In 1965, the great Dan Jenkins picked an All-Star team of golf holes for Sports Illustrated, The Best 18 Golf Holes in America, selected by a committee of one, although he allowed Ben Hogan a nod or two. What set Jenkins’ list apart from other pretenders was a self-imposed restriction. His All-Star team, he said, couldn’t have five quarterbacks and three tight ends. Each hole had to play the position it occupied on the real course: best first hole from among all starting holes in America, best second hole, and so on. His article later became an influential book, and today each club he featured still treats Dan’s selection as a papal blessing.
Jenkins joined Golf Digest in 1985, and in the early 1990s it was suggested that he reprise his list, selecting from among golf holes that didn’t exist in ’65. He was lukewarm, partly because he hadn’t played many of the newly built country-clubs for-a-day, or the hundreds of O.B.-laden tract-home layouts or even any of the ultra-private, guard-gated, one-owner Augusta National wannabes. But he soon returned to the game with renewed enthusiasm and finally agreed to pick a new Best 18, this time with some help, as there were some courses he wanted no part of. His Second-Generation list appeared in this magazine in early 2000, covering holes built from 1965-’99.
Sadly, Jenkins is gone now, but a good idea remains a good idea, even if it has been milked twice before. As Golf Digest is celebrating its 70th anniversary, we believe an updated list seems appropriate, this time choosing from among golf holes built from 2000-’19.
Illustration by Chris O'Riley
Editor's Note: We've adapted the first nine holes of our feature below—please check out the digital edition of our latest issue of Golf Digest, which includes diagrams of every hole, plus additional photos, by clicking here.
Our approach was a bit different than Dan’s. His original list drew from the usual courses, the architectural classics like Merion and Pine Valley, spiced with a few “modern” twists like Champions in Houston (definitely not a Hogan thumbs up) and The Dunes in Myrtle Beach. Thirty-five years later, he searched for holes that looked great on calendars and gave tour pros heartburn, hence his embracing of holes like the 14th at Muirfield Village and the 17th at TPC Sawgrass.
In assembling version 3.0, we stayed true to the Jenkins requirement of comparing apples to apples. But we self-imposed two additional limitations: an architect or architectural firm could be listed only once, and a club or facility could not be represented more than once. Beyond that, no other strait jackets, no consideration of total par, hole length, scorecard balance, regional balance, grass type, bunker style or flag pattern. Ours was just a quest to identify the most memorable and meritorious holes that represent early 21st-century trends in golf architecture in America.
For instance, there’s a renewed emphasis on strategic lines and angles that incorporate far more width than 1990s housing-development courses could provide, so a couple of our holes are astonishingly wide. We mined rugged, far-flung regions of the United States, which is where present-day architects have been finding work. Sometimes it’s on great land, which resulted in a rustic aesthetic that’s represented in some picks, but sometimes it was marginal land, a landfill or abandoned quarry, where talented people rose to the challenge. But mostly, we focused on finding holes that are fun to play, because that’s the overwhelming trend thus far in this century.
Speaking of fun, many of the most unique and fascinating holes built in the past 20 years have been short par 4s, those tantalizing, entertaining, match-swinging half-par holes: some days a cinch birdie, other days a hard par. That’s why four such creations made our 2020 list.
Editor's Note: The first nine holes of our feature can be found below—check out the entire feature through the digital edition of Golf Digest's latest issue.
1. KINGSLEY CLUB
KINGSLEY • MICHIGAN
PAR 5 • 602 YARDS
ARCHITECT • MIKE DEVRIES
Our opening hole, with its 90-yard-wide corridor, would seem to be a comfortable par 5 to ease us into the round. The first hole at the private Kingsley Club, near Traverse City, actually has two fairways, a high-right avenue and a lower-left route, the two separated by a cluster of bunkers. But here’s where Mike DeVries messes with our heads (the goal of every great architect), by making us pick and choose on the first shot of the day. Do we play up the narrow right side? Can we reach the crest? Or do we aim at the wider left side, at the risk of rolling down into the trees? Or do we split the difference and try to carry over that frightful field of pits? Kingsley’s wonderful glacial domes and hollows provide brain teasers and aggravating options throughout the round, demanding that our mental game be focused on the shot in front of us and nothing else. Which is good, as golf is meant to be an escape.
2. GAMBLE SANDS
BREWSTER • WASHINGTON
PAR 4 • 340 YARDS
DAVID MCLAY KIDD
The “drivable” par 4 has been a wildly popular architectural conceit the past two decades. But typically, they’re only drivable if you slug the ball around 300 yards or more. With flexible tees playing off an elevated bluff—and 10-mile views across central Washington’s broad Columbia River Valley—this downhill hole delivers on the promise, offering players of various abilities the chance to get home with one swing, providing they hit from the right markers. But it’s no lay-up. The tee shot must challenge a centerline bunker 40 yards short of the green, either straight over it or curving around it on the right and then rolling in on the helping contours. Gamble Sands is where David Kidd, after remembering that golf should be fun, introduced the concept of defending birdie but offering par, and no hole epitomizes that come-hither ethos better than this one.
3. TOT HILL FARM G.C.
ASHBORO • NORTH CAROLINA
PAR 3 • 180 YARDS
Extremely rocky sites can produce dramatic golf scenery, but they can also produce extremely expensive headaches for architects who must clear and maneuver around the unwieldy obstacles. But at Tot Hill Farm, the late Mike Strantz did what he always did and went the opposite direction, embracing extremity by using the site’s ubiquitous rocks as large, outlandish garnishes. The par-3 third is the most triumphant example, a fiesta of stone that plays from hillside tees surrounded by boulders, across an avalanche of cascading rock, over a creek, and onto a green that boomerangs around an enormous flashed sand feature. Strantz enjoyed pushing golfers’ buttons, and temperatures certainly elevate here as hole locations migrate from the wide, accessible front lobe back toward the obscured rear finger of green that curls behind the raised bunker.
4. CANYATA G.C.
Courtesy of Canyata GC
MARSHALL • ILLINOIS
PAR 4 • 485 YARDS
BOB LOHMANN & MIKE BENKUSKY
The “Cape hole” is revered in golf design, with its daunting diagonal drive over a hazard to the fairway, the length of the diagonal carry determined by the courage of each individual. The par-4 fourth at Canyata, a marvelous private retreat in east-central Illinois, is a unique variation of the Cape concept. On a normal Cape, after the tee shot, the hole continues to curve along the edge of the hazard. But at Canyata, Bob Lohmann and his then-associate Mike Benkusky chose to turn the hole in the other direction, away from the water and up a hill. The challenge of the tee shot remains the same—carry the water—but position is also important. Hit it too far to the right, and a second shot could be blocked by overhanging trees. Bail out long left, and a string of bunkers can come into play. Those bunkers are huge. “We wanted the features to complement the vast site,” Benkusky says. “Tight fairways and small greens would have looked out of place.”
5. STREAMSONG BLACK
BOWLING GREEN • FLORIDA
PAR 3 • 211 YARDS
GIL HANSE & JIM WAGNER
In the past 20 years, sand has become golf design’s most precious substance, sparking a global, gold-rushlike quest for sand-based properties and turning places like Streamsong in remote south-central Florida—built on the formerly unusable sand spoils of a defunct phosphate-mining operation—into an international destination. No hole better typifies the dramatic potential of these sites than the Black course’s par-3 fifth, which gives the impression it’s erupting from a sandy gash of earth. The difficult tee shot plays uphill to a skyline green with a wicked false front and a deep, punishing wash on the right. The entire left side of the tilted, 22,000-squarefoot green area is a series of bubbling, knee-high knobs that can deflect balls toward the hole or, if misplayed, in the opposite direction, leaving long putts with mind-bending degrees of break.
6. BLACK CREEK CLUB
PAR 5 • 559 YARDS
Brian Silva deserves recognition for being one of the first architects to rediscover, restore and popularize the architecture of Seth Raynor. At Black Creek Club, Silva was able to build his versions of Raynor and C.B. Macdonald’s “ideal holes” like the Short and the Biarritz, but the most remarkable one here, or almost anywhere else, is a Silva original. The par-5 sixth plays across mostly open space, though drives must contend with bunkers jutting into the fairway from the left. The real engagement begins on the second and third shots. Golfers cannot see the green ahead, only a tall, fortress-like embankment of long grass and bunkers. At some point the rampart must be breached, and on the other side awaits a punchbowl arena of more than 55,000 square feet that would make Raynor blush, with sloping banks that funnel shots toward a large, square green perched against a creek.
7. BALLYNEAL G.C.
HOLYOKE • COLORADO
PAR 4 • 352 YARDS
The idea behind the flowing, unmarked tees at Ballyneal, in the appropriately named Chop Hills of northeast Colorado, is to experience the holes from a variety of undefined distances. (The winner of the previous hole usually picks the starting spot.) As such, the downhill seventh can be played as short as 250 yards to a blind fairway tumbling toward a three-tiered green nestled snuggly into a saddle of shaggy dunes and shaped like an elongated E. That flirtatious little emerald goads you into firing drives directly at it on the danger line over a raised bunker when prudence would urge a safer route off the banking slopes down the right side. On the other hand, best plans might not matter much because the ground is a tilt-a-whirl ride that sends balls in unpredictable directions, sometimes helping, sometimes not. You never know, and that’s part of the joy.
8. PIKEWOOD NATIONAL G.C.
MORGANTOWN • WEST VIRGINIA
PAR 5 • 562 YARDS
JOHN RAESE & BOB GWYNNE
Once John Raese and Bob Gwynne, the CEO and VP of Greer Industries, a mining concern, decided to build the private Pikewood National on surplus company property, they spent years traversing the forested mountaintop searching for lay-of-the-land golf holes. On one trek, they discovered a crescent-shape rim around a deep kettle hole, all covered in trees, and agreed it would make a helluva gambling Cape hole. The trees were clear-cut to the width of a boomerang fairway, and the bowl was deforested as well. After a little nudging from a bulldozer to form a green on the far horizon, Pikewood’s eighth hole was grassed and put into play. It stands today as one of this century’s most natural holes, a true risk-reward par 5 with bite-off-what-you-dare opportunities on all three shots. When Golf Digest named Pikewood National its Best New Private Course of 2009, we wrote the eighth hole was “the sort of audacity one would expect from amateur architects.” The club promptly renamed the eighth hole Audacity.
NOTE: The opening photo is the 14th hole at Oak Quarry in Riverside, Calif., part of the back nine of our 18 Best Holes built since 2000. Click here to read our entire feature in the digital edition of our latest issue.
9. CHICAGO HIGHLANDS CLUB
WESTCHESTER • ILLINOIS
PAR 4 • 344 YARDS
ARTHUR HILLS & JOE HILLS
A dozen years ago, Joe Hills, a son of architect Art Hills, had a desire to follow his dad into the business, so he was given responsibility for Chicago Highlands, a private club built on a garbage dump across the interstate from Butler National. Joe did the routing and grading plans, supervised its construction and even shaped some holes on a dozer. Because the entire landfill had to be covered with soil, Joe had some of it piled into a dome 40 feet high on which he would carve out the ninth, a hole brilliant in its simplicity. A reachable par 4 from all six tee boxes, it’s basically a volcano with a flag at the top. The slopes surrounding the small hilltop green drop off in every direction and are mowed tight, so errant shots will often roll to the base of the slope some 50 yards or more away. From there, recoveries can be like pingpong if one gets sloppy. A few years back, the slope beyond the green was filled in a bit, in an act of mercy for shots swept long by prevailing winds, but the other slopes, particularly the left one, are still long and steep.
Check out the back nine of Golf Digest's America's Best 18 Holes since 2000 in our latest issue by clicking here.