In case you were losing
sleep over it...yes, the U.S. Golf Association will use Merion’s traditional
wicker basket "standards" for play during the U.S. Open in June. At least as of
It’s really not that
surprising, given the history and precedents. According to the USGA, only one
of the 17 U.S. national championships (including four U.S. Opens) held at the Merion
Golf Club’s East Course has used flags instead of the wicker baskets. That
would be the epic 1950 Open won by Ben Hogan in his heroic comeback performance.
There is a lot of repeated lore but little
documented fact surrounding the origin and commitment to using wicker baskets
at Merion. What is known is that Merion was surely not the only club to try out
wicker baskets at that time. It’s even possible that in the 1920s, there may
have been momentum building for wicker baskets to become the norm instead of the
flags we’ve become accustomed to.
The usual suspect
The most-repeated story starts with
Hugh Wilson, the golf course designer who, deservedly, got the bulk of the
credit for designing the East Course at Merion, finishing up his work for the
opening in 1912. The story goes that he had recently visited Scotland to soak
up classic golf course design. There he saw similar baskets atop pins on
courses there (or shepherds’ staffs, by one account). Fancying the basket
concept, Wilson adopted it at Merion.
One likely suspect is the legendary
Prestwick course in Scotland, as there is a 1903 painting showing a similar basket-topped
pin. However, a different storyline develops from the perspective of one
William S. Flynn, who would go on to design some of the finest courses in the
Philadelphia area. He was a greenskeeper and design apprentice
at Merion during its construction, though it is unclear exactly how close the
Wilson/Flynn relationship may or may not have been.
Thanks to the diligent observers over
at GolfClubAtlas.com, a July, 1915, article from The
Evening Ledger documented the
relative novelty of the pins: "The new hole pins at Merion have been the
subject of much favorable comment..." The pins had thick black and white stripes
and pear-shaped tops that were colored red for the outgoing nine and yellow for
the inward nine. (Today, the inward nine are painted a reddish orange.) The
short piece concluded: "William Flynn, the Merion greenskeeper, is the
Only a month later, on August 7th,
1915, a patent application for a "Golf Standard" was filed by one W.S. Flynn.
On the patent drawings (repeated link, but scroll down), it states "Inventor: William S. Flynn." The following
February, the patent was granted. In 1916, three issues of The American Golfer periodical ran the ad shown at the top of this
article, for "Champion Golf Standards" by Flynn & Peters: Golf Architects,
There is no record of Flynn traveling
to Scotland or England prior to this time, so it is likely that Wilson played a
part in the evolution of the wicker basket standard. Nevertheless, the
"uniqueness" of Merion’s wicker baskets is more certainly in question.
Some claim, through readings far and
wide, that the wicker baskets were fairly common for a time in the Philadelphia
area, with Lulu, Huntingdon Valley and Aronimink among those clubs rumored to
have used them. It’s likely that even Cobbs Creek had them at some point, as
Flynn had considerable influence over that course development as well. Further
afield, it is documented that Winged Foot West in New York and the San Francisco Golf Club both used them in the 1920s.
And even today, the Rivermont Golf Club near Atlanta, GA, is committed to its yellow baskets.
It’s possible that the Flynn &
Peters venture went bust quite quickly, or that the concept was only a fad. But
surely the high cost of producing, maintaining and replacing them was a factor,
which is outlined in a 2005
article by the USGA for that year’s U.S.
Amateur. Today, Merion still brings the standards in every night to prevent
them from "growing legs."
A thought that many have when they
first see the red-topped wicker basket is that one "benefit" of the wicker
baskets, in a golf purist kind of way, is that it reduces the wind information
available to the player. This is certainly true. Not only is there no flag to
flutter in the breeze, the poles of the wicker basket standard are much more
rigid than the flag pins in common use, which can bend significantly in high
However, there is no indication that
this feature was one of the "selling points" of the baskets. The main selling
point was that the basket is visible from greater distances than flags. And the
basket is always equally visible, regardless of wind. When a flag is limp or is
blowing straight away from or straight toward the player, the pin sometimes is difficult
That being said, the
no-wind-information argument would certainly fit with other purist characteristics
of Merion that seem to thwart the golfer at every turn—and live on to
this day. When teeing off, for instance, it’s critical to notice where the tee
box is pointing in relation to the best direction to aim to find the fairway.
These are often not the same direction. In addition, there are no yardage
markers of any kind on the golf course—on the tees, in the fairways, or
In researching this article, a couple
of other interesting facts came to light. It seems that there were almost no
sand traps on the original layout for three years. The custom may have been to
let nature take its course, to a degree, in suggesting where to locate swales
and hollows. More likely, observing actual play of the course by accomplished
amateurs and pros would suggest to the designers what strategic elements might
improve the intrigue of the play.
Another fun fact is that there are very
few old wicker baskets around that citizens own as souvenirs. Winners of the
USGA events held at Merion have one, but all the other wicker baskets are used
until they are broken, at which time they are destroyed.
Special thanks to the Trenham Golf History of Cobbs Creek, where I first spotted the William Flynn Golf
Standards Ad. The American
Golfer archives can be found on the LA84 Foundation website,
www.la84foundation.org. Also, current wicker baskets pictures and Merion logo can
be found here, and
check out a snapshot of Jim Simons at the 1971 U.S. Open pitching to a wicker basket.
Ron Romanik is principal of
the brand, packaging, and PR consultancy Romanik Communications (www.romanik.com), located in Elverson, PA. Ron’s bio is here.