Best New Courses
As lush gives way to water shortages, our Best New Courses trend toward architects who favor firm & fast
Old golf-course architects never fade away; they just lose their draw.
Veterans like Pete Dye, Jack Nicklaus, Tom Fazio and the Jones brothers—Rees and Robert Trent Jr.—are still relevant and busy. But though they once had their pick of the choicest projects, in recent years they've been trampled by the Four Horsemen of the New Millennium: Tom Doak, Gil Hanse and the team of Bill Coore & Ben Crenshaw.
Doak is my choice for mythical Golf Architect of the Year, based upon the astonishing variety of three new courses he introduced in 2013: the Blue Course at Florida's Streamsong Resort (the must-play destination of the year), the Red Course at Dismal River in Nebraska (vastly different from the club's older Nicklaus-designed White Course) and the totally rebuilt No. 1 Course at Medinah Country Club near Chicago.
Hanse is the hottest name in the design business after winning the bid to do the course for the 2016 Olympic Games in Brazil, as well as being hired by Donald Trump to remodel the legendary Blue Monster at Doral.
Coore & Crenshaw did the Red Course at Streamsong (a companion to Doak's Blue), are consulting at Shinnecock Hills for the 2018 U.S. Open, are busy in Nova Scotia and will soon start construction of Trinity Forest in Dallas, whose developer hopes to host a major.
How did this New Wave upset the Establishment architects? Mainly because of a fundamental shift in how American golfers play the game. For decades, golf in America was an aerial game. Turf conditions were green, lush and uniform, a concession mostly to housing developers who financed most course projects. Those conditions demanded long carries and afforded little roll. Subsequently, club manufacturers developed equipment meant to get the ball in the air and keep it there for as long as possible. Instructors taught methodology aimed at the same goal.
Then along came the upstarts, led by Doak, who embraced the Scottish/Irish (and early American) standard of drier turf and bounce-and-roll golf. The ideal, Doak has pointed out, would be to have fairway approaches into greens be firmer than the putting surfaces, but across America, just the opposite had been the norm for decades. The Doak formula was not immediately accepted in America; in many climates, firm and fast seemed impossible to achieve.
But then Mike Keiser created the Bandon Dunes Golf Resort on the Oregon coast, starting with 18 designed by David McLay Kidd, a transplanted Scot who deserves mention as part of the New Wave. His links was followed by Doak's Pacific Dunes, then by Coore & Crenshaw's Bandon Trails. Slowly, the ground game was embraced by American golfers who visited Bandon and took those expectations back home. Fun returned to the game, because it's much easier for most golfers to work the ball after it hits the ground than work it through the air.
SEVERE GREENS? 'THAT'S WHAT MAKES THEM COOL'that's apparent in this year's most exciting new courses. Though Streamsong Resort is a visual treat—a former phosphate strip mine with sand dunes piled 75 feet, the last thing one would expect to find in Florida—most are hailing it as "the new Bandon Dunes" mainly because of the way it plays. Superintendent Rusty Mercer has managed to use established and state-of-the-art strains of Bermuda for the fairways and greens that play as firm as the fescue at Bandon. (It's part magic and part constant top-dressing.) Golfers can putt from 50 yards if they so desire. Knobs, slopes, humps and hollows influence every shot and most putts.
I was a bit critical of Doak's Blue Course after facing putts on five straight greens that broke 90 degrees or more. Doak's response? "The best courses in the world have severe greens. That's what makes them cool." He's got me there. Streamsong Blue is cool. So is Streamsong Red, with slightly less-exaggerated greens.
What Doak (and Coore & Crenshaw) had to shape from the giant sandbox surrounding spoil mounds at Streamsong, Mother Nature provided at Dismal River Club in the sandhills of Nebraska. Doak simply followed the flow of the land and located greens with breathtaking backdrops. All but four of the putting surfaces took less than an hour apiece to transform from raw land to seedbed. Fairways seem like they were dropped from a thousand feet, splatting across the landscape. There are no formal tee boxes, just broad, free-form pads with a couple of yardage posts. One gets the feeling that you could play the course backward to equal delight.