TPC Sawgrass Stadium Course, Ponte Verde, Fla.(The Players Championship)TPC Sawgrass Stadium Course, Ponte Verde, Fla.For all the bad jokes about railroad ties and island greens, a great course that is vastly underrated. I can't think of one weak hole, and nearly each one is distinctive. Pete Dye's masterpiece has it all -- strategic challenge, fascinating risk/reward choices, and a white-knuckle finish. Dye pushed the envelope with his 1979 design, and though time has softened some of the hard edges, a lot of players have never taken to the place. But few courses this side of Pine Valley have as many good holes, with the 9th and the 11th two of the great par 5s in the world. The final three make up the best finish in tournament golf -- think Augusta National closing with Amen Corner.
Riviera C.C., Pacific Palisades, Calif.(Northern Trust Open)Riviera C.C., Pacific Palisades, Calif.George Thomas was one of the greats of the Golden Age of Architecture, and Riviera may have been his best work. The word that comes to mind during a tour of Riviera is "artistic" -- from the routing to the bunkering to the green complexes to the atmosphere. The 10th remains the gold standard for what a short par 4 should be, and the 12th, 13th and 15th and 18th make up as muscular and graceful a closing run of par 4s as there is in the game. The last, with the stucco clubhouse hovering above golf's best natural amphitheater, is a special stage that every tournament envies.
Harbour Town G.L., Hilton Head, S.C.(The Heritage)Harbour Town G.L., Hilton Head, S.C.Pete Dye's unparalleled knowledge of the subtle things that separate the best players from the rest makes this intimate, retro layout invigorating despite covering less than 7,000 yards. The premium is on driving accuracy, precision iron play and, above all, strategy. The cozy dimensions help make the golf fun to watch, and the small greens allow a lot of makeable birdie opportunities and at least the illusion that play is moving faster. Love the short par-4 ninth, which demands a first class pitch to its small tabletop target, and the lighthouse on the 18th emits an unmistakable sense of place.
Muirfield Village G.C., Dublin, Ohio(The Memorial)Muirfield Village G.C., Dublin, OhioJack Nicklaus' best thinking is contained in his most personal work. Like so many Nicklaus courses, it has immaculate conditioning that makes the large greens lightning fast, and a lot of deep bunkering to give mistakes consequences. But his hometown course has more beautiful touches than any of his others, and Nicklaus has never rested in making changes to keep up with the modern game. Too often the fire has been taken out of the course by damp conditions (Muirfield Village never played better than it did during the 1987 Ryder Cup). The par 5s in particular are exciting, with the par-4 14th and the par-5 15th shortish gems of design that offer opportunity but demand accuracy and nerve.
East Lake G.C., Atlanta, Ga.(The Tour Championship)East Lake G.C., Atlanta, Ga.Not my favorite course for the climactic Tour Championship -- I liked Olympic Club and Pinehurst No. 2 better -- but the intimate yet grand setting still makes it classic site. There's the Bobby Jones history, the Donald Ross design (restored by Rees Jones in 1994), and the way Tom Cousins has incorporated the club and its resources to bring life to a previously blighted surrounding neighborhood. The layout can be a bit mundane in spots, but it tests the right things and demands a stout shot on the 240-yard-plus par-3 18th to seal the deal.