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Yale’s golf course was one of the places where the sport got its American start.

Pebble Beach, Augusta National, Ballybunion, Saint Andrews—there are many fabled golf courses around the globe, and ever since its opening on April 21, 1926, the Yale course in western New Haven has been ranked among them. Generations of faculty, alumni, and students, to say nothing of golf aficionados in general, have walked its rolling hills in an often-elusive search for par, and some of them have played significant roles in popularizing the sport in America.

Golf as an organized game in the United States dates from its introduction in 1888 by a transplanted Scotsman, John Reid. He laid out a course in an apple orchard in Westchester, New York, in 1889 and formed a club that was known as the “Apple Tree Gang.” Five years later the U.S. Golf Association was born, and national championships were inaugurated in 1895.

Reid, the “father of American golf,” had a son, and in 1895, John Reid Jr. enrolled in Yale College as a member of the Class of 1899. The same year, law professor Theodore Salisbury Woolsey, Class of 1872, and his friend, Justus S. Hotchkiss, who received his law degree in 1877, saw the game played for the first time, and decided to bring golf to New Haven.

Woolsey and Hotchkiss rented a large piece of land between Prospect Street and Winchester Avenue, presently partially occupied by Albertus Magnus College, and hired a local Scottish immigrant to lay out a nine-hole course. It was ready for use by the time John Reid Jr., who, according to his Class book, had “escaped a Lawrenceville bunker by a long drive and landed well up on the Yale green,” arrived in New Haven.

A golf craze soon swept the campus and the city. In the fall of 1896, the Yale Golf Club was organized, and in the spring matches were played with many prominent golf teams. The following May Yale won the first intercollegiate championship in the sport, and the Elis won again in 1898 when Reid was team captain.

By the early 1920s about 40 undergraduates played under special arrangement at the Race Brook and New Haven country clubs. It was inconvenient to play at the private clubs, but Yale men managed to polish their games and lead in both the number of team and individual wins in intercollegiate matches.

In 1923, the widow of Ray Tompkins, Class of 1884, gave a large tract of about 750 acres of woodland to Yale in his memory. Tompkins, the 1883 football captain, had earlier expressed the wish that a gift be used for athletic facilities—particularly for the construction of a fine University golf course. Other portions of the new “Yale playground” were to be developed for “tramping, tobogganing, skiing, and so forth.”

The Corporation set aside 200 acres of the Tompkins gift as a preserve for the region’s native plants that could be used for natural history field studies and instruction in botany, zoology, and forestry. This tract, which was known as Griest Woods, had been owned by prominent New Haven manufacturer John M. Griest, who had fenced it in for a long time to confine deer and elk. The area’s hills, woods, swampland, and ponds were already a refuge for animals.

To carve a golf course out of the rest of the land, Yale hired renowned architect Charles Blair Macdonald. Working with a budget of $400,000, Macdonald, in collaboration with Seth Raynor and Charles H. Banks, Class of 1906, selected a picturesque portion of the tract that offered views of Long Island and the Sound. When the course was completed, it featured greens nearly three times bigger than what was then the average size in the U.S. and Europe, and Yale became one of only a few universities that could offer its students and alumni the use of its own 18-hole links.

Golfers noted that while the course had “a character distinctively its own,” a few of the holes were clearly inspired by their famous counterparts overseas. The 15th at Yale resembled the “Eden” hole at the St. Andrews course in Scotland. The ninth hole, which required a shot directly across Griest Pond, was copied from the Biarritz course in France. (The Yale version, said players, “presents a water hazard calculated to daunt any but steady golfing nerves.”)

From its makeshift beginnings on Prospect Street, Yale golf has come a long way. And while there have been changes in both equipment and clothing in the 75 years since the current course opened for business, one thing remains the same. All 18 holes still require “steady golfing nerves.” A booming drive, crisp approach shots, and accurate putting also help.  the end


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