Review for Old Elm

Reviewer Score:


Relatively speaking, few are familiar with Old Elm Club outside of Chicago. Harry Colt is best known for his work outside the United States, but he is a very highly respected architect who designed some of the best courses in the world. According to architect Drew Rogers, Old Elm was laid out and designed by Harry Colt. Construction of the course was undertaken by Donald Ross. For 8 days, the two collaborated together on site at Old Elm. As the years went on from 1913 when these two storied architects completed Old Elm, the sight lines on the holes got blurred and trees as often is the case became overgrown and the fairways were narrowed from their original design.

Beginning in 2010, a superb restoration began that involved Drew Rogers, club General Manager Kevin Marion and superintendent Curtis James. This restoration lasted several years and to my knowledge continues today with the continued subtle removal of trees that impede the original intended playing lines.

The uniqueness and beauty of Old Elm is the understated elegance of a golf course that seems as if it is there for the taking but requires far more strategy than meets the initial eye. Proper positioning off the tee ensures the best angles to tilted greens with modest sections that are quite challenging to hold and even more tricky to ready unless you take the time to walk around the green. Several times I found myself attempting what seemed to be straight forward pitch shots, bump and runs and putts that continued to drift far away from the more than fair hole locations. I kept thinking of Colt and Ross laughing at me from above thinking I was the ultimate amateur by falsely assuming that there was not indeed more than meets the eye on these brilliant green complexes that tilt far more severely than they look. My playing competitor hit a beautiful bunker shot to the 10th green only to watch his ball drift off of the quite firm green into the other greenside bunker after just missing going into the hole on the low side. The phrase knowledge is power has never been more prevalent than at Old Elm. It’s the kind of course where after playing it several times, at least you will know what not to do and where not to miss. Nonetheless, you still actually have to go out there and hit the right shots each and every time.

All too often, course designs fall victim to boring redundancy that don’t captivate throughout the entire round. After a generous opening par-5 that provides an excellent chance at birdie, the warm-up quickly ends when you approach the par-4 2nd hole which very easily can lead to a higher score than the 1st. After a more difficult drive than it looks, you have perhaps the most difficult approach shot on the course to a saucer shaped green with a major false front and this green reminded me a bit of the 8th at Royal County Down where a miss pin high leaves a daunting shot from there. The hole is not overly long (unless you play the way back tees which are a great challenge) but precision is key and missing this green will make you work for even a bogey.

The highlights continue from there as the 3rd hole is the first par 3 on the course. I love the fact that the first three holes are par 5, par 4, and then a par 3, offering lots of variety and interest right out of the gate. Again, seemingly the hole is right in front of you, but this green has some wicked breaks to it and I just loved it. Even as you approach the 3rd green from just a few yards away, it’s hard to see how much break nearly every putt on this green has. The low cut area surrounding nearly all the greens provide a great chance for recovery with any type of shot you prefer, yet you still must execute which requires reading the break, analyzing uphill / downhill and judging the speed right, all easier said than done, but a fair and fun challenge for sure.

After playing the fun risk/reward par 5 4th hole you come to what was one of my favorite holes on the course, the par 4 dogleg right 5th hole. At 450 yards this is the perfect length for a challenging par 4. A strategic Elm Tree guards the right side of the fairway, and an approach from even the middle of fairway is filled with unassuming danger. The irony is that from a front facing view, missing this green left seems like no big deal, but believe me, you want to find this green in regulation because pitching from the left side really runs away from you fast and getting the speed right is a real challenge. Even worse, missing the green right is a huge no-no as you will wind up with a brutal pitch shot that goes severely uphill and you’ll have all to do to get that shot anywhere near the hole and depending on your pin placement you could easily find yourself 30 feet or more away from the hole leaving you with even a tough 2-putt to save bogey. This is just the way a hard hole should be, fair, right in front of you but very penal for a poorly hit approach shot.

The thrill of playing the uphill 6th hole is that you will find yourself approaching one of the most unique greens in the world, a double green that has a huge Biarritz running through the middle of it; green complexes do not get more creative than this. Moreover, the approach shots to this double green come from completely different directions, yet the green works perfectly for both holes. Not only did I love this green, but I kept thinking how cool it would be on a given day to have one pin placement that serves play from both holes and creates a friendly camaraderie of two groups that could wind up in the same place at the same time on the 6th and 17th holes. I believe the pin placement in the middle of the Biarritz could be receptive to that idea on a special fun day here and there. With the hole playing as designed with two different greens the effective putting surface on the 6th is really not that big and precision is key.

The par 3 7th is the first time on the course where I realized how tricky these greens are. At 200 yards this is a stout par 3 that requires both distance and accuracy. I left my tee shot just short of the green and with a middle pin placement I thought there was nothing to my little uphill bump and run. As I hit a decent pitch with an 8 iron, my ball began to slow down about 3 feet from the hole only to start trickling to the right, ultimately winding up off the green in the right collection area. This was the perfect opportunity for a golfer to laugh at themselves and again, Colt and Ross were surely laughing at me as well as this was not your average course. Luckily, I got the next one up and down and somehow found that bogey to be acceptable.

At 290 yards, the 9th hole at Old Elm is all you would ever want in a “drivable” par 4. Coming back towards the charming old-school clubhouse, you have a wide open view of a shared huge fairway between the 9th and 18th holes side by side that are separated by a handful of beautiful Elm trees. The entryway to the 9th green is a not particular large as there is a penal bunker fronting the green and that is exactly as it should be considering the length of the hole. Hitting a shot nearly greenside off the tee leaves from an easy up and down ensuring that any birdie on this shorter hole is earned. What I found to be awesome about this hole is that it is straight away, right in front of you, yet the green and green surround make you work hard for whatever score you make on this hole. One thing to note, it was right behind this green that Kevin Marion shared with me prior a key tip prior to my round, “everything away from the clubhouse is fast on these greens”, he could not have been more accurate in providing that tip and I am grateful for this little bit of knowledge.

As I finished the front 9, I thought to myself what a treat it was to play Old Elm and only hoped that the back 9 was as strong as the front. I was not disappointed.

The 10th hole begins a string of four par-4s in a row to start the back 9. After the par on each of the first 8 holes on the course never are repeated (i.e. par 5, par 4, par 3, par 5, par 4, par 5, par 3, par 4), I wondered is this stretch of holes would be as captivating. The short answer is absolutely they were and they are all unique with flair. As I eluded to earlier the 10th green is wicked and at nearly 450 yards playing on fairway wet fairways as it poured before the round, earning a par here is no easy task. Both my playing competitor and I were in the left greenside bunker in regulation. I already shared with you what happened to his bunker shot (as a refresher it almost went into the hole and ran into the right greenside bunker which left an equally difficult bunker shot) and my bunker shot having the benefit of watching his left me a putt 20 feet above the pin. That was no bargain and I hit that putt 9 feet past the hole knowing all too well that it was fast. That overpowered putt was on me, and I felt fortunate to make the comebacker. This is one seriously strong par 4.

At 442 yards, the 11th hole is my idea of fun. Many would not notice but I saw an alternate tee box right off the 10th green that completely changes the way the 11th hole could play. From the right side tee to the left side tee box there is probably 60 yards, one makes for a fairly straight hole, the other for a slight dogleg to the right; regardless of whether or not these tees were there when Colt and Ross built this course absolutely love holes that allow for options to be played differently. That is exactly what keeps this game interesting. Once again, a perplexing green complex that looks like its flat is actually filled with gentle sloping that can likely baffle even the world’s best green readers. As a constant theme, many of greens do not have trees behind the greens and somehow I feel like this has an effect on depth perception and your ability to get a feel for the slopes and speed on the greens. Ideally, walking behind the green and looking back will help but once again, the direction of this green from front to back is lightening fast.

If you have read my other reviews, you’d know that I only talk about holes that I find to be memorable. My goal is not to write 3000+ word reviews unless I think I have something to say that is engaging to the reader. Clearly by now you have a feel for what I thought of this incredible course, since even the holes I did not highlight are wonderful and worth talking about.

The 12th is another great short par-4, at only 370 yards you may think you have a breather here and with two good shots, you do indeed have a legitimate birdie opportunity. As a matter of fact, even though I never keep score when evaluating and reviewing golf courses, I can tell you that I made a nice birdie on the 12th. As a slight dogleg left, you have an intimidating tee shot with trees and out of bounds left. Missing too far right and you have two Elm trees that block your approach shot. Nonetheless, like every fairway on this course, you have more than enough room to hit the fairway. I hit a 3 wood and was left with a precise 90-yard shot to a slightly elevated green with several bumps and knobs surrounding it. On the front left section of this green there is a nice little sideboard that either a pulled shot or an intentional shot to the front left will kick onto the green. However, overshoot that sideboard and you will not be happy as it abruptly ends and leaves you with a brutal up and down. Should you miss this green to the right, you will not be happy with the shot you are left with as you would have taken one of the easier holes on the course and almost ensured a bogey or worse. A severe collection area leaves a very tough up and down.

At 440 yards from the tips, the 13th is quite a hole, especially when you consider it features one of the toughest and widest greens on the course. We chose to play this hole up one tee box from about 400 yards and I am glad that we did. The hole is a slight dogleg right and the approach shot to the green only leaves you with a boatload of trees hundreds of yards in the distance. Getting comfortable aligning your approach here is very tough and this massive green was clearly expanded in recent years. Several distinct pin placements exist ensuring each time you play this hole it feels different. Missing the green long seems easy to do, and I did just that leaving myself quite a challenging pitch shot from yet another collection area and run off. Even at 400 yards this surely felt appropriately handicapped as the #2 hardest hole on the course.

The 15th hole is 389 yards and is one of the most fun holes on the course. While from tee to green, the hole is fairly straight, to efficiently play this hole, you have keep your drive down the left center of the fairway to have an open angle to approach green. Easier said than done as there are a couple of perfectly placed fairway bunkers that you must squeeze your tee shot between. Additionally, a drive missed to the right will obstructed by you guessed it, a couple of tall “Elm” trees. The green is one of the most straight forward on the course as it is very deep and has a modest slope that runs diagonally. This is yet another strong mid-length par 4.

The 16th is a true par-5 at 557 yards and uphill. A generous landing area gives long hitters a chance to take on this green in two, but it sure takes two big shots as the second shot really must be carried nearly onto the green. The area around the green is so perfectly firm and shaved down that you just cannot tell how severe the approach shot is, even from 20 yards short of the green as I was. One thing that I loved about this hole is that if you are aggressive on this hole and miss right, you leave yourself a brutally hard shot. There is a bunker just right of the green that is deep and leaves an uphill bunker shot to a green that slopes away from you, not too inviting! After looking at this bunker, I felt like warning all future golfers here to avoid this bunker at all costs, by placing a big red X in that bunker. Even worse if you miss right of the bunker, you have a substantially uphill flop shot to a green that slopes away. Point being is miss short or left, not right on the 16th. As I said, this is a true par-5, awesome hole.

The 17th is the other half of the double green I talked about earlier. I’d imagine had I or my playing competitor hit their shot just short and right of the green it would have played like a redan as it was seemingly designed to but neither of us hit it there. Nonetheless, I am pretty sure I have never played a hole that was a double green separated by a Biarritz for which one side of it was basically a redan. That is a LOT going on in one green complex that actually works perfectly to serve two holes. WOW, is all I can say. Kudos to Colt, Ross, Rogers, Marion and James for pulling this off!

And finally, we have come to the 18th, a 415 yard uphill par-4 that is right in front of you yet provides equally majestic views to the previous 17 holes. Hugging the left side of the fairway is ideal as it provides the shortest path to the green. My playing competitor was left with a 6 iron as the tee shot goes uphill, and he found the right side of the fairway. I do not consider myself that long of a hitter and I had a PW left, so once again, knowing how to play this hole and executing on the right line proves that knowledge is power. The 18th green has modest undulation and is a fun finishing hole that more often than not will leave a golfer smiling. It isn’t nearly the hardest hole on the course, but a strong finish nonetheless where you have to play the hole solidly to make a par, or in the case of my playing partner unexpectedly sink a 90-foot putt for birdie.

With the era of online reviews, it becomes harder and hard to find lesser-known architectural gems in the world of golf courses. Fortunately, in Old Elm Club, I was lucky enough to find one that some yet not many are familiar with. I stand firm on never reading much about a golf course before my visits as I want to have a fresh look at each course that is untainted by any outside perspectives or influences. After writing up this review, I found a few great articles on the multi-year restoration on Drew Rogers website, but hopefully what I have written provides some additional insight. I also got chills watching a 4 minutes drone video of the course which just further reiterated for me, what a special design Old Elm is.

Worth noting is that the conditioning at Old Elm was absolutely impeccable and the course truly defines "firm and fast"; the green speeds allow for all the subtle slopes and undulations to come into play and the greens rolled perfectly, this after 2+ hours of heavy rains fell right before our afternoon round. Clearly, an amazing agronomy program at Old Elm.

Having heard so little about this club in all my travels, my sense is that the members at Old Elm know what a spectacular golf course they have and they are perfectly fine keeping a low profile as they do not need anyone to tell them how special their course is. With that said, it has been a very long time since I saw a golf course that I knew little about that impressed me as much as Old Elm did. To put in perspective the high regard for which I hold Old Elm, it is unfathomable for any ranking list not to have Old Elm in the top 100 in the United States. The routing, strategy and green complexes are absolutely wonderful and the charm of golf course permeates throughout your entire round. Finally, each hole and green on a golf course is nothing more than part of the whole course; yet to not highlight the uniqueness and creativity shown by Colt and Ross on the 6th and 17th greens would not do justice to one of the greatest architectural features I have ever seen anywhere. It’s not just that it’s a double green that makes it stand out, it’s that it combines a Biarritz and Redan that go in completely different directions and each green works perfectly for the hole you are playing. You really have to see it to believe it. Should you ever receive an invite to play Old Elm, I strongly suggest you take advantage of the privilege and opportunity as I did as I can promise you that you’ll have a great time.

Date: July 03, 2021

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