In grill rooms from California to Maine, golf fans still are savoring the memories and trying to make sense of the meltdowns from the U.S. Open at The Olympic Club in San Francisco. Here in Philadelphia, meanwhile, anticipation is beginning to build for the 2013 Open, to be hosted by Merion Golf Club in Ardmore.
Across town in Chestnut Hill, at Philadelphia Cricket Club, however, the focus these days is on a couple of Opens from a much earlier era, in 1907 and 1910.
You know, Philadelphia’s oft-forgotten U.S. Opens.
When it comes to U.S. Opens in Philadelphia’s past, the one that towers above all others is the 1950 Open at Merion, where Ben Hogan, on gimpy legs, famously limped to his most memorable victory.
Scratch a little deeper and you can find people who know a little something about the three other Opens at Merion: 1981 (won by David Graham), 1971 (Lee Trevino), even 1934 (Olin Dutra). Or maybe the 1939 Open, at Philadelphia Country Club, won by Byron Nelson.
Only true history buffs know much about those two Opens hosted by the Cricket Club more than a century ago. The 1907 Open was won by Alex Ross, brother of famed golf course architect Donald Ross; the 1910 Open title went to little-known Alex Smith.
Of course, when we say the Cricket Club hosted those two Opens, we don’t mean the club’s two well-regarded courses in Flourtown, the Wissahickon Course or the Militia Hill Course, which didn’t come along until 1922 and 2002, respectively.
No, the ’07 and ’10 Opens were staged at the Cricket Club’s original course, now called the St. Martins Course, in Chestnut Hill, out behind the club’s sprawling clubhouse.
It was a lovely course fashioned across the gently rolling hillsides. According to the club’s sesquicentennial history, published in 2004, the original nine holes were laid out in 1895 by a man named Sanders Handford, under the direction of the golf committee. In 1898, a second, adjacent nine was laid out by Willie Tucker, the golf pro at Philadelphia Country Club.
Through the years, as the Wissahickon Course grew in popularity and stature, the St. Martins Course lost its cache. Sometime around World War II, the course gave way to home sites, and the old 18-hole course shriveled to nine.
In the years since, rounds dropped precipitously at the St. Martins Course. It became a place for a quick nine after work, a walker’s delight, but mostly the province of the club’s seniors, juniors and women golfers.
Now it’s in the midst of a full-blown restoration, taking the course back to 1910. Rounds are up. Some of the club’s best players convene for a nine-hole outing each Monday evening.
It was about three years ago, when the Cricket Club was in discussions with architect Keith Foster about renovating the Wissahickon Course (to begin soon after the 2013 Open at Merion), that Foster became aware of the existence of the old St. Martins course. A restoration specialist, Foster had to see it. Immediately, he was intrigued.
Two problems. First, the original design plans were nowhere to be found. And, second, money was tight, because pretty much all of the club’s $13 million capital expansion plan already was committed to the Wissahickon course and updates to the clubhouse, pool and squash courts.
“If we were going to do this, we were going to have to be very creative,” said Dan Meersman, director of grounds, overseeing all three Cricket Club courses.
Work began in earnest last September and continued through much of the mild winter, with Foster drawing on his knowledge of course architecture from those early days.
Of the original 18 holes, four holes survive intact: No. 1, No. 2, No. 8 and No. 9. The sixth green is also original, although the hole now plays from a different direction. During construction all 20 bunkers were dug out and restored, and every green was rebuilt and expanded.
To expand the greens, they did not move truckloads of dirt. Instead, they stripped perimeters and used the core plugs from aerated greens to backfill, then top-dressed the new, enlarged area, before seeding with bent grass.
To restore the bunkers back to 1910, they dug down until they hit, well, pay dirt.
“The evidence of the original bunkers was all there,” said Meersman. “When we excavated them out, you could actually see the original cavities from the 1800s.”
On some holes, the constant splashing of sand from bunkers had caused the green to change shapes, encroaching on the original putting surface.
“This green had become a punchbowl over time from sand splashing out,” said Meersman, surveying the reconstructed second green.
There, the flashings of the bunkers that had become sand were replaced by the original grass, and the edges of the punchbowl green was dug down by as much as 18 inches.
If all goes as planned, the Cricket Club can show off the restored St. Martins Course next June when movers and shakers in the world of golf are in town for the Open at Merion.