Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Yeamans Hall Club



Occasionally, one of the courses I go to play takes me completely by surprise. Several "below the radar" courses have made a lasting impression on me thus far - Cruden Bay, Woodhall Spa and Myopia Hunt Club, in particular. Yeamans Hall Club now joins this group.

Located in Charleston, South Carolina, Yeamans Hall Club (ranked #92 in the world) is a treasure. This part of the country has retained its uniqueness and character and has resisted the homogenization that has largely swept most parts of the country. South Carolina is still representative of the Deep South and jealously guards its heritage. Tucked away just north of Charleston, the club is very discrete and isolated, located off a street marked "No Outlet". Reminiscent of Pine Valley, you have to cross a railroad track and immediately have to stop at a guard gate. Nowhere is there an indication that this is Yeamans Hall Club; it is an un-marked, low-key entrance. After the guard verified my credentials (I got in based on my charm and good looks), I passed through the entrance to an enchanted setting.

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The entry gate at Yeamans Hall

Driving in you are greeted by a sign that says, "please drive graciously," and it is not hard to do in this setting. You drive on a long and winding dirt/gravel road for about a mile through an idyllic low country setting. The property is full of live oaks dripping with Spanish moss, loblobby pines and native grasses and flowers. Yeamans Halls is an intensely private place. There are 250 members, and the club is owned by 35 "proprietary members" who have houses on the 900 acre property.

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The majestic entry drive at Yeamans

The club takes its name from a previous landowner, Sir John Yeaman, who was colonial governor of South Carolina. When you drive through and approach the clubhouse, you pass the first and seventh holes and immediately get a sense that the golf course is going to be as special as the overall property is. The master plan for this property was put together by Fredrick Law Olmstead, Jr., son of New York's Central Park designer. He originally laid it out for 250 houses, two 18 hole golf courses and a hotel. Thankfully, due to the depression, these never got built. Instead, we are left with a sprinkling of houses throughout the property and one hell of a golf course. When you turn right into the drive that leads up to the clubhouse, the intimacy and beauty of Yeamans Hall keeps getting better. There are a dozen or so imposing live oaks set around a circular driveway. Around the driveway are low-slung wooden buildings housing the clubhouse, locker room and pro shop. The trees provide a welcoming shade to keep the area cool from the sun beating down and enclose the entire area under a canopy that gives it the feel of a very large outdoor room.

Live oak with Spanish moss

The Golf Course

Yeamans Hall was designed by Seth Raynor in 1925, and he did a masterful job. The first hole is now a personal favorite. The fairway, like all fairways at Yeamans, is wide; generously accepting of a nicely hit opening drive. The second shot plays over the dirt entry road to one of the most dramatic greens you will ever play. There is a large, false front to the green and a couple of huge humps on this "double plateau" Raynor signature hole. Hopefully, the picture below does it justice, and you can pick up the severity of the contours on the green.

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The first green at Yeamans Hall

Over time, the greens had become reduced in size and otherwise changed from their original state. Tom Doak was brought in several years ago to restore the greens back to Raynor's original designs and he did a fine job. Yeamans has one of the best stretches of starting holes in golf. The first six holes provide an exciting start that showcase a unique design style.

All the greens at Yeamans Hall are as large as I have seen anywhere except the Old Course at St. Andrews. This picture of the 2nd green below is indicative of the greens here. I found Yeamans Hall particularly pleasing because I had played Harbour Town the previous day. I went from playing a course with extremely narrow fairways and tiny greens to a course with generous fairways and huge greens. There is probably no greater contrast in course styles and designs, and it was a welcome change to be able to swing more freely again.

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Approach to the large 2nd green

The third hole at Yeamans (a classic "Short" hole) is a par three that plays out toward the river. It is a spectacular hole with the beautiful marsh grasses serving as a back-drop. The green has a horse-shoe shape in the middle. Raynor squared off many of the greens at Yeamans, as you will see, many are cut at 90 degree angles to bunkers and fairways. Most of the holes at Yeamans Hall feature a geometric shape on the green.

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The par three 3rd at Yeamans

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The horse-shoe 3rd green

The 5th is Yeamans rendition of an "Alps" hole, modeled after the "Alps" at Prestwick, although more suited to the terrain here, which is pretty flat. There are hazards in the middle of the fairway as you can see below, which creates a nice optical illusion off the tee.

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"Alps" hole from the tee

The green on the fifth hole is also very large with big humps running through it and a ninety degree angle at the corner.

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Squared off green on the 5th

Raynor used his imagination and the terrain to great effect at Yeamans Hall. See the big dip in the 11th fairway below, a "Maiden" hole, modeled after the original at Royal St. George's.

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"Maiden" hole at Yeamans

The "Biarritz" hole, the 16th, is a super rendition of this classic hole with a large swale protecting the front of the green.

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"Knoll" green at Yeamans Hall

The overall feel of Yeamans Hall is magical. The place has character, old-world charm and a sense of complete isolation from the outside world. More or less, everything is perfect. The small building that houses the locker room is understated and has the feel of a small hunting lodge (seen below). I like their philosophy and approach, as exemplified in their recommended pace of play, "3 1/2 hours is adequate for four ball match." After our round we had sandwiches - shades of Augusta National - I had a delicious pimento cheese sandwich.

Yeamans is much more than a golf course set in an old plantation surrounded by a marsh; it is an experience in Southern charm and hospitality that is hard to beat.



I have previously been a critic of Raynor's design, particularly at Fishers Island, which is generally viewed as his masterpiece. I still think Fishers Island is over-rated relative to its merits. It has a half dozen really good holes but I think it gets too much credit as being great simply because it's on the water. To me, Yeamans Hall is a much better design and I would rate it as Raynor's masterpiece, particularly because the conditioning of the golf course here is so fine.

Raynor hit the nail on the head when he wrote, "one is bound to fall in love with golf at Yeamans Hall."

The unique tee markers of Yeamans are cut-up railroad tracks

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Chicago Golf Club


As my regular readers will remember, my last trip to Chicago was less than satisfactory when I played Medinah. I had a much better trip this year.

So, I'm checking into my hotel and my cheerful mid-western bellman asks me as he carries my clubs into the room, "So where are you playing?"

Me: "Chicago Golf," I said, expecting him to be impressed.

Bellman: "Where is that?"

Me: "Wheaton."

Bellman: "Never heard of that one, is it new?"

I just let it drop. Clearly he was not into golf. Chicago Golf (ranked #31 in the world) is not a new golf course. In fact, quite the opposite. Chicago Golf was one of the five founding member clubs that formed the U.S.G.A. The Chicago Golf Club is credited with having the first 18 hole course in America - although it is not the current course. The original course of the Chicago Golf Club was located nearby in Belmont. The Chicago Golf Club was founded in 1892 by our friend Charles Blair Macdonald. Before he moved to New York and helped organize the Links Club and The National Golf Links of America, Macdonald lived in Chicago. Although Macdonald was born in Canada, he grew up in Chicago and was a successful businessman and a member of the Chicago Board of Trade.

As it turns out, Chicago Golf Club is a club of many firsts - not only did it establish the first 18 hole course in the U.S., it was the first to adopt out-of-bounds as a rule in the United States, and it was the first club that organized a "caddy-shack" for its caddies to stay in. At the time Chicago built its first 18 hole course, many clubs in the U.S. were still experimenting with courses of various length - some built six hole courses, others nine, and still others 12 hole courses.

C.B. Macdonald designed the original golf course here in Wheaton in 1895. Macdonald was a famous slicer of the ball so he built the course to favor a slice. The course sits on roughly 200 acres on a rectangular piece of property. As you can see from the original course layout pictured below, the holes essentially are routed in two loops that run clockwise around the property. There is an old, unused polo field in the middle that now serves as a very large driving range.



Consistent with Macdonald's design philosophy, the course doesn't have many trees. Macdonald didn't think trees made a good hazard. He was heavily influenced by his love of the game as it was played in Scotland and preferred firm and fast conditions without trees. The primary defense of the golf course is the wind, which can blow quite strong here without any trees protecting it. It is a different sensation you get standing on the first tee at Chicago Golf Club. It doesn't really look like most other American courses, most of which are tree-lined (unless they are links-style and near the water). Chicago is a links-style golf course, but it was not built on classic links-style land. Thus, it is a bit of an enigma in the world of golf. The picture below was taken from the 4th fairway and shows how a typical vista looks at Chicago Golf with the wide-open look.


Wide-open layout at Chicago Golf

The golf course was redesigned in 1923 by Macdonald's protege Seth Raynor. The course has a definite Raynor feel to it, especially the horse-shoe greens that wrap around many of the greens. Their combined designed has many of the signature holes they have become famous for designing including a Road Hole, Redan Hole, Biarritz Hole, Punchbowl Hole and two Cape Holes.

Chicago Golf Club offers a difficult start. The first four holes contain the one, three and five handicap holes. Typical of some of the mounding and hills present throughout the course, see the mounds off the 2nd fairway below ("Road" Hole).


Mounds off second fairway


The third hole is a "Biarritz" hole and plays over 220 yards to a green with a false front and swale in front. It's a very good and demanding golf hole. Notice the classical bunkering around this hole.


3rd hole "Biarritz" from the tee

The fourth hole is one of the two "Cape" holes, the other being the 14th. This hole has a high elevated green with a green that is difficult to hold as it has a false front that feeds balls back onto the fairway.


4th hole green and fairway bunker

The 7th Redan hole is a very good rendition of a Redan hole. Probably because Chicago Golf doesn't get as much play as other world-class courses with Redans like Shinnecock, National and North Berwick, it is often overlooked as a good Redan hole. Consistent with Chicago's big greens generally, it probably has the largest green of all the classic Redans.


A big Redan - 7th hole

I found the defining characteristics of Chicago Golf to be: a links-style feel due to the absence of trees, large greens and the distinctive horse-shoe bunkers. There are many "deceptions" present also, such as the false fronts on many greens and bunkers placed so that they look to be closer to the green than they really are. Several of the greens (the 14th and 18th in particular) were squared off; that is, they were designed so that the beginning of the green is cut at a 90 degree angle to the fairway. I've never seen this before on any greens.

Chicago Golf Club has a lot of good golf history. It has hosted four U.S. Amateur Championships, two Walker Cups and three U.S. Opens - 1897, 1900 and 1911. Bobby Jones holds the course record of 66, set in 1928 at the Walker Cup. Chicago Golf Club is not as well known as Macdonald's other masterpiece, The National Golf Links of America. This is because unlike The National, Chicago doesn't do outings, and it has a very small and private membership. It has the smallest membership I have heard of for a world-class course - only 125 members.

The general feel at Chicago Golf Club is intimate but not flashy. Like at Pine Valley, there are no frills. This is just about golf. The clubhouse is comfortable and not extravagant. It is all very understated.


The clubhouse at Chicago Golf

My favorite hole on the course was the "Punchbowl" twelfth hole. You hit a blind tee shot over a slight hill. Your second shot on this par four is to an elevated, well bunkered green. The green, like other Punchbowl holes, such as the 16th at The National, rises up on all sides and feeds into the middle of the hole. If you look closely at the picture you can see the many humps and bumps on this interesting green.


Punchbowl Green - 12th hole

The 14th hole, the second "Cape" hole, I also enjoyed quite a bit. It is one of the many greens that has a horse-shoe bunker. Other holes with horse-shoe bunkers are the 7th, 9th, 10th, 13th and 14th. Macdonald, a very successful businessman, built a "mansion" in Wheaton. It is visible on your left as you stand on the 14th tee here. It is a big white house with columns on the porch.



14th horse-shoe bunker


8th hole horse-shoe bunker

The Chicago Golf Club has one of the best caddy programs I have ever seen. Taking a caddie is pretty much mandatory. The polite young mid-western kids that serve as caddies wear distinctive red bibs with the Chicago Golf logo on them.

This is also the third time in as many months I have bumped into C.B. Macdonald in my travels. He looked down at me intently from his perch in the giant painting in the C.B. Macdonald room at The Links Club in New York. He gave me a suspicious glare in the library at The National Golf Links of America where his big portrait again looks down at you and a life-size statue looms in the back of the room. And finally, between the pro-shop and locker-room at Chicago Golf is another statue of Charlie, making his presence felt once more.

If you appreciate history and tradition in this great game, playing Chicago Golf is a real treat, although with only 125 members, getting onto this gem is about as difficult as any course in the world.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Course Writeup Pending

I have played the courses below, however, have not yet written a post. Many of the early courses I played without my digital camera and will return someday to do a proper writeup.

9. Pinehurst #2 - A true golf mecca.

40. Portmarnock - Pure links golf. Read my Kiwi friends impressions of the course: here.

42. Oak Hill (East) - Played it a long time ago without a camera. I do remember it has a lovely clubhouse. Check out what my friend The Itinerant Golfer has to say about Oak Hill.

57. TPC at Sawgrass - One photogenic hole does not a golf course make. Tricked up. Too hard, front nine is boring. Bermuda grass impossible to hit out of. If you must, pay the pricy greens fee and take a shot a 17 just to say you did.
79. Kiawah Island (Ocean) - A great location, a great resort and a great golf course.

83. World Woods (Pine Barrens) - A nice Fazio course in Florida. Not sure why it was ever ranked in the top 100.