Review: The Course at Yale

Course Name: The Course at Yale

Designer: C.B. Macdonald/Seth Raynor/Charles Banks (1926), Roger Rulewich (1998, bunker restoration, lengthened holes)

Location: New Haven, Connecticut

History: The Course at Yale’s rich history began in 1924 when widow of wealthy alumnus Ray Tompkins donated 700 acres of rocky, hilly swampland to the University. For a then-record of $400,000, Yale hired C.B. Macdonald, Seth Raynor, and Charles Banks to design a golf course on the challenging terrain. With Macdonald acting primarily as a consultant, Raynor took charge as architect, while “Steam Shovel” Banks performed the day-to-day construction. When the course opened in 1926, it was met with almost instantaneous acclaim, regarded as one of the finest inland courses in the world and an architectural masterpiece considering the difficulty of the land. Originally, the plan was for 36 holes at Yale, but a second course never materialized for unknown reasons.

IMG_5321
The original 36 hole blueprint

Over the years, conditioning and architectural motifs began to deteriorate, prompting the University to hire Yale grad Roger Rulewich to restore the course in 1998. Long considered one of the hardest courses in world, Yale holds numerous other awards, including:

  • #177 Best Course in America – Golf Digest (2017)
  • #55 Best Course in America – Golf Magazine (2017)
  • #51 Best Classic Course in America – Golfweek (2018)
  • #1 Best College Course Course in America – Golfweek (2016)
  • #3 Best Course in Connecticut – Golf Digest (2017)

Conditions: 6/10, One of the biggest things holding Yale back is its conditioning, which is nowhere near the caliber of similarly ranked courses. While the fairways, teeboxes, and bunkers are decently maintained, the greens were very slow and filled with ballmarks and bumps. Apparently the conditioning has improved drastically over the last 20 years and hopefully this trend continues.

Value: N/A, This is a private course. However, Yale students, alumni, and staff can play for as little as $15 and can arrange for unaccompanied guests.

Scorecard:

Tee                            Par         Yardage         Rating           Slope

Championship        70           6825               72.9               135

Blue                          70           6409               71.3               133

Green                        70          5984                69.3              130

Gold                           70          5144                70.2             121

Hole Descriptions: New England is blessed with a number of tremendous classic courses, but there was perhaps no course I was more intrigued by than Yale. While technically private, the course’s connection to the University means it’s one of the easier Top 200 courses to access. I had made many Yale connections and several times was set to play here only to be denied by weather, outings, or poor timing. When a very generous Instagram follower offered to host me, I couldn’t reply “Yes!” fast enough.

Yale’s allure can best be described by the Raynor effect, seen in the locker room, which features photographs from his and Macdonald’s finest courses including Fisher’s Island, Chicago, and Yeaman’s Hall. For a golf architecture diehard like me, there are few architects more interesting than Raynor, an engineer by trade whose designs are famous for their templates honoring great Scottish courses. In a way, Yale is a typical Raynor course given that almost all the holes are templates, but there is absolutely nothing typical about Yale. This course is epic in every sense of the word, with some of the boldest contours and dramatic shots I’ve ever played. I think the most impressive thing about Yale is that the course was built in 1926 on terrain that even today would be difficult, if not impossible to build a golf course. The fact that Raynor somehow fit eighteen template designs onto the land is a remarkable feat and undoubtedly a job suited for someone with an engineering background.

Some courses commence with a warm-up hole, but this is not the case at Yale. Featuring one of the most exhilarating opening teeshots I’ve played, the 1st requires a carry of at least 175 yards over a pond from an elevated teebox. Tall trees and a well-placed bunked at 225 yards line the left while dense woodlands line the right. This huge green is surrounded by two bunkers right and one short left and essentially plays as two separate greens – one back-to-front sloped portion on the right and a lower punchbowl-inspired left portion. Putts from the opposite tier are more commonly three-putts than one-putts.

IMG_5279
The epic par 4 opener – “Eli”

The 2nd hole’s nickname “Pits” is a clear reference to the defining feature of this hole – two extremely deep bunkers just short left of this diagonal green that are to be avoided at all costs. This medium length par 4 plays 362 yards to a generous and undulating fairway that slopes right-to-left. Another bunker looms deep and is hidden on the approach.

IMG_5280
The par 4 2nd – “Pits”
IMG_5324
The 2nd approach shot calls for a carry over some devastating bunkers

Many critics consider the 399 yard 3rd hole the best par 4 on the course. While I’m not sure I’d go that far, this is an undeniably unique hole and one that is very difficult the first time you play Yale. This teeshot runs downhill to a heavily right-to-left sloped fairway lined by OB far left and water hugging the right. The further the drive, the less fairway you have to work with until about 290 yards when tall mounds of rough bisect the hole. As a consequence of these mounds, the approach shot here is pretty much blind no matter what line you take off the tee. For a blind approach, this green is rather small surrounded by four bunkers, water on the right, and fescue on the left. I remember hitting what I thought was a perfect approach only to be knee deep in tick-infested fescue.

IMG_5283
Driver is not needed on the par 4 3rd
IMG_5284
“Blind” is a fitting name for the 3rd
IMG_5329
Looking back at the 3rd green from the 4th teebox

At 425 yards, the number 1 handicap 4th hole is tied for the longest par 4 at Yale. While modern distance somewhat softens the hole, this is still a long hole for the majority of golfers and is one of the most difficult driving holes you’ll find anywhere. Requiring an immediate carry of 175 yards over marshland, water also juts into the right side of the fairway between 230 and 270 yards. Ben Crenshaw stated this hole demonstrates “a perfect use of water as a driving hazard” and I agree, as this hazard subconsciously forces you to pull drives left despite the fact that the fairway slightly doglegs right. This approach to an elevated green is no easier with deep bunkers on the left and one particularly deadly pot bunker short right. This very challenging hole has made numerous most difficult hole lists and is modeled after the Road Hole at St. Andrews.

IMG_5285
The par 4 4th plays level, further compounding the difficulty

The first 4 holes are world-class par fours, but I think the best holes at Yale are the one-shotters, beginning with the 135 yard 5th. There’s beauty in simplicity here with an island green surrounded by a deep moat of bunkers. Hit the green and you have a good shot at birdie, but miss and you’ll be scrambling for bogey.

IMG_2084
The par 3 5th – “Short”

The least impressive hole on an incredible front nine, the 6th hole is a 409 yard dogleg left. This hole is relatively bland and most notable for a creek that runs down the entire left side and is especially prominent at the dogleg around 240 yards. This green is large and runs back-to-front guarded by a poorly placed bunker short right. I’m not really sure why the bunker is there and highly doubt it’s part of the original design.

IMG_5288
The dogleg left 6th – “Burnside”

At 365 yards, the 7th is a beautiful straightaway par 4 with a “Lane” of fairway between rocky fescue on the right and forest on the left. This is a fairly simple teeshot but the approach shot here runs straight uphill to a giant back-to-front green with multiple tiers. The only bunker on this hole is a deep one right of the green.

IMG_5290
The par 4 7th – “Lane”

The 394 yard 8th hole is a Cape design, a template originally designed by C.B. Macdonald at The National Golf Links. Playing downhill as a dogleg left, this is a tremendous hole with a wide fairway lined by a steep cliff of fescue down the left side. This is another fine green complex with a long, narrow, diagonal surface that funnels towards the middle on both sides. Bunkers line both sides of the green with an especially deep one awaiting those who pull their approach left.

IMG_5291
The par 4 8th “Cape” is underappreciated because it precedes the 9th

The world-famous 9th is not only my favorite hole at Yale, but one of my favorite holes anywhere. This iconic hole officially plays 201 yards on the scorecard, but ranges anywhere between 170 and 235 yards due to the fact that this Biarritz green is over 65 yards back-to-front. Playing slightly downhill with a forced carry of 165 yards over water, golfers need to be on the correct tier or face a daunting putt over an eight-foot swale in the middle of the green. This heroic hole lives up to the hype and alone justifies making the trip to Yale.

IMG_5293
The world-class par 3 9th
IMG_5322
Trying to two-putt from the back of the green; PC: Michael N.

There are several extraordinarily difficult holes at Yale (4, 9, 18), but I believe the hardest is the par 4 10th. Although just 382 yards on the scorecard, this hole is a monster and gives new meaning to word uphill. In accordance with its name “Carries”, you must first hit a drive at least 150 yards over the driveway to reach this blind fairway. Anything but a straight drive here is unacceptable and will be lost to dense woods lining both sides. This approach plays even further uphill, requiring at least two extra clubs to find the putting surface. I imagine two deep crossbunkers short are a popular destination. This green is also one of the most difficult on the course, running hard back-to-front with multiple wild swales. After playing this hole, I wondered how anyone could make par.

IMG_5297
The 10th hole feels like you’re playing up a mountain
IMG_5298
The 10th approach shot – note the stairs leading from the bunkers

At 347 yards, the 11th is the shortest par 4 and arguably the easiest hole at Yale. This hole plays downhill and is reachable for the longest hitters, but you can easily get away with hitting iron off the tee. This hole contains three bunkers and they are all fantastic – two on either side of a diagonal green and one at 280 yards on the left side of the fairway beneath a beautiful rock cropping.

IMG_5300
The downhill 11th – “Valley”
IMG_2111
You’re one with nature at Yale – deer spotted next to the 11th tee

At 387 yards, the par 4 12th is an Alps hole, meaning the approach shot plays blind uphill over a hidden bunker. This is a fantastic rendition and again is a very challenging hole playing uphill the entire way. The crossbunker just short of this green is unique because the fairway-facing lip is higher than the green-facing lip, making it invisible on the approach. This green is wide yet shallow and features two tiers – a higher one on the left and lower one on the right.

IMG_5302
The uphill 12th features another terrifying teeshot
IMG_5304
Looking back at the 12th crossbunker from the green

The Redan is one of my favorite templates and they don’t get much better than the par 3 13th. Playing downhill at 196 yards, this is a dramatic hole requiring a carry over a stream and vicious false front. This green is also surrounded by six bunkers, making for some difficult up-and-downs. While conditioning at Yale doesn’t allow for a characteristic right-to-left Redan bounce, this is still an excellent hole and would be the marquee one-shotter at most courses.

IMG_5305
The world-class par 3 13th
IMG_5306
Looking back from the 13th green

At 353 yards, the bunkerless par 4 14th is an interesting hole most notable for a “Knoll” in the left fairway that kicks balls right. Given that the hole slides right, this fairway contour allows the golfer to hit a power fade for extra distance. This flat green is elevated on all sides and is the smallest on the course.

IMG_5307
The 14th from the teebox
IMG_5309
Keep an eye out for the wooden gnome to the right of 14th, another strange but charming quirk
IMG_5310
The 14th fairway doesn’t yield many level lies

The first 14 holes at Yale are absolutely tremendous and represent some of the most unique architecture you’ll find anywhere. Unfortunately, the magic wears off on the closing stretch with 1 strong hole, 2 bland ones, and 1 downright bad hole. The 171 yard 15th is the last of a brilliant set of one-shotters and is easily the least memorable of the group. An Eden template after the 11th at St. Andrews, this hole plays slightly uphill to a back-to-front sloped green guarded by bunkers short and left.

IMG_5311
The par 3 15th – “Eden”

After waiting 15 holes, you finally reach the first par 5 at Yale. This bland hole plays 495 yards to a meandering fairway lined by woods on both sides. The fairway tightens as you near the green, which is relatively flat and guarded by bunkers left and short. It’s worth noting that the original Raynor green was 30 yards shorter but had to be relocated due to frequent flooding. Charles Banks himself described the hole as a “let-down” in 1925 and I don’t disagree.

IMG_5312
The straightaway par 5 16th – “Lang”

The 17th is actually an excellent hole and another very difficult one. Playing 425 yards, this teeshot is intimidating as all you see from the teebox is a pond and cliff you must carry. This fairway slides gently to the left and features a semi-blind approach shot over a tall “Principal’s Nose” bunker 50 yards short of the green. This large green is one of the finest on the course with two plateaus on the left and back right.

IMG_5313
Your view from the 17th teebox

The closing hole at Yale is fittingly impossible and brazen at a prodigious 580 yards. Making the 1st at Tobacco Road seem tame, this par 5 is extremely confusing off the tee with two tall mounds of fescue bisecting the fairway at different levels. The first one blocks the right side and requires a carry of 180 yards, while the left mound blocks the left side at 230 yards and cannot be carried. It’s still not clear to me what the ideal aiming point should be – is it an iron to the left of the first mound or a wood over the right mound? Both target golf options are fraught with disaster and leave you either too far or too close to a giant mountain you must carry on your lay-up. The 2nd shot can taken left on top of a blind plateau for a better angle or down right onto a lower fairway. Thick sloping rough divides the two sides and is to be avoided. With the parking lot on the left, this approach runs straight downhill to a giant circular green guarded by bunkers on both sides. This is an extremely polarizing hole and frankly one I find too convoluted and penal.

IMG_5314
Where do you aim on the blind and confusing 18th teeshot?
IMG_5315
You’re faced an extremely uphill 2nd shot on 18
IMG_2118
The downhill approach at the closer

General Comments: As far as practice facilities go, Yale has a 250 yard driving range and practice green near the 1st tee. Pace of play was strong when we played, as it should be with the saying “Slow Play Ruins Your Day” on the scorecard. The clubhouse is very modest and understated, but I enjoyed locker room, which includes pictures from all of Raynor’s and Macdonald’s masterpieces.

Verdict: While conditioning and the closing stretch are a bit underwhelming, Yale is easily amongst the most architecturally magnificent courses in America, featuring numerous world-class template holes on a difficult terrain. I suggest all serious golf aficionados play this brilliantly quirky gem if given the opportunity.


2 thoughts on “Review: The Course at Yale

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s