For the first time in the 10-year history of our America’s Best course ratings, there has been a change at the top. There is a new No. 1 on the list of Top 100 Classic Courses. Cypress Point Golf Club has displaced perennial front-runner Pine Valley Golf Club by the narrowest of margins.
How tight is it at the top? Not as tight as it is farther down the elite list of top-100 courses. The difference between Cypress Point in California and Pine Valley in New Jersey is a tad more than two-tenths of a point (0.21078, to be exact). Farther down the list, the difference between the No. 82 course, Point O’Woods Golf Club in Benton Harbor, Mich., and No. 101, which is off the list, is 0.18.
If small margins of difference evoke loud disagreements, that’s simply the inherently controversial nature of subjective ratings when choosing among 16,500 layouts.
Dividing the courses into two lists – Classic (pre-1960) and Modern (1960 and after) – helps our national team of 400 raters sort through some basic differences. But with new courses coming on line at the rate of roughly 125 per year, and older courses continually going through renovations and restorations, it is no wonder the list undergoes an evolution each year.
On the Modern side, Sand Hills Golf Club in Mullen, Neb. – Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw’s ode to the American heartland – maintains a slim lead over Pacific Dunes, in Bandon, Ore. With 14 newcomers to the Modern list this year, however, there’s plenty of turnover and innovation in play. There also is some distinct regionalism at work, which is why this special issue of Golfweek devoted to America’s Best focuses on an East-West divide.
Perhaps the westward swing, from Pine Valley to Cypress Point, is part of a larger continental drift at work in golf course architecture, with the West generally outpacing the East in regard to interesting new design. To be sure, the Classic list is totally dominated by an Old World orientation, with 82 of the top 100 located east of the Mississippi River. That’s no surprise, given the geographic circles in which such prolific designers as Donald Ross (25 courses), A.W. Tillinghast, and Seth Raynor tended to work. And the three courses new to the Classic list (see below) all are from the Northeast.
The Modern list is far more balanced geographically, with 51 from east of the Mississippi River and 49 to the west. Nine Western states devoid of ranked Classic courses have at least one course ranked on the Modern list: Arizona (eight), Oregon (seven), Nevada (four), North Dakota, New Mexico and Nebraska (two each), Iowa, South Dakota and Wyoming (one each). Eight of 14 new courses on the Modern list this year (see below) are in the West.
Overall, golf course development is down two-thirds from the go-go years of the late 1990s. The competitive nature of today’s market means those projects must be flawless if they are to be viable.
Here’s a look at the new Class of 2006:
No. 60: The Course at Yale, New Haven, Conn. After a two-year hiatus because of some poorly managed renovation work, this 1926 C.B. Macdonald-Seth Raynor museum piece is back. Credit new superintendent Scott Ramsay, CGCS, for upgrading maintenance and removing heavy tree cover.
No. 90: Atlantic City Country Club, Northfield, N.J. Tom Doak has engineered a wonderful head-to-toe renovation of the William S. Flynn original, including three new holes and several new tees that sit out in the marsh, affording upscale daily-fee golfers dramatic views of the Atlantic City skyline.
No. 97: Sunnehanna Country Club, Johnstown Pa. How stern is A.W. Tillinghast’s 1923 design? The par-70 layout, 6,868 yards, has been home to the Sunnehanna Amateur since 1954, with winning scores for 72 holes rarely in double-digits under par. Architect Ron Forse’s bunker restoration has enhanced the layout’s bite.
No. 17: Bandon Trails, Bandon, Ore. Coore and Crenshaw took an inland site at America’s smartest new resort and made it compatible with two adjoining coastal courses.
No. 31: Old Sandwich Golf Club, Plymouth, Mass. Coore and Crenshaw throw carry bunkers in your face everywhere and are not averse to heavily contoured fairways for ground effects that make every shot a thoughtful adventure.
No. 39: Briggs Ranch Golf Club, San Antonio. Course is on ideal rolling land, part of an ambitious upscale development on the outskirts of the city, where Texas Hill Country kicks into high gear. Tom Fazio has taken a softer, gentler approach to his bunkering, with the result being lovely horizontal flow to the holes.
No. 41: Monterey Peninsula Country Club (Shore Course), Pebble Beach, Calif. This total makeover on an ocean-splashed site was Mike Strantz’s last course before his death last June.
No. 44: Trump National Golf Cub, Bedminster, N.J. Good mix of short and long holes, with most of the work done by Tom Fazio’s nephew, Tommy, and minimal involvement by The Donald, so it has no waterfalls or gimmicks.
No. 46: Lakota Canyon, New Castle, Colo. Jim Engh holds nothing back at this intense launch pad of a course located firmly in the Rockies. Let’s hope it keeps its character once real estate starts popping up.
No. 49: Boston Golf Club, Hingham, Mass. Gil Hanse is playful, even provocative, with lots of semi-blind approaches to wild greens. It’s the only courses on the Modern list that ends on a par 3, but five courses on the Classic list conclude that way, so it must be OK.
No. 51: Black Rock, Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. Is Engh the only one to get these dramatic Western sites, or just the only one who makes them work? Deep drama behind and around every hole, thanks to some roller-coaster terrain on the front nine and electrifying lake frontage on the back nine.
No. 67: Whisper Rock (Lower Course), Scottsdale, Ariz. The course has been widened in the fairway landing areas, but Phil Mickelson’s insistence on raised, diagonal greens makes for tiny margins of error on approach shots and (no surprise) lots of floppy recoveries.
No. 68: Forest Creek Golf Club (North Course), Southern Pines, N.C. Tom Fazio invokes a Pine Barrens look with lots of over-the-hill shots and interesting angles. The last four holes are more linear and conventional, but the first 14 are scratchy, raw and compelling.
No. 71: Pronghorn (Nicklaus Course), Bend, Ore. Jack Nicklaus’ first Oregon venture is in a dramatic setting, 3,200 feet above sea level on a lava bed, ensconced in the mountains of the Cascades eastern slope. There are several mid-fairway hazards.
No. 83: Sage Valley Golf Club, Graniteville, S.C. As close as you can get to Augusta National, both aesthetically and geographically (20 miles away), this Tom Fazio design is owner/developer Weldon Wyatt’s Shangri-La, with caddies only (no cart paths) and a 3,500-acre hunting lodge adjoining the course.
No. 99. Seven Canyons Golf Course, Sedona, Ariz. Tight to play but overwhelming in depth and vertical drama to look at, thanks to a routing by Ken Kavanaugh, strategy and green contours by Tom Weiskopf, and an IMAX backdrop of the Red Rocks by the big guy upstairs.
No. 100: May River Course at Palmetto Bluffs, Bluffton, S.C. Nicklaus has come up with something new for him in a low country setting draped by live oaks. This one has a soft feel, with a lot of recovery room around greens, and well-defined options on par 5s where trees in the middle of play segment strategic landing areas.
For years, the West took its design inspiration from the Classic architects of the East. Now, the Continental Divide is changing. Not only are designers fitting their courses to the natural topography and vastness of the American West, but as we’ll see in this issue, the West, in the person of architect Jim Engh, is showing the East a thing or two as well.