Twenty years ago, as a part-time contributing editor to GOLF MAGAZINE (when I wasn't on a construction site), I helped put together the magazine's course rankings, and as I look at the differences between that list and today's, I believe that things are changing more than the numbers indicate.
Back then, if someone wanted to create a great course, they bought the cheapest piece of property they could find (desert, swamp, whatever), hired a big-name architect and gave him a lot of money to move earth around. Some great courses were created that way -- the TPC at Sawgrass and Shadow Creek are still among the elite, a testament to the creative genius of Pete Dye and Tom Fazio, and to the special clients who brought out the best in them.
Today, there are more developers than ever before who would like to bankroll their own contributions to the Top 100 lists, but many understand that a big-name designer is not enough. The best courses -- the elite of the elite -- stand out because they have their own unique character that is impossible to package. No architect can ever dominate the rankings because variety is an essential part of the puzzle.
A great property is the most important ingredient to a great course. Pete Dye's highest-rated course on GOLF MAGAZINE's Top 100 Courses in the World isn't the TPC at Sawgrass; it's Casa de Campo, in the Dominican Republic, where he strung seven holes along the coastline. Today's developers are looking for sites with great natural advantages, even in remote locations. Sand Hills in Nebraska was the first to be a smashing success in the private sector; Bandon Dunes Resort on the Oregon coast has proven the formula can be successful in the resort market.
Another trend worth noting is the small but significant number of courses designed to be walked. With the advent of the golf cart in the 1960s, many architects became convinced that walkability was no longer part of the equation of building a great course. Holes were pushed ever farther apart, toward the best bits of land, or to make room for houses. Nevertheless, there still isn't a course ranked among the world's greatest that is very difficult to walk. Augusta is perhaps the toughest hike.
In warm coastal climates, the development of Paspalum grass (which can be irrigated with reclaimed salt water) opens up another new set of possibilities. Remote coastlines from Mexico and the Caribbean to South Africa and the South Pacific -- previously written off by developers because they lacked a large enough supply of fresh water for.irrigation -- are now being studied by high-end resort developers. Political and economic change is opening up new territories such as Eastern Europe, South America and China, all unexplored in terms of golf, and each a potential New World.
The only thing that can stop this trend is something that will change the list even more significantly -- a continued growth of equipment technology that will make today's elite courses obsolete. We architects shake our heads watching modern professionals, who seem to hit the ball considerably farther every year. It forces us to design for a moving target.
So far, the equipment technology change hasn't had an earth-shaking effect on the Top 100 Courses in the World. Classics like Shoreacres and Maidstone, weighing in at less than 6,500 yards, still stand tall. The past masters of design understood that scoring is controlled at the green end, not the tee end. But the classics are on the defensive. All but one of the top ten courses has been stretched by more than 100 yards since 1985. (Cypress Point is the lone exception.) A lot of them have run out of room to extend, and those that haven't (like Augusta National) are starting to look entirely different. Something has to stop changing -- and soon -- or we'll no longer recognize the courses and the game we love.