Words by Matthew ChominskiPhotos by Christian Hafer
Light / Dark
In the midst of making a mess of a round at Merion Golf Club—having just missed a formality of a par putt on the ninth and muffing my tee shot on the 10th—mercy manifested itself under the guise of the lightning alarm system. Push in the tee, pick up the ball and hope you’ll return before long. My frustration quickly gave way to resignation. The sun was still peeking through the clouds, and besides, how sour can one be when facing a spell on Merion’s clubhouse porch?
We settled in amongst our fellow sidelined players, and a couple of Merion’s stout mugs appeared at our elbows. The combination eased the sting of a front nine where hit fairways and greens were betrayed as promises unkept. Despite some initial optimism, the skies soon darkened, the winds picked up and our prospects of resuming play took the tone of the clouds.
What’s to be done in such a spot? Put some pressure on the wallet’s plastic, acquiring some wicker basket-themed paraphernalia? Go deeper into some aforementioned mugs? We chose to do what any self-respecting kid would: go exploring.
My uncle, the member, disappeared for a short while, then returned with a knowing look—one that said, “C’mon, you gotta see this.” He didn’t say where we were going, but the spirit of adventure quickly took hold. We had all heard about the ghosts of Jones, Hogan and others that lived in the artifacts upstairs.
We weaved in and out of rooms, cutting through lines of tables that hours ago had hosted ladies busy about their bridge. Our feet were light as we moved into the main foyer, shuffling over hardwood pocked with decades-old spike marks. A tall painting of Merion’s original designer, Hugh Wilson, eyed our progress. The space was light and open, though the trophies and paintings left no doubt of the weight of this place. We hung a sharp left and started up the stairs.
At the top of the first flight, we entered a room that your imagination might conjure upon hearing the words “Merion Archives.” The fireplace and paneled wood, the silver and pewter glinting behind glass, and the rows of books were all there, framed letters on the walls bearing a who’s who of golf signatories. Up some more stairs sat the main archival room, its door open. This isn’t always the case. Aside from an appointment, special event or dumb luck (we fell into the third category), visitors will find the door understandably locked.
Before we could begin to process what was before us, down the second set of steps appeared John G. Capers III, Merion’s historian and archivist. Our dumb luck turned to good fortune as we caught him at work. His shock of white hair, delight in the arcane, and professorial air might conjure a real-life Dumbledore, but the loafers and Torrey Pines polo gave him away. There’s no magic; Capers is just a man who knows and loves golf. And Merion. And he was happy to tell us about both.
He began with the letters written to ranking members of the club over the years. Nicklaus is there, Palmer over here, and you can see the one from Herb Wind ascending the second stack of stairs. The ones that most drew my attention were a set from Bobby Jones, or Robert Tyre Jones Jr., as the letterhead states. The link between Jones and Merion bears a brief rehearsing. He played in his first USGA event here in 1916, advancing to the quarterfinals of the U.S. Amateur at the ripe age of 14. Eight years later, he returned and won his first Amateur title here. And then, in 1930, he won another Amateur championship on Merion’s 11th hole, closing out the final leg of golf’s first-ever Grand Slam and ascending into immortality.
What struck me was the shifting manner of Jones’ signatures. They show his gradual decline as he dealt with the disease debilitating his central nervous system. There is a real and certain grit in the shaky scrawl. Capers told us that Jones insisted on signing with his own hand each message sent on his letterhead. At the end, he did it by way of a pen fitted through a tennis ball that he could grip. The progressive looseness of his script in later letters reveals his lengthy struggle.
As the storm outside bore down, Capers walked us down Merion’s memory lane. We got the story of the wickers and the Quaker influence on their patented red color. Things got even more tactile when Capers let us hold one of Ben Hogan’s 3-woods. Turns out the Hawk had a way of wrapping his clubs so that a ridge ran vertically up and down the back side of the grip. We then looked at one of his irons. The clubface was worn down about the width of a fingertip—indented, really—in one place: exactly where you want to strike the ball.
The passion in Capers’ voice was palpable; Merion is woven through every one of his fibers. The Capers family’s presence here began before he was born, and growing up he played many rounds with his mother. She was a stick, winning 11 women’s club titles. A promising young player, it took Capers a while to surpass his mother’s tally, though eventually he did so on his way to capturing 19 of his own, ranging from his days in the junior ranks up through the super-senior division. Not long ago, after a second knee replacement, Capers shot his age, carding a 78 at Merion’s West course. Like mother, like son.
A member of the USGA Museum committee and an original member of the Golf Heritage Society, Capers is not dedicated just to Merion’s archival efforts; he has taken to the road to aid other clubs undertaking similar endeavors.
He can relate to starting from scratch. For years, Merion’s archives existed as a junk room in an old barn, a tangle of papers, books, photos and trophies. In 2001, the club created the archive’s current space in the clubhouse, and Capers set about organizing and growing the collection in similar fashion to a functioning museum. By 2013, the USGA’s website proclaimed that Merion boasted “arguably the most extensive archives of any golf club in the country.” Today, pieces come from all over, gifts of members, guests and employees. He told us that someone on the waitstaff recently brought in a necktie marked with the Merion logo, probably from the early 1950s. Her brother found it at a garage sale in Florida and figured he should send it up north.
The archive now holds hundreds of thousands of digitized documents, more than 1,000 books and every kind of golf ephemera you could hope for. These go from knickknacks as seemingly trivial as a plastic naked-lady golf tee to the scorecard of Hogan’s legendary playoff victory in the 1950 U.S. Open.
Lest anyone get the wrong impression, the archival efforts at Merion are anything but a permanent backward stare at the dusty past. While the history is significant—since opening in 1912, Jones, Hogan, Chick Evans, Lee Trevino, David Graham and Justin Rose are among those who have lifted trophies at Merion’s 20 USGA events—the club continues to look ahead and is set to hold five more USGA championships by midcentury. Capers and the club’s hierarchy view the archives as a way of passing on the spirit of the place. New members and staff are brought through and oriented to the club’s history and ethos. Capers helped create a walking tour of the archives and clubhouse that takes up to 90 minutes, narrated by Jim Nantz. “It’s pretty cool,” he says.
While his primary work is never done, Capers is in a place now where he can spread the gospel of an archive to other clubs looking to get started or just get organized. He gives a presentation, freely and happily shared, that considers general ideals and motivations, then gets down to the practical and the how-to. In it, he tells a story of how history can be found anywhere; at Merion, they once discovered old scoreboards and handicap boards hidden behind a fake wall that had been opened up on property. The title of the presentation serves as Capers’ rallying cry for his and other clubs: “If you don’t start collecting yesterday today, there is no tomorrow.”
Before leaving, I asked Capers what this place meant to him. Like a true historian, he paused, then spun a yarn:
“I once came over here at 11 o’clock at night. Merion is not a late-night club. At 11 o’clock in the middle of summer, you can get a chair and sit on the back of the first tee and nobody is around. And I spent that hour in solitude. You could see the twinkling lights through the trees as the wind was moving the leaves. And I just sat there, thinking of all the people who had stood where I was sitting. Recently we found a ticket from an exhibition that was played here, and [Harry] Vardon played in it. So now I had an opportunity to go from Vardon to Jones to Hogan to Trevino to Nicklaus. That takes you back to the 1890s. It’s time and place—just lucky as a club, as a course, as a piece of turf, to walk in the same place that all of these people have walked in one way or another. And you just don’t get that opportunity at too many places.”
After signing the guest book, Capers and I came down the steps, considering the merits of Mark Frost’s The Match. Then word came from the bottom of the stairs: We were going back out. On the walk to the course, my dad, my cousin and I put stock in having held Hogan’s 3-wood. Surely some imperceptible spark flitted through the grip into our mortal frames.
As we picked up our round, I went back to the site of my miserable drive, sitting in the rough with bunkers between me and the flag. The shot wasn’t long, but it wasn’t exactly comfy. The sun threw its rays off streaking clouds. My weight went back, then forward. Contact, flight, then the ball hung in the damp air. I saw a comforting bounce and watched it settle on the green with a look at par. Not exactly Hogan’s touch, but it was a shot I wouldn’t soon forget.