A Dwarf Star Among Big Ten Giants: Rutgers University Golf Course & Lessons For Campus Courses

Having just watched Gary Woodland win his first major at the U.S. Open and, having been one of the slim minority to watch Jeoungeun Lee6 win her first career major, we now turn our attention to the third, and least relevant of the U.S. Opens: The U.S. Senior Open. With no offense to the gentlemen involved—many of whom had very illustrious careers—they are now living a non-PGA reality much more rewarding than the Web.com tour. We do not feel compelled to pay as much attention. That said, sometimes these guys play some bitchin’ courses that slide under the attention spans of everyday golf travelers. University Ridge, the home course for both this year’s Senior Open and the University of Wisconsin Badgers—is a decent course. If we were Badger students, we’d be happy have an affordable RTJ2 route at our disposal.

The Big Ten has several class-act (ha) golf courses among its members. As a Buckeye, we’re biased toward the Nicklaus-By-Way-Of-Mackenzie gem that is the Scarlet Course. Purdue students get discounted rates at a pair of courses from the Dye(s), and Michigan offers two different experiences with one Mackenzie layout and one Dye adventure. But you know about these (maybe). So we decided to set out in search of something different.

Here’s the problem with Ohio State’s home courses (the Scarlet and the Grey, a post-mortem Mackenzie): Referring to them as “accessible to students” is a stretch. Granted, some kids have cars (including the template wealthy college golfer guy), but for the other 80% who don’t, the 3.5 mile jaunt from campus made a difference. And that’s why—despite the excellence of other Big Ten school courses—we love Rutgers University Golf Course.

Is the experience up to the level of Ohio State or University Ridge? No, and I don’t think Rutgers would try to argue otherwise. It maxes out at 6,300 yards; no way is it going to host NCAA play. It’s guilty of the most common municipal complaints: plenty of plays where trees limit strategy (not going to dive in here, but removing a few from the corner of the Par 5 No. 7 instantly makes it a risk-reward gem).

The closest thing to a backyard golf course for University students (Photo Cred: Rutgers University)

But the commute is unreal…you can leave your microbiology class, trudge a mere .2 miles and be at the clubhouse. Although Purdue’s Boilermaker complex is close, it’s not quite as snug as how Rutgers Golf just plays little spoon to the campus as a whole. A well-played paper airplane could sail from the top deck at HighPoint.com Stadium and land on the green at No. 5 (HighPoint.com as a stadium title is, ironically, the low point of Rutgers as a university).

And here’s a “fire” argument for you: The average college duffer doesn’t need 7,300 yards. Rutgers maxes out at 6,300, and costs roughly 83 cents per hole for students to play. It’s a course that I would gladly play as a student, and would gladly bring my noob friends to give the game a try. OSU Scarlet’s student greens fees are a superb value—$35 —but I would still never bring a new golfer. No fee is worth the price of humiliation within Mackenzian bunkers. It a course for avid golfers. Rutgers is a course for golfing; OK for low handicappers, but great for never-heard-of-handicapping-ers. And that’s a demographic golf needs to grab, to keep humble courses like Rutgers (and off-campus relatives) alive.

Granted, placing a course within walking distance of campus is not realistic to most universities. But a course that encourages hacks to come back, get a little better, and THEN pay the extra bucks to be architecture nerds like us? That’s a huge plus for the game, and one major golf organizations should consider, possibly for partnerships when creating and renovating modern campus courses.

But enough of our ideological musings. Here are the last three holes at Rutgers, probably the most fun stretch as well.

No. 16, “Black Cherry”

At first glance, there’s nothing special about Black Cherry for low handicappers. Not drivable at 352 yards, and the bunker along the left fairway probably doesn’t matter, ending 246 yards out from the tips. But for the commoner, this is the most basic introduction to golf course strategy. Try to hammer it over the bunker for the shorter approach, or lay up for a longer one? Try to play to the right side off the tee, play it safe? That bunker tightens up the fairway from 230 – 245 yards out (a fairly standard driving distance for humble weekend golfers), and playing from the right side brings the deeper bunker at the green’s front-right into play, a less ideal angle.

We don’t know much about Hal Purdy—the original designer at Rutgers—but if he taught Golf Design 101, this hole would be featured on the second day of class (day one is dedicated to basics of golf courses…”par,” “hazard varieties,” etc…it’s a core curriculum course, not for Golf Design majors).

No. 17 at Rutgers University Golf Course (Photo Cred: Rutgers University)

No. 17, Mulberry

Saving the most exciting Par 3 for last is a template move, but far too effective to label as “cliché.” Rutgers sticks to the script. At some point during the aforementioned 101 course, pin placement will be an essential lesson. No. 17 will prove it. If the flag is at the back of the green, it may be worthwhile to try bombing over the front-left bunker. If it’s at the front? It may be worth it to lay up to the fairway and aim to get up-and-down. At 195 yards, that front-right bunker will dictate a left-to-right approach for everything below the center of the green. The creek that flows down the right side dictates not to travel too far right, however. The creek passing in front of the tee boxes and flowing alongside lengthy fairway apron isn’t reasonably relevant to golf design, but it’s a lesson on visual intimidation. And cool looking, a feature new golfers readily buy into.

No. 18, Dogwood

Of all the holes at Rutgers that are so close to greatness, the Par 5s are it. Remove some trees and No. 7 becomes a risk-reward opportunity. Move the tees up and the creek across No. 12 creates a make-or-break driver-vs.-iron debate. The final hole, a straightaway long, plays better than the “freeway” golf it appears to be. The only significant improvement should come right off the tee; the two bunkers that pinch the fairway don’t threaten the average driver. If Rutgers can afford to move them back—and better yet, alternate the distances on the left and right side—they absolutely should. But even if they remove the bunkers entirely, this is a simple take on a relatively drivable Par 5 (512 from the back). The next fairway bunker shows up on the right side, about 75 yards out from the green. If you hit a great tee shot, you only need to worry about the large bunker, front-left of the green. But if you need to lay up, this last fairway bunker is everything. Risk a carry for the short approach, or lay up for the longer one (keeping that last, green-side bunker in mind).

It’s a fun conclusion to a fun round at a fun course. Not a course in the same league as the Big Ten’s showcase routes, but a fun course. The kind that gets a college kid to walk over again the next time he gets out of microbio class. The kind that fills a role the golf world needs.

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