True, the number of 18-hole course openings in the U.S. dwindled to single digits in 2012. But when we look globally — more than 90 tracks opened the world over — 2012 becomes a year worth celebrating.
Leading the way is Donald Trump's Scottish tour de force, Trump International Golf Links Scotland. While it may never live up to the Donald's self-pronounced hype as "the greatest golf course in the world," Trump Scotland can claim the title of greatest new course of the year.
Asia leads the world in high-profile openings, including several stunners in South Korea, while the region's most noteworthy debut is Coore/Crenshaw's Shanqin Bay on Hainan Island, China.
Closer to home, Canada's Cabot Links is a seaside standout, and exciting new projects in Oregon, Texas and Florida leave no doubt that while new and notable courses are in shorter supply these days, there's plenty of brand-new offerings that are worth your (tee) time.
BEST NEW U.S. COURSE YOU CAN PLAY: STREAMSONG RESORT (RED COURSE)
Polk County, Fla.
7,148 yards, par 72
Our course ranking panelists were wowed by both Streamsong's Red and Blue courses, but Red gets the "Best New" nod by an eyelash. Streamsong dishes out a unique palette for Florida golf: tall, odd-shaped sand piles, significant climbs and drops, firm, fast-running Bermuda fairways and lakes submerged in the sand.
Tom Doak's Blue feels more natural, yet the Red boasts more drama. The Coore/Crenshaw creation is the more demanding driving course, with more water in play, bigger greens and more holes framed by trees or sand.
The Red's bold finish includes the 208-yard, par-3 16th, a forced-carry Biarritz hole with a vast swale bisecting the green, and the reachable 540-yard par-5 18th, set in the shadow of a towering dune.
With a backdrop that conjures Southwest Ireland and weather that's pure Florida, both courses instantly earn "must-play" status for any serious golfer.
BEST NEW U.S. COURSE YOU CAN PLAY HONORABLE MENTION: STREAMSONG (BLUE)
Polk County, Fla.
7,164 yards, par 72
Tom Doak's Blue course offers smaller, more low-slung greens than the Red, with superior interior contouring and friendly green surrounds that help funnel the ball to the target. Its arsenal of outstanding holes starts with the opener, a short par-4 that affords a commanding view of the entire property.
Other standouts are the par-3 7th, which demands a lake carry to a sloping green cocooned in the sandhills, and the marvelous 590-yard, par-5 17th, with its risk/reward-inducing cross bunkering. While Red (barely) wins honors as best new U.S. course, some would call the Blue better, if less dramatic. That's Streamsong's beauty: 36 holes of pure, scenic fun.
BEST NEW U.S. COURSE YOU CAN PLAY HONORABLE MENTION: BANDON PRESERVE
1,468 yards, par 39
When you boast four of the top 15 public courses in the nation, what do you do for an encore? Bandon Dunes owner Mike Keiser crashed his own party.
His marching orders to Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw were to create a par-3 course worthy of any Bandon layout.
This quirky 13-hole layout sports one-shotters ranging from 65 to 164 yards. Sure, you won't need your driver, but amid the breezes, bunkers and Pacific Ocean views, it's all the golf you could ask for. Bandon Preserve proves that good things do come in small packages.
BEST NEW U.S. PRIVATE COURSE OF THE YEAR: TWINEAGLES CLUB (EAGLE)
7,634 yards, par 71
LPGA players at the season-ending CME Group Title holders at TwinEagles in November had to rub their eyes in wonderment at the "new" track they were set to play. No wonder. This is one old-looking new course. Well, let's make that "classic-looking."
Architect Steve Smyers, working with design associate Patrick Andrews, bulldozed a previous course on-site to create a modern Golden Age homage whose holes evoke the look of vintage 1920s designs, with special emphasis on the C.B. Macdonald/Seth Raynor style. Multiple options and strategic decisions define play, which conforms to Smyers's dictum that "great courses demand hitting not just good shots, but hitting the right shot for the occasion."
That virtue is illuminated by the "Reverse Redan" par-5 5th, the par-3 8th with its enormous putting surface, and the drivable par-4 16th (called "Short"). Serving as an ideal complement to its existing Nicklaus-designed course, which hosts the Champions Tour, the Eagle won't wow you with elevation change, but it soars with superior risk/reward choices.
BEST NEW INTERNATIONAL COURSE: TRUMP INTERNATIONAL GOLF LINKS SCOTLAND
7,428 yards, par 72
Forget the hype. Donald Trump has delivered a great course. This Martin Hawtree design has many hallmarks of greatness, such as massive sand dunes, 21st-century length, and shotmaking demands that test players of all levels. It's a supreme, walking-only experience that traverses shaggy sandhills and is loaded with stunning vistas.
Front-nine standouts include the par-5 1st, with its handsome amphitheater-style framing and strategically placed bunkers, and the par-3 3rd, with sublime sea views. Hawtree told me that his personal favorite is the par-3 6th. "It's got everything—a burn, dunes, the sea view and a demanding shot," he said.
Two of the most compelling consecutive holes in links golf are the par-3 13th, tucked into the hillsides and backdropped by the water, and the par-4 14th, its valley fairway cocooned by dunes. Only time will determine if Trump Scotland becomes a true classic. For now, the course's variety and memorability earn it a place among the world's top links and makes it our best new international course of the year.
BEST NEW INTERNATIONAL COURSE HONORABLE MENTION: SHANQIN BAY GOLF COURSE
Bo'ao, Hainan Island, China
6,887 yards, par 71
Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw's first effort in Asia is a stunner, draped atop a bluff overlooking the South China Sea. Westerners will relish the ever-present wind, fast-running turf, tattered-edge bunkers and semi-blind shots. This combination is a first for China, which typically embraces sharp, clean lines, lush landscaping and maximum visibility.
Most memorable is the finish, with two drivable par-4s among the final three holes. The par-4 17th's elevated back tee affords 360-degree sea views and a fairway that unfurls along the beach. With a stiff wind, Shanqin Bay's 17th offers one of the most heart-stopping tee shots in golf.
BEST NEW INTERNATIONAL COURSE HONORABLE MENTION: CABOT LINKS
Inverness, Nova Scotia, Canada
6,803 yards, par 70
While one could pigeonhole Cabot Links as "Bandon Dunes East" — a modern seaside links with Old World shot values — I say it stands on its own merits. Canada's first genuine links features fast-running fairways, windswept holes that stress strategy, and spectacular views of the Gulf of St. Lawrence. The oceanic panorama at the 102-yard 14th is unforgettable, as is the 465-yard par-4 11th, a "Cape"-style hole that horseshoes around a fishing harbor.
A proposed Coore/Crenshaw course on the cliffs means Cabot Links should only improve with age.
RENOVATION OF THE YEAR: MOUNTAIN RIDGE COUNTRY CLUB
West Caldwell, N.J.
Not since George Burns has 100 looked this good. Low-key Mountain Ridge celebrated its centenary this year with a brilliant restoration of its Donald Ross course.
This was no mere touch-up job. Ron Prichard and superintendent Cliff Moore yanked out hundreds of trees to open up views, expanded fairway width, and remade bunkers.
Most significantly, they reestablished sections and contours on some of the greatest green complexes Ross ever concocted; the putting surfaces at the 441-yard par-4 1st and the 229-yard par-3 4th are among the most beguiling anywhere.
Granted, membership is divided over both the creek placement on the par-4 13th and the scorecard-wrecking false front at the 18th green, but this Mountain is once again worth climbing.
ARCHITECT OF THE YEAR: MARTIN HAWTREE
Soft-spoken Englishman Dr. Martin Hawtree not only survived his polar-opposite client, brash American Donald Trump, he succeeded in spectacular fashion in delivering a world-class links amid probably the greatest hype, controversy, expectations and pressure that any golf architect has ever experienced.
Based in rural Oxfordshire on the edge of the Cotswolds in England, the professorial Hawtree is a third-generation architect in the firm of Hawtree Limited, which his grandfather founded in 1912.
While Hawtree is less well known in the U.S., with only three designs here, he carries considerable clout elsewhere, having crafted courses on every continent where the game is played.
Prior to his work at Trump Scotland, he was best known as the U.K.'s "Open Doctor," having tweaked Muirfield, Carnoustie, Royal Birkdale and Royal Liverpool. His acclaimed restoration of Alister MacKenzie's version of Lahinch in Ireland — adding several new holes in the process — has precipitated that course's hea climb in our Top 100 rankings (currently No. 42).
Still, after 100 years, the Hawtree legacy will be firmly embedded in his collaboration with The Donald. Together with then associate Caspar Grauballe, they not only endured the hoopla that surrounded Trump Scotland, they conquered it.