June 25, 2007

America's Best 18 Holes

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

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.

We set a couple of arbitrary limits in selecting the Best 18, though not for the Honorable Mention list: No two holes from the same course, and no more than two holes from the same state. This was an effort to spread the "first team" wealth, there being an abundance of wealth available. In all, the layout covers 14 states, and, true enough, 15 of the holes lurk behind security gates in residential surroundings.

Don't expect to find any of the old favorites here, like, say, the 12th at Augusta National, the 11th at Merion, the 18th at Pebble Beach, or any of the classics that one of us-in another life on another magazine-once selected on an All-Time Best 18. This is the New Generation, the best No. 1, best No. 2, and so on, from the last three decades of golf course design.

All of the usual suspects among the most celebrated architects today are represented, and what evolves is a balanced par-72 course that offers an exciting test to both the long and short hitter. The distances listed are from the back tees, but there's no law that says you have to hit from there.

All that having been said, you may now play away.

No. 1: Sand Hills Golf Club

Mullen, Neb., 549 yards, par 5,

Bill Coore Ben Crenshaw (1995)

Start with the fact that Sand Hills is the most natural course ever built in America. Coore and Crenshaw used the contours that already existed. Even the green contours were there, hidden beneath tall grasses and yuccas. They simply flattened areas for tees, added irrigation, and-instant golf course.

When they created this No. 1, they stood on the rim of a sand dune and gazed at the sweep of the dunes below, resembling our late colleague Peter Dobereiner's description of linksland: "a rumpled blanket." They pointed to a far dune and said, "There's where we play to." It's not a killer par 5, but it's surely fun, and for this country, unique.

Of course, you've got to want to get to Sand Hills. It's almost as if you have to take a rocket from Cape Canaveral, circle the moon, land in North Platte, then hop on a Wells Fargo stagecoach.

Honorable mention No. 1s:

Wolf Run Golf Club, Zionsville, Ind., 375 yards, par 4, Steve Smyers (1989); Dunmaglas Golf Course, Charlevoix, Mich., 380 yards, par 4, Larry Mancour and Dean Refram (1991); The Sanctuary, Sedalia, Colo., 604 yards, par 5, Jim Engh (1997).

No. 2: Rio Secco Golf Club

Henderson, Nev., 478 yards, par 4,

Rees Jones (1997)

Black Mountain, south of Las Vegas, is an extinct volcano, and this course is built on the northwest slope. It's a serious eye-opener to walk onto the second tee and look down a narrow canyon of black lava, similar to what you see here and there in Hawaii, the canyon just wide enough for a fairway and some bunkers.

The tee is about 50 feet above the fairway, which turns gently right and tumbles downhill. The green rests in a saddle, and the long second shot normally plays from a downhill lie. The bunkers to the right and behind the green are more helpful than most bunkers. They can keep a wild shot from bounding down into a ravine. In truth, the hole looks more dark and foreboding than it actually is. One more facet of Rio Secco's distinctiveness: The Vegas Strip lies 10 miles north and can be seen from the course. In twilight, it's an eerie sight to see the casinos lighting up-if you're a twilight golfer.

Honorable mention No. 2s:

Ironhorse Golf Club, Leawood, Kan., 211 yards, par 3, Michael Hurdzan and Dana Fry (1995); Indianwood Golf Country Club (New Course), Lake Orion, Mich., 406 yards, par 4, Bob Cupp and Jerry Pate (1988); Royal New Kent Golf Club, Providence Forge, Va., 557 yards, par 5, Mike Strantz (1996).

No. 3: Ventana Canyon

Golf Racquet Club (Mountain Course), Tucson, 107 yards, par 3,

Tom Fazio (1984)

You can call it the modern version of the cute seventh at Pebble Beach, or you can call it Tom's Boutique. It's just a downhill flip to a green perched on a point above a desert canyon. Extreme target golf here, but only a wedge under normal conditions for even the worst of us. A nifty little jewel.

Honorable mention No. 3s:

Gold Mountain Golf Complex (Olympic Course), Bremerton, Wash., 251 yards, par 3, John Harbottle (1996); Green Bay Country Club, Green Bay, Wis., 350 yards, par 4, Dick Nugent (1995); Merit Club, Libertyville, Ill., 563 yards, par 5, Bob Lohmann and Ed Oldfield (1992).

No. 4: Bear Creek Golf Club

Murrieta, Calif., 435 yards, par 4,

Jack Nicklaus (1984)

Here's a dual fairway and a two-level green. Options, options. Drive to the upper level on the left if you want to go with the Big Dog, play the lower level with something else. On the upper level, you have a longer second shot but a better angle to the green.

A high fade works well from there. Jack's trade-off for anyone taking the shorter route is this: The approach must come in over a deep greenside bunker. Besides that, a creek crosses the fairway short of the green and sees its share of misery.

Bear Creek is situated on what was once interior ranchland. It's now one of those residential communities where you can mistake a number of the private homes for the clubhouse. It's in that part of California that's generally known to most tourists as "a little closer to San Diego than L.A."

Honorable mention No. 4s:

Oak Tree Golf Club, Edmond, Okla., 200 yards, par 3, Pete Dye (1976); River Ridge Golf Club (Parkland Nine), Sealy, Tex., 432 yards, par 4, Jay Riviere (1998); Shadow Creek Golf Course, North Las Vegas, Nev., 553 yards, par 5, Tom Fazio and Steve Wynn (1989).

No. 5, Cullasaja Club

Highlands, N.C., 463 yards, par 4,

Arnold Palmer Ed Seay (1990)

In case you're unfamiliar with this captivating area, it's an easy two-hour drive from Atlanta, though it no doubt took longer when Bobby Jones spent his youthful summers in these mountains-and eventually helped design old Highlands Country Club. Exquisite courses abound all over the slopes now, from Wade Hampton in Cashiers to Cullasaja outside High-lands, which has been called "the Carmel of the Carolinas," and com-parisons to the brie cheese capital of California's Pacific coastline may not be too extravagant.

Cullasaja is the Cherokee word for "sweet water," and the Cullasaja River rambles through this course, which has a variety of elevations.

Of the many engaging holes Culla-saja features, the strongest is the fifth. Plenty of room on the drive, provided you know to lay up short of a ditch crossing the fairway. But the second shot is a long one that needs to be precise as well, for the green is guarded on the left by a thick cluster of trees and a rippling stream, and on the right by another part of the forest that yearns for your slice. The hole is gorgeously backdropped by a natural waterfall flowing from the Cullasaja River.

Honorable mention No. 5s:

Victoria National Golf Club, Newburgh, Ind., 212 yards, par 3, Tom Fazio (1998); Golden Eagle Golf Course, Irvington, Va., 463 yards, par 4, George Cobb and John LaFoy (1976); Mistwood Golf Course, Romeoville, Ill., 566 yards, par 5, Ray Hearn (1998).

No. 6: Links at Spanish Bay

Pebble Beach, Calif., 395 yards, par 4,

Robert Trent Jones Jr., Tom Watson Sandy Tatum (1987)

Nobody reveres the game more than Frank (Sandy) Tatum Jr., former USGA president, prominent San Francisco attorney and accomplished lifetime player. He wanted a St. Andrews-type hole somewhere in the design, and that's exactly what this is, which is why the hole is appropriately named "Sandy." It plays slightly uphill over what closely resembles knobby linksland with its strategic array of Scottish bunkers, some visible, some not. The entire hole is about slopes and bounces. You can hit what looks like a perfect drive or approach and watch it funnel down a hump and into a hidden bunker. You can also shorten the sixth with a risky tee shot through a narrow corridor. But then there are those infuriating contours around the green.

Honorable mention No. 6s:

Wade Hampton Golf Club, Cashiers, N.C., 163 yards, par 3, Tom Fazio (1987); Timberstone Golf Club, Iron Mountain, Mich., 413 yards, par 4, Jerry Matthews (1997); King's North at Myrtle Beach National, Myrtle Beach, S.C., 568 yards, par 5, Arnold Palmer Ed Seay (1996).

No. 7: Bay Harbor Golf Club (Quarry 9)

Bay Harbor, Mich., 406 yards, par 4,

Arthur Hills (1998)

C.B. Macdonald called a design like this one his "Cape" hole, for reasons known only to him, when he invented it with the 14th at National Golf Links on Long Island in 1909. A "Cape" hole is a dogleg left or right where you drive over a diagonal water hazard and bite off as much as you think you can carry, or chew. Not every great layout needs or has a "Cape" hole, but we wanted one, and this is it.

The beauty of this one-there are 27 fascinating holes at Bay Harbor- is that you're not asked to carry any ordinary water hazard. It's a deep gorge carved out years ago to drain the limestone quarry into Lake Michigan. The gorge, with solid rock sides and water in the bottom, brings to mind ledges that humans and animals hopped around on in old Tarzan movies.

The hole tilts right to left, and the green sits down a few grass staircases from the drive's landing area, the gorge along the left flank. Behind the green the land falls off steeply down to Lake Michigan. Thus, from the fairway you're gazing at a beautiful backdrop, like something out of Bermuda. But you're still in Michigan.

Honorable mention No. 7s:

The Hills Country Club, Austin, Tex., 173 yards, par 3, Jack Nicklaus (1981); Cape Cod National Golf Club, Brewster, Mass., 311 yards, par 4, Brian Silva (1998); The Golf Club at Chaparral Pines, Payson, Ariz., 624 yards, par 5, David Graham Gary Panks (1997).

No. 8: The Dunes Club

New Buffalo, Mich., 513 yards, par 5,

Dick Nugent (1991)

You can call this the best nine-hole course in America and not have to wear a disguise when you say it. Built in sand dunes alongside Lake Michi-gan, most of the holes have stretches of that kind of waste-area sand that loves to fondle golf balls. The eighth plays off an elevated tee to a rolling fairway with a smaller version of Pine Valley's Hell's Half Acre, the world's largest cross bunker outside of Saudi Arabia. The fairway then rolls into tall trees to a raised green tucked within dunes. A huge elm blocks the front-left entrance to the green, creating another problem for the slicer.

Big hitters can reach the hole in two, if they're accurate. For others, it's a challenging three-shotter. Nugent has designed a surprising and marvelous nine holes here. If it had nine more, which it never will-no more room-it would easily make the 100 Greatest.

Honorable mention No. 8s:

Quail Crossing Golf Club, Boonville, Ind., 150 yards, par 3, Tom Doak (1997); Longaberger Golf Club, Nashport, Ohio, 444 yards, par 4, Arthur Hills (1999); Tangle Ridge Golf Club, Grand Prairie, Tex., 575 yards, par 5, Jeff Brauer (1995).

No. 9: Barton Creek Country Club and Resort

(Fazio Foothills), Austin, Tex., 175 yards, par 3,

Tom Fazio (1986)

A postcard hole if there ever was one, what with water cascading to the left and behind. There may be no prettier hole in all of Texas. While there's a bailout on the right, there's nothing but disaster three feet off the front and left edges of the undulating green. You don't have to play it from the back; you can move up to the 125-yard blocks, but it still requires accuracy. There's typical Fazio "detail" here. The back wall of the bunker is edged with the same ledgerock used to bulkhead the front of the green. It completes the picture and looks natural. There are probably some Barton Creek members who think that rock was already there.

Honorable mention No. 9s:

Jupiter Hills Club (Hills Course), Tequesta, Fla., 190 yards, par 3, George and Tom Fazio (1970); Sawgrass Country Club (East Nine), Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., 451 yards, par 4, Ed Seay (1972); Stonebridge Golf Club, Rome, Ga., 549 yards, par 5, Arthur Davis (1994).

(Next month, the back nine.)