Pine Valley Golf Club, Pine Valley, N.J., No 1, World, No. 1 U.S.
It was “the single most astounding feat in the annals of golf,” claims Pine Valley club historian James W. Finegan. One day in the summer of 1951, prominent Philadelphia amateur J. Wood “Woodie” Platt began a social round birdie, eagle, ace, birdie. With the clubhouse a mere 12 paces from the 4th green, Platt chose to fortify himself with a libation before he tackled the brutal par-3 5th. He never left the bar. Six-under-par after four holes on the world’s most demanding course, Woodie Platt called it a day. He later explained to sportswriter Red Smith, “Why go on? I couldn’t do any better — only worse.”
East Lake Golf Club, Atlanta, Ga.; No 63, U.S.
Tom Bendelow crafted Bobby Jones’ home course in 1908 and even though it was scuttled in 1913 when Jones was 11, Jones remembered it well: “It was sort of a strange layout as golf courses go, because it only had two par-3 holes, the 1st and the 3rd. The rest were short par-4s and 5s.” Donald Ross redesigned the course in 1914, George Cobb “modernized” it in 1960 and Rees Jones renovated it in 1994. One holdover on today’s PGA Tour Championship course is the ancient peninsula green at the par-3 6th — it served the par-5 16th on the Bendelow course. Jones usually struggled with the 6th. Jimmy Demaret once asked him, “What did you use on this hole?” Jones responded, “a water ball.”
Spyglass Hill Golf Course, Pebble Beach, Calif.; No. 48, U.S.
Folks who only know the Spyglass Hill that yielded 62s to Phil Mickelson in 2005 and to Luke Donald in 2006 might be shocked to learn that Spyglass was flat-out nasty when it opened in 1966. It made its PGA Tour debut in the 1967 Bing Crosby Pro-Am, when the host himself crooned an offer to Jack Nicklaus: “I’ll bet you five you can’t shoot under par from the back tees in your first round at Spyglass.” It was unclear whether Bing meant $5.00 or $5,000, but Nicklaus notched a 2-under-par 70 in his practice round and Bing forked over $500 to charity. The Golden Bear stumbled to a 74 when it counted, yet still won the event by five.
Prairie Dunes Country Club, Hutchinson, Kan.; No. 26, World, No. 17, U.S.
After weeks of tromping through the yucca-choked sandhills of Hutchinson, Kansas, architect Perry Maxwell pronounced, “There are 118 good golf holes here. All I have to do is eliminate 100 of them.” He eliminated 109 of them. Only nine holes were built in 1937 (the present-day 1,2, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 17 and 18) and for 20 years, Prairie Dunes was touted as the nation’s finest nine-hole layout. In 1980 Juli Inkster wished there were only nine holes to search, because two weeks after she was married, she lost her wedding ring here during the U.S. Women’s Amateur. Fortunately, her caddie recovered it and her good luck continued: She captured the Amateur, then outdueled Annika Sorenstam in2002 when Prairie Dunes hosted the U.S. Women’s Open.
New South Wales Golf Club, Sydney, Australia; No. 41, World
New South Wales occupies sacred ground for Australians, for it was at this spot — Botany Bay, where the 5th and 6th holes converge — in 1770 that Captain James Cook of the British Royal Navy “discovered” Australia. Designed by Dr. Alister MacKenzie in 1928, the layout’s signature hole is the 195-yard, par-3 6th, which demands a stout carry over an inlet of Cape Banks. Was the 6th actually a precursor to MacKenzie’s 16th at Cypress Point? Hardly. MacKenzie didn’t actually design the 6th at New South Wales. Rather it was the work of Eric Apperly in 1937. The isolated back tee, set on a rocky perch in the surf, first appeared in the 1950s.
Hirono Golf Club, Kobe, Japan; No. 37, World
English architect H.S. Colt left his mark on such Top 100 courses as Pine Valley, Royal Portrush and Swinley Forest, but his lesser known partner, C.H. Alison, was quite the design whiz himself, notably in Japan. The Japanese had never seen the kind of deep, strategically placed bunkers that Alison introduced to Hirono, Kasumigaseki (East), Naruo and Kawana Hotel’s Fuji course in the 1920s and 30s, so that similar traps built on any course since are known as “Alisons.” Jack Nicklaus ignored all of the cleverly placed “Alisons” on Hirono’s dogleg-left, 565-yard, par-5 15th during a 1963 exhibition match to reach the green in two blows, a hitherto unprecedented feat.
Lahinch Golf Club (Old), Lahinch, Ireland; No. 40, World
Undeniably one of the most charming of the World’s Top 100 is Lahinch in County Clare, Ireland, with its titanic sand hills, its terrific architecture pedigree (Old Tom Morris, Alister MacKenzie) and its stunning views of the ocean. It also boasted a small herd of goats used to forecast the weather — if they were huddled near the clubhouse, the foul stuff was on the way — until they were destroyed by government edict in 2001 due to the foot-and-mouth scare. Happily for livestock fans, the goats were restored in 2003 and the same for architecture fans, as Martin Hawtree restored many of the MacKenzie design features that had been obliterated over time.
St. George’s Golf Club, Islington, Ontario, Canada; No. 87, World
Described by legendary golf writer Herbert Warren Wind as “A Canadian course architect noted for his hearty manner, his roast-beef complexion and his sharply contoured hazards,” Stanley Thompson was known as the “Toronto Terror,” mostly due to his prodigious thirst, impish humor and out-of-control spending habits. Thompson got it all right, however, at this quiet club near downtown Toronto that went by Royal York from 1928 to 1946 until it ended its affiliation with the Canadian Pacific Railway. St. George’s 459-yard, par-4 5th nearly derailed trick-shot specialist Joe Kirkwood at the 1933 Canadian Open, when his drive finished behind a massive oak, but Smokin’ Joe produced a roundhouse hook that would have made Joe Frazier proud, made birdie and won the event.
Riviera Country Club, Pacific Palisades, Calif.; No. 33 World, No. 21 U.S.
When the PGA Tour pros renew their love affair with Riviera every February in suburban Los Angeles, they help illuminate the talents of the greatest “unknown” designer in American golf history, George Thomas. “The Captain,” as World War I army veteran George C. Thomas Jr. was called, took strategy and bunker configuration to new heights in the 1920s, a period still considered the “Golden Age of Golf Design.” One glance alone at Riviera will tell you that he should be held in equal esteem with Donald Ross, Alister MacKenzie and A.W. Tillinghast. To the manor born, as they say, Thomas never charged a design fee in creating such masterpieces as Los Angeles Country Club’s North course and Bel-Air Country Club, many in collaboration with construction (and bunker) specialist Billy Bell. Later in life, he lost interest in the practice of golf course architecture, concentrating his efforts on rose growing and Pacific game fish. For a brief period when he was at the top of his game, however, there was nobody better.
Crystal Downs Country Club, Frankfort, Mich.; No. 19, World, No. 11 U.S.
Tom Doak, a member of Crystal Downs, tells the story of how the course was created by Alister MacKenzie and design associate Perry Maxwell: “MacKenzie and Maxwell stayed on for several days to establish a routing plan for the course and to begin the design of the greens. At one point, finding themselves stuck on a final solution to the beautifully undulating but rather tight front nine, MacKenzie sent Maxwell into town for provisions. When Maxwell returned an hour or two later, he found Dr. MacKenzie sitting on the hill where the pro shop is now located, bottle at his side. ‘I have the front nine finished,’ declared MacKenzie. ‘Come see what you think.’ After studying the plan, Maxwell’s reply was that it was wonderful, but that there were only eight holes. MacKenzie promptly added a short hole along the ridge on which they sat: today’s celebrated and deadly par-3 9th.