My Quest to Check Off Golf's Best Experiences

What a special treat it was to spend a day at East Lake.  From a strong classic Donald Ross golf course to a beautiful museum of a clubhouse where you're waited on hand-and-foot.  If the rare opportunity comes to spend a day at this club, you have to take it.  I can't wait to enjoy the club on TV during the Tour Championship as well.  It's really a better course than it appears on TV.  I wasn't sure what to think since the tournament always happens during football season and I tend not to follow it as closely as the summer's big tournaments.  However, the hills, undulations, and history of the course make it a really fun place to play.  

When you're a guest at East Lake, there is no reason to hop and your car and immediately head home after holing out on the 18th.  You'd be missing out on part of the experience if you didn't take time to check out the Bobby Jones artifacts that are omnipresent in the clubhouse.  Below are just a couple of those, along with other pictures from inside the gorgeous clubhouse.

#18, Par 3, 189 Yards

There aren't many top-tier golf courses that finish with par 3's.  Boston Golf Club and the Old White TPC at The Greenbrier come to mind, but I have a hard time thinking of many others.  With that said, this is a strong par three, and no slouch as a finishing hole, even as a one-shotter.  The green is severely two tiered, so keeping your ball on the correct shelf is critical making a closing par or better.  Two bunkers guard the front of the green on either side, with a pond that all but the worst of shots will carry.  

#17, Par 4, 373 Yards

The 17th is one of two holes that were drastically changed by Rees Jones, with the 7th being the other.  On this hole, the original green was about 40 yards to the right of where it stands today, and the fairway also played further right.  However, to provide more TV drama, the green and fairway were moved closer to the water.  Drama was definitely created, most famously when Bill Haas played a shot out of the water to the left of the green to get up-and-down and save par, en route to a FedEx Cup victory.  That year, the water level was extremely low due to a prolonged drought.  Allegedly, Haas would give $75,000 of his winnings back to the club to help restore the water level so that his famous shot would never be recreated!  To play the hole well, the key is simply to keep it straight, avoiding the water that runs the length of the hole on the left and the bunkers on the right side of the fairway off the tee.  From there, it's a carry over another front bunker, like on #8 and #12 with sand on the right and water on the left.  With $10 Million on the line, I imagine this would be a nerve-wracking hole.

#16, Par 4, 418 Yards

The hardest hole on the side, and in some years, one of the hardest holes on the PGA Tour.  This hole is long, tight, and unforgiving.  Bunkers line the left side off of the tee, but the thick rough on the right side is equally penal.  Three bunkers surround a difficult and undulating green.  A par here is a great score.

#15, Par 5, 471 Yards

This was one of the more interesting holes on the second nine for me.  It plays steeply uphill, which compensates for its short distance.  However, it's still a good chance to score, and I hear that the pros tear it apart.  Off the tee, and on the second shot, you need to avoid the bunkers to have any chance to score.  The green is not terrible deep, but is quite wide.  The bunker on the front right side of the green is very deep and needs to be avoided.  Looking back down the hill from the green gives a nice view of the Atlanta skyline.

#14, Par 4, 403 Yards

The trees are the primary obstacle on this one, as the hole plays downhill through a pretty narrow chute of them.  Keep it down the middle to avoid a big number.  The green runs on a diagonal away from the player from right to left, so a draw is the ideal shot shape into the hole.

#13, Par 4, 366 Yards

Aside from #11 which sits on flat land, the stretch of 10-16 is essentially back-and-forth holes that play uphill and downhill and back again.  Since #12 played downhill, #13 heads back in the opposite direction and goes back up the hill.  Bunkers protect the left side of a soft dogleg to the left.  From there, there are two bunkers that flank the front of the green.  One interesting fact on this hole is that the home behind the green is owned by Florida State (and NFL) great, Warrick Dunn.

#12, Par 4, 369 Yards

After the uninspiring 11th, the 12th is a more fun and interesting hole.  Playing way downhill, the hole can play quite short.  Similar to the front bunker on #8, there is a large bunker that fronts the green and prevents anything but a precise aerial shot into the green, which rolls largely from right to left.

#11, Par 3, 170 Yards

My least favorite hole on the course.  Not that there's anything wrong with it, but there was also nothing special about it, and you could find this hole on any other golf course in the world.  Just an average one-shot hole that plays to the Northeast corner of the property.  

#10, Par 5, 465 Yards

East Lake sits on a rectangular urban piece of land with the Lake right smack in the middle of the property and one nine on each side.  The front nine plays on the West side of the Lake, while the back side goes out to the East.  The back nine is not as interesting a routing with more of a back-and-forth design, but still has some interesting holes.  The tenth is another of the holes that is a par 5 for the average players, but a par 4 for the pros.  For the average players, that means back-to-back par 5's, which happens here and there, but isn't terribly common in the world of golf.  This one goes over water to start, and then uphill all the way to the hole.  Bunkers line the left side, and left of those is Alston Drive, i.e. out of bounds.

Looking back up the 9th hole.  Picture taken from inside the locker room.

#9, Par 5, 530 Yards

For the pros, this is the only par 5 on the front side.  There's a lot to it, as it goes downhill after the drive, over a branch of East Lake, and then must avoid bunkers to get to the green surface.  The line off the tee is right at the driving range in the distance.  From there, it's a question of how far you can carry your second shot to make sure you land safely over the Lake.  Keep the ball in front of you and dry and you can finish strong on this hole. 

#8, Par 4, 322 Yards

This should be just a layup shot and a pitch, but if you get in the left bunkers, you're on your heels immediately.  It's about a 210 yard shot from the tee, but if I had it to do again, I might try for a longer shot than that.  From there it's a dogleg left to a green that is very difficult with a middle tier that falls off on the right and left, and a bunker tight up against the front.  For a short hole, this packs plenty of punch to keep it tricky if you don't attack with precision.

#7, Par 399 Yards

The hardest hole on the front nine is an uphill one that bends slightly to the left.  The green has three distinct sections with a bunker guarding the front left portion and a large collection area catching anything that misses short or right.

#6, Par 3, 150 Yards

Some say this is the first "island" hole in golf.  It's actually more of a peninsula, but sure plays like an island with East Lake coming into play on the right, left, and short.  Tournament tees have been built that stretch this hole to about 220 yards and play from a spot farther to the right.  From that angle, it's more possible to miss long and stay dry.  From the angle of the regular tees, a miss over the green on the right half can find that water.

#5, Par 5, 526 Yards

With the hole playing quite a bit downhill, this is actually something of a "half-par" hole.  The Tour plays it as a long par 4, while the common man gets an extra shot to par.  From the Blue Tees, it takes a drive of around 260 yards to reach the crest of the hill, which would result in a much longer drive.  If you don't get to the hill, it's about 310 yards into the green (downhill).  Even if you can't get home in two, the hole should be a relatively easy par and definitely a birdie possibility as long as you keep the ball in play.

#4, Par 4, 387 Yards

With a soft bend to the right, the ideal shot off the tee here is a smooth fade , which should leave a short iron into the green.  From the back tees, this is the longest par 4 on the side (assuming you're playing #5 as a par 5), but from the Blue tees, it's not that bad.

#3, Par 4, 372 Yards

Playing alongside the edge of the property, the key off of the tee here is to avoid going right, and over the fence line.  The left side of the fairway offers the best angle into an interesting shaped triangular green.  There is sufficient space to miss the green to the left and leave a reasonable up-and-down opportunity.

#2, Par 3, 164 Yards

A neat little par 3 here over a pond that really shouldn't come into play except for mis-hit tee balls.  A ridge comes off of the bunker on the left, with most of the green sloping from left to right and front to back.  As is typical for most Donald Ross courses, being below the hole, which is typically short of the hole, it almost always a good play.  Even though this course has been tweaked by George Cobb and Rees Jones, that logic around the greens still exists at East Lake.

#1, Par 4, 394 Yards

The tee shot goes downhill and the approach shot goes back uphill on this opening hole with the clubhouse entrance and lots of related activity on your left.  The primary obstacle off of the tee is the large number of trees that straddle the fairway.  Keep it straight and it's an uphill approach to a green with bunkers on either side, with a steep back to front slope.  Keep it below the hole or you'll be sorry.

Obviously being located in "Hotlanta," warm weather grass covers the surfaces at East Lake.  Bermuda greens and rough and Zoysia fairways are very nice playing surfaces, but they always take a little getting used to for Yankees like me who are used to Bent/Rye/Bluegrass, etc...  It's a really sticky surface around the greens and the bump-and-run is very difficult to pull off with any consistent success rate.  The rough wasn't cut terribly high when we were there so it was playable.  If they let it grow to 3 inches or more, look out.  You might not even find the ball, let along be able to advance it very far.

Four tee boxes are available for daily play at East Lake.  However, you'll notice as you walk around that there are extra tee boxes that are available for the Tour Championship that aren't set up for daily play.  The Black Tees are the tips for every day play, and measure 6,891 yards, but they can stretch this course comfortably beyond that.  In fact, while it's not listed on the scorecard, the back tees for tournament purposes are listed at 7,374 yards, and while the layman plays the course to a par of 72, the pros play it as a par 70.  In front of the Black Tees are the Blue Tees, then Green, then Golf.  The Blues were a good test for my group, measuring 6,468 yards with a rating and slope of 72.1 and 131.  I'll quote those yardages below.

There are a few clubs in the United States that are synonymous with with being the home course of one player.  Scioto is were Jack Nicklaus learned the game; Latrobe is Arnold Palmer's home; And East Lake can brag about being the home course of the game's best ever amateur player, and arguably the best player overall, Robert Tyre Jones Junior.  Based on the fact that Bobby "Bob" Jones grew up at the club, what stands today is essentially a museum, if not a shrine, dedicated to his achievements, with artifacts from his playing days all over the place.  Of course, the club technically wasn't East Lake at the was Atlanta Athletic Club.  And the story of its history is a fascinating tale of not only a golf club, but evolution of American cities.  Rather than attempt to re-tell the story, it would be better to just cut and paste the history in the club's words.  Taken directly from the Club's website:

During the mid to late 1800s, the United States was experiencing an unprecedented growth in the interest of sports, especially amateur sports.  At the time, Atlanta did offer many social clubs, but there was no club organized for the purpose of promoting athletics.  Led by Burton Smith, a group of 65 men formed the Atlanta Athletic Club (AAC) in 1898.  The original clubhouse was located on Edgewood Avenue, just below the Equitable building. 

The club initially had no golf course, but four years after it was founded, it had more than 700 members.  John Heisman, the Georgia Tech football coach for whom the famed Heisman Trophy was later named, directed the club’s athletic program of swimming, tennis, basketball and track.  The club leaders soon realized the increased interest in golf, and in 1904, acquired property in the “suburbs” of Atlanta to create a country club, engaging golf architect Tom Bendelow to lay out the course.

The grand opening of the Bendelow course took place on July 4, 1908, on the property that was known as East Lake.  East Lake itself, a sparkling stretch of water surrounded by forestland, was originally the site of an amusement park in the 1890s.  It was privately owned and its chief attractions were a swimming beach, picnic tables, hot dog-popcorn-and-peanut stands, and a penny arcade where for the sum of 1¢, people could peep at such scenes as Pike’s Peak, the 1889 World’s Fair in far away Paris, and bathing beauties in revealing bloomers.  There was also a real steamboat that huffed and puffed up and down the narrow confines of the lake to give sightseers a thrilling ride.  

Young Bob Jones, then 6, was present at the opening reception on that summer afternoon in the company of his father, “Colonel” Robert P. Jones.  The elder Jones, already an active member, later served as president of the club from 1937 – 1942 and as a director for 38 years (Bob himself later also served as president from 1946-47).
In 1913, famed golf course architect Donald Ross redesigned the Bendelow course at East Lake.  The remodeled course featured a routing plan that provided each nine holes to conclude at the clubhouse.  Previously the original course had nine holes that oddly finished across the lake from the clubhouse.  Ross also designed the “new” No. 2 course in 1928.  That No. 2 course was opened on May 31, 1930, to coincide with the final day of Bob Jones’ victorious British Amateur championship match.  The club enjoyed another milestone in 1930 when Bobby Jones completed the Grand Slam of golf, winning the United States Amateur, United States Open, British Amateur, and British Open in the same year.

East Lake has hosted its fair share of golf tournaments over the years.  The Golden Anniversary of the Woman’s Amateur Golf Championship, played at East Lake on September 11-16, 1950, marked the first time a USGA National Championship was ever played in Atlanta.  In 1963, the 15th biennial Ryder Cup Matches were played over the No. 1 course.  In preparation for the matches, the home course went through a face lift for three years, during which most of the old course was rebuilt and many of the holes changed to provide the quality championship layout the tournament merited.  The alterations were performed under the direction of golf course architect, George Cobb. 

Not long after the club hosted the 1963 Ryder Cup, the outlook for East Lake began to change.  The surrounding neighborhood deteriorated as the 1960s fell victim to white flight and urban decay.  The Atlanta Athletic Club became part of that flight when it sold the “Number 2” course to developers and moved to its present home in Duluth.  The original course and clubhouse were saved when a group of 25 members purchased them and began operation as the newly formed East Lake Country Club in 1968.

In 1970, the East Lake Meadows public housing project was built on the site of the club’s “Number 2” course and became a center for poverty, drugs, and violence.  Middle-income homeowners fled the surrounding neighborhood, replaced by low-income renters.  By the 1980s, once proud East Lake was a tired, mostly forgotten golf course, seemingly as hopeless as the surrounding neighborhood.

This all changed in 1993 when a local charitable foundation purchased East Lake with the intent to restore it as a tribute to Bobby Jones and the club’s other great amateur golfers.  The East Lake Foundation has used the renovation as a catalyst for revitalizing the surrounding community.

In 1994, Rees Jones restored Donald Ross’s original golf course layout.  Using the original Philip Shutze architectural drawings, the clubhouse was brought back to its 1926 design and condition.  In 2008, an impressive addition to the Clubhouse was completed and several modifications were made to the golf course, including changing the putting surfaces from Bentgrass to Bermuda grass.

The club serves as the driving force behind the effort to revitalize the surrounding neighborhood.  All profits from the club, as well as charitable donations from the club’s corporate membership, support the East Lake Foundation and its remarkable redevelopment project. The revived East Lake stands as a symbol of tradition and honor to those who know its history and were a part of its past.  But, even more importantly, it stands as a symbol of hope to those who will live in its future.

The history, as stated above, explains why East lake's motto today is "Golf With A Purpose."  This motto celebrates the revitalization of the community surrounding the club, but the revitalization of the golf course is equally impressive.  Today, it brings in meaningful economic impact to the Atlanta area by hosting the Coca Cola Tour Championship which is the deciding tournament for the PGA Tour's FedEx Cup Playoffs.

What makes East Lake somewhat unique, is the fact that when the major renovation occurred at East Lake, it was largely on the backs of donations from private corporations.  A small number of individuals who stood by the club during its challenges would be grandfathered with individual memberships, but going forward, membership would only be through corporations.  The names on the lockers at East Lake are a who's who of the Fortune 500, with a few straggler individuals here at there.  Since the club is used almost exclusively for corporate entertainment, the service at the club is unparalleled.  East Lake is a no-tipping club, and the experience is first class from the moment you pass the guard gates, until you pull up and the main entrance and your car is whisked away by eager valets.  The guest tag that is put on your bag not only identifies you, but the car you came in, so that your bag can be returned to the trunk by the staff before you get back behind the wheel.  A day at East Lake really is a first class experience, and I'm sure all of the clients entertained by the corporate members leave extremely impressed.

With such an amazing experience inside the clubhouse, does the golf course measure up to the rest of the experience?  It sure comes pretty close.  The course definitely exceeded my expectations, and is much more interesting and impressive than it looks on TV.  It all starts with an extremely unique driving range, where a 80+ yard carry is required just to find land.  Yes, there is water in front of the range!

East Lake Golf Club

Atlanta, Georgia

Checked off the Bucket List May 14, 2015

Golf Magazine

#63, Top 100 Golf Courses in the U.S. (2015)