Director of Athletics, Yale University
Interviewed on April 19, 2005 at Ray Tompkins House
Interview (23 mins), with introduction by John Godley (5 mins)
Introduction (John Godley)
Play has already begun this spring for the 111th year at Yale. For the last 79 years golf has been played at a university facility. From 1895 – 1912 Yale golfers played on rented land, north and south of where Albertus Magnus College is now located. Law Professor Theodore Woolsey and N.H. 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 that there were few tee times left for townies. So they picked up their Gutta’s and Haskel’s and built the New Haven Country Club in Hamden in 1899. Yale students were excluded from playing there.
Golf was not just played at The Golf Club, organized in 1896, it was played at the highest level. The Yale Golf Team’s first match was in November 1896. The Yale team won the first of its 21 intercollegiate championships in 1897, and John Reid Jr. won Yale’s first individual national college championship the next year. When Harry Vardon, the Open Champion, visited the course in 1900, he said that the greens were the “best in America.” But the owner of that land began selling it off, resulting in a course of only eight holes by 1912. So the university and a group of businessmen purchased land in Orange and built the Racebrook Country Club, which was opened in 1913. At Racebrook, 150 memberships were set aside for Yale students; their yearly membership fee was $20. Vardon returned in 1920 and he played an exhibition at Racebrook against the reigning national intercollegiate champion, Yale student Jess Sweetser. As golf increased in popularity, Racebrook added a second 18 in 1923. But even so, it was now the students that were having trouble getting tee times. Yale needed a course of its own.
The fact that an option on 160 acres of land next to Racebrook was purchased is proof of the university’s resolve to do just that. The option was not exercised, when Yale received as a gift the 700-acre Greist Estate from Mrs. Ray Tompkins. That is where the golf course was built and it opened this week in 1926.
The New Haven Golf Club, the New Haven Country Club and the Racebrook Country Club were all designed by Robert Pryde of Tayport Scotland . But for the Ray Tompkins Memorial site, Seth Raynor of Southampton, L.I. was chosen as architect, with his mentor C.B. Macdonald as consultant. In his 1928 autobiography Macdonald said, “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 ninth greenside bunker after a single loop on Saturday to be first in line to get in two loops on Sunday. The log cabin clubhouse was expanded and then replaced by a classic shingle style building designed by Herbert Neuman. Harry Meusel supervised the planting of hundreds of flowering shrubs and thousands of daffodil bulbs.
But, Harry also planted many evergreen trees that changed the character of several holes, took contours out of greens to “make them easier” and removed many bunkers that defined the character of those holes. Maintenance generally was allowed to slide.
Twenty years ago, Masters Champion Ben Crenshaw visited the course and was shocked by its condition. He immediately wrote to the Yale President decrying the neglect and abuse of the course and said, “how important it is to preserve such an architectural gem, not only for Yale, but for future generations of golfers.”
Nothing good happened for nine years, but then Tom Beckett arrived. After one year of assessment he set in motion a transformation of the golf course over the last decade.
Tom, we are anxious to hear how you became a golfer, how you came to Yale, how you managed this resurrection, and what you see for the future.
Tom Beckett started playing golf after watching the San Francisco Giants baseball players (especially Willie Mays) hit balls at a driving range during their spring training. When he went to work at Stanford, he took lessons from the pro Larry O’Neil. He developed an “appreciation for the game and what a good course can do for a university community.”
When he came to Yale 11 years ago, he was shocked to find that the course he had heard so much about was “in such bad condition.” For a year he asked questions and studied. He found that the university was forcing the athletic department to “balance the books on the back of the golf course.” That was changed and an investment program in the course began along with the development of an alumni support base. It took the turnover of four superintendents in ten years before “we were blessed with a superstar.. miracle worker.. genius and visionary, Scott Ramsay.” What had been slowly coming together “then exploded,” resulting in a restored and beautiful course.
An endowment was created which will help ensure that these gains will not be lost. V.P. John Pepper, Scott & labor union leader John Proto have established the most successful labor-management environment in the university. And, he added, “the beauty of the course has empowered the workers.” All these elements came into play when we hosted the 2004 NCAA Eastern Regional tournament. It was a great success and the old style course stood to the best college players and their modern equipment. Only two of the final scores were under par. The winner Bill Haas was –2, whereas the other regional winners were –10 or more. Yale has been asked to bid for another Regional and possibly the National Championship. Other things for the future might be another nine holes, an expanded clubhouse, etc. He said finally, “along with the university and the alumni, I’m proud that my fingerprints are on the Yale golf course.”