New Haven, CT – The concept of feeding the ball into greens has been all but lost in modern golf, although architects such as Ben Crenshaw, Bill Coore, Tom Doak, Brian Silva, Ian Andrew, and Rod Whitman (at Sagebrush in Merritt, B.C. and Cabot Links in Inverness, N.S.), along with some others, have helped return it to the game in recent years. There’s nothing, though, like playing vintage courses where the idea was paramount, and before architects built courses that were penal rather than strategic, and where golfers were asked to fly the ball as far as they could on their drives, and then hit their approaches directly at the hole. Stick ‘em golf became the norm. Think it out golf receded into the past, almost an anachronism.
I was pleased, therefore, to return to the past a few days ago when I played the Yale Golf Club here, or, as the scorecard has it, The Course at Yale designed in the 1920s by Seth Raynor with advice from Charles Blair Macdonald. Macdonald, the author of Scotland’s Gift: Golf, a must-read for anybody interested in course architecture, is often considered the father of American golf. He won the first U.S. Amateur, in 1895, designed the National Golf Links of America in Southampton, Long Island, adjacent to Shinnecock Hills, and other artful courses such as the Chicago Golf Club and Mid-Ocean in Bermuda. He hired Raynor, a Princeton University-trained civil engineer, to survey the land for the National Golf Links. They continued to work together from that point.
Yale University owns the course, bequeathed the land 90 years ago. And what land it is: sprawling, rambunctious, heaving, and, well, stirring. George Waters, who holds a Master’s degree in Landscape Architecture from the University of Guelph, recently sent me a copy of his new book Sand and Golf: How Terrain Shapes the Game. I’m looking forward to reading this book from one of the sharpest fellows working on golf courses today, but I know this: Terrain does indeed shape the game.
Moreover, terrain shapes how we play the game. That’s one important reason I, along with my friend Jeff Neuman, enjoyed Yale. Jeff is a long-time editor and golf writer–he edited my book A Season in Dornoch, and we collaborated on A Disorderly Compendium of Golf. He’s now editing a biography of Robert Trent Jones Sr., the patriarch of golf’s most well-known family of course architects. Jones in many ways made penal design the centerpiece of his work. I’ll be interested to read the biography to learn what the author has to say about his place in architecture. It’s a major place, that’s certain.
As for Yale, the ground hums. It’s so much a part of the game that you absolutely need to take it into account on every shot. Golfers can almost forget about the ground and terrain at so many courses built in the last 50 years. Stand up on the tee and slam the ball and then get your yardage on the subsequent shots and fly some sort of missile at the hole. The idea of aiming, oh, 30 yards or more to one side or another of where you’d like the ball to finish seems almost absurd. That’s not golf, is it?
Huh? It sure is golf, the most invigorating, entertaining and interesting type of golf there is. The opportunity to play such golf is why I get charged up every time I am about to tee it up at the Devil’s Paintbrush in Caledon, Ont., my favourite course in Canada, and why I liked Sagebrush and Cabot Links during my visits there. You get to imagine and craft shots.
Yale offers such opportunities on every hole. Driving in, you notice the scale of the property, and the way it moves up and down in dramatic ways. Jeff and I played the course on a sunny, brisk autumn day that couldn’t have been better. The hole on the massive first green was cut to the far right–many Yale greens are at least 10,000 sq. ft. A spine runs down the green front to back, about 2/3 of the way to its right side. I didn’t succeed in hitting the shot required, where the ball would land 20 yards left of that spine with cut spin, and then take the slope of the terrain toward the hole. But I quickly learned the importance of feeding the ball towards the targets.
On the fourth hole, a par-four of 410 yards from the tees we played, Jeff hit a beauty of an approach with a hybrid that slid right and finished eight feet from the hole. He had planned to avoid a trademark deep Raynor bunker to the right front of the green, and managed to do that. He used the terrain, which dictated his strategy. The ball rolled and rolled and never came near the bunker. Raynor had provided space enough to hit such a shot. Yale is all about width and contour, tee through green.
“Ground game,” Jeff said after hitting a shot that gave satisfaction. “The bunker is death.”
Then there’s the 12,000 sq. ft. ninth green, one of the most famous in golf. It’s called a Biarritz hole because of the deep hollow in the middle that bisects the green and divides the front from the rear segment. The design is named after the original, a Willie Dunn hole in Biarritz itself. The hole was cut on the front portion of the green, unfortunately. A Biarritz truly comes alive when the hole is beyond the middle chasm.
“Insane,” Jeff called this green. “I bring good golfers to Yale and some don’t get it. They say, ‘too many blind shots, not fair.’ What in the world does fair have to do with it?”
Exactly. Yale reminded me from the moment I drove in of Addington Golf Club near London, England. Anybody who demands “fair” golf should stay away from Addington, which is celebrating its centenary this year. Anybody who craves adventurous golf should get there. I never hear a golfer say that Addington is on his bucket list.
But it should be. So should Yale. It took me a long time to play Yale, but I’m glad that, finally, I have. Message to Dick Zokol, who was so involved in Sagebrush from its conception to its design: Get yourself to Yale. You would appreciate it. You would love it.
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Lorne Rubenstein has written a golf column for The Globe and Mail since 1980. He has played golf since the early 1960s and was the Royal Canadian Golf Association’s first curator of its museum and library at the Glen Abbey Golf Club in Oakville, Ontario and the first editor of Score, Canada’s Golf Magazine, where he continues to write a column and features. He has won four first-place awards from the Golf Writers Association of America, one National Magazine Award in Canada, and he won the award for the best feature in 2009 from the Golf Journalists Association of Canada. Lorne has written 12 books, including Mike Weir: The Road to the Masters (2003); A Disorderly Compendium of Golf, with Jeff Neuman (2006); This Round’s on Me (2009); and the latest Moe & Me: Encounters with Moe Norman, Golf’s Mysterious Genius (2012). He is a member of the Ontario Golf Hall of Fame and the Canadian Golf Hall of Fame. Lorne can be reached at email@example.com. You can now follow him on Twitter @lornerubenstein