A classic American course

The Yale Golf Course was recently named America’s best college golf course by Golfweek magazine. Yale Golf Course superintendent Scott Ramsay renovated the course after arriving in New Haven six years ago.
The Yale Golf Course was recently named America’s best college golf course by Golfweek magazine. Yale Golf Course superintendent Scott Ramsay renovated the course after arriving in New Haven six years ago. Photo by Toshiki Sakiyama.

Yale has always been known for its architecture, from Sterling Memorial Library to the Yale Bowl. But a mere 12-minute drive from campus, there is an architectural gem of a different variety.

Earlier this month, Golfweek magazine ranked Yale’s golf course, The Course at Yale, the number one college golf course in the magazine’s “Best Campus Courses” in 2010.

“At Yale, the golf course is as good as the education,” said Scott Ramsay, the course’s superintendant.

Bradley Klein, Golfweek’s architecture editor, said he and a team of 625 course evaluators stationed around the world rank golf courses in various categories. Klein has been in charge of “Golfweek’s Best” for the last 16 years, he said.

According to “Golfweek’s Best Courses Rater Handbook 2010-’11,” the evaluators judge courses based on 10 criteria, including the overall land plan, variety and memorability of various pars, conditioning, integrity of design (for classic courses) and quality of shaping (for modern courses).

Golfweek’s acknowledgement of Yale’s course, which has also been ranked among the overall top 100 courses in the United States in various other publications, is another accolade for a course that already had a storied past.

BACK TO THE ROARING ’20s

In 1924, Sarah Tompkins gave 700 acres of land to Yale in memory of her husband, Ray Tompkins, class of 1884. Yale employed United State Golf Association co-founder and legendary golf course architect Charles Blair McDonald to design each of the 18 holes. Famed golf course architects Seth Raynor and Charles Banks implemented McDonald’s designs.

The $400,000 final product, which opened in 1926, was one of the most expensive golf courses ever built at the time, Klein said.

Men’s head golf coach Colin Sheehan ’97 added that the course is a relic of the Roaring ’20s, going hand-in-hand with Yale’s other ambitious projects of the time, including the residential colleges, the Yale Bowl and Payne Whitney Gymnasium.

Peter Pulaski, director of golf operations at The Course at Yale, said the course is one of the best examples of early American golf architecture.

“I find it amazing that the people involved did what they did with very little modern machinery,” Pulaski said.

Klein said the architects adopted British and Scottish elements on an enormous piece of land with lots of rock, heavy soil and dramatic trees, resulting in a course of Gothic proportions.

“There’s nothing soft about it,” Klein said. “It’s very pronounced and theatrical.”

Furthermore, Klein said the top-quality course was designed for a top-quality golf program; Yale went on to win four NCAA championships in the 1930s.

TENDING THE GARDEN

Yet over time, the golf course lost its classical charm. Klein said the ’80s and ’90s were periods of modernization to a “softer, Florida look.” In September 2003, Klein went as far as to say, the course in was “a landmark gone askew.”

Ramsay, who has studied golf course architecture for 20 years, came to the Yale golf course six years ago and began the on-going turnaround.

“I took a photograph of [the golf course from] 1934, and I studied the bunker profiles, the tree lines, the fairway mowing lines and the shapes of the greens,” he said. “I got a sense of what the original intent of the architect was.”

Sheehan said Ramsay restored the fairway and green sizes to their original specifications, solved drainage problems and cleaned up the tree lines.

After trimming trees and mowing lines, Ramsay said he is still only halfway there. There is more tree work to complete, along with leveling tees, improving drainage and upgrading the agronomy.

Klein said that in “Golfweek’s Best” judging criteria, Yale has stood out in its conditioning — or quality of course maintenance. He said Ramsay, who won Golfweek’s Superintendant of the Year award in 2006, understands the classical design of the golf course.

In particular, Klein said Ramsay has made the bunkers more severe and stark as opposed to the “Florida look.”

“We’re a throwback,” Ramsay said. “The course is not tidy and park-like. We let things get overgrown … This lends itself well to being very environmentally friendly.”

As to whether or not use of the golf course has increased as a result of the course’s improvements, Ramsay said the course play at Yale has held its own through the recession.

PLAYING THE GREEN

Ramsay and Pulaski’s efforts have attracted top golfers to play for Yale.

Klein said that regardless of where a golfer attends college, he or she develops an emotional relationship with the golf course. In the case of Yale, the course is unique because it syncs with the museum quality of the rest of the campus.

Men’s golf captain Tom McCarthy ’11, who was named the Ivy League Player of the Year last year, said the accessibility of the course to campus, as well as the challenging nature of the course, were clinchers for him.

“When you’re playing a very hard course, you’re more likely to get better,” he said. “Princeton and Cornell have good courses, but ours is much more challenging.”

McCarthy added the severe nature of the property, with elevation changes, gives off an intimidating visual appearance. Because golf is a very mental and visual game, hazards and uphill shots may cause even the best players to make a mistakes.

Women’s golf captain Alyssa Roland ’11 said the golf course at Yale helped her choose to between Yale and Harvard, as Harvard’s course is farther away from campus and the school does not own it.

“[The course] makes golf a whole new sport,” Roland said.

Women’s golf coach Chawwadee Rompothong ’00 said that while she did not think the golf course was necessarily the clincher for her players to attend Yale, the course experience, including an extremely supportive staff, made the course very attractive.

“There is no question the course helps [to attract players],” Sheehan said. “The University is its own attraction for students, and then the golf course seals the deal.”

He added: “The design of the Yale Golf Course belongs in the elite echelon of golf architecture in America. It does deserve to be considered one of the top 20 courses in the country.”

Correction: Sept. 29, 2010

Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this article misattributed the final quote. It was given by men’s head golf coach Colin Sheehan ’97, not women’s coach Chawwadee Rompothong ’00.

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