Year in Review: Our Writers Pick Their Favorite Courses and Top Tracks For 2015
Covering golf all over the globe allows the staff at Golf.com to conduct research at various courses at all ends of the world. See the courses our writers picked as their favorites, least favorites and the tracks they want to play in the coming year. See who our panel picked as winners, losers and their favorite moments from 2014 here.
Favorite Courses Played for the First Time in 2014
Eamon Lynch, managing editor, Golf.com (@EamonLynch): National Golf Links of America in New York, which had long been top of my wish list. It has everything one can ask for in a golf course: history, charm, challenge, quirkiness and beauty. I’d happily take NGLA every day. The other terrific courses I played for the first time this year included the Old Course at Sunningdale, near London, Tokyo Golf Club, and Augusta National—though I’ll call this an incomplete since slow play meant I only got through 14 holes before having to leave for the airport.
Alan Bastable, senior editor, Golf Magazine (@Alan_Bastable): I sampled shamefully few new courses this year, but I did make it to the Sheep Ranch, the mythical routing just up the Oregon coast from Bandon Dunes. It’s a wacky, windswept Tom Doak design that allows you to play the “holes” in any order you choose. You can bring your own beer, too. In July, I played another course somewhat off the beaten path: Farm Neck Golf Club on Martha’s Vineyard. It’s great fun, though I had hoped for more waterfront holes, and a good spot for celeb sightings (from Obama to Bill Murray). Spike Lee has a home by the 18th hole. To antagonize Red Sox fans, he flies a Yankees flag from a towering flagpole in his yard.
Coleman McDowell, Assistant Editor, Sports Illustrated Golf Group, (@ColemanMcDowell): The Old Course at St. Andrews has been sitting atop my list of destinations I've dreamed about playing, but never thought I actually would. This summer, I crossed it off my list. It wasn't without some drama, as I was late to the first tee due to nerves forcing a last-minute bathroom run. As I jogged from the locker room to the first tee, I didn't have time to let nervousness set in -- or to take any practice swings. I managed to hit the 100-yard wide fairway off the first tee, but became so nervous walking down the first fairway that I plunked my wedge into the Swilcan Burn in front of the green. I took a drop, then miraculously pitched in for a par en route to the best 18 holes of my life. I had hyped up the Old Course in my head for years, and it somehow surpassed expectations. I predict it remains at the top of my list for the rest of my life, and if that means I've peaked, I'm perfectly fine with that.
Jeff Ritter, senior editor, Sports Illustrated Golf Group (@Jeff_Ritter): I’d never heard of Quintero Golf Club, about a half hour northwest of Phoenix, before sliding over during a buddies’ trip last fall. It was private until 2011, but now the doors are open and it’s carving a name for itself. The Hieroglyphic Mountains surround the property and three par 3s have elevations of 160, 180 and 90 feet. The course is immaculate and the views are outrageous. A total blast.
David DeNunzio, senior editor, Golf Magazine, (@daviddenunzio): Domestically, McArthur G.C. in Hobe Sound, Fla. Easily one of the most natural (read palmetto-dotted gorgeous-ness) parcels of land you’ll find in the increasingly bustling environs of the Palm Beach area. Light on elevation change but heavy on “roll”, McArthur is a good player’s test (it’s Nick Price’s home course) that also sets up nicely for the mid-handicapper, thanks to a heavy dose of risk/reward options on just about every hole. Don’t want to go for the 542-yard par 5 15th in two? Fine. Lay up and funnel your third shot through a pair of stately pines as if you’re kicking a field goal. It’s just a fun place to be. Internationally, Portmarnock. Put this classic on the ocean instead of the tide-heavy estuary on which it sits about 20 minutes east of Dublin, and it’s easily the best course in Ireland. Yep, better than County Down. There, I said it. It’s not easy—errant shots find rough so thick even your caddy gives up looking for your ball. But you won’t mind. There are plenty of cliff-hanging tee boxes, blind shots and uneven lies to keep you busy. Critics often cite shot value in ranking courses. Portmarnock is dripping in it. You’re unlikely to hit the same kind of approach shot twice.
Cameron Morfit, senior writer, Golf Magazine (@CameronMorfit): I played El Campeon Golf Course at Mission Inn Resort and Club in Howey in the Hills, Fla. It dates to 1917 and was designed by Chicago-based architect George O'Neil. It's such a cool course I didn't even mind that we were playing through fog for the first 12 holes. It doesn't feel like Florida--more like a Northeast style course--and the red-tiled roofs of the clubhouse and the spa reminded me of Northern California. Trivia: Taylor Funk, Fred's kid, won the 2013 Florida 2A state championship there. Trivia II: I personally lost $21 there. And I still liked it.
Josh Sens, contributing writer, Golf Magazine (@JoshSens): I’m not sure Papago in Phoenix fully qualifies as a sleeper, seeing as it used to host the Phoenix Open along with some U.S. Open qualifiers. But it went through a long, rough stretch, and it had pretty much fallen off the radar. Or my radar anyway. I finally got to play it late this fall. Loved it. It’s a Billy Bell design from the 1960s (renovated more recently but the bones remain), on a good piece of land with lots of cool movement and a great mix of demands. Tee shots ask you to the move the ball both ways, the par-threes are varied, and there are a couple of truly top-notch short par-fours---the sort of should-I or shouldn’t-I holes that make golf so much fun. There are no houses on the course, it’s very walkable and if the pro shop and snack bar are in lowly trailers, well, who cares? It’s a muni, the price is reasonable, and the whole place is an accessible reminder of what more golf in this country might have looked like if real estate plays hadn’t come to dominate the industry and architecture hadn’t gone off the rails.
Gary Van Sickle, senior writer, Sports Illustrated (@GaryVanSickle): I finally made it to Oregon to check out the Bandon Dunes tracks. It was a tie between Bandon Dunes (very playable and fun), Pacific Dunes (a little more challenging but still fun) and Bandon Trails (very playable minus the stunning ocean views and fun). Old MacDonald reminded me of my days at the Yale Golf Club (not coincidentally, also designed by the devious C.B. MacDonald). It's big and sprawling and you need to play it at least a second time to feel more comfortable on it. Not sure if any of these were more fun than Bandon Preserve, a 13-hole par-3 track that is hilariously fun and perfect for emergency-nine-style wagering (of course I'd never bet on a golf course!). Also enjoyed a nine-holer near the coast in Maine, Lucerne, a delightful grass-roots mom-and-pop course that proves you don't need to spend $150 in greens fees to enjoy the game.
Shane O’Donoghue, contributor, Golf.com, (@ShaneODonoghue): Trump International (Aberdeen), Cruden Bay and Machrihanish Dunes.
Course Wish List for 2015
Sens: I imagine this choice will land me on a long waiting list for flights into Halifax, Nova Scotia this summer. Cabot Cliffs, a Coore-Crenshaw design and the sister course at Cabot Links, is set to open in Cape Breton. I got a peek at the site this past summer, and the course was already looking postcard-ready. Ten holes along the water, and, as the name suggests, some crazily dramatic cliffs. If I can make it up to that area, I’d like to get back to Highland Links as well, a Stanley Thompson course from the Golden Age and one of the greatest layouts anywhere. It’s in a national park and they’ve gone through some maintenance issues, mostly a result of staffing cuts. But they’ve got it on the upswing. It used to be on Golf’s list of Top 100 Courses in the World, and though you aren’t going to get pimped-out country club conditions, what with the setting and the design, you can see why it ranked so high.
DeNunzio: The peg holes on my “Top 100 Courses” board are noticeably absent from Augusta National, Cypress Point and National Golf Links. But hey, I’m not holding my breath. However, there’s a pretty comparable track outside Philadelphia named Pine Valley that I’ve dreamt about since I was a kid, and I know a member. Hope he reads this. Also, Secession G.C. in Beaufort, S.C. I’ve heard enough from bonafide design experts on this Bruce Devlin lowcountry beauty to make it a point to experience firsthand what they’ve been raving about.
Bastable: Two remote outposts—Streamsong and Cabot Links—are high on my list. I’d also like to get back to my childhood haunt: Rye (N.Y.) Golf Club, a hilly layout whose 8th hole, bordering the Long Island Sound, is one of the most scenic par 4s in Westchester County. I like to think my game has aged well since my Tommy Armour 845 days, but I’m not convinced that it has. A return trip to RGC would be the ultimate barometer.
Ritter: If Augusta National calls (or if my name is pulled from a hat in the post-Masters media lottery), I’ll have my clubs ready.
Morfit: I'm going to get out and play Cypress with Josh Sens, and while we're at it we're going to have to knock Pebble off my list, too.
Lynch: The only course among the top ten in our Top 100 Courses in the U.S. that I haven’t played is Oakmont, so I’ll opt for that as my domestic choice. Weather and family illness scuppered two previous attempts to get there, so hopefully I’ll see it in ’15. Overseas it’s Royal Melbourne. I walked the West Course there with Tom Doak in 2003 but didn’t have time to play it. Still the most beautiful bunkering I’ve ever seen.
O’Donoghue: Pine Valley, Merion, Royal Melbourne and Ireland's North West. I'm embarrassed to say that I haven't explored enough of this amazing incredible links land.
McDowell: The easy and obvious choice for me is Bandon Dunes in Oregon. Four all-world golf courses on one property along with a par-3 track and brand-new putting course all nestled on the Pacific Ocean coast? It's heaven on earth for any golf fan, and it's a trip I'd like to make next year.
Van Sickle: Merion was at the top of my list for the better part of two decades but I finally teed it up there last year before the Open. It was as good as advertised. What's that leave for a guy who's played at least 65 of the top 100-ranked courses? Sand Hills in Nebraska. I'm thinking of a double dip in Washington, Chambers Bay and Gamble Sands. Photos of the latter are impressive. Yeah, it's an Open year. Chambers Bay is my No. 1 target so I can get some insight into next year's Open.
Least Favorite Course Played in 2014
O’Donoghue: We travelled all the way to Rio de Janeiro to check out the progress of the new Olympic golf course in January. We weren't allowed get near it by the authorities. Undeterred, we hired a helicopter which gave us an incredible view of the City, the Statue of Christ the Redeemer and the Maracana, but the golf course? It was way behind schedule with just 12 holes shaped. It's the least-played course in world golf at the moment and arguably the most discussed. They (the IOC) say it's on track now, and maybe I'll have to go back and check it out...with my clubs.
Lynch: Richard Nixon used to say that you can only truly appreciate the highest peaks when you’ve been in the deepest valleys. My deepest course valley this year was TPC Valencia, near Los Angeles. Welcoming staff and a very nice facility, but the course itself was a waste of a mediocre piece of land. The back-to-back par 5s at 14 and 15 might be the worst consecutive holes I’ve ever seen.
Bastable: How I play a course—and I suspect this is true of many golfers—generally influences my affection for it. Which probably explains my indifference for Pelham Country Club, just north of New York City. On a beautiful, blue-skied October day there, I unleashed an alarming arsenal of thinned irons, blocked tee shots and four-putts, exacerbated by Pelham’s abundance of sloping fairways and uneven lies. The lowlight: Topping a 9-iron into the pond on the par-3 closer. The highlight: Lagunitas IPA on tap in the grill room.
Ritter: Can’t think of a single course from past 12 months I wouldn’t happily play again in 2015. The hallmark of a good year.
Sens: In the Bay Area, where I live, there’s a clunker called the Bridges, a Johnny Miller design that embodies a lot of what went wrong with modern golf architecture in this country. It sits in a subdivision, ringed by houses, and it’s terrible for walking. On the day I was out there, it was choked by sluggish cart play, made all the slower by the fact that there are so many ways to lose a ball. The forced carries, and there are plenty, seemed less strategic than sadistic. Did I mention that the greens get a bit goofy? Then again, and this is a sign of my old-fashioned addiction, it still beats spending six hours behind my desk.
Van Sickle: Let's go with a course that I didn't play in 2014. There is a nine-hole course near the Pittsburgh airport that I like to stop at for a quick round when I return from a business trip. When I stopped off there in late May to play after a getting off a flight, the course was overgrown and gated shut. I learned that it was sold to someone who intended to bulldoze it for housing, apparently. The course was called Marada and while it was nothing special, it was an interesting mix of easy, hard and awkward holes, a great place to stretch after a long flight. Conditions were never great but the greens were usually decent. I hate that golf courses are closing at an average of one a day in America and I hate more that golf courses I play occasionally sometimes close. If I started a list of courses I've played (1,198 the last time I checked) that are now closed, I'm sure it's in double figures. It's discouraging, demoralizing and concerning. Overbuilt or not, golf is in a serious downturn. Marada's closing was a symptom and that's why it was my least favorite non-round of '14.
DeNunzio: Pelham Country Club in the Bronx, if for the only reason I-95 cuts straight through it. Well, more than that. It ends on a pitch-and-put par 3, most holes fail to unfold nicely in front of your eyes (a lot of uphill tee shots), and the short par 4s that usually make venerable courses such as this (it hosted the 1923 PGA Championship) a joy ended up annoying me. Chalk it up to a bad day and the fact I could not escape the din of traffic. I’ll give it another shot.
McDowell: I generally enjoy any time on a golf course, but I wasn't enthused about a round I played on a trip back home to Alabama. The course has great scenery and elevation drops, but it simply isn't conducive for the average golfer to play. The back tees almost reach 8,000 yards -- which no amateur should ever play -- with the spacing between the tees almost 700 yards in some cases. This forces the average player to play under 5,900 yards or over 6,500 yards. Few players are going to make the decision to play the shorter yardages, no matter their skill set, leading to more doubles and triples and longer rounds for those of us playing in the group behind. It was my third round of golf on the year with my father though, so the slow play and minor design issues did not come close to ruining the round.
Morfit: I've come to the decision that Highland Links, in Truro (Cape Cod), Mass., is only worth playing in the off-season. It's way too easy to lose your ball there, and way too crowded, the combination leading to interminable waits during the summer months. Too bad, to, because it could be a fun play.