Saint Louis Country Club
Green Keeper: Tim Burch
From the time that Charles Blair Macdonald hired Seth Raynor in 1907 as an engineer to oversee the construction of National Golf Links of America, the two men formed a lasting relationship born out of respect for one another’s talents. Macdonald’s sense of grandness and flair added artistry to Raynor’s skills as an engineer and they did better work together than separate.
Apart from the overall excellence of their designs, MacDonald and Raynor enjoy an almost cult standing for another reason: they often replicated strategic concepts from famous holes. To this day, the traveling golfer takes great delight in seeing how MacDonald and Raynor adapted such concepts from site to site. As much as anyone, Macdonald helped Americans gain a sense of just how engaging golf could be by letting them appreciate first hand many of golf architecture’s most enduring dilemmas such as the Redan or Alps. His strong sense of strategic purpose gave American golf architecture a huge push in the right direction during its infancy and helped it move quickly past the basic courses that the Scots built in this country pre-1905.
In the case of Saint Louis Golf Country Club, Macdonald (as architect) and Raynor (as construction supervisor) were blessed with ideally rolling terrain. From this promising start, they gave Saint Louis Golf Country Club more than its fair share of the great versions of holes plus several original ones that are equally vexing in their own right. In fact, apart from Macdonald’s masterpiece National Golf Links of America, Saint Louis Golf Country Club as as many of Macdonald’s favorite features as any of his designs.
One man with a long appreciation of Macdonald and Raynor is Saint Louis Golf Country Club’s former Green Keeper Jack Litvay. From when he saw his first Raynor course in Minnesota in 1959 (!) to when he realized similarities with its architecture and that at the Dunes Course at Monterey Peninsula Country Club in the late 1960s, Macdonald and Raynor fascinated Litvay. When the green keeping opportunity presented itself at Saint Louis Golf Country Club in 1977, he jumped at it and stayed there until he retired in 2005. During that period, he was instrumental in relocating the Punchbowl green to its original, charming location. More importantly, he helped raise awareness as to the special architectural gem that the club possessed. In 2000, the club approached Brian Silva for a Master Plan. Silva, who was just coming off a highly successful restoration at Raynor’s Lookout Mountain in Georgia, was just the man to help guide the club in restoring all the fun, one-of-a-kind shots that Saint Louis possesses in spades as we see below.
Holes to Note
Second hole, 220 yards, Double Plateau; Saint Louis Golf Country Club possesses only three two shotters longer than 410 yards. However, its par of 71 to cover the 6,535 yards is anything but easy, thanks in large part to its difficult set of five one shot holes. The second is a bear of an uphill Biarritz, which isn’t ideal only in the sense that the golfer can’t witness his ball disappear in the swale in the green before re-appearing on the back plateau. Nonetheless, this one shotter gives the course the kind of muscle that saw 282 as the winning score in the 1947 United States Open.
Third hole, 210 yards, Eden; An unusually long Eden hole, the third was selected as one of the greatest holes in George Peper’s The 500 World’s Greatest Golf Holes. Almost all the key Eden features are present: deep bunkers cut into a ridge that the green sits upon, a false front, a green featuring a sharp back to front tilt, and death over the green. The only attribute missing is that the green isn’t a skyline one, a quality that is harder to achieve in the middle of this country than it is along the coastline in Scotland.
Fourth hole, 410 yards, St. Andrews; As part of Silva’s Master Plan which was adopted in 2005, the Road Bunker was recently restored to its right central, gathering location along this green, which angles from front left to back right. Equally noteworthy though is the diagonal valley that runs through the fairway: if the golfer can carry it long down the left, he is rewarded with a level stance and a perfect angle into the green. Otherwise, the twenty yard wide valley has a way of gobbling up tee balls, thus making the approach shot blind to semi-blind.
Fifth hole, 510 yards, Punch Bowl; Macdonald and Raynor frequently combined an Alps approach with a Punchbowl green with spectacular examples being the fifteenth at Sleepy Hollow and the fourth at Fishers Island. Such is the case here, though uniquely, this time the hole is a three shotter. Also, another of their favorite features was brought into play, a Principal’s Nose bunker 140 yards shy of the green which influences the layup shot. Shockingly enough, this Punchbowl green was relocated in the 1950s to the far hillside in the misguided interest of ‘fairness’. Thankfully, Silva over saw the return to its original spot in 2001 with the cinders underneath the ground acting as a helpful guide in recreating the size and slopes of the original green. Once again, golfers going for the green in two take great delight in trying to land their approach shot just past the crest of the hill on the right and have it chase down onto the putting surface. The thrill of making the 200 yard plus walk wondering just how close your ball might be to a hidden hole location is – sadly – rarely found in inland golf.
Sixth hole, 360 yards, Blind; An original drive and pitch hole of great merit, thanks to the site’s rolling topography and its wild green contours. In 1915, the year after Saint Louis Golf Country Club opened, Raynor began designing courses on his own but by and large, his solo greens never achieved the same boldness of character as when Macdonald was present. The sixth green complex illustrates how well the two men worked together and makes one lament the fact that they only did twelve eighteen-hole courses together.
Seventh hole, 155 yards, Shorty; A superb Short Hole with its thumbprint or horseshoe green contours helping to make it more engaging than either the fourth at Brancaster or the eighth at St. Andrews from which the name ‘Short’ derives.
Eighth hole, 350 yards, Cape; This is a true Cape hole, which is a rarity, in that not only does the fairway swing around a hazard but the green itself protrudes into the same hazard. For those that shy away from the hazard on the right with their tee ball, the recently restored Macdonald bunker complex that protrudes fifteen yards into the fairway from the left side of the green has made the approach shot more complicated/deceiving. The in-the-dirt work by Kye Goalby in restoring the bunker complex according to Silva’s Master Plan is excellent.
Ninth hole, 510 yards; Some students of golf course architecture contend that courses built in the 1910s tend to have both a relative high number of straight holes and a relative absence of doglegs. Such is indeed the case at Saint Louis Country Club with its one true dogleg being the prior hole, the Cape. Of course, the rectangular nature of the club’s property had a lot to do with the creation of a number of fairly straight playing corridors. Having said that, Macdonald excelled in how he routed the holes upon the rolling ground and incorporated features that influenced play down the middle of the holes. The ninth is a prime example of a straight playing corridor that nonetheless has a lot of character from tee to green. Ideally, and especially true back in the days prior to fairway irrigation, the golfer hit a hot hook that chased off the pronounced right to left fairway slope and ended up with a level lie on the left edge of the fairway down near the creek. The additional run off the sloping fairway brought the green in reach in two and from there, the golfer had the perfect angle into an open green.
Eleventh hole, 405 yards, Valley; The tenth and eleventh parallel each other and play across the same broad valley. The tenth hole’s primary defense is its fiercely sloping back to front green whereas here at the eleventh, one of the course’s most noteworthy bunkers hides the putting surface.
Twelfth hole, 180 yards, Crater; While Saint Louis Country Club possesses the four essential Macdonald/Raynor one shotters (a Short, Eden, Redan and Biarritz), it has a unique fifth one as well. The hole enjoys natural properties inherent upon playing across a valley but what makes it famous is a series of mounds that ring the back of the green, exuding a charm all their own. At 4,500 square feet, the green is the smallest target on the course.
Thirteenth hole, 600 yards, Clubhouse; One of Macdonald/Raynor’s very best Long holes, thanks to their superb skill in routing the hole across the rolling land. Death awaits the golfer who goes right off the tee as the ground falls sharply away. Further ahead, a diagonal series of fairway bunkers replicate the strategic benefit of carrying Hell’s Bunker at the fourteenth on the Old Course at St. Andrews. The finally hurdle is the green’s false front, which sends many a ball well back into the fairway.
Fourteenth hole, 415 yards, Dome; The longest two shotter at Saint Louis Country Club plays to a first rate reverse redan green. As part of the recent restoration work, several yards of putting green were recaptured at the front left. Golfers back in the fairway are afforded the pleasure of watching the drama slowly unfold with their approach shot as it takes the front slope and slowly feeds toward the back right of the green.
Fifteenth hole, 495 yards, Narrows; Diagonal cross bunkers divide the fifteenth fairway at the 330 yard mark from the tee. Regardless, given today’s technology, many a good player will give the green a go in two but there are an extraordinary amount of recovery shots that he may have to execute to secure his birdie, thanks to a superb Double Plateau green guarded by four bunkers. Despite the green being over 10,000 square feet, Silva points out that it screams for ‘the ball to be put on the ground! What could be a better example of this than the fifteenth green – hell, the fourteenth is another Redan so it’s good from that regard as well – but it is fifteen that really is awesome. Airborne golf doesn’t work nearly as well, especially to the back shelf locations.’
Sixteenth hole, 185 yards, Redan; The Redan one shotter here is a mirror one, meaning that its green tilts from high front left to a low back right corner. In general, this hole plays well but the rub with a mirror Redan is that the ball doesn’t release quite as well from a fade as it does with a draw to a Redan. Thus, in theory, the slope of a mirror Redan needs to be even more pronounced than on a Redan and Saint Louis is presently mulling over if a slight increase in the green’s slope would make this hole play even better/more fun.
Seventeenth hole, 380 yards, Log Cabin; Based on its name, there is no reason to suspect that today’s hole is patterned after any hole in particular. Nonetheless, in the 1921 United States Amateur, this hole was deemed the ‘pride of the club,’ quite a statement based on all its other classic holes!
Eighteenth hole, 410 yards, Oasis; Capturing both the charm and allure of a game here, from yet another sloping lie in the fairway, the golfer is asked to control his approach to another wonderfully conceived green complex. The nine foot deep fronting hazard at the green is an unmistakable sign that Saint Louis was always intended to test the best.
According to Silva, ‘Saint Louis is another example of the old timers getting two major components correct. First, they got the structure of the course correct when they brilliantly and comfortably routed the course over some up and down land. Then, they got the details correct with their collection of classic golf holes.’
Saint Louis Country Club is located in the tony suburb of Ladue, and the chances of it acquiring additional land to extend several tees is negligible. However, within its current 6,530 yards, there are many more enduring architectural features than on the 7,300 yard monsters that are presently being built. Though it will never host another United States Open, it possesses far more charm and holes of enduring character than any of the modern, longer courses in the Show Me state. From an historical perspective, it is hard to overestimate the importance of having such a cornerstone course built here in the Midwest pre-World War I. Not only did it highlight to this part of the country what a great game golf could be, it set a high architectural standard that remains worthy of emulation to this very day.