By Bradley S. Klein
Last time we published our America’s Best lists I was deposed by a city of Boston attorney asking to account for why their municipal golf course had dropped three spots in the state-by-state public access rankings. Seems they were being sued by the course operator and were looking for evidence of mismanagement.
Not every course rating involves a lawsuit. Judging by how my phone usually rings off the hook in the weeks after, however, there does seem to be a lot of passion about the outcomes. Which is why we take special care to collate the results from our rater team and explain what trends they suggest.
Our eighth annual survey of America’s Best Courses gives Golfweek readers a chance to contemplate – and perhaps to fantasize – about the merits of old and new designs.
Our perennial front-runners retain their respective leads, barely. Our No. 1 Classic course, Pine Valley Golf Club in Clementon, N.J., is challenged by the Cypress Point Club in Monterey, Calif. On the Modern side, Sand Hills Golf Club in Mullen, Neb., narrowly keeps its advantage over Pacific Dunes in Bandon, Ore. But the competition is tight, especially on the Modern side, where two new courses debut in the top 20. At No. 11 is Friar’s Head, a Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw design in Baiting Hollow, N.Y., and at No. 17 is Dallas National Golf Club, a Tom Fazio design on a dramatically elevated and wooded site that overlooks downtown.
A careful survey of the 200 courses on our lists reveals several things: the strength of courses opened in the 1920s; the enduring influence of Classic-era architects; and the diversity of new, high-quality courses that keep opening in the United States.
Our raters, a nationwide team of 285 evaluators, have scoured the landscape, surveyed the 2,000 nominated courses, and rendered their judgment on the basis of 10 standards of evaluation (see box). Collectively, they turned in more than 32,000 votes, meaning each rater has seen an average of 112 courses.
The pages that follow display some of those results in the form of top-100 Classic courses, top-100 Modern layouts, and the best daily fee/resort courses listed state-by-state.
Classic vs. Modern
What distinguishes our America’s Best list from the 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? About 7,000 predate 1960; the other 10,000 postdate that year. More important are the era-specific differences in design, construction and grassing.
Older, traditional layouts were done by handwork and by animal-drawn labor. Little earthmoving 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.
The era was stamped by a handful of visionary course architects whose work has stood up well over the decades. The master of them all, Donald J. Ross, designed nearly one-quarter of all the courses on our top-100 Classic list – including this year’s Ryder Cup layout, Oakland Hills Country Club (South Course) in Birmingham, Mich., ranked No. 19, and next year’s U.S. Open venue, Pinehurst (N.C.) Resort and Country Club (No. 2 Course), ranked No. 10.
Among the other master designers whose work has continued to serve as a model for future architects are A.W. Tillinghast, with 15 courses on our Classic list; Seth Raynor, with 12, and the underappreciated team of Howard C. Toomey (six courses) and William S. Flynn (nine), whose collaboration includes No. 3-ranked Shinnecock Hills Golf Club, site of this June’s U.S. Open.
Our Modern courses start in 1960. That’s when national television, Arnold Palmer, bulldozers and suburban real estate all 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 heights than had been imaginable two decades earlier. Soon, wetlands would be granted protected status, so the permitting process took considerably longer 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.
The Modern era is by no means singular in style. Tom Fazio’s 17 ranked Modern courses and Pete Dye’s dozen on the same list all tend to be heavily manufactured, though when the dirt settles and the grass grows in they also end up looking like they belong. Recent years also have seen the rise of a more naturalistic model of architecture that evokes traditional design principles and allows the land to determine the routing and shape of holes.
The three rated courses by Tom Doak all have this look (see page XXX), as do the six rated courses by Coore and Crenshaw. In this regard, special mention should go to the down-to-earth naturalism of Wild Horse Golf Club in Gothenburg, Neb., a Dan Proctor and Dave Axland daily-fee design in Gothenburg, Neb., that, at a $35 green fee, has to rank as the all-time bargain for quality and value.
Restoration of Classic courses also figures prominently – no surprise in a time when the golf course development market is shifting from building new courses to tinkering with established ones. Our two newcomers on the Classic list, both Ross courses, benefited from recent facelifts – No. 80, the Country Club of Buffalo, in Williamsville, N.Y., and No. 91, Mountain Ridge Golf Club in West Caldwell, N.J.