Modern “championship” golf course design can be seen through the lens of today’s baseball player. Back when strikeout king Nolan Ryan stalked the mound, he would throw fastball after fastball, and if his point wasn’t clear enough, he’d direct a few at batters. And it worked. In response, the game has grown to where it is now, with brawny, intimidating athletes hitting bombs and throwing hard.
Does that sound familiar? Years of architectural efforts to combat the modern professional game have resulted in golf holes to be designed to be longer, flatter and faster. Even venerable classic designs have sought slivers of land to add new back tees and greens have been leveled to make the holes more “fair” for modern green speeds.
Yet some classic golf courses have resisted the urge to fight the battle against technology and the modern game. And they have found that by embracing classic architectural features of their Golden Age architects they can still repel the advances by thoughtless and less skilled golfers.
If modern championship golf is personified by an overpowering pitcher bullying the plate with 101-mph fastballs, a classic course is more in the mold of Greg Maddux, who had his own way of dominating batters in the 1990s. Maddux attacked the steroid era of baseball by using pinpoint accuracy and variety in his pitch selection to keep them off balance.
White Bear Yacht Club in Dellwood, Minnesota, is a golf course blessed with the kind of variety that would make Maddux proud.
Hit the slopes
White Bear’s routing would best be described as a nature hike with golf clubs. It starts on a high point near the modest Golf House, with an opening tee shot plunging 30 feet down toward the fairway located in a humping and bumping savannah. The player then moves through a more wooded area on Nos. 2-4, before working back into the savannah until another trip through the woods from Nos. 13-16. The course, which began in 1912 as a nine-hole track laid out by Willie Watson and then extended to a full 18 in 1915, makes a concerted effort to give the player different visuals throughout the round.
It can be confidently said that White Bear has one of the finest sets of fairways in the world of golf. To the uninitiated, the heaving land movement of the playing corridors can closely resemble a mogul run at their favorite ski resort. Depending on the conditions, keen players should be aiming their tee shots toward these hills to use the slopes to their advantage the same way a motocross racer may aim for the backside of a hill to gain speed. These slopes also add a noteworthy challenge for their ability to present the player with an awkward lie where the ball can be on an up, down, or side slope more often than it is not. As the story goes, one day a guest came off the golf course and was greeted by the head professional who asked, “How was your round?” The guest replied, “It was terrible—I only had one flat lie all day!” To which the pro wryly responded, “Sir, please let us know where that was as we will have it fixed right away!”
As driver heads have expanded over the years, many players have dismissed places like White Bear by merely looking at the scorecard and its back yardage of 6,471 yards. And while the fairways add interest and strategy to the journey of a round, the course’s greens constantly keep players on their proverbial heels. Never is a player presented with a putting surface consistent with the one they have just seen. From the first hole where a large knob obscures the green on the approach and repels poorly struck shots, the hits just keep on coming. The third is a dramatic par-3 greensite benched on a hillside with a redan-esque tilt; the fifth has been described as a “potato chip;” the seventh green defends a 457-yard par 5 so well that a birdie feels like a major championship; and the 11th features a back-to-front left slope so severe that any tee ball should be aimed to the right third of the green.
For years the 14th, with its two tiers and a large spine, had been criticized by some members. They had arranged for Roy Dye (Pete’s brother) to visit the club to see about rearranging the green. After standing there in silence for some time, a member asked, “Well, what do you think?” Dye responded, “Man—I wish I could get my guys to build greens like this.” The green contours remain in place to this day.
And yet despite all of this, the 12th hole brings such a change that, to follow the baseball metaphor, it could accurately be compared to a knuckleball from the great Phil Niekro.
First-timers can be forgiven for missing it. Many walk right past the miniscule tee box sitting mere inches from the back bunker on the 11th green. So limited in space is the tee box that a foursome must stand on the outer rim to peek around brush to watch their playing partner’s tee shot.
Once there, a player would be hard pressed to miss the yellow roadside warning of the potential of stopped school buses. That’s because the tee shot is required to be struck across the scenic, but very much active, Highway 96, which takes motorists to and from the historic town of Stillwater to the east. Many players have been forced to pause while a rumbling motorcycle, car, truck, or, yes, school bus passes. As if that first shot is not intimidating enough, the tee ball must carry a 10-foot screening hedge located on the north side of the highway, which also obscures much of the fairway landing area.
The strategy on the hole is not easily apparent on the player’s first try. Running parallel to the fairway on both sides are two hazards: a wild prairie natural area on the left and a series of five thin pencil-shaped bunkers on the right. Thankfully, the fairway is the widest on the entire golf course at more than 50 yards, but aiming for the middle to avoid the two hazards is not necessarily the ideal play.
Assuming the player hits the fairway, the second shot is played over a ridge featuring two bunkers. The ridge obscures the putting surface, but glimpses of the top part of the flagstick are possible. When playing the hole for the first time, these intimidating cross bunkers appear to be located just in front of the green and the ones that should be avoided at all costs. Yet they sit almost 25 yards short of the front of the putting surface. They can lure the uninitiated into taking too much club or too hard of a swing to carry them, only to find that their ball tumbled through the green into one of four bunkers lying behind and below the green.
Yes, behind and below. The green features a nearly 4-foot change in elevation from the front to the back. When playing from the center of the fairway, the only chance a player has to find the putting surface is to take one or two clubs less than the yardage would indicate. This could bring the fronting bunkers into play, but the benefit is that the approach could funnel down the slope to safety on the green. As Tom Doak revealed in his third volume of The Confidential Guide to Golf Courses, a trick to playing the hole is to play to the edges of the fairway off the tee. That provides a better angle into the green’s two magnificent slopes left and right, which form a saddle that can be used to bank and slow an approach down the hill.
A green of this nature, demanding an elegant approach set up by a thoughtful tee shot, is a delightful throwback. It may not come as too much of a surprise that Doak, when working on his proposal for the 2016 Olympic Course in Rio, considered including a similar hole to perplex the modern power-minded player. Maddux would have loved it.
Patrick Craig is a member of White Bear Yacht Club and the proud co-holder of its Championship “Black” routing course record (65). When not hiking around White Bear’s beautiful terrain, Pat is a commercial real estate banker in the Twin Cities.
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