20 of the World's Best Golf Courses
If you had to pick 20 golf courses that stand at least a half inch taller than others in the category, Best in the World, where would you start?
Scotland, Ireland, the US, England, Australia?
That’s where most of the world’s existing golf courses are.
Many are exceptional, so much so that the competition to get into the top 100 lists is tough. Staying there, even tougher.
Some courses are exceptional because they are breathtakingly beautiful, and they provide a challenge.
The test does not have to be impossible, but it should be interesting, distinctive.
Any golf course can be made impossible simply by the addition of length, and so to use length alone as the barometer of excellence is foolhardy.
Some golf courses lists rely on having green speeds that defy normalcy. With greens that stimp lower, say between nine and 11, like a St. Andrews, are they great or just very good? A good course isn’t just about fast greens, it’s about strategy. It’s about deception. It’s the way the land looks, and the way a golfer needs to play it to be successful.
Some courses in our top 20 are now obsolete for the touring professionals because of the changes in equipment, and because, as Jack Nicklaus has insisted for the last 25 years, the ball goes too far.
That doesn’t mean they aren’t fabulous courses. It just means the pros need to dust off some persimmon and a few old balata balls to play them the way they were meant to be played. Because most amateurs do not have professional length, the same courses are still the same tough test for most of us.
Some courses are modern, yet look like they were invented right along with the golf itself.
Some are nearly as old as the game. Most of these, if not personally viewed, come at the recommendation of an expert in golf, often a noted player.
Some are left out, so this is with apologies to the many—particularly in Scotland, Ireland, Australia and the US—that are no doubt equal to many mentioned here.
This collection will surprise some and please others.
You’ll see several designers mentioned often: Alister Mackenzie, Charles Blair Macdonald, Pete Dye and Jack Nicklaus.
And now the courses, by age.
St. Andrews Golf Links—Old Course
St. Andrews Golf Links—Old Course, as most everyone knows, was the first 18-hole golf course.
It’s why we have 18 holes.
Originally the course had 22.
The golfers decided some of the holes were too short, and they merged four holes into two, giving us today’s regulation length of 18.
St. Andrews Golf Links has a storied history and was even sold to a rabbit farmer for a while when the town could not afford the upkeep.
The upshot: 20 years of what was termed the Rabbit Wars.
Finally, James Cheape of Strathtyrum, an avid golfer, bought the land and gave it to the town for golf.
His reward? A bunker in his name on the second hole.
Bobby Jones hated it the first time he played. Jack Nicklaus loved it.
They both found success and received keys to the city.
Chicago Golf Club
Chicago Golf Club is the oldest 18-hole course in the US, and was one of the five clubs that founded the United States Golf Association in 1894.
They claim they were formed in 1892, and who are we to argue?
Charles Blair Macdonald was the club founder and designer of the course. He also won the first US Amateur in 1895.
According to some, Macdonald, like most golfers, had a chronic slice. At Chicago Golf Club, he routed the holes so that both nines would play clockwise thereby keeping his ball out of trouble.
Chicago Golf Club, which is in Wheaton, IL, hosted its last US Open in 1911.
The Walker Cup was played there in 2005.
Lahinch Golf Club
Lahinch Golf Club began in 1892 when Officers of the Scottish Regiment, The Black Watch, who were stationed in Limerick, decided to establish a branch of the Limerick Golf Club there.
The course opened on Good Friday in 1893.
In 1894, Old Tom Moriss visited and began work on a redesign of the property.
The original course was divided by a road, and in 1907 the club decided that the sand hills on one side of the road would be more challenging.
In 1927 Alister McKenzie designed the current layout.
According to the club, Phil Mickelson counts Lahinch among his favorite links courses.
Recent Open champion Stewart Cink commented the "first 10 holes at Lahinch are some of the coolest links holes I've ever played."
Ballybunion, Old, is the favorite of many, including five-time British Open champion Tom Watson.
In 1893, according to newspaper accounts Ballybunion had 12 golf holes.
Four years later some called it no more than a rabbit warren, while others insisted it had been laid out by the same professional who had done Lahinch.
The course fell into disuse by 1898, but in 1906, a new track was begun. Twenty more years passed before plans for a second nine were created, and a year later the full 18 opened.
In 1932 the course received national prominence when it hosted the Ladies Irish Championship.
Though lovely and challenging, the golf course remained relatively obscure until Herbert Warren Wind, wrote an article ranking Ballybunion in the world's top 10 courses. In the New Yorker he wrote: "I found Ballybunion to be nothing less than the finest seaside links I have ever seen."
Tourists arrived: Tom Watson with his friend Sandy Tatum; Byron Nelson, Lee Trevino, Jack Nicklaus, Nick Faldo, Cohn Montgomery, Larry Mize, Steve Jones, Wayne Grady, Ian Woosnam, Bob Murphy, Jerry Pate, Peter Thompson, Peter Alliss, Deane Beman, Jay Randolph and Ken Venturi to name but a few.
In 1995 Tom Watson updated the Old Course using a gentle hand.
Shinnecock Hills GC
Shinnecock Hills GC has hosted major tournaments since 1896.
The course played less than 5000 yards then.
Willie Davis, Royal Montreal's professional, built the original 12 holes of the course in 1891.
In 1893 a six-hole ladies course was added and in 1895 Willie Dunn added six more holes to the main course for a total of 18.
The U.S. Open and U.S. Amateur tournaments were contested there in 1896. In 1901 the club tore up the women’s course to lengthen the main one.
The holes at Shinnecock traverse the dune landscape of Long Island, and the only drawback of the course is that the 18th is a severe uphill hole, making it difficult and less scenic than some of the other holes.
Jack Nicklaus once said that golf is best played downhill, and he’s right. However, the hole did provide an exciting finish for Corey Pavin who hit an extraordinary 4-wood to it on the way to his US Open victory in 1995.
Retief Goosen overcame the USGA’s set up to win the US Open there in 2004. Raymond Floyd was US Open champion in 1986.
The clubhouse at Shinnecock was designed by Sanford White who became both famous and somewhat notorious in his own right. From inside the clubhouse, there is a wonderful panorama of the first and 18th holes.
National Golf Links of America
National Golf Links of America on Long Island by Charles Blair Macdonald, who is noted for a number of outstanding designs hosted the first Walker Cup matches in 1922 and will host them again in 2013.
Many of the holes on the course are said to resemble famous holes in Great Britain.
The fourth hole, a par three, is a Redan, after the famous 15th at Prestwick. The seventh, is a copy of the 17th at St. Andrews, the Road Hole.
Seth Raynor, a civil engineer at the time, helped Macdonald build the course. It was the beginning of a great partnership.
Looking at some of the photos, could you say that it isn’t a Jack Nicklaus or Pete Dye design? The same strategies that make National Golf Links a superb test work today for new courses.
Pine Valley GC
Pine Valley in Clementon, NJ, is a perennial on top golf course lists.
That is relatively amazing since so few people see it.
Jack Nicklaus often tells a story of how on his honeymoon, his wife Barbara had to watch from a car on a road adjacent to the course while Jack played. It’s a men only club, although ladies can play on Sundays if invited by and if playing with a member. ( I was actually extended an invitation one time by Ernie Ransome.)
When Shell’s Wonderful World of Golf began, they started the series with a match between Gene Littler and Bryon Nelson at Pine Valley. According to Fred Raphael, who was the executive producer for the program, his crew was so ignorant of golf when they started, that someone actually asked Nelson if he could hit a tee shot over because they didn’t capture it on camera.
Obviously that didn’t happen.
Pine Valley, a friend tells me, has been obsoleted by today’s equipment.
That doesn’t make it easy for the average golfer. Pine Valley was designed by George Crump and Harry Colt.
Pebble Beach Golf Links
Pebble Beach Golf Links, like August National, is world famed, with eight ocean holes and ocean views on three more.
The history of the AT&T and Bing Crosby Pro-Ams, and recently a return to the US Open rotation, provide the course with all the glory anyone could ask, but it was not always so.
In 1919 Samuel F.B. Morse acquired 18,000 acres of land on the Monterey Peninsula, including Pacific Grove, Pebble Beach areas, and the Del Monte Forest lands, traversed by 17-Mile Drive. At the time, there was a lodge on the property in the location of the current Lodge at Pebble Beach and a golf course designed by two amateurs, Jack Neville and Douglass Grant.
Morse convinced his board that the course could be maintained by sheep and designed at no cost by two noted California amateur golfers—Jack Neville and Douglas Grant.
Originally the 18th was a par four, but in 1921 it became a par five.
When Bobby Jones was defeated in the 1929 US Amateur there, the course fell out of favor for big tournaments for 20 years.
Nicklaus won the 1961 US amateur at Pebble Beach, then the 1972 US Open, which put the course into the US Open mix permanently.
“It was all there in plain sight. Very little clearing was necessary,” Jack Neville told the San Francisco Chronicle in 1972. “The big thing, naturally, was to get as many holes as possible along the bay. It took a little imagination, but not much. Years before it was built, I could see this place as a golf links. Nature had intended it to be nothing else. All we did was cut away a few trees, install a few sprinklers, and sow a little seed.”
Royal Melbourne Composite Course
Royal Melbourne Composite Course originated in 1959 when Royal Melbourne was asked to host the Canada Cup, which later became The World Cup of Golf.
Twelve holes from the West Course and six holes from the East Course were merged into a single course which has hosted many international tournaments.
Although the Royal Melbourne Golf Club was founded in 1891, the existing courses were built several decades later.
It was in 1895 that Queen Victoria granted the Club the use of the Royal designation.
The first course built at Royal Melbourne was the West Course. To no one’s surprise Alister Mackenzie is the designer of both the East Course and West Courses. Mackenzie visited the property, and afterwards, produced a layout which was accepted by members in 1926. The East Course followed.
Greg Norman, Matthew Goggin, Robert Allenby and Stuart Appleby all pick the course as the best in Australia.
The Royal Melbourne Composite Course hosts the Presidents Cup in 2011.
Cypress Point in Pebble Beach, CA, was created and built by Alister Mackenzie for Marion Rollins, an excellent woman player. It opened in 1928.
After World War II, when the Bing Crosby National Pro-Am moved to the Monterey Peninsula, Cypress Point was a part of the tournament until 1990. In those years, it was worth the price of a tournament ticket just to be able to walk the course and watch professionals and amateurs play the course.
While the 16th hole, a ridiculously long par three uphill shot over a chasm of rock and ocean is the most famous, the shorter par three 15th is equally picturesque.
Mackenzie once said: "I do not expect anyone will ever have the opportunity of constructing another course like Cypress Point as I do not suppose anywhere in the world is there such a glorious combination of rocky coast, sand dunes pine woods and cypress trees."
And if it exists, you can count on the California Coastal Commission prohibiting anyone from building on it.
Augusta National Golf Club
Augusta National Golf Club is synonymous with Bobby Jones, Alister Mackenzie and The Masters, as most know by now due to international coverage of the event on television.
The course was once a nursery, Berckman’s.
The flowering trees and shrubs throughout the property pay homage to its origins.
What everyone says is true: if you have not been to the course in person, you will be shocked by the elevation changes. This is particularly true on the first, second, fourth, sixth,, eighth, ninth, 10th,11th and 18th holes.
In short, it’s hilly, but it’s a rolling hilly.
There is little that can be said about Augusta National GC that has not been said already.
Water is the only thing it lacks in scenery. Water, as in a large ocean or loch or lake.
Paraparaumu Golf Club
Paraparaumu Golf Club, along with newcomer Kauri Cliffs, are the two best known golf clubs in New Zealand. Frank Nobilo has said, “Paraparaumu is probably our country's premier golf club."
Paraparaumu Golf Club is on Kapiti Coast 40 miles north of Wellington, New Zealand's capital. It was designed in 1949 by former Australian Open champion Alex Russell, who built royal Melbourne for Alister McKenzie.
The down-unders say it Para-param, leaving off half of the syllables.
This is the course where Tiger Woods played the New Zealand Open, but it was also where a Shell’s Wonderful World of Golf match between Bob Charles and Bob Goalby was played more than 50 years ago.
It has hosted many New Zealand Opens.
Peter Thomson, winner of five Open Championships and nine New Zealand Opens enjoyed the course from the first playing.
"I loved it instantly. We had nothing like it in Australia,” he said. “Course designing approaches an art form, especially done in a perfect modeling medium like volcanic sand.”
Muirfield Village GC
Muirfield Village GC, designed by Jack Nicklaus and Desmond Muirhead, opened in 1974, and since 1976 it has hosted The Memorial Tournament on the PGA Tour.
While Nicklaus says in golf he was inspired by Bobby Jones, at Muirfield Village in Dublin, OH, it appears that he was inspired by August National Golf Club.
Anyone who thinks Augusta National is spotless has not been to Muirfield Village GC. Nicklaus was raised near Dublin, in Upper Arlington, OH, where the high school mascots are the Golden Bears, hence the nickname.
In addition to creating a beautiful parkland style course through rolling terrain, Nicklaus created spectator areas on most holes. Muirfield Village hosted The Ryder Cup in 1987. (I was lucky enough to attend all three.)
Two years after the opening of Muirfield Village Golf Club, Nicklaus christened Glen Abbey Golf Club in Oakville, Ontario, where he says spectator golf was born.
La Quinta Mountain Course
La Quinta Mountain may be called something else today (La Quinta Resort Mountain Course), but 20-25 years ago, when the World Cup of Golf and the Senior Skins Game were played there, that was its name.
While each golf course is unique due to the setting, La Quinta Mountain has a combination of close quarters and target golf played more or less around, through, over and from a pile of rocks. Greens, tees, fairways, everything is affected by the terrain.
The 16th hole, a very short par three, has a back tee perched on what seems to be an 8x10 square foot rug or grass 30 or 40 or 50 feet above the green.
The green is putting surface, fringe and more rock. Not little ones either. Boulders. Rocks come into play on seven holes, and with an errant shot, could be on two additional ones.
The course is a sterling example of in your face design and a blast to play.
Nobody goes looking for golf balls because there are snakes in the hills.
Spring, they say, is mating season for the snakes, so be extra wary then.
Castle Pines GC
Castle Pines GC was built to host The International which disappeared due to a bad slot in the PGA Tour schedule and subsequent loss of a title sponsor. Jack Nicklaus was the creator of this one of a kind golf course.
From the first tee, which starts on a cliff and ends in a meadow below, to the eighth hole’s horseshoe shaped green with a bunker inside, to beautiful waterfalls on the 12th, Castle Pines GC is memorable and surprising at every turn.
If some courses are small and others are big, this is a big course, although technology of today might even render some of the longer holes here easier than they were designed to be.
The elevation makes golf shots go 10 percent farther, but the changes of elevation on the course, the slopes on many of the holes, the different looks that Nicklaus provides the golfer, keeps players awake and makes this Colorado course a masterpiece.
Amenities that have been raved about in professional circles include scrumptious milkshakes in the locker room
PGA West Stadium Golf Course
PGA West Stadium Golf Course was the hardest golf course on the planet when it opened in 1986.
From the tips, which are still not used, it is 7700 yards plus.
It was built on desert that had been totally flattened for irrigated agriculture 30 miles southeast of Palm Springs, CA.
It was here that the Pete Dye was turned loose with some sunscreen and a lot of bulldozers.
PGA West Stadium has the look of National Golf Links on some holes and the look of no place else on others. Cassias and sage bushes were planted to resemble Scottish gorse and heather when they bloom. But the starkness of the design, the angles of the bunkers, the heaviness of the railroad tie surrounds on the water hazards just dare golfers to hit a shot.
The course has 22 acres of lakes and 22 acres of sand, and after the first hole, there is no let up. The greens are all surrounded by some kind of sandy pit or pot bunker. There are blind shots, a green with a moat of sand twelve feet deer. The finale culminates with the 16th hole which has a 19-foot drop off on the left side of the green at the bottom of which is a yawning bunker followed by the 17th, island green with rocks around it dyed to match the color of the mountains, and a par four 18th with water all along the left side.
If there’s a device in golf design, it’s in this course.
The 19-foot bunker was that depth because it was as high as Pete Dye could hit a sand wedge straight up.
The Skins Game was held at PGA West Stadium for a number of years.
It was host to the Bob Hope Classic in 1987 when Corey Pavin won, but the professionals said it was too hard and was taken out of the tournament.
Kiawah Island Ocean Course
Kiawah Island Ocean Course was built specifically to host the 1991 Ryder Cup, and no matter what they say about Celtic Manor, that one already existed.
It was an expansion.
The Ocean Course at Kiawah Island did not exist when the Ryder Cup was moved from PGA West Stadium Course to the Ocean Course.
That story is slightly convoluted, but suffice to say, it had to do with contracts for a variety of events at a variety of courses and the fact that the PGA of America knew that the owners of the Kiawah property would complete the golf course in time.
Pete Dye, who designed it, had to contend with the Carolina Coastal Commission and then half way through construction, Hurricane Hugo. Dye once said,” Hurricane Hugo took out all those big trees that the Coastal Commission wouldn’t let me touch.”
The Ocean Course at Kiawah Island will forever be linked to the 1991 Ryder Cup dubbed The War by The Shore by several golf magazines. The US had lost the Ryder Cup to Europe in 1985 and 1987. While no one came to blows, there were a few testy moments between Seve Ballesteros and Paul Azinger, both of whom went on to become Ryder Cup captains and mended their fences.
Whistling Straits—Straits Course
Whistling Straits—Straits Course—with eight cliff-front holes and seven dune holes, proves that Scotland and Ireland also live along the coast of Lake Michigan.
Pete Dye, one of the best living golf course designers, turned relatively flat farmland into a moonscape worthy of the Irish coast.
Though it was recently scorned for the waste bunker incident at the recent PGA Championship, the course has everything imaginable, including dramatic cliffs, turquoise to navy water views, whitecaps crashing on black rocks along Lake Michigan’s edge and more.
It has what most of Pebble Beach lacks, and that is the dune effect of sand hills and valleys.
When Pete Dye finished with the Straits Course it looked like it was made by nature, not bulldozer.
They even have sheep roaming the course during most of the year.
The Straits may be Pete Dye’s best effort yet.
Kingsbarns is an old and new course that is part of the St. Andrews complex in Scotland It has more scenic views of the ocean than St. Andrews, and Tony Jacklin has said it’s not to be missed.
The Kingsbarns Golfing Society, which was originally chartered in the 18th century, was re-formed as Kingsbarns Golf Club in 1922.
Willie Auchterlonie laid out a nine-hole course on the links at Kingsbarns Bay.
During World War II it was mined for national security, and it reverted to pasture.
The week after the 2000 Open Championship, the new Kingsbarns Golf Links designed by Mark Parsinen and Kyle Phillips, opened on the site.
It was two years in the making and is the only Scottish course to be built on links land in more than 70 years.
It has become a part of the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship on the European Tour.
Kauri Cliffs, according to Ian Baker Finch and Michael Campbell, is better than Pebble Beach.
Like Pebble Beach Golf Links, it is a high-end golf experience, but with terrain changes that are more astonishing, although the eighth hole at Pebble Beach is quite dramatic.
David Harman of Golf Course Consultants, Orlando, built the course which has 15 holes that view the Pacific Ocean.
Six play along cliffs where a wrong step can send a golfer plunging into the sea.
The beautiful inland holes wind through marsh, forest and farmland.