Merion Golf Club hosted the 113th U.S. Open this weekend. Despite all the encomiums to its place in golf’s history, Travis Timmons reminds us not to overlook the less savory aspects of its past.
“Merion is golf’s Fenway Park.” This was the opening line of the “Scorecard” feature in the latest Sports Illustrated. Normally, I skip over or, at best, skim golf talk stuff. But the opening line got me, that, and the iconic image of Ben Hogan taking the 18th hole.
So I figured Merion Golf Club was something I should maybe know something about. The course is a registered historic landmark, a site of legends (Bobby Jones, Hogan, Trevino, Nicklaus, etc.). The course’s trademarks are its 16th hole and its shortness (contrasted with most contemporary courses). It’s a “hallowed” sporting ground, buttressed by golfing legends, somber quotes, and wicket baskets.
But golf is sport. And Merion Golf Club is in America. Both these facts mean that the iconic golf course is intertwined with modern tensions and tragedy, like power, class, and race. Sport, as a site of mass public participation and viewership, often mirrors the larger social status quo and becomes a stage upon which social realities play themselves out (and more rarely is a catalyst to challenge or change the status quo). While in America, much of our history and heritage is stained by white supremacy (slavery, banishment of native tribes, abusive “othering” of various colored immigrant groups, etc.), so surely Merion is connected to these darker issues.
What I mean is that Merion Golf Club has for most of its history mirrored the white supremacy of the social status quo. Simply put, it wasn’t until (about) 1990 that the Golf Club integrated itself by having a “minority” member.
See, in order to host a big golf event, like the U.S. Open, a course must have policies in place that allow minorities to seek membership, if so desired by said parties. L.A. Parker traces some of this tale (hat tip to Tyler Green of Modern Art Notes for sharing this piece on Twitter) in his op-ed piece in the Trentonian, in which he condemns the hypocrisy of USGA’s integrated policy, which some elite courses seem to have reluctantly met with the token minority member or two. Parker illustrated the absurdity of this situation with the anecdote of Merion having to hire a consulting firm to survey its all-white members on whether the club should consider integrating (!). He adds another anecdote of Merion having to withdraw its 1994 U.S. Women’s Open bid, because it couldn’t promise to have a minority member by then (!).
I’m not going to claim to be an expert on golf, on Merion, or the USGA’s integration policies. Nor will I claim that Parker’s opining is the only account of these matters. However, these anecdotes belie an ugly underlining reality of white supremacy, masked in the guise of freedom of association, personal liberty, etc. These anecdotes also illustrate one of those instances in which actions (hiring a consulting firm to survey club members, then later withdrawing a bid) perhaps inadvertently puncture the veil of rhetoric, revealing an ugly reality.
I suppose the story of Merion’s racist past is not surprising, since – after all – it’s the story of many American institutions. However, what surprises me is the lack of any coverage about the ugly truth of Merion’s racist past.
No mention of racism and exclusionary policies appear in Sports Illustrated’s “Scorecard” profile. I know, I know, this particular type of historical information doesn’t directly speak to the purpose of the “Scorecard” piece; however, not speaking of the white stain on Merion’s past only serves to let it slip further away from our historical consciousness, which is thin enough in America anyhow. Oddly enough, even within the wikipedia entry for the course there is silence on Merion’s racist past. Yes, even within the homogeneous wordscape of “objectivity” that is becoming our collective memory we scrub away a national sin.
I am interested in narratives—the stories sports are made of—and especially the meanings we extract from these stories. Many sporting narratives become hallowed in their meaning, or come to resemble the hierophanies (the shining through of the sacred) that John Sexton writes about in Baseball as a Road to God. In the modern and contemporary worlds, sporting narratives are one of the only predominant social narratives we share on mass and communal scales. They matter.
Look, I’m in the business of searching passionately for these moments of hierophany in sport (e.g. my piece on kinetic beauty and LeBron James), but the more I read and write about sports, the more I can’t help but conclude that sport is locked in the sort of Faustian bargain that modern institutions always are: that of success being built on exploitation (or simply exclusion). And our sporting narratives must always account for this Faustian bargain, otherwise our storytelling papers over real suffering and horror. After all, progress must start with consciousness.
Of course I’m not writing this piece to categorically shun golf because its white stain is just so damn unbearable. If I did this for golf, then I might as well throw out all sports—and other cultural institutions for good measure! Again, sport is intertwined with the systemic issues that shape any society. So naturally golf is too. However, I think it’s worth mentioning in a post like this that there’s more to Merion’s narrative than what graces our mainstream discourses at this time when the iconic American golf course is receiving heaps of attention. And since I’m a sucker for narratives, I feel much responsibility in handling our legend-making, our hierophanies, with care.
A version of this post first appeared at Sport Is Our Story.
Photo: Hy Peskin/SI