Editor’s note: For our entire “My Year in Golf” series, click here.
Course of the year: Pinehurst No. 2, Pinehurst, N.C. It’s no surprise that the competitive shot of the year (my call) was played on the course of the year (also my call). Pinehurst No. 2, the Donald Ross gem restored by Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw, was the setting for unprecedented back-to-back national championships in June: the U.S. Open and The U.S. Women’s Open. What a way to showcase a course that removed 35 acres of Bermudagrass rough and restored those flanking areas to sandy scrub and wire grass, all while reducing overall water usage by more than 50 percent.
So when Martin Kaymer, leading the tournament in Round 3 but reeling after a bogey on the fourth hole, found himself in the left scrub on the par-5 fifth hole, 207 yards away, he faced a shot that in previous incarnations of Pinehurst No. 2 (like U.S. Opens in 1999 and 2005) would have been a pitch out with a wedge. Instead he found himself with a wispy lie that afforded him a chance at a skilled recovery – which he deftly pulled off with a full-bore 7-iron that left him with an eagle 3. Coore and Crenshaw’s work didn’t make the course easier; it made it more diverse and enabled players to show off their recovery skills. For that reason it’s a model for the rest of the industry.
Best New Course: Dismal River (Red Course), Mullen, Neb. Tom Doak’s latest unveiling as the second course of this emote property in the dead center of the Nebraska Sand Hills, blew me away. I’ve heard people complain that it’s got too many blind shots, but I had no trouble figuring out where the lines were even if I could not always see the drive land. I could always tell where to play and where, from there, the play proceeded. It’s a matter of getting disoriented and of using big, distant landmarks – like sandy blowouts – to figure out what was going on. Besides, too much comfort the first time around provides little opportunity for subsequent interest and mastery as you come to learn the terrain.
A close second this year was David Kidd’s Gamble Sands in Brewster, Wash., a course built on a windy, exposed site overlooking the Columbia River. I’m not sure a designer should be celebrated for finally building a fun, playable course after 15 years of creating brutally hard courses. Seems to me there was ample room for a quicker learning curve. In any case, here it is.
Best Renovation/Restoration: A three-way tie here. Keith Foster’s restoration of the Philadelphia Cricket Club-Wissahickon Course brought out original designer A.W. Tillinghast’s genius for compelling landforms in a way that finally enabled this singular property to excel after decades under wraps.
And very strong kudos to the work done by Robert Trent Jones Jr. and Bruce Charlton on their own, now 30-year old, Poppy Hills Golf Course in Pebble Beach, Calif. – the ultimate Mulligan in design, with a course that’s now firm, fast, fun, and feels like it belongs to the native, scrubby pine forest in which it sits.
Equally impressive is SentryWorld in Stevens Point, Wis., another Robert Trent Jones Jr. redo, though in fact most of the actual field work and design implementation was undertaken by former Jones protege and now independent architect Jay Blasi. What had been a very heavily shaped course with mounds and curvy fairways was also a 1980s exemplar of aerial approach shots. Now, after a nearly two-year long closure and total renovation, including partial rerouting around a lake, it’s now a wider, more strategic, firmer and more ground-game-receptive layout. And quite frankly, it gets sympathy points for being in a less-than-ideal golf market. A course that used to be known for its ‘signature’ flower hole of a par-3 (the 16h) is now going to be known fro the overall quality of all the holes.
Best Surprise: Longshore Club Park, Westport, Conn.: The municipal layout, circa 1929 by Orrin Smith, once was a famed country club, but now is a municipally owned layout. It’s under new golf maintenance operations by ValleyCrest, and the company has done a wonderful job of making this place playable thanks to all new drainage, revised bunkers and a strong sense of local management. Golf will flourish at this par-70 course that’s only 5,895 yards long. But it works well, feels like New England, has enough proximity to the shoreline of Long Island Sound, and is readily affordable ($20-$52) and walkable. Welcome to the future of municipal golf.