When I played my first Seth Raynor designed golf course at the Country Club of Charleston, I was told, “If you like it here, you’ve got to get up and play Yale sometime.” That same adage was repeated at every other Raynor course that I played subsequently, and with each new round my desire to play Yale grew. When the opportunity to play the course on a recent New York City trip came about, I couldn’t get my “YES!” email back quickly enough.
It would be a shame to write a review of the Yale University Golf Course without briefly touching on the history of golf at Yale University – one wouldn’t exist without the other. As with many great golf stories, it started in part due to a Scotsman. Robert D. Pryde, a native of Scotscraig (just north of St Andrews), traveled over to the states in 1892 to apprentice as a cabinetmaker. As a keen golfer, Pryde accidently fell into helping establish the course at New Haven Country Club in 1895. Yale students took to the game quickly, playing golf at the new course and establishing their own Yale Golf Club in 1896. The best golfers from that club were chosen to play intercollegiate matches, and just like that, Yale University’s golf team was born. Pryde would go on to serve as the de-facto golf coach at Yale and professional at the local course for many years.
By the early 1920s golf’s popularity had grown to a point where New Haven’s local courses had become overcrowded. Even with the generosity of Pryde and other benefactors who secured memberships for students, it became obvious that Yale needed its own course. Through a generous gift from the Tompkins estate, Yale was given 720 acres near campus for “recreational sport first and competitive athletics next…” A large section of the land was earmarked for a golf course, and Seth Raynor was hired to lay out two courses, with C.B. Macdonald acting as a consultant on the project. Although Raynor laid out two courses on the property, only one was built.Raynor laid out the course at Yale using the philosophy that his mentor, Macdonald, had taught him. Holes were designed using iconic Scottish designs as models. You’ll find a Redan, Biarritz, Road Hole, Eden, and many others. Although I would love to write a full post on the history of the Yale University Golf Course, I point history buffs to Golf at Yale – The Players, The Teams, The Course by John A. Godley and William W. Kelly. They have written a great book that goes into much more detail than my “high points” summary above.
I was able to play 36 holes at Yale with the team behind Holderness & Bourne, whose shirts and accessories I reviewed earlier this year. We teed off for our first round just before noon on a cloudy summer day. Keen readers of the site will also notice that my photos aren’t quite up to standard on this review. I unfortunately left the correct memory card in my hotel room, so I was left shooting with my iPhone… it’s just another reason to go back!
Hole #1 – 420 yards – “Eli”
The 1st hole has Greist Pond on the right and trees on either side of the fairway, making for an intimidating first shot. The large sloping green and large greenside bunkers are a great taste of what is to come later in the round!
If you didn’t understand the enormity and depth of the greenside bunkers after the 1st hole, you have it drilled in by the 2nd. The large sloping green is receptive, and you ought to have a wedge in after a long wood or driver off the tee.
The quirks of the course come out at the 3rd hole. A long iron or hybrid off the tee runs down to a flat area, leaving a blind shot into the green. A large Yale flag marks the green and a unique “pin locator” gives a useful tip when leaving the tee. The directional flag trick was originally pulled from Scotland and can be found on many Raynor/Macdonald courses such as Fishers Island and Sleepy Hollow.
The 4th is one of the best par 4s on the course. Ben Crenshaw said the the 4th is “a perfect use of water as a driving hazard.” I completely agree – the water sits in the back of your mind and it subconsciously made me pull my tee shot during both rounds. The hole is modeled off the Road Hole on the St Andrews Old Course. The similarities are clear, all the way down to the vicious front bunker.
This par 3 is similar to many other Raynor one shot holes. Especially if you look at the 16th at Sleepy Hollow Country Club. The sandy “moat” around the green is visually intimidating and makes the green appear smaller than it actually is.
The straight away uphill 7th features another green created before modern mowers and green rolling equipment. The huge slopes were a lot of fun, but many pin positions wouldn’t be useable due to modern green speeds.
This 8th condenses what I enjoyed most about Yale into a single hole. The unique dogleg left downhill tee shot leaves an approach into a hugely sloping green with terrifying bunkers on either side… does it get any better? Yes, it does… wait until the next hole.
“This is why you came to Yale” said one of my hosts as we approached the par 3 9th. The Biarritz green is certainly the most photographed hole on the course and is it also one of the most fun to play. We played to a front pin-placement here, and according to someone else in our group, it is rare to see back pins due to the heavy slope. This is another green on the course that was clearly designed when an 8 on the stimpmeter was the standard.
The 10th hole is all uphill. It reminded me of my childhood in the North Carolina mountains taking two more clubs to account for the hillside. The extremely sloping green could make for some awesome pins.
After the steep uphill 10th hole, the 11th is pretty much all downhill. While longer hitters can try to reach the front of this green off the tee, strategic players will layup to a nice wedge distance into the sloping green.
“This hole is intended in its original form to give the player the feeling of playing up on the side of a mountain to a hidden pocket” wrote Charles Banks in 1925. He hit the nail on the head. Distance control on the uphill second shot is required to carry a hidden bunker and accuracy is key to reach to correct plateau on the green.
I absolutely love a good Redan hole. They beg creativity from the golfer and are always fun to play. I found that the Redan Hole at Yale didn’t have as much left “kick” as others that I have played. The large false front on the right and beautiful framing of the hole with the trees make it unique in its own right.
This tight dogleg right par 4 requires a tee shot banked off the “knoll” on the left side of the fairway. An accurate shot into the raised green is key. The gnome photographed above was carved by the daughter of Harry Meusel, who was the Greens Superintendent at Yale from 1951-1993. His daughter carved multiple stumps around the course, but the German leprechaun above is the only carving left. It is a unique way that Meusel’s memory stays with the course!
The 15th “Eden” hole is modeled off the 11th on the St Andrews Old Course. Similar to the original, the green slopes back to front with bunkers short.
After playing 15 extremely characterful holes at Yale, the 16th feels slightly bland. The long par 5 is straight away with two bunkers guarding the green.
The 17th green exemplifies Raynor’s genius with a beautiful 3-tiered design. It is said that Coore & Crenshaw have visited Yale in the past just to study this green. A “Principal’s Nose” feature blinds the shot into the green from the fairway and can be seen left in the photo above. The similarities are clear with the original Principal’s Nose at the 16th on the St Andrews Old Course.
The 18th hole is one of the most unique finishing holes that I have seen. The blind dogleg right tee shot lands at the base of a very large hill. From there, golfers can choose between a blind shot to the upper fairway on the left or a blind shot to the lower fairway to the right. In between the two fairway is a nasty sidehill with thick grass. Those choosing the high fairway will have a 140-yard downhill shot into the green. Longer hitters can catch the hill with their layup, leaving a wedge into the green. In some ways this is the ultimate finishing hole on a university course – the extreme local knowledge advantage would almost surely be a stroke advantage!
The focus at Yale is golf. You get the sense that you are playing in a nature preserve (effectively you are!). There are no homes within view of the course and the current layout remains extremely similar Raynor’s original design. With all of the anticipation built up about my first round at Yale, it lived up to my expectations. Like many other great courses, Yale would reveal its genius over many rounds. Fortunately, I got a taste of that genius over my 36 holes, and if I am back in the area I will certainly not pass up an opportunity to play it again.
*For some truly stunning black and white photos of Yale University Golf Course, look through Benjamin Litman’s post on Golf Club Atlas.