Merion's Wicker Baskets

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Why Does Merion Use Wicker Baskets Rather than Flags On Its Flagsticks?

Wicker basket atop the flagstick at Merion Golf Club
Drew Hallowell/Getty Images

One of the signature things about Merion Golf Club is that its flagsticks aren't topped by flags, but rather by baskets. Wicker baskets that are painted red on the front nine and orange on the back nine. The baskets are a symbol of Merion, used in the club's logo. Smaller versions top the pins on the practice green, and smaller versions still are used inside the clubhouse.

Why Baskets and Not Flags?

The origin of Merion's wicker baskets dates to a trip that Merion course designer Hugh Wilson made to Europe in 1912, a year after Merion's initial construction phase. Wilson toured some of the great courses in Britain and Europe at that time.

It is known that baskets were used at some British courses in that era, and earlier, and, presumably, Wilson saw such baskets and liked the look, the charm, the tradition, or something else. (Baskets in Britain had a practical use: they survived the strong seaside winds better than did the flags of the time.)

But where did Wilson see the baskets? At which clubs specifically? That's not known.

(There's another story that is often bandied about: that Wilson got the idea from Scottish shepherds, whose walking sticks, according to the story, were topped by baskets in which they stored their lunch. This has all the hallmarks of a mythology invented later on, and there's no reason to treat the idea credulously.)

On Merion's website, the club states that the origin of the baskets "is a mystery to this day."


Merion points out that the extensive newspaper coverage in the first couple years after Merion East opened in 1912 fails to mention the baskets at all. "It could be assumed they were not there," the Merion website says.

But in 1915, William Flynn (superintendent at Merion, assistant to Wilson during the building of the courses, and later a famous course architect) received a patent for a wicker basket design, according to the club's history. And from that point forward, newspaper and magazine stories about Merion often mentioned the baskets. Flynn's baskets also turned up at a few other prominent American golf clubs in the early part of the 20th century.

Does that mean Flynn, and not Wilson, was the one who created the basket tradition at Merion? Maybe, maybe not. Perhaps Flynn created the baskets at Wilson's request or under Wilson's direction. We don't know.

But the Merion historian seems to accept, based on the short history published on Merion's website, that the baskets originated in 1915 and not at the opening of Merion East in 1912.

Even if we accept that timeline, we're still left wondering why Merion's flagsticks don't have flags, and why they do have baskets.

A Possible Answer

One possible answer is that Wilson (and Wilson/Flynn) wanted to make Merion a golf course that required as much analytical thinking as possible. The layout of the course, with its multiple misaligned teeing grounds and offset fairways and false-front greens suggest that. Here is a golf course, its designers seem to be saying, on which you'll have to use all your senses, all your analytical skills, to think your way around.

And removing the flags from the flagsticks? That removes potentially valuable information: Which way the wind is blowing, and how strong the wind is blowing. Flags flap in the wind; the baskets don't. To this day, there are no yardage markers on Merion East, and the club prohibits its members and guests from using rangefinders.

The wicker baskets, in addition to their look and their charm, add to the challenge of playing Merion East.

That seems like a good theory about why the baskets are there. But it's just a theory. Maybe Wilson and/or Flynn just liked that look of the baskets, the way they harkened to golf's origins in Scotland, and wanted to do something different.

See also:
What happens if a golf ball gets stuck in one Merion's baskets?

Read more about the history of Merion Golf Club