Here’s a sure bar bet winner for you: Quick! Name the oldest country club in America. Surprise: it’s Philadelphia Cricket Club, founded in 1854. One of America’s most storied and venerable clubs, Philly Cricket, as it’s known to its friends, has hosted two U.S. Open championships (1906 and 1910 over its 9-hole St. Martin’s Course) and sports a whopping 45 holes of pristine golf across two vast campuses. The flagship is the Wissahickon course, an indisputable A.W. Tillinghast masterpiece that will proudly celebrate its centennial season next year.
Wissahickon has risen again to prominence after a 2013-14 restoration project was met with thunderous applause. The entire golf media, golf design cognoscenti, and even casual observers agree: what the club did in renovating several holes so that they more accurately reflected what Tillinghast originally wanted to build was among the greatest accomplishments the restoration craft had seen to date. In a heartbeat, it skyrocketed to the top of everyone’s bucket list, magazine rankings soared, and in a mere six years the PGA of America, USGA, and PGA Tour have all awarded various tournaments to Wissahickon, (though the USGA’s Fourball was canceled this year due to Covid).
Like many greats with their home courses, Tillie had intended Wissahickon to be a lifelong work-in-progress, adding strategic elements here or there as the club had more money and he had more time and inclination. The course opened in 1922, but wasn’t everything Tillie had fully planned, and he never got the chance to return and continue tinkering.
Additionally, Tillie the Terror ran with a tough crowd back then: the Philadelphia School of Golf Architecture, a loose group that included such other paragons of the craft as George Crump, George Thomas, Hugh Wilson, William Flynn, and Henry Fownes, (though Flynn and Fownes were from Boston and Pittsburgh respectively). And by 1938, other hands – Flynn included, as confirmed by plans – had made dramatic changes to Wissahickon, changes that did not fit with the rest of Tillie’s work.
“It was a question of scale,” explained Head Superintendent Dan Meersman. “We found an old aerial from 1938 that shows a wide variety of hazards, fairway shapes, and sizes and styles of bunkers. The changes that had occurred – whomever they were by – were not the same size and shape of Tillie’s work, and they felt out of place with the scale of the rest of the course.”
As years passed, it was clear the club was at a crossroads – they needed to reaffirm, strengthen, and accentuate their precious Tillinghast legacy. So they hired restoration architecture expert Keith Foster to do two things: replace the work of the intervening architects and design what Tillie didn’t get the chance to build – Great Hazard bunker complexes, curvaceous green contours, and cunning strategic angles. And that meant Meersman was in the right place at the right time for a young, upcoming star of a superintendent; he had a front row seat for golf architecture history.
MEET THE MEERSMANS
We all love it when good guys finish first, and the rise of a young Dan Meersman to become steward of such a historic club as Philly Cricket may just be the Golf Gods smiling on a family who deserved it because they dedicated their lives to golf, serving the game with loyalty, integrity, class, and skill.
Dan is no ordinary super: he’s a third generation, father-to-son, head superintendent and the fifth overall in those three generations.
“It goes Grandpa Jim, Uncle Pat, my dad Mike, my younger brother Jason, and me…all head supers,” Meersman recalled. Starting in South Bend, Indiana (and yes, they are all Fighting Irish fans; when Meersman wasn’t at the golf course he was parking cars at Notre Dame home games), Grandpa Jim and Uncle Pat hung their hats at South Bend Country Club and Erskine Golf Course respectively, while Dad Mike Meersman took his son to the maintenance facility of Eberhart- Petro Municipal Golf Course in nearby Mishawaka, Indiana every morning before school.
“We’d play 3-hole loops before I’d head off to class, that is if I didn’t have work to do for Dad on the course,” Meersman said fondly. “Best of all, from a young age, I got to see how my Dad handled the job up close – everything from agronomics to people – and it made an impression on me.”
That same goodwill filtered from father to son, as did a love of the craft. Meersman played college golf at Kalamazoo Valley Community College before transferring to Michigan State, graduating in 2001. But even before graduating, he’d begun working at Caves Valley in Maryland, a Tom Fazio course with an A-list celebrity membership. Studying under Steve Glossinger, (the famous head superintendent at Point O’ Woods for so many years). Dan secured his first head superintendent position at Copper Hill Country Club in Flemington, New Jersey in 2005, moved on to Fazio’s Indiana masterpiece Victoria National in 2006-2008, before arriving at Cricket in 2009, just as the club was pondering its architectural direction.
“We voted on whether to do the work during the 2009 recession, and first vote failed. But that was okay because it gave us more time to plan,” Meersman recalled. “We executed our agreement in 2013, two days after the Merion U.S. Open.
“We made a point of visiting many of Foster’s restorations like Tillie’s Baltimore Country Club (Five Farms), and then set to work rebuilding all 18 greens and the practice green, re-grassing the entire course, and upgrading all the irrigation and drainage all in four months. We finished work that September, and opened Memorial Day of 2014,” he concluded.
The club kept all of Tillinghast’s playing corridors and routing, with the minor adjustment to the numeric sequencing of the holes: holes 4-6 swapped places with 7-9. Then they simply erased the work that was added by other hands and replaced it with some of Tillinghast’s most inimitable design strategies.
“We completely redid the third green and reshaped six more that had been altered into styles that didn’t match Tillinghast. Then we added what was meant to be there all along, like the Great Hazard at seven and Hell’s Quarter-Acre a 14 that had been replaced over time.”
Already fabled for its quaint, Old World charm, fearsome greens, and fascinating, asymmetrical routing, (it features a front 10 and a back eight), now that a smorgasbord of Tillie’s favorite design tricks has been added, Wissahickon has not only been reborn, but it’s also better than ever. Keith Foster and Meersman’s grounds crew added the sharpest arrows from Tillinghast’s quiver. The showstopper is the “Great Hazard” bunker that bisects the par-5 seventh hole. Perhaps his most indelible template, Tillinghast built several of these during his career, and – to show you exactly how well-received Foster and Meersman’s teams work was – the Great Hazard they designed looks and plays as well as any that Tillie designed himself.
But not content with just one Great Hazard, the club brought it back for an encore – a “Hell’s Quarter-acre” bunker complex guarding the par-4 14th green. Tillinghast experts all agreed: it was a masterstroke, a reprisal of the most magnificent of Tillinghast’s features and uniqueness in that Wissahickon is the only place where it appears twice.
“Any time you do a restoration, you’re changing something beloved to a lot of people. And that means they each have an opinion, and you have to do your best to balance those interests,” Meersman surmised. “And we never a lost any member events. We front loaded all our 2013 events, and then backloaded the 2014 events.”
THE CASE FOR A MAJOR AT WISSAHICKON
There are two large elephants in the room when it comes to American major championship venues: the conspicuous absence of Michigan’s fabled Oakland Hills and the need for a Philadelphia venue the USGA or PGA of America could use repeatedly, one that one that can fit 50,000 a day, not 20,000. With Merion clearly too small, (2013 proved that) Wissahickon is the logical, ergonomic, and deserving choice. There’s plenty of room for all the whoop and crash of the Open, it’ll look fantastic on television, (especially from above), and Tillinghast’s legacy is a bonus as it underlines ties to his other venues and previous major championship glory. The club even built a new terrace so near the 18th green and first tee – gives the start to the round a homespun feel – walk mere steps to the first tee. Oh, and the mountain of Philly-based merchandise they’ll sell will earn them enough to buy Fort Knox. There’s no down side here.
Best of all, the course will defend itself admirably. A straight ball could land you in as much trouble at Wissahickon as it will at Olympic Club or Merion. Some short holes punch far above their weight because they turn in awkward places; brute force often just leaves you a terrible angle to the green, (if you haven’t run through the fairway into the rough). And the green contours and cunning bunkering defend par on the approaches formidably. 1-over won at Merion (a 271 aggregate) and Wissahickon could prove just as difficult.
“Bernhard Langer won the Senior Players that was held here in 2016 with +1 score, 281 aggregate. Even though that was one set in front of the tips, it’s nice to know that the course holds up to the best players in the world,” Meersman concluded.
When not reporting live from major sports championships or researching golf courses for design, value, and excitement, multiple award-winning sportswriter Jay Flemma is an entertainment, Internet, trademark, and banking lawyer from New York. His clients have been nominated for Grammy and Emmy awards, won a Sundance Film Festival Best Director award, performed on stage and screen, and designed pop art for museums and collectors. Twitter @JayGolfUSA