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A brief introduction to Yale golf history

2009 is the 115th year of golf at Yale University. For the last 82 years that University has operated one of the finest courses in the United States, which opened in 1926. However Yale golf goes back to 1895, when a Yale professor of law, Theodore Woolsey, and a friend of his, Yale graduate and New Haven businessman Justin Hotchkiss, organized the New Haven Golf Club. They engaged a young Scotsman, Robert Pryde, who had come to New Haven as a carpenter, to make them clubs and to lay out a nine-hole course on land that they rented along the Winchester Avenue trolley line (at the present location of Albertus Magnus College). From 1895 – 1912 Yale golfers played on rented land, where Albertus Magnus College is now located. Law professor and New Haven businessman Justin Hotchkiss had started the New Haven Golf Club, but it soon became the Yale Golf Club because Yale student play was so heavy there were few tee times left for townspeople. So they picked up their Gutta’s and Haskel’s and organized the New Haven Country Club in Hamden in 1898, which was also designed and built by Robert Pryde. Some Yale faculty, including Walter Camp, an avid golfer, played at both Clubs, but Yale students were excluded from playing at the New Haven Country Club.

Golf was not just played at the Yale Golf Club; it was contested at the highest level. An intercollegiate team was selected from among student members, and the Yale team won the first of its 21 intercollegiate championships in 1897. In 1898, John Reid Jr. won Yale’s first individual national college championship. When Harry Vardon, the Open Champion, visited the course in 1900, he admired the greens as the “best in America.” However, the owner of the land began selling it off, and by 1912, the course was reduced to only 8 holes!

So the university and a group of businessmen purchased land in Orange and built the Racebrook Country Club, which was opened in 1913. One hundred and fifty memberships were set aside for Yale students, who paid a yearly fee of $20. Harry Vardon returned in 1920. He played an exhibition at Racebrook against the reigning national intercollegiate champion Yale student Jess Sweetser. Golf was becoming so popular that Racebrook added a second 18-hole course in 1923. Even so, Yale students were still having trouble getting tee times. It was clear to many that the University needed a course of its own.

The purchase of an option on 160 acres of land next to Racebrook CC showed the University’s resolve. The option was not exercised because an even better opportunity appeared when Yale received the extraordinary gift of the 700-acre Greist Estate from Mrs. Ray Tompkins. That is where the present golf course was built, officially opening on April 15, 1926.

The Yale Golf Club, the New Haven C.C. and the Racebrook C.C. were all designed by Robert Pryde of Tayport, Scotland. For the Ray Tompkins Memorial site, Seth Raynor of Southampton, Long Island was chosen as architect, with his mentor C. B. Macdonald as consultant. In his 1928 autobiography Macdonald claimed that “Today Yale has a classical course which is unexcelled in comparison with any inland course in this country or in Europe.”

Since then there have been many improvements to the course. In-ground irrigation replaced the gravity fed watering system. Golf carts were purchased and paths installed. (No longer did a young caddie sleep, in the 9th greenside bunker after a single loop on Saturday to be first in line to get in 2 loops on Sunday.) The log cabin clubhouse was expanded and then replaced by a classic shingle style building designed by Herbert Neuman. Longtime superintendent Harry Meusel was one of the first superintendents in the country to recognize the special ecologies of golf courses and the need to manage courses in a sustainable and responsible manner. He also gave importance to preserving and enhancing the natural beauty of courses, and he supervised the planting of hundreds of flowering shrubs and thousands of daffodil bulbs and personally designed a Japanese-style garden to the side of the pond at the thirteenth hole.

Some of these changes, over time, came to substantially modify the original character of the course: extensive plantings of evergreen trees, smoothing contours from several holes to “make them easier,” and removed many bunkers significantly altered the playing quality of many holes. At the same time, wider financial pressures led the University to shave the course maintenance budget, and playing conditions deteriorated significantly. In 1984, Masters Champion Ben Crenshaw visited the course and was shocked by what he saw. He immediately wrote to the Yale President A. Bartlett Giamatti decrying the neglect and abuse and pleading “how important it is to preserve such an architectural gem, not only for Yale, but for future generations of golfers.”

Little happened to address the situation for nearly a decade. Then Tom Beckett arrived to become Director of the Department of Athletics. After assessing the golf course, he made a transformation of the course and its operations a Department priority. Among his most important actions was the 2003 appointment of Scott Ramsay as Course Superintendent. Ramsay moved quickly to formulate and put into action a farsighted plan for landscaping, tree management, agronomical and drainage reform, and workforce training and organization. It was the last part of his plan that had to be addressed first. Tom Beckett, Forrest Temple, Peter Pulaski, and Scott Ramsay, using the best practices program formulated by then-University Vice-President John Pepper, were able to effectively present the needs of the course to the Local 35 ground staff union members and officials. An agreement was negotiated which allowed Yale union employees to work in harmony with student workers, dinning hall summer staff, and agronomic interns. The golf course operation has become Yale_Financial-Report_2003-04.

Ramsay’s plan is still in progress, but the results to date have been dramatic. In just over a decade, Yale has been restored to the beauty and challenge of one of the greatest classic courses in the country. Golfweek now rates it the #1 college course in the country, as they write, it is “in a league by itself.” In 2007, Golf Digest ranked the Yale Golf Course as the 44th “toughest” course in America, with the 9th hole among the country’s 18 most difficult holes.

David Paterson produced and narrated a brief video of Yale’s golf history. It can be viewed here.

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