Due to the weak economy, only 15 new 18-hole equivalents—that's private and public tracks—opened across the country in the past 12 months, one of the lowest numbers ever, according to the National Golf Foundation. But lack of quantity does not mean lack of quality.
This month we spotlight Golf Magazine's Best New Courses in a variety of categories from the U.S. and around the world. Leading the way is the Pacific Northwest, with two public standouts that follow in the geographical footsteps of Bandon Dunes and Chambers Bay. Hawaii's impressive roster adds a new private gem, while layouts in China and Bulgaria highlight international offerings.
What's more, a handful of highly anticipated courses are slated to open in 2012—so if your resolution is to play some exceptional rookie tracks, it will be a happy new year indeed.
BEST NEW COURSE OF THE YEAR
Suncadia Resort (Rope Rider)
Cle Elum, Wash.
7,271 yards, par 72
Green fees: $60-$100
Minors and miners alike will warm to this densely wooded Peter Jacobsen/Jim Hardy design, which is located 90 minutes east of Seattle on the dry side of the Cascade Mountains. Suncadia's third course (and the resort's second public facility) was hewn from the remnants of the Roslyn coal mines and named for the brave souls who balanced themselves on the roped coal cars that plunged deep into the steep mine shafts.
Holes 7 through 9 skirt Tipple Hill, a 120-foot-high pile of now-covered coal tailings, while the 430-yard, par-4 18th is more conventional and arcs around a vast lake. Eleven of the holes were completed in 2006, which helps lend some maturity to this brand-new course. Rope Rider might be the most family-friendly of our top new courses—it's wide and walkable, and it features a set of junior tees. At nearly 7,300 yards from the tips, it's no easy Rider, but it sure is fun.
BEST NEW COURSES YOU CAN PLAY
6,888 yards, par 72
$190 (stay & play)
Central Nebraska is hardly in danger of becoming the next Myrtle Beach, but in May 2011, along came another distinctive layout to join the trend started by Sand Hills in the mid-1990s. Located four miles south of Kearney, Awarii Dunes is architect Jim Engh's marriage of Ireland and the Heartland. The wind either blows or howls (Awarii is derived from the Pawnee word for "windblown"), but Engh left fairways generously wide.
You'll also find windmills, dunes, wispy fescue rough, blowout bunkers, blind shots and roller-coaster putting surfaces on this easily walkable 6,900-yard track. With its tight lies on firm fairways and tough-but-fair green complexes, semi-private Awarii Dunes resembles a Pinehurst of the Prairie.
7,560 yards, par 72
Green fees: $50-$60
Notah Begay III had already dipped a toe in the pool of course design, but with the fantastic Firekeeper, he has taken the plunge. Collaborating with architect Jeff Brauer, Begay—the only full-blooded Native American to win on the PGA Tour in the past 30 years—has crafted a lay-of-the-land modern classic for the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation. Located north of Topeka, the partly wooded and partly open course melds seamlessly into its environment, thus keeping with tribal traditions of minimal disturbance. Standout holes include the boldly bunkered par-5 4th and the par-4 18th, which features two fairways. Tribal economics mean no housing or roads on the course, and Firekeeper won't be a blight on your bank account, either.
7,269 yards, par 72
Green fees: $69-$89
After delays dating to 2008, this Gene Bates design for the Squaxin Island Indian Tribe's Little Creek Casino Resort finally opened this past summer. It was worth the wait. Located an hour southwest of Seattle, near Olympia, Salish Cliffs unfolds over 400 acres, without a home or road to scar the landscape. Generous fairways allow all to smack the driver with abandon, but sprawling (if shallow) bunkers, thick native grasses and towering firs punish careless shots. More than 600 feet of elevation changes call to mind an amusement park ride, but you'll find no gimmicks here. There's just one fun hole after the next, beginning and ending with gambler options on reachable par 5s.
BEST NEW INTERNATIONAL COURSE OF THE YEAR
Mission Hills Resort Haikou (Lava Fields)
Haikou, Hainan Island, China
7,475 yards, par 72
The beautiful but brutal Blackstone course, Lava Fields's slightly elder sibling at Mission Hills Haikou, basked in the international spotlight when it played host to the Omega Mission Hills World Cup in November. But Lava Fields has a different glow. It's the best course (of 10!) on the property and possibly the finest in China. Gigantic bunkers with irregular edges and black volcanic rock frame the driving zones, placing a premium on strategy and accuracy. Risk/reward decisions are required on nearly every tee shot at this Brian Curley design, and while there are plenty of dramatic forced carries over sand or rock-strewn canyons, the effect is mitigated by mostly friendly green surrounds.
Highlights include the double-dogleg 615-yard, par-5 12th, which features a fairway landing area that slopes toward the hazard, and the lava-laced 187-yard 15th. If you're a shotmaker, you'll love the Lava from start to finish.
RUNNER-UP: Thracian Cliffs Golf & Beach Resort (Gary Player)
Cape Kaliakra, Bulgaria
BEST NEW PRIVATE COURSE OF THE YEAR
7,028 yards, par 72
"I had enough controversy as a player," Tom Weiskopf once said. "I don't need it as an architect."
Indeed, the Weiskopf-designed Kukui'ula is an enjoyable—at times spectacular—spread on Kauai's sunny south coast. The 320-yard 14th is the most dramatic hole to debut in the U.S. this year—and perhaps the most vexing. A huge center-fairway bunker forces players either to lay up short, thread the needle left, or bail out to the right, where a severe slope funnels tee shots even farther rightward into a bowl.
Massive bunkers and ever-present trade winds spice up play, but Weiskopf created wide fairways and spacious green fronts. Frankly, the hardest thing about the course is pronouncing the name (koo-koo-ee-OO-la).
RENOVATION OF THE YEAR
Pinehurst (No. 2)
7,485 yards, par 72
Green fees: $350-$410
Not since the sand greens were converted to grass in 1935 has venerable Pinehurst No. 2 witnessed such a remarkable transformation as it did in 2011. Architects Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw yanked out 35 acres of primary Bermuda rough that had flanked the fairways, leaving in its stead hardpan, sandy scrub, pine straw and wispy wiregrass, all to reestablish the risk/reward driving experience established by Donald Ross.
Fairway edges have a browner, more natural look that blends better with the sandy areas that seep into the pines. Fairway widths increased by 50 percent, the iconic greens were deflated—with unnatural crowns and wings reduced more to existing grade—and bunkers were restored and re-shaped. Restoring the course to its 1936 PGA Championship playability and returning the layout to the one revered by Hogan, Snead and Armour was a masterstroke.
RUNNER-UP: Silverado (North)
7,171 yards, par 72
Green fees: $75-$170
ARCHITECTS OF THE YEAR
With more than 100 courses to their credit in 24 countries, Lee Schmidt and Brian Curley deserve to be household names among course connoisseurs. But many of their finest creations have been overshadowed by the reputations of their celebrity employers or design consultants—like Nick Faldo, Fred Couples and Vijay Singh.
With this year's Best New International Course (Lava Fields) and the compelling Stoneforest International Leader's Peak layout—both successfuly created over difficult terrain—it's time that Schmidt-Curley get to bask in the spotlight themselves.
Though based in Scottsdale, Ariz., their firm has blazed a trail in China, with offices in Haikou on Hainan Island and in Kunming on the mainland, and a roster of more than 30 Chinese designs. The partnership dates to 1997, but their relationship stretches to 1984, when both toiled on the early Pete Dye/Landmark designs, such as PGA West and the Ocean Course at Kiawah.