Much as life on earth, golf first emerged from the sea, taking root on sandy deltas and shorelines, what golfers now call linksland, where it remained for generations before moving inland. As the game moved closer to population centers, those who staked out golf holes sought sandy soil whenever possible, for good reason: Sand would sprout springy turf, which bounced the golf ball and quickly drained after heavy rain.
Invariably, where there was sand, there was wind, pushing and shaping landscapes onto which golf holes logically fit, carving out dips and hollows that served as bunkers. Wind was also an essential element. Without it, golf was simply pub darts.
Grand early courses clung to the coastlines. Those that couldn't tried to emulate the look, feel and experience. That changed in the middle of the past century, when courses became a major sales tool of housing developers on ill-suited sites. The game became aerial and heroic, over chasms and lakes, down rocky hillsides and canyons. Architects used bulldozers as their pencils, some producing layouts with no more artistry than road builders.
That dark period is behind us, halted by the collapse of the housing economy and by a new generation of golf architects who are endeavoring to bring golf back down to earth. They seek seaside settings for their work, and though precious few are still available in the United States, elsewhere on Planet Earth, ocean waves lap against some of the most gorgeous layouts ever seen.
That's clearly evident in Golf Digest's second biennial ranking of the World 100 Greatest Golf Courses. Forty-six of the Top 100 are courses on seaside venues. That includes Northern Ireland's Royal County Down, a surprising though deserving new No. 1, replacing New Jersey's Pine Valley, which has plenty of sand but no ocean and is now No. 3 on our exclusive list. Royal County Down, on rugged, windblown topography along the Irish Sea and beneath the Mountains of Mourne, features snarling bunkers edged by marram grass and dates from 1889.
At the other end of the same spectrum is Cabot Cliffs, which Golf Digest named the Best New Course of 2015 just two months ago. It debuts at No. 19 on our World ranking, 74 spots ahead of its companion layout, the three-year-old Cabot Links. Both are strung along bluffs above the Gulf of St. Lawrence in northwest Nova Scotia, with the Bill Coore/Ben Crenshaw-designed Cabot Cliffs at a higher elevation and providing the most thrills and photo ops via eight holes that hug the coastline.
Another Coore/Crenshaw creation, Shanqin Bay Golf Club, in seaside sand dunes on China's Hainan Island, joins the World list at No. 37. Said by some to be the best course in Asia, Shanqin Bay is so dramatic and entertaining that it has apparently bedazzled China's ruling Communist Party, which a year ago closed 66 courses across the nation—including many new ones—but spared Shanqin Bay.
Toss in Coore and Crenshaw's other World 100 designs—No. 40 Barnbougle Lost Farm along the ocean in Tasmania, Australia, and No. 53 Friar's Head above Long Island Sound in New York—and it's understandable why they're considered the hottest design firm in the business today.
A NEW BEAUTY IN AUSTRALIAOur ranking is based on an editorial review by 1,200 course-evaluation panelists across North America and more than 600 international panelists, with added insights by the editors of 30 international Golf Digest editions. Such global coverage is responsible for the discovery of Cape Wickham Links Golf Club on King Island, Australia, just three months old but worthy enough to make our ranking at No. 24.
With 11 holes touching Bass Strait and ocean views from the other seven, this exciting new destination was designed by American architect Mike DeVries and golf writer Darius Oliver.
The trio of Mexican courses on the World 100 are right on an ocean. No. 52 Diamante (Dunes) on the Pacific side of Mexico's Baja Peninsula is a Davis Love III design that was recently improved by replacing two inland holes with two new ones on sand dunes along the beach. The nearby Ocean Course at Cabo del Sol, newly ranked at No. 70, is a unique Jack Nicklaus design that plays atop arid desert hills then descends to the Sea of Cortez on each nine. Tom Fazio's Querencia, ranked No. 98, is just up the coast from Cabo del Sol, perched on hills above the sea.
Nicklaus has four courses ranked among the World 100, which puts him second to Coore and Crenshaw for the most among active golf architects. Besides Cabo del Sol, two other Nicklaus designs are oceanside: No. 76 Punta Espada on the Caribbean in Cap Cana, Dominican Republic, and No. 94 Sebonack Golf Club overlooking Great Peconic Bay on Long Island. Nicklaus collaborated with Tom Doak on the latter. Doak also has No. 16 Cape Kidnappers in New Zealand—600 feet above the ocean but an ocean venue nonetheless—and No. 33 Barnbougle Dunes in Australia and No. 39 Pacific Dunes on the Oregon coast. Curiously, his links-like Ballyneal in the sand dunes of Eastern Colorado, ranked 68th in 2014, failed to make the list this time.
A LOOK AT RIO AND BEYONDAlso conspicuous by its absence is the seaside Castle Stuart Golf Links in Scotland, a Gil Hanse-Mark Parsinen collaboration that had been 87th on our 2014 list. Hanse's as-yet-unnamed 18 holes in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, won't open for public play until after it hosts the Summer Olympics golf competitions in August, so it won't be up for consideration until our next World 100 is announced, in 2018.
Other just-opened courses that could crack our list include Ocean Dunes on the same Australian island as Cape Wickham; Playa Grande in the Dominican Republic (totally remodeled by Rees Jones); South Cape Golf Course in South Korea, a Kyle Phillips design (whose Yas Links on Persian Gulf sand dunes is No. 46); the Tom Fazio-designed Christophe Harbour on St. Kitts; Comporta Dunes, a David McLay Kidd layout in Portugal; and Doak's Tara Iti in New Zealand.
Not coincidentally, all are adjacent to an ocean. That seems to be the new norm for a world ranking.