By Bradley S. Klein
Highlighting the ninth edition of the Golfweek America’s Best golf course rankings are works by a previously unheralded group of designers.
The big names of the Modern era – Tom Fazio, Jack Nicklaus, Pete Dye, Rees Jones – didn’t deliver a new top-100 product. Instead, Graham Marsh, Baxter Spann, Gil Hanse and David Esler, along with veteran designer Tom Weiskopf, authored the rookies on our post-1960 list.
Pine Valley Golf Club (Classic) and Sand Hills Golf Club (Modern) top our annual lists for the ninth consecutive year. The Golfweek America’s Best lists are a yearlong compilation of ratings by our 350-member course rating team. (See p.17 for poster of the top 100 Classic and top 100 Modern courses. A state-by-state list of public-access courses appears on p22-26.)
Most of the newcomers are located in sparsely populated areas or followed less-than-conventional market strategies. At No. 13, the private Sutton Bay Club, nestled in the town of Agar, S.D., 40 miles north of Pierre, is the highest-debuting Modern course. Designed by Marsh, a Champions Tour player from Australia, Sutton Bay sits on bluffs overlooking the Missouri River. The 5,000-acre site was transformed by club developer Mark Amundson into a hunting, fishing and golf retreat.
Black Mesa Golf Club, in La Mesilla, N.M. (No. 50 Modern) sits on rugged, high desert terrain 20 miles north of Santa Fe. At $55 for state residents, $66 for nonresidents, this Santa Clara Tribe-owned course designed by Spann is moderately priced by national standards, though not quite the bargain as another rookie on the list, Rustic Canyon Golf Course in Moorpark, Calif.
(No. 63 Modern).
Owned by Ventura County, Rustic Canyon, 40 miles northwest of Los Angeles, costs only $35-$53 to play, making tee times hard to get. Lately,, the Alistair MacKenzie-inspired design has been operating as a 15-hole course since a January flood damaged parts of the front nine. Repair and restoration work were expected to return the entire course to play by July.
Some of the most innovative design work of late has taken place in out-of-the-way spots and often has involved talented people who are not (yet) household names.
Consider Hanse, who co-designed Rustic Canyon with golf writer Geoff Shackelford. Hanse, 41, is Cornell educated, with a master’s in landscape architecture. While at Cornell, he won the prestigious William Frederick Dreer Scholarship, allowing him to spend 1987-88 studying golf courses in Great Britain and Ireland. He then went to work for a previous Dreer scholarship winner, Tom Doak, a stint that included their collaboration on Stonewall Golf Club in Elverson, Pa., No. 61 on the Modern list.
Since going out on his own more than a decade ago, Hanse has excelled at ground-hugging golf architecture and scruffy, traditional bunkers. He’s done this not only with new courses like Rustic Canyon, but also with subtle restorations at such luminary Classic courses as Fishers Island (No. 11), Quaker Ridge (No. 28), Plainfield (No. 30), Fenway (No. 55), Lancaster (No. 71) and Ridgewood (No. 76).
Hanse is not alone in hoping that old-school design has carved out a firm place in today’s design market.
“I can’t tell if it’s a niche,” he said. “I’d like to think there’s a more widespread appeal and that golfers are becoming more appreciative of what (Bill) Coore and (Ben) Crenshaw and Doak and we are trying to do.”
Heady company, what with two of the top three courses on the Modern list being Coore and Crenshaw courses: Sand Hills Golf Club in Mullen, Neb., still is No. 1, and Friar’s Head, in Baiting Hollow, N.Y., is No. 3, up from last year’s debut at No. 11. And Doak’s Pacific Dunes, in Bandon, Ore., sits at No. 2 – yet more evidence of what happens when a designer’s work enhances, rather than imposes, itself upon interesting native contours.
Of course, sometimes the contours and slopes have to be created, which is exactly what Esler did in designing Black Sheep Golf Club in Sugar Grove, Ill. (No. 74). The private club sits on lightly rolling farmland 45 miles west of downtown Chicago. Esler, 41, a native of Wakonda, Ill., played varsity golf from 1982-86 at Ohio State University, where he also earned his degree in landscape architecture. He always had aspirations of becoming a course designer, and after a fling at playing professionally he opened a design shop and eked out a living for a decade.
“I’m the world’s worst marketer,” Esler said.
Finally, Esler was hired by Chicago-area real estate developer Vince Solano to design a layout “on an ordinary cornfield with a pretty modest budget,” Esler said. Solano turned Esler loose to create a wide expanse of playing surface, evocative of Prairie Dunes in terms of native grasses but unlike anything in the Chicago area. With the membership limited to men only, and with only two sets of tees per hole, Esler adhered to a basic principle: “The closer you hit it to the primary hazard, the better your next shot is.”
Not all of the newcomers to the Modern list are the handiwork of up-and-coming designers. Lahontan Golf Club in Truckee, Calif. (No. 88), is the fourth design (or co-design) by Weiskopf on the list.
At least Weiskopf is still around to see his work gain recognition. The late Donald Ross had two of his designs added to his top 100 portfolio, making for a total of 27, thanks to long-term restorations of Skokie Country Club in Glencoe, Ill. (No. 86 Classic) and Beverly Country Club in Chicago (No. 100 Classic). Both restorations were undertaken by Ron Prichard, who has turned classic touch-up into a cottage industry.
Old school? New school? There’s plenty to go around. Plus there are 52 public-access courses on the top 100 lists, the bulk of them on the Modern side. In case that doesn’t suffice, peruse the list of top public-access courses on a state-by-state basis (p22-26). Like the designers we’ve named, famous and not-so-famous, these courses also run the gamut. For those who shy away from the nearly $400 green fee at Pebble Beach Golf Links (No. 5 Classic and No. 1 on the California public list), we’d recommend a trip to America’s heartland, say North Dakota. There, for less than $50 per round, you can play two top-100 Modern courses (Hawktree Golf Club in Bismarck, No. 49; and Links of North Dakota at Red Mike Resort in Williston, No. 58); or the state’s third-ranked public course, the bare-bones but thrilling Bully Pulpit Golf Course in Dickinson.
America’s Best doesn’t mean America’s fanciest. It just means getting back to nature via the game’s essential design strategies.