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!
Date: September 12, 2011