September 21, 2009

A Quick Look at East Lake Golf Club

Golf season effectively ends sometime Sunday, weather permitting, when one of thirty players stands over a final putt and then one of them lifts the FedEx Cup as the winner of of the PGA's movable feast that it calls its playoffs. Much-maligned and oft-criticized, the FedEx Cup is in its third year and for the first time, its final tournament may well offer some compelling golf during the heart of the NFL and NCAA football season. Any of the top five in the points standings right now can take away the Cup from points leader Tiger Woods with a win, and the rest of the 25-man field can do the same if events all turn their way. That makes things interesting, and for the PGA, they plan to profit from the old Chinese curse of living in interesting times.

East Lake, the former home course of one Robert Tyre "Bobby" Jones is an old-school gem for this final and hopefully epic battle to take place. Once a sparkling center on the map of golf in the US, this course is a sterling example of urban renewal and reborn hope. East Lake began as a summer getaway for prominent Atlantans located just outside the city, but over the years it had be swallowed by the ever-burgeoning metropolitan area and had decayed into a cesspool of crime, fear and despair.

That was before Tom Cousins, an Atlanta developer and sportsman (he once owned the NHL's Atlanta Flames, now the Calgary Flames) took notice and got involved in the area. The golf course and clubhouse were dilapidated shadows of the former glory and the East Lake area ranked last in the crime statistics in the city. Cousins didn't go the route of the quick-fix gentrification, where a blighted area's land is bought pennies on the dollar and its residents relocated (meaning forced out.) Instead, Cousins formed the East Lake Foundation and worked with - and not against - doubtful area residents and slowly forged bonds of trust with them as old housing was replaced with newer domiciles, a charter school was built and the golf club restored to what it once was.

Since then, residents have turned from doubting or hostile to trusting and inspired. Violent crime has dropped a full 95% in the East Lake neighborhood. Scholastic achievement for residents has skyrocketed. Reading and math scores for students in the area's charter school have climbed to the point that now a full 100% of its alumni are now on track for high-school graduation. Another noticeable outgrowth of the East Lake revival was the First Tee program, which uses golf as a platform to teach life skills to children. It got its start at East Lake, and has since spread outwardly with robust growth. Not bad work for Cousins and the Foundation, better still for the residents who've gotten a golden opportunity to better themselves.

Originally formed in 1898, the Atlantic Athletic Club formed when area businessmen united for the purpose of enjoying athletic activities with their friends. The nascent club had Georgia Tech football coach John Heisman as its director of athletic activities for several years from 1904 -1918. Heisman, who had recently left Clemson University in upstate South Carolina to take over the Yellow Jackets' football fortunes, oversaw swimming, tennis, basketball and track activities at AAC when he wasn't directing the Georgia Tech team to an impressive string of victories on the gridiron, including the still-record 222-0 dismemberment of Cumberland College. In 1918, due to the growth and importance of college football and its time demands, Heisman cut back on his duties outside Georgia Tech and left his duties at Atlanta Athletic Club. Today, of course, the award given to college football's best player bears his name, the Heisman Trophy.

(pictured, John Heisman, left. Right,Bobby Jones, age 14, at Atlanta Athletic Club)

Also in 1904, Atlanta Athletic Club members realized a growing need for golf and began looking for a site for a place to build a course. They found one at East Lake, on the site of a former private amusement park in the Atlanta "suburbs." Tom Bendelow began construction of the East Lake course, seven holes of which opened in 1906. The Southern Amateur championship was held there in 1907, but it was not until the next year on the Fourth of July that East Lake had its formal grand opening for the golf course. A young six year old was present for that ceremony -- Bobby Jones. Jones would, of course, become one of the great icons of the game of golf, and East Lake would be his home club for most of his life. In 1913, Donald Ross, the famed designer, was brought in to improve on Bendelow's work, and the East Lake as we know it today was completed shortly afterward.

In 1966, the Atlanta Athletic Club pulled up its roots from the East Lake site and moved to its current location in Duluth, Georgia. East Lake was already becoming a downtrodden urban area back then, and the area around club would fall into further decay until the 1990's when Tom Cousins stepped in and began its revival.

Now a modern symbol of rebirth and renewal, East Lake hosts the Tour Championship, the logical end to the golf season. Other tournaments follow this event, but it is unlikely that they will draw the top names that this tournament will, on the course that was once home to perhaps the greatest golfer of the first half of the 20th century.

1 comment:

  1. Nice job ! This is one of my very favorite golf courses that I have ever played. Even before Mr Cousins took over, the course was an absolute gem.

    The picture at the top is the par 3 6th. The regular sets of tees would be to the right and up about 2:30. However - a special tee was built for The Tour Championship - just to the right of the roof in the top-center of the picture, or about 12:30. Talk about an intimidating shot - the green is very narrow from that direction, and all the sides run off except for a small area back left.


Have something to say? We'd love to hear it.