Every now and then, an article cannot help being published on the top college-affiliated courses in the USA. There are a fair number of them, although the trend to develop a golfing grounds for student and staff fitness is not nearly as popular as it was in the early 1900s. Land is at a premium and space is typically viewed with a “get the most that you can out of it” philosophy. A high concentration of college-affiliated golf courses is found in the northeast, from smaller colleges like Colgate, Middlebury and Williams, to larger institutions like Cornell and Dartmouth. Courses out west like Stanford have a course, as do the Arizonas and Purdue. Vanderbilt has two, although the exact nature of the relationship between grounds and gown is not apparent. Even prep schools like Culver Academy (Indiana) and Hotchkiss (Connecticut) have nine-hole dalliances. Year after year, for all time, one course will sit at the top of any such list. The simple reason is, it transcends such a limiting categorization as best collegiate course and merits consideration for other top 100 lists.
The golf course at Yale, as it is called in an official capacity, is monstrously expansive in all aspects of size. Its footprint is enormous, its putting surfaces are two to three times the size of some, golden-age courses, and the hills over which it is laid, and across which shots are required to carry, are golfing Ararats and Denalis. At times, you feel like a tourist as you stare up and up and even farther up, attempting to take in the scale while assessing the requirements of the shot.
Yale also goes downward. From the putting-surface drop from right to left on hole #1, to the cavernous bunkers that guard the entrance to Hell on #2, #8 and others, to the descent greenward from the 18th hole plateau, there is always the fear that a wayward strike will result in yet another glance skyward, needing to propel the golf ball as far up as ahead. Yale is stupefying in its challenge, but also in its strategy and its beauty.
Charles Blair MacDonald is an enigmatic figure in the history of US golf course architecture. His influence on the layouts we play is indisputable, yet access to his work is severely limited. Courses like National Golf Links (his opus), Piping Rock and Chicago Golf Club. MacDonald was finished with course design by 1920, handing off the work to his protege, Seth Raynor. After touring the British isles, MacDonald determined that certain holes were the best that golf could offer, no matter the site. His National Golf Links was his attempt to replicate (and certainly exceed) these original masterworks. They came to be known as “template holes,” with names like Biarritz, Punch Bowl, Double Plateau, Short, Maiden, Alps, Road, and Redan. The features on these templates are memorable and challenging. After seeing a course like the National Golf Links of America, one never looks at an uninteresting hole in the same manner.
The problem with CBM courses is that they are inaccessible geographically (Bermuda) or socioeconomically. The Greenbrier Resort has its Old White, but a stay at that resort isn’t inexpensive. NGLA and Piping Rock are private clubs, and reclusive ones at that. Yale is another matter entirely. While access to the course is limited to employees, students, alumni, and family of alumni, it doesn’t take long to consider that one has to know someone from Yale, in some capacity. After a brief conversation, one can typically come up with an access point, establish a date, and play the course. Yale is a union shop, so the element of toney, exclusive club is lacking, It’s private, true, but not in its manner.
At first glance, Yale seems to be impossible to walk, but second glance reveals that it is, indeed, a great walk unspoiled. The front nine traverses moderate up and down slopes, only ascending a measurable slope at the 7th green. It is the hike over the length of the 10th hole, however, that reveals heart and leg strength. The walk from 9 green to 10 tee is pleasant, as is the descent to the beginning of the fairway. The 100-feet upward glance to the green is enough to weaken the strongest knees. Fortunately, it is done in shifts. The first is to the drive zone, the second is to the fronting cross bunker, and the final one is to the green itself. Unforgettable! Down the 11th, up the 12th, then nothing major until the behemoth that is the home hole.
There is no apt way to describe the 18th hole at Yale. It measures well over 600 yards, built in an era when 600 yards equaled a par six, one of those anachronisms one reads about, but never encounters. Unless you’re playing silver tees or forward, don’t be tempted to go over that rightward hill of nasty fescue. Beyond it is more nasty fescue and a downward slide toward perdition. The play is straight up the middle, leaving a decent lie for the second. This play must go straight into the clouds, with as long a club as you have in the bag. If you clobber it, you’ll get past the upper plateau, down toward the green. The center of the fairway is protected by fescue, but its shortish height allows balls to tumble down to the lower, right fairway. A shot from the upper fairway is an awesome moment, as a proper strike hangs suspended in the air before dropping toward the putting surface. After the sojourn from tee to green, the putting is somewhat mundane, but you can’t have everything.
I won’t tell you to beg, borrow or steal your way to Yale. I don’t have to.