Ranking the Top 20 Golf Courses in the World

Ben Alberstadt@benalberstadtFeatured ColumnistMarch 30, 2017

Ranking the Top 20 Golf Courses in the World

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    Any attempt at ranking the top 20 golf courses in the world is an exercise that could bring the most brilliant minds in the game to blows. But that's part of the fun, right?

    The modern game of golf has been played since the 15th century in Scotland. And from the humble, rolling sheep-grazing spaces of the early courses of the British Isles, through the grand venues of the Open rota and similar, to the wide-ranging masterpieces in the U.S., there is no shortage of brilliant golf courses to choose from

    Pedigree, popularity, and richness (in terms of spectacular layout/shot values) will be the three defining criteria for this ranking. But, of course, this is no exact science, and any ranking is an inherently subjective exercise.

    To that end, feel free to disagree or debate. Any and all discussion ultimate betters the game we all love and serves to enhance future venues.

20. Ballybunion (Old Course)

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    Details: Ballybunion, Ireland. Architects: Lionel Hewson, 1906, Tom Simpson, 1936. 6,802 yards. Par 71.

    History: Famed golf writer Herbert Warren Wind said "Nothing less than the finest seaside course I have ever seen." The ocean-skirting par-four 11th is an absolute masterpiece. While the course did host the 2000 Irish Open, its inconvenient locale has kept this links standout out of regular tournament rotation, which is a shame because more exposure would show the world how fine the Hewson track is.

    Selling point: Ballybunion had finished with back-to-back par fives for years, but the decision to relocate the clubhouse alleviated that problem. Reportedly it's a favorite of Bill Clinton, and the town has erected a statue of the former President with a golf club in his honor.

    Why it's here: Starting off with a historic links standout seems eminently reasonable. Ballybunion's lack of tournament pedigree keeps it from placing higher.

19. Turnberry Resort (Ailsa)

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    Details: Turnberry, Scotland. Architect: Willie Fernie, 1902. 7,204 yards. Par 70. 

    History: Site of the famed 1977 "Duel in the Sun" between Tom Watson and Jack Nicklaus, Turnberry has hosted the Open Championship four times, most recently in 2009. Turnberry has the unique distinction of being rebuilt from the rubble of Allied airfield during World War II. 

    Selling point: Beyond the uniqueness of the airfield element and the Open pedigree, Turnberry features some brilliant coastal views and stellar shot values. And there's a lighthouse in sight, which is always great. 

    Why it's here: Turnberry gets the bump ahead of Ballybunion on the tournament pedigree front.

18. Pacific Dunes

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    Details: Bandon, Oregon. Architect: Tom Doak, 2001. 6.663 yards. Par 71.  

    History: Still a rising star some 16 years after its completion, the second course build on a superb piece of Bandon, Oregon, property, is among the best links tracks in America. The cliche about Pac Dunes is Tom Doak moved a bunch of earth around to make the landscape look untouched, but the effect is brilliant. Neighboring Bandon Dunes has hosted four U.S. Amateur championships.

    Selling point: The selling point of the Bandon courses is really the totality of the magnificence of the courses together. Just a beautiful, spectacular, almost otherworldly place to tee it up. Pacific Dunes is also arguably the easiest course of the Bandon Trails-Bandon Dunes-Old MacDonald-Pacific quartet.

    Why it's here: Pacific Dunes, due to its length and relative ease, won't host a major championship. It is however, a brilliant public venue. Thus, the accessibility factor and appeal to a wider swath of the golfing population gives it the edge over Ballybunion and Turnberry.

17. Winged Foot Golf Club (West)

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    Details: Mamaroneck, New York. Architect: A.W. Tillinghast, 1923. 7,264 yards. Par 72.

    History: Five times the host of the U.S. Open, including most famously the 1974 contest ("the Massacre at Winged Foot"), Winged Foot's profile has diminished somewhat in recent years. But as the host of the 2020 U.S. Open, expect Tillinghast's Mamaroneck masterpiece to be much discussed. Geoff Ogilvy's 2006 triumph (and Phil Mickelson's faltering) provided lasting images in the canon of U.S. Open lore. 

    Selling point: Horrifically difficult. Winged Foot, with its bowl-shaped greens and treacherous bunkers, is uniquely capable of inflicting sheer misery on the best golfers in the world. A lasting illustration that no matter how much technology has advanced in the near-century since its founding, brilliant course construction can still penalize players harshly. And Gil Hanse is restoring the greens to their original specifications. 

    Why it's here: Winged Foot's distinguished pedigree lands it ahead of Pacific Dunes in this ranking. And rather than being a course the average golfer might be able to get around (a la Pac Dunes), it's a track the best in the world struggle with. All part of golf's rich bouquet.

16. Sand Hills Golf Club

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    Details: Mullen, Nebraska. Architects: Bill Coore/Ben Crenshaw, 1994. 7,089. Par 71.

    History: The lack of significant history speaks to the overwhelming quality of the Nebraska venue as it ranks so highly on “best courses” lists. The bunkers aren’t dug-and-filled puts, but rather windblown, pre-existing dunes. Supposedly Coore and Crenshaw wandered the property before construction, picking out the naturally occurring features of a golf course.

    Selling point: Venue. There’s no better example of a course in the United States where the architects didn’t have to move any earth to create a magical golf course. Coore and Crenshaw simply built the course that was already there, in a sense. Which is amazing. One of the best seaside courses in America...and there isn’t a sea in sight.

    Why it's here: Sand Hills serves as a model of minimalist course design at its absolute best. While it hasn’t hosted significant tournaments, it’s an extremely important recent construction...and it’s absolutely, staggeringly beautiful.

15. Pebble Beach Golf Links

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    Details: Pebble Beach, California. Architects: Jack Neville/Douglas Grant, 1919. 6,828 yards. Par 72.

    History: No shortage of history at the second-finest golf course on the Monterey Peninsula. Unlike many of these courses, Pebble is an annual Tour stop. It's also hosted five U.S. Opens. Nine magnificent holes run along the coast of the Pacific Ocean. A pair of amateur architects, Jack Neville and Douglas Grant did their best with a billion dollar piece of property. One of the first venues to incorporate the ocean as a hazard and challenge, Neville and Grant created a course both timeless and ahead of its time, way back in 1919.

    Selling point: The marriage of location, familiarity and PGA Tour history make Pebble Beach a unique entrant on this list. And it's public (if you have 500 bucks to spend on a round of golf), unlike the vast majority of this list, so the average golfer can theoretically play it. At the end of the day, however, Pebble Beach is all about those ocean-skirting holes. 

    Why it's here: It ain't Cypress Point! Pebble Beach is spectacular: solid routing. Unbelievable venue. U.S. Open history. But among golf architecture aficionados, it lives in the shadow of nearby Cypress Point and suffers accordingly in this (and other) rankings.

14. Royal Portrush Golf Club (Dunluce)

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    Details: Portrush, Northern Ireland. Architect: H.S. Colt, 1929. 7,143 yards. Par 72.

    History: Royal Portrush hosted just one Open Championship (1951). It also hosted the 2012 Irish Open. Nestled among the rolling dunes of the Irish Sea, H.S. Colt's redesign of Old Tom Morris' original layout is arguably his finest work.  The climbing 210-yard par-3 14th, which is appropriately called Calamity, thanks to a massive fall off to the right, is one of the great three-shotters in the world. 

    Selling point: The legend of Rory McIlroy really took off here when 16-year-old Rory shot 61 at the difficult seaside layout. Colt's method of routing the course through the dunes in the natural landscape is a superb early example of design working within the confines of the existing space. Certainly the murmurings that the track could again host the Open elevate its profile.  

    Why it's here: If Portrush hosted another Open, the golf world would fawn over the Northern Ireland gem. Without a pedigree bump, it's forced to stand alone on its aesthetic merits. And while they're considerable, it's tough to bump Royal Portrush higher up the ranking.

13. Pinehurst No. 2

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    Details: Pinehurst, North Carolina. Architect: Donald Ross, 1907. 7,565. Par 70.

    History: Donald Ross' masterpiece, Pinehurst No. 2 was returned to its past glory ahead of the 2014 "dual U.S. Opens" in which the men's and women's competitions were held at the venue. No. 2 has hosted an additional two Opens, as well as the 2008 U.S. Amateur. The site of legendary Ben Hogan's first stroke-play victory, it is widely regarded to be the finest greens in the Donald Ross pantheon of courses.  

    Selling point: A masterpiece restored. The Ben Crenshaw-Bill Coore redesign, which included reshaping and the return of native rough areas, returned the Ross course to its former glory. Certainly, the fine theater of the 2014 Opens—won by Martin Kaymer and Michelle Wie respectively—proved Pinehurst No. 2 is a top-notch U.S. Open venue. And it's public!

    Why it's here: Pebble Beach suffers as the little brother of Cypress Point. Pinehurst No. 2 triumphs as a marvel of restorative work. Hence, Pinehurst before Pebble. Any questions? But really, if not for Cypress Point, Pebble Beach would be inside the top 10 in this ranking. And if that doesn't make any sense to you, keep thinking about it.

12. Merion Golf Club (East)

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    Details: Ardmore, Pennsylvania. Architect: Hugh Wilson, 1912. 6,590. Par 70.

    History: Site of Ben Hogan's famed 1950 U.S. Open triumph, as well as four other Opens, Merion is an important site in golf history. Bobby Jones sealed his Grand Slam here in 1930. Despite much hand-wringing over the course's extremely short length ahead of the 2013 U.S. Open, the 6,500-yarder held up brilliantly, with no players finishing under par.

    Selling point: Crammed into a piece of property outside Philadelphia, this distinguished par-70 somehow manages to have it all. Forget the fact that it's a tremendously short course that still more than challenges the world's best, it's a brilliant exercise in variety: long par-threes, short par-threes, calling on players to hit all the shots.  

    Why it's here: Lacking the expansive majesty of many of the courses on this ranking, Merion's history as a U.S. Open host and the sheer ability of Hugh Wilson to squeeze the absolute best out of a small piece of property place Merion ahead of Pinehurst.

11. National Golf Links of America

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    Details: Southampton, New York. Architect: C.B. Macdonald, 1911. 6,935. Par 72.

    History: Never the host of a national championship (assuredly because they don't want to be), ultra-exclusive National Golf Links of America isn't widely revered outside the world of golf architecture enthusiasts. However, the good folks at National did agree to host the 2013 Walker Cup, which has given a (perhaps unwanted) bump to the club's profile in recent years.

    Selling point: Top-shelf, out-of-reach status. Plus, the uniqueness of architect Charles Blair Macdonald's approach: imitating the great holes of the courses of England and Scotland he'd seen in his travels. Rather than producing dim parody, Macdonald's National Links inspires today's architects in the way the great courses of Europe did National's course-plotter.

    Why it's here: To push National Golf Links ahead of Merion would mean that it's a much better venue than Merion, given the Philadelphia-area course's pedigree. It is.

10. Muirfield

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    Details: Gullane, Scotland. Architects: Old Tom Morris, 1891/H.S. Colt, 1925. 7,245 yards. Par 71.

    History: 16-time host of the Open Championship, Muirfield simply oozes pedigree. And restored to the Open rota after a vote to (finally) admit women as full members, the Honourable Society of Edinburgh Golfers’ avoided torpedoing its distinguished reputation. Phil Mickelson’s triumph at the 2013 edition has this course looming large in the chapters of recent Open lore.

    Selling point: Muirfield’s signature "clockwise front-nine, counter-clockwise back-nine" was a unique routine scheme introduced during H.S. Colt’s 1925 redesign. A distinguished Open Championship pedigree and this singularity make Muirfield one of the finest courses in the Open rota.

    Why it's here: Muirfield edges out National thanks to its storied history as a host of the Open Championship. Beating a dead horse here, but any ranking is about the narratives therein, and the story of Muirfield is one of the richest in golf...with a high-quality golf course to boot.

9. Royal Melbourne Golf Club (East)

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    Details: Melbourne, Australia. Architect: Alister Mackenzie, 1926. 6,579 yards. Par 71.

    History: Australia's most distinguished venue, Royal Melbourne has hosted a buffet of Australian Amateur Championships and Australian Opens (16 to be precise). The course is Australia's oldest and longest continually existing club. Critics often maintain Mackenzie sought to mimic the green space-sandiness arrangement of the course's placement in its environment with his greens and surrounding bunkering.   

    Selling point: The finest course in Australia. An Alister Mackenzie gem, Royal Melbourne's bunkering is an example of the height of the art form. Players rave about the variety of unique approach shots (and stellar greens) at Melbourne's East course. Ultimately, Royal Melbourne is about the combination of brilliant artist (Mackenzie) working in a new medium (Australia's sand belt).

    Why it's here: Royal Melbourne beats out Muirfield thanks to greater visual variety and, ultimately, superiority as a track. If this course were in the United States, it would have hosted several U.S. Opens and could place inside the top five in this (and similar) rankings.

8. Oakmont Country Club

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    Details: Oakmont, Pennsylvania. Architect: Henry Fownes, 1903. 7,254 yards. Par 71.

    History: Host venue for last year's U.S. Open debacle/Dustin Johnson's first major win, Oakmont's U.S. Open pedigree is first rate. Recent restoration work under the watchful eye of Tom Fazio focused on a massive tree removal effort to return Oakmont to its original state. Thus, for the first time in many years, the brilliance of this suburban Pittsburgh track was on full display at the 2016 U.S. Open. 

    Selling point: Uniqueness: church pews, massive undulating greens, which are arguably the most difficult in the world. Popular lore maintains that the putting surfaces are actually slowed down for the U.S. Open, if you can believe it. Also: the peculiarity of the Fownes factor. Rather than a notable course architect, the course was laid out by its industrialist founder...an example of an amateur effort exceeding the best work of professionals if we've ever seen one. 

    Why it's here: The greens are the best and worst thing about Oakmont, and such a major storyline (see: U.S. Open, 2016). Absent that element, and the U.S. Open engendered thereby, the course might not crack the top 50 in the world.

7. Royal Dornoch Golf Club (Championship)

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    Details: Dornoch, Scotland. Architect: Old Tom Morris, 1886. 6,722 yards. Par 70.

    History: Not incredibly well-known to many in the United States, Old Tom Morris' second-finest Scottish golf venue. Dornoch was also, notably, architect Donald Ross' home course. The history of Dornoch, unfortunately, is one of being passed over due to its relative inaccessibility, which unfortunately diminishes its tournament pedigree.   

    Selling point: The font of Ross' inspiration, an early Old Tom masterstroke, Royal Dornoch is one of the most stellar links courses in all of Scotland. Thus, it's a shame most golf fans haven't heard of it. Unlike most links venues, however, you can't run the ball on to the greens at Dornoch, as most are elevated, presenting a unique challenge amid the whippy, fickle Scottish winds.  

    Why it's here: Bumping the under-appreciated gem this far up the list (and ahead of a powerhouse like Oakmont) is a firm statement about its brilliance. And, in a sense, something of a plea not to weight tournament history so highly in the world of top-100 lists.

6. Royal County Down Golf Club

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    Details: Newcastle, Northern Ireland. Architect: Old Tom Morris, 1889. 7,183 yards. Par 71.

    History: Royal County Down has hosted a bevy of significant competitions, including the British Amateur, Curtis Cup, Walker Cup, Palmer Cup and the Irish Open three times (most recently in 2015). The fourth and ninth holes are a pair of the finest in the world.   

    Selling point: While Old Tom gets the credit, many hands have worked on Royal County Down over the years. Ultimately, the course's primacy is as much about the sheer beauty of the landscape as it is its layout, which is saying something, since RCD is widely regarded as having one of the best front-nines in the world.    

    Why it's here: In deciding between Dornoch and County Down, as it were, the edge goes to Royal County Down due to a more storied history with significant tournaments. However, that's not necessarily fair to Dornoch due to the course's inaccessibility, but such is life.

5. Shinnecock Hills Golf Club

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    Details: Southampton, New York. Architect: William Flynn, 1931. 6,996 yards. Par 70

    History: Most recently, Shinnecock hosted the nightmarish 2004 U.S. Open (won by Retief Goosen). The venue has hosted an addition three U.S. Opens in its time and is slated to host again in 2018. One of the earliest links venues in the U.S., William Flynn's reworking of an original C.B. Macdonald design is the gold standard for course improvements, so much so that the track really hasn't been touched since.  

    Selling point: A gem of New York/New Jersey links design. Shinnecock is the best of breed for a style of course you'll find plenty of in the NY/NJ area. The relative recent surge in U.S. Open hosting duties tells you how the USGA, generally good judges of course character, feel about Flynn's Southampton masterpiece.

    Why it's here: Simply, the "best of breed" factor elevates Shinnecock ahead of County Down, which is not the single best course of the Isles links style (the course at No. 1 is).

4. Cypress Point Club

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    Details: Pebble Beach, California. Architect: Alister MacKenzie, 1928. 6,524. Par 72.

    History: Once a part of the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am, the course was ingloriously dropped from the trifecta after refusing to admit a black member in the early '90s. It remains, however, an absolutely glorious collection of golf holes. All Alister MacKenzie had to do was weave the most brilliant routing he could through this staggering property. Fortunately for the golf world, he did just that.

    Selling point: The ultimate setting. Pardon the crudeness, but just look at this frigging place. Almost otherwordly in its brilliance, playing golf at Cypress must feel like teeing it up at the shoreline of heaven. The course's unique decision to remain short (just over 6,500 yards) rather than adding length to combat technology is a fitting statement: Cypress is perfect just the way it is.

    Why it's here: If you placed Shinnecock and Cypress Point side by side, the superiority of Cypress from the "complete picture" standpoint would be readily apparent to both casual observers and architecture buffs. Hence, it rightfully lands in the No. 4 spot.

3. Augusta National Golf Club

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    Details: Augusta, Georgia. Architect: Alister MacKenzie/Bobby Jones, 1933. 7,435 yards. Par 72.

    History: A little tournament called the Masters every April, for one...Augusta National is the only course on this list that's a fixture on the major golf calendar every year. Brilliant writers have filled volumes with the history of the course. Thus, attempting to distill that lore into a paragraph is inherently fruitless. MacKenzie and Jones laid the course out in 1933, but the existing track bears little resemblance to that design, having been endlessly reworked by architects like Perry Maxwell, etc. 

    Selling point: The perfectly prepared, painstakingly improved upon home of the Masters. The membership, with their unlimited resources dedicated to the continued pursuit of the perfect golf course (from a certain aesthetic standpoint), having created a paradisiacal golf venue. It's impossible to celebrate Masters history from the course itself when attempting to evaluate ANGC, but that's part of the brilliance.  

    Why it's here: As mentioned, the centrality of the Masters Tournament animates both the history and the story of Augusta National. At the end of the day, great golf courses are all about narrative. ANGC's is among the strongest, and it's only beaten out by a superior piece of property and a course with an even more distinguished track.

2. Pine Valley Golf Club

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    Details: Pine Valley, New Jersey. Architects: George Crump/H.S. Colt, 1918. 6,999. Par 70.

    History: Pine Valley doesn't really do the whole "hosting big-time tournaments" thing, so there's nothing to speak of on that front, other than the curious amateur event: the Crump Cup. The cup is an amateur competition, which the public can watch. Course founder George Crump tapped some of the best architectural minds of the early 20th century to create this unique "island to island" layout.

    Selling point: Secret, singular brilliance in the barrens of New Jersey. Pine Valley has something of the look of a desert venue surrounding by pine trees. And if that sounds incredibly, incredibly cool, that's because it is. Golf Digest's top-100 ranking said it best: "Pine Valley blends all three schools of golf design -- penal, heroic and strategic -- throughout the course, often times on a single hole."

    Why it's here: Tops on Golf Magazine's list since 1985, Pine Valley is rightfully the darling of golf architecture enthusiasts. Singularity and uniform praise elevate Pine Valley's profile. Really, given the course layout, it would be difficult to host the massive galleries of a professional tournament, so we're not docking PV for a lack of pedigree on that front.

1. St. Andrews (Old Course)

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    Details: St. Andrews, Scotland. 1400s. 6,721. Par 72.

    History: The Old Course has hosted the Open Championship a record 29 times, including most recently in 2015. They've been playing golf on this particular piece of property since the 15th century. Like Augusta National, volumes upon volumes have been written about the Old Course, but its primacy in the world of golf history cannot be approached and will remain forever unsurpassed.  

    Selling point: No single hand has carved this storied masterpiece. The birthplace of the game, the Old Course has pedigree in spades. Its massive rolling greens, cavernous bunkers, blind shots, the peculiar Road Hole all add up to a brilliant layout. Uniquely variable and weather dependent, all course design either imitates the Old Course or refutes it, thus it remains the touchstone for every other course on this list.

    Why it's here: History! The Old course is the veritable womb of the essence of the game as it was originally conceived. If the venue had never hosted a major championship, it would rank high on this list. However, the Old Course's distinguished history as an Open Championship host pushes it into the top position.