Merion weaves its wicker baskets into golf history

Wicker baskets are practically a trademark of Merion Golf Club, site of the 2013 U.S. Open.

Wicker baskets are practically a trademark of Merion Golf Club, site of the 2013 U.S. Open.

— To Dr. Perry Camp and my friends at Walla Walla (Wash.) Country Club – golf fanatics who expressed curiosity about the wicker baskets at Merion Golf Club – here is everything you ever wanted to know about the world’s most celebrated flagless golf course.

Merion’s East Course, site of this year’s U.S. Open, has wicker baskets on top of its flagsticks. I suppose, in the spirit of accuracy, flagsticks could be called wickersticks.

Tommy Bolt, himself a U.S. Open winner, famously identified Merion’s wicker baskets as “wicker waste baskets.” Defending U.S. Open champion Webb Simpson called them “a nice touch.”

Bolt’s quote was ironic, because he played in just one competition at Merion, missing the cut in the 1950 U.S. Open. That event was the only one among 17 national championships played at Merion – starting with the 1916 U.S. Amateur and continuing to the present day – in which the wicker baskets were replaced by flags.

Why the substitution? Even club historian John Capers doesn’t know, although he speculates it could have been the result of an incident at the 1949 U.S. Women’s Amateur at Merion. In that championship, one contestant was unnerved when her ball ricocheted off a basket during match play.

“Maybe they said, ‘We don’t want a national championship decided by a ball deflected off a wicker basket,’ ” Capers ventured.

A ball deflecting is one thing, while a ball sticking in a wicker basket is another matter indeed. The Rules of Golf are clear: If a ball is stuck in a wicker basket atop a flagstick, or furled in a flag, the player removes the ball and places it on the lip of the cup. A one-inch putt, anyone?

Wicker baskets have been used by a handful of other golf clubs in the United States. The Seaside Course at Sea Island (Ga.) Golf Club comes to mind. Although wicker baskets are not exclusive to Merion, they have helped fortify a nostalgic atmosphere here at the 2013 U.S. Open.

After all, this is where Bobby Jones concluded his Grand Slam in 1930 with a triumph in the U.S. Amateur. It is where Ben Hogan fought back from a savage auto accident to win the 1950 U.S. Open in a playoff with Lew Worsham and George Fazio. It is where Lee Trevino defeated Jack Nicklaus in another U.S. Open playoff in 1971.

Time for a golf history trivia question: Where and when did Hogan, without a 7-iron in his bag, say, “There are no 7-iron shots at (fill in the blank).”

Good guess. It was Merion, 1950. In 1930, the year of the Grand Slam, the name was Merion Cricket Club. By the time Hogan won the 1950 U.S. Open, the name was Merion Golf Club because the two clubs had separated.

Today the Merion Cricket Club still exists a mile down the road from Merion Golf Club.

Nobody knows exactly where the wicker concept originated. Merion’s East Course, under the banner of the Merion Cricket Club, opened in 1912. Early photos show flags and not baskets. According to Capers, the first reference to wicker baskets was found in 1915. That also was the year William Flynn, one of the designers of the course, received a patent for manufacturing wicker baskets.

Perhaps Flynn was the wicker man, perhaps not. Short of a time machine, we probably will never know.

Why don’t more golf clubs use wicker baskets today? Probably because of the expense and the need for maintenance.

The Merion wicker baskets are made by a woman in North Carolina. “To purchase the baskets and buy the paint and maintain those wicker baskets is certainly different from buying a flag,” Capers observed.

The baskets on Merion’s East Course are red on the outgoing nine and orange on the incoming nine. The back nine baskets used to be yellow, but the color was changed for some unknown reason. The poles are striped with red on the front nine and orange on the back nine.

“The poles themselves are not fiberglass, they’re solid metal,” Capers said. “You hit one of those poles, you’re gonna really go.”

Furthermore, the poles are 7 1/2 feet tall, including 14 inches for the basket itself. This is 18 inches taller than conventional flagsticks.

The height of the wickersticks can affect a golfer’s ability to judge distance, although today’s touring pros play by yardage and are mostly unaffected by visual anomalies.

It is interesting that the companion West Course at Merion uses regular flags, red on the front and orange on the back.

Capers, who retired five years ago from the publishing industry, grew up playing golf at Merion. He considers himself a lucky man and thus says with conviction, “We have incredible archives, almost 100,000 digitized items, all hard copy (articles and stories), plus 10,000 photos, all digitized. One of the treasures for me is to be able help other clubs start their own archives. It’s absolutely true: If you don’t start collecting yesterday today, there will be no tomorrow.

“Most clubs just don’t know what they have. It isn’t necessary to have hosted a national championship, or a regional championship, or even a state championship. You just have to have a club. We can help them. That’s what Merion likes to do – pass on elements of the game to everybody who loves golf.”

And then there’s wicker love.

What price a wicker basket? In April, an authentic wicker basket from Merion was sold at an independent auction for $5,671.80.

Be assured, that’s no wicker waste basket.

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