On the shores of White Bear Lake, twenty miles northeast of St. Paul, nestles one of the best but least well-known classical golf courses in the USA.
The White Bear Yacht Club dates back to 1889 and according to club records, William Watson added a 9-hole golf course to the club's recreational portfolio in 1912. Three years later, Donald Ross was commissioned to construct a second nine and to redesign the original layout.
The club has a rich and interesting history: Walter Hagen held the White Bear course record for years and Tom Vardon, younger brother of six-time British Open champion Harry, was the club professional. In 1929 White Bear member Harrison Johnston won the US Amateur Championship at Pebble Beach. Defending champion, Bobby Jones was the favourite to win the 1929 US Amateur, making it three-in-a-row but he was knocked out in the first round. More recently, Tom Doak declared that the course at White Bear Yacht Club comprises some of the best Donald Ross designed holes he has ever seen.
Writing in The Confidential Guide to Golf
Courses, Doak commented as follows: “Our favorite course in the Twin
Cities, White Bear Yacht Club is one of the last hidden gems in America – a great
course that hardly anyone mentions. Likely part of the reason for its anonymity
is that from the big par-4 1st hole to the blind tee shot on the 18th, it is a
walk on the wild side, with fairway undulations that would require a small
craft advisory, and greens that would make Perry Maxwell blush.”
With modest length, White Bear requires accuracy rather than length from the tee. If you suffer from a lack of balance, White Bear might not be the course for you as you will seldom get a flat stance.
I had the opportunity to play WYBC this week and it was a true pleasure. The course as advertised is extremely hilly for this area, but course works well with the land. The course is well maintained and plans are in place to continue to remove trees and bring some of the original features back. Each hole opens up new challenges and fantastic shot challenges. My average tee shot is somewhere in the 230 range and playing from the blues, I did not reach the plateaus on every hole, but enjoyed hitting a variety of shots from different stances.
I hope to get the opportunity to play the course again soon.
The Golf Committee at White Bear understands how special their piece of land is. In recent years, they also understood the need to remove hundreds of trees that were suffocating certain fairways and green-sites. My first visit a few years ago exposed me to how passionate the Golf Chairman is to improve the layout and preserve the many special elements. My eyes were wide open during a June 2020 return visit as to the magnitude of tree removal, quickly visible on the 2nd, 3rd and 7th holes.
White Bear Yacht Club is on the short-list of Watson/Ross gourmet courses. Previous reviews have appropriately described the topography and the various holes, but I felt that it was really important to return to see the updates over the past 12 months. There is no shortage of outstanding clubs and courses in the MSP region (eg: Hazeltine National, Interlachen CC, Minneapolis GC & Minikahda CC), but it might be White Bear that tops them all. Only time will tell. Each round at White Bear further cements the abundance of reasons why golfers can’t get enough of this work of art. You walk off the golf course having hit every club in your bag, having hit every shot you can imagine – and you understand where your strengths and weaknesses are.
Traditional Old School Wonder. Have had the pleasure of playing multiple times and enjoy everything about the course. Knowing the history of the course adds to the enjoyment. i.e., this course was created with the use of a horse and tiller to work the soil. So don't plan on an abundance of flat lies.
Wonderful grooming and greens that are consistently in great shape make the experience. The layout has most of the fairways being tree lined and while mostly generous in their width can create frustration with holding a green from a poorly chosen landing area.
Landforms. To me it’s the landforms that give a course interest, excitement and charm. And White Bear Yacht Club excels in this regard. If you have ever played #7, #8, and #17 at Crystal Downs you will understand what I mean. Now if you are a player who wants the entire hole laid out before them on the tee then perhaps this course is not for you. But if you like a little adventure in your course, a chance to discover the territory ahead, then this course is. If you enjoy a course with movement in the fairways and a little unpredictability then beg your way for an invite here. The best way to appreciate the landforms is in person but I encourage all to seek out photos on line. You will note that the course will look different at different hours of the day as the landforms cast shadows. The landforms are so compelling on this course that it really doesn’t need bunkers. There are probably less than 75 bunkers on the course and that’s more than sufficient. Any more would only be a visual distraction from what is an amazing piece of real estate. I very much applaud the decision to remove additional trees that will only enhance the course further.
There is more to WBYC than just the property. I adored #12, a par 4 that I thought I understood from the tee but soon found out that I didn’t. The stretch of #14 through #16 are terrific. I’m not a fan of par 3’s in general but the short 135 yard #3 is quite compelling and, despite our foursome possessing all kinds of GPS technology, we all managed to misclub #17 as we let visual clues influence our selection. It’s the type of course that left me wanting another shot at it.
It is truly unfair to rank a golf course having played but a single round. Great golf courses don’t reveal all their charms that easily, insisting instead that you explore them. I live some 850 miles from WBYC and would gladly traverse that distance again for another chance to explore this gem.
Tom Doak, Fergal O”Leary and I are usually on the same page……..at least when it comes to assessing golf courses. But when it comes to White Bear, I was not only on a different page, I was probably in a different book. Yes, the par five 16th rightly deserves praise, requiring the golfer to think carefully about her/his strategy on the tee shot and then to negotiate a splendidly contoured green. But the 16th is the only hole here that combines those attributes. I could find but one other (15) that required strategic thought off the tee and only half a dozen greens featured the fine contouring that makes for interesting putting. And while blind shots can be fun, negotiating an even dozen of them (the number I had) got repetitious. The dull, flat bunkers on a number of holes on the back nine didn’t help either. The rolling piece of land could provide some fine views, but there are too many trees for that (though the club plans to take down a few hundred in 2020.) Too soft. Par 5s no strategy on par 5 second shot.
The good news is that I can say that White Bear is my favorite course in Minnesota……but that’s because it’s the only one I’ve played so far.
This is the most underrated and under-appreciated Donald Ross course in the country. The most distinctive feature of this course is the dramatically rumpled fairways. I can’t even imagine how this course was built a century ago; it’s just a testament to the mastermind who signed off on the layout. Fabulous undulation throughout the property makes for a terrific golfing experience.
There aren’t too many courses in the whole world that offer a rippling piece of land like this, Durban Country Club and Highlands Links come to mind. It’s common to associate blind shots with the links courses that dominate the British and Irish coastlines; however, it was tremendous fun hitting blind shots around this course knowing that the ocean was thousands of miles away.
The heaving land has peaks and troughs that resonate around the property and the Ross greens were crowned and undulating at their best.
My few bashful gripes with the course were that a few bunkers didn’t look like Ross creations at all and felt immediately out of place with many other characteristic hazards on the course. We noted a few that were just a couple of inches deep and looked like a rug you’d put under your dining room table.
Furthermore, the 18th hole is also disappointing, which is a shame as it a short par 4 that just walks you back to the clubhouse. The challenge here is that the routing of the course doesn’t allow the 18th hole to be anywhere else.
Lastly, the position of a few tee boxes have been moved, which has been to the detriment of a number of visuals from the teeing grounds. For example, the current 9th tee is below the fairway and doesn’t have the same appeal as the legacy 9th tee which sits above the fairway offering a splendid rolling view up the hole to the clubhouse. Views like this should be taken advantage of.
Overall, we were massively impressed with the course and were confident to see this course appearing in the rankings going forward.