Bill Love, a soft-spoken East Coast golf architect, has been a consultant to the Olympic Club in California. He started well before its most recent U.S. Open in 2012 and has continued to revise the club's famed Lake Course, ranked No. 31 on Golf Digest's 2017-'18 list of America's 100 Greatest Golf Courses, up from No. 33 two years ago. Most recently he reshaped bunkers on several holes. Golf Digest panelists who evaluated the course praised his work ("significant improvements"... "spectacular new eighth hole" ... "huge upgrade"), but one panelist decried the new "cresting wave" style of bunkers as not in keeping with its original 1920s architecture. Another commented that it was akin to "changing the hairstyle of the Mona Lisa," and a third called it "perhaps the worst renovation in golf history."
In politics, such polarized opinions are a cause for consternation, because they lead to gridlock. In golf architecture, they're to be celebrated, a reminder that variety is the essence of the game. Golf would be an intolerable endeavor should every course be stamped upon the landscape with the same template.
Golf Digest's biennial ranking of America's 100 Greatest Golf Courses has highlighted that fact for decades. It starts at the top, where this year rugged, sand-splashed Pine Valley Golf Club in New Jersey, the epitome of "penal architecture," returns to the No. 1 spot, the position it once firmly held for decades but occupied only twice in the past five survey periods. It nudged out plush, manicured Augusta National Golf Club in Georgia, the standard for "heroic architecture," which had been our No. 1 in 2009, 2011 and 2015. The tussle between these two titans will undoubtedly continue, not because of indecision on the part of our panelists, but because golf architecture in America will never become homogenized.
During last year's U.S. Open, nearly everyone lauded the deforestation of No. 5 Oakmont Country Club in Pennsylvania. The removal of some 30,000 trees over the past 20 years returned the layout to its distinctive, stark roots. Whether other courses on the 100 Greatest (and beyond) would benefit from similar clear-cutting is another heated debate in golf design. Architect Gil Hanse is responsible for the removal of more than 1,000 trees at No. 77 Plainfield Country Club in New Jersey, showcasing its Donald Ross-designed green complexes, which several panelists say are among the game's best. But a few were dismayed that Hanse filled voids with clusters of bunkers and deep rough. Whether one believes Hanse has enhanced Plainfield or turned it into a plain field, his changes were done with the consent of the club membership. (The same is true of Love's work at Olympic.)
THE IMPACT OF HANSE AND FAZIO
Hanse is the hottest architect in golf, his profile elevated by his 2012 selection to do the Rio course for last year's Olympic golf competition, by his design of No. 82 Boston Golf Club and by his restoration work at No. 23 Los Angeles Country Club North, No. 62 Winged Foot East and No. 76 Quaker Ridge. He has shown restraint and appreciation for original architecture in those restorations. As he has demonstrated during his television commentary of the past two U.S. Opens, Hanse is thoughtful, engaging and easygoing, qualities that help him convince club members that tree removal, fairway and green expansion and deeper bunkers can revitalize their layouts.
But he's not always successful. Last summer, Hanse presented a plan to remove the wasp-waist fairways and tight Robert Trent Jones bunkers of No. 17 Oakland Hills South and restore it to Donald Ross' original vision of vast fairways and few trees. The club membership voted the proposal down.
The debate—to tree or not to tree—will continue. Pine Valley has recently removed a number of trees on its fifth and ninth holes to reveal long-range views, and a few years back, Augusta National planted dozens of pines to tighten certain landing areas. Ironically, the consulting architect for both courses is Tom Fazio, still active at 71. Pine Valley closed last winter for significant renovations that have been hailed a success by our panel, but at press time it was closed for another round of wintertime renovations. More trees were being removed, and more visual expanses of sand, especially around green complexes, were added. Great holes have become significantly more dramatic in look and playability. The pursuit of excellence is a moving target.
When No. 100 Eagle Point Golf Club in North Carolina steps in to host the PGA Tour's Wells Fargo Championship in May—while usual host Quail Hollow prepares for the PGA Championship—spectators will marvel at the fabulous pine-lined topography. Few will know that Fazio started with lifeless land and that his crews manufactured the hills and hollows and transplanted mature pines to fashion a forest. Fazio has been "creating environments" ever since the early 1990s, starting with No. 26 Shadow Creek outside Las Vegas. Many of his massive land manipulations have landed on America's 100 Greatest, including No. 97 Flint Hills National in Kansas, No. 83 The Quarry at La Quinta in California and No. 69 Spring Hill Golf Club in Minnesota, one of four newcomers to the 100 Greatest. Yes, such courses cost enormous amounts, but Fazio's clients can afford them. Besides, no one has ever gazed at Mount Rushmore and asked how much it cost.
Polarized opinions are a reminder that variety is the essence of the game.
THE QUESTION OF ROUGH
Another architectural debate is the matter of rough. Should it be modest? Should it be deep? Should it exist at all? The team of Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw showcased the issue with their 2010 renovation of Pinehurst No. 2 in North Carolina (ranked 30th this year), where they removed all Bermuda rough, exposed the native sand beneath and planted clumps of wire grass. Panelists have mixed emotions on the result, some loving the sandy "waste areas," others calling them far more penal to high-handicappers intimidated by sandy lies, and others saying the "natural areas," now continually invaded by weeds, are unattractive. Coore and Crenshaw have since conducted similar turf removal at No. 13 Seminole Golf Club in Florida and No. 72 Maidstone Golf Club on New York's Long Island.
Incidentally, Hanse will redesign Pinehurst No. 4. and he plans to replace its hundreds of Fazio-designed pot bunkers in favor of a motif of sandy, scrubby waste similar to Course No. 2.
Diversity in design is also reflected in the newcomers to our 2017 list. With the aforementioned Spring Hill, there is No. 91 Essex County Club in Massachusetts, an early, quirky Ross design; No. 98 Sahalee Country Club near Seattle, perhaps the most densely tree-lined layout in America; and No. 99 Mayacama in Northern California, a Jack Nicklaus design along oak-dotted hillsides and narrow, rocky canyons.
This is the fewest number of newcomers to America's 100 Greatest since we began numerically ranking courses in 1985, a sharp contrast to our Second 100 Greatest ranking, which has 20 new members (including four that dropped from 2015's 100 Greatest). That one-fifth turnover is an indication of turmoil among contenders that we consider healthy and expected. The Second 100 Greatest should be the battleground for all those hoping to make America's 100 Greatest.