There is no more recognisable golf course feature than the flag that adorns a green. It is a signature symbol and a beacon, golf’s version of a lighthouse — sometimes barely visible from the tee box but ever more noticeable as the golfer draws closer.
In practical terms, the flag is no mere adornment. With a glance, the flag tells the golfer the wind direction and how hard it is gusting, important factors as the next shot is assessed. The flag also has figurative powers; its fluttering is like a wave to the wayward golfer that beseeches, “This way, over here.”
But for about a century, there have been no flags at the Merion Golf Club’s East Course, where the holes are instead festooned with hard, egg-shaped wicker baskets attached to steel sticks.
The device stuck in a hole at Merion is known as a standard, an appropriately eccentric term at a golf club that is anything but standard.
As the 113th United States Open begins on Thursday, the wicker baskets are sure to be an emblem of the championship and of the television broadcasts. Historic Merion in general is nothing if not idiosyncratic, and it starts with the bulbous, unwavering red and orange wicker baskets — red for the front nine holes, orange for the back nine.
“The baskets are different and they could affect play, but I’m glad they’re here,” Jason Day of Australia.”
Louis Oosthuizen of South Africa, the 2010 British Open champion, did not disagree, though he found the baskets mildly amusing.
“I’ve never seen anything like them in my life,” he said. “There must be a good story about how they came about.”
There used to be a good story. Now there is something better: a mystery.
For years, it was presumed that Hugh Wilson, Merion’s architect, had visited England for design ideas, which would have been customary, before the 1912 opening of the East Course.
There was even a meticulously detailed tale of how Wilson was spending time with the American ambassador at the Court of St. James’s, where there were three small putting greens. The ambassador’s wife had put three shepherd’s crooks topped with flower baskets in the holes, as the story went.
For decades, that was supposed to be the genesis of the wicker baskets. But research in Merion’s prized and extensive archives revealed no trip to the British Isles by Wilson before 1912, and his name could not be found on the manifests of any ship sailing there.
Additionally, it was learned that the wicker baskets were not in use when the course made its debut in 1912. What is known is that by 1915, Bill Flynn, then the Merion superintendent, applied for and received federal patents for wicker baskets for golf holes.
The baskets, also known as wickers, were not uncommon at golf courses in England and Scotland in the mid-1850s, so it is likely they were the source of Merion’s now-distinctive design feature, but officially, there is no proven provenance.
That has not stopped there from being another story about how the baskets came to be created. In this account, Wilson got the idea from Scottish shepherds, who carried walking sticks topped with baskets, where they stored their lunches.
For most of the professionals playing to the Merion baskets this week, all the folklore is not food for thought. They have practical considerations, like trying to figure out how the wind at the green might affect their shots.
“The baskets could be a factor if it gets a little windy,” said Zach Johnson, the 2007 Masters champion. “I’m not a big fan of them because it’s not consistent with what we normally use. I’m not anti-Merion, but we’re so used to seeing flags.” NYT