Restoration and redesign were the architectual buzzwords in 2013, as design connoisseurs embraced a spate of inspired renovations in the U.S. and abroad. Updated or restored bunkering, improved irrigation and occasional rerouting can make courses feel new, or at least refreshed, as our best-renovation winners show. And while new courses are still in short supply, those that did debut in 2013 are true standouts, with Tom Doak's private Dismal River (Red) in the sandhills of Nebraska leading the way. Public players seeking value can celebrate our Best New Course You Can Play, Max A. Mandel Municipal, a Robert Trent Jones II design in Laredo, Texas, that charges less than $50 during the week. Over the next 12 months, anticipated new courses by the likes of Tiger and Trump will enter the arena. Until then, we'll embrace the marvelous layouts that opened, or reopened, their doors this past year.
BEST NEW COURSE OF THE YEAR: Dismal River Golf Club (Red)
Mullen, Nebraska; private
The latest if-you-build-it-they-will-come destination to pop up on the prairies of the Midwest is only "dismal" in name. Even with a prime piece of real estate, that wasn't always a given. Not only did Tom Doak edge out Tiger Woods for the design commission, but between his other masterworks on sandy soil, Coore/Crenshaw's nearby Sand Hills and an acclaimed Jack Nicklaus course already on property, the pressure was on Doak to nail this one. He did. The fescue fairways, which allow for linkslike ground-game options, play firm and fast -- they're watered with only 1,100 irrigation heads, half what the Nicklaus course uses. Meanwhile, the bentgrass greens, with fewer chaotic contours than some of Doak's other winners, offer premium putting. A throwback yardage [6,994 from the tips], an unconventional routing [the final par 5 comes at the 10th] and a smattering of blind, lay-of-the-land shots are standards in Doak's arsenal. The layout itself is more unusual. Mostly walking-friendly, it opens with eight holes in the dunes, though on relatively flat terrain; at the ninth, it crosses the clubhouse road and closes in a dramatic valley, surrounded by bluffs that rise more than 200 feet. In the end, Doak has again crafted a fun, compelling, natural layout with almost limitless shotmaking options for every handicap. You can't ask for more.
BEST NEW U.S. COURSE YOU CAN PLAY: Max A. Mandel Municipal
Laredo, Texas; 7,069 yards, par 72; $46-$56; 956-726-2000, themaxlaredo.com
Even before this Robert Trent Jones II design enjoyed its official grand opening in the spring of 2013, locals were already calling it "the Max." I can't say whether that was shorthand for the course's namesake benefactor, or its spectacular views of the mighty Rio Grande, or its unbeatable mid-week prices. The reason may not matter; for its combination of value, views, and playability, the Max is just that. While its affordability alone is worth celebrating, playability makes it worth the trip. Jones, associate Mark Voss and their team draped the layout over sandy bluffs overlooking the river, with arroyos, mature mesquites, artfully etched bunkers and native grasses mixed in as aesthetic and strategic elements. He also created junior tees and added routing options so that the course can offer easy loops of three-, six-, nine- or 18 holes. Abutting the Texas-Mexico border, 150 miles south of San Antonio, the Max isn't close to... well, anything, but it's a winner in every other way.
BEST NEW INTERNATIONAL COURSE: Guacalito de la Isla at Mukul Resort
Rivas, Nicaragua; 6,676 yards, par 72; $175; 800-390-8844, mukulresort.com
David McLay Kidd boasts design credits [and Best New Course awards] on some of golf's choicest real estate, ranging from St. Andrews to Bandon. At the other end of that scale is Nicaragua. But Kidd's latest creation, opened in February 2013, may raise that country's golf profile from zero to respectability. And why not? There's plenty here that's unique, including howling monkeys, mountain and jungle surroundings, and suspension bridges leading to some greens. In fairness, this is neither Kidd's most sophisticated nor most memorable design. However, it is likely his most playable and environmentally sensitive creation, and the wide fairways and benign green contouring are the perfect way to introduce a nation to enjoyable, if breezy, resort golf. For seasoned players, there's still much to savor -- good luck defying the heckling primates on the seaside par-3 closer, which practically melts into the Pacific Ocean.