Review: The Course at Yale

Course Name: The Course at Yale

Designer: C.B. Macdonald/Seth Raynor/Charles H. 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.

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:

  • #55 Best Course in America – Golf Magazine (2017)
  • #53 Best Classic Course in America – Golfweek (2019)
  • #1 Best College Course Course in America – Golfweek (2018)
  • #3 Best Course in Connecticut – Golf Digest (2019)

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 are very slow and filled with ballmarks and bumps. Apparently the conditioning has improved drastically over the last 20 years and hopefully this trend continues. The University has the money to fix conditions, but the groundscrew are unionized Yale employees, meaning it’s much more expensive.

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. One more reason to be very jealous of Yalies!

Scorecard:

Tee                            Par         Yardage         Rating           Slope

Long                         70           6409               71.3               133

Regular                    70          5984                69.3              130

Short                         70          5144                70.2             121

Hole Descriptions: I went into my first round at Yale with unattainable expectations. This was my first MacRaynor course and I couldn’t wait to experience their famous template holes firsthand. While I enjoyed Yale my first time, it didn’t quite reach my lofty expectations due to conditioning and the simple fact that it’s a quirky course that requires multiple rounds to even begin to comprehend. On my second go-around, I now have a better understanding of why Yale is held in such high esteem by architecture enthusiasts. By this time, I had played several more MacRaynor courses and they quickly were becoming my favorite architects. Critics will say templates demonstrate how unimaginative they were, only using twenty or so designs on all their holes no matter the terrain. Conversely, I think Yale is a perfect example of how brilliant they were, being able to incorporate such templates on such a dramatically different terrain. For example, the famous 9th Biarritz here plays over water the entire way, while the one at Piping Rock plays over land and The Creek’s island Biarritz is completely surrounded by tidal water! These three holes feature essentially the same green but play completely differently due to their surroundings and visuals.

Yes, Yale’s templates are fantastic, but even the non-template holes are incredible and memorable here. While the final few holes (except 17) are a bit of a let-down, I can count fourteen holes at Yale that I absolutely love. Many courses, even the elite ones, can’t claim half that. Even the infamous 18th, of which I am not personally a fan, is very unique and certainly a hole you’ll never forget playing. While conditioning is not what you’d expect for such a well-regarded course, it has slowly been improving every year and recent tree removal over the last decade has greatly enhanced visuals. This is not simply a course “with good bones” that’s in need of a renovation to become elite. All that’s needed is firm and fast conditions and a little more tree removal and I think Yale is easily a top 50 or 60 course in America.

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.

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The epic par 4 1st – “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.

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The par 4 2nd – “Pits”
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The 2nd approach shot calls for a carry over some devastating bunkers
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Another look at the bunkers just short of the 2nd green

Many architecture enthusiasts 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 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 absolutely love the options this hole presents the golfer.

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Driver isn’t needed on the par 4 3rd
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“Blind” is an appropriate name for the 3rd
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The hidden 3rd green is one of two not built by Macdonald and Raynor

At 425 yards, the number 1 handicap 4th hole is tied for the longest par 4 at Yale. While modern distance somewhat softens the blow, 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.

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The fact that the 4th is flat makes it that much less visually appeasing
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There’s much more room left on 4 than you initially think

After four difficult par fours to begin, Yale relents a bit with the easiest par 3 in the 135 yard 5th “Short” template. 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.

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The par 3 5th – “Short”
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A moat of bunkers surrounds the 5th green

The least impressive hole on an incredibly memorable front nine, the 6th 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.

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The dogleg left 6th – “Burnside” plays partially over the 5th green

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. Rumor has it that a horse perished of exhaustion climbing up the false front and was buried underneath during construction.

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The par 4 7th – “Lane”
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The steep false front nicknamed Horse Hill guards Yale’s most severe green

The 394 yard 8th hole is a Cape design, a template originally designed by C.B. Macdonald at National. 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 hole contains 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.

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The par 4 8th “Cape” is criminally under-appreciated because of the hole it precedes
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A closer look at the excellent 8th green

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 the entire way 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.

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The world-class par 3 9th is one of the most recognizable holes in golf
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A side angle of the huge Biarritz green

There are several extraordinarily difficult holes at Yale (4, 9, 18), but I believe the hardest of them all 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 carry at least 150 yards over the driveway to reach a blind fairway. Anything but a straight drive here is unacceptable and will necessitate a lay-up. This approach plays even further uphill, requiring at least two extra clubs to find the putting surface. Two deep crossbunkers short are popular destinations. This green is also one of the most difficult on the course, running hard back-to-front with multiple wild swales. Can you imagine playing this hole with hickory clubs?

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The par 4 10th feels like you’re playing up a mountain
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The brutal 10th approach

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.

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The downhill par 4 11th – “Valley”
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The approach at 11
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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 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 the 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.

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The uphill 12th features another intimidating teeshot
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A look at the hidden bunker and the 12th green

The Redan is one of my favorite templates and the par 3 13th is a dramatic rendition. Playing downhill at 196 yards, this is a thrilling hole requiring a carry over a pond 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.

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Shrubbery obscures the greenside bunkers from all the way back
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The shorter tees provide an unobstructed view of the beautiful 13th

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.

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The dogleg right 14th
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Keep an eye out for the wooden gnome to the right of 14th, another strange but charming quirk
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The 14th fairway yields few even lies

The first 14 holes at Yale are absolutely tremendous and represent some of the best 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 but 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.

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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.

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The par 5 16th – “Lang”

The 17th is an excellent hole and another challenging 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.

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The intimidating par 4 17th – “Nose”
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A look at the 17th green from just short of the schnoz

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 from the teebox 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 evident 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 be 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. I appreciate the options this hole gives the golfer, but I’m not convinced there are any palatable options as virtually no one can reach in two.

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Where do you aim on the blind and confusing 18th teeshot?
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Drives hit too well will face a steep incline on their second shot
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The downhill approach at the closer; It’s almost as if 18 plays as three separate par threes
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A look at how wild the 18th fairway is from behind the pin

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 has been strong when I’ve 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.

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Yale’s gated entrance

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. This is my favorite course in Connecticut and a must-play for any architecture enthusiast.


7 thoughts on “Review: The Course at Yale

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