During the mid to late 1800s, the United States was experiencing an unprecedented growth in the interest of sports, especially amateur sports. At the time, Atlanta did offer many social clubs, but there was no club organized for the purpose of promoting athletics. Led by Burton Smith, a group of 65 men formed the Atlanta Athletic Club (AAC) in 1898. The original clubhouse was located on Edgewood Avenue, just below the Equitable building.
The club initially had no golf course, but four years after it was founded, it had more than 700 members. John Heisman, the Georgia Tech football coach for whom the famed Heisman Trophy was later named, directed the club’s athletic program of swimming, tennis, basketball and track. The club leaders soon realized the increased interest in golf, and in 1904, acquired property in the “suburbs” of Atlanta to create a country club, engaging golf architect Tom Bendelow to lay out the course.
The grand opening of the Bendelow course took place on July 4, 1908, on the property that was known as East Lake. East Lake itself, a sparkling stretch of water surrounded by forestland, was originally the site of an amusement park in the 1890s. It was privately owned and its chief attractions were a swimming beach, picnic tables, hot dog-popcorn-and-peanut stands, and a penny arcade where for the sum of 1¢, people could peep at such scenes as Pike’s Peak, the 1889 World’s Fair in far away Paris, and bathing beauties in revealing bloomers. There was also a real steamboat that huffed and puffed up and down the narrow confines of the lake to give sightseers a thrilling ride.
Young Bob Jones, then 6, was present at the opening reception on that summer afternoon in the company of his father, “Colonel” Robert P. Jones. The elder Jones, already an active member, later served as president of the club from 1937 – 1942 and as a director for 38 years (Bob himself later also served as president from 1946-47).
In 1913, famed golf course architect Donald Ross redesigned the Bendelow course at East Lake. The remodeled course featured a routing plan that provided each nine holes to conclude at the clubhouse. Previously the original course had nine holes that oddly finished across the lake from the clubhouse. Ross also designed the “new” No. 2 course in 1928. That No. 2 course was opened on May 31, 1930, to coincide with the final day of Bob Jones’ victorious British Amateur championship match. The club enjoyed another milestone in 1930 when Bobby Jones completed the Grand Slam of golf, winning the United States Amateur, United States Open, British Amateur, and British Open in the same year.
East Lake has hosted its fair share of golf tournaments over the years. The Golden Anniversary of the Woman’s Amateur Golf Championship, played at East Lake on September 11-16, 1950, marked the first time a USGA National Championship was ever played in Atlanta. In 1963, the 15th biennial Ryder Cup Matches were played over the No. 1 course. In preparation for the matches, the home course went through a face lift for three years, during which most of the old course was rebuilt and many of the holes changed to provide the quality championship layout the tournament merited. The alterations were performed under the direction of golf course architect, George Cobb.
Not long after the club hosted the 1963 Ryder Cup, the outlook for East Lake began to change. The surrounding neighborhood deteriorated as the 1960s fell victim to white flight and urban decay. The Atlanta Athletic Club became part of that flight when it sold the “Number 2” course to developers and moved to its present home in Duluth. The original course and clubhouse were saved when a group of 25 members purchased them and began operation as the newly formed East Lake Country Club in 1968.
In 1970, the East Lake Meadows public housing project was built on the site of the club’s “Number 2” course and became a center for poverty, drugs, and violence. Middle-income homeowners fled the surrounding neighborhood, replaced by low-income renters. By the 1980s, once proud East Lake was a tired, mostly forgotten golf course, seemingly as hopeless as the surrounding neighborhood.
This all changed in 1993 when a local charitable foundation purchased East Lake with the intent to restore it as a tribute to Bobby Jones and the club’s other great amateur golfers. The East Lake Foundation has used the renovation as a catalyst for revitalizing the surrounding community.
In 1994, Rees Jones restored Donald Ross’s original golf course layout. Using the original Philip Shutze architectural drawings, the clubhouse was brought back to its 1926 design and condition. In 2008, an impressive addition to the Clubhouse was completed and several modifications were made to the golf course, including changing the putting surfaces from Bentgrass to Bermuda grass.
East Lake Golf Club has been the permanent home of the TOUR Championship since 2005. The tournament was first played at East Lake in 1998 and has been held at East Lake 16 times since then. The TOUR Championship is the culminating event of the PGA TOUR Playoffs for the FedEx Cup, with only the top 30 players on the points list qualifying each year. The 2016 TOUR Championship and FedEx Cup winner is Rory McIlroy.
In 2015, the Club announced in conjunction with Golf Channel, that it would be hosting a new annual collegiate event, the East Lake Cup. East Lake Cup consists of the top four men's and women's golf teams from the previous year's NCAA Championship. The tournament, which is broadcast live on Golf Channel, features one day of stroke play and two days of match play.
The club serves as the driving force behind the effort to revitalize the surrounding neighborhood. Profits from the club, as well as charitable donations from the club’s corporate membership, support the East Lake Foundation and its remarkable redevelopment project. The revived East Lake stands as a symbol of tradition and honor to those who know its history and were a part of its past. But, even more importantly, it stands as a symbol of hope to those who will live in its future.