The 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 golf 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 course at Yale 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.”
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
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!