The end of the year is a time for reflection on days past, anticipation of days to come, and most of all, a time for … LISTS! Top 10 lists seem to be everywhere this week, and far be it for me to resist this trend. So, in that vein, here are the Top 10 Courses that I played for the first time in 2015 (along with some honorable mentions).
2015 was a great year for me in golf. I was most fortunate in that I was able to play a lot of rounds in quite a few different areas of the U.S. I was able to play and photograph several courses that I had been eager to visit for quite some time. I started Twitter (@linksgems) and Instagram (@linksgems) accounts as a means of sharing some of these photos, and the response has been wonderful. Best of all, I was able to play golf or talk golf with many different people over this past year, who I know I will call dear friends for years to come (including the creator of this very blog – thanks Jason).
But since this is a golf architecture blog, and you’re undoubtedly here for some golfporn, without further ado I present the Top 10 courses I played for the first time in 2015.
These are courses that deserve special mention, as they are all fantastic places to enjoy a round of golf, and in any normal year, would certainly have made my Top 10. In no particular order:
Hollywood Golf Club (Deal, NJ)
This Walter Travis-designed, Tom Doak-restored gem has a brilliant routing, gorgeous bunkering, wildly rolling greens and a top-notch staff that keeps the course in perfect condition. What more can you ask for?
Ekwanok Country Club (Manchester, VT)
Another Walter Travis masterpiece, Ekwanok is nestled in the Green Mountains and is one of the most scenic courses in New England, particularly in fall. The par-5 7th hole is one of the best in the US. Francis Ouimet won the US Amateur here in 1914.
Old Elm Club (Highland Park, IL)
The under-the-radar, men only club (one of four in the Chicago area) is golf at its purest – having recently undergone a comprehensive restoration led by Drew Rogers, David Zinkand and Superintendent Curtis James, Old Elm is one of Chicago’s best.
Chambers Bay (University Place, WA)
Embattled host of the 2015 U.S. Open, Chambers Bay was lambasted for its seemingly bumpy greens and other issues. But for normal, everyday play, Chambers Bay provides a fabulous experience, including firm, links-like conditions and incredible views that go forever.
Newport Country Club (Newport, RI)
One of the very few remaining true links experiences available in the U.S., the journey at Newport begins and ends with its magnificent clubhouse. The 18 holes one traverses in between aren’t too shabby either.
Old Sandwich Golf Club (Plymouth, MA)
One of several things I share in common with Jason – I have never played a course by Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw that I didn’t love. Old Sandwich is no exception, and is one of Boston’s best offerings.
Old Macdonald (Bandon, OR)
At most resorts, Old Mac would be the flagship course. At Bandon, it’s one of four outstanding courses. Ask 10 people to list their order of preference for the Bandon courses, and you’ll get 10 different lists. You’ll also get 10 people who love Bandon Dunes.
Kingsley Club (Kingsley, MI)
Kingsley Club, designed by Mike DeVries, gives life to its motto, “In the spirit of the game…”, by providing golfers with firm and fast playing conditions on true fescue fairways, greens that will boggle the mind of the best lag putter, and a gorgeous, secluded setting.
TOP 10 for 2015
Number 10 – Boston Golf Club (Hingham, MA)
No course I played in 2015 exceeded my expectations by as much as Boston Golf Club did. Going in, I expected to see a very good Gil Hanse-designed golf course. What I found was an absolute masterpiece of modern golf design.
Playing through wooded terrain and rolling, often dramatic elevation changes, the course presents 18 different strategically challenging golf holes that present the golfer with options to be weighed and obstacles to be overcome or avoided. Seemingly every shot requires the player to choose between a risky, high-reward play and a safer route that might take par out of play. The par-4 5th hole is a clinic in how to build a challenging and fun short two-shot hole, and the par-3s are universally excellent. A wonderful course.
Number 9 – Yeamans Hall Club (Hanahan, SC)
Everything I love about golf, Yeamans Hall has in abundance. This Seth Raynor design is another extremely successful restoration projects by the Renaissance Golf team, and the care and talent that were brought to bear on Yeamans’s greens and bunkering is evident throughout the course.
Set on nearly a thousand acres of gorgeous lowcountry, the course has ample room to meander through hills and forests, down to the water’s edge and back. Each hole culminates at a massive green complex, most of which contain deep bunkering and substantial undulations within the putting surface. But best of all, the course is a true throwback, and all the cliches about “stepping back in time” upon passing through the magnificent gates are entirely true.
Number 8 – Shoreacres (Lake Bluff, IL)
Another brilliant Raynor design, another excellent restoration led by Superintendent Brian Palmer with Tom Doak consulting, Shoreacres is arguably the best course in the Chicago area, and certainly one of Raynor’s finest.
One of Raynor’s earliest solo designs, Shoreacres contains some of his best MacRaynor templates, including the Road Hole 10th, which is one of the most difficult pars in the Midwest. But the Raynor originals, like the 11th, which requires a carry over a deep ravine from the tee and another into the green, and the par-5 15th, which plays over some of the most interesting and unique terrain on the property. Lovely in all respects.
Number 7 – Friars Head (Riverhead, NY)
One of the best modern golf courses that I’ve ever played, Friar’s Head is unique in that the course begins in massive sand dunes (Hole 1), proceeds immediately to open farmland (Holes 2-8), returns to the dunes at the turn (Holes 9-10), takes one last turn through open terrain (Holes 11-14) and finishes with a dramatic run back through the dunes (Holes 15-18).
The ability of Coore & Crenshaw to route a golf course hasn’t been in doubt since they built Sand Hills, but Friar’s Head is perhaps the prototypical example of how to route a course over two starkly different kinds of ground. The transition holes (2, 8, 11 and 14) are some of the best on the course, and the finishing stretch from 14-18 is as good as any in the U.S.
Number 6 – Pacific Dunes (Bandon, OR)
Tom Doak’s American masterpiece, Pacific Dunes is an incredible experience from start to finish. From the very first hole, with its large sand blowout to the left of the fairway and the hint of an ocean in the background, the golfer knows something special awaits. Fortunately, the wait is not long, as the course gallops straight for the ocean cliffs, which come into view on the otherworldly par-5 3rd hole and become part of the course on the signature-worthy par-4 4th hole.
The number of top notch holes at Pacific Dunes is too great to recount them all here, but the back-to-back par-3s at 10 and 11 and the par-4 13th are truly spectacular.
Number 5 – The Country Club at Brookline (Brookline, MA)
That The Country Club is the third course from the Boston area to appear on this list speaks to the quality of golf in Beantown. Admittedly, I am a sucker for the Francis Ouimet story, and the experience of playing the course on which he beat Harry Vardon and Ted Ray to win the 1913 U.S. Open was enthralling. The par-4 3rd hole, a stiff two-shot hole playing down, around and between rocky outcroppings, and the par-5 11th hole (pictured), are among the best in the US.
Number 4 – Crystal Downs Country Club (Frankfort, MI)
Somehow, I had never played a course designed by Dr. Alister MacKenzie before playing Crystal Downs. Quite the introduction! The course begins from an elevated tee overlooking most of the open front nine, before proceeding to the more isolated out-and-back routing of the final nine.
Crystal Downs might have the most treacherous greens in the country, and “degreening” after one’s first putt is quite common. In fact, the par-3 11th green is so steeply sloped from back to front that hitting an approach past the pin is essentially dead. On the 17th hole, it is possible to hit a reasonably good putt from the back of the green to a front pin and end up 50 yards or more back down the fairway.
While the greens are the focus at Crystal Downs, every hole on the golf course has considerable merit. On the front nine, the three par-4s at the 5th (with landforms that must be seen to be believed), 6th (with “scabs” bunkering guarding the inside of the fairway) and 7th (with an amazing “boomerang” shaped green) are each world class. Not to be outdone the par-5 8th hole, with a fairway like an angry sea, is easily one of the best in the US.
Number 3 – Chicago Golf Club (Wheaton, IL)
Originally designed by Charles Blair Macdonald in 1894 and redesigned by Seth Raynor in 1923, Chicago Golf Club is one of the oldest and most historic courses in the US. Raynor was unrestrained in his implementation of the Macdonald templates, and as a result, Chicago has some of the biggest, baddest and boldest templates that either man ever built.
Combined with the extraordinarily firm and fast conditions, the difficult greens and the deep and ubiquitous bunkering (including at the rear of most greens), Chicago provides a serious test, but the lack of water hazards, deep rough and dense trees makes the course reasonably playable for all golfers. Chicago is truly a course that harkens back to the golden era of golf course design, and golf is richer for its existence and preservation.
Number 2 – Shinnecock Hills Golf Club (Southampton, NY)
There’s not much I can say about Shinnecock that hasn’t already been said by those who can say it far better than I can. Suffice it to say that it’s a near perfect, breathtakingly beautiful “championship” golf course that is kept in such immaculate condition by Jon Jennings and his staff allowing that it could host the U.S. Open for 200 days a year.
It’s among the best handful of golf courses in the world, and one I would happily play every day for the rest of my life. In every other year, it would be number one on this list. But not this year.
Number 1 – National Golf Links of America (Southampton, NY)
Those of you who know me or follow me on Twitter/Instagram know that I am an avid fan and ardent disciple of the work of Charles Blair Macdonald and Seth Raynor. The pair have long been my favorite of the golden age designers, and I never pass up a chance to play a Macdonald or a Raynor course. As a result, National Golf Links sat at the top of my wish list for some time. When I finally got to play it this year, I went in with such anticipation that I was worried that the course would fail to live up to my impossibly high expectations. It didn’t – it exceeded them, by a wide margin.
National Golf Links is everything I love about the game of golf and golf course architecture. It’s an impeccably well-preserved example of one of the crowning achievements in golf course design and a virtually unaltered example of the principles and beliefs of one of the game’s most important historical figures. It’s a course with ample fairways, almost no overly penal hazards and tame rough, allowing for a full panoply of shots that are rewarded when successful and which allow an opportunity for recovery when not.
The course has 18 holes that vary in quality between excellent and best-in-the-world, the latter category including what is perhaps the finest opening hole in golf, a short par-4 “Sahara,” a long par-4 “Alps” (my favorite par-4 in golf) and the finest Redan par-3 in the game. And that’s just the first four holes. Somehow, the remaining 14 holes manage to sustain this level of quality, which culminates with the uphill par-4 16th, its punchbowl green resting in the shadow of the Club’s iconic windmill, the downhill par-4 17th, dubbed Peconic for its picturesque views of Peconic Bay, and the par-5 18th, a roller coaster of a three-shot hole playing hard against bluffs bordering the bay and which some consider the best closing hole in the world.
From the moment one passes through the Macdonald gates, a day at National Golf Links is an experience any golfer would cherish for a lifetime.
And there you have it – the 10 best courses I played for the first time in 2015 (plus honorable mentions). Note that if you disagree with anything above or think I’m nuts (National over Shinnecock?), let me know in the comments and we’ll have a discussion. After all, what’s the point of these lists if not to stir debate.
Lastly, to those of you I had the great fortune of meeting or playing with over the past year, you have my deepest appreciation for sharing your time with me, and I am honored to count you among my friends (you know who you are). Sincere thanks to Jason Way, not only for hosting this list on his blog, but for being so generous with his knowledge and for introducing me to some great golf courses in his neck of the woods. Thanks to all of you for reading, and here’s to a 2016 filled with good golf on great courses with the best of friends, old and new.
Copyright 2015 – Jason Way, GeekedOnGolf