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The College Ghosts of Yale's Ninth Tee

There’s a line of golfers on the tee box waiting like shoppers at the deli counter. A light mist that’s on the brink of turning to snow falls on our shoulders. Even at the edges of the woods, the remains of a long winter lurk: crusty snow, sticky mud, and forgotten leaves. We’re high above the 9th green and there’s a back-up that will be the talk of the van ride home, probably because it was the talk of the van ride to the course. The veteran golfers warning the freshman about the 9th hole and having to wait for two, maybe even three groups to play. Various bags pock the tee box with good and bad logos, some guys talk to each other, some pace nervously, and others just stare out at the abyss, watching the group on the green barrel around one of the most famous greens in the world.

If drones were popular in 2004, this would not have been a morning for it. Spring in Connecticut doesn’t present a golf course in all its glory. Even the touch of a world famous architects, C.B. MacDonald and Seth Raynor, on an ivy league campus can’t provide us with golden hour vibes on this gloomy morning.

Every Spring my Holy Cross golf team drove down to New Haven to play a tournament at Yale. I honestly can’t tell you how many times I played in it, but 15 years after graduating it feels like I might have been there 98 times. In my conversations with teammates since those frigid days, Yale immediately produces groaning about the weather, the course conditions, and that pesky 9th hole, a par three with a massive swale in the middle of it. I didn’t know then, but I know now, this type of green is called a called a “Biarritz” and there are others around the world. It’s a staple of MacDonald’s template designs. It felt like a staple in my temple during those long waits on that tee box.

Charles Banks in 1925 “There is a 163 yard carry from the back tee. The green proper is behind a deep trench in the approach. The approach is about the same size as the green itself and is bunkered heavily on both right and left with water jutting in on the right front. The fairway is the lake… The green is heavily battered at the back and right and the whole psychology of the hole is to let out to the limit… Correct play for this green is to carry to the near edge of the groove or trench and come up on the green with a roll. The disappearance and reappearance of the ball in the groove adds to the interest of the play.”

Last week, I was talking to another college golfer who played events at Yale, too. We immediately fell into the same rhythm of conversation. He recalled playing in the snow one year, the ball transforming into a snowball on the greens with every putt. And just like every discussion about Yale, we reminisced about hanging out on the 9th tee box watching player after player whack a cold golf ball over a small ravine down to the green below.

“I hit driver there one time,” he said shaking his head.

It’s a downhill 215 yard par 3.

But my discussion with this fellow golfer about his Yale Golf Course experience got us to talking about the mindset we had and how difficult it was to enjoy or appreciate the courses we played while competing. The golf courses were a means to an end. Those tournaments were a proving ground, not just for that week, but for the following week, too. Play poorly and your spot on the team was in jeopardy. A hole like the 9th at Yale could mean the difference between playing next week or staying home (you could blink wrong and make a 7). And while staying home meant, “weekend on a college campus” there was a point of pride in playing every week and maintaining your status (I mean, how else would I impress the ladies on campus?!). The season was short and the trips were a blast. I liked my college team, we always had fun, more so off the course when we could all hang out.

I’ll admit the mindset of grinding for score still exists deep inside me. It’s how I was raised to play. Your score is your value as a golfer in the eyes of many. From junior tournaments to college and even into state amateur qualifying events, that number mattered every time I teed it up. I probably enjoyed high school competition the most because it was match play; I felt the most relaxed in those situations and played some of my best golf.

Last month, I played a round organized by Boston Golf and Social at Southers Marsh in Plymouth, Massachusetts. The event consisted of about 24 guys all out to enjoy the day, meet some people, and say farewell to the 2020 golf season. It was my first event and I was so pleased with the vibe. A group of people that love golf, keep score, but take nothing too seriously. They can talk for days about the game and the courses and their opinions, but they are always going to enjoy the day and not let things bother them when they’re out there playing. As I headed for my car at the end of the day a group of six guys were back on the first tee with one club in hand to go for another spin around the par 61 course before sunset.

When Yale shuttered its course this spring in the midst of COVID and poor funding (the course had been poorly maintained for years), I was upset I hadn’t made the death defying trip trip down the Merritt Parkway to play one of the best college courses in the country and see it with a different set of eyes. The eyes of a golfer that understands he’s walking on some pretty freaking great land, shrouded in history, even if it might eat my lunch a couple times.

The ghosts of those college golfers are always up on that 9th tee box at Yale waiting to hammer a golf ball through the cold, misty air down to a massive green. My ghost is up there, too. Nervously standing off to the side and wondering how the heck I’m going to get the ball from up on the tee and down to green safely as the feeling slowly left my cold hands.

The only way to rescue that ghost is to try and play more rounds with the mentality that I experience at Southers Marsh. I’ve seen so many new courses, some great, some good, some goat tracks in the past six months, and have slowly found ways to balance the enjoyment of the walk and the different personalities of each place.

There are too many rounds of golf behind me that I can’t fully remember or appreciate because I was too worried about score and performance. I hope there are more rounds in my future than my past, and I hope to go visit that 9th tee again and wade through the ghosts of those college golfers and take a swipe with whatever club is called for on the day.

It better be sunny and warm though. Or I’m not playing.

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