1. St. Andrew’s (nature) – the contours make the course
If you could only study one course it would be St. Andrew’s. There are too many lessons to explain, but the one that is most important is the value of a contour on and off the green. St. Andrew’s features some of the boldest undulations on any putting surface, and positional play is important to accessing many of the pins. It shows how great greens can dictate strategy right back to the tee. The wonderful knolls, knuckles, rolls, humps, and hollows found around the greens require additional creativity to deal with. They take a player’s full imagination to overcome and there is nothing more fun than that.
2. Pinehurst #2 (Ross) – the difficulty of short grass
Whether Ross created the fall away greens and chipping areas is a moot point, all that matters is what effect it has on play. Short grass can be a more effective hazard that a bunker, it’s easier for a weaker player, but far more daunting for a better player. The advantage to a weaker player is they can play to their strengths, the disadvantage to a good player is they are faced with too many options. Bad decisions are often a bigger factor than poor execution. They may not need to be a severe as Pinehurst’s greens, but the effect is still the same.
3. Muirfield (H.S. Colt) – adaptable to all conditions and players
The beauty of Muirfield is how well it adapts to all types of conditions and players. H.S. Colt designed a course with two loops in the opposite direction ensuring that the wind would be encountered on all sides and that the wind would never be the same for more than three holes in a row. The bunkering completes this masterpiece by the way its placed. There is room off the tee on most holes, and the player is invited to play a shorter line; but the more aggressive the player gets, the more difficult the course plays. Colt has bunkered in a manner that the landing areas tighten the further the player tries to go. The player is left deciding whether to play safer or risk Colt’s penalty for being too aggressive.
4. San Francisco (Tillinghast) – scale and grandeur
I admire Tillinghast’s ability to think on a grand scale. This is likely the hardest of all the skills to explain or to aquire. San Francisco is as big and wide a golf course that I know, it features some of the most elaborate and bold bunkering that I have ever seen. The delight is how the architecture fits the property through Tillinghast’s use of additional clearing width and large open spaces. It takes a very clever architect to understand how to expand the scale of a golf course without overwhelming everything around it. This is one of the few cases where it works to perfection.
5. Pine Valley (Crump) – difficult does not mean length
Like St. Andrew’s there are too many great lessons to learn, so I will stick with one, yardage. Pine Valley proves that difficulty and length are not synonymous. The course is a relative short 6,600 yards from the tips, and an easy driving course too, and yet it is one of the hardest courses in the world. How? Through intimidation, penal hazards and a series of very difficult approach shots where a miss is punished harshly. Pine Valley has a better variety of hole lengths than any other course in the world. Crump gives you the opportunity to go for a par four and asks you to hit a long running approach into another. Variety is the spice of life and variety in yardages makes for the most interesting golf courses.
6. Merion (Hugh Wilson) – greatness on a small property
Merion may be the best routing in golf. On such a small property Hugh Wilson was able to find a flawless layout. The fun of the golf course routing is that it has a number of unconventional aspects to it: all par fives are in the first four holes, there is a long run of shorter holes from 7 through to 13, all climaxed by a grinding finishing 5. It works so well for two reasons; the first is that Wilson has simply used the best available holes and not been influenced by convention. The second is the rhythm of the course, it works almost like a three act play. The player is given a firm introduction to the course and it’s challenges in the opening 6, he is given an opportunity to try and be much more aggressive or to even score if he dares for the next 7, and the final act is survival. Merion gives the player all they can handle in the final 5 to see how good they really are.
7. Royal County Down (Morris, Coombe and Colt) – sense of place
Royal County Down has bearded bunkers, brilliant purple heather, dark green gorse, magnificent golden dunes, the slate grey sea, spectacular deep purple mountains and a beautiful red brick hotel fronting the town itself. The architecture is great on it’s own, but the surroundings simply add to the experience and make Royal County Down one of the finest places to be anywhere. If you can combine great architecture into the right surroundings, you have magic. These are the courses that stay with us the rest of our lives.
8. National Golf links of America (MacDonald) – understanding strategies of the great holes
Many people believe there are no new ideas to bring to the game, that everything has been done, and the newness is more the ability of the architect to adapt old ideas to new situations. Charles Blair MacDonald (a Canadian!) adapted the great holes and strategies to create the National Golf Links of America. The lesson is simple, to be a great architect you must study and understand the ideas of the great holes before you can design them yourself. MacDonald’s adaptations are some of the finest, and some of his more innovative uses of them are well worth studying too.
9. Cypress Point (MacKenzie) – blending in and standing out
If you polled the architects Alister MacKenzie would likely be chosen as the greatest architect in history. He had a wonderful knack of incorporating natural features, and in particular natural hazards, into the golf course. At Cypress Point his bunkers were the key. The blended naturally right into the dunes, they contrasted wonderfully while mimicking the tree tops, and they added an elegant flair to the ocean side holes without competing with all the natural beauty. The artistry of his bunkers is breathtaking, yet for all their character and movement, they still magically blend comfortably into the surroundings.
10. Riviera (Thomas) – asking the player to work the ball
George Thomas probably combined strategy and beauty as well as any architect. He was a master strategist, who rewarded a player for positional play, but liked to make the player work to get the ball into position. There is no course quite like Riviera, where a player is continuously encouraged to hit either a draw or fade off the tee. Where the course excels further is the continuous balance back and forth so that no player has an advantage; many of the holes call for fade from the tee and then the draw on the approach, the next hole will often ask for the exact opposite strategy so no player can gain an advantage. He expertly used a combination of Eucalyptus trees, bunkers, slopes of the greens, and the baranca to make the player shape their shots. Riviera is a remarkably well balanced test of shot-making.