2010November 1, 2010

Best New Courses

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

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

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

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

OVERSEAS DESTINATION OF THE YEAR

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.

ARCHITECT OF THE YEAR

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.

Chicago Highlands

The peekaboo, par-3 13th isn't even the most unusual hole at Chicago Highlands.

Photo By Dom Furore

GOLF HOLE OF THE YEAR

Chicago Highlands Golf Club

in the Chicago suburb of Westchester, was built atop an old landfill capped by 20 feet of soil, enough to allow Arthur Hills to sculpt the land into a faux links. It has a number of clever, unusual holes, the best being the 344-yard ninth, intended to be a reachable par 4 from all six tees. It's shaped like a volcano, up a steady rise from the tee to a hilltop green surrounded by slopes of tightly mowed turf. Blow it left, right, short or over the green, and the ball could roll 60 yards down. It's a giant chocolate drop of a hole, a pyramid of grass, the Iwo Jima of golf. As one who has steadfastly insisted he'd seen it all in golf design, I humbly beg for a mulligan.

LIGHTNING ROD OF THE YEAR

The Golf Club at Harbor Shores

in Benton Harbor, Mich., is a great story. The Jack Nicklaus-designed resort course was created in run-down areas just off downtown, assembled from parcels that included abandoned warehouses, an old chemical plant, a city park and a dump. From the eighth tee (one of three holes positioned on a stretch of Lake Michigan dunes previously part of Jean Klock Park), the view to the south is reminiscent of Lahinch in Ireland.

Yet when Nicklaus opened his design, there were picketers out front. Opponents were outraged that a 90-year-old lakefront park would be turned over to private developers. Proponents argued the park was an eyesore and drug hangout. The seventh through ninth holes occupy much of the 90-acre park, on the inland side of the dunes, and the public still has access to its lake-shore portion. (Emotions will likely be exacerbated when the three dunes holes serve as the closing holes for the 2012 and 2014 Senior PGA Championships scheduled for Harbor Shores.)

EXTREME MAKEOVERS

The best renovation I played this year is the oldest private club in Atlanta, Capital City Club Brookhaven

, transformed by Bob Cupp (who lives off the third tee) from an over-treed relic into a layout more lovely than Augusta National

. Second-best is the very affordable public Commonground

in Aurora, Colo., where Tom Doak and company replaced a runway-flat Air Force base 18 with a course full of character.

OTHERS THAT CAUGHT MY FANCY

Ballyhack

, Roanoke, Va. (private). Ballybunion in the Virginia foothills; not for hackers. Cape Fear National

, Leland, N.C. Best design by an architect you've never heard of (Tim Cate). Clear Creek Tahoe, Minden, Nev. (private). Its 17th is the best par 3 I played all year. Lodestone

, McHenry, Md. (private). Calendar art on a plateau above western Maryland ski slopes. Old Union

, Blairsville, Ga. Sublime set of holes ringed by mountains. The Patriot

, Owasso, Okla. (private). Elevated tee shots into narrow valleys. Payne Stewart Golf Club

, Branson, Mo. Sentimental journey of the year. Red Ledges

, Heber, Utah (private). Nicklaus design among pines and towering buttes. TPC San Antonio

. The Norman 18 is a tour stop; the Dye 18 is scheduled for the Champions Tour. Victory Ranch

, Kamas, Utah (private). Rees Jones design where holes are tightrope walks above deep canyons.

LOOKING AHEAD

Lester George and Tom Lehman

are working on Contentment in North Carolina, yet another homage to C.B. Macdonald. Firekeeper

, a Jeff Brauer-Notah Begay III collaboration in Mayetta, Kan., will open in the spring, as will Salish Cliffs

, a Gene Bates design in Shelton, Wash., and Seneca Hickory Stick

, a Trent Jones Jr. layout near Niagara Falls in New York. Also opening will be Tom Weiskopf's Langtry Farms in Northern California; Summit Rock At Skywater

, a Jack Nicklaus design in Horseshoe Bay, Texas; and Awarii Dunes

near Kearney, Neb., a Jim Engh design. But the course everyone wants to play will open Down Under in December. Lost Farmby Bill Coore

and Ben Crenshaw

is a true links amid towering Tasmanian sand dunes, a companion 18 to six-year-old Barnbougle Dunes (No. 20 on our list of the 100 Best Courses Outside the United States

). Lost Farm has generated a ton of buzz, but in this economy, you'd think they'd come up with a better name.