The Best Of The Rest:
A World Of Great Golf

Ancient Links Still Lead The Way

May 2009

As the British empire expanded, golf was planted in all corners of the world. Wherever the Brits went, they took their golf, cricket, bridge, gin, scones and garden clubs. Royal Calcutta was founded in 1829, Royal Montreal in 1873, Royal Hong Kong in 1889.

Since that time, golfers have wanted to know where the world's best golf can be played. Are South Africa and New Zealand worth the effort? When in Cairo or Paris or Shanghai, where should I play? To answer these questions, Golf Digest again publishes the top-100 courses outside the United States, and individual rankings for every golf nation on earth, too, 199 countries in all (click here to get your copy of World's Greatest Golf Booklet). The rankings were compiled from ballots submitted by our 900-plus U.S. and international golf-course panelists, editors among our network of 23 editions of Golf Digest plus our other affiliate magazines around the world, and various other experts we have come to know and trust.

Though Scotland predictably leads the way in our best-of-the-rest top 100 with 17 courses, it's important to note that you must travel to 26 countries to play them all. Generally you will be searching for the finest coastal sand, for that is where those at the top of our list are to be found. All of the top eight are true links, built on sand or sandy loam. Forty-two of the top 100 are in the British Isles -- again, mostly links -- 13 in the rest of Europe, 17 are in the Southern Hemisphere, nine in Asia, and 11 in Canada.

You will find no better than top-ranked Royal County Down in Northern Ireland. In 1889, Old Tom Morris laid out two nine-hole loops among the shaggy sand hills that isolate each hole while providing perches and tees from which to admire the backdrop of the Mourne Mountains. This is a links so strategically fine and so stunningly beautiful that while you play, it frequently appears as an oil painting -- until the wind disturbs a distant flag.

Rivalries discern themselves as you peruse the ranking. In the Dominican Republic, the Jack Nicklaus-designed Punta Espada (2006) has its revered neighbor, Pete Dye's Casa de Campo (1971), in its sights. In Canada, those two Toronto titans, Stanley Thompson's St. George's (1929) and the National Golf Club of Canada (1974) -- one of Tom Fazio's earliest works -- vie for supremacy. In la belle France, Tom Simpson's masterpiece at Morfontaine (1927) looks down -- from not so far -- on Robert von Hagge's aspiring Les Bordes (1986). The bottom of the list reflects the greatest range and contrast. Nineteen countries -- and every continent but golf-free Antarctica -- are represented in the final 30, including the low country of the Netherlands' Noordwijkse, the massive dunes of Durban, the backbone-like sand hills of Rye, newcomers like Queenwood in England or Fox Harb'r in Nova Scotia, as well as long-respected favorites like Tokyo Golf Club and Belgium's Royal Zoute.

Whether on sand, heathland or parkland, you will find golf that aspires to honor the game as it evolved in St. Andrews. That continuing evolution at the Home of Golf is evidenced by the debut of the Castle Course on our ranking, in 65th position. Designed by Scotsman David McLay Kidd and opened not quite a year ago, the Castle is notable for its large, sloping greens, wide landing areas, and elevated views of the sea and the town. It joins three of St. Andrews' seven courses in our top 100; the Old Course (second place), the New (63rd) and the Jubilee (92nd). With Kingsbarns just down the road (18th), St. Andrews remains the game's pre-eminent destination.

Enthusiasm for the origins of the game has not diminished among aficionados even though global economic trends are having their impact in the farthest-flung corners. From southern Europe to Moscow, the Turkish coast to Palm Beach, Dubai to Japan, the market for new golf courses has generally evaporated, and the value of those already established has fallen. Prices for Korean golf memberships, which are traded like equities, have declined 40 percent in the past year. Russian entrepreneurs' telephones have been disconnected, and e-mail goes unanswered. In Dubai, the opening of the Tiger Woods course has been delayed and the real-estate development surrounding it postponed indefinitely. The English Golf Union reports that 40 percent of its clubs decreased in membership last year -- there's an average of 46 member vacancies per club. Scotland's Loch Lomond -- 21st in our ranking -- is back in the hands of its lenders, and the lenders are in the hands of the government.

‘Shore thing: 42 of the top 100 are in the british isles, most of them true links.’

Generally speaking, however, the world's great clubs are healthy and will remain so. Destinations in Great Britain, Ireland and Australia that have retained the essence of their golf and forgone the hoopla of distracting amenities and overcooked greenkeeping remain attractive to travelers motivated by value.

Significant new designs can still be produced in a downturn. As Chili Palmer (John Travolta) observes in "Get Shorty": Sometimes you do your best work with a gun to your head. During the Depression, Alister Mackenzie produced Crystal Downs (1931) and Augusta National (1933). William Flynn perfected Shinnecock (1931), and Perry Maxwell gave us Southern Hills (1936) and Prairie Dunes (1937). Hugh Alison refined Naruo (1930) before designing Hirono (1932) and Kawana's Fuji course (1936). Perhaps most notable was A.W. Tillinghast's collaboration at Bethpage Black (1936).

Subscribe to Golf Digest
Subscribe today