White Bear Yacht Club
Minnesota, United States of America

Ironically, magnificent land movement is the hallmark feature of a course with the name ‘yacht’!

What defines a great course? Its greens, where you likely take a third or more of your shots? How about the fairways, where the majority of a round is spent? Hard to say. First, most architects don’t build great greens. Second, sites blessed with interesting land well-suited for golf are few and far between. Third, even on an ideal site, the architect must route consecutive holes so that the landforms are captured in a meaningful manner. On the rare occasion when these hurdles are overcome,  you are in the presence of a truly remarkable course. Welcome to White Bear Yacht Club.

Like so many great clubs (e.g. Pine Valley, Augusta National, etc.) the drive to the club gives little away. The word ‘yacht’ portends a romance that comes from a large body of water (we are in the Land of Lakes) and as you wind your way toward the clubhouse, glimpses of White Bear lake are afforded through the trees. Yet, the road is flat and the golfer’s expectations are held in check. As you arrive, the main clubhouse becomes visible, high on a hillock to the right with the lake below. The first time golfer is impressed but there is no sense as to where the golf is until he learns that the building on the other side of the road is the Golf House and that the land around it is luscious and heaving.

The view from the Golf House across the 9th green.

Which architect from the Golden Age was given the opportunity to work with this special land?  Well … that is indeed a fine question! Club member and historian, Mark Mammel, has been gathering information and mulling over that very question since 1992. His conclusion:

All sources agree that William Watson created an original plan. The first 9 holes, which opened in 1912, may have followed this plan, but this is also uncertain. The course was on a 45 acre plot north of the clubhouse and other than perhaps #17,  no holes from this layout still exist. Minneapolis Tribune golf columnist George Rhame, in Sept 1913, stated “The White Bear course, a 9 hole invention, has no bunkers nor does it need any.” The 18 hole course, which opened in 1915  had many bunkers throughout as shown in a large contemporaneous surveyors map. In “Golfer’s Magazine” from May 1925 past Commodore W. G. Graves describes that the early 9 hole course “came into being” but adds no other details, then states that after acquiring more land “… an 18 hole course was planned. William Watson laid it out. Donald Ross gave freely of his advice in its development and Tom Vardon, the professional at the club, was of great assistance.”

That seems simple enough: ‘William Watson laid it out. Donald Ross gave freely of his advice in its development and Tom Vardon, the professional at the club, was of great assistance.’

Alas, Mammel continues:

There are some problems with this description. In the 1961 club history (which is mostly about sailing) member Margaret MacLaren is quoted: “On a Sunday noon, the summer of 1910, she [Mrs John G Ordway] was lunching at the home of her father-in-law, Lucius P. Ordway, at Dellwood. Among the guests were William Mitchell, Henry Schurmeier, and Donald Ross, a very well-known golf course architect. These gentlemen were discussing plans for a 9 hole course for the White Bear Yacht Club.” In a previous iteration of this discussion on the GCA site Tom MacWood stated that he had Ross’s travel records for 1910 indicated that he was in the UK the entire summer. However, even with this caveat, I can see no reason why Mrs. MacLaren would create this story out of whole cloth, since neither she nor anyone at the club really cared one way or another who the designer might have been. Could she have had the wrong date? I suspect so. Additionally, since the golf course opened in Fall 1915 and Vardon didn’t arrive until 1916, it’s difficult to see how he could have influenced the original layout. Brad Klein in his book places Ross at WBYC in both 1912 and 1915. An article from the Minneapolis Morning Tribune from Sept 1916 states that Ross was going to WBYC “with a view of rearranging it.”

Mammel concludes:

So where does this leave us? As I keep going over it all, I suspect the routing is from Watson. It is interesting that 2 prominent Minnesota Ross courses, Interlachen and Minikahda, were also originally laid out by Watson! Ross clearly was involved around the time the 18 holes were being built, as he was active in the Twin Cities with Woodhill and Minikahda at the same time. How much credit should he get? He doesn’t name the course in the list his company published, though he does name Minikahda, Interlachen Woodhill and Northland in Minnesota. Vardon probably worked with bunkering, since many of the bunkers from the 1915 map, as shown from a later aerial photo, no longer exist. Vardon was a well-known regional course designer so it is no stretch to imagine he had opinions and input as the course matured during his tenure as pro (1916-1937). The club has been accepted as a Ross course by many, including Brad Klein and the Donald Ross Society. Tom Doak indicated that many features fit with Ross’s style, though he made it clear he had no real evidence of this provenance. Jim Urbina is on the same page, recognizing the course as a great classic layout no matter whose name is attached. 

That’s a perfect summation: ‘a classic layout no matter whose name is attached.’ Clearly, Watson, Ross and to a lesser degree Vardon were all ‘chefs in the kitchen’ but like a person dining, what matters is the food on the plate in front of him as opposed to who did what in the kitchen.

This scorecard from 1917 essentially reflects today’s course.

Though its provenance is unclear, the course’s maturation has been peaceful with the club demonstrating the rare wisdom of leaving well enough alone. As noted by Mammel,  Commodore W. G. Graves’ beautifully worded article in 1925 also read in part, ‘ The original plan tested by play has required very little change or modification. Such changes and improvements as have been made as opportunity afforded have been strictly in line with the plan after experience showed that nothing more was needed. There has been no vacillation and there is no regret for money ill spent and for unnecessary discomfort and interruption to play.’ This same kind of no-nonsense approach has carried on decade after decade with mercifully few blips along the way.

In the 1980s, a local architect did some work to a few holes including the seventh, eighth and sixteenth. Bunkers were added to ‘defend’ two short par 5s and the one shot eighth hole was notably modified. In 1993 the club contacted Renaissance Golf Design in Michigan and charged them with restoring the eighth hole as best they could from available aerials. Tom Doak and Jim Urbina paid a visit and brought down the hillside into the green complex and restored the original bunker pattern. Once again, a tucked back right hole location is something to behold. Both architects were smitten by the land and course.

As seen from high right, the 8th green.

Urbina’s distinct recollection from his initial trip twenty-six years ago was that the course possessed some of the game’s most unique landforms but that they were masked under a canopy of trees which hid the scale of the property. He hoped for an opportunity to return. Eight years later, the club decided to address the modernized bunkers around seven and sixteen. Urbina cleaned up those holes and as he prowled around the rest of the property, he began formulating a vision for a better tree policy and mow lines with Green Keeper John Steiner, who is an institution in Minnesota. Steiner has manned the position since 1979 (!), first having caddied there in 1969 and then joining the green keeping staff the following year. Urbina knew that they would become friends after discovering Steiner’s original copy of George Thomas’s cornerstone book on architecture, Golf Architecture in America, sandwiched between books on agronomy.

The same story that played out at hundreds of Golden Age designs across North America was also true at White Bear Yacht Club: Tree growth had altered the width of the playing corridors and hindered proper turf quality. By 2012, Urbina, now under his own shingle at Jim Urbina Golf Design, worked with Steiner to re-present the mow lines. Fairways were extended and re-connected to the fairway bunkers. Short grass was instituted around many of the greens including the ninth, twelfth and fifteenth holes. All the work was done in-house and by 2015 the focus was expanded to restoring vistas like the sight of the third green as one approaches the second green.

Today’s course plays to a standard par of 72, measures nearly 6,500 yards, and the nines return to the Golf House. Given that the land is so singular, there are peculiarities. There are five one shot holes and five three shot holes. You encounter a par five within every four hole stretch and four of the first eleven holes are one shotters. What the three shotters give, the one shotters take away! The course is not heavily bunkered – only 62 and there is an appealing dearth of greenside bunkers around the five par 5s. Those five holes combined total but two and both par five greens on the second nine are bunkerless, the ultimate compliment to the land. Interestingly enough, two of the one shotters (six and eleven) combine for 20% of the course’s bunkers and the twelfth hole alone accounts for nearly another 20%.

From the author’s perspective the two standout features are how the holes lay on the ground and the variety of the putting surfaces which are every bit the equal of the terrific tee to green land movement. Having spent considerable time on site, Urbina unhesitatingly places it in his top 10 in terms of topography and green locations and notes that the course ‘…reminds me of Eastward Ho! on Cape Cod in that the excitement never stops.’ In fact, Urbina thinks that it rivals any course in the Midwest, which, when you consider the golf rich states included, is high praise indeed.

Keep an eye out for the attractive greenside mounding as we tour the course below. It comes in all shapes and sizes, from a massive knob in front of the first green to the low-lying, long hump that stretches along the right of the third green. Their irregular appearance speaks as to handwork versus machine work and stamps the course as built during the Golden Age. Having only played a couple of Watson courses, the author was curious if such mounding was indicative of Watson’s work, so I contacted Green Keeper Josh Smith at Orinda Country Club.  Watson laid out that charming course in the foothills northeast of San Francisco in 1924. Smith’s response is telling: ‘Yes, Watson used mounds to accent holes here. I am also particularly impressed by his routing up and down and around the hills and how he handled the creek crossings.  We are in a hilly neighborhood but he created a very nice walk with no two holes alike. Additionally, he clearly cared about the variety of the 3’s and purposefully built a short one with teeth.  Lastly, he appeared satisfied with minimal overall bunkering, especially in the fairways.’ As we will see, those words (save for the creek crossings) apply equally well to White Bear.

Holes to Note

First hole; 405 yards; Ross wrote of a gentle handshake, which tells you straightaway that Watson routed this beast! Standing high on the tee with Golf House directly behind, there are countless ways to get the round off to an ignominious start. If by chance the player hits a fine tee ball, he now faces an approach that could rightfully be described as potentially the most ruinous on the course. The green is a good twenty feet above the fairway, on top of a daunting embankment. A knob in front of the green obscures the putting surface, even from the right side of the fairway. At its base, the course’s single deepest bunker awaits and given that you are hitting your approach from an uneven lie, the bunker receives plenty of grumpy customers.  The land makes the hole, the solitary bunker helps define the playing strategy, and the green is full of personality. In short, it neatly forecasts what is to come. If there are ten better opening holes in golf, the author hasn’t seen them.

The inspired view from the 1st tee captures the excitement that is to follow. Strategically, the right side opens up the green and removes the pit from play but … out of bounds lurks right of the trees.

Imagine trying to escape from this pit in 1920 with just your hickory niblick (today’s 9 iron)!

One of the charming features that dates the course as pre-1920 are rises fronting several of the greens. This one is the most pronounced but the 5th and 7th greens possess a similar feature that muddles the optics for one’s approach. By the 1920s, architects had largely abandoned this construct and that is one of the reasons that an argument can be made that courses built in the 1910s are more character-filled.

Second hole, 430 yards; What does land movement mean to a fairway? Several things. The more interesting the movement, the more discernible the hole is from its peers as it is given its own unique voice. Second, a fairway with movement means that it matters a great deal where one’s tee ball lands. Hitting on a downslope versus an upslope translates to an approach several clubs shorter. Third, fairway movement defines daily play as, alas, it is always there, day-in, day-out. It isn’t part of the playing corridor like a bunker – it is the the vast majority of the playing corridor. Fourth, and this is why links golf reigns supreme, a lumpy fairway makes a golfer continually make minor tweaks to his stance/set-up. In so doing, a course with such fairways becomes infinitely more interesting to play than one with flat fairways, especially for the 50th and even 500th time. Is the author implying that White Bear Yacht Club approaches the ideal member’s course? Absolutely.

The speed-slot off the second tee is down the right and leaves this approach shot from a hanging lie. Note the attractive mounding that accents the green.

This 2017 photograph from behind shows how the fairway was widened to the right by 4 to 5 paces. An enhanced appreciation for the course’s property comes from watching balls release along the short grass rather than being constrained by rough.

Third hole, 135 yards; To define what makes a ‘great set of greens’ is to delve into how eighteen putting surfaces both complement one another and pose different questions. Put another way, the fourteenth green at Augusta National is undeniably magnificent but six of them in one round would not constitute a great set. White Bear Yacht Club runs the full gamut from small to large greens, sloped front to back and back to front, wild interior contours and greens with more tilt than contour. The third green is of the small variety with a deceptive cant from front right to back left. It sits perfectly atop a ridge. While prudence suggests hitting for the middle of the green and putting out to perimeter hole locations, the hole’s diminutive length prompts greed. A golfer who chases after left hole locations and hits a pull feels like a numpty.

The beautifully situated 3rd green. Standing on the tee higher and to the right, the flag is always visible but the hole/cup itself is obscured 1/3 of the time by a ridge in front, signifying what Watson thought was – and wasn’t – important.

The bunker in the foreground is an intriguing feature, as it is 4 feet above the putting surface and snares the slightest under hit tee ball.

The putting surface is none too big but is a good one to find off the tee. Though a pull off the tee feels calamitous, you will quickly find your ball and a deft recovery is possible, if unlikely. Like all great courses, you shouldn’t lose many balls over a playing season, though you will find yourself in a slew of awkward and/or entertaining positions.

Fifth hole, 440 yards; Cries of ‘unfair’ would ring loud if this hole was built today, which is always a good sign that you are about to tackle a hole with unconventional demands. There’s no mollycoddling on this brute. The tee shot is manageable (play to the right) but the long second is to a green that is cruelly unhelpful. Expertly situated in a saddle between slight rises in front and back, the putting surface is low in the middle and drifts downhill to the right. If the golfer wants a friend, he will need to get a dog. Similar to the equally unjust Road Hole on The Old Course at St. Andrews, the vast majority of the 4s registered here come by virtue of a one putt – and a ‘4’ feels like a hard fought birdie.

The biggest hills are down the left so to find the ‘speed slot’, pound one right and hope that the hills don’t retard its run too much. Of course, similar to the 1st and 2nd tee balls, the vague threat of out-of-bounds right hinders a free-flowing swing on the tee.

Note how the putting surface is high in the front and back and lower in the middle.

Sixth hole, 150 yards;  How an architect follows a murderously difficult hole like the fifth is telling. If he backs it up with another toughie, the member can feel bruised and battered, or even dispirited. If he follows it up with a hole (or two) that tempt, the member is encouraged and stays wholly engaged. Combined with the half par, uphill seventh, the golfer has a real chance to rebuild from the damage invariably inflicted at the fifth.

Hard to believe based on this view from the tee but …

… seven bunkers ring the 6th green. As they are pulled back from the putting surface, they tend to leave an awkward length recovery shot. Like the 3rd, the golfer does himself a service by hitting the green in regulation and not fussing about.

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