Appeared in the September/October 1998 LINKS
Imagine a lonely, battered outpost in an urban wilderness, sharing its surrounds with razor wire, graffiti scrawls and gunshot sounds echoing day and night. This is what historic East Lake Golf Club looked like.
To be sure, the skeletal version of our story is a familiar one, that of modern day golf’s top restoration artist, architect Rees Jones, restoring a tired but virtue-laden course. The meat of our story, however, has nothing to do with bunkers, greens or doglegs. East Lake is more a story of survival, of resurrection, of hope.
By 1914 Donald Ross had rendered his formidable design skills on East Lake, providing the course golfers know today. The course would nurture the talents of not only Bobby Jones, but a slew of other youngsters who would go on to be champions.
Many thought the 1962 Ryder Cup was the final hurrah for East Lake. By the mid-1960s, as the area’s demographics changed, many members had moved to Atlanta’s fast-growing northwest suburbs. An old guard held East Lake together gamely but inevitably, over the next 25 years, the club’s fortunes dropped. The surrounding neighborhood sunk even lower. There were 650 federally subsidized, low-income units crammed into 50 acres, and violence and drug dealing were the norm.
Enter Tom Cousins. A prosperous Atlanta real estate developer, Cousins had played East Lake as a kid in the 1940s, and the reverence he acquired for Bobby Jones and the club never left him. In the late 1980s Cousins began a charitable foundation, which dispensed dollars to the usual causes, but down deep he really wanted to see his money make a difference. When East Lake became available, Cousins hatched an idea.
First, he got the neighborhood involved with the club itself. East Lake would be a walking club, with caddies, most of whom would be recruited from the surrounding neighborhoods. Second, East Lake established a junior golf academy.
Finally, Cousins proposed an ambitious plan, involving HUD, the Atlanta Housing Authority, the newly created East Lake Community Foundation and the East Lake Meadows Residents Association. It would call for razing the existing 650 units, temporarily (or permanently) displacing residents. In its stead, the foundation would construct 500 high-quality mixed-income townhouses and garden apartments to be built and managed by private developers; the par-64 Charlie Yates Golf Course and practice facility, designed for free by Rees Jones; a new family YMCA and an Educational Village with a new elementary school.
Amid all the progress, it’s easy to forget that East Lake is now possessed of a marvelous, classic course as well. If there is any design quirk, it is that each of the par fives, Nos. 5, 9, 10, and 15, plays in the same direction, with the prevailing west wind.
The most talked about hole on the front nine is the 213-yard 6th, which plays from an elevated tee to a diagonally angled peninsula green stuck out in the lake. East Lake’s back nine boasts one superior hole after another, but the finish is unforgettable, beginning with the uphill, yet very reachable 525-yard 15th, followed by the best hole on the course, the 480-yard, par-four 16th. The 18th is an unusual but terrific closer, an uphill, into-the-wind 232-yard par three.
Despite all the names that have shaped East Lake, it is Jones whose name is inexorably tied to East Lake. Bob, as he was known to friends, may have had deep associations with Augusta National, Peachtree and St. Andrews, among others, but East Lake was home and his favorite place of all.