Seattle Golf Club was founded in 1900 with the stated mission to "facilitate and encouragement the development of the noble game of golf" and it moved to its current location on the slopes above Puget Sound seven years after its formation. Arnold Palmer carried out a course renovation during the mid-1990s but the basic layout has remained unaltered in over a hundred years.
The holes occupy a compact property that features stately stands of Douglas fir-lined fairways and well-manicured greens. The bunkering might be of a new millennium vintage but the variety of design and the extent of the elevation changes during a round here is what separates this Golden Age track from many of the others in the Pacific Northwest region.
The club has hosted important national and international amateur events such as the US Amateur in 1952 (won by Jack Westland, aged 47), the Walker Cup in 1961 (with the home team captained by Jack Westland), and the 1981 US Senior Men’s Amateur, won by 3-time Walker Cup player and former captain Ed Updegraff.
I was told that I would like Seattle Golf Club. As I played it, my appreciation for it grew so much that as we walked to the eighteenth tee I said to my host that he likely finds the course to be a joy to play every day. He nodded affirmatively. We then turned back to look at the seventeenth green complex to talk about the different types of shots one would have to hit based upon location off the green and the location of the pin thus creating essentially a “new” course every time one plays it. In sum, one would not tire of playing this course both due to its inherent beauty, a compelling routing that maximizes the use of the land forms, and interesting green complexes.
I played poorly as I found myself constantly distracted by wanting to remember the course and its interesting quirks. This rolling course has land movement that is both sizeable as well as smaller due to downhill and uphill shots, often on the same hole, as well as a good use of mounding near the greens.
The greens are not overly contoured but they have a lot of speed to them where a ball seemingly gathers more speed after it goes by the hole. The green felt small, but are appropriate to the length of the hole. After playing most of the course I realized that the greens feel small because you have to be precise. One really does not want a putt on the greens longer than fifteen feet. I consider myself to be an above-average putter both for distance and line but I found myself not seeing breaks at all, not seeing how large a break is, and thinking a putt was both flat when it was not as well as I often saw more uphill than existed.
Most of the greens have good green surrounds due to the placement of the bunkers and mounds that do dictate whether a ball will land on the green. While I had an unfortunate day where I seemed to short-side myself more often than not, the chips I made did not release and roll out as I expected due to the influence of the mounds as well as the multiple tiers in many of the greens as well as the influence of plateaus.
Perhaps the one critique of the course is that it is on a tight piece of land and therefore is short for today’s top professionals. From the Black tees, the course measures 6836 yards, par 72. However the rating is 73.5/137 which is indicative of the overall challenge of the course due to tight driving corridors and the character of the greens. From the White tees the course is 6416 yards, rated 71.5/134. This is a course that due to the towering natures of the evergreens, the fairways seem to shrink. On the dogleg holes, the width of the fairway is seemingly cut in half as one seeks to avoid the high probability of a dropped shot if they get involved with one of the numerous tree lines. Still, I am certain that some players will knock the course for its short par 5’s of which the longest is 533 yards and a lack of a long par 4 with the longest being 424 yards.
There are several highlight holes, all of which are on the back nine. The par 3 eleventh is one of the most beautiful inland holes I have played in the USA, played over a pond from an elevated tee and back-dropped by the evergreens and azaleas. The downhill par 5 fourteenth has both a well placement of numerous bunkers and trees that dictate the line of play. Both the fifteenth and seventeenth are fine par 4’s with my nod to the seventeenth. The finishing par 5 has a tee shot that needs to play away from a pond on the left, then uphill to a green that is situated between trees acting as goal posts. This is not to say that there are not good holes on the front nine as the both par 3’s have a lot of character with the par 5’s seventh having a false front that can send a ball tumbling back into a pond on the left.
As to the bunkering, in the main they are well placed. There is perhaps an over-reliance on multiple bunkers on one side of a fairway. In some cases the bunkers are unnecessarily wide and the course would improve its level of interest by shrinking some and replacing it with mounding similar to what can be found off of nine and seventeen.
The routing is a good one, with the course moving in all directions on both nines. There are five ponds on the course, which influence six holes. The routing takes prime advantage of these ponds making holes that might otherwise be average become memorable.
The course was originally designed by John Ball and Robert Johnstone and then refreshed by Arnold Palmer. The routing of the course changed slightly under Mr. Palmer, particularly the twelfth hole which was converted from a straight hole to a dogleg right. I do not know how many of the bunkers were changed or added but the overall look of the bunkering and greens are very different to what I have seen Mr. Palmer do on other courses. The course is going to undergo another refreshment beginning in September. As we discussed some of the potential changes, I could see how a green could be further improved although sometimes I thought the potential changes were unwarranted. The club’s website gives the nod to Mr. Palmer as the architect of record.
1. Par 4 – 422/407. The hole plays downhill and as a slight dogleg right. The fairway widens to accommodate a long and somewhat deep bunker on the outer corner that is reachable off the tee. One cannot go right off the tee due to the very heavy line of trees to provide a protection to the primary road to access the club. Longer hitters who hit it straight on this hole will likely have about 100-120 yards left as they catch a rollout spot in the fairway. I noticed how the fairway has a lot of little knobs, mounds and swales more in play for the average player. The green is somewhat tiny for the length of the hole with a large sinewy bunker on the left and a smaller one on the right. There is a knob on the right middle of the green providing a difficult hole location. One cannot go right or long over the green as the ground slopes towards trees, all of which have low hanging branches. It is a fine opening hole and one will be satisfied with a par.
2. Par 4 – 366/334. From the tee this slight dogleg left plays downhill with thick trees on the left as well as four bunkers staggered encompassing about 35 yards in length. One needs to play away from them but the trees are thick on the right as well. Overall this feels like one of the tighter driving corridors on the course. After the downhill the hole plays uphill and a back pin location can become semi-blind. The green has flanking bunkers but its real difficulty are the three tiers combined with a steep slant from left to right. If one goes long to a front pin location, this becomes a very difficult two putt. On this hole scores can easily range from a birdie to a quadruple bogey.
3. Par 4 – 393/376. Much like the second, this plays downhill then back uphill. There are fairway bunkers on both sides with the right one slightly further up. Bigger hitters might be tempted to give their tee shot a good rip but the fairway narrows and the trees pinch in from both side creating a narrow opening. Any recovery shot hit short of the green should avoid the left side both due to the trees coming in a bit more as well as a mound halfway up the left side of the green that kicks balls well right. There is a slight tier in this green as well about 60% into the green. The green has a subtle but definite slope to the right as it is influenced by that mound. Behind the green there is a small and short run-off area that I felt should be expanded.
4. Par 4 – 363/336. This hole plays downhill and then back uphill again and is a more pronounced dogleg right. There is a long bunker down the left that is well placed for the average player. At the green the bunkering is different to the first three holes as the left side has an arc bunker and the right side has a half circle. Both bunkers front the green with the right one coming blocking the right half of the green creating a difficult right pin position. The right pin looks like it should break, but the speed of the green is such that most putts likely stay straight.
5. Par 3 – 204/192. This hole is perhaps the least visually interesting on the course as it is heavily tree lined on both sides. For the first time, a rear bunker is utilized. Combined with a long bunker on each side, it is a well defended green. The green has a back tier in it. If one misses the green either left or right they will face a daunting recovery shot over a bunker to a narrow green. It is a nice hole.
6. Par 4 – 409/367. This is the first truly straight par 4 on the course. Six and seven are the two flat holes on the course. The sixth begins with two fairway bunkers on the left and one offsetting it on the right. Due to the variation in the tees, these bunkers are in play for average length and longer hitters. The green is well defended with two bunkers on each side creating another narrow green. While I did not think this to be the best par 4 on the front nine, it is the most “traditional” hole.
7. Par 5 – 523/505. The trees are thicker on the right to try to stop a wayward ball from reaching Greenwood Avenue. On the left side the trees are staggered. For longer hitters there are two bunkers on the right forcing them more to the left although the longer hitter should carry them by 30 yards or more. For those who cannot reach the green in two or are laying up, there are two more bunkers on the right about 100 yards from the green. A pond creeps in from the left side and the trees on the left distort how close the water is. The proper play is to lay back at least 100 yards. This is the first raised green with a false front that can send balls that land on the front or left side off the green and into the pond. This green has another tier and various subtle swales. My understanding is that this green will be added onto on the back left to create more pin positions to bring the water more into play down the entirely of the left side of the green. I enjoyed this hole despite my poor play.
8. Par 3 – 180/165. This part of the course has three ponds. The first is in play for the seventh, the second for the eighth, and the third for the twelfth. In this case the pond is on the right which makes one think the “safe” play is to the left. However, the left side of the green has a bunker and mounds kicking balls to the right. A rear bunker is utilized again. This is both a pretty par 3 and a testing par 3 due to a green that has more slope and speed than it appears. My understanding is that they will enlarge the front of the green to bring the water more into play. I think the current hole is fine.
9. Par 5 – 511/503. The finishing hole for the outward nine plays downhill then uphill to a green sitting in front of the putting green and clubhouse. Two fairway bunkers are on the right and it seemed like there should be some on the left. The hole rises sharply and from 145 yards out one will have a blind shot. The green is terrific with mounding on all sides as well as two large bunkers beginning before each side of the green going back about halfway. The green has a lot of interior movement and slope. While the tee shot is perhaps the easiest on the front nine, the very good green complex and the overall scenic beauty of the hole make it my favorite on the front nine.
10. Par 4 – 424/399. This is another downhill tee shot although the uphill second is not as substantial as many of the other holes that do the same. One likely should favor the left or middle of the fairway due to the heavier trees on the right. This is the first angled green on the course, going to the left. Two deeper bunkers guard the left side to this green placed on a rise. This is one of the larger greens on the course and seems to have less slope. The plan is to perhaps add a bunker on the back right but remove the two front left bunkers and replace them with mounds. I would certainly hope they keep one of the bunkers on the left. This is a nice golf hole.
11. Par 3 – 194/165. As mentioned, this is one of the most beautiful inland par 3’s one will ever play. You can either walk the equivalent of halfway back up the tenth or take a riding cart. From the elevated tee, the hole is all carry over the fronting pond from the elevated tee as there is only about 3 yards between the green and the pond. The hole is well guarded by a bunker on either side and another rear bunker. The green has a tier in it, more pronounced on the back left.
12. Par 4 – 391/370. Arnold Palmer changed this hole from a straight uphill par 4 to an uphill sharp dogleg right. If one can make the corner, the hole is flat to the green which is protected by a pond on the right, a large bunker on the left and a tree at the back right. This is one of the flatter greens on the course. The plan is to lengthen the hole by ten yards by pushing the green further back and removing the tree.
13. Par 4 – 398/362. This is the sharpest dogleg on the course, going left. The trees are very tall on the left side in order to stop those trying to cut the dogleg. However, it can be cut as the “shorter” trees on the left is the correct line to the green, carrying over the maintenance buildings hidden among the trees. For average players, there are three bunkers that mirror the outward corner of the dogleg which I thought to be one, possibly two too many. This is another angled green, this time to the right. The bunker on the left side is long while the right side bunker essentially hides the hole. While the green complex is good, this is probably the hole that deserves the most criticism due to the severity of the dogleg as a result of inadequate land.
14. Par 5 – 533/526. From fourteen to the finish, this is the best stretch of golf on the course. The fourteenth is the best par 5 on the course, this plays downhill to a generous fairway. From there the hole narrows due to three bunkers on the right followed by trees that begin to pinch the fairway. This is then followed by three additional bunkers on the left that one is compelled to play towards due to a large tree placed inside the fairway on the right which blocks the line to the green. The green is angled to the right with two fronting bunkers.
15. Par 4 – 396/375. This dogleg right calls for a draw off the tee or one will likely find themselves needing to play a fade into this green. The trees on the right come in enough to block a line to the green. The left side of the fairway features three bunkers, which know seemed to me something that was beginning to be overdone, having been there on the thirteenth, twice on the fourteenth, on the second (although four there), and now here. A final fairway bunker is on the right about 10 yards beyond the final one on the left. The green is slightly angled to the left and is raised. A ball hit short will likely roll back down the false front. There is a large bunker on the right side that begins before the green. I felt this bunker would have been better on the back half of the green as it would be more in play for the better players and reduce the overall punitive nature of the hole for the average players.
16. Par 3 – 197/175. This hole plays downhill with the left side of the green set hard against a small pond. The right side of the green has two bunkers. Playing out of them to a pin at the front left of the green creates a shot that must be judged perfectly for distance as the ball definitely rolls out towards the water. Finally, a rear bunker is used again. I do not see any reason to change the hole.
17. Par 4 – 404/344. This hole plays uphill as a dogleg right with two fairway bunkers on the outer corner. Overall I felt this to be a harder hole than the thirteenth as the approach shot is blind or semi-blind to a green with multiple tiers angled to the right. This is one of the stronger green complexes on the course due to the multiple tiers, flanking bunkers and use of mounds. I walked away thinking any recovery shot from off the green to try to save par would be of both high challenge and interest.
18. Par 5 – 528/515. From an elevated tee, one needs to avoid the pond on the left. The second shot plays strongly uphill to a plateau followed by a gradual rise. There are two bunkers on the right side of the fairway opposite the pond but only in play for the longest hitters. Another bunker on the right is very much in play for the average length player. The fairway pinches in further due to the trees acting once again as goalposts. The greenside bunkers on either side are perhaps overly large whereas more mounding would increase the interest and attractiveness of the hole. The green has various slants moving primarily to the left. It is a fine finishing hole.
In writing this review, I was struck by the variety of the holes as well as the wonderful routing which takes advantage of the land movement and ponds. I was also reminded of the strength of the course from fourteen through eighteen. While the course cannot be lengthened without a substantial (and unnecessary) investment, relocating the practice green, or by taking away some of the driving range, the course might be improved by elevating more of the greens, more so on the front nine. Shrinking some of the bunkers and replacing it with more interesting greenside mounding would also benefit the course. This is the plan. However, in sum, I did not think there to be a truly unmemorable hole on the golf course. While some holes are short for today’s game, there are typically two or more features to that hole that one has to consider to make par or better. This course is visually attractive and a lot of fun.