ARDMORE, Pa. – The most mysterious woman in the golf world will take her turn in the spotlight this week. (No, not Lindsey Vonn.) Her impact will be front and center, clear to millions of people, and yet even the folks at the U.S. Open have no idea who she is.
"I've been at this job for 12 years," says Andy Mutch, curator at Merion Golf Club, site of this weekend's 113th U.S. Open. "And I don't know."
The anonymous woman is in charge of making the famous wicker baskets at the top of the flagsticks here. A member of the grounds crew did the job until 1980, and since then it's been her. The baskets are taken down after every round to keep them from being stolen, which is ironic considering legend has it that the baskets were modeled after staffs European shepherds used to keep their lunch away from the animals. Mutch jokes the reason for the secrecy has some parallels there.
"Maybe she doesn't want to be bombarded with golf fans who want a wicker basket in their basement or man cave," he suggests.
The baskets and their mysterious maker are just one nugget in a gold mine of history at Merion, located 10 miles east of downtown Philadelphia. If these links could speak, they could tell stories involving everyone from Bobby Jones to Lee Trevino to Yul Brynner. Augusta National might be the most famous golf course in America, but Merion could be the most fascinating.
How fascinating? Well, the host of this year's second leg of golf's grand slam is actually where the term "grand slam" was coined. In 1930, Jones won the U.S. Amateur here after claiming titles at the British Amateur, British Open, and U.S. Open. An Atlanta journalist named O.B. Keeler called it a "grand slam" and the name has now been around longer than its tie to the Amateur events Jones won.
"It's one of the most important events that's ever happened in golf," Mutch says.
Jones had his coming out party here in 1916, at the age of 14, when he took the golf world by storm with his electric play and his third-rail temper. Mutch says Jones went around the course screaming, cussing and "helicoptering" clubs. That kind of behavior would get any player ostracized from the golf community today, let alone a teenager, but back then the notable scribes of the time, no less than Grantland Rice, basically gave the kid a pass. Mutch describes Jones as a "total embarrassment," yet says the crowds ate it up. "They absolutely loved him," he says. "It's Philadelphia, remember?"
Jones' play sent a ripple throughout the nation. Eight years later, he'd come back here and win the U.S. Amateur.
Tiger Woods rocked the sports world by winning the Masters at 21 in 1997, but Jones' play at Merion made him arguably the greatest child prodigy in sports history. When he won the "grand slam" in 1930, the course was so crowded that players needed police escorts to each tee. He retired only a few months later, at age 28.
Incredibly, Jones' achievements may not be the most amazing in the course's history. That honor probably belongs to Ben Hogan, who came back from a near-fatal bus collision to win here in 1950. Doctors were unsure Hogan would ever walk again, and 16 months later he was here, forcing a playoff despite serious pain. The photo of his 1-iron approach on 18 (his 36th hole of that day) is one of the most famous in the sport's lore.
As if that wasn't enough Open legend, Trevino beat Jack Nicklaus here in 1971, despite missing a par putt in the final round when a boy fell out of a tree. The next day, Trevino threw a rubber snake at Nicklaus before beating the much longer hitter in the playoff.
All this history, dating back more than a century, brings to mind the obvious question: Why hasn't the U.S. Open been held here since 1981? The course is at the doorstep of one of America's great cities, so close to Philadelphia that countless residents have taken the 30-minute train ride to play here after work. Merion has hosted 18 USGA championships, an incredible number. "It's had the highest level of competition," Mutch says. "At every level of golf they have held a championship. I'm not sure any other club in America can say that."
So why has Merion waited so long?
That brings us to Yul Brynner.
The Russian-born actor known for his role as the King of Siam was in town for a stint in "The King and I" and he requested a remote, quiet spot where he could stay. His agent put him up in a house here, on Golf House Road, as the Open was starting. Instead of getting peace and quiet, he got a mob of fans outside his window.
"Word got out that Brynner took it out on his people as if he were the King of Siam punishing the lowly members of his court," jokes former USGA director David Fay in a recent Golf Digest interview.
Obviously Brynner's meltdown didn't tip the scales away from Merion, but it was symbolic of an era when majors were moving out of the cozy confines of smaller courses and into the corporate tent era. Merion had always been a brutal test, with its narrow fairways and its spooky bunkers that seem to stare straight back at the golfers as they approach, but it was short (under 7,000 yards) and hemmed in. Only a concerted effort by Fay, Mike Davis, and some club members who bought land near the sixth hole pushed momentum back in favor of Merion returning to the major circuit. Fay told Golf Digest that because of the big broadcast deals in recent years (Thank you, Mr. Woods), "We could afford to take a financial hit every so often."
It's a shame that a visit to this course is considered any type of sacrifice. But holding the Open here would be like having the Super Bowl in Notre Dame Stadium – a delight for traditionalists but not fit for the times. It's a risk, and one made more dicey by the bad weather threatening to make some parts of the course unplayable. Sad but true: returning to Merion might be looked back on as a mistake.
Then again, waking up these echoes by putting Tiger Woods and today's greats on this postage stamp of a course might give this tournament something that might entice even the most hardened mercenaries a reason to come back here soon: serious history.
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