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Merion Golf Club's Legacy Among Amateur Golfers and U.S. Open Professionals

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Family Affair: For 72 years, Tom Valentine’s father and grandfather maintained Merion Golf Club’s legendary turf. (Photo by Luigi Ciuffetelli)
For the better part of a year, a huge digital clock in the maintenance office at Merion Golf Club has been counting down the seconds to the 2013 U.S. Open. The Ardmore institution will host the event June 10-16. The club welcomed its last Open 32 years ago.

It’s a perfect time, then, to pay homage to the first family of turf—at least, as far as Merion goes. Well, beyond Merion, really.

Tom Valentine is the middle son of Richie Valentine and the grandson of Joseph Valentine. Both were course superintendents at Merion—Joseph until his retirement in 1962, then Richie, who retired in 1989, eight years after Merion’s last U.S. Open. During the Valentines’ 72-year run, Merion hosted 13 major golf-tour events, including five U.S. Amateurs, four U.S. Opens and two U.S. Women’s Amateurs.

“The legacy of this family is like no other golf course in the world in duration,” says John Capers, who is Merion’s archivist and historian, among other club responsibilities.

Now 48, Tom Valentine lives in Malvern. He and his older brother, Rich, and youngest brother, John, grew up working at Merion. They called it “the farm.” Since then, Tom has spent 20 years working in the sales end of the turf industry. For the past decade, he’s led the sales force at SynaTek, a manufacturer/distributor of liquid and granular plant fertility products. He helped introduce new technologies into the golf market—like fertigation and water-quality injections. One of his major clients—no surprise—is Merion.

The younger Rich no longer works on golf courses. As a Penn State University turfgrass management graduate (its Joseph E. Valentine Turfgrass Research Center is named for his grandfather), he was once the heir apparent at Merion. For years, he was the “grow-in” superintendent at golf courses in Virginia and Delaware. He’s also been on the sales side of the industry.

In essence, there’s been a Valentine associated with Merion—directly and indirectly—for almost all of its 100-year history. Tom’s son, Sam, has volunteered under Merion’s current superintendent, Matt Shaffer, at a Walker Cup and U.S. Amateur. Sam. He’s headed to Penn State and wants to work in renewable-energy field as a steward of a different kind of green. He’s the fourth generation of Valentines to work at Merion, which harbors incredible history. “It’s in our blood,” says Tom.

The 11th green is where Bobby Jones won the Grand Slam in 1930—the year the term grand slam was coined. One of the most famous pictures in sports, Ben Hogan’s 1-iron approach to the 18th green in 1950, was taken at Merion. Most recently, the course hosted the 2009 Walker Cup. This will be Merion’s fifth U.S. Open, held there previously in 1934, 1950, 1971 and 1981. In all, there’s been 19 national championships, more than any course in the country. In related news, Chadds Ford author Jeff Silverman’s book, Merion: A Championship History, is due out this fall.

In essence, there’s been a Valentine associated with Merion—directly and indirectly—for almost all of its 100-year history.

Golf has grown by leaps and bounds since David Graham won the 1981 U.S. Open at Merion, and many felt the course couldn’t handle modern-day players and large crowds. In ’81, Merion measured 6,528 yards, the shortest U.S. Open course since World War II. But it has undergone extensive renovations during the past decade and is now closer to 7,000 yards and a par-70. All 25,000 tickets are sold to this month’s event—that’s about half what a bigger course would accommodate. Consider this year’s setting an experiment of sorts.

“Part of the reason the United States Golf Association has come to Merion is to see if a small, relatively short, incredibly well-designed course can stand up to the new technology and the new athlete,” says Shaffer. “If it can, then it could breathe new life back into many courses that haven’t been as relevant lately. We are the proverbial guinea pig.”

While the East Course will host the tournament, the West Course—a mile down Ardmore Avenue—will be the practice range, where there will also be a makeshift players’ clubhouse/locker room and house hospitality tents. The West Course is underrated only because it exists in the shadows of the East Course. Capers says 60 percent of the membership prefers it, if only due to the difficulty of the nearby alternative. The West Course improves scores.

Regardless, the land just does something for you—to you. There’s the legendary white-faced bunkers trimmed with wispy Old World Scotch broom, the narrow, emerald-green fairways, the deceptive greens, and, of course, those signature red-and-orange wicker baskets that mark each hole.
 

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Then there’s the quirky stuff of legend, secrets only insiders like Tom Valentine would know—like the pit that maintenance crews once dug to store what they’d need for the day: their lunch, a knife, wine, tools. As a 13-year-old, Tom was often asked to guard pits. With obvious religious overtones, his father’s men were mixing water and wine. They kept the plugged wine jug in a spring-fed stream, covered with a flagstone, off Hole 17 on the West Course. Alfred Ferrari, who worked for both Valentines and lived to be 98, once jokingly told Tom, who’d been entrusted with their secret, that if he so much as told his friends, he’d make a “Tom Turkey” out of him. “He didn’t want to get anyone mad at him,” Tom says.

It’s at No. 17 where Joseph Valentine discovered the special Merion Bluegrass in the mid-1930s. Preserved for posterity in one of the few photographs Merion has of Joseph Valentine, he’s bent down examining that grass in a trademark suit-and-tie and long overcoat. The black-and-white shot first appeared in Popular Gardening magazine.

The first patch of it was found growing adjacent to the 17th tee, at the marker. It had outstanding year-round performance, and—with the help of Fred Grau, Penn State’s first extension agronomist—it became a standard American fairway and residential lawn grass. While not used as extensively as it once was, for years it was popular among sod growers because of its knitting capacity.

“He did all he could to keep it out of here before he began experimenting to maintain it,” Tom says. “But it’s everything about this place—all those pines were scrub pines my father pulled from the Pine Barrens in New Jersey on trips back from our house in Margate. He planted them here and started a nursery, and they ended up along the drive. He used to say that they were Merion’s sentinels.”

On tours at Merion, there are two relics people always remember: the engraved bull’s-eye brass putter that Graham used to win the 1981 U.S. Open, and the red-bound annual diaries begun by the Valentines in 1920. The latter provides a day-by-day account of what each did. “What organization, or local person, has 70 years of diaries in the authors’ own handwriting?” poses Merion archivist John Capers.

“Before he left every day, he’d write,” Tom Valentine says of his father, Richie. “They were always in dad’s office, along with his father’s diaries. Then, when dad died, they were in storage at the house. When we sold the house, it was obvious where they belonged. I called John.” 

“I said, ‘When may I pick them up?’” Capers chimes in. 

Tom’s grandfather’s final volume is from 1962. His father’s last is 1989. Some of it is merely bookkeeping, much of it matter-of-fact and practical—entries on changing the level of certain tees, for example. “They both looked at their work like they were restoring a painting,” says Tom. “For them, each hole, each green was a Mona Lisa.”

According to Capers, Merion’s members are awestruck by the detail the diaries contain. “I use to skim through them,” Tom says. “And you could read all the old methods they used to manage the course, along with entries like: ‘Pulled all workers and golfers off the course today because we heard the president was shot in Dallas.’”

Merion’s archives room is like a time capsule. It contains the cloth stool from the 1981 U.S. Open, plus contestants’ badges from 1930 to 2009—names like Arnold Palmer (’71), Johnny Miller (’81), Eddie Merrins (’81) and Dave Brookreson (’89).

Capers himself is a living monument. He was a 17-time club champion of some sort in his Merion playing career. His mother, Mary Capers, was Merion’s No. 1 women’s player from 1946 to 1971; the badge collection includes a few of hers.

The Valentines were stewards of both the property and its history. The trick was to be relevant, while also maintaining the traditions. Recently, Tom let Capers know—for the first time—that his father once raised the green on No. 11. It had been “hallowed ground” since Bobby Jones’ days there, but it often succumbed to rising water.

After one winter, Richie bumped it from six to eight inches, then put it all back together, hoping no one would notice. He mentioned his handiwork to a writer, who asked him what the members thought. “I don’t know,” Richie said. “You’re the first person I told.”

“It still goes underwater,” Capers admits.
 

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Born Giuseppe Valentine in Italy in 1886, Joseph was orphaned, then raised by monks. As such, he was educated and bilingual, both advantages for any immigrant to America in 1906—though he did contract tuberculosis on the boat. Initially, he thought he’d be a monk, too. But he landed at Camden National Bank as a clerk. Because of the TB, it was recommended that he find outside work. A couple of the bankers were building a golf course at Merion Cricket Club and needed someone there to manage the immigrant workforce and bridge communications. Joseph was the construction foreman on the famed East Course when it was built in 1911.

Eventually, an internal dispute pitted Cricket Club tennis members against golf members, and the golfers broke away and formed Merion Golf Club. Its first superintendent was William Flynn in 1912, when the East Course opened. Last year was its 100th anniversary. The official split—interestingly—came on Dec. 7, 1941, a day better associated with Japan’s bombing of Pearl Harbor. “We didn’t know about it before the vote,” says Capers.

A self-taught agronomist who served on the grounds crew at Merion under Flynn before taking over as superintendent in 1918, Joseph found that he had an affinity for the profession. He eventually became a master of turfgrass science and practices, founding the Philadelphia Association of Golf Course Superintendents.

In 1928, Valentine, along with T.L. Gustin of Philadelphia Toro and James Bolton, superintendent of the Reading Country Clubgan selling Penn State on the viability of a separate turf management education, separate from the much older agricultural school. By 1929, there was the official beginning of Penn State’s Turfgrass Magent Program, and by 1930, Valentine helped form the Turfgrass Research Advisory Committee, which he chaired until 1955, when the present-day Pennsylvania Turfgrass Council was established. In 1932, that original committee persuaded state legislators to sponsor a bill appropriating $10,000 (a landmark sum at the time) for turf research at Penn State.

After Joseph’s death in 1966, Penn State established the Joseph E. Valentine Turfgrass Research Center, which was dedicated in 1970. For the plaque, Richie supplied an engraveable stone from the 11th hole at Merion.

Richie was born in Ardmore and graduated from Lower Merion High School in 1947. During the Korean War, he was stationed in Germany as an artillery sergeant. When he returned, he enrolled in Penn State’s agronomy program. He married another Lower Merion grad, Ardmore’s Pat Magee, in 1960, and they moved into the Coopertown section of Bryn Mawr. Richie lived there until his death in 2007.

In 1981, just months after the U.S. Open, Richie’s wife died of heart disease at 49. He was left to raise three teenage boys on his own. Tom was 17 at the time, and he remembers now that the tragedy made them all closer. As the boys continued to grow, they worked for their father.

The brothers always laughed (sort of) about their schedule when school let out in summer. They’d get up at 5:30 a.m., pile into a Jeep and make the trek from the house in Bryn Mawr to Merion, just seven stop signs away.

“My brothers and I would joke that we could never make it all the way through the entrance of Merion’s long driveway without my father stopping to get us to pick up a stray piece of paper or a branch that had fallen in the night,” Tom says.

Tom realizes now the “great blessing” it was to have spent time with his father, and he dissuades others’ assumptions of nepotism. “Richie’s sons always got the worst jobs,” Tom
confesses. “But some have told me that they owe their whole career to my father.”

Richie’s greatest talent might’ve been his ability to chat up anyone—from neighbor to member, crewman to statesman, even a tough customer like Jack Nicklaus. Before the 1971 U.S. Open, Nicklaus arrived at Merion to play a practice round and complained about the greens. “The ball is splashing on the greens—what the heck are you doing?” Nicklaus asked Richie. “These greens will never be ready.”

Once Richie put the final trimmings on the greens, they played to championship form. Lee Trevino beat Nicklaus in a playoff to win, and no player beat par for a four-round total, a
testament to both the course and the greens. Top-dressing them with kiln-dried sand made the greens lightening fast. Richie was an early innovator of the process.

When Nicklaus later asked Richie how he managed to ready the greens in such a hurry, he replied with a wink, “You don’t tell me how you play golf, and I’m not going to tell you how to prepare a golf course.”

Later in his career, Richie took on consultant work. When the likes of Philadelphia millionaire Walter Annenberg needed landscape advice at his Wynnewood estate, he got the call.
 

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Meanwhile, Tom had studied communications at Temple University and initially went into print advertising. He was at the News of Delaware County when his father approached him with the idea of starting Valentine & Sons, a consulting and sales company. Tom left the newspaper world in 1994. “My father afforded me the opportunity to work in the industry, and I’m totally grateful for it,” he says.

The two ran a business that included tours of Japan as design  consultants. Then Richie had a heart attack. Tom now serves at SynaTek, where his territory extends from Washington, D.C., to Maine and includes clients like the Phillies and the Eagles. Some of them are people he once pushed rakes with, cleaning sand traps at Merion—what he calls “legacy relationships.”

“I know that end—the maintenance end,” Tom says one morning from a greenside porch at Merion. “I don’t usually wear a blue blazer, but when in Rome … Maybe we’ll shoot down there with all the fertilizer and seed, but we’d probably get run over by the work crews.”

Matt Shaffer has spent the past 11 years at Merion. Before that, he was superintendent at The Country Club in Cleveland. He also worked for the Hershey Food Corporation as director of golf course operations, and as superintendent at Woodcrest Country Club in Cherry

Since graduating from Penn State’s turfgrass program, Shaffer has spent more than 40 years in golf turf management, 37 of them as a superintendent. In fact, the only three years he wasn’t a superintendent were spent as an assistant at Augusta National between 1986 and 1988.

When he first became a superintendent, Shaffer played in a fall fundraising event called the Valentine Tournament. For the first time, he met Richie. “He was so famous—and I was a nobody,” Shaffer says. “I thought I’d say hello. Well, he couldn’t have been nicer or friendlier. He spent 90 minutes with me.”

Years later, Richie didn’t remember that encounter, yet he’d go on to spend way more than 90 minutes with Shaffer in subsequent years. Even in retirement, Richie was always at Merion. “He was here a lot, initially to criticize,” says Shaffer. “Then, once we developed a friendship, he came to lambast me. As a young superintendent, merely his reputation was intimidating. But, with me, it was never an issue. We hit it off, and that mentoring helped me immensely. It was a combination of his insight and his father’s insight.”

Shaffer followed a short list of others who tried to fill the Valentines’ void. First, there was Dick Bator, who Shaffer says had the herculean job of “changing minds,” so Merion could evolve with modern-day changes and leave behind its conservative past. Then it was Paul B. Latshaw Jr., who lasted nine years before leaving for Oak Hill Country Club; he still works for Nicklaus. A young Greg Armstrong was superintendent for three years. “Then they hired an old guy,” says Shaffer.

He’s 60 now, and “lucky number seven” among Merion’s superintendents. “It’s been lucky for me,” Shaffer says. “I hope it’s lucky for Merion.”

For the first time, he met Richie. “He was so famous—and I was a nobody,” Shaffer says. “I thought I’d say hello. Well, he couldn’t have been nicer or friendlier. He spent 90 minutes with me.”

Shaffer refuses to take any credit for positioning Merion for this month’s U.S. Open. “A tremendous number of members put forth a tremendous effort to get into the good graces of the USGA to get it to take a look at Merion [again],” he says.

Merion’s membership was “over-the-top proud” to be awarded host site for the U.S. Amateur in 2005. As for Shaffer, he was ecstatic to get the Walker Cup in 2009 because he personally favors match play. “But no one seriously thought we could get the U.S. Open—and when we did, it was euphoria,” he says. “For me, I was euphoric for an hour, then the reality set in, and I thought, ‘Wow! No pressure. Yeah, right.’”

Since then, Shaffer has balanced his über-aggressiveness, and that of his crew, with a need for levelheaded patience and precision. He budgeted for a regular staff of 45-50 (counting summer interns); 35 will work the East Course, and 15 the West Course, during the Open. Among the volunteers, there will be some former Merion employees, many of whom are now Philadelphia-area superintendents and sales representatives. There was also a lottery drawing for 20 volunteer spots.

At the last U.S. Amateur, there was a recognition night for the Valentine family. Shaffer recalls a photo that was taken of Richie, himself and Edoardo Molinari.

After Molinari had won, Shaffer found Richie alone crying. He approached him and asked why. “He said he never thought he’d live long enough to see an Italian win the U.S. Amateur,” Shaffer says.

There was also the lighter side. “One day, he asked me if I thought he was fat,” Shaffer recalls. “If you’ve seen pictures, you know Richie was short and a bit rotund. I told him, ‘Come on. That’s like your wife asking if you think she’s pretty.’ I told him about a test: If you take off your belt and put it at the tip of your nose, and the end of the belt reaches the floor, you’re fat. Before he headed back to his car, I asked him, ‘So, are you going to take your belt off?’ He said, ‘No, I’d flunk.’”

For more information on the 2013 U.S. Open, visit usga.org.

» Read More About Merion Golf Club in 2013’s Delaware Valley Golf Guide