America's Best 18 Holes

What's the best first hole? The best 18th?

February 2000

The task of selecting the best modern 18 holes in America basically addressed the question of whether excellent golf course design could survive security gates. Yeah, that, and the rampant real-estate development over the past 30 years that's wrought golf in the cathedral of condos, weaving a sculptured wonderland out of so many desolate swamps, obscure mountain slopes, lonely deserts and scorched prairies.

So it's a pleasure to report, for the continued growth of the game, that the answer is yes-and fore, please. You can now find more memorable golf holes and electric carts zipping to and from them in these previously remote areas than you could have once found members of the animal, vegetable and mineral kingdoms.

Let's hear it, then, for the creative golf architects, not to overlook the adventurous developers who originally located all the mysterious parcels of land, even those entrepreneurs who've since packed up their belongings and moved into

The original list

Thirty-five years ago, Dan Jenkins picked the best 18 holes in America for Sports Illustrated-the best No. 1, the best No. 2, and so on. This month and next, he'll select the best modern 18, concluding with the all-time best. The original list:

Front nine
No. 1: Merion, par 4
No. 2: Scioto, par 4
No. 3: Olympic, par 3
No. 4: Baltusrol, par 3
No. 5: Colonial, par 4
No. 6: Seminole, par 4
No. 7: Pine Valley, par 5
No. 8: Prairie Dunes, par 4
No. 9: Champions, par 5
Front-nine par: 36

Back nine
No. 10: Winged Foot, par 3
No. 11: Merion, par 4
No. 12: Augusta National, par 3
No. 13: The Dunes, par 5
No. 14: Cherry Hills, par 4
No. 15: Oakmont, par 4
No. 16: Oakland Hills, par 4
No. 17: Quail Creek, par 4
No. 18: Pebble Beach, par 5
Back-nine par: 36 Total par: 72

Chapter 11, which was most of them. As they often say in real-estate development, "It's the third owner who makes the money."

Modern golf course design started in 1969. That's our studied opinion.

It began the day Pete Dye and Jack Nicklaus, his collaborator at the time, introduced the world to railroad-tie bulkheads, small greens, small bunkers and waste areas, thereby transforming a forlorn marsh into Harbour Town Golf Links on Hilton Head Island in South Carolina.

What this ushered in-and popularized-was the style of "abrupt change," as Dye called it. You're either on the fairway or green or in need of a forklift. No DMZ. With Harbour Town, Dye and Nicklaus suddenly snatched the art of course design away from the game's other architects, who for years had been showing a somewhat boring tendency toward obscene length, huge greens and sprawling bunkers.

It should also be said that Hilton Head subsequently wrote the pilot film on gated communities, and its explosion as a destination made "Green side up!" the favorite battle cry of everyone in real estate. But to get on with it:

A great golf hole should combine several elements: charm, atmosphere, scenery, distinctiveness, condition, challenge, and intimidation for even the low handicapper.

Of the hundreds of interesting layouts that have been built over the past 30 years, thanks by and large to a robust economy, we obviously were provided with dozens upon dozens of intriguing holes-unique holes, great holes-from which to choose the best 18, and the honorable mentions that accompany them.

It goes without saying that this project's travel, research, examination, discussion, debate and backswings required months to complete, and, to be sure, personal experience played a role.

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