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The Course at Yale

The long history of Yale golf continues at this legendary college course

By: Pamela Emory

Appeared in July/August 1996 LINKS

Like the school itself, Yale University’s golf course challenges a young player’s mind. The course, 10 minutes from campus, is so well planned and executed that to play there is challenging, pleasant and memorable at any age or ability level.           

The Course at Yale was designed and constructed by three famous figures in golf: Charles Blair Macdonald, Seth Raynor and Charles B. Banks. Prior to the course’s opening in 1926, Yale team members used several local clubs as their home course.

In 1924 a blue-ribbon committee was formed to plan the course on a 700-acre tract of land, the Griest Estate. The site had been donated to the university by Mrs. Ray Tompkins, in memory of her husband, a Yale gridiron star from the 1860s.           

The land was “a veritable wilderness,” according to Macdonald. It cost about $70,000 to clear the site of trees and gnarly underbrush and at least that much to clear the estate of stones.   The miracle performed on Prospect Hill, which commanded a great view of the Long Island Sound in the early days and with effort can still be sighted today, took less than two years from beginning to the official opening in the spring of 1926.           

All that clearing, blasting and digging produced a very fine, modern—while traditional—golf course. One of the primary movers and shakers in the building of the course was a little-known but significant figure in early American golf course architecture, Charles B. Banks, Yale class of ’06. “Steam Shovel Banks,” had a specialty: deep bunkers—very deep bunkers. That philosophy yields some interesting and challenging situations at Yale.  

There are 20 steps down into several Banks bunkers, the deepest of which is left of the 8th green. After you’ve climbed down the 24 steps it takes to reach the bunker surface there’s no chance to see any of the flag.           

The wonders of the course are apparent from the very 1st tee, which features a long carry over Griest Pond. One former captain of the Eli golf team, Ned Vare, class of ’52 and son of Glenna Collett Vare, commented, “It was a great advantage for us to play at home. Many an opponent walked onto the first tee and the look on his face was a plus for us.”            

The par-3 9th is one of the best-known at Yale. It calls for a 200-yard carry over the bulk of Griest Pond to a large green that’s 50 yards long. Providing a modicum of relief is the infamous eight-foot swale in the middle of the green. The highest competitive score on the hole is 28.           

The other par 3s—the 143-yard 5th, 212-yard 13th and the 187-yard 15th are just as strong as the 9th; they bring on a sense of déjà vu as they are very similar in size, shape and testing undulations as the terrific one-shotter holes at Macdonald’s Midwestern masterpiece, Chicago Golf Club.           

There are only two par 5s on the course. The first is the 16th hole, a mini three-shotter at 494 yards. The second is the finishing hole, a monster 616-yarder that twists, turns and slanting up and over huge hill before tumbling downhill to the green.           

The new clubhouse looks like modern Stanford White and it is a warm, busy and yet friendly place. The walls of the rooms inside are covered with historical photographs of great Yale players and the building of the course. While inside you may hear the one about the man who once said, “Yale Golf Course is 18 good reasons to send your son to Harvard.”           

He was wrong.                             

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