Rite of Passage

The 11th at Merion Golf Club (East Course). Par 4 - 365, 345

One of America’s great venues is nestled in Philadelphia’s leafy suburbs. Its timeless design still holds up today; since its opening in 1912, Merion Golf Club has hosted 19 USGA championships. Wicker baskets and Ben Hogan’s 1-iron on No. 18 in the 1950 U.S. Open remain Merion’s most indelible images, but an argument can be made that its most historic hole falls in the middle of the course. The short, par-4 11th is not only a marvel of design; it has a major role in golf’s history.

Design dream team

Championship golf wasn’t in Merion’s original DNA. In 1909, golf’s popularity was exploding in Philadelphia. The club’s leaders decided it was time to improve the course to keep up with demand and technology.

The club purchased new land and appointed one of its finest players, Hugh Wilson, to lay out the course. While Wilson was long on playing experience, he was a novice in course design. A regular on Philadelphia’s traveling intercity team, Wilson saw the world-class courses in New York and Boston. New York’s National Golf Links of America and Garden City Club and Boston’s Myopia Hunt Club provided far better tests of skill, thus creating stronger players who regularly gave the Philly boys thrashings in competition.

Merion became the opportunity for Philadelphia to fight back. Wilson set out to build a course that challenged and built championship-caliber players.

To aid with the ambitious task, Wilson enlisted the help of his fellow Philadelphian players: William Flynn, A.W. Tillinghast, George Thomas and George Crump. Merion’s rebuild would become the launching pad of each of their storied architectural careers.

The collaborative effort was a resounding success and was quickly recognized as one of the country’s finest championship layouts. The course opened for play in 1912 and it hosted its first major championship four years later with the 1916 U.S. Amateur. 

The notoriously difficult 11th green at Merion is tucked away in a corner of the property alongside the Baffling Brook. The tight approach has produced its fair share of bogeys and set the stage for some historic moments in championship golf.

Short and stout

Merion’s 11th is an outlier in many ways. It was completely redesigned in 1922 along with holes 10, 12 and 13 when new land was made available to the club. Despite measuring a mere 365 yards, it strikes fear in amateurs and professionals alike. It’s the rare hole that tests a player’s nerves and skill from the tee through the green. 

Today’s technology has rendered many of golf’s sub-400-yard par 4s defenseless. 

Not the 11th. During the 2013 U.S. Open, this wicked little thing played to a scoring average of 4.22.

It’s the kind of hole that sits in the back of your mind throughout the round. Knowing its propensity to yield big numbers and ruin rounds, the fear becomes reality on the short walk from the 10th green to the 11th tee. Just in case you need any additional adrenaline, the plaque commemorating Bobby Jones’ 1930 U.S. Amateur win greets you upon arrival (more on that later). 

The key to finding the guarded green in regulation lies in an accurate tee shot from the elevated tee—a tall task given the blind and narrow fairway. The only things visible are the two bunkers on the left side of the fairway and one on the right that frame the hole. There are options, but no one said they’d be easy: Either fly it to the flat with a fairway wood or shoot for the narrow strip of fairway on the downslope with an iron.

The signature red wicker basket stands tall on the 11th green, beckoning players to fire away. 
If only it were that easy. The fairway lie offers a straightforward wedge, but at only 21 yards wide it’s difficult to hold. For those who miss, it’s best to lay up short of the green and play for a likely bogey. Reckless aggression can lead to an even higher number.

If you find the 21-yard-wide ribbon of fairway, you’re rewarded with a wedge and a sigh of relief. But a miss to either side of the fairway significantly increases the chances of blowing up. Thick rough lies hungry on both sides, likely on the downslope. A wider miss to the left can find the famous Baffling Brook and a penalty. The right side yields only a slightly better option, with rough that is among the thickest on the course. Despite a terrible lie, the short yardage in can give players the illusion that they can pull the shot off. That fantasy more often than not leads to disaster.

Wise players will take their medicine, chip it short and get back in position, short of the Baffling Brook. Others will aim at the bunker and pray their ball lands safely in it rather than in the thick greenside rough. Aggressive players who throw strategy out the window and fire at the flag mostly end up in a watery tomb.

Treacherous crossing

Players feel like the 11th green is impossibly tiny. Superintendents know it is perpetually in danger. The No. 11 green and No. 12 tee sit on the lowest-lying land of the course, and their proximity to the Baffling Brook makes them susceptible to flooding in heavy rains. No one wants to see those stepping-stones underwater. 

Still, crossing those weathered, uneven stones across the Baffling Brook with putter in hand is one of the most rewarding feelings at Merion. Congratulations: You’ve conquered one of the most intimidating shots in golf.

The peninsula complex features three distinct segments: front right, back right and back left. Each pin presents its own unique challenges and little relief; you’re never quite rid of that claustrophobic feeling. During the 2013 U.S. Open, fans and a grandstand lined the left side and back of the green. The arena vibe made the green feel even tighter, the pressure even greater.

Sunken Sarazen

No. 11 solidified its place in major championship history in the 1934 U.S. Open, when Gene Sarazen felt its wrath. Holding a two-shot lead on the 11th tee in the final round, Sarazen’s drive found the creek on the left side. He went on to make triple-bogey 7 to fall one shot behind Olin Dutra. Despite a late rally, Sarazen couldn’t undo the damage and lost the title to Dutra by one stroke.

Bobby’s grand goodbye

The 11th played a pivotal role in what some contend to be golf’s greatest achievement: Bobby Jones’ Grand Slam in 1930.

Merion became a familiar place for Jones; it was the site of his first major, the 1916 U.S. Amateur. As a 14-year-old, Jones entered the national consciousness by advancing to match play and even winning two matches. Jones returned to Merion for the U.S. Amateur in 1924, this time winning the first of his six U.S. Amateur titles.

In 1930, Merion hosted its third U.S. Amateur, and Jones arrived seeking history. He had already captured the British Amateur, Open Championship and U.S. Open and needed only the U.S. Amateur to complete the Grand Slam—something no golfer had ever achieved. Jones’ hot run and track record of success at Merion made him the clear favorite.

The beauty belies the danger. This 1963 painting by Roy F. Spreeter highlights the bucolic charm of the 11th green, which saw Bobby Jones complete his career Grand Slam. But even in the painting it’s clear just how treacherous the Baffling Brook can be for incoming approaches. Photo by Bettmann/Getty Images

As expected, Jones breezed through stroke play, qualifying to earn medalist honors. Moving to the match-play portion as the top seed, Jones’ dominance continued. He dispatched his opponents in the first two matches, 5 and 4. The round of eight commenced 36-hole matches, which simply meant larger margins of victory. Jones bested Fay Coleman 6 and 4 and earned a spot in the finals with a 9 and 8 stampede of Jess Sweetser.

Jones squared off against Eugene Homans for a place in history. Legend has it that Jones’ intimidating presence rattled Homans. The results bore it out: Through six holes, Jones went 6 up and Homans had yet to finish a hole. After 18 holes, it was all but over with Jones holding a 7-up lead.

Merion’s par-4 10th finishes near the clubhouse and a celebration was ready. Having already received a proper beatdown, Homans double-bogeyed the hole. But Jones had a rare hiccup and missed a short putt for bogey, halving the hole and extending the match.

There would be no Sarazen-style collapse on No. 11 this time. Jones conquered the hole with a conceded par and won the Grand Slam.

Most expected the victory, but few anticipated the shocking news that followed shortly after: While in the clubhouse, Bobby Jones announced his retirement from competitive golf. At 28 and the height of his powers, Jones was gone from the game, to compete only in his beloved Masters tournament.

Fitting, then, that such a legendary hole would provide Jones such a grand stage.