Stanford University Golf Course in Stanford, CA
Tee Time: November 29, 2013, 1:00, 66 F, calm
Designer: William Bell and George C. Thomas, Jr. (1930)
Playing Partners: Jordan Stankowski, John and Michael
Tees: White, Par 70 (69.2 rating/122 slope/5,802 yards)
Course Handicap: 9 (8.7 index)
Stats: 87 (41-46); 31 putts; 4/13 fairways; 5/18 greens; 1 penalty stroke
Stanford University sits on 8,180 acres of the San Francisco Peninsula, making it the sixth largest campus in the country (Cal Poly is 9th at 6,000 acres, so that’s yet another “Top 10” list you can find the Mustangs on). It has 46 miles of roads, over 700 buildings and its own power plant, according to the University fact sheet. There’s also over 14,000 trees, including one rather infamous mascot. But the highlight of the campus has to be the jewel of a golf course opened in 1930 by renowned architect George C. Thomas, Jr. His resume reads like a list of California’s best classic courses, including the country clubs of Bel-Air, Los Angeles and Riviera. Stanford University Golf Course has all the same features that make those legendary tracks in Southern California great, allowing the natural landscape of the Golden State to dictate the shape of the course. What results is a tough test of golf from any tees. Lots of elevated greens, sloped fairways and remember those 14,000 trees? Well it seems like half of those have their roots on the golf course, especially those Titleist-swallowing coastal live oaks.
The course opens with a dogleg-left par 5 of 486 yards. The tee shot plays from an elevated tee next to the pro shop and a large sand trap threatens anyone who tries to bite off a chunk of the corner and fails. The par-4 2nd is also a dogleg left with a large sand trap blocking off the left side, and at 388 yards is one of the tougher holes on the course. The front end of back-to-back par 3s is the 166-yard 3rd, which is a safer shot to a flatter green than its smaller twin. The 123-yard 4th also has a bunker to the left and plays over the creek and bushes, but features a much trickier green and a hazard on the right whereas the 3rd uses that area as a bailout. For being 40 yards shorter and similarly laid out, the 4th manages to be the scarier of the consecutive par 3s. These were not part of the original design, as a par 4 used to run up the hill here but was rearranged into the current order today. Change direction at the 356-yard 5th with a dogleg right. Again, trouble is conveniently waiting for anyone trying to snip off too much of the hole off the tee. Large trees catch any weak drives while a sand trap about 60 yards out swallows the long ones.
The par-4 6th is deservedly one of the hardest holes on the golf course. Though it plays straight and not too long at 385 yards, trees that lurk directly off the fairway, with their lush foliage, effectively cut the playable portion of the hole in half. From both edges of the short grass, trees will impact the approach to a front-to-back sloping green flanked to both sides by deep bunkers. Unless you’re playing from the center cut, it’s a tall order to bend a mid or short iron and hold a slick green. Accepting a bogey is probably the best mindset to enter the tee with. The par-5 7th is another dogleg left like the 1st, but without the elevated tees. A perfectly placed drive can leave a good shot at reaching in two, but any further out to the right will leave a risky shot downhill with a trio of green side bunkers waiting. Anything left off the tee will end up in a lovely grove of Coastal California Live Oak and some low overhead clearance. The last of the front nine’s trio of par 3s is the 132-yard 8th. It looks longer than the yardage and plays that way, too. An uphill, dogleg-right par 4 brings you to the turn. Off the tee there is a small chute to place a fairway wood, with a large sand trap up the slope on the left and troublesome trees on the right.
Tee off on the back nine to one of the more receptive fairways at Stanford. The sand traps on either side of the fairway can be easily carried, leaving a mid-iron up to a deep green. The monster par-4 12th is the signature hole at Stanford University Golf Course. The wide fairway is bisected with three large trees ranging from 186 to 300 yards away. They are all tall enough to impact the hole from various angles, and from 427 yards should be played more like a par 5. Or at least just consider a 5 a good score. Legend has it that noted alum Tiger Woods can carry the furthest tree, which is around a 330-yard carry in coastal air. Tiger’s given me little reason to doubt him over the years (well, on the course at least), so I’ll believe the tale. It is a very fun golf hole, with hazard to the right and trees along the middle, there are several routes to the green, which is tricky in its own right.
The 13th may feel like a relief after that 12th, but it still has teeth at 386 yards. The fairway bottlenecks in the landing area and a bunker guards the front of the green. I think, and our playing partner John, Stanford class of ’63, can confirm, that the par-3 14th is a heck of a place to watch tournament golf. The large hill behind the wide and shallow green is a perfect spot to sit in the sun and watch players take a stab at knocking it close. Just lay down a beach towel like a Spring Training afternoon in Scottsdale and wait for a pin seeker to soar over the ravine. The very downhill par-4 15th is fun, and drivable. Of course it’s so downhill and you can only see a sliver of the green from the tee that attempting to reach might not be the smartest decision, especially if the late afternoon sun is blasting you directly in the eyes. The lone par 5 on the back nine is the 438-yard uphill 16th. From the right side, the elevated green is reachable but there is a steep drop in front of the green that will leave anything short well back. The final par 3 is also the simplest. A lone, small bunker guards the front of the green at the 167-yard 17th. The most impressive vista at the Stanford course is from the 18th tee. A sweeping, panoramic view of the bay and the Dumbarton Bridge off in the horizon past rows and rows of green trees. Sure, the Dumbarton Bridge isn’t as visually stunning as, say, the Golden Gate Bridge, but it’s still a cool scene.
Tee times are accessible only to members, students, faculty, alumni and their guests. Luckily I’ve got connections. And if you do, too, I suggest you take full advantage. Just think of the amazing golfers these trees have seen over the years. Tiger Woods, Tom Watson, Casey Martin and Notah Begay all played for the Stanford men’s golf team. Phil Mickelson played tournaments here in his ASU days. And who could forget the great Michelle Wie? Actually never mind her, it seems the golf world has all but forgotten about Ms. Wie unless she’s making us cringe with another missed cut or… or this (WARNING: not for the squeamish). George Thomas’ lone design in Northern California is a can’t miss. What makes the course so fun is that it lets the natural terrain of Palo Alto present the challenge. Trees surround the golf course, turning many holes into a game of angles. Despite the hundreds of branches in play, it never feels like one is unfairly in the way. Lots of elevated greens and raised tees combined with all the doglegs add to the variety. It may seem like a short course, in fact I tried to lobby to play the black tees, at 6,231 yards versus the white’s 5,802. It feels a lot longer than that, however. Many of the par 5s demand the entire three shots to reach in regulation and the heavy air of a November afternoon in the Bay Area take all of the length out of your brand new adjustable driver and $50 box of Pro-V1s. Also time your visit with a Stanford football home game. They’ve been pretty good lately.
As much fun as I had playing the golf course, it was more enjoyable catching up with Jordan, a college buddy. He was a great friend throughout school from day 1 when he lived in the dorm across from me. And there were many epic NCAA Football video game battles, but I think I came out undefeated. And it’s awesome to hear he’s so excited about his new venture back in school at Stanford, he’ll be doing a lot of good things for a lot of people someday soon. That’s what I love most about doing these golf trips all over the United States. After high school and college, many of my friends scattered to the wind, landing all over the map. And it’s so much more fun to be able to see these people in person, sometimes after a few years, instead of sending “likes” and comments on Facebook. This was most likely my last away golf round of the year and I can’t wait to get back at it in 2014.
#11, Par 4, 343 yards, 14-handicap, My Score: 5
Hitting the fairway is reason enough to celebrate at the downhill 11th. A sand trap on the right is a 245-yard carry to safety, but it’s safest to lay up short of that. It will leave about a 125- to 150-yard shot off a slope to a big green. Missing on the right, like I did, ruins any chance of reaching the green. About 5 of those 40,000 trees cluster together to form an impenetrable wall. Drift too far left, even while laying up, will also put a tree in the way. The green itself is guarded by two forward sand traps that are tough outs. From the center of the fairway, the entire 41-yard deep green is attackable, but playing from the sides means losing an angle to at least some of the green and a long putt. The 11th does feature the coolest tree on the course. A living version of the Stanford Tree, and one that can probably hold its liquor better. It looms like a giant Christmas tree behind the green, watching you struggle to get up and down for par.
Layout: A; the variety of holes here mean you can never get too comfortable. The par 3s are all pretty similar, but the other 13 holes are as interesting and fun as they come.
Amenities: B; a lot of cool history and memorabilia in the clubhouse from Stanford’s and their golf teams’ history. The shot in the men’s locker room of Tiger Woods lining up a putt is cool, but man he sure is aging poorly it seems. The pro shop is nice, especially if you’re a fan of the Cardinal because the big block ‘S’ is on everything.
Staff: B; the restaurant staff is very hospitable, the golf staff is the same but aren’t nearly as visible.
Difficulty: B; there are lots of little tricks to playing this course effectively, so much that even our group member who’d been playing for 50 years still didn’t have it all figured out yet.
Scenery: A-; a special atmosphere here, playing with the setting sun added a nice touch. Jordan likes to play 9 early in the mornings every now and then, and seeing this course at daybreak sounds like a lovely picture.
Value: B; the $110 fee for accompanied guests is pretty standard for private club fees, but it feels like a bargain for me even compared to the $25 student rate. See, I only paid $110 for access to the course. Students are paying $43,000 a year in tuition and then an extra $25. So compared to that, I’m getting a discount of over 99%!
Overall GPA: 3.28 (B+); an American classic at it’s best.