The first course at St Clair Country Club was a 9-hole affair which was laid out on a 63-acre tract purchased from Judge E.C.Kramer for $12,000 in 1911. Sixteen years later, more than a hundred additional acres were acquired, allowing William Langford and Theodore Moreau to add a new front nine, switching the original holes to the back nine.
Bob Goalby and Jay Haas developed their golfing skills at St Clair before embarking on successful professional careers on the PGA Tour. Bob’s son Kye, who has worked on a number of projects around the world with Tom Doak’s Renaissance Golf Design team, was heavily involved in a $1.6m course renovation project undertaken by the club over the winter of 2013.
The renovation included the installation of seventeen new green complexes, a handful of new back tees, new irrigation and sympathetic tree removal. Mark White, VP at St Clair Country Club, said that the course “really hasn’t changed that much, we’ve just taken it back to the way it was supposed to be.”
If I had one round to play anywhere in the St. Louis area, it would clearly be at the spectacular St. Louis CC. But what would be my second choice? Most people might expect an answer like Bellerive, Old Warson, Boone Valley, or even the highly underrated Norwood Hills. But for me, there’s no question – my second choice would be the most fun of them all: the extraordinarily underrated and often overlooked St. Clair CC, over on the Illinois side of the Mississippi River. St. Clair is a golf course that not many people know about, but absolutely deserves to be in the conversation among the best in the region.
The current layout at St. Clair was designed by William Langford and Theodore Moreau in 1927 over land contained by the club’s original nine-hole course. On the tail end of the Great Depression with the club no doubt struggling, a young man came to work as a caddy who would ultimately significantly change the course of the club’s history in many ways. Bob Goalby was the son of a coal miner, not a member at the club at first, but would sneak onto the course in the evenings to play while imitating swings of the members for whom he caddied. He was an incredible athlete, playing baseball and football at a high level in high school, and golf was not a priority until after he was discharged from military service in the Korean War. Sixteen years after turning professional, Goalby famously won the Masters in 1968 after Roberto de Vincenzo signed for a score one stroke higher than he had made, unfortunately missing out on a playoff. In his later days, Goalby mentored his nephews – Jay and Jerry Haas – both of whom would go on to have success professionally, followed eventually by Jay’s son Bill. The Haas/Goalby legacy is readily apparent at St. Clair, from the practice facility named for Jay to the plaque commemorating Bob’s Masters victory adjacent to the first tee.
Arguably the biggest impact of the Haas/Goalby legacy to St. Clair today, however, came in the form of a 2013 course restoration by Goalby’s son Kye. While Kye is an excellent golfer like his father, his contributions to the game have come in a different form: as a world-renowned course shaper and (sometimes) designer, working on courses such as Ballyneal, Rock Creek Cattle, Tara Iti, and many others around the world. Kye grew up playing at St. Clair, and his love for the layout shows in his restoration work, which included countless trees being removed and all but one of the greens being reconstructed. With the restoration complete and after a few years’ worth of maturation, the course shines as one of the best in the St. Louis area.
St. Clair’s routing across a tight, hilly urban parcel is full of quirk and leads in a few cases to some confusing transitions between holes – e.g. the one from #9 to #10 – but allows for quite a few interesting shorter loops that originate from the clubhouse at the center of the property. The layout features back-to-back par threes as well as back-to-back par fives in different spots, with a few half-par holes mixed in to provide birdie opportunities. This level of Golden Age quirk tends to rub some people the wrong way, but I think on the whole the experience at St. Clair is so unique that it transcends any of those kinds of gripes.
#1, Par 4 – Right out of the gate, St. Clair requires a leap of faith; the tee shot requires a carry over a ravine as well as a ridge on its opposite side, effectively playing blind to the downslope landing area. The large putting surface features a significant kick slope to its right, allowing players to bounce the ball onto that portion of the green. One of the two walking trestle bridges over the ravine between this tee and #9 green provide a bit of old-school charm.
#2, Par 3 – The second green is one of the smallest on the course, but is guarded by a deep bunker right and provides a bit of interest with a couple of small knobs on the front and left portions of the green, making the obvious bail out area no bargain.
#3, Par 4 – Another tee shot over a ridge beckons, this time playing slightly uphill and without the ravine, but like the first the fairway has a significant side slope to it. The approach requires players to land on a shelf-top green, albeit a large one, that falls off on all sides.
#4, Par 5 – The fairway on this straightaway hole routed across some very small ridges is wide but narrows significantly at the green, which also falls off on all sides but features quite a bit more undulation than the third.
#5, Par 4 – No discussion of St. Clair can be had without bringing up the polarizing fifth; it’s a half-par hole to the extreme. From its longest tees, it plays 267 yards, which for some people can be managed with less than driver these days. However, the fairway and green are surrounded on three sides by out-of-bounds, and there is nary a level spot to be found on or off the green. It’s a hole that can yield a 2 just as easily as it can yield a 6, and can make or break one’s round early.
#6, Par 5 – Following the fifth, another potential birdie opportunity beckons with the reachable sixth. The tee shot favors a draw as the hole bends around the course’s practice area, and if that draw is well-executed, the green can be attacked with a long iron. A large bunker sits short and right of the green, but deceptively so – from the fairway, the bunker appears directly in front, when in reality it sits back over twenty yards short. The intimidation factor alone likely pushes a number of longer missed shots to the friendly-looking swale to the left of the green, where an up-and-down is no picnic due to the severity of the slope off that edge.
#7, Par 4 – The seventh fairway tumbles down into the deep ravine that traverses the course, and back up a particularly steep slope to the green. Players must choose on the tee whether to lay up on top of the hill and be able to see the green from 140+ yards, or to hit the ball down into the ravine and face a blind shot (despite the extended flagstick) of less than 100. The green features distinct upper and lower tiers, and combined with the significant upslope in front, distance control is rather crucial.
#8, Par 4 – One of the more uncomfortable holes on the course, it plays up a significant rise to a fairway with a slight reverse camber against its dogleg right. I think the current back tee was added later and requires a significantly more narrow shot than the middle tee – typically a draw due to the presence of trees on the left – which compounds the difficulty due to the significant ravine on the left side of the fairway. The green is deep and well-bunkered but does not achieve the high bar of being one of the more memorable ones on the course.
#9, Par 3 – Playing over the ravine adjacent to the first tee and clubhouse, this short hole is particularly penal around the green with several bunkers and particularly severe slopes. With the trestle bridge adjacent to the tee and pro shop behind the green, it takes one of the cooler pictures on the course.
#10, Par 3 – The first routing quirk at St. Clair appears in the form of back-to-back par threes at the turn, where one has to walk past the pool and tennis courts to find the next tee. The tenth features an elevated green with deep bunkers left, from which the green slopes away.
#11, Par 4 – A relatively simple hole from tee to green, the eleventh features my favorite green on the course: an enormous nearly square-shaped putting surface that is elevated from the fairway below and features a gradual but deep diagonal swale cutting across from front left to back right, feeding gently that direction, and falling off steeply to the left and rear. This green complex needs to be seen to be believed.
#12, Par 4 – A sharp dogleg left and a bit of a layup hole, though those with a power draw can be aggressive and try to hit one over trees and down the hill into the swale short of the green. Once again, the green is the star of the show; it seems to fold into the center from its edges with a few mounds skirting the left side, and drops off severely in nearly all directions
#13, Par 3 – Easily the best short hole on the course and one of the best in the region, certainly so considering it plays under 140 yards. From an overhead satellite view, it doesn’t appear like much, with a long and narrow green and a couple of bunkers on the left. What you don’t see is the elevation change; that green is about twenty feet above the tee and falls off at least four to six feet on all sides. From the tee, it’s a terrifying proposition even with a short iron in your hand, as all you can see is the front of the green with sky beyond; any miss of the green faces a difficult uphill recovery shot.
#14, Par 5 – The first of back-to-back par fives, the hole begins from a relatively new back tee in plain view of diners/hecklers on the clubhouse patio. The fairway ripples and rolls over ridges, playing uphill to a green that is one of the smallest and flattest on the course – though it does drop off a bit to the front and right.
#15, Par 5 – Unless downwind or played by the longest hitters, the longest hole on the course at 570 yards from the tips is likely not going to be reached in two shots, and that’s probably for the best – the green sits far enough below the level of the fairway that it cannot be seen unless you are within 200 yards. Everything on and around the green slopes hard towards the deep valley short and left; any miss on that side will be simply impossible to recover, while a miss short and right is far more manageable.
#16, Par 3 – The longest par three on the course, this hole will bring you back to reality if you’ve played the previous two holes below par. The green is massive and features a large central shelf, off which there are a few smaller slopes.
#17, Par 4 – Somewhat of a clone of the dogleg left twelfth, the seventeenth doesn’t feature quite as many severe slopes around the edges of its green but nonetheless plays a bit longer and has a bit narrower of an approach.
#18, Par 5 – The finisher is a wild but very reachable par five. At about 280 yards from the championship tee, the fairway takes a steep nosedive into the ravine surrounding the clubhouse; players must choose whether to hit to the top of the hill or attempt to make it to the bottom. The approach from above is longer but allows players to attempt to hit the green by going above the two large trees on each side of the fairway at about 80 yards out, while the approach from down below can be done with a mid-iron threaded between the trees. The green is spectacular; at the top of the hill in front of the clubhouse, falling off on all sides to fairway, rough, or a hidden bunker long, it contains a nasty little swale in the front middle portion which makes for a fun pin position.
I simply love this golf course. It’s one of my favorite courses to play, anywhere. If it wasn’t entirely on the opposite side of the St. Louis metropolitan area from where I live and thus nearly an hour away from home, I would be a member. I’d wholeheartedly recommend it, over just about any other course as cited above, to anyone visiting the area who can access the club. Goalby’s transformation has put St. Clair into the highest echelon of Langford & Moreau’s best, and in my opinion at the top of the list of their most underrated designs.
Played July 14, 1997, August 29, 2020, & August 31, 2020