America's Best New Courses, 2019: An in-depth look at the public and private winners
So, what goes into determining Golf Digest's ranking of America's Best New Golf Courses? In 2019, over 1,600 Golf Digest panelists across the U.S. and Canada played and evaluated Best New candidate courses, scoring each in eight evaluation categories: Shot Options, Layout Variety, Challenge, Distinctiveness, Aesthetics, Conditioning, Character and Fun. The average scores of five of the seven categories were totaled, with the average for Shot Options doubled, to determine the final score for each course. Because all were new or totally remodeled courses, and thus still growing in, Conditioning scores were not included. Likewise, because of their immaturity, Character was not considered in the formula to determine the winning courses. We were tempted to include the Fun category scores, but decided its inclusion should wait for another survey in some future year.
Best New Private: No. 1: Ohoopee Match Club
Cobbtown, Ga.; 7,325 yards, par 72;
Gil Hanse, designer
Gil Hanse first looked at this piece of land back in 2005, when it was known as the Beaver Creek Hunting Plantation. When digital media expert Michael Walrath wanted to build his own course, Hanse showed him the land and suggested it was as good as any available. Walrath bought the plantation and Hanse started constructing the course in 2016. It was completed two years later as a match-play layout, thus allowing Hanse and team to design more bold, heroic holes you might not find on stroke-play layouts.
PANELISTS COMMENTS: “Ohoopee offered one of the most unique and refreshing golf experiences I've ever had…Course is located in a very remote onion farm area in southeastern Georgia, chosen for its sand-based soil, ideal for creating firm and fast conditioning…An amazing piece of property with four extra holes and two different routings. I especially liked the emphasis on match play and the half-par concept. No specific tees…The winner of the previous hole picks the next tee…Every hole was unique and they all seemed to fit seamlessly together…Terrific piece of property and a great new design by Hanse that flows naturally with the terrain. I played with a tour pro, who found it to be a nice challenge requiring a variety of shot-making, and a double-digit handicapper, who found it playable…The four alternate holes in the Whiskey routing are beautifully paced as well and include two outstanding architectural features: the massive punchbowl green on the A hole and the boomerang green with a fronting grass swale on the D hole…Coolest design feature was probably the elastic 13th on the original routing that can play as a drivable par-4 or as a long par-3. There's a fronting mini-Biarritz that dictates so much on the hole. It really makes the player think and execute. I should also mention that the par 3s were very well done. Each one felt like a completely different setting and the flexibility in yardages offers lots of variety…Overwhelming Aesthetics. At times, it felt like the South Africa Serengeti. At other times, it was like Yeamans Hall, Pine Valley, Tobacco Road, and the Australian sandbelt"
Best New Private, No. 2: Summit Club
Las Vegas; 7,457 yards, par 72;
Tom Fazio, designer
Summit Club is the latest venture of Discovery Land Co., which develops luxury private residential communities throughout the country and in the Caribbean. It has used Tom Fazio as architect for a majority of its golf projects. Fazio told Golf Digest that much of the earthmoving required for the Summit Club project was centered around creating home pads on slopes of the golf holes, which he says fit naturally into the seams of the rolling desert next to Red Rocks park.
PANELISTS COMMENTS: “In the city that makes outrageous the norm, Summit Club oozes with understated New Vegas cool…Located in scenic Red Rocks area west of Las Vegas Strip. Generous driving areas with lots of shot options into difficult and quick bent-grass greens…The aesthetics could be a little better but the water features are really nice and it also frames ‘The Strip’ really well on several holes…Very solid layout from start to finish with a good bit of variety among the holes in between. Many holes offer the opportunity to attack from various angles, particularly the par 5s…This width is welcome in a desert setting where, on other courses, shots just mildly offline lead to an unplayable lie amidst rocks and cacti. Here the opportunity for a recovery shot exists. Similarly, the greens are large but full of undulation, both marked and subtle, rewarding the properly-placed approach shot…The view of the Vegas Strip in one direction and towering mountains in the other provide phenomenal scenery…Interesting attempt by Fazio to create luxurious yet interesting golf in a more natural desert environment than at Shadow Creek. He has mostly succeeded, but I feel that it took more manufacturing and plantings as backdrops than anticipated to make it feel beautiful yet natural...Hidden agave bushes on multiple holes, where the finder gets a free shot of Casamigos Tequila…While Discovery Land courses sometimes value the extras over the golf, Summit Club keeps the extras a bit to the side and allows the golf to shine through…The practice facility is World Class with a multitude of targets, views of the Vegas strip and light rock playing on the speakers…First time I've been to a course that had their driving range set up like a Tour event. The employees ask you what type of ball you play and then they bring you the same brand of balls to use in warming up on the range…It is very similar to many of Tom Fazio's high-end layouts in style and appearance and plays as a normal desert layout with each golf hole being individually laid out among the large property. However, it is more walkable than most desert courses…I would rank the golf course as second best in Las Vegas, trailing only Shadow Creek.”
Courtesy of TPC Colorado
Best New Private: No. 3: TPC Colorado
Berthoud, Colo.; 7,991 yards, par 72;
Art Schaupeter, designer
Golf architect Art Schaupeter had designed Highland Meadows north of Denver in 2004, and half a decade later its owners retained Schaupeter to design another residential development course in the area, this time along Lake Heron in Berthoud. Work started in 2014, and within a year, the designer was told that the owners had contracted with the PGA Tour to become a TPC-licensed facility. So Schaupeter modified a few holes to accommodate the demands of hosting a professional golf event (it hosted a Korn Ferry Tour event in 2019 and will do so again in 2020). Among his additional features were several stacked-sod bunkers.
PANELISTS COMMENTS: “Many risk-reward options on numerous holes. The second hole has a classical Biarritz green. The bunkering was very strategic…TPC Colorado takes a tour around Heron Lake with excellent views of the front range of the Rockies. There are a variety of long and short holes, with a liberal dose of risk/reward to challenge your confidence on distance control…TPC Colorado is a thinking man’s golf course with strategy off the tee and into greens necessary if you want to score well. One minute you can be playing well, and the next minute a pesky pot bunker ruins a hole and you make double bogey…Pot bunkers make it a very appealing course to the eye…The bunkering is truly unique, a lot of pot bunkering and giant stacked-sod sidewalls blocking recovery shots. They are a true one-shot penalties should you find yourself in one…This course is going to rise up through the ranks quickly as it is very unique to Colorado, given the number of lakes it has…The course doesn't play true to the length on the scorecard, due to angles, but the 773-yard par-5 13th sure does play true to its yardage…One hole I didn't like is the par-3 16th. The short length of this par 3 did not fit the flow of the rest of the course. With the total back tee length coming in at 7,991 yards, one has to wonder if the 16th was kept intentionally short in order to keep the total distance under 8,000 yards. Additionally, this hole is a severe downhill shot, which does not exist elsewhere on the course…Reminiscent of Scottish links golf, but instead of blind shots off the tee, there are a few blind or semi-blind shots into greens…There are more blind or obscured shots than I expected, along with some forced carries to reach a fairway or green that average golfer will find very intimidating. The course felt unfair, too dependent on course knowledge at times…Sod-stacked bunkers were exceptionally well-crafted and well-placed…Course markets itself as a Scottish links-style but it doesn't run firm and fast and the sod-faced bunkers look fake to me. They aren't made of natural materials and you can see they aren't real sod from 250 yards away…The golf course is expansive, stretching out to almost 8,000 yards, but at the same time there are enough sets of tees that it can be played at 4,000 yards…Green complexes seemed to repeat the same design of mounds and closely-mowed areas over and over. They were a bit overdone.”
Best New Private, No. 4: Links at Perry Cabin
St. Michaels, Md.; 7,023 yards, par 72;
Pete Dye and P.B. Dye, designers
Pete Dye and his brother Roy laid out Martinham Golf & Country Club, later renamed Harbourtowne, in 1971. It was a primitive, low-profile design with small greens, shallow bunkers and, given the lowland site, soggy fairways. In 2012, Dye was asked to totally revamp the course for its new owner, Richard Cohen. The new Dye design follows the same corridors, but he vastly improved drainage by elevating fairways and greens. Dye’s younger son, P.B. Dye, handled the project and finished the design after his father could no longer participate.
PANELISTS COMMENTS: “This is a very good toned-down Pete Dye design. It plays through a housing development but the homes are well set back and do not influence play. The course has Pete's distinctive shaping and even includes his original trademark wooden sleepers, which he mostly abandoned later in his career…This course might be labeled ‘Pete Dye Reasonable.’ Fairways are generous, lots of green undulations, bunkers are fair, mounding significant…Distinction is in the green designs of the par 3s including replica features of a Pinehurst No. 2 Turtleback, Yale’s Biarritz 9th and the island green at TPC Sawgrass…Lots of risk-reward tee shots, my favorite being No. 14, a dogleg-right that bends gradually right all the way to the green, guarded on the right side by a long narrow bunker and water far right…With the exception of No. 17 (a reverse replica of the 17th at TPC Sawgrass) and No. 18, which is a difficult cape hole with water up the entire right side, the course is eminently playable and fun for all levels of golfers. It didn't wow me but I enjoyed it…It's inland on eastern shore of Maryland, so we’re not going to see much undulation, but it has some scenic holes through the trees. Fair test and enjoyable course…The course was overly fair, in that a scratch player would not find the course very challenging, particularly on drives. Many driver-wedge holes. Approach shots presented some challenge, as the greens often were quite sloped or had a couple of tiers…Lots of mounding but everything looked natural as a part of the terrain and not forced into the fairways. The mounding around the greens is much more pronounced and is smoothly carried into the putting surfaces…With the exception of holes 7, 8 and 10, this course began for me on No. 13 and proceeded to the 18th in Pete Dye fashion. They call it Pete Dye's Final Act with a Good Night Kiss, and those last six holes lived up to that moniker. Unfortunately, there were 9 other holes that were not up to Pete's established standard in design variety and shot options, in my opinion. But he did go out with six holes of which he can be proud…Pete Dye's last, but not one of his best.”
Austen Waldron/courtesy of the club
Best New Private, No. 5: Aberdeen Golf and Country Club
Boynton Beach, Fla.; 7,091 yards, par 72;
Jim Fazio, designer
Aberdeen was once the most notorious course in Florida, a 1987 Desmond Muirhead design with a great landplan but some ridiculous holes, including a par 3 shaped like a snorting dragon (sand bunkers serving as eyeballs, nostrils and puffs of smoke) and an elevated tee box complex that that resembled a ski jump. Jim Fazio was hired by the club to resolve recurring drainage issues, and in the process, he totally redesigned Aberdeen, replacing every feature of Muirhead save one, the alternate island green on the par-5 fourth, which Jim altered and expanded. The course is wall-to-wall salt tolerant Platinum Paspalum irrigated by effluent water, a million gallons per day which the course is required to use.
PANELIST COMMENTS: “Huge improvements over the previous course by Desmond Muirhead. Much more playable, and terrific green contours…The layout design was strong, given the circumstances, but distinctiveness was low beyond a few significantly memorable holes… Aberdeen is a fun golf course with a nice blend of shot options and distinctiveness. The options are best exemplified by the island fairway par-5 4th hole. You can take a 220-260 yard shot at a small island fairway, which brings in the opportunity to get home in two. Or you can play around the water as a three-shot hole. Even with that route, options exist on the layup depending how much of the water you want to take on…Hole No. 4 is 615 yards with a double fairway and Biarritz green!...Well-conditioned members’ course in a residential community. Entertaining and should appeal to a broad range of golfers…The best feature of Aberdeen Golf and Country Club is, by far, its conditioning. It’s firm and fast with the greens holding fairly well. Beyond that, the course is ordinary at best.”
Best New Public, No. 1: Ozarks National Golf Club
Hollister, Mo.; 7,036 yards, par 71;
Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw, designers
Johnny Morris, who founded the now-mammoth Bass Pro Shops in Springfield, Mo. in the mid-1970s, is determined to transform the Branson area of the state, home to many country-music theatres, into a national golf destination. He started with buying Top of the Rock, a nine-hole par-3 course designed by Jack Nicklaus, and having Jack redesign it. He then bought Branson Creek, a Tom Fazio design which Morris renamed Buffalo Ridge, and brought in Fazio to redesign it. Next, Morris bought the defunct Murder Rock course, which listed John Daly as a co-designer. He kept the clubhouse but had Gary Player add a 13-hole par-3 course, called Mountaintop, and then hired Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw to create Ozarks National, the flashiest course of the bunch, on rugged ridgetop land east of the clubhouse. On much of the old Murder Rock site, Morris has Tiger Woods building another new 18, called Payne’s Valley. Sitting 200 feet below the clubhouse, it opens in 2020.
PANELISTS COMMENTS: “Was totally blown away by Ozarks National. The rugged Aesthetics: High grass on the perimeter, asymmetrical traps and views of the Ozark mountains. It was as good as any course in the Midwest…I was skeptical about the kind of course Coore & Crenshaw could build on hilly, rocky Ozark terrain. Well, they pulled it off. Built upon the tops of ridges, nearly every hole gives a great view of the Ozark mountains, with skyline greens and nods to some Golden Age design principles…While no pushover, wide fairways and large, relatively tame greens make this an enjoyable option for all players. But it is the setting and views that steal the show… Stunning views from nearly every hole, minimalist teeing areas, very large greens, most with collection areas, some with false fronts…The setting is incredible and the commitment to a golf destination is eye popping…Really nice layout by the Coore-Crenshaw team. Surprisingly walkable course in the Ozarks with tees near greens. Holes skirt along a ridgetop with great views, allowing for some nice rolling terrain without being overly hilly…The course runs along the top of a ridge. We could see forever as we played... …Possibly the biggest surprise of my course-ranking travels. With the severity of the land, I expected a really choppy experience, but was treated to a flowing, beautifully-routed course with unreal views. The playability was a little tight at times, but overall, they made excellent, strategic use of the land…’Infinity greens’ and sight-lines that stretch for miles add to the pleasure of the experience…Every hole at Ozarks National was memorable and clearly distinct from every other…Love that you can walk off the green to the next teeing area. Very Old School…An eclectic mix of classic-inspired golf holes, including drivable par 4s and stout two-shot holes…Must do your scoring on front nine. The back nine is much more difficult. Holes 14 and 16 are very difficult par 4s…Amazing views throughout, and some great risk-reward holes that can get you over or under par in a hurry…You have to pay attention to your target lines, as a combination of the routing and blind shots brings trouble into play...As a Missourian, I've been waiting for one day to have a course that belongs in the discussion for the Top 100, and I think we may now have one.”
Best New Public, No. 2: Pinehurst (N.C.) Resort & Country Club (No. 4 Course)
7,227 yards, par 72;
Gil Hanse, designer
The No. 4 Course at Pinehurst dates to the early 1950s, when it was laid out by then-owner Richard Tufts. Several architects have since remodeled it, including Tom Fazio in the 1990s. Five years ago, Pinehurst hired Gil Hanse to remodel No. 4 to serve as a championship companion for famed Pinehurst No. 2 in the 2019 U.S. Amateur. Hanse completed the task in 2018, after first creating a nine-hole pitch-and-putt layout called The Cradle, on land right outside the clubhouse.
PANELISTS COMMENTS: “Gil Hanse did a superb job in redesigning this course…Some of the routing has stayed the same, but the end result is much more natural and pleasing. The course seems to meld itself into the landscape. There are times where you see Course No. 2 next door; the two look like they belong together…Routing changes in the Hanse redesign give the course a nice balance of length and flow…A considerable improvement from the previous Fazio design. Much more compatible with the natural aesthetics of the Pinehurst sandhills…I have had the opportunity to play the old No. 4 and now the Hanse redesign. Hanse had great bones to work with and a large property with sandy soil to improve an already strong course. He delivered and built a really strong compliment to Pinehurst No. 2… What a change! This went from boring pot-bunker wannabe-Augusta to a super-cool mix of sandy wasteland and sandbelt-type stuff…An awesome experience…Loved the redo. Really put some bite into No. 4. Visually, much more stunning. This greatly improved the Aesthetics for me…Much the way No. 2 has the pine-to-fairway scruffy-and-scratched-out look, Hanse replicates this with a twist. There are quite a few more bunkers, specifically around the landing areas. As a theme and design concept, I wasn't 100% in favor with some of the fairway bunkering. The complex on No. 8 seemed overly contrived in comparison with the rest of the course. The faux ‘Hells Half Acre’ on the reachable par-5 9th hole seemed to fit the theme of the course better…New, wider fairways really highlight and utilize undulations that are not as prominent on the other Pinehurst courses. The cross-bunker on No. 9 really highlights the strategy and decision-making that is now required throughout…Prior to playing it, I was most interested to see how the pond would be incorporated into the new design. Those holes now stick out in my mind as very challenging and aesthetically pleasing…The only weak revision is the new par-3 fourth. While the interesting green complex makes a bunker on the left more forgiving than the dreaded downslope to the right, it still lacks the drama and excitement of the previous design…The elevation changes and the exceptional use of sandy, wooded, and lakefront property into each hole design set apart Pinehurst No. 4…No. 4 is much more undulating than famed No. 2. Wonderful green complexes that, at times, feel like they're perched on top of mountains…Kudos to Pinehurst for experimenting with complimentary push carts on No. 4.”
Best New Public, No. 3: Arcadia (Mich.) Bluffs Golf Club (South Course)
7,412 yards, par 72;
Dana Fry, designer
When hired to design a companion 18 to Arcadia Bluffs the 20-year-old glacial beauty overlooking Lake Michigan that’s ranked No. 68 on Golf Digest’s 100 Greatest, architect Dana Fry was given a disappointing site two miles south of the main course. It was seven different parcels of land, mostly flat, containing apple and peach orchards, a Christmas tree farm and a barley field. Knowing he couldn’t compete with the dramatic topography of Arcadia’s ranked course, Fry opted to do something entirely different, a geometric style inspired by Chicago Golf Club.
PANELISTS COMMENTS: “Course designed by Dana Fry, modeled after C.B. Macdonald’s Chicago Golf Club. Fry very successfully accomplished his goal of building a very strategic course based on Macdonald’s design principals…Very cool channeling of McDonald & Raynor in this new course. Very much a throwback, and a great, completely different compliment to the original (now Bluffs) course down the road. Nothing like it, but great in its own way…What appeared from the street to be a wide-open course proved to be anything but when playing it…Brilliant in both concept and execution. An ultra-modern minimalist design that appears to have been diagrammed onto the site. The linear bunkering makes club and shot selection a geometry assignment, and the squared greens challenge the golfer to aim for actual quadrants…This is a true links-style course with fast, firm, undulating fairways and greens and over 120 bunkers scattered throughout the course. Many of the holes require accurate shot-making and strategic club selection off the tee to avoid daunting bunkers visible everywhere... Back nine has different topography, much more elevation change and some very interesting holes, including the Lion’s Mouth par-3 12th and the short par-4 17th with Church Pew bunkers staggered up a hill on the left side. Lots of cross-bunkers add shot options and strategy off of the tees. The blind shot on dogleg-left par-4 13th plays to a punchbowl green, which has a lot of character…I have never felt more conflicted about an evaluation. This is an elegant, subtle course that was an absolute delight to play, providing endless strategic options and a look and feel that conjures up Chicago Golf Club. On the flip side of the coin, the holes are mostly flat and straight with similar looks and obstacles, and the property offers almost nothing to enhance the aesthetics. Still, I found the holes themselves to be amazingly beautiful. I could play this course every day, but there are some of our categories where it just doesn’t measure up, which is a shame…A course deserving of significant recognition and attention. The golf world needs many, many more courses like this one.”
Courtesy of the course
Best New Public, No. 4: Sage Run Golf Club
Bark River, Mich.; 7,375 yards, par 72;
Paul Albanese, designer
In 2008, Paul Albanese designed and built Sweetgrass on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula as an amenity for the Hannahville Indian Community’s Island Resort Casino operation. The links-style layout with tallgrass roughs was created from open farm fields. Over a decade later, Albanese has created another course for the casino, this one in hilly, tree-covered terrain nine miles from the casino. Named Sage Run, it’s been described as a “thrill ride for golfers.” Albanese was delighted to work on a totally different site than the first 18. “Sage Run has a rough and tumble look with earth tones natural to that landscape,” he says.
PANELISTS COMMENTS: “The second course designed by Paul Albanese for the Island Casino on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula is excellent. It is a combination of open prairie links and holes with wide corridors carved through trees. A dramatic piece of property in terms of elevation changes…Completely different that sister course Sweetgrass Golf Club…The architect used a massive ridge running through the property for tees, greens and even entire holes, like the uphill fifth and 16th. The third is an awesome par 5 with awesome bunkering in both the landing area and layup, reachable in two with great options off the tee, great options on your second and a cool small green perched on hill…The course plays along, up and over drumlin terrain. This creates a variety of unique holes. The course seems well balanced with holes being uphill, downhill, dogleg lefts and doglegs rights. This probably is its strongest attribute…Sage Run surprised me. I was not expecting such dramatic elevations in comparison to nearby, relatively flat Sweetgrass. Sage Run is a breathtakingly beautiful course but was very difficult to evaluate. It has to be played a number of times before you have any idea where to go and what to do…Built to be rugged...Features old rock pilings from the original farm and sharp bunker edges with thick fescue around many bunkers. Many large tees have the natural motion of the land…A beast of a course that conjures visual comparisons to Shinnecock. Wide variety of green complexes and a number of unique holes. Exceptional conditioning for such a new course, and I expect this should improve…A truly exceptional layout that probably won't get the attention deserved, due to its remote location…This was worth the drive. The property is beautiful.”
Best New Public, No. 5: Corica Park Golf Complex (South Course)
Alameda, Calif.; 6,874 yards, par 72;
Rees Jones, designer with Steve Weisser, design associate
When George Kelley’s Greenway Co. took out a long-term lease on the Chuck Corica Golf Complex from the city of Alameda, Calif., it promised to revamp the 45-hole complex, which sits on an island in San Francisco Bay adjacent to the Oakland International Airport. With Australian Marc Logan serving as project manager, Kelley hired Rees Jones to redesign the tournament-venue Jack Clark Course. But before Rees could begin, fill had to be brought in to elevate the property, which had sunk below sea level in some places. Sand excavated from the Bart Rapid Transit System’s new bay tunnel was trucked in, 400 truckloads a day, 12 cubic yards per truck. It took three years to deposit all the sand that Rees and the construction crew then pushed around to develop the brand new Corica Park South Course.
PANELISTS COMMENTS: “Virtually unrecognizable compared to the tired muny it used to be. It is now an absolute gem and a terrific value…Another great addition to the Bay area and a great value…The makeover of Corica is remarkable. The course has been transformed into one of the finest public-access courses I have played on the West Coast. The addition of sand to provide contour to the fairways turned a flat golf course that lacked character into a course that contains a number of distinctive holes…A links-style course with a reasonable amount of open area to recover, but punitive if too far off line…Now described as an Australian Sandbelt layout, it is a super-fun track, but by no means a pushover…Starts off with a rather sublime par 5. When you step onto the first green, you quickly see contours and levels that will require accuracy to get close to pin positions. Such contours are representative of all the green complexes…Jones gave low-stress options for higher handicappers on virtually every hole, but there are risk/reward lines as well for the stronger players. There are birdies to be had for sure. There also are demanding par 4s in the mix and the par-3 11th measures 240 yards…For the most part, the course is very open and offers a lot of shot options. With firm greens, you actually need to anticipate the ball releasing and running out. However, holes 10-14 put a premium on target golf with very narrow landing areas…Holes 13 and 14 felt very cramped-in and were disappointing, given that the rest of the back nine was really solid and had more creativity than the front… If you live in the San Francisco Bay Area, get out there…If you have time, venture over and play the par-3 course as well…Overall, a course a lot of people will enjoy for years and years.”