In search of golf heaven, some architects move the earth. Others just scratch the ground. If there’s a right way or a wrong way to get there, you wouldn’t know it based upon the golf courses featured in the latest Golfweek’s Best lists. Both paths seem to bring us to the game’s Promised Land.
Welcome to the 15th annual list of Golfweek’s Best Top 100 Classic and Top 100 Modern courses in the U.S.
On the Classic side, defined as layouts that opened before 1960, Pine Valley (N.J.) Golf Club once again heads our ranking. This scrubby course, hewn out of the southern New Jersey Pine Barrens nine decades ago, is legendary for its rugged look and feel. Its position atop our list was interrupted only from 2006 to 2009, when the current No. 2, Cypress Point Club in Pebble Beach, Calif., reigned as the country’s premier Classic course.
Among Modern courses, those that opened in 1960 or later, Sand Hills Golf Club in Mullen, Neb., continues its tenure at the head of our list, in large part because this Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw-designed gem occupies pristine ground in the middle of the country’s largest stretch of grassed dunesland. Holding steady at No. 2 for a decade has been Tom Doak’s breakthrough oceanfront design, Pacific Dunes, in Bandon, Ore. Its immediate neighbor at Bandon Dunes Golf Resort is our highest-rated newcomer to the list at No. 3, Old Macdonald, designed by Doak and Jim Urbina. (Disclosure: I served as a volunteer, unpaid member of a three-person design consulting team. As a result, I don’t rate the course.)
The Golfweek’s Best lists derive from the input of an international team of 675 raters, including representatives from all 50 states. They evaluate courses on the basis of 10 architectural criteria, including quality of the routing, variety of par 3s, par 4s and par 5s, and what we call our exclusive “walk in the park” test (i.e., ambience, overall feel and the collective sensory experience of a round).
The Classic list, though made up of well-established courses, showed unusual volatility this year, including two courses that leaped 19 spots. Herbert Strong’s parkland masterpiece, Canterbury Golf Club in Beachwood, Ohio, moved up to No. 60, largely on the basis of continuing agronomic improvements initially made to prepare the course for the 2009 Senior PGA Championship. And California Golf Club in South San Francisco, Calif., climbed to No. 35 because of the way greenkeeper Tom Bastis has carried out the restoration implemented by architect Kyle Phillips four years ago at the A. Vernon Macan-Alister MacKenzie design. Note also should be made of the six-spot improvement by Los Angeles Country Club’s North Course to No. 15, directly attributable to a restoration by Gil Hanse and Geoff Shackelford.
All five newcomers to the Classic list got there via the restoration route. No. 85, Sleepy Hollow Country Club in Scarborough-on-the Hudson, N.Y., is just emerging from a Hanse-supervised return to the vertical edginess of its Charles Blair Macdonald-Seth Raynor heritage. At Charlotte (N.C.) Country Club, No. 86, Ron Prichard, a Donald Ross restoration virtuoso, reclaimed that layout’s intriguing greens and roll-offs. St. George’s Golf & Country Club in Stony Brook, N.Y., debuts at No. 95 thanks to considerable reclamation of its playing width and Devereux Emmet-designed gnarliness.
Monroe Golf Club in Pittsford, N.Y., No. 96, is a long-underappreciated Ross gem that has benefited from a master plan by Hanse that includes eliminating tree clutter to reveal an ideally rolling site. Finally, at No. 100, is another newcomer to our list: Vesper Country Club in Tyngsboro, Mass. The club, located on an island in the Merrimack River, grabbed the last rung after a frantic 79 days in late 2009 when Brian Silva implemented construction of new putting surfaces and 65 bunkers – all in accordance with the basic shapes and positions that Ross had designed in 1922.
Of the 10 newcomers to the Modern list, eight are part of real-estate undertakings and five are Tom Fazio designs. Fazio’s Spring Hill Golf Club in Wayzata, Minn. (No. 59) is the only strictly private golf club. Other than Old Macdonald, the only other first-timer open to public play is Wine Valley Golf Club in Walla Walla, Wash. (No. 99). Here, Dan Hixson used a low-key approach, nestling fairways and greens into voluptuously rolling farmlands at the foot of the Blue Mountains.
There’s nothing simple about harnessing the inherent beauty of a site. David McLay Kidd’s Huntsman Springs in Driggs, Idaho, (No. 30) works because the routing makes use of the most walkable terrain between two towering ranges in the Rockies. On a smaller, more intimate scale, the Robert Trent Jones Jr.-designed Patriot Golf Club in Owasso, Okla. (No. 46) excels because the real estate is contained off-course and the holes incorporate a variety of landscapes, including limestone ravines, high prairie, dense woodland and lowland meadows.
Perhaps more than any other modern architect, Fazio has championed the cause of taking a site and making it work for golf – sometimes taming the site, at other times squeezing (or blasting) more out of it than it originally offered.