To declare 2010 a better year for new public-course openings than recession-ravaged 2009 is to damn it with faint praise. Still, the past 12 months were an improvement, if not in quantity at press, 43 18-hole equivalents had debuted in '10 versus 43.5 through the same period in '09 then certainly in quality.
The runaway winner as best new course of the year hails from familiar grounds: Oregon's Bandon Dunes Resort, whose Old Macdonald layout was unveiled this past June. In addition to Old Mac, both our first- and third-place international finishers take advantage of a seaside setting, and our U.S. runner-up, the Dunes course at The Prairie Club, feels genuinely linksy with its sand hills and rumpled terrain even if it's about 1,500 miles from the nearest ocean. Trend-spotters will note that four of our awardwinners incorporate the word "dunes" in their names, but make no mistake, our honorees, which hail from eight different states, offer great geographic and topographic variety and value, too.
Four courses can be played for $80 or less, and three of our four Honorable Mentions cost less than $50. Those are numbers we can all appreciate.
If you're not a student of Charles Blair Macdonald, one trip around Old Macdonald will provide all the insight necessary into America's pioneer architect. Spurred by Bandon Dunes Resort domo Mike Keiser and aided by a fistful of Macdonald experts, architects Tom Doak and Jim Urbina conjured up a series of faithful Macdonald reproductions and inspired originals on a rumpled parcel just north of top-ranked Pacific Dunes.
Ocean access and a gigantic dune that bisects the property are highlights, but most remarkable are the football-field wide fairways that lead to equally massive greens.
Beguiling contours, a minefield of bunkers, firm, almost crispy turf, and perpetual gusts demand controlled trajectory and ground game prowess, together with a mastery of strategy and angles the very essence of links golf.
All of the Macdonald template holes have a home here, from a "Redan" to an "Alps," but the most memorable hole is a Doak/Urbina original: the uphill par-4 7th called "Ocean." As Doak put it, "This stout par-4 into the wind is not modeled after any particular Macdonald hole, but we were sure that Macdonald would have moved heaven and earth to site a green on the dune ridge overlooking the Pacific."
Ten miles south of the South Dakota border, Tom Lehman and design associate Chris Brands draped 18 Sand Hills-style holes onto a rolling, treeless canvas, with firm, incredibly wide fairways that still manage to demand strategic driving, thanks to the artistically sculpted, well-placed bunkers at every turn. Huge, cunningly contoured greens and ever-present winds off the plains help narrow the targets in a hurry.
One of the year's feel-good stories is this short but stern Jack Nicklaus Signature design that weaves through hardwoods, marshland and massive white sand dunes that edge Lake Michigan on holes 7, 8 and 9. Developers are hopeful the course will help kick-start this long-depressed area of southwest Michigan. They're off to a good start: both the 2012 and 2014 Senior PGA Championships will be contested at Harbor Shores.
Not every course needs a pedigreed architect to make its mark. Construction superintendent Patrick Sullivan earns the design accolades here thanks to an inspired layout dripping with Yankee charm that overlooks the Blackstone River Valley between Worcester and Boston. Rugged exposed rock, forest-framed fairways, streams, and elevation changes are constant companions in our Best Value winner of 2010's Top New Courses.
On the gridiron, the Red River Rivalry between Texas and Oklahoma is a scorcher. Golf's version is much more friendly, at least for Sooner Tripp Davis and Longhorn Justin Leonard, who teamed up to design Old American, 35 minutes north of Dallas. The subtle, thought-provoking track evokes the bunkering and risk/reward strategies of classics such as Prairie Dunes and Shinnecock Hills and pairs them with eye-candy views of Lewisville Lake.
A mere 10 miles from Niagara Falls, it's no surprise that water is the dominant feature at this Robert Trent Jones II creation. The liquid peril on the closing hole takes the form of a lake on a 152-yard par-3, a petite, yet drama-filled end to the round. This tranquil, tribally owned track is named for the rare Shellbark Hickory trees on site. What you won't find are homes, forced features or anything remotely artificial.
Three-time U.S. Open champion Hale Irwin was a wizard with his long irons and fairway woods, and you'll need some long-game magic of your own to tackle this hardy test from the tips. Smartly, Irwin and codesigner Todd Schoeder also worked in generous landing areas, multiple downhill tee shots, and enticing mountain panoramas over nearly 3,000 feet of elevation. The exposed granite outcroppings and handsomely etched bunkers further spice the play.
The tree-lined sibling to the wide-open Dunes course is the handiwork of Australian Graham Marsh. The layout conjures up visions of Melbourne's Sandbelt courses, though the most compelling holes, such as the 5th, 11th and 12th, have a Pine Valley feel to them, calling for pinpoint shots between the trees and healthy carries over sandy scrub.
Not everyone is in love with the bunker that designer Greg Norman decided to carve into the middle of the 16th green, but the new home of the PGA Tour's Valero Texas Open still proved that it's a worthy test in its 2010 debut. Ernie Els made mention of the well-bunkered, narrow fairways that wind through the oaks, the various slopes around the greens that lead to penalties, and the sectionalized greens themselves which could explain why he didn't win.
Tim Cate authored this Wilmington-area layout that merges typical Lowcountry traits such as low-lying wetlands and fairways framed by crepe myrtle, pines and oaks with modern flourishes that include rocky creeks and tee-to-green bunkers that allow for cart traffic. Despite a brutal opening trio of holes, the course eventually melts the diverse design elements into a memorable package.