Merion Golf Club and the decline of WASPs

Ben Hogan, 1-iron to Merion`s 18th green, 1950 U.S. Open

The U.S. Open golf tournament starts tomorrow (assuming it`s not inundated by thunder storms) at Merion Golf Club in Philadelphia`s Main Line suburbs. The US Golf Association is taking a major financial hit to bring the Open back to where Bobby Jones finished his Grand Slam in 1930, where Ben Hogan came back from his seemingly crippling 1949 car crash, and where Lee Trevino tossed Jack Nicklaus a rubber snake before beating him in a 1971 playoff.

A century ago, Merion club member and amateur golf architect Hugh Wilson brilliantly wedged the club`s new golf course into only a little over 120 acres, less than most municipal golf courses. So, ticket sales and corporate entertainment tents must be limited this week. 

Why go back to Merion instead of a more lucrative site? Lots of reasons, but partly because it`s one of the world`s great golf course designs. The USGA functions as a sort of crypto-WASP pride organization that keeps alive the reputations of works of artistic genius from early in the 20th Century.

But that also serves to illustrate the fairly inevitable dissipation of cultural dynamism. Once your civilization has reached a point where it creates golf clubs like Merion, the descendants of the founders tend to be more apt to spend their time playing Merion rather than creating new and even better monuments.

By the way, from 1898 onward, before the construction of the current course, the Merion Cricket and Golf Club was very active in women`s golf. Merion`s orginal course, for example, hosted the USGA`s Women`s Amateur championship in 1904 and 1909. We hear a vast amount about feminist history and the rise of a new wave of feminism in 1969 after the first wave of feminism from 1840s into the 1920s. What`s seldom made explicit, however, is that American WASP culture was much more pro-feminist than the newer immigrant cultures that rose to power in the mid-20th Century.

By the way, if you someday get invited by a member to play Merion, here are the rules:

• A FEW POINTS TO BE AWARE OF • 

Cell Phones: The only place you can use your cell phone, pager, or blackberry (or any form of PDA), is in your vehicle. 

This is a mark of a high-tone club. I recently got roped into serving as a volunteer at a social event at the nouveau riche Sherwood club where Joe Montana, Will Smith, and Angelo Mozilo are members. (The club newsletter had a picture of the winners of last month`s member-guest tournament: the winning member was Wayne Gretzky. Second place was Kenny G.) There were signs on the outside of the clubhouse designating locations where cellphone use was permitted. This may have something to do with the intersection of tax benefits and anti-discrimination laws: by restricting the holding of business discussions on premises, this frees up clubs to avoid EEOC investigations into their membership diversity. Or maybe they just have good taste and their members like to concentrate upon golf rather than their stupid phones.

Changing shoes: Shoes are not to be changed in the East Course parking lot or in the Caddiemaster’s Office. Please come up to the Men’s or Women’s Locker Room where our locker room attendants will be happy to get a locker for you.

Changing into your golf shoes in the parking lot says Muny Golf.

Attire: Hats, caps, and visors worn by gentlemen should be removed while they are under cover (Dining Terraces & in the Clubhouse). “No cover under cover.”

Merion has a famous outdoor but canopied verandah lunch area right behind the first tee. Remove your cap before you set foot under the canvas. This sounds like one of those rules for the sake of having rules that WASPs enjoy.

Gentlemen are to have their shirts tucked in at all times. Bermuda shorts are permitted for men and women; knee length is preferred for both men and women, not to exceed 3” above the knee; golf skorts and skirts not to exceed 4” above the knee. Several items are considered inappropriate, and will not be permitted on either golf course, on the practice range, or in or around the clubhouse: tank-tops, short sleeve mock turtlenecks (men only), t-shirts, denim of any color, cut-offs, tennis-length skirts, short shorts, flip flops, crocs, leather sandals (men only), cargo shorts/pants, and jogging attire. 

Smoking Policy: Smoking is prohibited inside the Clubhouse and all outside dining areas. Smoking is only permitted in the designated area of the Front Porch (driveway side). 

Golf: There are no “mulligans” allowed on the first tee. Merion is a walking golf course.

Over the last generation, walking-only has become the mark of elite golf courses. This has led to a revival of caddie programs, although the demographics have shifted. Caddies are rarely anymore local urchins or colorful blacks with nicknames like “Cemetery” (the monicker of President Eisenhower`s favorite caddy at Augusta National because he`d somehow survived getting his throat slashed in a dispute over a lady`s affections). Caddies are more likely Wharton or Haverford students. Thus, professional golfers now come from uniformly upper middle class backgrounds, unlike in the old days where a Hogan or Sarazen could learn golf as a caddy.

Carts are only given with written authorization from a doctor due to a medical condition. 

Merion has a fine second course, Merion West, a mile away that allows carts, which makes it easier to preserve Merion East as a shrine to Golf the Way It Should Be.

The use of distance measuring devices (range finders) is prohibited.  

Get a caddy.

Pace of Play: Starting in 2006 the Board of Governors has emphasized the elimination of slow play. Please be prepared to play in 4 hours or less. Be prepared to play at all times. Always carry an extra ball. Be ready to hit when it is your turn and feel free to play ready golf. Always rake your own fairway bunker and replace your own divot. Repair ball marks and prepare to putt while others are playing their ball. Play from the appropriate tees (guests with a course handicap of 10 or higher may not play from the back tees). If you reach your maximum allowable score, pickup.

Elite private courses emphasize fast play. Elite public courses like Pebble Beach or Whistling Straits tend to have very slow play.

By the way, I realize nobody is interested in the arcane topic of country club memberships, but I still want to call attention to this little reminiscence by U. of Chicago economist Casey Mulligan about the late sociologist Father Doctor Andrew Greeley`s study of ethnicity at Beverly Country Club just southwest of Chicago, with its fine Donald Ross course:

He was interested in assertions that Catholics were not segregated from Protestants, especially in Midwestern cities like Chicago. As evidence against segregation, Father Greeley told me, many people pointed to Chicago institutions that included significant numbers of both Catholics and Protestants. The Beverly Country Club on the southwest side of the city was one of those institutions, and in fact had roughly equal numbers of Catholic and Protestant members. 

Father Greeley wondered whether the club was nonetheless highly segregated on the inside, but, working long before the days of surveillance cameras and eye-recognition software, was faced with the challenge of measuring internal segregation. He approached the caddy master at the club, who kept records on which club members played golf and at what “tee time.” Up to four members could play golf together, and in doing so they would have a common tee time. Father Greeley was permitted to examine the tee sheets and found that Catholics and Protestants rarely shared a tee time: Catholics and Protestants might have been at the same club, but they were not golfing together. 

(If you are wondering how tee sheets would indicate religion, Catholics in the Beverly neighborhood were primarily Irish and had distinctly Irish surnames. Moreover, Father Greeley was the assistant pastor at a Catholic parish in that neighborhood and knew many of the families).

I`m slowly collecting information for an article on country clubs and ethnicity around 1950-1970. The role of WASP clubs in turning down granddad for membership in current elites` views on, say, immigration can hardly be overstated. Yet, the actual history turns out to be much more complicated and interesting than the stereotypes.