One of the greats

Yale’s golf course is a landmark of the golden age of course design.

Author and graphic designer Andrea Darif ’73, ’74MFA, fell in love with golf while working as the creative director for The Golfer magazine.

Louis Kahn, Eero Saarinen, Paul Rudolph, Norman Foster—some of the greatest names in architecture have helped to shape the Yale campus. But the university has one architectural tour de force that almost nobody recognizes as such. We’re speaking, naturally, of the golf course. Granted, it’s made of earth, water, and trees rather than stone, glass, and steel.

All aficionados of the game agree that the Course at Yale is a true masterpiece of golf course design. Its creator, Charles Blair Macdonald (1855–1939), was a pioneer of golf and golf architecture in America—it was he who coined the term “golf architect”—and is considered one of the most important figures in the history of the game in this country.

Macdonald, who was born in Ontario, Canada, and raised in Chicago, entered St. Andrews University in Scotland in 1872, at age 16. There he fell in love with the country’s ancient sport. Tutored by a famed Scottish golfer known as Old Tom Morris, he became a serious player, traveling throughout Great Britain and the Continent to play the famous courses. On his return to America, he became a major force in establishing the game on this side of the Atlantic. He founded the Chicago Club—for which he built the first course west of the Alleghenies—and was a leader in forming the United States Golf Association. He also won its first US amateur championship.

But Macdonald’s real gift to golf was his vision of what made a great course. Having played so many historic venues, he had a deep appreciation of the subtle design elements that make golf such an intriguing game of risk and reward. He began to craft his own courses, reinterpreting the classic European holes—the Alps, the Redan, the Biarritz—with a personal flair. His courses at National Golf Links, Chicago Golf Club, and Yale are considered landmarks of the golden age of course design in America.

Macdonald was chosen to design Yale’s course in 1924. The university had received 700 acres of land from Sarah Tompkins in memory of her late husband, Ray, Class of 1883 and two-time football captain. On the rugged terrain, a mix of swampland, woods, and flinty New England hills, Yale had decided to build an 18-hole course.

In collaboration with designers Seth Raynor and Charles Banks, Macdonald used the terrain’s natural elevations and water hazards, along with his own imaginative shaping of the land, to create a classic. The course opened in 1926, and the design has withstood the test of time. The 235-yard par-3 ninth and the 430-yard par-4 fourth are ranked among the 100 toughest holes in the world, and the course itself is widely considered the best university course in the country. With its narrow fairways, undulating greens, punishing bunkers, and blind shots, the Course at Yale is a beguiling—and bedeviling—test of golf. 


  • Thomas Slater
    Thomas Slater, 11:36am September 08 2016 | Ico flag Flag as inappropriate

    Have played golf all over the world and The Course at Yale is as memorable as playing Royal County Down or Pebble Beach Golf Links. It is a masterpiece of an upland course. Each hole is memorable 1 through 18!!

    It is an asset for the University that should be enhanced for all associated with Yale, especially the students. This is as Mrs. Tompkins designated in her gift to the University.

  • Grant Legg 72
    Grant Legg 72, 7:07pm September 08 2016 | Ico flag Flag as inappropriate

    I am guessing that photo 4 is the 10th green with the elevated 7th green far in the distance. Any opinions? Nice piece Andrea. Thanks.

  • Benjamin
    Benjamin, 11:13am September 09 2016 | Ico flag Flag as inappropriate

    Grant, photo 4 is the 2nd green, looking back out over the then mostly treeless expanse of the 1st hole (the players in the background are on the 1st fairway) and 7th and 8th holes in the distance.

  • Grant Legg 72
    Grant Legg 72, 11:35am September 09 2016 | Ico flag Flag as inappropriate

    That makes much more sense. Thanks.

  • David Paterson
    David Paterson , 11:58am September 09 2016 | Ico flag Flag as inappropriate

    A few years ago on my way to New Haven I played Merion and Pine Valley on route and when I reached Yale's ninth hole, I thought this course is better than the other two. It's a great resource for the Yale community which Yale, sadly, has never realized.

  • Stuart Cohen
    Stuart Cohen , 12:14pm September 09 2016 | Ico flag Flag as inappropriate

    Only David Paterson, Yale golf coach for 33 years, would get the chance to play Merion and Pine Valley on consecutive days on the way to play Yale.

  • John Graves
    John Graves, 7:17pm September 09 2016 | Ico flag Flag as inappropriate

    Coach Paterson said to me on a golf trip to Scotland that you will play many great courses with forgettable holes. What makes the Course at Yale great and significant is that you can close your eyes and remember every hole. It is a course that shows your strengths and magnifies your weaknesses. I am still searching for a more complete golf experience. I will be looking for a long time.

  • Barry
    Barry , 1:21pm September 12 2016 | Ico flag Flag as inappropriate

    I have no idea what you people are talking about. Most public courses I have played are better than Yale's course. I played the course this summer. The fairways were beat up and not just divots - there were large brown patches everywhere. The cart paths were worse than some mountain bike trails I've ridden. The ponds on some of the holes looked like nuclear dumping grounds. The greens were ok, but nothing to boast about. And the air of superiority of everyone who worked there made me want to puke.

    While some of the holes are challenging, they are no more so than holes at any other 'nice' course in the country. When I signed up to play there and read that it was one of the highest rated college courses in the country I was excited. Whoever classified Yale this way never made it down south. (Or west, north or east for that matter.)

    Please feel free to punish me for this review and ban me from this course for life, I doubt I'd even want to make the 20 minute drive to play there again anyway.

  • Benjamin
    Benjamin, 3:22pm September 13 2016 | Ico flag Flag as inappropriate

    Barry: You, like many others, appear to confuse conditioning for architecture. Yale has always struggled with its conditioning, although it's been much improved under Scott Ramsay's leadership. But those interested in golf-course architecture look past conditioning to a course's bones, and that's where Yale has very, very few peers. If, for just one day, its conditioning were at a private-club or even Bethpage-Black level, I am confident that Yale would be ranked as high as the top 20 courses in the world. It's that good.

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