Review: Yale Golf Course

Architect: Seth Raynor & C.B. Macdonald (1926)

Location: New Haven, Connecticut

As someone who is interested in golf course design, the “Golden Age” (defined as 1910-1937) is an interesting period to study and play, but unfortunately, a lot of these golf courses are hidden behind the gates of private clubs. Luckily, there are a few well known public courses to be seen: Pinehurst No.2, Pasatiempo, Banff Springs, and Bethpage Black as examples. In 2021, Yale opened their gates to a select few public tee times. To me, this is one of the most invigorating golfing experiences in the United States.

In 1923, Mrs. Ray Tompkins provided a major endowment of land to the University of Yale in memory of her late husband. The school used this 700-acre plot of rugged woodland to create a golf course. Under the supervision of Charles Blair Macdonald, architect Seth Raynor, and design associate Charles Banks built a magnificent golf course. Costing some $400,000 from 1923-1926, Yale became the most expensive course ever constructed at the time.

Fun Fact: Raynor & Macdonald prepared plans for 36 holes at Yale. In 1945 the other piece of land was sold to a real-estate developer.

Why See Yale?

It was this review from the Fried Egg in 2019 that caught my attention, and between the article and the associated YouTube video, I was inspired by the layout. I spent time finding out more about the course and how I might come to play it. This site is another really great resource for more Yale info; as a result of all the information available, I began plotting how I was going to see the layout one day.

As a golf course architecture enthusiast, Yale appealed to me with its grand stature, templates, uniquely designed holes, and club history. In theory, template holes sound a lot like replicas. In reality, templates are simply a design origin. Each architect who deploys the use of templates has put a unique spin on their design that works with the land available. And so, seeing the renditions of Cape, Short, Redan, Double Plateau, and more at Yale appeal greatly to me and opened my eyes more.

I also viewed it as having similar characteristics of Cape Breton Highland Links, my favourite course. Like Highland Links, Yale has 18 unique holes built into some wild terrain that create a natural appeal from start to finish.

Finally, C.B Macdonald and Seth Raynor are responsible for some of the world’s best golf courses. Places like National Golf Links of America, Fishers Island Club, and Chicago Golf Club just to name a few, yet hardly any of them are accessible to the public, and I may never get a chance to play them. But Yale is, and that adds to the appeal.

Planned Visits Gone Astray

In early 2020 The Fried Egg released their yearly events schedule. I had my eyes set on The Dog Bowl—the event at Yale. After failing to get a spot, I was stuck looking for another path forward. Just a few weeks later COVID came roaring to North America and that closed Yale and cancelled the event.

Throughout much of 2020, Yale remained closed due to the pandemic. A story featured around social media began to spread about course conditions gone wrong. I was beginning to wonder if I would ever play it in any sort of reliable conditions.

2021

In 2021, and with the hope that the border may re-open, I kept tabs on Yale. An announcement in September 2021 that Gil Hanse would restore Yale was a pleasant surprise. At this point, I knew I wanted to see the place before and after restoration.

May 2022

This Spring, with borders now open without any testing requirements, I planned a visit with my good friend Drew. Our plan was to hit the road on Thursday after work, play two rounds of golf on Friday, two rounds of golf Saturday—including one at Yale, and a final round on the way home Sunday.

Arriving at the course, we found the gates closed. Due to too much rain overnight, we could not play. Speaking with the GM, Peter Palacios, he allowed us the opportunity to walk the course, but we couldn’t play. Gutted.

I am glad we spoke to Peter; he was a kind individual and highly knowledgeable. He assured us the first tee time the following day if they were able to open and could make it. Sadly, we had other stops to make with commitments we did not want to break. It was kind of him to provide the opportunity to walk the course. Ultimately, while disappointed it was still a great opportunity to take a stroll around one of the most interesting golf courses I have ever seen.

Finally Playing Golf at Yale

After the debacle in May, I knew I had to find a way to get back. In July, I found a free weekend and sorted out plans. You can read more about this in my Year in Review.

Arriving at Yale, the clubhouse was closed. Besides the bathrooms, access to amenities at Yale are non-existent at the moment. I am sure this policy will change when the course reopens fully.

There is a small putting green, a chipping area close to the 18th hole and a small driving range available.

Front Nine

Known locally as Ray Tompkins Memorial, walking the course is the best way to see everything up close and personal. The mounding, bunkers, and green sites are on a grand scale unlike almost anything else I have seen.

The first tee sits in a central section of the property with the clubhouse directly behind you and a large pond down to your right. The tee shot must carry the gorge and pond into a wide fairway.

First Tee Shot over the pond

At the second, another tee shot to a wide, rumpled fairway provides ample opportunity to get your game started well. Favour the right side, as the green sits angled from right to left. Do not miss left, as two bunkers sit some 30 feet below the green.

Tee Shot at 2

The 3rd, named Blind, offers many choices from the tee and has a wicked blind approach into a green. Rumour has it this used to be a punchbowl green, hopefully something similar is restored if that is the case. The land, as seen below, sure seems to enforce that rumour.

3rd green sits tucked behind the mounding

The 4th is a Road hole template. A challenging tee shot over the edge of the adjacent pond into a fairway that narrows considerably. A poor tee shot may leave a long approach into this tricky green that falls off considerably from left to right and is well-guarded by a short and long set of bunkers.

The tee shot from the back tee
Approach at the Road Hole

The Short template at 5, surrounded by a moat of bunkers, is awesome. The green is quite large and falls off on all sides. The bunkers and internal green contours need a proper restoration, but this is one of my favourites on the property.

Short template – I think my favourite of the template designs

At the 6th, a Par 4 dog-leg left runs alongside a narrow burn (Scottish term for small stream). The hole is mid-length and from the tee you can choose how much of the burn to cut off from the tee.

7th, named “Lane” asks the golfer to place a tee shot down the rather narrow straight fairway. The fairway sits between two mounds, one hidden on the left by the tree line and the rather large mound on the right. The green sits 30 or so feet above the fairway and can fall off back down the hill if you come up short.

Lane

The 8th is a rather unique Cape hole, a large mound and drop off on the left protects the fairway. The tee shot is mostly blind to the landing area and presents a blind approach if you do not manage to hit to the top of the mounding. The approach hits into the redan green, which cants right-to-left and back-to-front. There is a steep drop-off to the bunkers on either side of the green to add more spice to the challenge.

Tee Shot
Approach from a long drive down the left over the mounding

The legendary Biarritz found at nine is a beast of a carry. Playing over 220 yards across the pond and into a narrow green, to the back tier, is challenging to say the least. The MEGA swale is crazy to putt through, be sure to give it a try, even if you somehow get it to the proper part of the green.

223 yards to the back pin here. The restoration plan includes adding a new tee to extend this to 260 yards!

Back Nine

The 10th, named Carries, is another wild ride. The blind, uphill tee shot needs to cover the mound and get down the hill or risk a very long uphill approach to a tricky green. Reaching the bottom of the valley, the approach has another sharp rise to a green that is guarded by two bunkers at the front. The internal contours in this green are an added challenge.

Tee shot requires carrying the mound plays uphill
Approach plays uphill blind

The 11th is named Valley, it plays downhill all the way to the reverse redan green. Really neat to see the contrasting redan designs at Yale, with holes 8, 11 and 13 all playing as different renditions of this famous template.

Valley – a rather short Par 4 with a nice approach and downhill tee shot

The Alps hole at the 12th is one of the coolest holes on the property. From the back tee, you play over the thick fescue, blind to the fairway that sits below the mounding. The uphill blind approach can only be guided by course knowledge and the flagpole in the distance. The green is separated into tiers, left and right, so being on the same side as the pin that day is key.

Tee shot on Alps

13 is a Redan template playing steeply downhill across a pond to a green well-guarded by bunkers. It doesn’t play like a traditional Redan because of the steep tee shot and the softness of the course, but it is a beautiful hole.

A view from the forward tee box at 13

The 14th is a great mid-length Par 4 named Knoll. Those favouring a left-to-right tee shot can sling the ball around the Knoll in the middle of the fairway and leave a short approach to a fun green.

Approach at 14

The last Par 3 on the course is the Eden at 15. The traditional Strath and Shelley bunkers guard the front right and left sides of the green. There is no river Eden behind the green like there is in Scotland, rather just the flowing fescue grasses.

Slightly uphill tee shot

The 16th reminded me a lot of Cape Breton Highland Links with its rolling fairway. Reachable in two by long hitters who can drive the ball up the central mounding, the narrow and long green is guarded by shallow bunkers down the left and short right.

17 is a brute, aptly named Nose after its principal’s nose bunker. From the tee, you face another blind uphill drive with a forced carry across the pond. Depending on your angle, the second shot may be blind over the principal’s nose, which sits about 60 yards short of the green. The green is a Double Plateau with a swale that separates the tiers. Your approach requires precision to get to the right section of the green.

Another blind uphill tee shot over the pond
A look at the principal’s nose bunker ~60 yards short of the Double Plateau green

The Home hole at Yale is a “mountainous” Par 5. The tee shot plays over a ridge on the right, then blind on the second to either the higher left tier or lower right tier. Playing up the left provides the added benefit of seeing the approach to the green.

Playing from the higher tier on the left side of the hole provides a nice look at the green

Finishing Thoughts

Yale is a must-see. From the blind shots to heroic approaches, the challenging tee shots, and the major hazards (like the bunkers some 30+ feet below the second and eighth greens, or the ponds on the 9th and 4th holes), it has everything you could ever want to see. Of course, the current version of Yale isn’t without its questionable decisions/care taking efforts.

At my first visit in late May 2022, I would have said the course was in decent shape; nothing to write home about but not horrible like some say. I would have been glad to play it in those conditions. When I returned in late July, the conditions had diminished due to extended drought. Many fairways and greens have horrible dead spots. Disease, mildew, and insects are a problem. Yet, it was almost like it didn’t matter. The course has a way of putting that all aside and still delivering an incredible experience for the golfer. But if money is a factor for you, or you already get to play places like Chicago Golf Club, NGLA or other storied golden age private courses, you probably won’t feel Yale is worth it. I urge you to look beyond that and experience the architecture.

The team at Yale is small, they work incredibly hard and are some of the nicest people to chat with. Kudos to them and what they can do with little resources. Yale has a massive endowment, and it seems wrong to have let the place go the way it has, but here we are. At least the school will be doing something about it soon moving forward.

A slightly different look at the Principal’s Nose bunker and Double Plateau green from the tree line between 12 & 17

How to Play Yale

Yale was once a mostly private course, only available for members, Yale students, alumni, faculty and at one time Connecticut residents. But as the club reopened in 2021 the school ultimately decided to grant everyone access.

Tee times can be made 2 days in advance for the general public. While this booking policy is horrible, the good news is that public golf is available to anyone out of state now. From what I was told, the University will continue to allow public play on a regular basis. Although the price likely will increase after restoration.

If you want to play Yale, the best way to do so is to make an account online, get up early when the tee times open and quickly book a spot. Most of the prime-time slots go very quickly. It is a mad dash.

For a short while longer, Yale will remain open. The plans for restoration by Gil Hanse have been delayed until the end of 2023.

The Future of Yale

A new long-term vision and well-funded program will allow for a full restoration at the hands of Gil Hanse. With a plethora of incredible restorations, including work directly with other Raynor & Macdonald designs like Sleepy Hollow, The Creek, and Fishers Island, Yale should be set to return to glory once again.

Full restoration details are unavailable, but word is it will include extensive fairway drainage work, greens expansion and reconstruction to USGA specifications, bunker reclamation and installation of liners, and further tree management. Some $30+ million will be poured into Yale.

The course should reopen in full in the Spring of 2026. I will certainly be making plans for a return trip.


C.B Macdonald / Seth Raynor’s Other Public Courses

For those of you following along, Yale is one of only 5 publicly accessible Seth Raynor & C.B Macdonald designed courses.

The Old White (WV) – Macdonald/Raynor

The Old White might be the most comparable to Yale in the design category. At upwards of $575 USD per round, this course is certainly not as accessible to the average golfer. After a 2016 renovation to improve course conditions and restore templates, it certainly looks like a great place to play. That said, I will likely skip this one simply for the cost factor.

Rock Spring Golf Club (NJ) – Raynor/Banks

A formerly private club turned municipally owned, Rock Spring Golf Club, was not built to the same standards as Yale. It does feature some cool templates like Short, Redan, Double Plateau, and Punchbowl, but much of the course has aged and needs restoration. Not great, but not bad—certainly a good starting point for someone interested in the templates of golf.

Hotchkiss School Golf Course (CT) – Raynor

Hotchkiss School golf course is important because this is where Raynor met his design associate Charles Banks. Banks was an important figure in Raynor’s architectural prowess; he finished over 30 designs after Raynor died in 1926. The course is likely not worth going out of your way to see.

Downers Grove Golf Club (IL) – Macdonald

Downers Grove has the esteemed pleasure of being designed by C.B Macdonald, originally as the first Chicago Golf Club location. It is a historically important landmark as the first 18-hole club in America. What remains is 6 original holes and 3 others. However, the design is not significant.

Thousand Islands, Old (NY) – Raynor

Located near the Canadian/US border near Kingston, Ontario on the St. Lawrence River, Thousand Islands is a new discovery Raynor, which golf historian Anthony Pioppi confirmed was a Raynor renovation earlier in 2022.

Author

  • Alex Hunter

    Canadian golfer, nice guy, plays fast. Not chasing any lists, just looking to play architecturally interesting courses around the World and make new friends along the way.

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