What is the Reason for the Atrocious Conditions at the Yale Golf Course?

By Anthony Pioppi

Here’s what is known for certain about the renovation of the Yale Golf Course.

It is slated to begin in the fall of 2023, a year after the original date. Gil Hanse is the architect hired to do the work. It is scheduled to take two years. A group of wealthy Yale alum and other donors are funding the project.

Names of the movers and shakers behind the project have not been made public. If other architects besides Hanse were interviewed for the job, that too has not been made known.

The left side of the eighth green on the Yale Golf Course. Photo by Anthony

The left side of the eighth green on the Yale Golf Course. (Photo by Anthony Pioppi)

 Shockingly it has been confirmed to me that all 18 greens will be rebuilt as part of the two-year project. The reason given is that they are no longer performing as they should. In other words that after nearly 100 years they are not holding or draining water as intended or capable of sustaining a healthy stand of turf grass.

The new greens will be built to USGA specifications. Sixteen of the greens, possibly 17, are original. Only the third, for certain, was not there when the layout opened.

Yale was designed by Seth Raynor with Charles Blair Macdonald in the role of consultant. The layout officially opened for play in 1926, a few months after Raynor died. It is considered by many knowledgeable Raynor aficionados to me among is two or three best designs, if not the pinnacle of his short career. It is a stunning set of greens that bring first-time golfers at Yale to a standstill because of their size and boldness. Repeated play reveals the intricate subtleties that vex golfers on every hole.

The first green alone is approximately 15,000-square feet, two-tiered, and a combination of a Punchbowl and Road Hole greens. It just might be Raynor’s finest creation.

Here what else is fact: the layout is in disgraceful shape. There are massive dead areas on nearly all greens and in fairways. Some bunker faces appear to not have not been mowed in week or more, tees are covered in crabgrass. Yes, it’s been a hot dry summer in Connecticut but the weather is not the reason for the state of the golf course neither is the structure of the greens, the reason is the lack of basic maintenance.

A closeup of the eighth green on the Yale Golf Course. Photo by Anthony Pioppi

A closeup of the eighth green on the Yale Golf Course. Photo by Anthony Pioppi

 I am not laying blame on the Yale superintendent or the staff. I have no inside information as to what is going on there. I do know, however, that when I played on a recent Tuesday, teeing off at 11 a.m., we saw not one maintenance person on the course, did not hear a single mower, and when we passed the maintenance building around 2:30 p.m., there was not a car in the parking lot. At least two greens received water from irrigation heads in our time there, a dry day with temperatures in the mid 80s.

 Besides the dead grass, the putting surfaces are spongy and feel over-watered. Shots leave deep ball marks.

A devoted fan of the course messaged me after playing.

“I wanted to ask for my money back.”

 I sent photos that I took of the Yale greens that day to a number of professionals highly respected in the golf turf industry. Every last one of them was stunned.

“That’s some serious sh*t right there,” one commented after viewing the images.

 Another opined that without actually being on the greens it would be difficult to assess what was going on but that it looked like a combination of wet wilt and algae had killed turf. Wet wilt can be the result of a combination of high temperatures and excessive water, in this case irrigation. Connecticut is in the midst of an extremely dry summer.

 Another thought algae and possibly fairy ring were prevalent. Both agreed that the grass in most of the brown and black areas was dead and aggressive overseeding will be needed to get them back.

 “Oh my goodness. What makes them think $20,000,000 will fix that?” another replied, referring to the rumored cost of the project, adding that common maintenance procedures would have prevented what has occurred on the greens.

One professional wondered if perhaps nematodes would be the issue, apparently a problem in the past but nowhere near this severe.

That, though, seems unlikely.

“This is a water issue, plain and simple,” he said.

Possibly a combination of too much water at times and too little water at other times, he added.

While all this is happening, the course is open for play to the general public at $125 per round, golf cart included. Costs decrease for categories such as students, faculty, alumni, guests of alumni, etc. Tee times are every 15 minutes.

The fourth green, Yale Golf Course. Photo by Anthony Pioppi

Yale Golf Course, fourth hole. (Photo by Anthony Pioppi)

As I have noted repeatedly, almost since the day it opened, the Yale administration has ignored its world-class golf course. Maintenance was/is underfunded. For years basic cultural practices were ignored. One superintendent even made significant and horrible architectural alterations such as removing features on greens without consulting his superiors.

 For roughly 12 years, though, under the previous superintendent, the tide turned. Trees came down, greens were expanded to their original dimensions, putting surfaces, fairways and tees were aerified, top dressed and overseeded. The turf was the healthiest it had been in decades.

A golf ball nestled in nutsedge on a bunker bank of the Yale Golf Course's 12th hole. Photo by Anthony Pioppi

A golf ball nestled in nutsedge on a bunker bank of the Yale Golf Course’s 12th hole. Photo by Anthony Pioppi

 Yale has a talented golf course superintendent now. So, what has happened? Is it a lack of manpower? It is lack of funding to provide for basic necessities like pesticides? Is it a combination of both or something else altogether? What the problem absolutely is not is the nearly 100-year-old greens. They are absolutely not to blame. They have never failed like this in their existence, even in similar weather conditions. This is not the first hot and dry summer they endured.

Poor construction as the reason the greens are so horrible seems like and easy way out. Plus, it’s not 100-year-old construction methods that are the cause of crabgrass that thrives on tees and fairways.

The summer of 2022 is not over and the summer of 2023 could be hot and dry, as well, or perhaps hot and wet. With either one of those scenarios, what the Yale course turf will look like in 2023 is a frightening thought, inevitably worse than what is there now.

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