St. Louis was near the peak of culture during 1904: It had just hosted both the Summer Olympics (including golf at Glen Echo Country Club) and the World’s Fair, and it was in no rush to abandon the grand vibe surrounding the grounds when the World’s Fair came to an end. The city immediately tapped Robert Foulis to design a 27-hole public golf facility, following the lead of New York City and other metropolises welcoming the sport.
This included a first nine designed to ease rookies into golf, before setting them out on the more challenging Dogwood and Redbud nines. Hale Irwin and associate Stan Gentry came in nearly a century later, looking to spruce up Foulis’s original design and keep Forest Park an attractive addition to perhaps the city’s most visited district (the course counts both the St. Louis Art Museum and The St. Louis Zoo as neighbors). There’s all sorts of old-time quirk, whether it’s the rectangular green at Dogwood No. 8, or the semi-Biarritz green at Redbud No. 7.
I’ve been thinking about Forest Park quite a bit lately for some reason. The older the current iteration of this course gets, the more I think I enjoy it. When it was built as the result of a gut-job renovation by Stan Gentry of Hale Irwin’s design firm in the early 2000s, I didn’t appreciate it as much as I should have; the original Robert Foulis 18-hole routing was near and dear to my heart as a place my team practiced during high school, and the renovation was completely removing from the routing two of the more iconic holes in the St. Louis area – a reachable but blind par five playing across the magnificent Art Hill, and an all-or-nothing par three playing across the Grand Basin below it. While the latter had a very similar replacement worked into the new routing (albeit across Lagoon Drive), the former did not, causing me to feel in my early-20s angst as if my youth had been taken away from me. Adding salt to the wound, a third iconic hole – a nearly 600-yard par five along Skinker Boulevard – was split into a short par four and a long par three to help alleviate the loss of four holes’ worth of land to other park projects.
Anyway, I digress. What I’ve learned over the course of time is that what Gentry did as a throwback to Golden Age designs is frankly excellent. The Redbud and Dogwood nines feature many template-style green complexes, including a Biarritz, Redan, and Short, along with a number of really clever and quirky longer holes. The complementary Hawthorn nine, while shorter, easier, and most definitely flatter than the other two, is also a delightful loop – in contrast to the very mundane Eisenhower nine it replaced. As one might expect with 27 holes and a new clubhouse being crammed into a tighter piece of property, only four of those 27 holes happen to be par fives – three of which are on the Dogwood/Redbud combination. (All three loops are par 35.) A good portion of the original 18-hole routing was preserved – six holes on the Redbud nine along with the first three holes of the Dogwood nine.
Most players will start their round here on the Redbud nine, which begins on a relatively easy downhill par four that was the eighth hole on the old routing. After the course climbs back to the top of the ridge, however, is when it really gets good – #4 is a spot in the routing that originally featured a long semi-blind par three, but turned by Gentry into a beast of a par four with a huge green falling off a severe slope to the left and behind. #5 is a short par five, bending around a valley and set of trees that make it nearly impossible to get home in two shots, and #6 is the aforementioned Biarritz-style par three. (Unlike most Biarritz, it’s semi-blind, which is interesting.) To close the excellent stretch of holes, #7 is a long par four that plays down into a valley and features a blind uphill approach to a completely rectangular, bunkerless green having subtle undulations that make it a lot trickier than it sounds. After two more excellent short par fours, the player heads back down the hill to make the turn.
The Dogwood nine begins at the busy intersection of Lagoon Drive and Fine Arts Drive – the beating heart of the northwest corner of the park, where there rarely aren’t a few dozen pedestrians walking by. In opposite fashion of the Redbud nine, the best holes on Dogwood are at the beginning and end. The opener is a dogleg right par five that snakes up a valley to a hidden green; despite playing barely over 500 yards from the tips, it requires two extremely well-struck shots to attack in less than regulation. #2 is the Redan-style template, which despite not exactly having a false front as it plays gently downhill, still features many of the other (reverse) Redan traits. After a couple more short par fours and a par three tribute to the old Grand Basin hole, Gentry’s magic touch really shines on some of the flattest bits of the property. #6 and #7 are longer par fours that play up what were the original first and eighteenth hole corridors, respectively. #6 features an approach to a green that slopes away from the player and is somehow almost invisible even on such flat ground, while #7 is a much longer, upwind hole that requires a fade off the tee and a solid approach to a green perched above a small lagoon. #8 is a Short template featuring a wide but shallow green that slopes away from the player on the sides but towards the player in the middle – the only portion that can be seen from the tee. It’s wild. Finally, the Dogwood nine closes on an incredibly long par five, by far the longest on the property at well over 600 yards from the tips. Oh, and a pond runs down the left side of the entire hole.
This course continues to get better with age – the most recent time I played it, in October 2020, it was in absolutely incredible condition – and is an urban municipal jewel that the City of St. Louis should be most proud of having in its flagship park. If there’s a better municipal course in the Midwest, I’d love to see it.
Played 9 times between June 29, 2004 and October 25, 2020