By Helen Ross, PGATOUR.COM
ARDMORE, Pa. -- Several generations of golfers will be introduced to Merion Golf Club as it hosts the U.S. Open for the first time in 32 years.
Granted, most fans have seen the iconic photo of Ben Hogan launching that 1-iron down the 18th fairway. But not everyone has noticed the wicker baskets perched atop the heavy metal flagsticks.
The baskets, which are shaped like an egg and painted bright red, are unique in this modern era but can be traced to the 1850s. An article in the Evening Public Ledger in 1915, two years after Merion opened, first mentioned the unusual adornment.
“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."
No one seems to know exactly where the baskets originated, although most accounts trace them to a trip Merion member Hugh Wilson, who designed the East and West courses, took to the UK in the early 1900s to study the golf architecture there. Courses like Prestwick used baskets at the time.
Merion is a tight, tree-lined layout, though, so the absense of a flag tests the caddies, in particular.
"They don't like it because they can't tell the wind, so it makes their job harder," defending U.S. Open champion Webb Simpson said with a smile. "They might be a little on edge to keep their job this week."
Simpson says the players, on the other hand, are intrigued.
"We like it because it's different," Simpson said. "I honestly think it will make us make decisions quicker. We're sitting there a lot of times and we see one flag over here blowing that way and a flag over here blowing that way and we get confused and second guess. ... We'll never play anything like this. So it's a once in a lifetime opportunity.
"It's just part of the tradition of Merion, part of the tradition of the club."
Rory McIlroy, who won the 2011 U.S. Open, said the lasers he used in
practice rounds last week didn't pick up the wicker baskets. He's confident he and his caddy J.P. Fitzgerald will be able to figure out the wind direction without the benefit of the flags, though.
"I guess it's just we're so used to looking up at the flagstick and seeing that it's blowing a certain direction and just for confirmation before you pull the trigger more than anything else," McIlroy said. "But you just have to commit and trust yourself and trust your caddie and trust that you've got the wind right."
With the exception of the 1950 U.S. Open, the baskets have been used at every USGA championship held at Merion since the 1916 U.S. Amateur.
So what if a shot is so precise it lands in the basket?
Well, a flagstick and the basket are movable obstructions. According to Rule 24-1 of the Rules Of Golf, if a ball comes to rest in a movable obstruction on the putting green, it must be placed directly below where it came to rest.
In this case, though, the player isn't allowed to place it in the hole. Decision 17/6 says that it must be placed on the lip of the hole.