ATLANTA, Ga. — East Lake Golf Club is pretty much everything that's right about golf. It's about history, walking, caddies, amateur golf, professional golf, a great golf course and tremendous clubhouse. And it's about making the world a better place.
This is, of course, where Robert Tyre Jones Jr. learned to play, back when it was part of Atlanta Athletic Club, and it's where many great amateurs, such as the three Charlies honored in the clubhouse (Charlie Harrison, Charlie Yates and Charlie Elliott) have honed their game. Most of all, it’s about rebirth, as in rescued from near extinction some 20 years ago, and though East Lake is technically private, it isn't about wealthy people finding sanctuary from the rest of us. In fact, it’s quite the opposite.
Last week, I checked another one off the bucket list by playing East Lake Golf Club, home of the PGA Tour Championship, the East Lake Cup (a match play event featuring top men's and women's NCAA teams) and the site of the 1963 Ryder Cup. The original course was designed by Tom Bendelow, but Donald Ross redesigned it in 1913 so that both nines would finish at the clubhouse. This is where Bobby Jones played his first round and last rounds of golf, the last coming at age 46. On Aug. 18, 1948, Jones fittingly shot even par 72, as I was informed by my host, Chad Parker, general manager and COO at East Lake.
Of course, that's just a small part of the history at East Lake Golf Club, which started in 1898. Back then, at Atlanta Athletic Club, John Heisman (yeah, that guy, the old football coach they named the Heisman Trophy after) directed its first athletic program, and in 1906 the folks there started building golf holes at the property purchased at East Lake. Bendelow also designed a No. 2 course, which opened in 1907 and was redesigned by Ross in 1928, but more on that later.
East Lake much easier to drive now
The first thing that struck me as I drove through the neighborhood surrounding East Lake on a Saturday morning was its diversity. There were suburban men and women jogging along the streets, where you saw a mix of newer and older homes, the latter of which were well-kept. It wasn't always like that, of course.
East Lake member Chuck Palmer remembers when he first used to play out at East Lake as a guest in the early 80s that if you saw someone running in the street, "they were probably running from a burglary or the police." A burned body was also discovered in the ninth fairway once, he said, and his group used to play a side game called a "sirenee."
"It would be the first par after we heard a siren," said Palmer, a lawyer and former golf superintendent and pro.
Palmer actually joined East Lake in 1987, when conditions at East Lake and its surrounding neighborhood were dismal. The area, just five miles east of downtown Atlanta, was one of the worst crime-ridden zones in the city. Poverty and crime were at an all-time high and the survival of East Lake Golf Club, the same place that Jones learned and honed his game, was at doubt.
But then something remarkable happened. Some important people who cared about East Lake, its legacy and Atlanta joined forces. Headed by Atlanta businessman and philanthropist Tom Cousins, the East Lake Foundation was formed and bought the club in 1993. The short version of this story is that the club was completely made over, including a magnificent restoration of the golf course by architect Rees Jones. The clubhouse (the original one was destroyed in a fire in 1925) was also meticulously restored and serves as museum of sorts to Jones and other great amateurs who played there as well as the Tour Championship. And most importantly, the Foundation partnered with the Atlanta Housing Authority to build mixed-income apartments in a local low-income area as well as funding education and job opportunities there, resulting in a dramatic reduction in crime and escalation of academic excellence in the schools.
It's always about the juniors
And remember the No. 2 Course I mentioned earlier? It was a casualty of sorts when Atlanta Athletic Club sold the No. 2 Course to developers and moved to its present home in Duluth back in the 1960s. Fortunately, as part of the Foundation's work, the course was eventually redesigned by Rees Jones as a nine-hole executive layout and practice facility. Now called the Charlie Yates Course and located across the street from East Lake Golf Club, it also serves as The First Tee East Lake. At East Lake, they call of this "golf with a purpose."
This all makes a stroll among East Lake's immaculate zoysia fairways all the more special. While the old members before the Foundation were grandfathered in, only corporations (such as Coco-Cola, Southern, AT&T, etc.) can buy into East Lake now, which furthers the work of the Foundation of course, while those corporations get a tremendous platform for entertaining and doing business.
Of course, if these fairways could talk, there would be so many stories, but there are modern stories to be told, too. For example, I could only imagine doing what Rory McIlroy did on the par-4 16th, where he holed out his approach shot for eagle, propelling him into a playoff and win at this year's PGA Tour Championship. After a good drive, all I could manage to do on 16 was miss the green right and make bogey. (It was very windy on this day.)
And finally I also learned that 95-year-old Bill Rice got his first hole-in-one ever on what is now the 11th hole. He hit a driver from 93 yards, which ironically was also his age at the time.
So there is hope for me (I've yet to record an ace). I just have to remain patient like Mr. Rice did, and continue to play golf for another 38 years. There might not be a better place to buy the celebratory rounds than East Lake Golf Club.