Perry Maxwell submitted the original plans for a course at Duke University Golf Club but the Second World War intervened and the layout in play today is an early Robert Trent Jones design that opened in 1957.
Unlike many other cities in North Carolina (and really, the entire nation), there is arguably no outright “best course” in the Research Triangle. In my opinion, Duke University Golf Club (DUGC) is among the strongest contenders for this title, falling short in a few areas discussed below.
Having spent ten years of my life at Duke as student and staff, there is no doubt that I bleed the ‘right’ color blue when it comes to athletics on Tobacco Road. In this time, I have also been fortunate to play more than my fair share at DUGC. In fact, Duke ranks third among 200+ courses I have played for most rounds logged. Although you may suspect me of bias, all of this time at DUGC has actually made me objectively critical of the property, constantly reevaluating the routing.
DUGC’s early history is fascinating, as Perry Maxwell laid out plans pre-WWII for a course on the same site. To me, the DUGC topography is very similar to Old Town in Winston-Salem, but we will always have to wonder what “could have been” if the Maxwell plans had been built. In their place, a routing done by Robert Trent Jones was constructed and opened in 1957 with significant alterations throughout the years by Rees Jones. Most recently, in 2013, the course converted from Bentgrass to Bermuda greens.
There are a number of standout holes at DUGC, especially among the par fives. Those most notable to me include:
• #2: This dogleg hole gives players a few options off the tee – a layup to a wider area with a metal or long iron, or a more aggressive play requiring a hard right-to-left shot. The green is very shallow, and potentially taking the more daunting route and catching the slope could mean the difference between a short wedge and a mid-iron on the approach. Recently, I played in an event where I was asked to hit a shot from the third tee box to the second green, which gave me a new appreciation for the angle. This putting surface is truly excellent with three distinct tiers left to right.
• #5: While this par four may seem straightaway, determining the proper strategy off the tee is critical. The green is bisected into two distinct left/right tiers, and securing a solid angle into the hole should be top of mind. Interestingly, at the far end of the driving zone there is a large slope which can easily add 50 yards to a solid tee shot. However, this also likely funnels your ball to the right, and leaves the player with about 75 yards to the green. If the pin is in the front of the green, or on the wrong tier, it is virtually impossible to spin an approach from this area close to the green, making that extra yardage ‘advantage’ a real curse.
• #7: Among my favorite holes on the course, this par five is incredibly picturesque. The tee shot teases players to cut over a series of bunkers for a more aggressive line, or play safely to the left, guaranteeing a layup. The second shot over Sandy Creek captures the natural landscape beautifully, yet the terrifyingly sloped green will quickly require the player to refocus on the challenges ahead.
• #9: This sweeping dogleg left presents interesting challenges and opportunities from the tee. A layup to a very wide fairway can still leave a player with a decent shot at bringing home the second shot in two. However, if the rough is not too thick, a solid drive moving right-to-left can also catch 100 more yards if it tumbles down the hill to a flat fairway, leaving 150 yards; anything stuck in the rough, though, would be an almost guaranteed layup from a downhill lie to a green 50 feet above the player. The addition of a new back bank in 2013 created many interesting, safer options for approach shots.
• #11: Another beautifully sylvan, picturesque par five, the 11th ambles down rolling terrain. Big drives are possible on this downhill hole, but any attempt to reach the green must carry a wide creek from a downhill lie. The temptation is very real despite a generous layup area.
• #12: This short par three over water often feels like an island green when the pin is perched in front. For all the hype around the tee shot, the green rarely receives the praise it deserves for its beguiling undulations. Having multiple tiers, being on the putting surface is only a small part of the strategic battle at #12.
• #14: While this par five may seem bland on a scorecard, the subtle contours of the land add options. The fairway has many distinct tiers in the landing zone, and just prior to the green is land that feeds a running shot from left-to-right onto to large, distinct, angled putting surface.
The full array of amenities at DUGC add a lot of value to the overall experience. There is fine dining, upscale casual, and even a terrific halfway house with the best egg sandwiches and grilled cheese you will find on campus (seriously – just watch the line of students build up Saturday mornings!). The putting and chipping areas are massive, and the driving range is always well-manicured.
Why then, with all this, would a Blue Devil like me not argue that Duke is *the* best course in the Triangle? As an objective rater of course architecture, DUGC’s updates have reduced variety and eliminated strategy in so many places. In my opinion, some alterations which would significantly enhance the property include:
• Reshaping Green Complexes: As they stand today, every single green complex at DUGC is raised, surrounded by rough and bunkers, and slopes back-to-front. There is only one green that truly open to a run-up shot (15), and none have interesting short grass collection areas. This means that on the majority of holes, the “strategy” is simply to hit the ball long, hit the ball straight, and hit the ball high. This is a yawner for architecture fans, and an unwelcoming place for beginners/moderate players.
• Softening Green Complexes: In addition to reshaping, many of the greens have become so severe with the new Bermuda that they eliminated risk/reward shot opportunities. One such example is #7, among my favorite holes. Because the green is now so small, severely sloped from back-to-front and right-to-left, and has no bailout areas on any side, going for it in two is virtually impossible and unwise for almost any player. Trying to putt down slopes on holes such as #4, #6, and #16 with the grain can yield easy 3- and 4- putts, a truly demoralizing result.
• Rediscovering Natural Land Contours: At some point in its history, DUGC lost many of the natural landforms, instead replacing them with flat, tiered fairways. Some of the ugliest are on the first, second, and ninth hole which have sharp, unnatural edges that reject even slightly errant tee shots. Having cart-paths cross the landing area, such as the one on the eleventh, really detracts from an otherwise natural environment.
• Reconsider Bunker Placement: Certain bunkers on the course actually detract from strategy, such as the large trap on the right side of the third hole. Forcing players to hit left actually gives a worse angle into the green, and laying up is not an option for any amateur. The hole becomes lose-lose, and who on earth would want to play that every day?
I do not make these comments to dissuade you from trekking to Durham to experience DUGC. In fact, my admiration for the staff at DUGC really knows no bounds – how they are able to meet the needs of an entire university community, two world-class varsity teams, members, hotel guests and so many other constituents is mind-boggling.
Rather, I simply point these out to demonstrate my passion for Duke, and my firm belief that with the right architect, DUGC could be the best course in the Triangle, and arguably among the top echelon of college/university courses in the world. It is a special place that is and always will be very dear to my heart.
I have been hearing wonderful things about the Duke University course for over 20 years. Logistically, I was not able to make it work until recently. The golf course is adjacent to the Washington Duke Inn. Originally, a Robert Trent Jones design it was redesigned in 1994 by Jones’ son Rees.
The first few holes are not welcoming. Long doglegs left to well protected elevated greens can kill a round before it starts. You finally get a respite on the par 4 3rd. An interesting hole, in that is pretty straight. However, fairway bunkers right make you favor the left side of the fairway off the tee. The left side of the fairway brings into play the left greenside bunkers. The short 3rd is the easiest hole on the course and a good birdie oppty. However, when the pin is front be cautious, as the creek in front and the front left bunker can gobble up non-crisp tee shots. Other than the yardage, the par fours, 5 and 6 could be identical twins. Now, the fun begins, 7-9 can bring birdies, just as easily as doubles. The 7th is a par five dogleg right. You can fly the bunkers on the corner. However, best to approach this as a 3 shot hole and have your favorite wedge in hand for the approach. There is a creek bisecting the fairway in front of the green and only the monster hitters and/or crazies will go for it in two. I do not feel that it should be the number two handicap. The 8th is an uphill par 3 with a BAB in front, best to take an extra club. Pay attention to the pin location as there is a ridge in the middle of the green. Wrong side will probably lead to a 3 putt. The front ends with a go for it par five. If I can get home in two, so can you.
The back starts off with a tight par 4. The ideal tee shot is a high fade, certainly favor the left side. The 11th is a dogleg left, downhill par 5. Similar to 7 there is a creek in front. I did not sniff it, but big hitters have a better chance of success with this one than 7. The 12th is on of the prettier holes on the course. An all carry over water hazard par 3. The 13th is a good par 4. Water hazard right of the green, thus, favor the left off the tee to minimize the potential carry. The 14th is a boring par 5, that you big hitters can get home in two. Conversely, the 15th is a long demanding uphill, redan green with a bunker right. Good hole. The 16th is a big dogleg right. You can definitely cut the corner to set up a short iron to an uphill green. The17th and 18th may not be twins, but perhaps cousins. I do not find long uphill par fours to be exciting or titillating, just difficult.
My expectations may have been to high. Overall, I was disappointed, it is still a good course. I would play it again if you paid.
Like Duke, it is very Classy. Not a fan of Darth Vader or Duke but it is a very nice golf course. A typical RTJ course who is my favorite designer by the way. Another golf clap for a good course.