The golf course at Yale University is a monument to the Roaring Twenties and more specifically to both Seth Raynor and Charles Blair Macdonald who were gifted an enormous 700-acre wooded swamp on which to build a course by Mrs Tompkins in loving memory of her husband Ray. Armed with $400,000 – then the largest ever golf course budget – Raynor and Macdonald set about creating a masterpiece on a bold scale.
Despite neglect during the latter half of the 20th century – which has now been firmly remedied – Yale remains a testament to everything that is truly magical about classical, penal and strategic architecture. Consequently Yale is one of the world’s most challenging courses and also the world’s best collegiate layout… although the latter point does Yale no justice as there are few inspiring college courses around the world.
Many cavernous bunkers require careful entry via wooden steps and from the depths of these traps you’ll need a hot sand wedge to keep your card intact. With fairways that pitch and roll in a pleasing, almost seaside fashion, you can expect a fair share of awkward stances at Yale. Expect a few three putts too. The greens at Yale rival those at the Home of Golf in terms of size and severity of undulation.
The Yale golf course has played host to every significant championship in the State of Connecticut, along with two USGA Junior National Events. To play Yale you’ll need to befriend a member or a Yale student or employee. Alternatively you might want to gather together a group of 100 friends and acquaintances… Yale do allow outsize group outings on Mondays.
In the book Golf’s 100 Toughest Holes by Chris Millard, the par four 10th is described as “a straightaway par four”. The author continues: “At 396 yards from the back tees, this hole gives new meaning to the word uphill. Immediately off the tee, the fairway elevates to block out any sight of the landing area. A 240-yard drive will put you in the swale. Whereas you couldn’t see the landing area from the tee, now you can’t see the flag. The fairway is lined with dense forestation on both sides, and the green is 40 feet above the fairway. A deep trap extends across the front width of the green to catch short shots. The green itself is double tiered so that the rare approach shot that does find the green needs to be accurate.”
Over a period covering 25 years I have been able to play Yale no less than 5-6 times -- it helps that the club is nearby to I-95 when making the drive to and from New York and Boston.
There's no need for me to rehash all the golf holes -- others have weighed in and much of the comments are spot on.
My main gripe with Yale is that generally the times I have played the course it is, at best, in fair condition. I can remember the first time playing the course and frankly I needed to make a full shoulder turn to get a ball on the green to go more than 10 feet. Or, having tees that are not level or fairways that more than likely will produce flyer lies and on and on and on it goes.
I find it hard to comprehend how a facility with the name Yale -- can be so consistently disappointing on that front.
Let me clarify before all those who love the course cringe at my viewpoint. I am not advocating in any manner, shape or form that turf quality / presentation needs to be utterly pristine in the mold of a Augusta National or Muirfield Village. Not at all. I grew up playing on courses where grass, more often than not, grew by accident -- not by design. However, when conditions are not kept at a reasonable level the richness of the design details cannot flourish.
Yale is striking because of the vastness of the property and the way a number of individual holes command the location they have during the round. But, the layout is hardly bulletproof in terms of hole variety throughout the 18 holes.
Without doubt the opening quartet of par-4 holes is quite special and the par-4 8th has always fascinated me as well as the equally spellbinding Biarritz 9th.
But, the inward half is simply good but hardly on the same level as the outward side. The par-5 18th is clearly a conversation hole and for those enamored with quirky golf it certainly does that.
Yale gets plenty of "buzz" but I can easily make a case that a protégé of Macdonald and Raynor -- Charles "steam shovel" Banks did even more noted work at three of his designs -- Whipporwill in Westchester and Forsgate / Banks and Essex County -- each in NJ. The richness of the design details in the aforementioned courses has been enhanced in recent years and the turf quality brings to life in a grand fashion what the architect originally sought.
Unfortunately, there are a number of people who dismiss conditioning -- simply honing in on the design but not drawing the connection that golf is played with shots and the role the turf plays is central to the design pedigree really shining.
I'd like to return and see how things have progressed. However, I've been told in past instances how things have truly improved and then when returning seeing roughly the same result. Without a real effort to bolster the presentation the architecture simply cannot resonate to its highest level and it's my belief that a facility that fails that test cannot be presumed to be among the elite layouts of the land. If you want another example on this front check out Highlands Links on Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia.
Far too many people have provided support Yale mainly because of the name connection to Macdonald / Raynor. While those two icons of American architecture should be rightly feasted -- the day-to-day presentation of Yale doe not strike the same chord and has been downplayed when assessments are provided. As I outlined, if one were to see what Banks has done at the clubs I have mentioned you will see a real connection between the architecture and the presentation. This connection is what is missing at Yale.
For the reasons specified -- at this moment -- Yale has not closed the sale.
M. James Ward
How to rate a golf course that is one of the most architecturally significant in the USA? How to rate a golf course for longer, better players where technology has eliminated many of the most interesting land forms and terrain changes resulting that is now a bit inconsistent.
The Course at Yale has many outstanding holes such as three, four, eight, nine, ten, twelve, thirteen and eighteen. Most of the other holes are also good or have some very interesting character to them. Forty years ago I likely would have highlighted nearly every hole on the course but now the only consistency is in the quality of the green shapes. Holes five-seven and holes eleven, fourteen and sixteen no longer measure up to the others.
I played The Course at Yale, designed and built by Seth Raynor for a second time on September 11, 2019. Charles Banks assisted on building it while Charles Blair Macdonald consulted. It was not in good condition but I put that out of my evaluation although my playing partner and I both decided to write an email regarding the condition of the course. About five weeks later, my playing partner returned to play it again and said the course was in excellent condition. When I played, we met up with the coach of Yale’s golf team as his team was finishing the second hole and we were finishing fifteen so we went to say hello. The third is a tremendous hole for average length players. Yet the college team, instead of playing from the back tee of 411 yards, decided to play the hole to the right of the second green, adding about 50 yards to the hole. This hole is a dogleg right over water with the fairway nearly blind from the tee. Five players hit their 3 metals and all of them easily cleared the water, their balls finding the right side of the fairway before the fairway narrows to nothing, leaving only gap wedges in to the green.
I was not surprised. As I went around The Course at Yale I kept thinking about longer, better players and what they would think of the golf course. They obviously would marvel at the green complexes, particularly the large, undulating, multi-tiered greens. But for the journey from tee to the green they simply see a very different golf course to the average length player or mid-handicapper. The fairways are wide here and there are few sharp doglegs, so generally the better players will take a full rip at the ball.
The Course at Yale is a national treasure among golf courses in the USA, perhaps even more than National Golf Links of America. It could be classified as America’s “golf museum piece”, sitting there today in the rolling hills surrounding New Haven just as it has basically always been. The wide fairways, large undulating green, long/wide/deep bunkers and rolling fairways offer several blind shots combined with many template holes making it a golf course that enthusiasts of golf architects must play and study. If one thinks about perhaps the three greatest courses where Seth Raynor and Charles Blair Macdonald had a leading role in their development – Chicago (flat land), National Golf Links (a mixture of rolling and flat but only a couple blind shots), and Yale (primarily built around rolling and hills), one would have to say that Yale was the most unique course built for its time.
Nearly everyone I know who has played Yale rates it very highly, even amongst their “bests” or “favorites.” There are a few who do not favor it because of the blind shots which in their opinion, leads to too many guesses as they favor being able to see the entirety of the hole. They also critique the size and scale of the greens for their difficulty. But for the vast majority, they enjoy the fun of the adventure and resulting uncertainty that is created through those blind shots as well as from land forms near the greens creating quirky bounces that have a 50-50 chance of a favorable bounce and lie versus an ending that makes you either puzzled or in despair.
One should avoid the ugly clubhouse and terrible locker room. Thankfully, the staff is ultra-friendly in the pro shop and dining area. My sense is that the $30 billion endowment of the university has a clause directing none of it go towards the golf course or clubhouse. That is a pity if that is the case. Anyway, back to the golf course.
Golf started at Yale as Robert Pryde, from Scotscraig near St. Andrews, came to the USA in 1892 and helped to establish a golf course at the New Haven Country Club. Yale students played there and later established the college team in 1896 where Mr. Pryde became the de-facto head coach at Yale and a professional for many local courses.
In 1923, Mrs. Sarah Wey Tompkins donated 720 acres to Yale in memory of her late husband, Ray, who captained the football team in 1882 and 1883. The scorecard I was given last year now includes the following on the front, “Ray Tompkins Memorial Yale Golf Course.” When I first played there on June 6, 2005 in a best-ball charity outing there was no reference on the scorecard to Mr. Thompkins. It is now a nice acknowledgement. The course was built simply as a reaction to Yale slipping in stature in college golf. Yale University won 13 of the first 20 national college golf titles, but then went 7 consecutive years without winning. As Princeton and Harvard were building their own courses, the decision was made to build a “great” course as a way to attract the very best young high school amateurs. As Mr. Macdonald was somewhat “retired” he became more of a consultant to Mr. Raynor who laid out two courses, although only one course was built.
The course was designed and constructed by Seth Raynor with a budget of nearly $450,000, a massive amount for its time. The land was a mixture of poor soil, rapid changes in topography, swamp, rock, and woods. Augusta National was completed five years later for $100,000. The designers decided to utilize several “template” holes of which the most famous is the Biarritz green on the ninth hole. They were assisted by Charles Banks, who later became a noted architect on his own. Mr. Macdonald, who held a high regard for himself, wrote in 1928 in his book “Scotland’s Gift: Golf” that “today Yale has a classical course which is unexcelled in comparison with any inland course in this country or in Europe” At the time of his writing this was likely the case in comparison to the courses in the USA, but unlikely regarding inland courses in Europe. After all, Sunningdale, Swinley Forest, Ganton, and Morfontaine were all in existence.
One “quirk” of the course is that the only two par 5’s come very late at sixteen and eighteen. It is almost the reverse of Merion East where the only two par 5’s are the second and fourth. It is somewhat surprising that Yale would be built this way given obvious areas of land in earlier holes that could have easily been made a par 5 such as six, seven, eight, eleven, or fourteen. If one looks at the back ends of these holes you can see that the land is either of similar interest or perhaps even better for locating a green site. Maybe the $450,000 budget was not quite big enough?
In addition to a routing that somehow was able to work through all of the changes in terrain to find the teeing areas and interesting land for green sites, the course also has a wonderful quality in that no hole resembles another hole on the golf course. The only commonality that exists among some holes is that some holes are downhill and some holes are uphill. There are several holes that incorporate a pond. Other holes bring the tree lines more into play. But that is where the similarity of the holes end. The routing, land shapes of the fairways, number/length/shape/depth of bunkers are of a good variety, and then one comes to the greens. The greens, while all large, are completely unique where one is unlike the other. As you go through your round, what you might have learned about one’s reading abilities and stroke does not carry forward to the later holes because of their different slopes and undulations. It is perhaps Yale’s best defining feature.
The current scorecard lists three sets of tees, 6409/5984/5144, par 70. The course is rated 71.3/133 and 69.3/130 from the first two. We played the 6409 tees. I do have the scorecard from my first visit when the tees were set at 6749 rated 72.9/132. I am assuming they still play those longer tees for college competitions and top amateur events. For the hole descriptions I will reference the “college” tees of 6749 and the tees I played of 6409.
1 – par 4 410/383 with the college tees playing as a dogleg right across the corner of Griest pond. Simply put, it is a much nicer hole from the college tees. For the tees we played you start from an elevated tee with the pond not really in play unless you hit a very poor shot. Trees line both sides of the fairway tilted left to right and rolling with a single bunker on the left at the top of the crested fairway. At the green there is a large bunker front left that reduces the opening to the green by 75% with two bunkers on the right on slightly higher ground. The 10,300 square feet green has higher land behind it. This hole is all about the pin location on this massive green. On the right side is a plateau while the left side is lower with the left front having its own bowl. There is really nice mounding and land shaping near the green but I did find the green easy to read and putt as the green speeds were around 10. I found the visual of the hole for the approach shot to be slightly better than the hole itself but it is a good starting hole.
2 – par 4 374/362 going back the way you just came but now up the hill to a blind green from the tee of which much of the green can either remain completely blind or partially blind depending on where the tee shot finishes. The left side of the fairway falls off substantially leaving for certain a blind shot. The right side of the fairway or just off the offers the best view of the green with sits on a shelf. There are woods to the right that one can get into. The green is angled right to left with two fronting bunkers on the left that sit fifteen feet the green’s surface and one on the back right. The land on the left side of the green continues to fall away from those two left front bunkers. This is another large green with lots of undulations to it. It is another nice hole but not overly complicated if you find the center/right side of the fairway.
3 – par 4 411/379. The back tee makes the hole play straighter yet does make it play more difficult as the pond on the right is more in play. From the elevated tee this plays as a dogleg right over a pond to a fairway that looks fairly tight due to the slope of the hill on the left side running down to flatter land. There is a pin locator to help you with the approach shot as it is very likely the view to the green will be blocked by a second rise in the hill coming in off the left that leaves only about 20% of the green in view if you can find the right side of the fairway nearer the pond. This green was once a double punchbowl green located closer to the pond but now is defined by its size and tilt to the right. There is a single bunker on the right about 60 yards short of the green where there is essentially no fairway. The green is surrounded by higher ground front and to the left. This is a super hole even if the longer players make it pretty simple.
4 – par 4 437/425. This hole is deemed the “road” hole. Teeing off fairly close to the back of the third green, this dogleg right plays over the same pond as the third hole, but the pond is much more in play here because the water comes in much more on this hole shrinking the fairway by about 20%. For the average length player, the pond is very much in one’s mind although longer hitters will simply fly it over the pond by quite a margin leaving a simple wedge into the green. The fairway rises gradually all the way to the green which sits above on a shelf of higher ground. The green is wonderfully surrounded by bunkers at the corners with the front right being the deepest leading to a blind recovery shot. The bunkers at the rear corners of the green should be out of play but if in them, the recovery shot is difficult as the green goes away from you. It is a fabulous hole and for me, the best hole on the golf course.
5 – par 5 147/135. This slightly tiered green is large than it looks and is surrounded by a “moat” of sand with three small breaks in them. The bunkers are not as deep as many others to a green that is raised a few feet sloped back to front. This is a somewhat bland hole and the weakest par 3 on the golf course.
6 – par 4 421/409. This dogleg left plays downhill and is heavily tree lined on both sides. A stream appears briefly on the left side. There is a long narrowing bunker front of the green and a smaller pot-like bunker behind it at the right side of the green.
7 – par 4 37/365. This hole was created by use of dynamite and plays as a straight hole plays slightly down with heavy trees on the left and a hill on the right and to a green sitting above you with a false front. There is a deep bunker on the right front. The green is enormous with a 5 feet of slope back to front and left to right. The slope is so severe that it does not allow for some pin positions nearer the edges of the green that otherwise would be very interesting.
8 – par 4 406/394. The “cape” hole playing as a dogleg left downhill over a rise and then it feels like the approach is uphill but it is not. This hole is good for average length players but not much for longer hitters who easily carry the rise and then have a clear line to the green with a sand wedge in hand. Hitting down the left could lead to a blind shot as the land falls away. The green is certainly wide enough and is one of the longer ones on the course at 46 yards. I was not surprised to three putt this one as I thought it to be one of the more difficult greens to read. There is a long bunker at the right side of the green while the one on the left, similar to the second hole, sits well below the green, probably fifteen feet, surrounded by rougher vegetation. This bunker will definitely result in a blind recovery shot. The front half of the green goes right to left with a very tall mound on the right of the green but the back half goes left to right. It is one of the better holes on the course.
9 – par 3 213/201. The most famous hole of the course as the “Biarritz” hole. This hole can certainly play as long as 250 yards to a back pin location. The green is 65 yards deep and 12,000 square feet with a five feet depression in the middle. One has to carry the Griest pond which comes very close to the front of the green. Woods surround the other three sides of the green. There is a substantial slope from the back right to the left. It is hard to say what spot on the green is the most difficult putt, the back right or anywhere on the front prior to the swale. There is a bunker on the front right and two on the left side with the right one being the most difficult of the three. This is a classic hole and wholly deserving of its acclaim. Still, I liked the fourth hole more. My partner and I both got up and down for pars.
10 – par 4 382/379. If the eighth and ninth were not fun enough, to follow is the marvelous tenth. This hole crosses over the entry road and then climbs and climbs and climbs some more to a green that will always be blind until you are on it or level with it. It feels like you are hitting up a mountain. The uphill fairway is tree-lined on both sides and has a substantial drop-off the closer to the hole due to the roll-out but makes the green even higher and completely blind above you. There is a substantial wall fronting the green leading down to two bunkers perhaps 12 feet below the green. The green is sloped fiercely back to front with tiers at both. Although I am not a fan of the second at Cruden Bay, I think this is a very good hole because I do not have a gap wedge in my hands for the approach. The approach is more similar to the second at Pine Valley although that is played from a level lie and you will not likely have a level lie here for one’s second.
11 – par 4 379/347. There is room to lengthen this hole but you would have to change it to a slight dogleg from either side and take down more trees. As it is, this hole plays straight downhill about 60 feet with rocky land to the left and trees on either side. There is a large, deep bunker fronting the left side two similar sized bunkers right and left. The green is angled left to right and front to back. For me, this is the weakest par 4 on the golf course.
12 – par 4 400/387. The “Alps hole and there is room to lengthen this hole another 30 yards before it runs into one of the hiking trails behind the tee. But as the hole is uphill leading to another blind shot into the green, more distance is perhaps not necessary. Trees line both sides. There is a large, deep fronting bunker that one must carry to reach the green that is on a shelf well above you. There is a bunker on the left side. The green has several plateaus and swales to it. It is a marvelous hole.
13 – par 3 212/196. The “redan” hole although not as severely sloped as other redans. One feels like the green has been softened through the years. This hole is the most beautiful on the golf course playing from an elevated tee downhill over a pond. There are two deep fronting bunkers that do not allow a ball to land short and run onto the green. There is a large bunker left which sits about 4 feet below the green and two bunkers right of the green. The land is sloped to run into any of those bunkers front or left. Trees surround the hole.
14 – par 4 365/353. The hole has no bunkers and plays downhill. It is heavily tree lined and has a knoll on the left side kicking balls to the right. The green is raised and trickier than it appears as it seems to go front to back and right to left but I am not sure it does either. My approach shot bounded off the back. There is a 4-feet fall-off to the right of the green.
15 – par 3 190/171. The “Eden” hole and a nice par 3. The green is steeply sloped back to front with deep bunkers on both corners of the front.
16 – par 5 553/495. The first par 5 and it has a substantial difference between the two tees. This hole bends gently to the left but the green is set off to the right. It is again heavily tree lined on both sides. There are bunkers flanking the green. This is the weakest hole on the course. The original green was moved as it was in lower land that often flooded. Yet something should be done to improve the hole.
17 – par 4 437/425. This hole plays downhill over a pond and bends gently left. There is a “principle’s nose” like collection of three bunkers at a raised area fronting the green. The green itself is raised slightly with multiple tiers in it. As we had been behind a elderly single the entire back nine who refused to let us through, he finally waved us through here and I three putted in my haste, but it might have been due to the green. As it turned out, the fellow was not waving us through, he had gotten his cart into an area where it would not go forward and he wanted our help. We helped him reverse and raced to the next tee where we heard him yell at us for going through.
18 – par 5 621/580. If the ninth is the most famous, then surely the eighteenth is the second most noted hole at Yale. There are two separate hills on this hole with the second shot for most players being completely blind. Is the hole straight or is it a double dogleg? The safer line for the second shot is down the right side but it adds distance. The better line to the green for the second shot is to the higher ground on the left which will leave a shorter shot in but there is a sidehill with thick grass that you simply must avoid. The third shot is downhill to a very long and wide green with bunkers on either side. There is a fall-off behind the green where a bunker has been placed to stop balls from going onto the entry road. The green is very slanted seemingly in all directions. Longer hitters from the forward tee can carry the crest of the first hill, but I doubt their ability from the back tee to do so. This is another green that is more than 50 yards long.
The Course at Yale is magnificent, if a bit uneven. There may be no better use of the land for a golf course in the USA and perhaps no better green complexes. Unless the weather is lousy, it does lack in difficulty other than on the greens. It does not require quite as much strategy as it would have 50 years ago, but it is a course that any serious student of golf architecture should play. It is not in my top 100 and that sounds sacrilegious as I thoroughly enjoy playing there and marvel at what was created. I do understand why many put it in their top 100 or even top 50 courses in the world. Some say it is Seth Raynor’s finest work but I put several other courses ahead of it. But one should certainly route it into their playing schedule if anywhere near the area.
Yale is a fabulous course. For quite some time I had been able to play Yale numerous times and always heard Stanwich was the best in the state. I finally played Stanwich and while Stanwich is wonderful. Yale is fabulous. I won't go thru the course hole by hole. Simply put If and When you play Yale....You will take a minimum 5 holes to your grave. As I go thru the course in my head...There are no less than 9 fabulous holes. Not good holes but remember them forever type holes. This is a course you fly to play. Play the back tee on one just to capture the essence of the pond on the hole. 1/2/3/4 may be the best start to any course....period. 8/9/10 may be the best 3 hole stretch anywhere...18 is just the fitting end to the round...Wow Find a way to play here. You'll never forget it.
A great course and must play if you're in the area. All the template holes are exceptional and the original holes are even better (that's not true, they are all wonderful). Favorite hole on the course is the 8th but there isn't a weak hole out there. Conditioning could be better but it really isn't as bad as advertised. Easily one of the top courses in CT.
What a course!!!! The triumvirate of C. B. Macdonald, Macdonald, Seth Raynor and Charles Banks, designed this gem in 1926. Yale Golf Course is a testament to their wizardry. The first hole is intimidating to say the least. Long carry to a deceptive green, I would suggest adding another club on your approach shot. The 2nd is relatively easy, unless you end up in the 30 + foot deep bunker left, as I did. The 3rd if are right you are dead in the water. Left leaves you with a blind approach. I am not sure what advice to give on this one as it kicked my butt %$&**&^$. The 4th is even tougher, at 440 yards favor the left side of the fairway as the water hazard sneaks in from the right. ‘Exhale on the 5th, relatively short par 3 but with bunkers surrounding it, it is essentially an island par 3. The 7th hole looks benign on the scorecard, but what a green. It is elevated with a huge slope to the front. If you miss left will probably end up rolling into the woods, if you miss right, as my playing partner did, you may roll into the front right bunker. Godspeed. The 8th is a beast. I hooked my approach and paid the penalty from a 30 foot deep bunker, ugh!!!. The 9th is why you came. Biarritz is a course design that is widely underutilized. For this 235 yard par 3 to a 65 yard long green half the fun is when the pin is back. There is nothing quite like hitting a good tee shot, see it land on the green, watching it disappear and hoping, praying, cussing and seeing it rise back up from the depths of the 8 foot elevation drop to give you a shot at birdie. It reminded me of teenage sex. I hate to say it but the 9th is the climax. The 12th is a super golf hole, uphill with a blind shot to a two tiered green. The 18th is a good hole with a blind shot but the excitement is over. Yale is an amazing golf course that shoots it’s wad to early.
Yale has been climbing the rankings in recent years. The course is big, bold, with a variety of required shots, including blind approaches. Most of the holes have a "wow" feeling.
It has some of the best template holes, including the 9th Biarritz and the Punchbowl green on the 10th.
Yale is a Charles Blair Macdonald masterpiece that doesn’t get the love it deserves because of its conditioning. I liked all the holes at Yale and it is hard to pick a favorite. The best known hole is clearly the Biarritz ninth, with its legendary carry over water to a seriously challenging green. After the round I expected this to be the hole that shined through and the one that would be the most memorable, however, I find myself thinking back about the "Blind" third hole with very fond memories, although I think the three-hole stretch from ten through twelve is difficult to beat.
If I had to single out one hole, though, it would be the fourteenth "Knoll," which plays only 353 yards from the blue tees. You likely won't see your tee ball land given the hilly terrain. Charles Banks described your second shot on this hole as a "… lift and hold shot. The green is elevated on all sides and slopes to the left." As Godley and Kelly point out in their book Golf at Yale, it is a "deceptively compact par-four, made challenging by its tilts, angles, and uneven lies." And, I would add by the narrow nature of the green and your intended target.
The finishing hole is a par five of 621 yards from the tips and it plays over a crazy combination of hills. Especially for the first time player, there is little sense of where to hit and what would constitute a good golf shot. The terrain is monumental and it appears to not have been sculpted at all, just the original crazy and jumbled land forms.
To say that you have to hit your tee shot uphill understates the case. Likewise, the shot down from the high ground encompasses a precipitous fall. It is made all the more interesting by having two distinct fairways you can play. You can go to the right and across the top of the mountain or to a lower plateau on its right. The humps and bumps make it quite unpredictable where your ball will kick unexpectedly. The 18th hole is good summation of Yale in general. It is an epic finishing hole on an epic golf course.
John Sabino is the author of How to Play the World’s Most Exclusive Golf Clubs
The minute you step into the men’s locker room, you can’t help but notice the framed pictures hanging around the room of every MacDonald/Raynor course they built. This just highlights that you’re at a historic and special layout which has lasted almost 100 years. The 9th hole (Biarritz) gets a lot of attention at Yale, and understandably so, but so many other template holes are worthy of much acclaim. The course did look a bit tired and I was hoping for better conditioning. There are so many blind shots here and challenging changes in elevation, which could be limiting (punishing) for lesser-skilled golfers.
The Course at Yale occupies one of the greatest tracts of golfing real estate that I have ever witnessed. The land for the course was donated to the University by Mrs Ray Tompkins in memory of her husband, encompasssing 700 acres of swamp and woodland, In the early 1920’s Seth Raynor in collaboration with C.B McDonald as an advisor, were charged with building a man sized golf course of Championship standard, given a budget of $400k, the largest ever allotted for the construction of a golf course, they created what can only be described as one of the finest examples of golf course architecture this side of Atlantic. Yale can stand proudly alongside all of the USA’s well renowned bastion’s of golden age architecture as an equal for it possess the strategy required at Merion, prototype holes better than at National and the Penal Shot Values seen at Pine Valley.
I must shamedly admit that my decision to play at Yale was a best last minute. I was making my way to New Jersey from Boston on the Monday of Labour Day Weekend and was stuck in dreadful traffic on I-95 South, after consulting my GPS I made what turned out to be one this author’s wisest decisions and got off at New Haven and after a quick phone call to the extremely help staff at the pro Shop made the short trip to the Course at Yale.
The entrance drive gives you a nice flavour of what lies ahead, winding through the huge mature trees as your drive down the hill towards the clubhouse which lies at the center of the impressive property. As soon as I stepped out of the car I fell in love with the ambience of the place, although a University golf course, it reminded me of the experience of Golf back home in Ireland. There was no bag drop, valet parking, or mandatory caddy, which although I often enjoy, especially the experience of a good caddy, becomes a little too much and strays slightly away from the purest form of the game which I grew up with and love so dearly. Instead I was greeted with the sight of Students enjoying late afternoon rounds carrying their bags, more elderly people pulling trolleys and practice areas full of people young and old, working on their game, exactly what golf is all about!
Aside of Golf Course Architecture fanatics, many people are unaware of the stature the Course at Yale commands in golfing circles. Few can fathom how a University Course, primarily used for student and local play is viewed by us scribes as one of the great examples of golden age architecture. As mentioned briefly above, this is undeniably a Raynor course, many have credited McDonald as a co-designer, with some even giving him full credit, the truth is he was merely and advisor and the meat of the design was carried out by his protgee. The complexity and diversity of the landscape was what struck me most and it is testament to Raynor’s great skill as a router as to how he came up with such a terrific design, making full use of the rolling hills, swampy Lakeland areas and Rocky outcrops incorporating all these aspects seamlessly into his layout. His former profession as an engineer no doubt aided him in his vision and maximization of what he had to work with at Yale.
The opening tee shot is well renowned as one of the most imposing in all of American Golf, although nowadays not as big an ask, in the days of wooden headed hickory shafted clubs a good solid blow would have been required to make the carry over Griest pond. From the outset the player is struck by the sensation of being made to feel dwarfed by the stature of his surrounds, for everything is on a giant’s scale. This feeling is only enhanced as you step onto the opening green, a whopping 10,330sq feet in size, meaning a two putt is far from a given! The monstrous size of the putting surfaces is something which remains a constant, as you gaze up toward the second green from the fairway level, you have a short iron to a large target, but it is not a question of hitting the green as much the right section of the green which is the key. I later learned from my subsequent reading that two large redan like mounds were removed from the right side of the green, hopefully one day they will be restored bringing the full character of Raynor’s intention of how the hole would be played back to life.
Upon reflection the tee shot on number 3 began one of my most enjoyable stretches in all of golf. This hole possess the risk/reward strategic element that I most enjoy. The green is punchbowl styled and set beyond the crest of a mound, the safe tee shot hugs the left side avoiding the lake on the right, however the brave player who plays his tee shot closer to the edge of the lake is afforded a better view of what lies ahead and depending on hole location a chance to see the flagstick. A great hole!
One of McDonald’s design traits along with his prptotype holes, was to begin his course’s with strong opening holes, as seen at National and Chicago, I believe this thought process may have influenced his disciple here at Yale. The 5th may be one of my favourite par 4’s ever, interestingly enough it reminded me a little of Pat Ruddy’s 7th hole at the European Club, a very different setting but nonetheless similar principle. The swamp on the right looks a lot closer than it is off the tee and only a drive of Dustin Johnson/Gary Woodland proportions will carry the marshy pond. The hole embodies certain elements of the Road hole with the lake occupying the spot of the hotel and but with the green pitched at the opposite angle on account of the large amount of stone, making it impossible to create an exact replica. Played smartly it can be an easy par, but get too greedy and a 6 can appear on the card very easily.
The next(6th hole) is a tremendous rendition of the prototype short hole seen at most Raynor/McDonald designs, a giant bunker guards the front of the steeply pitched back to front green. Holes 7 and 8 are two strong par 4’s the former again rewarding aggressive play from the tee with an easier approach, while the latter a cape styled hole presents one of the most interesting green complexes one will ever see. As you walk off the 8th green you can peak around the corner and get a glimpse of what awaits you, one of the most well known shots in all of golf and widely regarded as the best Biarritz hole on the planet. The view from the tee is long lasting, you get the feeling that you are standing on the edge of a cliff about to let go of your last shot, praying that it lands finds safety, the green is as exhilarating as any you will see, and just pips the versions of Shoreacres 6th and Somerset Hills 13th in my book.
The walk to the tenth tee is like an escape from the outside world, you make your way down the hill from behind the 9th green through vast woodland, on the day I played I encountered at least 12 deer just peacefully enjoying the landscape. I couldn’t help but think of the former students, now world leaders or captains of industry who have walked through this isolated special path. As you come to the tenth tee by the entrance road you quickly return to reality and also must focus on the mammoth task at hand. To compare the severity of the incline on this hole, the only comparison would be the approach to the second green at Pine Valley. It sits pulpit like above the fairway, almost taunting you as if to dare to and reach the surface. From here you embark on one of the greatest finishing stretches in all of golf.
The 11th is again a blind tee shot , where the intelligent player will realize that, like the 8th hole at Carlow, driver is not necessarily the best option when attempting to use the contours to your advantage. Indeed as I made my way through the back 9 I could not help but feel like I was back in Ireland at Carlow Golf Club, traversing the far reaches of the course holes 14 -16 with ferns, bracken, heather and pines all encroaching on the putting surface.
Yale was more reminiscent of European heathland course, than of your stereotypical North East USA golf experience, which was extremely refreshing for me. The 12th played from the back tee, set deep into the woods, is a bear of a hole and an alps style false fronted bunker must be negotiated on your blind approach to again a gigantic putting surface. The 13th is the Redan Hole at Yale, although it displays all the usual characteristics and is without doubt a great par 3, the downhill nature of the hole, meaning the ball lands softer on the surface really prevents the true nature of this most copied hole of North Berwick’s 15th really showing their teeth. Holes 14 -17 occupy an interesting loop. (14)A great bunkerless knoll holes, with a green that evidently was being restored to its orginal shape,(15) an eden style par 3 with the usual treacherous front trap, (16) a par 5 with a very daunting tee shot played between two mini mounds, the only criticism being a rather dull green,(I later leanred that it was not Raynor’s original) and 17 one of Raynor’s favoutite holes types, the double plateau green, similar to 17 at Shoreacres, with the vicious slope off the left side and guarded by a principal’s nose styled bunker a,long the lines of the one at National as opposed to the original at St Andrews therefore a slightly construed usage but nonetheless to good effect.
And then to the par 5 18th, what can only be described an out and out three shotter. Even by today’s standards the hole is monstrous in length. Played of a mini matterhorn (ala Royal County Down) which is located right in the middle of the playing corridor, one is presented with two options on the second shot, whether to play to the left or to the right and as of yet I am still unsure which gives the easier route. Many consider this the greatest long hole that either Raynor or McDonald has ever produced, The 18th green innocently sits at the center of the property on the entrance side of the clubhouse only visible from the third shot zone, almost unaware of what the player has to undergo to have a putt for birdie on its vast and relatively flat dance floor.
As you can gather from the above, I thoroughly enjoyed my day at Yale. As I was slightly losing faith in American Golf and how it upheld the traditions of the game, along it came reminding me what it was all about. Upon speaking with many people they have had a high praise for the work he has undertaken ever since his appointment. His efforts to restore the intended playing corridors, re-enlarge the putting surfaces to their original size and also build new tees to preserve the integrity of the holes must be highly commended. The conditioning of Yale is a point upon which some people criticize it that being I feel the imperfect nature is a breath of fresh air in comparison to the usually imperfect nature of US Golf conditioning. I feel a happy medium of well conditioned greens and fairways coupled with rough wild edges would easily see Yale back inside the World top 100, if it were up to me it would already be there!