For connoisseurs who chase after inspired and historic golf architecture, there’s a short list of courses that are indispensable must-plays if you’re to acquire a proper education. Admittedly, Pine Valley, National Golf Links of America, and Cypress Point would be on any such list—but their gates are locked to most of us. Likewise, the list would include the Old Course at St. Andrews and Muirfield—both in Scotland—for the impact their designs had on the evolution of architecture. For Americans, however, that means an ocean to cross. If you’re seeking the best of the best, but would prefer to drive, and don’t have access to private clubs, here are America’s 10 most influential designs you can play.
Pinehurst Resort (No. 2)—Pinehurst, N.C.
Donald Ross’s 116-year-old subtle masterpiece rolls gently and spaciously through tall pines, with a layout that emphasizes placement and angle of attack. Such emphasis is due to the turtleback greens that are receptive only to certain approach shots. Miss the green and players face one of the fiercest tests of chipping in golf, where almost any club in the bag has an equal chance of success or failure. Pinehurst continues to prove that it doesn’t take forced carries and water hazards to test the game’s best; the average golfer will likely finish the round with the same ball that he launched on the first tee.
Pebble Beach Golf Links—Pebble Beach, Calif.
The first great American public seaside course, Pebble Beach soars with an ingenious figure-eight routing that whisks the player to the ocean’s edge, then into the woods, then back to the water. The pacing of the holes, the small, steeply pitched greens, and the heroic shots over the Pacific were revolutionary for their time; the subsequent changes since its 1919 origin have considerably improved the layout, including extending the 18th into a par five in 1922 and adding the oceanside par-three 5th in 1998. The number of potential thrills during a round is unparalleled and as the downhill 100-yard 7th hole illustrates, a championship golf course can roll out a tiny par three and have it perceived as a strength, not a weakness.
Bethpage State Park (Black)—Farmingdale, N.Y.
At the height of the Great Depression in the mid-1930s, the state of New York decided that the public should have its own U.S. Open-worthy course. Blending equal parts Pine Valley and Winged Foot, architect A.W. Tillinghast delivered the goods, with help from Joseph Burbeck. Located on Long Island, about an hour’s drive east of New York City, the walking-only Black scares golfers with a sign at the first tee: “Warning—The Black Course is an extremely difficult course which we recommend only for highly skilled golfers.” Among the highly skilled? Tiger Woods, Lucas Glover, and Brooks Koepka, who have captured majors here. Massive bunkers, wrist-fracturing rough, glassy greens, and uphill climbs combine to send scores soaring, especially on the set of brutish par fours. Bethpage Black is lasting proof that public golf courses needn’t be dumbed down merely to move players through.
Dunes Golf and Beach Club—Myrtle Beach, S.C.
Post-World War II design ushered in the rise of the aerial game and “heroic” risk/reward architecture. No one epitomized that philosophy better than Robert Trent Jones Sr., whose trademarks included long “runway” tees, extensive deployment of water hazards—expressed brilliantly in 1947 at the Dunes’s par-five 13th, called “Waterloo,” that arcs around Singleton Lake—and elevated greens, which enhanced shot values and facilitated drainage. A superb routing added to the allure of the Dunes, and the design tenets on display dominated the architecture profession for more than three decades.
Harbour Town Golf Links—Hilton Head Island, S.C.
As much as Robert Trent Jones changed the face of design in the late 1940s, Pete Dye changed it again in the late 1960s. Dye went smaller, with shorter courses, renewed emphasis on precision, quirky bounces, and such retro Old World features as pot bunkers and railroad ties—plus the newfangled “waste bunker” feature. Although Dye had scored earlier triumphs with private courses such as Crooked Stick and The Golf Club, it was at Harbour Town, with its moss-draped oaks, Calibogue Sound, and iconic lighthouse that the public was able to experience his twisted genius in full force—not forgetting that Jack Nicklaus assisted throughout the design process.
TPC Sawgrass (Players Stadium)—Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla.
In 1980—and specifically at the 1982 Players Championship—TPC Sawgrass catapulted architecture onto the front page. It was all due to Pete Dye’s unparalleled mix of target and strategic golf, as well as trouble on every hole in the form of pot bunkers, waste bunkers, grass bunkers, small, severely undulating greens, stadium-like spectator mounds, and water everywhere, notably at the island green 17th. It precipitated copycat designs for nearly three decades.
Shadow Creek Golf Course—North Las Vegas, Nev.
In 1990, Tom Fazio and Steve Wynn demonstrated that with sufficient money and imagination, there’s nothing that couldn’t be accomplished in golf course design. Hewn from flat, featureless desert, Shadow Creek emerged with rolling hills, a forest of pines, bursts of flowers, and a network of creeks and lakes. From that day forward, developers knew that even the most nondescript site could be transformed into a Top 100 golf course.
Bandon Dunes Golf Resort (Bandon Dunes)—Bandon, Ore.
With Mike Keiser’s vision and young Scottish architect David McLay Kidd’s execution, this is the course that put remote Bandon Dunes on the map in 1999, proving the adage, “If you build it, they will come.” Draped atop Pacific Ocean bluffs, the firm, fast-running, linksy layout brought the entire Scottish experience—walking with caddies, ground game, wind, fescue grasses—to America. All the virtues of Bandon Dunes’s original layout were on display during its acclaimed stint as host to the 2020 U.S. Amateur.
Bandon Dunes Golf Resort (Bandon Preserve)—Bandon, Ore.
Inspired by the Horse Course at Nebraska’s Prairie Club—designed in 2010 by Gil Hanse, Jim Wagner and Geoff Shackelford—Bandon Dunes developer Mike Keiser commissioned Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw to design a par-3 course at his remote resort in coastal Oregon. Bandon Preserve opened in 2012 with 13 holes that ranged from 63 to 150 yards. With strong wind a frequent companion, players used every club in their bag, enjoyed superb seaside scenery and the layout proved ideal as a less physically taxing round than at the other courses at the resort. Soon after opening, Bandon Preserve blinked like a beacon, serving as a catalyst for a decade-long movement among top resorts and private clubs to add a compelling short course. Not only did Bandon Preserve show that serious golfers would play a course composed of an unconventional number of holes, but it proved that in the proper setting, with an inspired design, par-3 courses could be nearly as enticing as their fully grown siblings.
Sweetens Cove Golf Club—South Pittsburg, Tenn.
How can anyone from private developers to municipalities transform a mediocre 9-hole course from bad to good, with very little money? The template is Sweetens Cove. Perhaps America’s ultimate cult course, Sweetens Cove is a Tad King/Rob Collins 2014 renovation of a decrepit, pre-existing course called Sequatchie Valley, located 30 miles west of Chattanooga. A 2017 New York Times feature catapulted the 3,301-yard par-36 course into the limelight, which has ultimately attracted celebrity investors such as Peyton Manning and Andy Roddick. What luminaries and regular folks are drawn to are the relentlessly interesting strategic options, ruggedly sculpted bunkers, and imaginatively contoured greens.
What other influential American golf courses should be a part of this list?