Duke University Golf Club

By Shawn Nicholls, Contributor

DURHAM, N.C. - When you step out onto the fairways and greens at Augusta National, or Pinehurst No. 2, or any other former major championship venue, you suddenly are hit by a feeling of importance. You know that your drives, your iron shots to the greens, and your putts trace the steps of the greatest golfers ever to grace the game. You can stand on the 18th green at Pinehurst, and see the late Payne Stewart finishing off his second U.S. Open crown. You can walk the fairways at Augusta, and envision Tiger Woods demolishing the field, on his way to his record-breaking victory, and the start to a brilliant career.

Stepping out onto to the Robert Trent Jones designed Duke University Golf Course, ranked one of the best college venues in the country, gives you the same feeling. Not because of the great professional golf moments that have taken place there, but because of the great amateur moments. As the site for the 1962 and, more recently, the 2001 Men's National Championship, future PGA tour champions and major championship winners competed on the tough holes, day after day, until only one stood.

As you pull up to the bag drop, which lies in front of the ninth green, and beside the tall clubhouse and rooms of the hotel portion of the golf club, the Washington Duke Inn, you may not remember the names of the players that finished high on that leaderboard in those college events. But it still gives you a special feeling knowing that as you struggle through your round, sweating and panting your way around the long, narrow golf course, you are retracing the steps of golf excellence.

The course, which sits on a 120-acre portion of the Duke University Forest, was originally scheduled to begin construction before the beginning of World War II, however it was put on hold after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Eventually, construction resumed, and in 1957 it was officially opened. Immediately, the course garnered national acclaim and recognition, which can account for its first hosting of the NCAA Championship, only five years after being dedicated.

More recently, Rees Jones, son of original designer Robert Trent Jones and a competitor in the 1962 Championship, renovated several aspects of the course, including major changes and improvements to the worn down tee boxes and greens. The construction concluded in 1994, once again setting the stage for the course to be recognized as one of the best courses in the nation.

"One of the things that makes the golf course so unique is that it has been worked on by both father and son. That's just not something you'll find too often," says Jim Kubinski, one of the two head golf professionals at the club.

Stepping up to the first tee can be an intimidating event, especially after inspecting the scorecard and knowing what lies ahead. From the championship tees, christened the "Devil Tees," for the Duke University mascot, the course runs over 7,000 yards, while the white tees send golfers on a whirlwind journey of a modest 6,207 yards.

"From the back tees it has to be one of the longest in the area, especially playing to elevated greens. But from the white tees it is very playable, so everyone has a chance to enjoy the course," Kubinski says.

Looking out over the opening par four also gives you a good idea of what is to come for the remainder of the front nine; long distances from tee to green, trees on the right, trees on the left, sloped fairways, and elevated greens. The front nine is an interesting layout, in that golfers don't get the taste of a par five until the seventh hole. At 488 yards (from the Devil Tees it plays a whopping 572 yards), it is the second toughest hole on the course. A long bunker sits on the right side of a left to right sloping fairway and a small creek guards the green, which slopes drastically from top to bottom.

The front nine concludes with a par five reachable in two. Standing in the middle of the fairway is truly a surreal experience with the clubhouse and inn in the background. The first tee sits just to the right of the green, giving golfers a sense of truly circling the course. It is a relatively easy hole, and a good one to rest on before embarking on the more challenging back nine, which requires longer tee shots and more precise irons.

While the two nines have their differences, the one aspect they have in common is their inclusive feeling. "Having no houses or buildings on the course makes each hole feel like your own golf course, especially since they are surrounded by Carolina Pines," Kubinski says.

Additionally, the way the holes are laid out, it's not the course to be stuck on during a rainstorm without a cart, as virtually every hole is a long way from the clubhouse.

Part of what makes the course good is the uniqueness of each hole. You really won't find two holes alike on the entire course, and that is quite a feat. There isn't a lot of water, but enough to keep you honest. Similarly, the course isn't so overly long that it's burdensome, but at the same time it isn't so short that you're always hitting wedges and low irons.

A perfect example of this hole variety can be found when looking at the par threes, which at first glance aren't menacing, but in actuality are very challenging holes. Two are short, with carries over water, with the twelfth surrounded in the front and to the right. The other two are straight away, but the eighth is short and well guarded by deep rough behind the green and a large bunker in front, while the fifteenth is very long and protected by numerous bunkers. Decent shots on each of these four holes will keep you out of trouble, but slips in concentration can lead to very high scores.

After negotiating with fast, sloping greens, deep bunkers, and awkward stances in the fairways for seventeen holes, you finally reach the finale, the number one handicap, 417-yard par four eighteenth. It is truly one of the better finishing holes. Unlike many of its predecessors, the hole is fairly straight, but the struggle comes in the length.

Finding the fairway is a must. Trees line the left side, and they put double bogey into the equation, while the tenth hole's fairway is to the right. The green is small and protected by more bunkers on the left and right sides. As you make your way up the fairway towards the putting surface, retracing the steps of golf's greatest amateur players, and once again peering at the beautiful clubhouse, feel very fortunate if you are approaching a birdie putt, because they don't come easy.

Shawn Nicholls, Contributor

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