Rah Rah Rah: My Favorite New Course on Campus

Since I first set eyes on it in the early 1980’s, my favorite university-affiliated layout in the nation has been Yale Golf Course, the epic Charles Blair Macdonald creation in New Haven, Conn. Completed in 1926, this extraordinary feat of engineering occupies a 700-acre tract of swamp, forest and rock ledge known as the Griest Estate. (The land had been donated to the school by the widow of a prominent alumnus for the encouragement of outdoor sports among the school’s undergraduates).

Yale put the arm on Macdonald, despite the fact that C.B. had long since retired from designing courses by the early 1920s. But with Yale’s reputation on the line and a budget of $400,000 in the coffers (a colossal sum at the time), Macdonald agreed to sit on an advisory committee to oversee construction of the course. It was left to aides-de-camp Seth Raynor and  Charles Banks, assisted by hundreds of Italian laborers, to hack 18 unforgettable, self-contained holes from what Macdonald called “a veritable wilderness.” With its rolling fairways, yawning bunkers and huge confounding greens, it presents a quintessential ‘Golden Age’ test that holds up to this day. Never mind that the city’s union crews take no pride in the upkeep of this semi-private club. The bones of the course are incomparable.

One of the more interesting chapters in The Evangelist of Golf, George Bahto’s fine book on Macdonald, is devoted to Yale Golf Course. Banks, a Yale graduate, was quite thrilled with the outcome of the layout, raving in an article about “the rugged and massive features that will stir the golfer’s soul…Here the architect has fashioned an Alps hole, here a Cape, here a hint of the well known Road hole. Not a single hole on the course is even fairly suggestive of any other one on the entire eighteen. Each hole has its own peculiar appeal—its own individuality. As a result, there is no monotony. The appeal to the eye is continuous and the appeal to the golfing sense is unfailing.”

For students of the game, Yale remains one of the outstanding inland courses in America. It’s only an hour’s drive from my home in Stonington, Conn. I visit at least once a year. On a fine fall day, its foliage ablaze and long shadows cast across its sweeping hills, it is peerless.

Yale’s infamous par- three ninth, called ‘Biarritz’

But I have a new college favorite, a course every bit as special as Yale, a grand layout that fully tested the verve and ingenuity of its designer. I am speaking of Palouse Ridge Golf Club, which sprawls across 315 acres on the Pullman campus of Washington State University.

After limping along with a substandard nine-holer for longer than it cared to remember, the land-grant school, tucked away in the southeast corner of the state 90 minutes south of Spokane, tapped John Harbottle III to design a course that would test the mettle of the nation’s top collegians. Harbottle, who understudied Pete Dye early in his career and is known for his well-strategized, environmentally-sensitive designs throughout California and the Pacific Northwest, was energized by his prospects. For starters, he had just lost out to Robert Trent Jones II for the design commission at Chambers Bay in his hometown of Tacoma. Clearly he had something to prove.

While not on the national radar, the Palouse is sui generis, a majestic region of rolling hills and rich farmlands that stretches for hundreds of miles. The haystack-shaped silt dunes that characterize the Palouse were created during the last Ice Age, when wind and snow deposited thick layers of volcanic sediment and glacial till in the area. Over time, a composite soil of exceptional depth and fertility was created among the roller-coaster landforms. Level land is a rarity here. As landscape photographers can attest, the Palouse offers a near-perfect combination of topography, weather and crops, its endless hills a patchwork quilt of wheat, lentils and dry peas. The colors of the Palouse are a mélange of bright green, golden amber and tawny brown.

Despite his accomplishments—20 original courses, several of them nationally recognized, plus major makeovers at Stanford Golf Club, Los Angeles Country Club and other vintage facilities–Harbottle is quick to give credit for the success of Palouse Ridge, opened in 2008, to the site itself.

“The terrain here is so dramatic, it allowed us to create a tremendous golf course,” he says, and indeed his artful cuts and fills enabled the construction team to shoehorn the holes into the rolling Palouse hills and cover its tracks with barely a trace.

The golf course incorporates the landforms of the Palouse

A classicist whose design approach has been shaped by his study of links courses in Scotland, Harbottle, 50, identifies closely with Alister MacKenzie, George C. Thomas and other ‘Golden Age’ designers from the 1920s. Like them, he makes the best use of natural features and ensures that his artificial enhancements are indistinguishable from nature.

Initially, Harbottle felt the sprawling parcel at the east end of the WSU campus was too severe for golf. “When I first toured the site, it reminded me of some of the early Pete Dye jobs I worked on in Japan,” he relates. “We’d go into the mountains and weren’t permitted to work on the flat ground. Significant grading and major drainage was required to build courses from the sides of mountains. But the more I walked the Pullman site, the more I saw that we’d be able to melt the tops of hills where necessary to blend the rolls and create corridors for golf holes.”

As a testament to his commitment and attention to detail, Harbottle recorded over 100 site visits during the construction phase to supervise grading, shaping, finish work and grassing. Despite the fact that more than 750,000 cubic yards of material was moved to shape and frame the holes, there is little evidence of earthworks. Most of the created landforms mimic the shape of the rolling hills and distant peaks in Idaho and Oregon that backdrop the course.

“The main idea was to preserve the character of the region,” he says, echoing the university’s mandate that the golf course fit the environment. Because native prairie is one of the most endangered ecosystems in the U.S., the golf course was routed to preserve a significant riparian corridor that gives players a feel for what the pre-agriculture Palouse once looked like. This 30-foot hedgerow, a scrub mix of alder, hawthorn and native fescue grasses flanking the right side of the third, fourth and fifth holes, shelters a wide variety of wildlife. Coyotes, raccoons and badgers are commonly seen in and around the corridor. Redtail hawks and harrier hawks glide overhead. A pair of low-lying wetlands attract waterfowl to the course.

“My marching orders were to build a high-quality golf course,” he muses, noting that Palouse Ridge “plays like a resort course” from the multiple sets of forward tees. Harbottle says he formulated the strategic elements of each hole from the Crimson tees, which stretch to a daunting 7,308 yards (par 72). However, he created much friendlier scenarios from the forward markers. (There are five sets of tees, with a 2,200-yard differential from front to back). “The key is to select the correct set of tees based on how far you carry the ball, not just your handicap,” he advises.

Harbottle limited the number of hazards at Palouse Ridge. There are only 49 bunkers on the course, roughly half the number found on most new courses. The enormous, ragged-edge bunkers fit the scale of the site and hark back to the great links courses of Scotland and Ireland. “A golfer gets a great sense of exhilaration when he can carry over one of these hazards,” he says.

Harbottle believes the real hazard at Palouse Ridge is the terrain itself. “There are significant slopes on the edge of the course,” he explains. Many of the fairways, for example, are sharply banked to contain the ball, while landing areas are bisected by long ridges and marked by wavy undulations. Dead flat lies are rare. Players must cope with an array of uphill, downhill and sidehill lies.

The unseen hazard at this nearly treeless course is the wind, which routinely blows from 10 to 15 mph. The prevailing breeze is from the southwest, but the wind constantly shifts and swirls—Palouse Ridge never plays the same two days in a row. “I tried to route the course so that the short holes play both with and against the wind,” Harbottle says. “Same for the long holes.”

The heart and soul of the layout are the greens, which have plenty of depth but are generally narrow. Some are set in natural bowls or benched into hillsides. More than a few are of the “hanging” variety, seemingly suspended on the horizon with no backdrop. These infinity-edge greens tend to play havoc with depth perception by foreshortening distance. “Hanging greens were a favorite of the old-timers who generally didn’t create a lot of mounding around their greens,” Harbottle says.

The par- three fifth at Palouse Ridge

In terms of strategy, the designer built a risk-reward scenario at nearly every hole. “Hazards are complemented by bail-out areas,” he explains, noting that risk-averse players who play to the safe side often are left with a more awkward approach than players willing to flirt with danger in return for a flatter lie or a better angle of attack.

Harbottle was not afraid to defy a standard routing in his placement of holes, deferring instead to the dictates of the site. “We fit the holes together based on what we had to work with,” he says. Using the site’s contours as his guide, Harbottle turned out a site-specific design with five par 5’s and five par 3’s, including back-to-back par 5’s at holes 9 – 10 and 17 – 18.

The architect is especially proud of the five-hole cluster of short, sporty holes at the finish. “It’s nice to have a challenging finish, but it’s also nice to finish with a smile,” he says. “Golfers can shoot some good numbers on the closing stretch with some good play.”

Among the designer’s favorite holes is the short par-four 15th, which is potentially driveable by aggressive players with an appetite for risk. “You see a lot of these drive-and-pitch par fours in Scotland, and also at classic courses designed in the 1920’s by George C. Thomas, such as Riviera and Los Angeles Country Club,” he says. Three gnarly central bunkers, placed in echelon from the prime driving zone to the front of the green, force players to choose a direction and commit to a line off the tee. From the Crimson tees, it’s a Tiger-esque 320-yard carry to safety on a direct line to the green. Conservative players who lay up to the right are left with a 100-yard shot to a shallow, kidney-shaped green.

Harbottle is equally proud of the petite par-three 16th, which measures a scant 138 yards from the Crimson tees. “All the great old courses have a hole like this,” he says. “It’s only a wedge or a 9-iron, but the shot is played to a tiny, exposed, well-defended green. It calls for control and finesse. It’s a tough green to hit when the wind is swirling.”

While several of his previous efforts have been nationally recognized, Harbottle believes Palouse Ridge “is as good as any course I’ve ever been involved with. I expect it will take its place among the finest university golf courses in the U.S.”

It already has. Palouse Ridge has received ‘Best New’ plaudits from most of the major golf publications and ranks second only to Chambers Bay as the top public-access course in the state.

In sum, I find Palouse Ridge every bit as majestic as Yale. I might add that the club’s victuals and refreshments far surpass the drab facilities and lackluster fare found at Yale. (You’d think the guys who run the world could attend to the details at their alma mater). Within the compact hilltop clubhouse at WSU is Banyan’s on the Ridge, a British Colonial-themed steakhouse with a fine selection of Washington State wines and regional microbrew beers. Sitting on the terrace on a typically clear day, good food and drink at hand, Idaho’s Moscow Mountains looming in the distance, Palouse Ridge delivers a first-class experience. The value is excellent. In 2009, the weekday (Monday – Thurday) greens fee for non-residents was under $50. You need to be reasonably fit to walk the course—Palouse Ridge is big golf—but it’s well worth the effort.

A final thought: if Chambers Bay can land the U.S. Amateur (2010) and U.S. Open (2015) right out of the wrapper, Palouse Ridge certainly deserves the NCAA Division I Championships, and soon.

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