Ranking the 10 Most Difficult Courses on the PGA Tour

James McMahonContributor IMay 20, 2013

Ranking the 10 Most Difficult Courses on the PGA Tour

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    By and large, choosing the most difficult golf courses currently playing host to PGA Tour events is like trying to rank how badly one MMA champion can beat you compared to another. You know they are all tough; it's just a matter of one degree to another when ranking their potential to do harm.

    To wit, there's not a single PGA Tour layout that doesn't challenge and often get the better of the best golfers in the world. Likewise, there's not one of those world-class courses that can't be bested by the incredibly-talented professionals. 

    Variables such as weather, pin placements, tournament pressure and actual course conditions always determine just how tough a course can play, but there are some that always prove a significant challenge no matter the state of the variables, strength of the field or significance of the event.

    Here are our most challenging PGA Tour layouts, a small sampling of a distinguished set of golf courses that every year take on the most gifted players in the world.

10. Harbour Town Golf Links

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    There are few, if any, courses like Harbour Town Golf Links on the PGA Tour. The unique Pete Dye-designed layout plays host to the RBC Heritage each April the week following The Masters, providing a worthy, albeit completely different, test compared to Augusta National

    What the Hilton Head Island layout lacks in length it more than makes up for in tight fairways, hard-to-hit greens and challenging doglegs. Accuracy, patience and a delicate short game are required at Harbour Town, meaning big hitters rarely find success around its tree-lined fairways.

    Because of its diverse design and unique challenges, Harbour Town was named the second favorite course on Tour by players in 2012, behind only Augusta National.

    That same year, Harbour Town played 1.284 shots above its par-71. Scoring was just as tough this past year as the winds whipped off Calibogue Sound as Graeme McDowell won the event at nine-under in a playoff over Webb Simpson.

9. The Old White TPC at Greenbrier Resort

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    For far too long, the Old White TPC course at the Greenbrier Resort was denied its place as a traditional PGA Tour site. Now that it has it, there is no denying this world-class course its place as one of the most challenging layouts in professional golf.

    The classic golf course opened in 1914 and after falling on hard times was given a rebirth six years ago with a complete restoration that helped place it on the annual PGA Tour schedule. 

    The first Greenbrier Classic took place in 2010 and was highlighted by a final-round 59 by Stuart Appleby that won him the tournament. 

    The course has recently been lengthened to nearly 7,300 yards, and its tight fairways, elevation changes and undulating greens have proven more than enough protection for the difficult layout. The renowned course will host its fourth Greenbrier Classic July Fourth weekend this year.

8. TPC Southwind

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    Home to the St. Jude Classic every June, the TPC Southwind serves as the perfect tuneup for the U.S. Open, challenging golfers with its considerable length (7,244 yards) and its numerous water hazards.

    Crafted by Ron Prichard with the help of former PGA Tour stars Hubert Green and Fuzzy Zoeller, TPC Southwind has hosted the St. Jude since 1989 and is ranked among the top 25 TPC facilities in the country.

    In 2012, the course played 1.24 shots over its par of 70 and yielded a relatively-high winning score of nine-under to Dustin Johnson. Only 34 of the 76 golfers who made the cut at two-over finished under par as the heat and the challenge of the course took its toll over the weekend.

    The course is most noted for its par-three 11th hole, which is a mild replica of the famous island green 17th at the Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass.

7. TPC San Antonio

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    The youngest course on the list, the TPC San Antonio just began hosting the Valero Texas Open four years ago, and already it’s billed as one of the stiffest challenges on the PGA Tour circuit.

    The San Antonio course was carved from scenic Hill Country terrain by Greg Norman with an assist by Sergio Garcia and opened in 2010. At just under 7,500 yards, the course is long enough to challenge even the longest hitters, and its tight, tree-lined fairways demand accuracy off the tee.

    In 2012, the course played nearly two shots higher than its par of 72 and only 23 players managed to break par for the event. That number jumped to 36 players this year, and Martin Laird’s winning mark of 14-under is the lowest since 2010, the first time TPC San Antonio hosted the event.

    Perhaps it’s an indication players are getting familiar with the layout or just that PGA Tour golfers are just too good for even the toughest tests.

6. Quail Hollow Golf Club

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    Though a relatively new addition to the PGA Tour fraternity of host courses, Quail Hollow owns a significant history and a hefty amount of respect that places it among the elite layouts challenging present-day professional golfers.

    The home to the Wells Fargo Championship in Charlotte, N.C., Quail Hollow was designed by famed architect George Cobb in 1961 and has become one of the most respected courses in the Southeast since. The layout takes full advantage of its Piedmont terrain with rolling fairways, multiple water hazards and relatively tight fairways.

    Quail Hollow first began hosting the Wells Fargo (The Wachovia at the time) 11 years ago, and during that span the course has attracted some of the finest fields each year on the PGA Tour. The course is known for its difficult finishing holes highlighted by the par-three 17th hole over water and the challenging par-four 18th that features a winding water hazard that runs almost the entirety of the hole up to the front of the green.

    In the first year of the event, David Toms made a quadruple bogey on that closing hole yet still managed to win the tournament by two strokes. Several weeks ago, Phil Mickelson managed to bogey the 16th and 17th on Sunday to lose a lead he held all weekend in a loss to PGA Tour rookie Derek Ernst.

    As with most difficult courses, you're never safe at Quail Hollow until the very end.

5. Muirfield Village

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    Jack Nicklaus is one of the toughest golfers in PGA Tour history, so you can expect his own PGA Tour event to be played on a course of significant challenge. That exactly is Muirfield Village, a course worthy of the game's greatest golfer and a true test to today's professionals.

    Constructed by Nicklaus himself in 1972, the course is sometimes compared to Augusta National in its design and aesthetic appeal. Like Augusta, Muirfield is about where not to hit it with 71 bunkers and water hazards on 11 of the 18 holes. 

    Last year, Muirfield Village tested the mettle of the world's best golfers before Tiger Woods, the best himself, survived a brutal test with his victory at nine-under during a week in which the field averaged 1.677 over par.

    In addition to The Memorial, Muirfield has played host to the 1987 Ryder Cup and the 1992 U.S Amateur.

4. Firestone Country Club

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    Home to the Bridgestone Invitational every August, Firestone Golf Club is a classic layout that has been testing the best in golf for more than five decades.

    A World Golf Championship event, the Bridgestone is among the toughest events on tour due to the challenge presented by Firestone's length, tight fairways and challenging greens.

    The course has also played host to the PGA Championship on three occasions and boasts the likes of Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods (over and over again) and Arnold Palmer among its champions. 

3. Congressional Golf Club

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    Congress might be a dysfunctional mess right now, but Congressional Golf Club, located in the shadow of the nation’s capital, is anything but. In fact, the renowned course is among the most unique and challenging layouts on the annual PGA Tour slate.

    Host to the AT&T Invitational, Congressional has proven to be a stern test both before and after its restoration that prepared it for the 2011 U.S. Open, which was won by Rory McIlroy and was the third in the course's impressive history.

    In 2012, Tiger Woods captured his second AT&T title at 13-under, but that total wasn't indicative of the challenge presented by Congressional. In fact, the par-71 Congressional played to an average of 73 during the event as its demanding design merged with difficult playing conditions to make it one of the most significant challenges last year. 

    With its post-U.S. Open shine likely to last for many years to come, Congressional will continue to be one of the renowned and challenging layouts on the PGA Tour.

Riviera Country Club

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    Few courses have been hosting professional golf events as long as Riviera Country Club and even fewer have the grand history and pedigree of the Southern California gem.

    The George C. Thomas-designed course became the home to the L.A. Open in 1927 and continues to host the event, now known as the Northern Trust Open, to this day.

    Despite its advanced age, the classic design, which has welcomed the U.S. Open, PGA Championship and U.S. Senior Open, continues to challenge the best players in the world and has identified champions of the caliber of Ben Hogan, Sam Snead, Byron Nelson and Phil Mickelson to name just a few.

    In 2012, the course averaged 1.622 shots over its par-71 making it the toughest course on the PGA Tour’s West Coast Swing. Carved out of a dry riverbed adjacent to the Pacific Ocean, Riviera challenges players with its tight fairways that meander along towering Eucalyptus groves and strategically-placed hazards.

    The layout is a true timeless classic whose time as a PGA Tour stalwart continues on today.

1. Augusta National

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    When professional golfers have to stop just past midway through their round to say a prayer for survival, you know the course being played is among the truest and most historic tests in the game today.

    Indeed, while the PGA Tour doesn't call the shots during The Masters—only the green jackets can do that—it is the most exciting and challenging course played every year. 

    The classic layout, dreamed by Bobby Jones and made reality by Alister MacKenzie, is the most recognizable in the world for its beauty, its tradition and its storied list of golfers who have claimed glory on it.  For all its challenges, it’s the unique green complexes that MacKenzie crafted that have stood the test of time and allowed the sacred course to withstand the onslaught of technology.

    Augusta’s back nine, highlighted by the stretch of 11, 12 and 13 known as Amen Corner, is the greatest theater in golf with its reachable par-fives and disaster-awaiting par-threes that typically decide the Masters champion every year.

    There are times the scores go low at Augusta National, but there is no doubt that when a golfers puts on the green jacket Sunday evening, they have survived the toughest test in professional golf.