Hole by Hole: Duke University Golf Club

Robbie Vogel
14 min readAug 31, 2021

A few weeks ago, a good friend of mine got married at Duke Chapel. On the day before, obviously, we played golf.

The Duke course is the first Robert Trent Jones design I’ve played, and my pre-trip research turned up barely anything in the way of golf course recon. I know some people like to go in mostly (or entirely) blind to a new course, but for those (like me) who enjoy dissecting a course in two dimensions before exploring it in three, I hope the supremely amateur photos below help to offer a sense of what you’ll be facing when you tee it up.

A few brief takeaways before getting to the photos .

  1. This place is LARGE. The photos don’t do it justice, and it might come from me playing mostly cramped layouts near Boston, but I felt a lot of freedom standing on most tee boxes.
  2. Legitimately every single green is either raised, guarded by bunkers in front, defended by water, or some combination of the three. As weird as it feels to write this coming from someone who has played a number of Donald Ross (or Ross-adjacent) courses, it’s better to miss long here than short.
  3. Having said that, every single green does slope back to front, some quite significantly, so I guess it depends what you like better — bunker/rough shots into an upslope, or delicate chips down a tilted pool table.
  4. They were doing some routine upkeep when we played, which is why the collars look all brown and why I completely missed hole 13, a straightforward par 4 with a green guarded by a pond.
  5. There are five sets of tees — numbers below are from the middle set (blue tees).

Right, let’s get to it.

1st hole
Par 4
434 yards

The first two holes are basically carbon copies of each other: medium-length, slightly downhill two-shotters that bend significantly from right to left. We got some serious morning light during this round, which I was very thankful for. I’m not sure what hole this is from, but I enjoyed it:

OK, back to the first. Below is a shot from the fairway looking back towards the tee.

You don’t need to hit driver here, and in fact, missing short and left of the fairway is much preferable to long and right. That’s because the first fairway, along with several others throughout the round, drops off sharply along the righthand rough line, and tee balls hit with too much mustard will skip happily down the hill beyond the fairway and into the woods.

Turning the corner, you get your first look at a green style that will become very familiar throughout the round: elevated, guarded by deep bunkers, and sloped from back to front.

From the front left of the green, the contours stand out in sharp relief.

And looking back, with the golf carts in the frame, offers a sense of scale for both the width of the corridor and the sharp cliff along the hole’s right side.

One of my better photos from the day came at the very first hole:

2nd hole
Par 4
411 yards

I told you these two holes were the same, right?

Upon looking back at these photos, I needed to consult Google Maps to remember which tee shot was which. This one is (almost definitely) the second. The dogleg is slightly less severe, so you can catch a glimpse of the greenside bunker from the tee.

The similarities continue as you turn the corner: Both the first and second holes tumble down to a low point before climbing back up to the green. Both greens sit at roughly the same elevation as their fairways. And both greens angle from front left to back right, slope from back to front, and use a front right lobed bunker as a shield against indifferent approaches.

Oh, right. That devilish righthand fairway cliff exists on the second hole, too.

On the Duke Golf website, Robert Trent Jones is quoted as saying that “…the golf holes were on the ground, just lying there, waiting to be grassed over.” I’m no golf course shaper, but I’d be more than a little surprised if these two consecutive holes, complete with their high-banked curves and ski-slope dropoffs, required only a coating of grass seed to become playable.

Having said that, the holes themselves are both interesting and challenging, and serve as a good introduction to the rest of the round. We had a tough right-hand pin position, which thwarted all of our attempts at par.

Tim putts from the back fringe, with his bucketed brother Tom tending the pin.

3rd hole
Par 4
375 yards

This is a really interesting hole.

That fairway bunker runs up the entire right side of the hole, and makes you think hard about club selection, target, and shot shape off the tee. Longer drivers can cover the bunker and set up a straightforward pitch up the throat of the green, but most players will opt to hit something less than driver. The hole opens up along the left side, but you’ll want to keep it close to that fairway bunker, or else you’ll end up like me and have to hit a wedge over this ghastly cluster of bunkers.

Looking back down the hole, the fairway bunker lies hidden, and the width of the corridor is revealed. This pin was on a little back-right shelf, and flummoxed everyone’s attempts. After two ho-hum introductory holes, the third offers some solid strategic design.

4th hole
Par 3
137 yards

Nothing too crazy here, just a straightforward short hole that severely punishes misses.

Unless you’re like Tom, and somehow end up on a hidden land bridge:

We had another tucked pin at the fourth — the green stretches a long way from front right to back left, and slopes massively from back to front.

5th hole
Par 4
368 yards

The fifth and sixth present similar challenges. Both mid-length two-shotters with relatively narrow corridors, the two holes don’t require much more than a 200- to 220-yard shot off the tee to set up a good look at the green.

Both greens sit slightly elevated and are defended by bunkers in front.

6th hole
Par 4
379 yards

I wish I had photographed the sixth green, as it was the more interesting of the two, with a pronounced spine running down the left center and a pin sequestered up on the top-left shelf, but I was too busy three-putting it.

7th hole
Par 5
540 yards

After two snoozers, the golf course rumbles back to life at the seventh. The tee shot calls for a high fade, which hopefully clears the bunkers and catches the downslope for a few crucial extra yards. Crest the hill, and prepare for the big reveal…

As usual, photos can’t do justice to the elevation change here. Standing in the fairway, the distant green looks like a dartboard hanging on the wall of somebody’s den.

It’s a bit of a fool’s errand to go for the green, as the front falls sharply into a creek, and bunkers guard literally every single other place to miss. While this severely diminishes the strategy of the hole, it’s still an opportunity to hit three fun shots over an interesting and dramatic piece of property.

An attempt at capturing the scale

Looking back up the 7th, which once again features a severely back-to-front sloping green. This is a very serene part of the property — it’s one of the lowest points on the course, and a good spot to collect one’s breath before starting the climb back up the 8th and 9th towards the clubhouse.

8th hole
Par 3
143 yards

We had three foursomes play in our little pre-wedding group, and when I asked a few of my friends in different groups about which holes stood out to them, the eighth came up several times.

It’s just a handsome par-3, and although it’s (say it with me) uphill and guarded by bunkers, the green is very interesting. It’s extremely wide (running from that lefthand bunker to all the way past the righthand one), and deep enough for most misses to find the surface. There’s (obviously) a major back-to-front slope, but also a broad and precipitous ridge bisecting the green front to back. Unique it is not, but it gets the job done. Good hole overall.

9th hole
Par 5
465 yards

The front nine ends with a serious bang.

Tim choosing iron off the tee. If I remember correctly, he striped it down the middle while I torched my drive into the woods.

The front nine ends with two par-5s in its last three holes, and they couldn’t play much more differently. The ninth swings right to left and is eminently reachable, as a strong tee shot will open up this view of the green with the clubhouse behind.

Those bunkers on the left represent an automatic one-shot penalty, as the first tier is probably eight or nine feet below the surface, and the second one feels like you’re trying to blast a ball out of the Grand Canyon.

From this angle, the green almost feels like an infinity pool.

10th hole
Par 4
411 yards

The back nine begins with a tight tee shot through a chute of trees…

…and features the only green on the course to sit almost at grade with the fairway. RTJ couldn’t resist adding a miniscule lip in front of the green, but it’s as close as you’ll get at Duke to a bump-and-run opportunity.

11th hole
Par 5
510 yards

Writing this a few weeks later is an interesting exercise, because I’m seeing the course in a few minutes instead of a few hours. As such, I’m realizing that all of the par-5s fall between holes 7 and 14, and three of them come in the space of five holes.

Another giant corridor here, begging for a towering draw that runs downhill towards another creek-defended green.

The view from the right side of the fairway. Really a spectacularly bad cart path routing here.

A word of warning that the hole does bend left more strongly than it appears from the tee — several of us hit what we thought were perfect tee shots, only to find them dangerously close to (or in) the gunch on the right.

Just like the seventh, this hole doesn’t offer a ton of reward for taking on the risk of the creek. Bunkers encroach left and right, and although there’s all the room in the world past the green, I can report from experience that it’s a very delicate chip up and then down a green that cascades from (you guessed it) back to front.

12th hole
Par 3
138 yards

Another all-carry, hit-it-or-else one-shotter.

The green is relatively generous, and there is a bailout left. That bunker behind the green is needlessly penal, as if you find yourself there, you’re already facing a chip back downhill toward the water. If that sounds like sour grapes, it’s because I nuked my wedge into that bunker and made four.

Also, this hole was cool in that the tee box was super wide, offering a bunch of different angles from which to attack this green.

13th hole
Par 4
355 yards

There was some major maintenance being done on the 13th, so I didn’t take any photos. It was another straightforward two-shotter, with a wide pond nestling dangerously close to the right side green. If memory serves, the green basically ran directly into the pond with only a narrow strip of fringe in between.

14th hole
Par 5
497 yards

Your final par-5 of the day. Haul off and whack one.

From the left side of the fairway, the tilt of the hole becomes evident. A relatively shallow green runs uphill from front left to back right, with a few bunkers to punish indifferent approaches.

15th hole
Par 3
178 yards

Another uphill one-shotter, with a deathly bunker to the right and a few different shelves upon which to stash pins. The below shot is looking back towards the tee…

…while the next photo was taken from almost exactly the same spot, just turned 90 degrees left. Most of the 11th hole is visible on the left, while the tee and part of the 12th green appears in the center.

Also, the course had an interesting acqueduct running alongside it. I never got confirmation on the pipe’s exact purpose, but I’m here for any sort of gravity-based water transport system.

16th hole
Par 4
380 yards

This was my favorite hole on the course. A sharp dogleg right, the 16th asks a question right from the tee box. And that question is the same as the one asked by the legendary Nickelodeon challenge show GUTS:

D- D- Do-

Not everyone can respond in the affirmative, and that’s fine. Pull an iron, and you’re aiming towards that maintenance cart just right of the bunkers. It’s a safe play, and one that will likely end up with you looking at a reasonable approach shot.

For those with big dreams and designs on posting a number, it’s time to reach for a headcover, take aim at that gap between the trees on the right, and have at it.

A successful drive will end up approximately here, from which point the player is once again tasked with flying an approach to a raised green fronted by bunkers.

Roughly circular, bisected by a central spine, and tilted back to front — the greens all have character, but most of them are playing the same part.

17th hole
Par 4
414 yards

I think I read somewhere that RTJ’s goal at his courses is to give the player 16 holes to make hay, and then make them battle the course over the final two holes to keep their position intact. It’s a design philosophy that I don’t necessarily agree with, but I will say that it has been carried out well here at Duke. The course finishes with two moderately long two-shotters, both presenting some significant tee-to-green challenges.

The seventeenth features the course’s most interesting fairway, a rumpled piece of land sure to kick tee shots into odd places and offer players uncomfortable stances for their approach shots.

Here’s Tim demonstrating the uphill lie

18th hole
Par 4
427 yards

What the 18th fairway lacks in character, it makes up for in slenderness. With a bunker tightening the driving area even further, the course’s final hole demands players to step up and lace one down the center to have a shot at a closing par.

I took the above photo before our round, and didn’t even realize it was the 18th green at the time. In a fun bit of symmetry, our wedding party took groomsmen photos on this very spot the next day.

Overall, I enjoyed the Duke course, and would like to play it again now that I know what I’m in for. There’s definitely some repetition in the holes and shots that you’re asked to hit, and in such a golf-rich area, I can understand how it might fly a bit under the radar. Conditioning was superb, land movement was striking, and the range and practice facilities were excellent. While it wouldn’t crack my list of places I’m dying to return to, I’d definitely recommend it if you’re in the area.



Robbie Vogel

Bought a hat once. Did not receive a free bowl of soup with it.