America's 100 Greatest Golf Courses/2009-10

America's 100 Greatest Courses Has A New No. 1

Augusta National Hole 1

1. AUGUSTA NATIONAL G.C. /Despite controversial course changes, the home of the Masters jumped to No. 1 on the list for the first time in our survey's history. A view of the first hole (above). More photos of Augusta National G.C.

Rob Brown/Millerbrown

May 2009

America's 100 Greatest is the leading symbol of golf-course excellence, the oldest ranking in the game, with the most rigorous requirements and therefore the most respect. It's the exclusive club even exclusive clubs want to join, the one nearly every architect has designs on. The time has come to reveal Golf Digest's latest version. Prepare to greet eight new members and -- oh, yes -- a new No. 1 course.

This can only be termed an upset. Augusta National Golf Club is now the No. 1 course in America, edging the usual titleholder, Pine Valley Golf Club, by the statistical equivalent of a six-inch putt.

It's like Andy Roddick defeating Roger Federer, like Nebraska beating Oklahoma, like Mickelson besting Woods. It can happen, but you don't expect it. This is the first time Augusta National has ever topped Golf Digest's biennial ranking of America's 100 Greatest Golf Courses, and the timing could not have been more surprising. In recent years, Augusta National seemed to be falling out of fashion. The course had been stretched and pressed to fit modern technology at the cost of public opinion. Former Masters champions Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer scolded the club for creating a beast they didn't recognize. Masters fans moaned that the thrill was gone from Sunday afternoons. Architecture buffs scoffed at Augusta's aggressive tree-planting in an age when trees are being toppled at nearly every other championship venue.

On top of all that, last year Golf Digest redefined its Conditioning evaluation category to favor dry, firm, fast turf conditions, a move that would seem to punish the plush, pristine purity that had historically garnered Augusta National near-flawless scores in that category.

Yet Augusta moved from No. 3 in 2007 to No. 1 in 2009. As they say, golf is a game of funny bounces.

Why did it happen? The nature of our course-ranking survey doesn't provide easy explanations. We have more than 900 evaluation panelists. We don't ask them to pick a No. 1 course, a No. 2 course and so on. Instead, we ask them to evaluate all courses and score each on a scale of 1 (Unacceptable) to 10 (Absolutely Perfect) on seven evaluation categories: Shot Values, Design Variety, Resistance to Scoring, Memorability, Aesthetics, Conditioning and Ambience.

Panelists don't even provide a total score for each course. Instead, we average their scores in each category, then total those averages (in the process doubling Shot Values, long considered the most important criterion), and the highest total score wins. In the end, their scores produce more than 504,000 individual elements. Augusta National edged No. 2 Pine Valley by just 36-hundredths of a point.

One panelist who returned to Augusta after a 20-year absence was "extremely impressed" with the work Tom Fazio did in "improving" the golf course, but another "marked it down slightly because of the radical changes throughout the years," and a third set his emotions aside and judged dispassionately, saying, "Although it's not my favorite course in the world and not my favorite style, it is hard to argue with the idea that it's spectacular, with few weaknesses."

Perhaps more enlightening is the fact that a large number of panelists used Augusta National as their standard when evaluating other courses. The risks and rewards of Amen Corner were often cited as benchmarks when judging the Shot Values of another course. Augusta's greens and surrounds were referenced when determining the Resistance to Scoring of other candidates. The Aesthetics and Memorability elsewhere were often compared to Augusta's statuesque pines, blazing azaleas and fluffy dogwoods.

Subscribe to Golf Digest
Subscribe today