Yale University Golf Course
Green Keeper: Scott Ramsey
How well does an architect’s workstand the test of time? In the case of Seth Raynor, there is something uniquely appealing about his engineered style and many of his courses have withstood the time test. Shoreacres, Fishers Island, and Chicago Golf Club play largelyas he intended. Recent restoration work at Yeamans Hall, Lookout Mountain, Camargo, The Creek, Mountain Lake, Country Club of Fairfield,and Country Club of Charlestonhave returnedmany of thebest design features to those designs as well. Despite the overall excellence of these designs, Seth Raynor‘s work at Yale University may be fairly considered his monumental achievement. Set on 700 acres (!), Seth Raynor incorporated the lakes, ponds, hills, mountains, and rock outcroppings to create a course ofsuch massive scale as to make most courses seem puny. The holes are big and burly with fairways that range to sixty yards in width and several greens greater than 10,000 square feet in size. The bunkers are deep and deeper with some requiring flights of steps and the contouring of the greens isunsurpassed in the United States for boldness. When Yale University opened for play in the autumn of 1926,it was the most expensive course built to date as the result of working with the rocky, hilly New England land. Given the severe terrain, the course was going to be a hit or miss – the architect would either get it right and create holes that would never be duplicated elsewhere or he would get it wrong and forever be fighting the land. Thanks to Seth Raynor‘ssuperior routing skills, and with input from C.B. Macdonald on the advisory committee, the end resultis an original all the way with none of the holes reminding the golfer of those from other courses. There is no hint or whiff of blandness; nor is there any sameness that plagues fine but not great courses. For boldness of vision and construction execution, it ranks right there with other such monuments of design as Pine Valley, Oakmont, and Macdonald’s own National Golf Links of America. However, to be clear, it is Seth Raynor and not Macdonald that deserves the credit for the design at Yale University. As proof,George Bahto, the world’s leading Macdonald/Seth Raynor historian,frequently points to an article from Charles ‘Steam Shovel’ Banks, who worked on the Yale University construction team. The article appeared in an Alumnae Bulletin in 1929 where Banks wrote that Seth Raynor deserved credit for ‘what is today considered by many to be the outstanding inland golf course of America.’ Banks went on, ‘Mr. Macdonald, who served on the advisory committee, was familiar with the plans from the outset, but Mr. Seth Raynor was the real genius of this masterpiece, who made the layout, designed the greens, and gave the work of construction his supervision from start to finish.’ Not exactly an ordinary putting green – notice the depth of the swale in the middle of the one-of-a-kind ninth green relative to the flagstick!”
Starting in 2003 with the hiring of Scott Ramsey as the new Green Keeper,diligent work has been performed to reverse several decades of neglect. Ramsey immediately started to set the stage for better turf conditions by overseeing a significant tree clear program that saw over three thousand trees felled. Long views were opened up within the interior of the course.Playing corridors were expanded at the second, seventh, tenth, eleventh, twelfth, fourteenth and eighteenth holes. Trees were cleared around such greens as the sixth and thirteenth to improve airflow and circulation. With the trees gone, attention was turned to improving the fairway drainage, with particular beneficaries being the fourth, sixth, seventh and eleventh fairways. In addition, right from the start, Ramsey focusedon getting the fairway and green mowing patterns correct. He was able to recover lost putting surfaces at every holewith asmuch or more than1,000 square feet (!) being restored at the first, second, ninth, twelfth, and seventeenth greens. In addition, the steep pitch of the Edengreen was recaptured, allowingit to once againfunction properly.The end result of all this hard work is thatconditions arenow set for better turf to follow. Once the turf quality begins to match the excellence of the design as we see in the Holes to Note section below, Yale University will once again be viewed as a course with few peers.
Holes to Note
Firsthole, 410 yards, Eli; The adventure begins right away with one of the most intimidating opening shots in American golf. From a tee high above Griest Pond (the name comes from the 700 acre Griest Estate
which Mrs. Ray Tompkins gave to Yale University in 1924), the golfer feels dwarfed by his surrounds. Everything is on a scale: the elevation changes, the forced carry, the wide fairway, the huge green, and the deep greenside bunkers. A mid iron approach may well see the golfer onto the green. A snap hooked mid iron might also see the golfer onto this massive 10,300 square foot green as well! Its contouring looks like nothing more so than a heaving sea with a ridge dividing the green left into a punchbowl and right into a higher plateau. This arrangement with the spine running from back to front through the middleis farmore appealing than the modern, common place version where the spine runs left to right.
Secondhole, 375 yards, The Pits; Bahto has discovered that two rather large mounds were removed from the middle right of the putting green in order to promote ‘more accurate putting.’ Unfortunately, the well-meaning individual who drove this change did not understand how those mounds could be used by the golfer to help work the ball over to the tricky left hole locations. On the bright side, Ramsey has expanded the existing green in the front and especially along the left side, thus creating some terrifying hole locations overlooking the cavernous bunkers. Despite the bunkers having been tinkered with bya professional golf architect who didn’t demonstrate an understanding of Seth Raynor‘s engineered design style,the hole’s inherent quality still shines through.
Thirdhole,410 yards, Blind; A fine strategic hole as the closer one drives to the pond on the right, the less of the hill one must carry on one’s approach and the better the angle. Unfortunately, when Seth Raynor‘s original double punchbowl green was moved away from the pond to its current position,the replacement green built lacked the same imagination that Seth Raynor enthused into all the other greens. The two most exciting projects upon which Yale University Golf Club could presently embark would be to restore Seth Raynor‘s double punchbowl green here at the third as well as to return the sixteenth green complex to Seth Raynor‘s original location.
Fourthhole, 435 yards, Road; One of Ben Crenshaw’s favorite holes in golf marks the end to an all-world start. National Golf Links of America and Chicago are clear indications that Macdonald enjoyed starting his courses with the very best holes and perhaps Macdonald’s influence as an advisor to Seth Raynor at Yale University can be seen in this regard. Seth Raynor used the pond to re-create the angle of the out of bounds at the famous Road Hole at St. Andrews and created a Road bunker twice as deep as the one in Scotland.
Fifth hole, 145 yards, Short; Yale University‘s recent tree clearing program greatly helped all four of its par threes. Here at the fifth, the built-up green once again seems isolated in a sea of sand. Nonetheless, photographs from the 1930s show that the front bunkers were once nearly twice as deep, requiring eleven steps from which to climb out. Also, the typical bold interior green contours found within Seth Raynor‘s best short holes aren’t in evidence here.
Sixthhole,420 yards, Burnside; Though one of the less dramatic holes on the property, it is a fine example of Seth Raynor‘s command of angles, an attribute of which Pete Dye much admired and later emulated. A stream dominates the inside of this dog leg left and by the green, a large, rusticbunker once protected the full length of the green’s right side and extended well into the fairway. If the golfer successfully flirted with the creek, he had an uninterrupted view down the length of the green. If he bailed to the right on his tee shot, the resulting approach shot was more complicated as it had to carry this menacing bunker while at the same time coming at the green from an awkward angle. Unfortunately,the current right hand bunker is the single worst (i.e. poorly constructed and esthetically out of place) bunker on the course. Until it is properly rebuilt, the strategic principles of this Leven holeare undermined.
Seventhhole, 375 yards, Lane; Seth Raynor‘s engineering skills were invaluable during the construction of Yale University and he used dynamite to great effect in the creation of the seventh and fourteenth fairways. Without the selective use of dynamite to create what would become the seventh fairway, the eighth and ninth holes might never have been built. As it is, the seventh fairway appears natural and unforced and the hole is capped off by a mammoth greenwhich features nearly fivefeet of drop from its back to front as well a sfascinating interior contours. All told, this green may well elicit more three putts than any other one on the course. Given its myriad of interesting hole locations, the golfer appreciates one of the reasons why Yale members never tire of playing their course.
Eighthhole, 410 yards, Cape; Bending left around a natural fall-off, the eighth is a world class hole that fails to get its due because of the large shadow cast by the ninth. Nonetheless, it remains the favorite of many a member in part because of all the ways that the hole plays throughout the year. Though the fairway is plenty wide, the approach is often times blind, unless the golfer places his drive in a precise area in the right center of the fairway. Of course, downwind and the same landform that can make approach shots blind can be used to chase a tiger golfer’s tee ball within forty yards of the putting surface. Conversely, when played into a stiff breeze off Long Island Sound,even the tiger is left with nearly a two hundred approach shot. Regardless of where one’s drive finishes, the approach is a delight as the golfer tries to avoid the deep greenside bunkers on either side (how deep? the bunker on the right is twelve feet deep and is the shallower of the two) while using the severely sloping Redan green to chase balls toward various hole locations. The eighth green complex embodies the concept of using the ground to get from point A to point B as is so often found in the United Kingdom. The American version of aerial golf of hitting and finishing at point A is infinitely less interesting/compelling.
Ninthhole, 215 yards, Biarritz; The author’s favorite inland one shotter, the view from the tee willstay with the golfer until his dying days. The feeling one gets playing the hole the first several times is that of standing on a precipice hitting over an abyss to a green that is impossibly far away. The reality is only slightly more on a human scale with tee perched high on an embankment sixty feet above Griest Pond. On the far side of the hundred yard wide pond is one of the world’s largest single putting surfaces, measuring sixty-five yards from front to back and including a five-foot gully (!)through its middle. The sheer audacity of this 12,000 square foot green sets the hole apart in world golf as, after all, no further dramatics were really required given the heroic nature of the tee ball. In theory, the player is to use the front slope of the gully to help sling the ball to the back hole locations. Thus,as with every full length Biarritz, it should be mandatory that the hole be placed on the back half of thegreen the vast majority of the time as the tee ball is more varied and interesting. Indeed, when the hole is forward, and given the downhill nature of the hole, the tee ball is often struck with little more than a mid-iron. This robs the hole a tad of the excitement that must have been present in the days of hickory golf clubs when a five wood or long iron was required.