Thursday, June 13, 2013

The Origin of Merion's Wicker Baskets


Something that many have been wondering about this week is, what the heck are those baskets on the flag stick at the U.S. Open?  Here is is as explained by Wayne S. Morrison in an article released by the USGA.

The origin of the distinctive wicker baskets atop the standards used at Merion Golf Club’s East Course is no longer the vexing mystery it once was. While a few questions remain, research efforts have produced a number of answers.

The baskets were not used when the East Course was opened for play in 1912. Newspaper and magazine articles at the time discussed the uniqueness of the course yet failed to mention the famous basket tops that we immediately associate with Merion Golf Club today.

One of the first newspaper accounts describing the basket standards is found in the July 2, 1915 edition of Philadelphia’s Evening Public Ledger.

“The new hole pins at Merion have been the subject of much favorable comment, not alone among the men stars who played there last, but by the women who played in the Griscom Cup matches three weeks ago, as well. Instead of the usual flags, which, when a head wind is blowing are invisible, wooden pins, with alternate stripes of black and white, and large, wicker, pear shaped tops, are used. On the out holes the tops are red, on the in holes yellow, and they can be seen for a mile. William Flynn, the Merion greenskeeper, is the originator.”

Today, the first nine baskets remain true to the original red, while the second nine baskets are no longer yellow but a more visible orange color.

A search of the United States Patent Office records indicated that William Flynn applied for a patent on August 7, 1915, which was granted on February 29, 1916.

Merion may have been the first American club to utilize wicker basket standards. The use of wicker baskets as golf standards can be traced to earlier instances in the Old World. Historical records reveal that the earliest evidence of cane and basket hole markers was in the 1850s where a resilient bamboo cane was surmounted with a basket top.

Hugh Wilson, the principal designer of both Merion East and West courses, went abroad to study the golf courses of Great Britain in 1912 prior to the opening of the East Course. We know from newspaper accounts that Wilson visited Formby, Hoylake, Troon, Prestwick, Muirfield, North Berwick, St Andrews and the Heathland courses around London, of which the renowned Sunningdale was surely one of the courses visited.

Did Wilson influence William Flynn’s development of the basket standards? The strict amateur rules at the time would have prevented Wilson from capitalizing on any work in golf. Perhaps the basket standards patented by Flynn were inspired by Wilson’s tour of British golf courses.

Tony Nickson, an English golf historian from Royal Lytham & St. Annes Golf Club, visited Merion in April 1989 and presented the club with a copy of a painting by Michael Brown entitled “First International Match Scotland v. England, Prestwick Golf Club, 1903.”

The painting shows a caddie holding a golf standard with a basket. The use of baskets on golf standards was not widely adopted, though Stoke Poges in Buckinghamshire, not far from Sunningdale, and Golf de St. Germain northwest of Paris utilized the basket standards.

Golf standards topped with flags were far more universally adopted, especially after the standardization of the hole size in 1894 and with the introduction of metal cups used to hold the stick. Flags atop the staffs indicate wind direction and intensity and are appreciated by golfers nearly everywhere. Yet Merion Golf Club does not provide outside influence on decision making. There are no yardage markers and laser range finders are not allowed. The golfer and caddie must use other perception cues to determine distance, proper shot shape and trajectory.

The March, September and October editions of The American Golfer had advertisements offering “Champion Golf Standards” which were flagsticks with baskets such as those found at Merion. The advertisement mentions that these flagsticks had been adopted by some of the leading courses in the country. The company sold the standards in seven-foot and 10-foot lengths.

The basket golf standard at Merion Golf Club is widely known and figures prominently in the club logo. The baskets were used at a number of other clubs. In Philadelphia, the baskets were used at Huntingdon Valley Country Club, LuLu Country Club, Bala Golf Club, Old York Road Golf Club and Brookline Square Golf Club. Elsewhere, baskets were used at the Old White Course at the Greenbrier, Sea Island Golf Club, San Francisco Golf Club and Winged Foot West and East courses. Philadelphia golf architect A.W. Tillinghast may have influenced the use of the baskets at the last two courses.

The Flynn standard differs in two ways from the poles we see today at the East Course of Merion. The pole did not taper at the bottom on the Flynn patent unlike the poles in use today. It must have made it far more difficult to chip-in with the wider pole. The baskets used today are woven all the way down to the metal cone attached to the pole. Flynn’s baskets had a narrow band of open weave at the bottom. This design may have made the baskets more susceptible to breakage. Today the closed weave goes down into the metal cone and, according to head professional Scott Nye, is a more sturdy design.

Why are the outward nine-hole standards dark red and the inward nine-hole standards orange?

From the 1915 onward, the baskets on the outward holes have been painted red, the same color used today for the forward tees. Sometime later the inward nine baskets began to be painted orange, same as the current color of the back tees. Longtime superintendent Richie Valentine passed on a bit of wicker basket trivia to the current director of golf operations at Merion, Matt Shaffer.

When Shaffer questioned Valentine about the colors used on the famous Merion baskets, Richie answered with a question of his own. Valentine asked Shaffer what colors the standards reminded him of. Thinking about it for a minute, Shaffer realized that the red is the color of Toro mowers and the orange the color of Jacobsen mowers. In the parsimonious Quaker way, extra touch-up paint in the maintenance shed was used to paint the baskets. Perhaps they ran out of yellow paint and switched to Jacobsen. Perhaps it was determined that orange was easier to see from a distance than yellow. While few clubs today use basket standards, the red and orange baskets remain one of many cherished traditions at Merion Golf Club.

The basket standards have been used for each USGA championship at Merion since the 1916 U.S. Amateur, with the exception of the 1950 U.S. Open.
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