here, as so many celebrated golfing figures have said and written for half a century, is a classic course. Thoughtfully and skillfully and painstakingly set into the natural terrain of a Philadelphia Main Line suburb, Merion weaves almost romantically among evergreen, birch, gum, oak and elm trees, around shaded creeks and then, at the end, makes a heroic leap over an ancient quarry.
Each hole is memorable in character and perfectly kept. Every blade of Merion bluegrass—a hardy strain discovered accidentally one day behind the 17th tee and since put into every Merion fairway and a million lawns—is a matter of intense pride to an austere membership characterized by established wealth and a dedication to sports.
Originally organized as a cricket club in 1865 (annual dues $2), it added a golf course for a small group of members in 1896 and eventually thwarted bankruptcy by grudgingly expanding to its present membership of 666. But it never lost its character. It is today the kind of club where a member will rise in wrath at an annual meeting, as one did, and demand to know by whose authority a vine of honeysuckle was removed from an all-but-out-of-play fence on the back nine. The chairman of the greens committee answered that it was done by his authority, that's whose, and in the fuss that followed he resigned. It is a club where change comes slowly, and what others call progress is viewed as more blight than delight. It was not until relatively recently that Merion's men were allowed to play golf in shorts, an attire change pioneered by the women, who had not had it easy either. In the 1949 Women's Amateur at Merion, Marlene Bauer started for the first tee in shorts. She was one of the tournament's biggest names, but no matter. The chairman of the house committee took her discreetly aside, expressed his deepest regrets and asked her to change into a skirt forthwith. She did. And though this may be the era of sport shirts and alpaca sweaters, Fred Austin, pro at Merion for 19 years, would as soon give a lesson in his underwear as be seen on his course without a proper shirt and bow tie.
It is fitting that Merion has been the site of 11 USGA championships, more than have been held at any other club, and that it is the only course on which a U.S. Open could be played without what the pros call "Open treatment." The fast, rolling greens show no trace of scars, and they putt incredibly true. The Scottish-styled bunkers—"The White Faces of Merion"—are already in championship position, locations achieved 50 years ago by having the club's greenkeeper spread bed sheets on the ground to simulate bunkers, while the designers stood back and ordered, "Move them left," or, "Move them right." And the fairways, of course, are like cashmere.
The East Course was laid out in 1912 by a group of members from the cricket club led by Hugh Wilson, a Philadelphia insurance man who had taken up golf. Wilson was sent by the club to Scotland and England to study the contours and subtleties of the best courses there, and many of his observations were incorporated into a remarkably sound design. The most famous of golf courses have undergone extensive changes, but since the East Course was opened only one hole has been drastically changed—the first. It once played as a dogleg left, with Ardmore Avenue, a mere wagon trail, as out-of-bounds. By 1915, however, Ardmore Avenue had become a busy artery. So the tee was moved adjacent to the veranda of the huge white-frame clubhouse, and a dogleg right was forced around a clump of tall Japanese pines.
From the first tee the golfer sees an array of strategically placed bunkers flanking the fairway that will catch either a hook or slice. If the tee shot is pushed, the Japanese pines become an insuperable problem, completely screening the green. A pulled drive makes the hole play long, and the shot to the beautifully trapped green becomes formidable. A sound tee shot leaves nothing but a short iron over a large bunker to a green that will hold almost any approach perfectly.
One of the nice things about Merion's first hole is that a mediocre shot need not kill you. I teed off from the rear half of the regular men's tee, the same general area I chose on all of the Best 18. My drive hooked lazily into a bunker, but the ball sat well on the "white face," and I had a chance to recover with a five-iron. With the satisfaction of knowing that even if the shot went straight up it would still be the beginning of a course record on the finest 18 ever played, I reached the green from the bunker and two-putted for an imperfect par on a perfect starting hole.