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America's most challenging courses, ranked

November 02, 2023

When we task our 1,900 panelists with evaluating our nation’s courses, we remind them that we’re not seeking to determine America’s 100 Greatest Championship Courses. Instead, our definition of greatness identifies courses that challenge low handicap amateur golfers, not necessarily tour professionals.

That distinction is reflected in our definition of Challenge, one of our six scoring criteria used to determine our course rankings. We ask, “How challenging, while still being fair, is the course for a typical scratch golfer playing from the tees designated as back tees for everyday play (not from seldom-used championship tees)?”

We prefer to consider how challenging a course is for a mythical scratch golfer as opposed to a tour pro because most courses won’t host tour events with championship setups. A course that receives a high mark in Challenge must also be fair. Courses with demanding 260-yard carries over hazards from every tee or every green guarded by water are challenging but likely not fair. A course can be challenging in less obvious ways than severe rough and punishing hazards. Our panelists consider each of these factors, like windy locations, firm fairways and greens, angled targets, uneven stances and obscured visibility.

Based on panelist scores from our latest America’s 100 Greatest and Second 100 Greatest rankings, we’ve ranked the 25 most challenging courses in the United States.

Scroll down for the complete list of the most challenging courses in the country. We urge you to click through to each individual course page for bonus photography, drone footage and reviews from our course panelists. Plus, you can now leave your own ratings on the courses you’ve played … to make your case why your favorite should be ranked higher.

1. Pine Valley Golf Club
Carlos Amoedo
Private
1. Pine Valley Golf Club
Pine Valley, NJ, United States
5
267 Panelists
A genuine original, its unique character is forged from the sandy pine barrens of southwest Jersey. Founder George Crump had help from now-legendary architects H.S. Colt, A.W. Tillinghast, George C. Thomas Jr. and Walter Travis. Hugh Wilson (of Merion fame) and his brother Alan finished the job, and William Flynn and Perry Maxwell made revisions. Throughout the course, Pine Valley blends all three schools of golf design—penal, heroic and strategic—often times on a single hole. Recent tree removal at selected spots have revealed some gorgeous views of the sandy landscape upon which the course is routed, and bunker reconstruction by Tom Fazio has given the barrens a more intricate and ornate look.
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2. Oakmont Country Club
Stephen Szurlej
Private
2. Oakmont Country Club
Oakmont, PA, United States
4.9
255 Panelists
Once tens of thousands of trees (mostly planted in the 1960s) were removed between the early 90s and 2015, Oakmont’s original penal design was re-established, with the game’s nastiest, most notorious bunkers (founder-architect H.C. Fownes staked out bunkers whenever and where ever he saw a player hit an offline shot), deep drainage ditches and ankle-deep rough. Oakmont also has the game’s swiftest putting surfaces, which were showcased during the U.S. Open in 2016, despite early rains that slowed them down a bit. Gil Hanse and Jim Wagner made bunker modifications and expanded the greens throughout the course in 2023 in preparation for the 2025 U.S. Open. The USGA has already awarded Oakmont three additional Opens between 2033 and 2049, reinforcing its title as it the Host of the Most U.S. Opens ever.
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3. Shinnecock Hills Golf Club
Dom Furore
Private
3. Shinnecock Hills Golf Club
Southampton, NY, United States
4.9
170 Panelists
Generally considered to be the earliest links in America, heavily remodeled by C.B. Macdonald, then replaced (except for three holes) by William S. Flynn in the early 1930s, it’s so sublime that its architecture hasn’t really been altered for nearly 50 years. Most trees that once framed many holes have been removed, and in 2012, the team of Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw did make a few changes, mostly green expansions and new mowing patterns, to prepare Shinnecock for the 2018 U.S. Open, won by Brooks Koepka. Shinnecock will again host the U.S. Open in 2026.
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4. Augusta National Golf Club
Dom Furore
Private
4. Augusta National Golf Club
Augusta, GA, United States
5
94 Panelists
No club has tinkered with its golf course as often or as effectively over the decades as has Augusta National Golf Club, mainly to keep it competitive for the annual Masters Tournament, an event it has conducted since 1934, with time off during WWII. All that tinkering has resulted in an amalgamation of design ideas, with a routing by Alister Mackenzie and Bobby Jones, some Perry Maxwell greens, some Trent Jones water hazards, some Jack Nicklaus mounds and swales and, most recently, extensive rebunkering and tree planting by Tom Fazio. The tinkering continues, including the lengthening of the par-4 fifth in the summer of 2018, the lengthening of the 11th and 15th holes in 2022, and the addition of 35 yards to the famed par-5 13th in 2023.
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5. Winged Foot Golf Club: West
Dom Furore
Private
5. Winged Foot Golf Club: West
Mamaroneck, NY, United States
4.8
201 Panelists
Gone are all the Norway Spruce that once squeezed every fairway of Winged Foot West. It’s now gloriously open and playable, at least until one reaches the putting surfaces, perhaps the finest set of green contours the versatile architect A.W. Tillinghast ever did, now restored to original parameters by architect Gil Hanse. The greens look like giant mushrooms, curled and slumped around the edges, proving that as a course architect, Tillinghast was not a fun guy. Winged Foot West was tamed by Bryson DeChambeau in winning the 2020 U.S. Open in September, but he was only competitor to finish under-par in his six-shot victory.
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6. Bethpage State Park: Black
Dom Furore
Public
6. Bethpage State Park: Black
Farmingdale, NY, United States
Sprawling Bethpage Black, designed in the mid-1930s to be “the public Pine Valley,” became the darling of the USGA in the early 2000s, when it played the 2002 and 2009 U.S. Opens. Then it became a darling of the PGA Tour as host of the 2011 and 2016 Barclays. Now the PGA of America has embraced The Black, which hosted the 2019 PGA Championship (winner: Brooks Koepka) and the upcoming 2025 Ryder Cup. Heady stuff for a layout that was once a scruffy state-park haunt where one needed to sleep in the parking lot in order to get a tee time. Now, you need fast fingers on the state park's website once tee times are available—as prime reservations at The Black are known for going in seconds.
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7. Merion Golf Club: East
Stephen Szurlej
Private
7. Merion Golf Club: East
Ardmore, PA, United States
4.9
272 Panelists
Merion East has long been considered the best course on the tightest acreage in America, and when it hosted the U.S. Open in 2013, its first since 1981, the present generation of big hitters couldn’t conquer this clever little course. They couldn’t consistently hit its twisting fairways, which are edged by creeks, hodge-podge rough and OB stakes and couldn’t consistently hold its canted greens, edged by bunkers that stare back. Justin Rose won with a 72-hole total of one-over-par, two ahead of Jason Day and Phil Mickelson. With Gil Hanse's extensive two-year renovation making even more improvements at Merion's East Course, the design should be even more polished when the Open returns again in 2030.
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8. Oak Hill Country Club: East
Private
8. Oak Hill Country Club: East
Rochester, NY, United States
4.9
81 Panelists
Back in 1979, George Fazio and nephew Tom were roundly criticized by Donald Ross fans for removing a classic Ross par 4 on Oak Hill East and replacing it with two new holes, including the bowl-shaped par-3 sixth, which would later become the scene of four aces in two hours during the second round of the 1989 U.S. Open. They also built a pond on another par 3 and relocated the green on the par-4 18th. The club hired golf architect Andrew Green to remodel those holes to bring them more in line with Donald Ross’ original style. In addition to putting the final touches (at least for now) on a significant tree removal program, Green re-established Ross's original par-4 hole, then the fifth and now playing as the sixth (pictured here). Reconstruction occurred after the 2019 Senior PGA Championship on the East Course and was completed in May 2020. Oak Hill's East Course hosted the 2023 PGA Championship won by Brooks Koepka.
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9. Oakland Hills Country Club: South Course
L.C. Lambrecht/Oakland Hills
Private
9. Oakland Hills Country Club: South Course
Bloomfield Hills, MI, United States
4.8
104 Panelists
Donald Ross felt his 1918 design was out-of-date for the 1951 U.S. Open and was prepared to remodel it. Sadly, he died in 1948, so Robert Trent Jones got the job. His rebunkering was overshadowed by ankle-deep rough, and after Ben Hogan closed with a 67, one of only two rounds under par 70 all week, to win his second consecutive Open, he complained that Jones had created a Frankenstein. Sixty-plus years later, Oakland Hills is even longer, but its bite wasn’t severe when it hosted the 2016 U.S. Amateur. In 2019, the South course closed as Gil Hanse and his team significantly renovated the course with the intention of removing the Jones influences and restoring its Ross feel. They did that by expanding greens to recapture what are some of Ross's best contours, removed trees to show off the rolling landscape and shifted bunkers back to where Ross, not RTJ, placed them. The course re-opened in Spring 2021, and though a crippling fire destroyed the club's iconic clubhouse, the USGA delivered some kind news to the club, bringing the 2034 and 2051 U.S. Opens to Oakland Hills—as well as a number of upcoming USGA championships.
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10. Kiawah Island Golf Resort: The Ocean Course
Carlos Amoedo
Public
10. Kiawah Island Golf Resort: The Ocean Course
Kiawah Island, SC, United States
Often considered to be the first course designed for a specific event—the 1991 Ryder Cup—this manufactured linksland-meets-lagoons layout might well be Pete Dye’s most diabolical creation. Every hole is edged by sawgrass, every green has tricky slopes, every bunker merges into bordering sand dunes. Strung along nearly three miles of ocean coast, Dye took his wife’s advice and perched fairways and greens so golfers can actually view the Atlantic surf. That also exposes shots and putts to ever-present and sometimes fierce coastal winds. The Ocean Course will forever be linked with Phil Mickelson and his improbable victory at the 2021 PGA Championship.
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11. Pikewood National Golf Club
Stephen Szurlej
Private
11. Pikewood National Golf Club
Morgantown, WV, United States
4.4
133 Panelists
In 2000, mining company officers John Raese and Bob Gwynne started building a golf course on a newly acquired parcel of forest that their firm will eventually—a hundred years from now—mine for high quality limestone. Using company engineers and construction equipment, and guidance by veteran tour pros Johnny Pott and Dow Finsterwald, they spent almost a decade creating Pikewood National. A natural waterfall became the backdrop for their par-3 fifth hole and the linchpin of their routing, which plays along bluffs, through forest over rapids and, on the hook-shaped par-5 eighth, around a gulch.
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12. Muirfield Village Golf Club
Private
12. Muirfield Village Golf Club
Dublin, OH, United States
4.9
172 Panelists
This is the course that Jack built, and rebuilt, and rebuilt again and again. Since its opening in 1974, Jack Nicklaus has remodeled every hole at Muirfield Village, some more than once, using play at the PGA Tour’s annual Memorial Tournament for some guidance. The most recent renovation in 2020 was one of the most extensive and included the rebuilding of every hole, the shifting of greens and tees, strategic changes to the iconic par 5s and a new, more player-friendly par3 16th. That’s how a championship course remains competitive. But with every change, Nicklaus always made sure the general membership could still play and enjoy the course as well. The latest word is that Nicklaus is still not happy with the 16th hole and has plans for yet another version.
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13. Seminole Golf Club
Carlos Amoedo
Private
13. Seminole Golf Club
Juno Beach, FL, United States
4.8
211 Panelists
A majestic Donald Ross design with a clever routing on a rectangular site, each hole at Seminole encounters a new wind direction. The greens are no longer Ross, replaced 50 years ago in a regrassing effort that showed little appreciation for the original rolling contours. The bunkers aren’t Ross either. Dick Wilson replaced them in 1947, his own version meant to the imitate crests of waves on the adjacent Atlantic. A few years back, Bill Coore & Ben Crenshaw redesigned the bunkers again, along with exposing some sandy expanses in the rough. Seminole has long been one of America’s most exclusive clubs, which is why it was thrilling to see it on TV for a first time during the TaylorMade Driving Relief match, and then again for the 2021 Walker Cup.
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14. Butler National Golf Club
Private
14. Butler National Golf Club
Oak Brook, IL, United States
4.3
222 Panelists
Butler National was former tour player George Fazio’s ideal of a championship course, with 10 forced-carries over water in 18 holes. Even before it opened, it was signed to eventually serve as permanent site of the Western Open. Problem was, when it opened, it was the last cool-weather venue on the PGA Tour to utilize bluegrass rather than bent-grass for its fairway, and several prominent golfers declined to play Butler National because of potential flyer-lies from those fairways. Eventually the turf was converted, but then the Shoal Creek scandal occurred. Rather than change its restricted men-only policy, the club relinquished its role of Western Open host after the 1990 event. So why include a club on America’s 100 Greatest that won’t allow female panelists a chance to evaluate it? Because we rank golf courses, not club policies.
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15. Pinehurst No. 2
Stephen Szurlej
Public
15. Pinehurst No. 2
Pinehurst, NC, United States
In 2010, a team lead by Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw killed and ripped out all the Bermudagrass rough on Pinehurst No. 2 that had been foolishly planted in the 1970s. Between fairways and tree lines, they established vast bands of native hardpan sand dotted with clumps of wiregrass and scattered pine needles. They reduced the irrigation to mere single rows in fairways to prevent grass from ever returning to the new sandy wastelands. Playing firm and fast, it was wildly successful as the site of the 2014 Men’s and Women’s U.S. Opens, played on consecutive weeks. Because of its water reduction, the course was named a Green Star environmental award-winner by Golf Digest that year. In 2019, Pinehurst No. 2 and No. 4 hosted another U.S. Amateur Championship, and the USGA announced Pinehurst No. 2—in addition to hosting the 2024 U.S. Open—will also have the 2029, 2035, 2041 and 2047 U.S. Opens.
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16. Oak Tree National
Mike Klemme/Courtesy of Oak Tree National
Private
16. Oak Tree National
Edmond, OK, United States
4.6
116 Panelists
Oak Tree National was originally the men’s-only Oak Tree Golf Club, with 18 holes patterned after previous Dye designs (the par-3 eighth, for example, was a close cousin to his 17th at Harbour Town, complete with a basket trap on the back left). It has long been considered one of Pete Dye’s sternest tests of golf, a hilly layout with numerous water hazards and deep bunkers protecting some very tiny greens, as well as gusting Oklahoma winds and gnarly Bermudagrass rough. It’s been a PGA Tour Champions fixture in recent years, hosting the 2006 Senior PGA Championship and the 2014 Senior U.S. Open. Recent touch-ups by Tripp Davis have kept Dye's architeture sharp.
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17. The Olympic Club: Lake
Kirk Rice
Private
17. The Olympic Club: Lake
San Francisco, CA, United States
4.8
243 Panelists
It seems fitting that, in a town where every house is a cliffhanger, every U.S. Open played at Olympic has been one, too. For decades, the Lake was a severe test of golf. Once it was a heavily forested course with canted fairways hampered by just a single fairway bunker. By 2009, the forest had been considerably cleared away, leaving only the occasional bowlegged cypress with knobby knees, the seventh and 18th greens were redesigned and a new par-3 eighth added. Despite those changes, the 2012 U.S. Open stuck to the usual script: a ball got stuck in a tree, slow-play warnings were given, a leader snap-hooked a drive on 16 in the final round, and a guy name Simpson won. If the past was predictable, the future of the Lake Course might be more mysterious after Gil Hanse and Jim Wagner completed a remodeling in 2023 in preparation for the 2028 PGA Championship.
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18. Victoria National Golf Club
Courtesy of Victoria National GC
Private
18. Victoria National Golf Club
Newburgh, IN, United States
4.7
121 Panelists
Built atop Peabody Coal Company’s long-abandoned Victoria strip mine in southern Indiana, Victoria National was a simple routing for Tom Fazio. He just followed the corridors (the perfect width for fairways) that existed between mining spoil mounds (long since overgrown with trees) and some 40 acres of fingery lagoons that had formed as steam shovels carving out coal deposits hit the water table. Chosen as Best New Private Course of 1999, Victoria National stunned most panelists. One gushed it was, “the most unusual, unpolished and unpretentious Fazio design ever.” Another called it, “probably the hardest Fazio course I’ve played. More penal than Pine Valley.” Fazio concurred with that assessment. “It’s U.S. Open-quality now,” he said soon after it opened. “If the wind blew, it’d be too hard.”
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19. Whistling Straits: Straits Course
Public
19. Whistling Straits: Straits Course
Sheboygan, WI, United States
Pete Dye transformed a dead flat abandoned army air base along a two-mile stretch of Lake Michigan into an imitation Ballybunion at Whistling Straits, peppering his rugged fairways and windswept greens with 1,012 (at last count) bunkers. There are no rakes at Whistling Straits, in keeping with the notion that this is a transplanted Irish links. It has too much rub-of-the-green for the comfort levels of many tour pros, which is what makes it a stern test for top events, such as three PGA Championships, the 2007 U.S. Senior Open and 2021 Ryder Cup.
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20. Crystal Downs Country Club
Courtesy of Gary Kellner, Dimpled Rock
Private
20. Crystal Downs Country Club
Frankfort, MI, United States
4.7
138 Panelists
Perry Maxwell, the Midwest associate of architect Alister MacKenzie, lived on site while constructing the course to MacKenzie’s plans, but there’s evidence Maxwell exercised considerable artistic license on some holes. Whomever did it, Crystal Downs has fairways that zigzag and rumble over the glacial landscape and greens that have doglegs in them. One drawback is that the putting surfaces are so old-fashioned that they’re too steep for today’s green speeds. But that’s part of Crystal Downs appeal. It’s short but has considerable bite.
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21. Riviera Country Club
Carlos Amoedo
Private
21. Riviera Country Club
Pacific Palisades, CA, United States
4.8
198 Panelists
A compact and shrewd design by George C. Thomas Jr. and associate William P. Bell, Riviera features everything from a long Redan par 3 to a bunker in the middle of a green to an alternate-fairway par 4. With its 18th green at the base of a natural amphitheater, and its primary rough consisting of club-grabbing Kikuyu, Riviera seems tailor-made as a tournament venue. It hosted a PGA Championship in 1995, a U.S. Senior Open in 1998 and a U.S. Amateur in 2017, but no U.S. Open since 1948. Riviera was recently awarded the 2031 U.S. Open, and it will also host the 2028 Olympics. But it’s the site of an annual PGA Tour event, which is even better exposure to the golf world.
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22. Southern Hills Country Club
Gary Kellner/PGA of America/Getty Images
Private
22. Southern Hills Country Club
Tulsa, OK, United States
4.8
182 Panelists
A product of the Great Depression and constructed by hundreds of workers who stood at the gate each morning hoping for a 25-cents-per-hour job that day, Southern Hills is architect Perry Maxwell’s great achievement. Nearly every hole bends left or right, posing critical tee shots that must risk something. The putting surfaces have the classic “Maxwell Rolls,” and most are guarded by simple yet effective bunkers. During the summer of 2018, architect Gil Hanse and crew rebuilt much of the course, in the process re-establishing Maxwell’s distinctive, gnarly edged bunkering and reconstructing the green shoulders that had been built up over the years.
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23. The Honors Course
Private
23. The Honors Course
Ooltewah, TN, United States
4.7
151 Panelists
Considered radical in the early 1980s because of its acres of tall, native-grass rough, durable Zoysiagrass fairways and terrifying greens perched atop bulkheads of rock, today The Honors Course is considered a well-preserved example of Pete Dye’s death-or-glory architecture. Other than reducing the contours in a couple of greens (particularly the 18th) in the late 1990s, and adjusting the bunkering in 2008, Dye left the course alone for most of his career. Georgia architect Bill Bergin did create a new practice facility at the club in 2015, and Gil Hanse and Jim Wagner touched everything up again in 2022.
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24. Los Angeles Country Club: North
Private
24. Los Angeles Country Club: North
Los Angeles, CA, United States
4.8
236 Panelists
It’s on the edge of Tinsel Town, but the architecture of the North Course at Los Angeles Country Club has been solid gold ever since its 2010 restoration by architect Gil Hanse, his associate Jim Wagner and their colleague Geoff Shackelford. It matters not that Hanse’s team didn’t replicate the bunkering style of original architect George C. Thomas, but rather the more visually exciting style of Thomas’ associate, William P. Bell. The first nine plays rustically up and down a shallow canyon with holes switching back and forth across a dry barranca, and the second nine loops across a more spacious upland section with one par 3 (the 11th) that can stretch to nearly 300 yards and another (the 15th) that often plays just 90 yards. The hole strategies reinstituted by Hanse provided an intriguing examination when LACC's North course hosted the 2023 U.S. Open.
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25. The Country Club: The Main Course
Brian Oar
Private
25. The Country Club: The Main Course
Brookline, MA, United States
4
160 Panelists
The Country Club’s 18-hole course that was the scene of the 1963 and 1988 U.S. Opens is not the 18-hole course ranked by Golf Digest. Those events were played on a composite course, utilizing a few holes from the club’s third Primrose nine. We rank the combination of the Main Course, clearly good enough to be one of the top courses in the world. Gil Hanse performed some course restoration prior to the 2013 U.S. Amateur at The Country Club. The USGA used a new configuration of 18 holes for the 2022 U.S. Open, won by Matthew Fitzpatrick, eliminating the par-4 fourth and adding the tiny par 3 11th, the first time the hole was used since the 1913 Open won by Francis Ouimet.
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