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White Bear Yacht Club

Once a bastion of high society that inspired The Great Gatsby, this club in the Twin Cities area offers a challenging, rugged Donald Ross design

By: Josh Karp

Appeared in March 2008 LINKS

In 1921 F. Scott Fitzgerald and his wife, Zelda, spent the summer—or at least part of it—living in a rented room at White Bear Yacht Club. Located 20 miles northeast of St. Paul, Minnesota, Fitzgerald’s hometown, the club seemed a perfect place to swim, relax and play golf in a quiet setting where Fitzgerald also could write.

But as was often the case, the Fitzgeralds did far more drinking and fighting than swimming, relaxing, playing golf or writing, and were tossed out before the first leaf fell in September. A year later, Fitzgerald published the short story Winter Dreams, the tale of Dexter Green, a successful businessman who falls in love with the daughter of a man whose bag he once toted as a caddie at Sherry Island Golf Club in Black Bear Lake, Minnesota. No doubt, White Bear was a foundation for that work, as well as for The Great Gatsby and the quote commonly attributed to Fitzgerald: “The rich are different from you and I.”

Certainly, White Bear’s original members lived not unlike the way Jay Gatsby did, with black-tie dinners and debutante balls in the original clubhouse (destroyed by a fire in 1937), which is said to have resembled an ocean liner.

The current membership  is considerably more casual, but not when it comes to golf—and for good reason. The club’s golf history is a rich one. For years Walter Hagen held the course record. White Bear’s second pro, Tom Vardon, was the younger brother of six-time British Open winner Harry. In 1929 member Harrison “Jimmy” Johnston became the only player besides Bobby Jones to win the U.S. Amateur between 1927 and 1930.But at White Bear, Donald Ross is the name that matters most of all. Ross’ history with the club is a bit fuzzy, as most documentation of the original course design was lost in the fire. All that survived was a promotional pamphlet bearing the legend: “Original design by William Watson. Developed by Tom Vardon and Donald Ross.”

Vardon tinkered with the layout during his tenure, which began in 1916. It is believed that Watson, a well-regarded Scottish designer, created some initial drawings for a lost front nine. But Ross’ fingerprints mark each of the 6,471 yards that sit across a road from the shores of White Bear Lake, where several of St. Paul’s most prominent families formed a sailing club in 1889.

In the early 20th century, Ross performed a considerable amount of work in Minnesota, designing or re-working Minikhada, Interlachen and Woodhill around the Twin Cities, as well as Northland near Duluth. White Bear’s official history includes the diary entry of a member recounting a 1910 meeting at which Ross (but not Watson or Vardon) discussed plans for the front nine. Further supporting Ross as the designer is the biography Discovering Donald Ross, which places him at the club in 1912 and 1915. The front opened in 1912 and the back in 1916.

Having grown up in Dornoch, Scotland, Ross was heavily influenced by the way natural beauty had been harnessed at his home course, Royal Dornoch, as well as by a typically Scottish love of a brisk walk. The raw material at White Bear was a rugged, rolling parcel that is believed to have been a potato farm. At this stage in his career, Ross was designing courses that focused on the existing contours of the land and took advantage of natural mounds, many of which mark the topography of the rough at White Bear.

The layout favors the shotmaker over the big hitter, demanding creativity, accuracy and focus on every shot from nearly every location—most of them uneven—on the course. The 405-yard 1st breaks a bit from Ross’ tendency toward gentle opening holes. From a high tee box, the fairway drops significantly downward and then up to a large, elevated green, required a precisely judged, well-executed mid-iron shot. Anything short will roll down the hill.

The 429-yard 2nd features another Ross hallmark, a V-shaped fairway that sits right of center. The topography siphons good drives toward the middle, but almost always results in a sidehill lie, which is preferable to the alternative: missing the fairway.

The challenges are varied through the course of the 18 holes. On the 383-yard 12th, a well-hit drive can kick forward off a slope, but the green is hidden by a false front that runs dramatically away from the line of play, often causing what seems to be a great shot to end up in a bunker behind the green. The par-5 13th has a roller-coaster fairway that gives way to a narrow approach, while the back nine’s other par 5, the 16th, has a tight driving area.

The course has been altered a bit over the years. The club has removed bunkers and planted hundreds of spruce trees in the 1960s and ’70s, no doubt a result of the “beautification” movement that swept across much of American golf during that era.

In some cases, Ross’ offset tee boxes were squared to the fairway and on the picturesque 189-yard 8th, a member of the green committee cleared an oak-filled hollow below the tee one winter during the early ’60s, eliminating what had been a blind tee shot.

Led by former golf chairman Mark Hallberg, the club recently restored the course to Ross’ original design. Working with Tom Doak and using pictures from the ’40s, the club has rediscovered lost bunkers and removed many spruces. But for the most part, the committee has left intact the greens, which Doak calls “the most severely undulating greens Ross ever designed.”

In more than the putting surfaces, White Bear is a throwback—nearly everyone walks the course as Ross intended, braving steep hills that can tax even the best-conditioned golfers. Ross designed each hole for
maximum beauty and challenge, and the course provides just as formidable a test today as it did for Hagen and Vardon.

Members like to tell the tale of a guest who spent the day bedeviled by the terrain to which Ross hewed so closely nearly a century ago. Coming off No. 18, the man stormed up to a member and complained that he’d had “only one flat lie all day!”

“Where?” the member asked. “I’ll have to have that fixed.” 

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