Golfweek’s seventh annual America’s Best course rankings are in. Once again, the results are likely to fuel debate and discussion in locker rooms, 19th holes and maintenance yards.
Pine Valley and Sand Hills are still No. 1, respectively, on our Classical and Modern lists. Donald Ross and Tom Fazio remain the leaders of their eras when it comes to ranked courses on the America’s Best list. And for all the development of fine layouts in recent years, the 1920s remain the most-productive decade when it comes to defining an era of great golf course architecture.
Continuities aside, there also are some interesting new trends at work that presage the next decade of course design and development. The benefits of major classical restorations are clear in terms of some dramatic climbs compared with last year’s rankings. A few veteran architects got their first solo listings this year. And the affordable daily-fee category is proving ripe with quality designs.
All of this bodes well for creativity despite an era of reduced course openings. Just because there were 40 percent fewer course openings in 2002 than in 2000 (according to National Golf Foundation data), quality doesn’t have to suffer. Architects seem to be invoking classical design principles, and they’re working with golf course contractors who are inventive in doing more with less than they were a few years ago.
The Classical list includes 92 private courses and eight public-access courses. Of those, five are resorts and three are truly daily fees, including Bethpage State Park (Black Course) in Farmingdale, N.Y., a U.S. Open venue in 2002 (and 2009) that state residents can play for as little as $31. The Modern list is considerably more public oriented, with 65 privates, 16 resorts and 19 daily fees.
If that doesn’t put to rest the canard that such course rankings are inherently elitist, we’ve included in this issue a comprehensive state-by-state list of the best public access courses, resort and daily fee (p42-48).
Classical vs. Modern
Golfweek’s America’s Best team of 225 raters (representing 48 states) perennially scours the country in search of good and bad design. The criteria they use (see chart) include strategic considerations of shotmaking and design balance as well as the aesthetics of conditioning and setting.
Our “walk in the park test” also is a crucial variable. It refers to the extent that the four-plus hours spent at the course under review are worthwhile as an overall outdoor engagement.
What distinguishes our America’s Best list from course ratings done by other publications is a division of the golf course universe into two eras: Classical (up to 1959) and Modern (1960 and after). Why the split among the country’s 17,000 courses? Roughly half of the existing stock predate 1960 and half postdate that year. More important are the era-specific differences in design, construction and grassing.
In earlier years, land was so abundant that if a proposed site proved unsuitable, the architect would select an adjoining parcel. Older, traditional layouts were done by handwork and by animal-drawn labor. Little earth moving was possible, and the occasional blind shot was accepted as a sporting part of the game.
Features were built from existing grade, with putting surfaces “pushed up” from native soil. Routings – the sequence of holes – were intimate and easily walkable owing to close proximity of greens to tees. Real estate and cart paths were nonfactors. No ground needed to be bypassed because no regulatory agencies controlled wetlands (they were called “swamps” back then) and developers were free to drain or fill them.
The design business changed rapidly around 1960. That’s when national television, Arnold Palmer, bulldozers and suburban real estate helped reshape the golf market. Robert Trent Jones Sr. led the way in creating new designs that favored power golf, the aerial game, and the deployment of bunkering on the flanks of holes rather than diagonally or in the middle of fairways.
At the same time, the U.S. Golf Association Green Section introduced a more technically sophisticated method of layered greens construction that enabled a new generation of fine-bladed bentgrasses and Bermudagrasses to survive on greens at lower cutting heights than were imaginable two decades earlier.
Soon, wetlands were granted protected status, so the permitting process took considerably more time and land formerly usable for golf had to be circumvented. Architects found a solution to this routing problem in the form of the golf cart and tee-to-green paved paths. By the 1990s, anything was possible, a trend typified by the “heaven and earth” approach of Fazio, Pete Dye and Jack Nicklaus, who were not averse to moving millions of cubic yards of earth in the course of creating layouts on land ill-suited to the purpose.
In recent years, the Modern era has seen the rise of an alternative model of architecture that evokes traditional design principles. These courses are built with high-tech machinery and maintained with state-of-the-art, multirow irrigation systems and small hydraulic mowing units. And yet, they look decades old. The chief proponents of this lower-profile approach have been Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw, with four courses rated (including Sand Hills), and Tom Doak, with three design credits on the top 100 Modern, including No. 2 Pacific Dunes in Bandon, Ore.
Not that the Modern era is by any means easy to characterize. The highest-rated Modern course making its debut on our list this year is the Kiawah Island Club’s Cassique Course (No. 58), where Tom Watson created intensive mounding that literally leaps out of the low-lying ground on which it sits. And while some designers today prefer to improve in the field, others believe in meticulous planning and documentation of every contour before a single shape is built.
The chief proponent of this approach today is Jim Engh. He has three boldly shaped designs on the top 100 Modern, including the ultra-private Sanctuary Golf Course in Sedalia, Colo. (No. 27), and two modestly priced daily fees, Hawktree Golf Club in Bismarck, N.D. (No. 70), and a newcomer to our list, Tullymore Golf Club in Stanwood, Mich. (No. 86).
Among the 11 rookies on our Modern list are two by veteran designers for whom recognition is long overdue. Keith Foster’s Harvester Golf Club in Rhodes, Iowa (No. 84) incorporates a farm theme throughout, while Brian Silva’s Black Creek Club in Chattanooga, Tenn. (No. 97) tastefully conveys the influence of Seth Raynor’s linear design forms.
Restoration and renovation also figure prominently this year – no surprise in a time when the market is shifting from new courses to tinkering with established ones.
Aronimink Golf Club in Newton Square, Pa., jumped 39 spots to No. 59 in the wake of its return to its Donald Ross heritage as undertaken by architect Ron Prichard. Gil Hanse’s restoration of A.W. Tillinghast’s Fenway Golf Club in Scarsdale, N.Y., helped that club leap 30 spots (No. 50 from No. 80).
Same course, new look
Meanwhile, some Modern courses enjoyed the fruits of renovation by their original architects. The Ocean Course at Kiawah Island, S.C., climbed seven spots to No. 15 after work by Pete Dye improved visibility of the landing areas and provided a stronger finishing hole. Rees Jones helped Atlantic Golf Club in Bridgehampton, N.Y., rise 37 spots to No. 40 after he and superintendent Bob Ranum squared off the tees and took out protective containment mounding for the sake of a sharper, more traditional, fall-away look around the greens.
When it comes to comeback awards, the winner is probably Caves Valley Golf Club in Owings Mill, Md. This 1991 layout by Tom Fazio was on our list in 1997-98 but subsequently fell off the top 100 – common among Modern courses, as it turns out.
Significant renovation work involving a partial rerouting of the back nine seems to have helped, along with widespread praise when Caves Valley played host to the 2002 U.S. Senior Open. The result is a return to our list, this time at No. 93.
Not surprisingly, the America’s Best program started in 1996 has grown far beyond the original plan. Our aim then was to become a standard reference point in the industry when talk turned to course ratings. To that end, we’ve expanded our presence beyond this annual special issue to include an America’s Best Raters Notebook feature every month in Golfweek.
Let the debates begin.