Best New Courses

Our course-design critic discovers the spectacular and the unusual (including the golf hole of the year)

9th Hole at Chicago Highlands.

Ron Whitten's Hole of the Year, the 344-yard ninth at Chicago Highlands, features a flag surrounded by slippery slopes.

December 2010

Golf Digest's annual survey of America's Best New Courses is in abeyance.

No point in producing top-10 lists like Best New Public and Best New Private when only 24 new courses opened in the last half of 2009, and just 18 more opened in 2010, plus a smattering of international nominees.

So our 950 Course Ranking panelists focused on Best in State and America's 100 Greatest candidates while I covered the entire new-course field (except for two places where the gates were padlocked at the time I reached them). It was tiresome travel but an invigorating assignment. Unshackled from the obligations of objectivity, I really got to be a critic for a change, expressing rather than suppressing my likes and dislikes on the basis of ever-shifting whims. But I didn't let a good score dissuade my conclusion that a design was dumb, or allow a bad round to spoil my admiration for a course well done.

So what follows is not a substitute for the carefully assembled, consensus rankings usually done by our panelists. It's simply one man's observations on the latest group of courses, plugged into categories of my choosing.

Castle Stuart

Hugging the coast of the Moray Firth, and the bluffs above it, Scotland's Castle Stuart is the first great links of the 21st Century.
Photo by Stephen Szurlej


Not that Scotland needed another great golf venue, but it has one in Castle Stuart Golf Links, a resort layout closer to Royal Dornoch than St. Andrews in distance and architecture. Co-designed by managing partner Mark Parsinen, a transplanted Californian, and American architect Gil Hanse, Castle Stuart might be the most perfectly conceived and executed design ever built. The first three holes on each nine hug the coastline of the Moray Firth, a thumb of the normally tempestuous North Sea made docile by extensive sea walls. The rest of the course is mostly atop a plateau, and the stair-step nature of the routing and shaping create the impression that every green is hanging right over the edge of the water. Call them infinity greens.

Castle Stuart is more than 18 pretty faces. Parsinen and Hanse provided wide corridors to reduce the possibility of lost balls and to increase the excitement of recovery shots. Strategies are constructed around approach angles into generous but subtle greens. Each hole is as easy to read as a billboard, if you're not distracted by the stunning panoramas. As thrilling a trek along the ocean as Pebble Beach or Casa de Campo, Castle Stuart is the most stimulating and thoughtful architecture I saw all year. overnight destination of the year

Prairie Club's Dunes Course

The Prairie Club's Dunes Course is strung across the Nebraska sand hills like a series of sand and grass Rorschach tests.
Photo by Stephen Szurlej

When planned half a dozen years ago, The Prairie Club, 20 minutes south of Valentine, Neb., in the heart of the sand hills, was going to be another of those rich-guys' retreats, like Sand Hills Golf Club and Dismal River. But given the economy, it has been repositioned into a destination resort, a Great Plains version of Bandon Dunes. Its immediate draw is the Dunes Course, a land-locked Ballybunion-style design by former British Open champ Tom Lehman and design associate Chris Brands. The out-and-back routing on 360 acres is almost entirely natural, with holes playing up and down valleys and over successions of ridges. Fairways are enormous, up to 90 yards wide in places. Lay-of-the-land greens are likewise huge.

The other 18, the Pines Course by Australian Graham Marsh, is a sleeper, occupying leftover land not used by Lehman, so half the holes are in not-quite-so dramatic sand hills, with the remainder a total departure, playing through tall pines and along the deep, meandering Snake River Canyon. The closing three holes on the Pines, which dodge gulches and leap ravines, is the most dramatic stretch on either 18.

The maraschino cherry on this double dip is the 10-hole Horse Course, perched on the rim of the Snake River, next to a 38-room lodge. Laid out by the ubiquitous Gil Hanse, it's a short course meant to be played like H-O-R-S-E in basketball, with the winner of the previous hole choosing the shot and lie for the next. Owner/co-founder Paul Schock has already commissioned Hanse and Geoff Shackelford to design another full 18 for his resort.


Gil Hanse? Nope, it's C.B. Macdonald, who has been dead since 1939 but has been reincarnated repeatedly. Particularly at Old Macdonald, the fourth layout at the nearly incomparable Bandon Dunes Golf Resort in Oregon, where co-designers Tom Doak and Jim Urbina created a big, bold ode to Macdonald's design concepts. It's on a scale nearly as vast as The Prairie Club, with wide, wide fairways and gigantic putting surfaces so expertly integrated into the tightly mowed surrounds that it's hard to find the corners of any green.

Old Macdonald is an accessible West Coast version of C.B.'s Seminal National Golf Links, the century-old layout where he first decided to cobble together features from great British golf holes. The genius of Doak and Urbina was to create gentle seaside sand-dune versions, instead of steep-sloped geometric ones, of Macdonald's favorite holes, like the Eden, Road, Redan, Short and Biarritz. So Old Macdonald is C.B.'s greatest hits, without the harsh edges.

Macdonald also popped up at such diverse designs as Waldorf Astoria Golf Club in Orlando, where Rees Jones and associate Steve Weisser created versions of the Redan and Biarritz; Woodhaven, at West Virginia's The Resort at Glade Springs, where Tom Clark found room for a Redan and a Biarritz in an otherwise minimalist mountain design; and at Silver Creek Golf Club near Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., where Arthur Hills and then-associate Chris Wilczynski did slightly less successful versions of the same two holes, although incorporating a Redan green on a drive-and-pitch par 4 was an interesting twist. The same two put the geometric Macdonald style to much better use at the private Westhaven Golf Club in Franklin, Tenn., where pedestal greens and skinny strip bunkers were crucial in surviving the Harpeth River flood.

At The Old American Golf Club, a private course near Dallas, Tripp Davis and Justin Leonard embraced Macdonald's philosophy of cherry-picking ideas from other great courses by adding hints of Pinehurst, Maidstone, Shinnecock and National Golf Links in their wide fairways, cross bunkers and intricate greens. It's a complex design not easily grasped in one round. How complex? Davis' how-to-play-it guide runs 43 pages. With no pictures.

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