6,535 yards, 139 Slope from the Player tees
In Princeton, NJ, Jasna Polana is the name of the estate, which was once owned by John Seward Johnson and his third wife, Barbara Piasecka Johnson. It means bright glade in Polish and was also the name of Tolstoy’s home. The 226 acre grounds were transformed into a golf course in 1998, designed by Gary Player. A venue for the Champions Tour in 2000-02 and hosting Shell’s Wonderful World of Golf with Tom Watson and Hale Irwin in 1999 (Watson won).
Very much reminiscent of the decadent late 1990’s/early 2000’s of golf, Jasna Polana features a grandiose neoclassical clubhouse and a separate Georgian mansion, amongst sprawling country garden terrain. The course was built in championship fashion as part of the TPC network. Difficulty, ability to host top level tournaments, lush, green, pillowy soft, pristine conditions and high end luxury were the calling cards then and remain ingrained in the fabric of the course today.
While the facility, setting and conditioning are eye popping, and some of the holes have a unique challenge, Player mostly settled on a switch back routing that left me thinking what could have been on such ideal grounds. The challenge mainly lies with forced carries or small target areas. The greens, however, and the wider run off areas around some of them, were intriguing and where most of the fun and interest was for me. In terms of places for a round of golf, the experience here is one not to miss. Admittedly, Player is not one of my favorite designers, mainly because the courses I have played of his are one dimensional or a bit too contrived. Here, there’s a good deal to like but too many of the holes are uninspired in a place that deserves and could do better.
Summer was in full swing when I showed up at Yahsna (that’s how you pronounce it). Still recovering from battle wounds of the poison ivy attack episode at Black Sheep, a perfect day of golf was upon me as I warmed up at the range. In mid season form, I was chomping at the bit to see what kind of War and Peace I’d get into that day.
The First is a 378 yard par 4 (from the Player tees). A dog leg left with a ridge running along the left side higher than the fairway. There are bunkers on the right and then trees, with the terrain falling off considerably after the bunkers. The tree lines converge and tighten the fairway closer to the green, which is deep yet narrow with a bunker below on the right. Accuracy is at a premium here. The trees hide some great terrain on both sides of the hole and this is some where I’d take the trees out to reveal it, which would make the hole more versatile. As it stands, it’s an opening hole that acts as a litmus test as to whether you’re up for the challenge to come.
The Second is a 127 yard par 3. A drop shot par 3 over Strawberry Run with bunkers right and rear. It’s a short shot that focuses on accuracy with a smaller bail out area to the left.
The Third is a 480 yard par 5. A double dog leg that goes down then up to the green. Getting the tee shot to the fairway where it starts downhill is a good idea, but then again the second shot will be a significant downhill lie. The fairway continues downhill, then starts to climb before finally turning right to the green. Knowing where the green is, making sure the trees are clear on the right and figuring out your preferred angle to the green are all considerations on the second shot. Once the fairway starts climbing to the green, the right side off fairway falls off severely into water, so those thinking about going for the green in two should keep that in mind, while most all approaches will need to carry this water, unless the approach is from the area where the fairway turns right to the green. It’s a strong par 5.
The Fourth is a 304 yard par 4. A short par 4 and the opening sequence shows good variety. The fairway leads downhill to the green with bunkers along the fairway and around the green. With the shorter distance, the goal is to figure whatever two shots you have that avoid the bunkers. Of course, you can take a go at it from the tee, just don’t go past the green since there’s not much there to save shots from going into the woods.
The Fifth is a 361 yard par 4. Tree lined and straight, uphill to the green, with fairway bunkers on the right. The green has some nice shaping and movement.
The Sixth is a 427 yard par 4. Still moving uphill, this hole dog legs right and while the trees give way to more width, bunkers are scattered on the right side then left leading up to the green. The green is perpendicular to the fairway and there’s a bunker guarding most of the front side while a small entrypoint is off to the left.
The Seventh is a 558 yard par 5. A slight dog leg left that turns around from the Sixth, we go downhill. The tee landing area is wide but then the fairway narrows after it, moving downhill and left to the green. Trees guard access to the green on the left side, so moving up the right is a better play. The green is on the small side and while there are a few greenside bunkers, there is not much space to miss the green. Off to the right of the green is a pond with a creek running down hill to some of the later holes. Tees surround the pond so it really is not put in play. There’s a few ways it could have been incorporated more but there may be buildings that predated the course that made that more difficult. It does come in on the Eighth a bit.
The Eighth is a 193 yard par 3. The water does come into play here, as it runs along the right side. The green has nice shape and movement to it, with shots too far to the rear likely falling off. Bail out room is short but do not get too horizontal here or you’ll likely be dropping. A bit of visual deception as a greenside bunker on the front right is hidden from the tee. Also, shots off to the right may catch the slope and move into the creek. It’s a cool par 3 that uses the small part of the creek well.
The Ninth is a 441 yard par 4. The most challenging tee shot thus far is a forced carry over water and a ridge, with the fairway moving left and downhill. The upper early portion of the fairway looks down on the green, which moves downhill hard. It’s a longer shot, but the visuals created by the elevation difference confounds things. You can also use the hill to bounce and roll the ball on to the green, but the right side is more conducive for that. In fact, the fairway cants from right to left, so take that into consideration. It’s a challenging and very good par 4. It’s the type of hole that stands out, takes advantage of the unique grounds and can get thrilling. More of this.
The front nine uses the western side of the property, which is a bit tighter and angular. I would rank them 9, 3, 4, 8, 7, 1, 6, 5, 2.
The back nine starts with the 414 yard par 4 Tenth. An uphill straightaway hole. The forced carry tee shot over a ravine and then a bunker through a chute of trees to a wider fairway that hides the cart path from the tee well. Bunkers on either side of the fairway but more so on the left, then the green, which moves well. And the back nine starts nicely.
The Eleventh is a 152 yard par 3. A shorter par 3 with a lot of run off room and a single greenside bunker on the right. Lots of places to end up and have a chance at the pin. A different look here than most other holes, a refresher hole that could also be pretty fun. A nice mix up.
The Twelfth is a 517 yard par 5. An uphill tee shot blind upon landing, the fairway opens up on the other side of the ridge. Then straightaway to the green, which gets progressively downhill as you get closer to it. A nice entrypoint to the green while bunkers guard either side, setting up whatever approach suits you.
The Thirteenth is a 411 yard par 4. Switching back from the Twelfth, bunkers are staggered on one side of the fairway to the other as the hole followd the contours and falls downhill to the green after the tee shot. Another good fairway feeding into the green with a nice wide fairway. Again, some nice movement near and on the green.
The Fourteenth is a 380 yard par 4. Switching back yet again, the fairway leads downhill to the green with fairway bunkers on the right. Greenside bunkers are also on the right while the green wraps around them.
The Fifteenth is a 419 yard par 4. After a few more subdued holes, the crescendo starts to build. A dog leg left framed by trees that leads downhill to the green, fairway bunkers on the right, rough separating them from the fairway. The approach is an interesting one with the dog leg still turning and a two-tiered green.
The Sixteenth is a 293 yard par 4. A really good short par 4, mainly because of its visual presentation. The tee shot is a forced carry over water and with the bunker placement and rise from the tee, the fairway width is imperceptible. The green is tucked away on the left, itself surrounded by bunkers and on the smaller side. Do you opt for whopping it off the tee to get it close or lay off on smarter percentage shots? If a match is coming down to the wire, it’s amazing the decisions we make in the heat of battle.
The Seventeenth is a 165 yard par 3. A forced carry over the water to a wide green that’s even wider with the run off area on the left. It all slopes towards the water so proceed accordingly.
The Eighteenth is a 515 yard par 5. Downhill yet again, the Tenth green was at a high point of the course that essentially the back nine floats down from. The tee shot is blind since the fairway is downhill so much, tilting and turning left towards the green. Strawberry Run makes a final appearance, bisecting the fairway from the green, at an angle. On the other side, the green tilts towards the creek, mirroring the first fairway with both slanting towards the other. It’s a picturesque finish with a deadly green, sloping with reckless abandon to that water.
The back nine gets to more expansive land before ending with holes that take advantage of the water and creeks near the clubhouse. I would rank them 16, 15, 18, 11, 17, 10, 13, 12, 14.
Generally, TPC Jasna Polana is a nice high end private course option for those in the area and especially those who will take advantage of its extraordinary clubhouse and facilities. The course has a handful of some pretty good holes I liked and there was a lot of detail in ensuring the holes presented a varied challenge from a distance perspective and at the greens. The strong holes took full advantage of the spectacular terrain and challenged you in different ways. There were also, however, a lot of holes that simply left me waiting for the next hole. It almost felt like everything revolved around the closing stretch of holes though it meant a lot of switchbacks on both sets of nines. If the routing looped around more and trees were removed to open up the grounds, many of the straight tree lined holes could take on more character. As it stands though, the course is indeed challenging and scenic, built during a time when execution and grace under pressure were revered characteristics. And really, not every course needs to fit in to what’s in vogue right now. There’s a style here you can’t find much any more that appeals to many of us. In that context, it does it well.
All of this of course is from a design perspective. The surroundings, grounds and architecture of the structures make for a unique golfing experience and I’d certainly not pass up the opportunity should it come up to spend the day here.
Clubhouse/Pro Shop: The pro shop is enormous and housed in the estate. As stated above, the clubhouse is one not to miss.
Practice area: Range, putting green, probably a short game area I just didn’t see it.