When thinking of golf in Atlanta one name immediately comes to mind . . . Bobby Jones. Robert “Bobby” Tyre Jones, Jr. is unquestionably the greatest and most well known amateur golfer of all time. He stands as the only golfer (amateur or professional) to win all 4 major tournaments in a single calendar; a feat known as a Grand Slam. In 1930 Bobby accomplished this by winning the British Amateur, British Open, U.S. Open and finally the U.S. Amateur. After successfully completing the Grand Slam Mr. Jones officially retired at the top of his game and moved along with his life.
In the “retirement” years following his Grand Slam victory Bobby Jones became closely associated with other golf clubs but there is only one place that can be called the true home of Bobby Jones and that is East Lake Golf Club in Atlanta, GA. It was here that Bobby learned to play the game and it was here that he practiced and trained for his championship golf events including the four major events that he won for the Grand Slam of 1930.
East Lake Golf Club began life in 1898 known as The Atlanta Athletic Club and its first golf course was opened in 1908. Five years later, in 1913, the club hired well known golf course architect Donald Ross to redesign the original course so that it would have two nines that each conveniently ended at the clubhouse. In 1928 the club again called on Mr. Ross to design a second course that was opened in late May of 1930. Throughout the mid 20th century the club thrived as its members enjoyed the facilities with numerous club events as well as nationally important golf tournaments being contested over the club’s two courses. As the 1960s unfolded and the environment of the neighborhood began to change and The Atlanta Athletic Club decided that it was time for them to move on. In the mid-1960s the club sold its No. 2 course to a developer and in 1968 a group of 25 members formed the East Lake Country Club when they purchased the original golf course and clubhouse effectively saving it from ruin. Two years later, in 1970, a public housing project went up on the land where the No. 2 course had been and the neighborhood became plagued with crime and violence. By the end of the 1980s East Lake was all but irrelevant in the world of golf. Thankfully, as the early 1990s rolled around East Lake was about to be saved for a second time. In 1993 a local charitable foundation purchased East Lake and began the arduous task of restoring the club to its original glory and kick starting the revitalization of the neighborhood surrounding it. Rees Jones was brought in to restore the golf course as closely as possible to original Donald Ross design as well as update the course to modern tournament play standards. Now home to the annual FedEx Cup Tour Championship event, East Lake Golf Club again stands proud and serves as a monument to the great Bobby Jones.
When it came time to play at East Lake I wasn’t expecting to have too difficult of a time arranging a game. As part of the revitalization project the foundation had sold a great number of corporate memberships to big businesses. Almost all of the memberships now were owned by companies who gave access to their top executives for entertainment purposes. I placed a couple of calls to folks I know in New York who worked for companies with memberships to see if they could help me out. Unfortunately due to company policy they were only able to arrange play if they accompanied me and none of them were planning to be in Atlanta any time soon. It was not looking too good for me.
Several years ago in my golf travels I met and became friends with a fellow traveling golfer from Scotland who had attended university at St. Andrews. As we got to know one another I learned that he had been fortunate enough to be selected to participate in a scholarship program between St. Andrews and Emory University honoring Bobby Jones. As a Bobby Jones Scholar he spent a full year in Atlanta attending Emory University (Bobby’s alma mater) and was set up with a year long membership at East Lake. I think that I have to point out here that this is probably one of the sweetest scholarships that I’ve ever heard of and I’m 100% certain there was nothing like this at my college. If there was, I surely I didn’t have the grades for it! Anyway, I shot off a quick email to my friend (now living in London) to see if he could provide any assistance in helping me play at East Lake.
Luckily, my hunch was good and within a few days of sending my email abroad a game had been arranged for me to play East Lake with a local gentleman who also happens to run the Bobby Jones Scholarship program. Not only was my host one of the few remaining non-corporate members, but he was also a considerable Bobby Jones historian. I don’t think I could have imagined a better person to play East Lake with. To round out our four ball my host would be bringing along one of the current Bobby Jones scholars as well as one previous Bobby Jones scholar. The game was set!
One the day we played I got there early and wandered through the club house and locker room soaking in all the the relics and memorabilia. There were wonderful golf artifacts and articles to see and read literally everywhere. Eventually I heard a couple of guys speaking with British accents and assumed they must be the two Bobby Jones scholars I would be playing with so I introduced myself. They took me out to the range so we could hit some balls and warm up prior to having lunch.
Interestingly, the driving range at East Lake requires about an 80 yard carry over water in order to reach dry land with your practice shots. The photo below illustrates this unusual setup. I hope they have a good system in place for extracting the range balls hit into the water and they don’t have to rely on divers to pull them out because I’m sure that a lot of range balls end up at the bottom of that pond.
After hitting some balls we went to the clubhouse to meet our host, his wife and two of his grandchildren. We had a fun lunch where I of course sampled the local pimento cheese sandwich which was excellent. Immediately after lunch we found our caddies and went directly to the first tee.
Remember, that East Lake is where the Tour Championship is played so if desired you can play from the same tees as the pros – 7,374 yards. I had no desire for that kind of anguish, so I elected to play from a MUCH more reasonable 6,590 yards.
The 1st hole is a par 4 that played 408 yards from the blue tees with an ever so slight dogleg left. The photo below was taken from the tee box.
I hit my approach shot from where the photo below was taken. It was a bit uphill so I used a little extra club. This would be a theme of the day.
Below is a photo of the first green. You won’t find many wildly undulating greens at East Lake, but believe me there are plenty of substantial breaks to be negotiated. As usual the best practice is to listen to the caddies’ advice.
The 2nd hole, pictured below, is a fairly straight forward par 3 with a water hazard and bunkers to catch the bad tee shots. From the blue tees this one played 161 yards.
The 3rd hole is a shortish par 4 that plays 361 yards from the blue tees. As illustrated in the photo below, all down the right side of the hole is a road that is OB so its imperative to avoid the sliced tee shot here.
Its not terribly visible in the photo below, but the green is protected by a number of large bunkers that will cause trouble for shots that come up short or miss to the right.
Here is a little closer view of the green.
The 4th hole pictured below is a fairly long and flat par 4 with a slight turn to the right that played 413 yards from the blues.
The approach shot at the 4th hole is pretty straight away and in my case pretty long!
The 5th hole is the first par 5 on the course and plays 540 yards from the blue tees. Despite its length I suspect it is reachable in two for bigger hitters because the hole plays mostly down hill. The photo below was taken from the tee box.
The photo below was taken from roughly where the second shot would be hit.
The 6th hole is a par 3 that played at 141 yards from the blue tees. The green on this hole is an island and I understand that when asked for advice on how to play this hole Bobby Jones would simply reply “use an old ball”. The photo below is of me teeing off and I should have taken Bobby’s advice . . . the flag was up front and I came up short.
Before we leave the 6th hole I have to mention that one of the players in our group DID play from the pro tees. His caddie was not very happy about it but after a few holes it was pretty obvious that the guy had serious game and could hold his own. I suspect that the caddies here are used to all kinds of hacks coming in and wanting to play from the tips so more often than not it makes for a LONG loop when someone who doesn’t belong back there insists on playing there. Fortunately for the caddie that was not the case today.
Anyway, for this hole I tagged along to the back tees to see what the shot looked like and that’s where the photo below was taken. 213 yards to an island green. Yikes!
The 7th hole is another par 4 that plays 408 yards from the blue tees. This hole is all uphill and as can be seen in the photo below has a pretty strong slant to the right. Note the mud at the bottom of the photo. Atlanta had torrential rain for three days prior to my game here. This is the only spot on the entire course where there was any evidence that the weather had been anything but perfect in the previous days. Pretty amazing.
The photo below is taken from approximately where the approach shot for the 7th hole would be hit from (as usual a little further off the fairway than would be ideal). Again you will definitely want to have some extra club for this shot.
Below is a photo of the 7th green taken from behind it looking back down the hole.
The 8th hole, pictured below from the tee, was my favorite hole on the course. It is a short par 4 that plays 355 yards from the blue tees. The ideal drive is a draw that will cut the corner and leave less than 100 yards to the green.
Its not as visible as I would like in the photo below, but the 8th green is fronted by a very deep bunker and the green is pushed up so that shots that come up just short of the putting surface will end up back in the bunker.
The 9th hole is a par 5 that played 532 yards from the blue tees. It is another downhill hole that can be reachable in two for some players despite its length. The photo below was taken from the tee box.
I hit my second shot from the spot the photo below was taken. I did not hit it well and flared the ball way out to the right into a cluster of shrubs and trees around a maintenance shed located behind the trees on the right.
The next photo below is me hitting my third shot . . . I’m not exactly sure if I was still in Atlanta or a jungle in Vietnam. This is NOT where you want to play the third shot on this hole from.
The photo below is the 9th green. The trees/shrubs I was in are just outside the right edge of this photo. I’m pleased to report that my third shot exited the jungle low enough to stay out of the trees, high enough to clear the bunkers and landed on the fringe where I made a 2 putt for a nice little par. Thats one I’m proud of and won’t forget.
The 10th hole is a par 5 that played 485 yards from the blue tees. While the yardage is short the hole does play a bit longer than it sounds because it is all uphill. The photo below was taken from the tee box.
The third shot (after a layup) would be played from around where the below photo was taken. The hole moves just a little to the right at the end and the green is tucked back to the right.
For the 11th hole we have a mid length par 3 of 172 yards. The hole is straight forward as can be. Avoid the bunkers and get it in the cup.
The 12th hole is another shortish par 4 that played 368 yards ever so slightly downhill. There is a fairly deep fairway bunker on the right that will catch drives with too much cut/fade on them. My ball ended up there but its a very playable bunker and only about 120 yards to the green from there.
The 13th hole runs uphill and plays as a 395 yard par 4. The photo below was taken from the tee box.
The approach to the 13th green is another uphill shot and the green is protected by bunkers on the right and left.
Going right back downhill is the 14th hole which is a long par 4 playing at 422 yards. The fairway is lined in trees on both sides so something in the fairway or not too far off is necessary.
The 15th hole plays as a 470 yard par 5 with the drive being downhill and the rest of the hole playing back uphill. For those keeping score at home, both of the par 5s on the front played downhill and both of the par 5s on the back play mostly uphill.
The 16th hole plays as a par 4 of 416 yards and we go back down the hill for the final time. Again the fairway has pretty heavy trees on either side which can really make a players second shot tough if their drive goes wayward.
The 16th hole green pictured below has some pretty severe slant to it which makes for some very interesting putts.
At the 17th hole I walked back to the pro tees again to check out the view. The pros play this one as a par 4 at 455 yards. The photo below was taken back there.
The blue tees at the 17th play as a shortish par 4 of 369 yards with considerably less carry to clear the water than from the pro tees. The photo below was taken from the blue tee box. Note the water along the left that is definitely in play for shots with too much right to left movement on them.
The 17th green pictured below has bunkers to protect it and water all around the backside. Its not visible in the photo below, but any balls that find their way to the back of the green are in danger of catching the slope and rolling down to the water.
The 18th hole at East Lake is one of the course’s unique quirks as there are not many courses (especially on the PGA circuit) that end with a par 3 hole. In this case the hole played 199 yards from the blue tees and is a bit of a visually intimidating shot with the water lurking. At the time of the day we reached the hole the sun was causing a bit of a visibility problem as well but we eventually all found our balls, putted them out and called it a day.
In honor of Bobby Jones our match was played with a golf ball as the stakes. Bobby always liked to play for items from the pro shop in order to help bolster the golf pros sales so it only seemed appropriate to honor that tradition when visiting Bobby’s house. Back in the clubhouse I enjoyed an Arnold Palmer at the bar and handed over a shiny new Pro V1 to my host declaring that I’d never been so happy to lose a golf ball in all my life.
East Lake Golf Club has had quite the roller coaster ride over the last 100 years. We almost lost her twice, but I believe that she is now here to stay. The course is a collection of fun holes and overall has that classic parkland feel to it. Walking down the fairways you can’t help but think of a teenage Bobby Jones practicing shots, working on his game and slowly evolving into the Grand Slam champion that he would become. Just to walk in Bobby’s footsteps alone makes visiting East Lake Golf Club worthwhile, but luckily the golf course happens to be great, the clubhouse is spectacular and to top it all off the pimento cheese sandwich is pretty dang good!