The biennial ranking of America’s 100 Greatest Golf Courses by Golf Digest showed up in the inbox this week.
It is, by its very nature, an impossible task, but give the magazine credit for at least giving it a shot and, in the process, recognizing just how many great layouts there are in this golf-mad country of ours. The top 100 get a few paragraphs of background as well as panelist comments and some pretty cool images from each track. A couple of days later, the second 100 showed up, basically just in list form.
The big headline from the magazine’s standpoint was Pine Valley Golf Club, the George Crump and H.S. Colt gem in the pine barrens of South Jersey, overtaking Augusta National, the creation of Alister MacKenzie and Bobby Jones in Augusta, Ga. that hosts the Masters each April, in the No. 1 spot.
The 7,101-yard, par-70 Pine Valley layout has been No. 1 in the past, so it’s no big shock to find it at the top of the list again. When it hosted the Philadelphia Open in 2012, it was the most coveted tee time for Golf Association of Philadelphia amateurs and Philadelphia Section PGA professionals. The great Jay Sigel was the playing captain when the U.S. won the Walker Cup Match over Great Britain & Ireland in 1985 at Pine Valley.
Just about anybody who was anybody in the early days of golf course architecture in the Philadelphia area, including Hugh Wilson, who designed Merion Golf Club’s famed East Course, helped out with the design at Pine Valley. Also in that group was Merion’s first greenskeeper William Flynn, who is among the group of great American golf course designers.
It’s a pretty exclusive course, but if you ever really want to get a look at it, the public is invited to watch the Crump Cup each summer. Playing it is another matter and you better bring your big-boy game if you’re going to tee it up there. It’s not the No. 1 course in America because it’s easy.
As for the 7,435-yard, par-72 Augusta National, because so many of us watch the Masters each spring, there’s no course so universally well known. Each year it’s, well he still has 13 and 15 to play, so he might get back in the hunt.
Pennsylvania has two courses in the top 10 and, regardless of the order, nobody ever argues about the inclusion of Oakmont Country Club in suburban Pittsburgh and Merion Golf Club’s East Course in the Ardmore section of Haverford Township among America’s best.
This year the 7,254-yard, par-71 Oakmont is fifth and the 6,592-yard, par-70 Merion is sixth.
Oakmont, the Henry Fownes design, hosted the U.S. Open for the ninth time last summer and Dustin Johnson was a deserving winner. Some Open venues come and go, but the USGA always comes back to Oakmont. It’s really hard, but really fair.
I have a particular affinity for Merion, having walked the East, oh about 1,000 times as a youngster and a young adult as a proud Merion looper. The aforementioned Hugh Wilson did the original design, but I think it’s clear that Flynn was more than just a greenskeeper. I believe his genius is evident in a lot of the little touches that make Merion so great, especially the bunkering.
The place just oozes history. Jones, Hogan, Nicklaus, Trevino, just to name a few. They played the BMW Philadelphia Amateur there for the first time in 62 years last summer and, as so often happens at Merion, it produced a classic finish with Michael McDermott, a Merion member, defeating one of his best friends in golf, Jeff Osberg, on the last hole of the scheduled 36-hole final.
I’m glad Merion got another shot to host an Open in 2013, its first in 32 years. I thought they overdid the setup a little so as to protect par, but the East once again produced plenty of drama. Phil Mickelson’s stunning eagle at 10 will be remembered just as much as his tee shot sailing over the short 13th that led to a killing bogey a half-hour later. Justin Rose did his best Hogan impersonation with his approach to the 18th to nail down his first major championship.
Here are two excerpts from the panelist comments on Merion:
“Every shot matters at Merion. The yardage on the scorecard is simply a distraction and not an indication of the test on every shot. A miss, on any shot, results in significant penalty.”
“Simply the best course for a variety with the flow of short and long holes, doglegs and straight holes, uphill and downhill. Just a spectacular inland course.”
The introduction for Merion says the USGA likely won’t wait another 32 years to bring the Open back to Merion. Well, 2030 would be the 100th anniversary of Jones completing the Grand Slam of his day, winning the U.S. Amateur at Merion after victories in the British Amateur, British Open and U.S. Open. I like Merion’s chances for a 2030 Open if the membership is still willing.
In between Augusta National at No. 2 and Oakmont at No. 5 are the 6,524-yard, par-72 Cypress Point Club on northern California’s Monterey Peninsula at No. 3 and the 7,450-yard, par-70 Shinnecock Hills Golf Club on tip of Long Island.
MacKenzie and Robert Hunter did the design at Cypress Point, one of several courses in the Pebble Beach area that appear in the top 100, and Shinnecock, which hosts the U.S. Open in 2018, might be Flynn’s best work.
At No. 7 is the 6,828-yard, par-72 Pebble Beach Golf Links, a Jack Neville and Douglas Grant design. No. 8 is the 6,957-yard, par-72 National Golf Links of America, another Long Island course designed by C.B. Macdonald.
At No. 9 is the 7,089-yard, par-71 Sand Hills Golf Club in Mullen, Neb. It is the most recently built entry in the top 10, but from all reports the course in the middle of nowhere is a masterpiece by Bill Coore and two-time Masters champion Ben Crenshaw.
Rounding out the top 10 is the 7,258-yard, par-72 West Course at Winged Foot Golf Club in Mamaroneck, N.Y. It is the first of many in the top 100 by another of America’s masters of design, A.W. Tillinghast.
Speaking of America’s masters of design, the first of the many works of Donald Ross in the top 100 appears at No. 13 with the 6,836-yard, par-72 Seminole Golf Club in Juno Beach, Fla.
I’ll mention a couple of Los Angeles layouts because each will host one of the USGA’s biggest amateur events in 2017. The 7,236-yard, par-71 North Course at Los Angeles Country Club and the 7,040-yard, par-71 Riviera Country Club layout are 23rd and 24th, respectively in the ranking.
George C. Thomas Jr. designed L.A. Country Club North, which will be the site of the Walker Cup Match this year and the Open in 2023 and Thomas and W.P. Bell designed Riviera, which will be the site of the U.S. Amateur this year.
Delaware County’s second top-100 entry is the 7,190-yard, par-70 Aronimink Golf Club in Newtown Square. A Donald Ross original, Aronimink was a hit with the PGA Tour players when the AT&T National was staged there in 2010 and 2011. The PGA Tour returns to Aronimink in 2018 when the BMW Championship, the next-to-last playoff event, is played there.
The only other Pennsylvania course in the top 100 is the 7,327-yard, par-72 Laurel Valley Golf Club in Ligonier. Dick Wilson designed the course, getting some input from The King, Arnold Palmer, who was one of the founding members.
Early in the second 100 courses, at No. 115, is Philadelphia Cricket Club’s 7,119-yard, par-70 Wissahickon Course, a Tillinghast original that has been restored in recent years to more of its original look. The seniors who teed it up in the Constellation Senior Players Championship, a PGA Tour Champions major, last spring raved about the Cricket Club.
The Cricket Club membership has been generous with its Wissahickon and Militia Hill courses in recent years, hosting the PGA National Professional Championship and the Philadelphia Open in 2015 and the Philadelphia Section PGA Championship was held there last summer. The BMW Philadelphia Amateur is scheduled to be staged at the Cricket Club this year and the USGA will stage the 2020 U.S. Amateur Four-Ball Championship there.
At No. 147 is the 6,696-yard, par-70 Fox Chapel Golf Club, another course in suburban Pittsburgh. Seth Raynor and Charles Banks designed Fox Chapel, which had a three-year run as the home of the Constellation Senior Players Championship from 2012 to 2014.
Just making the cut in the top 200 at No. 195 is the 7,334-yard, par-71 South Course at Wilmington Country Club in Delaware. It is the work of another of America’s master designers, Robert Trent Jones.
I’m sure Golf Digest is besieged with complaints each year about somebody’s favorite course not being included in its list. So I’m going to go ahead and quibble that Stonewall’s Old Course certainly deserves a spot in the top 200, probably in the top 100.
It’s not like they ignored Stonewall’s designer Tom Doak. His 6,633-yard, par-71 Pacific Dunes course at the Bandon Dunes Resort in Oregon is a lofty 18th on the list.
I got a chance to tour the Old Course several times in 2016 as I reprised my looping career. Echoing the comments that appear with so many of the top 100 selections, there is simply not a bad hole at Stonewall.
The course probably improved its cachet with the playing of the 2016 U.S. Mid-Amateur Championship. Just about anybody I encountered that week couldn’t say enough good things about the course. It will be another two years before the rankings appear again, so consider this the first salvo in the campaign to give Stonewall a look for the next time around.