Proper Golf

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Review: Yale Golf Course

The Course at Yale University, 1924
Architects: Seth Raynor and Charles Blair Macdonald
New Haven, CT

The approach to the 2nd hole "Pits", an appropriate name to this bold cape style par-4 with the peninsula-ed green guarded by two of the deepest bunkers in golf which require long
staircases to let golfers in and eventually out.

The Course at Yale University is certainly a masterpiece of design and construction, and no doubt belongs in the conversation of best inland classic courses. While most believe it was a product of legendary architect Charles Blair Macdonald who designed The National Golf Links in Southampton, Chicago Golf Club and many other classics, apparently it was Macdonald's right hand man, Seth Raynor who was primarily responsible for The Course at Yale. Built with many of the same templates found on other Macdonald and Raynor courses, it was Raynor with the background in surveying and engineering who routed the course through the donated 700 acre Geist estate that the course was carved, dredged and blasted out of. With Macdonald serving on the advisory board, Seth Raynor created a golf course of the grandest scale, with giant greens, deep bunkers, wide fairways and some of the boldest contouring of any course you will ever find to fit the course into the dense forest and hilly property.

Not a long course by today's standards, The Course at Yale still ranks amongst the hardest in the country. An unbalanced par 70 (34-36), birdie chances are hard to come by with the long strings of difficult par-4's, numerous blind shots and steep contours on the greens where 2-putts are real achievements. With the only three shot holes coming at the end of the round, #'s 16 and 18, there is not much room to make up strokes on this golf course. Do to the "lack" of par-5s and their delayed appearance in the hole sequencing, it is foreseeable how some may dislike this unusual characteristic, however a little bit of quirk and uniqueness of this type really should not affect ones opinion on the course negatively with a plethora of world class holes throughout the course. If there is one weakness on the course, I would say it is the long holes, #16 is probably the least interesting and memorable hole on the course, and while I do like #18, which was clearly inspired by the topography, the current green complex (not a Raynor original) doesn't end the round with the same boldness that is found on the rest of the course.

A look at the contours on #1 green, sectioned off by the vertically running ridge. The pin pictured above is near the center of the punchbowl, making putts from the right side
(far in the picture) of the green very difficult to keep close.

Yale starts out with a bang. The first four holes are part of one of the best opening sequences you will find anywhere. Right on the first tee golfers are faced with a forced carry over the pond, a sign of things to come in terms of difficulty, scale, and the body of water itself which will find its way onto a number of holes, but it doesn't end there. The first green deserves just as much attention as the tee shot. Split into two sections, the right side of the green is sloped front to back, and is guarded by two deep bunkers. The back left portion of the green, which is sectioned off by a sharp, steep slope into a large punchbowl, requires at least one extra club on approach or a well judged running shot that will navigate the slopes properly to roll back towards the pin. The cape style hole #2 (pictured above) is one of the most memorable holes on the course for its ultra deep bunkering and a long, angled green that juts out left above the danger. The drama continues to mount on "Blind" #3, first with its forced carry over water. It is far more important to find the right side of the fairway here than to worry about distance off the tee. Raynor allows for less than a driver to be played here, giving a well placed shot a serious advantage on approach, while suggesting that one use the slopes of the steep ridge to guide ones fall into the flat bellow for a blind shot to come. Players can use the peg-board with the days pin position as well as the flag pole behind the green to align themselves on their 2nd shot into a green that has changed significantly from the original double punchbowl green which was altered due to constant flooding. Even with one of the least interesting greens on the course, #3 holds your attention and makes the player think from tee to green. The closing hole of the opening stretch is a great version of the famous Road hole at St. Andrews . Using the pond which cuts into the right side of the fairway taking the place of the famous hotel, Yale's green is a mirrored version of the original, and nearly twice the size. The best angle for an attack at Yale is gained by hugging the left edge of the fairway, away from the trouble, while the Scottish original begs the golfer to bite off as much as one can stomach and stay right, to approach a green running left. While the famous Road Hole bunker has been replicated, along with a false front, as the green is pushed up way above the fairway, the narrowness of the putting surface has not, staying in touch with the grand scale of all the holes at Yale.

The tee shot at "Road" #4 using the water flanked by the cat-tails to replicate the strategy of the Old Course Hotel, which one must take on to find the ideal approach angle.

Not to skip over holes #5, 6, 7, which offer plenty of interest and certainly make up the back-bone of the great layout, but "Short" #5 is far from the best of this Macdonald/Raynor, and while you could write an essay on the placement of the stream in the corner of the dogleg on #6, or the blasting and engineering that went on to make #7 possible, holes #8, 9 and 10 make a far more lasting impression on the golfers experience at Yale. #8, another version of the cape template, which is defined not by the inside corner of a dogleg, but a green angled out on a peninsula over a fatal hazard, starts with a tee shot from way above the fairway on a hill. A good drive here will start down the left side and use the slopes of the partially hidden, yet wide fairway, to gain extra distance off the bounce and roll, to gain the ideal position on the right side of the fairway. The approach shot here to #8 can really get the adrenalin pumping with the thought of pulling a shot left into the deep bunker or worse a lost ball in hazard looming. However, the genius of Raynor, and the course really shows here on the green nearly 50 yards long, as it has been contoured to allow the golfer to play well right of his target and allow the ball to feed off the steep bank on the right edge the green near the hole.

The green to #8 "Cape" has some redan-like qualities allowing players to play their shots well right of their target and use the banking to feed the ball towards the hole.

#9 "Biarritz" is one of the only holes I can think of capable of stealing the show from #8.

The Biarritz par-3 #9, a template inspired by the once famous Chasm hole that no longer exists in Biarritz, France, is a hole that every golfer looks forward to, yet fears. If your heart rate isn't raised when standing on the elevated tee over looking Geist Pond to the 65-yard long green with the famous deep swale in the middle, than you might as well give up golf. Club selection on this hole is of extreme importance, especially when the hole is cut on the front tier of the green, where the ball must travel far enough to clear the water, yet stop quick enough to stay out of the swale. When the hole is in the back portion of the green, the player has the option to hit a lower shot, and run the ball up through the swale, instead of trying to carry the ball all 244 yards to the back of the green, a mighty slog even with todays equipment.

A view from the side of #10 green shows the severity of the slopes. Any putt from above the hole brings big numbers into play.

After the longest green to tee walk on the course, the golfer is rewarded with another fabulous hole #10, named "Carries". A decent drive from the elevated tee, will be propelled down into the flat bottom portion of the fairway where views of the putting surface are not to be had, so I suggest you take note of the pin location from the tee. The straight away hole will play a good two extra clubs longer on the approach to the green which feels like its a mile above your head. If you fail to take the elevation change into account, you are likely to find your ball in one of the two deep bunkers guarding the front of the green from some 12 feet bellow, however this still might be a better option than missing long over the green. As you finally crest the hill and make your way onto the green you are greeted by one of the steepest greens you are likely to ever play. This green is so well thought out and contoured that it is possible to take more than one line to the cup, enabling players to be creative in taking some of the steepest slopes out of play on their way to the hole.

View up the hill from #12 "Alps" tee. A seemingly natural setting for
one of Raynor's best versions of the classic template.

#11 "Valley" appears be a bit of a breather or transition hole to me, with the infamous Alps and Redan just ahead, but it should be mentioned that #11 again has some wonderful ground contours in the fairway that allow for a number of different clubs to be played off the tee to take advantage of the slopes. There are also two fabulous bunkers which beautifully blend the naturally rocky terrain into the backslopes of the sand with wild-grasses and creative shaping. Located just of the back of the fallaway eleventh green, are the pushed up tees of the "Alps" hole #12. Playing entirely uphill to a green cut into a hollow near the summit, and marked by the flagpole, this is another hole where golfers should be mindful to check the pegboard for the pin position, as this green is split horizontally into two distinct tiers, and blind to the golfer until one makes it all the way up the hill. On the way to the green, golfers must play around some taller, colorful fescues on the tee shot, and then over a deep bunker cut into the hillside just short of the green penalizing those who do not take the elevation change into account on their approach.

View from the elevated tee on top the hill, way above the "Redan" green. This spot is particularly exposed to the element of wind, which is normally blocked out by
the thick forrest flanking most of the holes at Yale.

Once at the top of the hill, Raynor quickly starts to guide the golfer back down by way of the par-3 "Redan". While no doubt a version of the most copied hole in golf, this version is a bit different from the norm, playing from the elevated tee, which takes the option to bounce the ball up the right side and feed it left, out of play. It may not be the textbook Redan that some might expect from the Macdonald/Raynor school of architecture, but #13 is still a very good and interesting hole with plenty of interest and excitement, especially when trying to recover from around the green, or trying to navigate the steep slopes from above the hole with a putter.

A view back from the #14 green shows the broad ground contours that should be
used to gain both extra distance and the ideal angle into the green.

The "Knoll" hole #14 is the most underrated hole on the golf course in my opinion. A shorter par-4 requiring not much more than a driver and wedge if played properly. I love the way this hole melds the ground game with the aerial attack. From the elevated tee on this dogleg right, a left to right ball flight is the shot of choice. Here a golfer who can play a fade off the heavily canted fairway will certainly gain extra distance and find his ball in the optimum position for an approach to the push-up green. With no bunkering necessary on this hole, the green is clearly elevated from all sides and sloped back to front, and certainly requires a high flying attack to hold this green. With waves of internal contour, different from most of the large, broad slopes at Yale, I wouldn't be surprised to learn that this interesting green came to be over time from the settling of the soils stemming from the push-up process.

The tee shot at #17 "Nose" in the late afternoon is as beautiful setting as one will
find on any inland course in the country.

After a decent version of the "Eden" hole, a mid-length par-3 modeled after the eleventh at St. Andrews, although I have yet to see a templated version come close to replicating the greatness original, comes the first of two par-5s in the last three holes. However, the last great hole at Yale is #17, "Nose", a long par-4 which starts with an uphill tee shot over water. Once across the pond, the hill is crested and the hole turns back down the hill, where good shots just get better with some extra roll. The approach shot, for those with enough distance to reach, is played over the principals nose bunker complex modeled after the sixteenth hole at St. Andrews, to a double-plateau green, a template of its own that appears on a number of the Macdonal/Raynor courses. This hole offers excitement and intrigue on every shot from tee to green, as well as the addition of the fabulous aesthetic from the pond and tall grasses, and interesting shaping of the principals nose. #17 is yet another hole to stay in your memory for a long time, and should always be in the conversation of the best hole on the course.

The approach to the double plateau green at #17 will always be partially blind no matter which side of the fairway one is on because of the principals nose complex.

The opportunity to play The Course at Yale University is a true lesson in the classics. Seth Raynor under the advisory and schooling of mentor Charles Blair Macdonald sculpted a true masterpiece in the harsh and severe terrain of New Haven, Connecticut. Not the easiest course to walk, with all the elevation changes, and not always in the greatest condition due to subsoils and smaller maintenance staff, these are minor complaints to an otherwise fabulous day on one of the games best inland courses. One of the greatest compliments one could ever give a golf course would be the inability to name a favorite hole, but rather list a handful of great holes (#1, 2, 4, 8, 9, 10, 12, and 17) without ever coming to a reasonable conclusion. At the same time, it is extremely difficult to single out one hole as the weak point of the course, or a hole that doesn't fit, or belong with the rest of the course. On such a difficult property, Seth Raynor was able to build a world class golf course that fit by creating golf holes on such a grand scale that blend beautifully into the landscape, even though in truth it took a major engineering operation and an enormous budget accomplish.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Photo Tour: Yale

The Course at Yale University , 1924
Architects: Seth Raynor and Charles Blair Macdonald
New Haven, CT

#1 Tee "Eli"

#1 Second Shot
#1 Approach
#1 Green
#2 Tee "Pits"
#2 Approach
#3 "Blind"
#3 Second Shot
#3 View from Behind Green
#4 Tee "Road"
#4 Second Shot
#5 "Short"
#6 Tee "Burnside"
#6 Second Shot
#7 Tee "Lane"
#7 Second Shot
#8 Tee "Cape"
#8 Second Shot
#8 Approach
#9 "Biarritz"
#9 Green
#10 Tee "Carries"
#10 Second Shot
#10 Green
#10 Green
#11 Tee "Valley"
#11 Second Shot
#12 Tee "Alps"
#12 Second Shot
#12 Approach
#12 Green
#13 Tee "Redan"
#13 Green
#14 Tee "Knoll"
#14 Second Shot
#14 View Back
#15 Tee "Eden"
#15 Green
#16 Tee "Lang"
#16 Second Shot
#16 Approach Shot
#17 Tee "Nose"
#17 Second Shot
#17 Approach
#17 Green
#18 Tee "Home"
#18 Second Shot
#18 View of Tee
#18 View from Top
#18 Approach
#18 View Back

Review Coming Soon