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Yale University's Golf Coach

Robert Lewis Scottish bulldog

Photo: Robert Lewis

A pale sun shines through the tall trees that outline the Yale course, melting the frost on the greens. Paterson heads to the range to watch his players warm up and then hikes over to the first tee to see them off. Like a seasoned cornerman in boxing, he reminds them to trust their swings and follow their game plans. Then he steps aside. Although nearly all of the other coaches ride around the course in carts, Paterson walks, watching from a distance. "I don't harass them," he tells me. "I don't go up and say, 'What are you shooting?' I wait till it's up on the scoreboard."

Later we make our way to the famous par-three ninth, with its long carry over water to a huge, deeply swaled green. The team's number-two man, Colby Moore, a sophomore from North Carolina with the preppy looks of a Ralph Lauren model, walks onto the tee and shrugs his bag off his shoulder. "A good solid seven will get it on," Paterson says to him, adding, "Whatever you hit, make a commitment to it." Moore pulls out his six-iron and hits a soaring draw that holds the front of the green and avoids the swale. He two-putts for par and goes on to shoot a four-over seventy-four.

In late afternoon Paterson and I catch up with a foursome that includes his captain, Mark Matza, a senior premed student with a Hoganesque playing style. From a hundred yards away, Paterson can see him uncharacteristically chatting with his playing partner from Harvard as they trudge up the fairway. "Come on," the coach mutters. "Focus here. Stop gabbing." Matza pars the hole en route to shooting seventy-five. The next day he posts a seventy-two, as does Moore, and together they lead Yale to a score of 598—a stroke average of 74.75. (Each team fields five players and counts its four lowest scores per round.) Yale finishes in third place, one shot behind the University of Hartford and Johnson & Wales but ahead of, as Paterson points out, the four other Ivies in the field.

I first met Paterson on a blustery day in 1991 while playing for Brown in the Yale Spring Opener. I had just hit a two-iron off the ninth tee that failed to clear the pond, and my ball sat half-submerged on its far edge. Rather than walk back to the tee and hit three, I took off my right shoe and sock and rolled up my pant leg. Paterson, who had been standing behind the green, hurried down to the water, glowering as I stood over the ball and checking to see whether I'd ground my club in the hazard. I was careful not to, but I still flailed away, making a nine on the hole.

When I meet up with Paterson again on a rainy day in April, I am expecting him to have a hard edge. Instead, he jokes about the bad weather and says it seems to be following him around. (The previous weekend the team competed in forty-mile-an-hour gusts on Maryland's Eastern Shore.) After we speak awhile, I tell him of my undoing before his eyes sixteen years earlier. He doesn't remember it, but he smiles warmly and says, "I've been there. We all have."

By the time he came to Yale, at age forty, Paterson had already lived a lifetime in the game. He learned to play with handed-down clubs, some of them old hickories. He played in the Scottish Boys Championship each year at North Berwick, where he'd stay with an aunt, listening to the foghorn at night as he lay in a damp bed. During his three years as a medical corpsman in the RAF, he kept asking to be stationed at St. Andrews, and finally he got his wish. Later he was sent off to run an infirmary in Aberdeenshire, on the grounds of the links at Cruden Bay.

After the service, Paterson became the first-assistant pro at Turnberry. He spent four seasons there, from 1956 to 1959, honing his game and giving lessons to well-heeled Americans, even playing with President Eisenhower. "The relationships I formed there were the beginning of my move to the USA," Paterson says. "Probably I was subliminally nurturing a desire to be on this side of the world. After all, this was the land of opportunity and where the best golf was taking place."

Paterson moved to America by way of Bermuda, where he served as head pro at a club called Riddell's Bay. He also played a bit on the U.S. tour—his British PGA card granted him entry into seven events a year, provided he could pass the Monday qualifiers. Although he always qualified, he says, he rarely made the cut, and at the Cleveland Open he once shanked a range ball right past Arnold Palmer's nose. His tour career sputtering, Paterson took a job in 1965 as the assistant pro at Brooklawn Country Club in Fairfield, Connecticut. Four years later he moved to the Country Club of Fairfield, and from there went to Yale as director of golf. He took the job only on the condition that he could also coach the team.

When Paterson arrived in new Haven, he had lofty ambitions for the program. Yale, as he knew, had dominated the early decades of college golf, winning twenty-one national championships by mid-century before the balance of power shifted, once and for all, to Southern schools. Yale's early standouts included Jess Sweetser, who captured the national intercollegiate title in 1920 and then went on to win the U.S. and British Amateurs. More than a generation later, the two sons of renowned course designer Robert Trent Jones played for Yale: Bobby (class of '61) and Rees ('63), both now distinguished golf architects themselves.


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