By Mark Lamport-Stokes
ARDMORE, Pennsylvania (Reuters) - They look like giant red lollipops on red-and-white sticks and, for first time visitors at the Merion Golf Club for this week's U.S. Open, they stick out like sore thumbs.
They are the unusual wicker baskets which perch atop steel sticks here instead of the traditional flags, a quirk allegedly inspired by what course architect Hugh Wilson saw on a visit to Sunningdale Golf Club in Berkshire, England.
Shaped like an egg, the baskets are part of Merion's logo and most of the players competing here this week have warmly embraced the idea of firing at pins where there is no flag fluttering to give them a sense of wind direction.
"We'll never play anything like this, so it's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," said defending champion Webb Simpson.
"It's different. It's just part of the tradition of Merion, part of the tradition of the club. I was pretty excited about it. It's fun. It's different for us.
"I honestly think it will make us make decisions quicker. We're sitting there a lot of times and we see one flag over here blowing that way and a flag over here blowing that way and we get confused and second guess."
While Simpson believes most of his fellow players will be equally intrigued by the wickers on the iconic East Course at Merion this week, he was not so sure about the caddies.
"I don't think the caddies are happy about them," smiled the American, who clinched his first major title by one shot in last year's U.S. Open at the brutally difficult Olympic Club outside San Francisco.
"They don't like it because they can't tell the wind (direction), so it makes their job harder. They might be a little on edge to keep their job this week."
Northern Irish world number two Rory McIlroy, U.S. Open champion at Congressional in 2010, felt he and his caddy J.P. Fitzgerald would have no problem assessing wind direction, despite the lack of flags.
"I guess it's just we're so used to looking up at the flagstick and seeing that it's blowing a certain direction and just for confirmation before you pull the trigger more than anything else," the 24-year-old said.
"But you just have to commit and trust yourself and trust your caddie and trust that you've got the wind right. If it gets windy, you still know where the wind is, where the wind is blowing."
Wicker baskets were a common sight on golf courses in Britain during the late 1800s and Merion is widely believed to be the first American layout to adopt the idea.
However, the baskets were not used when the East Course was opened for play in 1912 and, according to the July 2, 1915 edition of Philadelphia's Evening Public Ledger, Merion's greenskeeper was responsible for ushering them in.
"Instead of the usual flags, which, when a head wind is blowing are invisible, wooden pins, with alternate stripes of black and white, and large, wicker, pear shaped tops, are used," the Evening Public Ledger reported.
"On the out holes the tops are red, on the in holes yellow, and they can be seen for a mile. William Flynn, the Merion greenskeeper, is the originator."
Today, the baskets on the front nine at Merion remain true to the original red, while the second nine wickers are no longer yellow but a more visible orange-red color.
(Reporting by Mark Lamport-Stokes; Editing by Julian Linden)