Jack Nicklaus was once asked to rate a handful of classic courses on a scale of difficulty from 1 to 10. He rated Augusta National, Oak Hill, St. Andrews and Seminole all 8s. Baltusrol and Pebble Beach merited a 10. How about Winged Foot? “11,” responded Nicklaus. “Maybe 12.”
Is Winged Foot (West) the toughest track of all? As the PGA Tour rolls into Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., this week, many pros might volunteer the Honda venue itself, PGA National’s Champion course. Indeed, the Jack Nicklaus-redesigned Champion is a beast, especially in March, when the year’s strongest winds blow, causing the numerous lakes and extra-firm greens to bare fangs worthy of True Blood.
Still, PGA National’s Champion doesn’t crack our Top 10 list of the toughest courses in the country. Here are the courses that do:
1. Whistling Straits (Straits), Haven, Wisc.
On a calm, warm August day, the best in the game can tame this 1998 Pete Dye design on the shores of Lake Michigan. On other days, it’s golf’s version of a slaughterhouse. Witness Tom Watson’s wind-whipped collapse at the 2007 U.S. Senior Open, when as the leader, he skied to a 43 on the back nine on his way to 78. Better yet, observe any 10- or 15-handicapper that misses any fairway or any green. More than 1,000 bunkers, Irish-style rough, and a collection of hideously awkward recovery shots await. Black tees: 7,790 yards, par 72; rating: 77.2, slope: 152
2. Oakmont, Oakmont, Pa.
No course on earth plays so viciously harder than it looks than Oakmont. No trees, no water, few forced carries and huge greens normally add up to a sea of red numbers for the game’s best, but not here. Not with the ferocity of these greens (which they actually slow down for U.S. Opens), a lethal combination of speed, contour and firmness, plus brutal rough and more than 200 bunkers. Gene Sarazen described Oakmont as possessing “all the charm of a sock to the head.” Echoed Johnny Miller, “It’s the most difficult test of golf in America.” And that’s coming from two guys who won majors here. Green tees: 7,255 yards, par 71; rating: 77.1, slope: 147
3. Pine Valley, Pine Valley, N.J.
Its bunkers sport sinister names such as “Hell’s Half-acre” at the par-5 seventh and “the Devil’s A-hole” at the par-3 10th. It was once said of the brutal uphill, par-3 fifth that “only God can make a 3.” The horror stories only enhance Pine Valley’s stern reputation. “Foursomes have left the first tee there and have never been seen again,” mused Bob Hope. “They just find their shoelaces and bags.” Newly lengthened and toughened in the past few years, Pine Valley demands formidable carries over sand and scrub on nearly every shot. There’s plenty of width for the modern player and there’s nothing unfair, but twitch just once and the nightmare begins. Championship tees: 7,057 yards, par 70; rating: 75.6, slope: 155
4. Kiawah Island Resort (Ocean), Kiawah Island, S.C.
Pete Dye had to scramble just to finish this one in time for the 1991 Ryder Cup Match, affectionately known as “The War by the Shore,” but the real winner was the battlefield itself. So tough was the wind-blown seaside track when it first opened that Ray Floyd speculated no one would break 80 if it were hosting a stroke-play event. Twice in the past 20 years, Dye has softened the layout, and it plays somewhat gentler in summer, but you’ll still be whipsawed by the prospect of taking on tidal-marsh carries, scrub-topped coastal dunes and fiercely guarded, wildly undulating greens. Back tees: 7,873 yards, par 72; rating: 79.2, slope: 155
5. TPC Sawgrass (PLAYERS Stadium), Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla.
The Marquis de Sod, Pete Dye, changed golf-course architecture for all time with this 1980 design of Deane Beman’s vision. Though it’s been softened since, today it remains a spectacular mix of serpentine waste bunkers, endless water hazards, grassy moguls and hollows and semi-blind shots, with 17 fairways and 18 incredibly varied green complexes. The missing fairway is at the island-green, par-3 17th, golf’s ultimate gut-check. There’s no course anywhere that serves up so many stomach-churning, sweaty-palms moments. The Players tees: 7,215 yards, par 72; rating: 76.8, slope: 155
6. Bethpage (Black), Farmingdale, N.Y.
All you really need to know about Bethpage Black’s off-the-charts challenge is printed on a sign behind the first tee: WARNING-THE BLACK COURSE IS AN EXTREMELY DIFFICULT GOLF COURSE WHICH IS RECOMMENDED ONLY FOR HIGHLY SKILLED GOLFERS. Tiger Woods, the only golfer skilled enough to break par for 72 holes at the 2002 U.S. Open, summed up thusly: “The golf course was hard.” Rees Jones put his own restorative stamp on this 1936 A.W. Tillinghast design, re-transforming the Black into a fearsome, walking-only test of manhood, with gargantuan, uphill par-4s, wrist-fracturing rough and bunkers as large as some European countries. Championship tees: 7,366 yards, par 71; rating: 76.6, slope: 148
7. PGA West (TPC Stadium), La Quinta, Calif.
After more than 20 years of horror stories, Pete Dye’s West Coast answer to Sawgrass is smiling all the way to the bank-because everybody still lines up to play it. Technology has rendered the course the PGA Tour pros refused to go back to less dangerous than in its big-hair heyday, when it was the “it” course of the late 80s, but for less proficient ballstrikers, it’s absolutely relentless in its assault of insanely deep bunkers, Vail ski-hill moguls and demanding carries over water and desert. Surviving the 19-foot-deep bunker left of 16 green allows you the privilege of tackling the island-green 17th. Says Lee Trevino of the 17th, “If there’s any wind and the green is firm, it’s damn near impossible. You’ve got to hit the front portion of the green and pray like hell it doesn’t run into those rocks.” That’s from a guy who once aced it in the Skins Game. Back tees: 7,300 yards, par 72; rating: 76.1, slope: 150
8. Winged Foot (West), Mamaroneck, N.Y.
Hale Irwin survived the 1974 “Massacre at Winged Foot” to win at seven-over-par. Geoff Ogilvy didn’t fare much better in 2006, when his five-over total took home the trophy. 1996 PGA Champion Mark Brooks summed up this Golden Age A.W. Tillinghast design this way: “There are probably six hard holes, six really hard holes and six impossible holes.” Frighteningly contoured, pear-shaped greens, cavernous bunkers and a procession of rugged par-4s define the trouble here. It may not be a 12 on a scale of 1 to 10, but who are we to argue with Jack Nicklaus. Blue tees: 7,264 yards, par 72; rating: 76.1, slope: 145
9. Spyglass Hill, Pebble Beach, Calif.
Pebble Beach’s less celebrated neighbor has yielded 62s to Phil Mickelson in 2005 and Luke Donald in 2006, but for most, it remains a monster. Writer Jim Murray once penned, “If it were human, Spyglass would have a knife in its teeth, a patch on its eye, a ring in its ear, tobacco in its beard and a blunderbuss in its hand.” At the 1999 U.S. Amateur the stroke average for the field during medal-play qualifying exceeded 79. Elevated greens, sand dunes crowding the first five holes and towering pines hemming in the rest, plus heavy air, little roll and awkward, sidehill lies are among the obstacles. Blue tees: 6,960 yards, par 72; rating: 75.5, slope: 144
10. Wolf Creek, Mesquite, Nev.
No course in America serves up as many “Caution: Steep Grade” signs on the cart paths, likely because no course in America takes you on such a perversely thrilling ride. Wolf Creek’s holes either plunge downhill or climb uphill, nearly all of them cocooned by massive sandstone formations and enormous canyon walls. Gurgling streams, lakes and a bevy of sprawling bunkers add beauty and menace. At its best, Wolf Creek calls to mind Pine Valley, an unbroken parade of relentlessly exacting, yet visually stunning holes. At its worst, it’s a one-off, a freak show. Challenger tees: 6,939 yards, par 72; rating: 75.4, slope 154