White Bear Yacht Club
Minnesota, United States of America

Ninth hole, 515 yards; Normally, the author isn’t a fan of elevated tee boxes as they tend to flatten a hole’s appearance and rob the golfer of a sense of the land’s movement. This proves to be an exception where the closest tee to the prior green is – no surprise – the original tee, which was to the right and uphill from the eighth green. A new tee was added in the 1990s behind the eighth green to give the hole an extra ~30 yards and make it less vulnerable to technology but the new prospective from a lower angle is less invigorating. From the original tee, on the high spot on the property,  the golfer can’t but be impressed by the scale of the ‘rolling waves’ of hills before him. One hopes to carry a hill some 230 yards out and have one’s tee ball carom forward another 30 to 40 yards. Then, the green, hidden from the player down in the valley, can be reached with a mid-iron, assuming the wind isn’t coming off White Bear lake. It is the kind of wildly irritating hole that can get under a good player’s skin if he doesn’t play it in four shots. Making such a score more tenuous is the angled green, the course’s second smallest target and its soft shoulders make it particularly elusive. Short grass now encases the green and the run-offs lead to a far more fiddly recovery shots than before.

The view from the original 1915 tee highlights the turbulent topography with the 9th hole ending in front of the Golf House. As an example of the continual progress being made, the fairway now extends to the bunker on the left, a good five paces wider than seen in the 2017 photograph above.

Tenth hole, 330 yards; Both Ross and Watson were masters of routing two shot holes that played from a high tee into a valley and up again to a high green, which is what we have here. Indicative of White Bear’s never-ending rolls and rambunctious terrain, two fifteen foot hills are encountered between the high tee and high green. They turn the tenth into the sort of hole that the author relishes, a hole where there is no one correct way to play it. Good players sometimes hold to the belief that if you hit to X, then you should be guaranteed a Y outcome. Such “sticks” find frustration and consternation on this hole (and perhaps the entire course). While a player seeks a level stance to aid him in placing his short iron underneath the hole, he may or may not find it upon arriving at his tee ball. The only thing for certain is that these fairways come with no guarantees. Like most greens situated on a hillock, the putting surface slopes insensitively from back to front dropping over three feet. Yard for yard, the tenth packs a punch, that in many ways, epitomizes the course.

As seen from the high point between the 9th and 10th holes, the 10th gets the second nine off to a rousing start.

At fairway level, the ground movement is even more evident/striking.

A look from behind the green reveals the convoluted land that defines the fairway. An approach ten paces short of this flag rolls off the false front while one ten paces long renders a nervy downhill chip.

Eleventh hole, 180 yards; There are three ways a putting surface challenges: size/configuration, tilt/pitch and interior undulations. There are countless permutations within each category. This rectangular green surrounded by bunkers features elements of all three. The right third is elevated and features a puffed up knob. The hole location is invariably there on ‘The Angry Bear,’ which is the equivalent of Tough Day and as much as any hole location on the course, can prompt players to turn incandescent. The rest of the green is canted and slides from high right to lower back left. It and the seventh are among the most complicated greens on the course and its multi-faceted nature emphasizes the point that discerning the best play isn’t nearly as evident at White Bear Yacht Club as it is at most courses where greens are angled toward the player with monotonous regularity.

The high back right to low left cant of the green gives players fits and the objective off the tee is to place your ball left of the hole in an effort have an uphill putt for your second shot. Even an uphill chip for your second shot can be preferable to a downhill putt.

Twelfth hole, 385 yards; This is White Bear Yacht Club’s most acclaimed hole. Doak devoted an entire page to it in Volume 3 of The Confidential Guide, noting ‘…the trick is to play the tee shot out wide to the left or right (near a line of bunkers) , and then play the second shot across the approach into a shoulder of green on the opposite side, which will funnel the ball back down to the hole.’ Every course should dream of featuring an approach like this where feel/craftiness one-up a formulaic aerial shot to a set yardage. Yet, most modern architects are loathe to build greens that sweep from front to back and so the golfer is free too often to dully reach for whatever club will land his approach near the hole. Here, you might play one or two clubs less than the yardage indicates or you may aim to the sides as Doak suggests and let the bumper mounds funnel the ball close. Either way, the brain needs to be fully engrossed for the task at hand.

The play from the tee is to the fairway side opposite the hole location.

If the hole is on the left side of the green, then driving close to this string of bunkers becomes ideal. Though it is unknown if the Scot Watson or the Scot Ross or the English Vardon built them, there is little reason to doubt that all three Brits would recognize and approve their merit, knowing full well from Great Britain that the smaller the scale, the more awkward the stance/lie.

Any lover of links golf appreciates the beauty of only half the flag pole and flag visible. The author shutters to think how many modern architects would have bulldozed various landforms to provide better optics, which would have forever ruined the mystery and allure of a game here. The enticing manner in which the holes play up, over, and around landforms is far preferable to a course whose fairways stay contained in valleys like those at Royal Birkdale. Given the option of ten rounds between the two, the author would pick seven at White Bear Yacht Club and three at the Open venue.

This view from behind tells it all and captures how the green falls four feet from front to back. An approach that doesn’t deaden into one of the side banks will be deposited in one of three back bunkers. The copious amount of short grass surrounding the putting green adds another playing dimension.

Thirteenth hole, 515 yards; White Bear Yacht Club isn’t heavily bunkered and needn’t be; the land is the thing. Ultimately, that is its trump card. So many architects these days are adept at building handsome, rugged bunkers that modern courses are starting to look too much alike. Here the land is so singular that it never blurs with another course.

The land as opposed to bunkers dictates the narrative. As we see below, no greenside bunkers required.

Originally, the 13th green was located left in the dell. One suspects the club learned the hard way that a dell green doesn’t work well in the north through the winter months when water freezes, thaws and re-freezes.

Fourteenth hole, 335 yards; The author first played the course in the fall of 2017. The vast majority of the restoration work had been completed and on a peak autumn day the course could not have been presented better. While the front nine exceeded expectations, the superlative four hole stretch to start the second nine really impressed. Standing on this tee in a corner of the property, the author was sure that a weak patch would emerge. Instead, three of the best driving holes on the course ensued, each capped by one of the course’s finest greens.

Similar to sixteen, this hole bends to a degree that reaching for a driver is no certainty. And that’s an important attribute as any course where the player automatically reaches for a driver is lacking.

This tickler of a two shotter is amply defended by its pugnacious green featuring an abrupt tier.

In the 1980s, the club was having a mighty problem maintaining the green and finding a sufficient number of hole locations. Pete Dye’s brother happened to be in town and went out with John Steiner and club officials to inspect it. Roy Dye’s words of praise that day helped insure that its contours were never softened.

Fifteenth hole, 425 yards; The ever rotating visuals are part of the charm. At the prior hole a downhill pitch makes everything clearly visible. Here, the golfer has done well off the tee if he can see the flag and at the next, the approach is uphill over a large bunker well short. What more do you want?! Compare that to the prosaic visuals offered at so many modern courses whereby the golfer is given a clean look at the target with everything laid out nicely. Under one scenario, the golfer has no choice but to feel a tight connection to the landscape while in the other, the same scene plays out ad nauseum.

The 15th plays a role like the 5th does on the first nine by denting the golfer’s psyche.

The noble 15th green is at grade to its surrounds.  It welcomes a running approach past the swale short left.  Only the trees behind suggest that you aren’t playing a links and the old school mounds complete the appealing picture.

This view from behind exposes the hog back’s ridge that runs down the middle of the green. The author can attest to the lonely feeling of being back right and putting to a front left hole location. The resultant second putt from twenty feet did not go in either.

Sixteenth hole, 485 yards; The final of three consecutive, hugely appealing elbow holes, the sixteenth slides up and to the right around a fierce cluster of bunkers cut into a hillside. The author writes ‘elbow’ as that was still the more popular expression to the term ‘dogleg’ as the course was taking shape. Though the fairway moves to the right, the land slopes right to left. If the tiger tries to force the issue off the tee of this 1/2 par hole, the reverse camber fairway will insist that he play a power fade. Recall that this is the hole where Urbina removed several greenside bunkers enabling the severe green with a three foot step through its middle to shine. Sandwiched between the rigors of the fifteenth and seventeenth, the pressure is on the golfer to make something positive happen, which of course is the surest way to insure that it doesn’t.

As seen from behind, there are several ways to work a ball close to the low back left hole location. Move the hole location to a higher point and the going gets progressively trickier.

Seventeenth hole, 205 yards; While the mystery for who deserves credit may never be solved, one thing is certain: all parties involved embraced the notion that the target for one shotters need not be large. Of the five greens that measuring less than 4,000 square feet, four of them come on par 3s (the exception is the eleventh). While the tiny third hole seems wonderfully in proportion given it’s the shortest, that sense of ‘balance’ is notably absent here. Standing on the tee of the longest one shotter, the golfer can be forgiven for feeling disgruntled and that he is too far away to approach the course’s second smallest green. As such, it makes for a clever penultimate hole where the player’s long and short game are likely both tested.

The hole’s handsome appearance acts as some consolation.

White Bear Yacht Club is in good company, and joins elite courses like Cypress Point, Rock Creek, Lahinch, Morfontaine, and Swinley Forest in ending on a down note. Its Home Hole is no one’s favorite but so what? The blind drive over the iconic white bear on the hill holds one’s interest and the approach to the canted green is a nervy one should the match still be on the line. The concept of finishing with a long, difficult par 4 may be de rigueur in the United States but is alien to Scottish links like North Berwick, Prestwick and St. Andrews. White Bear Yacht Club has done well to resist pursuing unnatural acts to alter its finish.

The Home hole features a fine blind drive over a hillock with – you guessed it – a white bear acting as the mark.

Save the finishing hole, the author would love to single out other design weaknesses, as that is what a course critic is supposed to do. Yet, what could they be? The tees are simple and clean in presentation and near the prior green. The fairways deserve to be recognized as world-class, featuring movement that is human in scale (e.g. the second, seventh) to much wilder stuff (e.g. the ninth, thirteenth) and these contours act as central hazards. Starting with the sixteen foot pit at the first green, you know that bunker depth isn’t an issue so … perhaps the greens are bland? Are you kidding?! Just think about the interior contours at holes like the seventh, fourteenth and sixteenth or the swift back to front green at the tenth or the all-world front-to-back twelfth and the slinging right-to-left eleventh.Wind? Check. True, the soil isn’t sandy loam and bouncy-bounce conditions aren’t always present but the resultant slightly slower fairway speeds have the advantage of having tee balls hang up on fairway slopes creating another kind of challenge.

In short, the author can think of nothing that is missing or of anything that would add materially to the potent mix of existing features. Like Royal Hague in the Netherlands and Eastward Ho! on Cape Cad, White Bear Yacht Club has slowly and carefully pursued a plan this century to better expose their greatest asset, which are some of the game’s most delightful landforms. If you want to quibble, you could argue that a 36 hole day at one of these three courses might be too physically taxing but given that exercise is one of the game’s great benefits, that seems like a good problem to have. So, as a course with no real weaknesses and a club that isn’t interested in passing fads,  there’s no surprise that White Bear Yacht Club is slotted among the top 50 on the 147 Custodians of the Game.

GolfClubAtlas once again thanks Jon Cavalier for the use of his photographs throughout this profile. Be sure to follow Jon on Instagram @ linksgems. 

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