East Lake: Facts & Myths

East Lake: Facts & Myths

East Lake’s famous par-3 9th, formerly the 18th. (Photos from reesjonesinc.com)

Atlanta’s East Lake Golf Club, the “permanent” site of the TOUR Championship, is not unlike a Marvel Comics superhero.

Its been cast into a role it had no intention of playing, resurrected from a lonely downward fate by powerful outside forces, refurbished to be put to use for the greater “good” fighting encroaching evils and blights.

This hero has known both extreme joy and turmoil, unbelievable fulfillment and shocking levels of tribulation. As a growing sea of violence and combustion rages around, it fights to hold steady as a solitary beacon of purity. Again and again it is knocked down, staggered by seemingly fatal blows, and each time it comes back reassembled with newer and stronger pieces. It is at once familiar but unrecognizable, quaint but high-tech, Throughout it all, beneath the armored exterior, an old soul thrums unmistakably.

Superheroes often possess histories shrouded in myths, uncertainties and secrets. While East Lake’s history isn’t secretive, it has, as told today, taken on slightly mythical proportions. East Lake, as the story goes, was once one of Atlanta’s oldest and most prestigious clubs, the course where  Bobby Jones learned golf, a Donald Ross masterpiece that hosted the 1963 Ryder Cup and thrived as an icon of Southern golf and social life. Then set in a period of slow decline as finances became strained and the economic health of the community failed. The neighborhood surrounding the club turned destitute and violent and the membership fled for the safety suburban life leaving the course to fend for itself.

Left behind and largely forgotten, on the precipice of either destruction or extinction, a local businessman purchased the course and pumped new life into the grounds and along with it the surrounding area, helping cure one of the worst scourges of Atlanta. East Lake today represents an urban renaissance and point of community pride with golf at its center (although not golf that you’ll be able to play unless you’re being entertained by a corporate member), a transformation coronated by the annual visitation of the PGA TOUR’s season-ending championship.

That’s the comic book version, where goodness and hope prevail and prove that golf can be a force of restorative power.

But what’s the real story? So who really is East Lake?

There are elements of truth here, but much of this version of East Lake — its origins and how it arrived here — is incomplete. Let’s look closer.

East Lake was Bobby Jones’s home course.

This was true, and then it wasn’t.

Jones did grow up playing the East Lake golf course, which was developed beginning in 1904 by the Atlanta Athletic Club, which was originally an organization operating in a building in downtown Atlanta.

Playing on 187 acres on both sides of a small lake of the same name, the course was located outside of town in the “suburbs” to the east, just south of the town of Decatur (a train ran the five miles out to the course from Atlanta).

It opened in full in 1908, though there were golf holes ready for play for several years before that, when the 6-year old Jones was already an accomplished player beginning to win tournaments. At one point the Jones family actually lived in a home that stood where the current front parking lot is, and Jones called East Lake his home course for most of his life.

In 1966, the Athletic Club sold the property and relocated to the northern suburbs (this time even farther outside the city, to John’s Creek near Duluth) where it built 27 new holes. Jones, who had always insisted his allegiance was to the club and not the course or property, went with them. In fact it was at his urging and through letters before his death in 1971 that the USGA awarded the 1976 U.S. Open (prematurely) to the Athletic Club’s new Highlands Course, memorably won by Jerry Pate.

Jones’s “defection” from East Lake is largely elementary — he had stopped playing golf in 1948 due to a deteriorating spine ailment, and never swung a club on the new John’s Creek courses.

A view of the par-4 17th and the deep trench bunker fronting the green.

East Lake is a Donald Ross design.

Yes and no.

The first holes at the East Lake property were built for the AAC by Tom Bendelow, beginning around 1906, and by 1908 the full 18 were open for play. Routing maps show a twisting and rather awkward configuration of holes that run in cobweb directions, don’t return to the clubhouse and don’t make the most sensible use of the site’s long slopes that tumble down toward the lake. Nevertheless, this was the configuration Jones first knew and played as a young man.

In 1913 the club hired Ross to revamp the course, and he rearranged the holes into the routing still used today with two balanced nines on each side of East Lake centered by the elegant clubhouse. The property dips from each end toward the water at the center, and Ross arranged most of the holes to run east-west, alternately plunging toward the lake and climbing away. It’s a compact, graceful arrangement that follows the cues given by the topography.

Bendelow was the first to put golf holes down at East Lake, but it is Ross’s routing that exists today.

East Lake was on the verge of succumbing to insolvency and urban blight.

This is absolutely true. Though the Atlanta Athletic Club’s membership began to decrease in the 1930’s, dropping to less than 500 from a high of over 1200, a tipping point was reached in the 1960’s.

The East Lake neighborhood surrounding the course had deteriorated into one of the most crime- and drug-infested sections of the city. In 1928 Ross built a second course for the Athletic Club next door, but in the early ’60’s the club sold the land to the city to finance the construction the new course in John’s Creek. The city re-zoned the No. 2 course property for a low-income housing project, and as these filled the conditions soon became so bad the area began to be known as “Little Vietnam.”

Criminality, crack dealers, hookers, murders and 30-something grandmothers became the societal waves that crashed daily against the Athletic Club’s gates.

The club had already established its Johns Creek location, and for several years, with membership split between Decatur and the suburban factions, it tried to operate both locations. Ultimately a vote was cast to cut ties and sell the East Lake property. A group of 25 members scrambled to raise the $1.8 million asking price and in 1968 the Atlanta Athletic Club at East Lake became East Lake Country Club.

Members from this time talk about hearing gun shots regularly throughout their rounds. Greenskeepers would show up in the mornings to find the course vandalized, the cups on the greens on at least one occasion defecated in. Criminals would cut through the black tarp lining the chain-link fence that circled the course, and sometimes a gun would appear through the hole demanding the wallets of foursomes who stood on the nearby tee.

East Lake limped along through the 70’s, advertising for members in magazines and newspapers but barely able to attract enough interest to keep the course running. Neighborhood conditions didn’t improve, and by 1990 the club was running on fumes.

The 15th has evolved from a landlocked par three into this memorable peninsula green.

Golf, in the form of a revitalized East Lake Golf Club, saved the neighborhood.

Atlanta businessman Tom Cousins, founder of Cousins Properties, purchased East Lake in 1993, initiating a chain of events that included the razing of the East Lake Meadows housing project, the renovation of the East Lake club and course, the building of a new community YMCA center and charter school, new low-and mid-income apartments, a Rees Jones-designed 9-hole course on the site of the old No. 2 course (a second nine was closed several years ago to make room for a new charter school), establishment as the permanent home of the TOUR Championship and the the creation of the charitable East Lake Foundation.

Without Cousins’s interest in East Lake, none of this would have happened. When the projects were removed, crime plummeted and new families began moving into the East Lake neighborhood initiating a cycle of gentrification (I live in, Oakhurst, an historic community adjacent to East Lake, which has evolved on a similar trajectory). While the East Lake community isn’t completely “cured” or crime free, no one argues that conditions are improved to the point of being unrecognizable.

Maybe the redevelopment simply moved the problems and blight to another part of town, but for those who lived there then and now, and for the children and families that use the new YMCA and charter school, there are nothing but “thank you’s.” East Lake is now strictly a corporate membership club with all profits donated to the East Lake Foundation, the benefactors of which are primarily local children and teens.

Rees Jones “restored” the Donald Ross course in 1994

False, if you want to be strict about the term “restoration.”

There are no known hole drawings or green plans for Ross’s design at East Lake. When Jones was hired to renovate the course he and the project managers used old aerial photographs for inspiration, but they would likely have been from the 1930’s at the earliest, certainly not 1913.

George Cobb modernized the course in preparation for the 1963 Ryder Cup (prior to that each hole had two greens planted with different seasonal grasses, one for winter and one for summer). Cobb built and reshaped new bermuda grass greens and altered the location and mode of the bunkering, introducing RTJ-style curved and irregular shapes to replace the remnants of Ross’s grassed and more linear edges.

Cobb also took the first step toward the creation of one of East Lake’s best-known holes, the 180-yard par-3 15th, by trenching out the canal that fronted the green and expanding the water hazard. The hole has continued to evolve from there — Jones eliminated the narrow land bridge that ran from tee to green — and it now protrudes fully into the lake like a moist lobe of substance dangling from an eave

Most likely Rees Jones interpreted what he thought might have been there from Ross with what actually still did exist, which was a lot of Cobb and overgrowth, keeping in mind his own design priorities as well as the knowledge that a professional would likely be held here.

The most significant change done during the 1994 renovation was to shift the 17th hole from the base of a small hillside down to the edge of the lake. Primarily, Jones rebuilt the greens, deepened and added bunkers, removed trees and replanted the surfaces. The trench bunkers that completely front the 3rd and 17th greens seem out of context with the rest of the course and the way we imaging Ross would have designed, but aerial photographs from the 1950’s, at least, show several greens fronted and almost encircled by similarly shaped bunkers.

Aside from the efficient routing, East Lake doesn’t so much resemble a Donald Ross course as a personalized Rees Jones design that’s ready for tournament action. Those familiar with Jones’s bunker shapes, angles and edging will recognize similar faceting and pillowy shaping here.

It’s a course that clearly presents itself to players, offering defined targets and classic strategies. The Jones greens in particular, perched up and tilted above deep bunkers, seem suited to the modern professional game. The contours are subtle so green speeds can be adjusted to whatever the greenskeeper deems necessary and there are no elephants or tricks of chance to anger money players. Execute here and you will be rewarded.

East Lake has recaptured its former glory.

The clubhouse has been restored to its 1926 design.

It’s hard to argue that East Lake is not an irresistibly enchanting place. It seems hokey to say it, but the ghost of Bobby Jones does seem to lurk here, especially around the clubhouse where the main level is a monument to his accomplishments with trophies and memorabilia displayed in cases.

Jones’s locker is still present in the second floor locker room (you take an elevator up), one of the classiest and most memorable in the game. The clubhouse burned down in 1912 and again in 1926. Following the 1926 fire it was rebuilt by noted local architect Philip Shutze, and the clubhouse has since been restored using Shutze’s blueprints.

Out on the course, you feel reverence for the purity of the space and the land and the players who have walked the grounds before you. But the course itself, with state of the art grasses and conditioning and ultra white bunker sand — not to mention the latent ability to produce one of golf’s biggest tournaments — feels and plays modern rather than something Jones would have known. Old timers who have played here for decades sometimes pine for the pre-Rees course. It had more character, they say. The roughness around the edges and unpredictability of lies gave it both more teeth and more charm.

It’s lovely golf terrain nonetheless with strong up and down movements and views of the Atlanta skyline. The property’s slopes are a primary defense, with challenging drives at uphill par-4’s like the long 1st(a par five for members), 13th and 16th. The par-3’s — including the famous 9th — are blue collar pars even for the pros. At par 70 for the TOUR Championship it can be a difficult scoring course, though because it’s so fair and the two par-5’s (6 and 18) are easily reachable for the field, players who get hot can light it up.

Glorious? East Lake is indeed glorious, just in a slightly newer, fresher way than it once was.

Even superheroes need to evolve. (92)

The long par-4 7th is always one of the most difficult, and beautiful, pars at East Lake.
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