NEW HAVEN, CONNECTICUT | As an academic institution Yale has been criticized for the so-called “safe spaces” it creates on campus to insulate increasingly thin-skinned students from speech deemed to be culturally and socially insensitive. But the university offers no such protection for those who play its celebrated golf course. Designed by Charles Blair Macdonald and Seth Raynor and opened in 1926, the Yale Golf Course is an architectural treasure and one of the most dramatic and demanding tracks in the game.
A round at Yale also can provide one of the great experiences in golf. But the layout has a way of rattling a player who is even slightly off his or her game, just as the mere sight of a “Make America Great Again” hat might cause a young Eli to quake with fear.
Thankfully, golfers as a group are tougher than that.
Some gratitude must also be directed to the university, which has had a habit of neglecting an asset that is as precious to the institution as the Center for British Art or the Peabody Museum of Natural History. As a result, its original toughness has never been compromised, and that means there are no places to hide on Yale Golf Course. Nearly a century after its opening, it continues to give players what Macdonald and Raynor hoped it would – good, interesting and challenging golf.
“There is so much about the course that commends it,” says Colin Sheehan, a Yale alum and the head coach for the men’s golf team. “The landforms. The blind shots. The use of template holes. The sheer size and scale of the layout. It is regularly ranked among the top 100 courses in America, and deservedly so. And with better maintenance and a proper restoration program, it could stand shoulder to shoulder with the best 25 golf courses in the country.”
Architect Tom Doak is equally impressed. Sheehan well remembers a visit the designer paid to Yale six years ago and what he wrote about it afterward on the Golf Club Atlas website. “I stopped at Yale yesterday,” Doak penned on Aug. 16, 2013. “I had not been back there for about 15 years, and while I remember the course pretty well, I was astounded by the scale of it on a revisit. We think we are building dramatic stuff from time to time, but I haven’t seen anything as big and bold as Yale since, well, probably the last time I played at Yale. Out of the 11 holes we played, there is nobody today who would have the (guts) to build seven of those. … I cannot think of another course you could say that about.”
To appreciate the design at Yale, you need to go back to its beginnings. That would be 1923 when a woman named Sarah Wey Tompkins donated 700 hilly acres of woods and swampland to the university in memory of her late husband, Ray Tompkins, a member of the class of 1884 and a two-time captain of the Yale football team.
According to a 1923 report from Yale’s Board of Control, the land was “to be used to encourage outdoor sports among the undergraduates.” That body then voted to build a golf course on a portion of the property. Following that, it appointed a committee to determine what kind of layout the university would build and who would handle the job.
“The committee was made up of a number of alumni, and they were all heavyweights in the golf world,” says Sheehan. “It included the president of the USGA, J. Frederick Byers, and a former treasurer, Mortimer N. Buckner. Robert Gardner was also a member of the group, and in addition to being the sitting vice president of the association was a two-time winner of the U.S. Amateur, with one of those victories coming in 1909, when he was a sophomore at Yale.”
Jess Sweetser sat on the committee as well, while he was still enrolled at the university and just one year removed from winning the U.S. Amateur himself. What you had as a result were some very serious golfers with very high standards. They decided to build something that would test the skills of golfers in the upper echelons of the game.
As for an architect, the committee went to Macdonald, the father of golf in this country and the designer of the National Golf Links of America, among other gems. As he had with that layout, Macdonald turned to Raynor for assistance. In 1924, they began work on the rugged site, clearing a total of 102 acres, 28 acres of which was swampland. They used more than 20,000 sticks of dynamite to break up rocky ledges. Then, they spread some 2,800 tons of manure and nearly 200 tons of limestone on the ground before laying down more than 900 bushels of grass seed.
In the end, Macdonald and Raynor spent $440,000 to create Yale Golf Course. At the time, that made it the most expensive layout ever built. But the track was worth every penny. They used rock outcroppings like sand dunes to add strategy and give it a linksy feel. The fairways heaved to and fro like grassy waves. The big greens boasted wild undulations, and the bunkers that guarded them dropped in some cases as much 20 feet below the putting surfaces. Blind shots abounded, and in addition to building three holes where bells had to be rung to let golfers know when fairways and greens had cleared, they made sure there were places on most every hole where an errant shot might take a green completely out of view for an approach.
As was their wont, Macdonald and Raynor also fashioned renditions of several classic holes from the British Isles, among them a fabulous quartet of par-3s that included a Biarritz with a green that ran 65 yards from front to back, a classic Eden, a 212-yard Redan that was all carry, and a well-bunkered Short. The par-4 12th was an Alps, 400 yards long with a dizzyingly difficult and blind approach to an uphill green, and the 17th a delightful Double Plateau that was exceedingly tough to two-putt. Old World design elements appeared in smaller and more subtle ways. Part of the first green evoked a classic Punchbowl, for example, while the fourth was endowed with a Road Hole bunker.
As for the par-5 18th, it could be described best (with apologies to Thomas Hobbes) as nasty, brutish and long, playing roughly 620 yards from the back tees. It required an accurate drive over a hill to the fairway and then a blind second shot up and over a massive hill to a flat that still left golfers with a mid-iron to the green. More double bogeys likely have been recorded there than at any other golf hole in New England. Fortunately, the 19th hole at Yale was positioned only a short walk away, so the sad souls who carded 7s didn’t have far to go for a beverage to wash away their sorrows.
The architectural attributes of Yale have been praised almost universally since its opening. Sadly, another constant has been criticism of its perenially mediocre condition. In some ways, that issue is quite understandable given how hard it is to grow grass on such a rocky site. Drainage is generally poor, and the abundance of trees on the property impedes air flow, which hurts turf health.
But many of the shortcomings are self-induced. While the annual maintenance budget at Yale is regarded as the largest among golf courses in Connecticut at more than $1.5 million, it is also the most inefficient. That’s largely because the maintenance staff consists of only a half-dozen unionized workers. Not all of them have expertise in golf course maintenance and they work roughly the same hours in the offseason as they do in the summer.
Another problem is that golf has never been a high priority for the university. “Yale does understand what a great asset the course is,” Sheehan says. “It is but one of many assets. Golf is paramount at most clubs. But Yale has a total of 35 varsity sports and an almost equal number of athletic facilities. Then there are all the libraries, dormitories and museums on campus.”
Still, Sheehan believes there is newfound enthusiasm at the university to initiate a restoration of Yale Golf Course and develop a maintenance plan that will make the conditioning every bit as great as the track itself.
Those would be welcome developments. Exciting ones, too. Just so long as no one tries to turn it into a safe space at the same time.
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