Top 100 Courses: What Elevates One Great Course Over Another?

September 10, 2015

Our raters aren’t required to follow strict criteria when evaluating courses. What do they look for when assessing a design? And how do they determine that a given revered track is better than another? We chose two courses in our World Top 100 with similar traits — Lahinch (No. 41) and Waterville (No. 83) — and asked two panelists, architect David McLay Kidd and course connoisseur Ran Morrissett, to reveal what gives one rumpled links in southwest Ireland an edge over another. In course design, it turns out, little things matter a lot.

Panelist: David McLay Kidd
Course designer (Bandon Dunes, Nanea)

Lahinch and Waterville are set within amazing landscapes hard against the rollicking Atlantic. Courses on such a canvas can’t help but be memorable, but Lahinch (below) also oozes history and individuality. Goats roam the course, and blind shots abound. It’s a perfect example of a great Old World course tailored by Father Time and years of adjustment. The “flaws”—blind, cramped or some overly whimsical holes—have long since been fixed or established as tradition: quirks not to be repeated but now beloved by generations.

Waterville is still developing its pedigree. It was designed as a nine-holer in 1889 and then abandoned before being remodeled, including an extension to 18 by Eddie Hackett in 1973. The original nine was laid out over pasture, not dunes, and this is its Achilles’ heel. In 2006, Tom Fazio undertook a major remodel to address this weakness, doing what he does best: creating a landscape where there was none; in this case, keeping with the dunescape that existed naturally on half the site. A masterful job by a masterful creator.

Panelist: Ran Morrissett
Course connoisseur and founder of

Lahinch is consistent with a course on which golf has been played in three different centuries. It embodies old-school design features, highlighted by the blind approach to the Klondyke par-5 fourth and the Dell par-3 fifth. And its holes are strewn across the tumbling landscape in every manner imaginable, making it one of golf’s most exhilarating venues. A good deal of imagination is required to conquer this fast-and-firm-running links, especially around the greens, where short grass is often utilized to carry balls away from perched locations. I rate Lahinch a little higher than Waterville because the land has more random contours and firmer terrain, both of which test your mettle and introduce one or two more maddening events per round.

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When Eddie Hackett designed Waterville in the early 1970s, the notion had taken hold that a player should be able to see what is being asked of him. Strong players, for whom Waterville was built, like being able to fully assess the situation and then delight in executing the shot that is required. Hence, the holes at Waterville are presented in a more straightforward manner than those at Lahinch, and the course’s fairways and greens possess fewer unexpected contours. Additionally, the game is more aerial at Waterville (below), and its heavier soil generally means that balls don’t release as far as the faster-running fescue fairways at Lahinch.

Both settings are equally spectacular and windswept, but they tax you in different ways. Lahinch’s historic fairways are more crumpled—lumpy and bumpy—so both good and bad fortune occurs more quickly there, courtesy of fairways that have been spared the dozers for more than a century. The shorter Lahinch has more scoring opportunities, but one weird bounce into a bad lie and the golfer quickly finds that his mental state is challenged to the nth degree. On the other hand, at Waterville you’re likely to get what you deserve from your hit, which oftentimes can be a depressingly frank indictment of one’s game!

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