Who can fairly compare past and present? The game has changed too much to say that Tiger Woods is better than Ben Hogan or Bobby Jones. Equipment, agronomy, instruction and fitness have evolved. The only constant has been the courses — golf’s one direct link to the past. Woods can never tee it up against Jones or Hogan, but he, like the rest of us, can walk the same turf.
You can still drop a ball on Merion’s 18th fairway and try to duplicate Hogan’s immortal 1-iron in the 1950 U.S. Open. Or try to match the curling 12-foot putt Jones made on Winged Foot West’s 18th green to force a playoff he later won in the 1929 U.S. Open. If he were here today, Jones might be confused by a cart with a global positioning system, but he still could advise the pros on playing Augusta National. After all, he built the place.
The timelessness of golf allows us to compare courses from different eras, and classic layouts are the gold standard in GOLF MAGAZINE’S Top 100 Courses in the World. In fact, no course in the top 10 was built in the past 70 years. Seminole still trumps Trump International, and Valhalla, a course named for the paradise of Norse myth, is no match for Pebble Beach, heaven on earth.
Note that Sand Hills and Pacific Dunes, the most celebrated modern designs, are throwbacks, as are the four newcomers to this year’s Top 100. New Zealand’s Kauri Cliffs, South Carolina’s Ocean Course at Kiawah Island and Ireland’s European Club evoke windswept scenes like those at the Old Course at St. Andrews, Royal Dornoch and Turnberry. Our final newcomer, South Carolina’s Yeamans Hall, calls to mind the intimate settings of Ballybunion and Merion.
Timeless they may be, but the classics are not frozen in time. They have been redesigned or lengthened, and our rankings reflect these updates.
Redesigning is no fad; it is often a necessity. Merion’s par-4 18th, a driver and 1-iron for Hogan, might be a 2-iron, 6-iron for Woods. “The question is,” says architect Robert Cupp, “Which of the great old courses have enough room to add the distance they need to stay relevant?”
While par-4 holes at PGA Tour venues have been stetched to 500 yards, not every course is turning to bulldozers. Pine Valley hasn’t been redesigned or lengthened, yet its first-place ranking has not suffered. Merion, too short for today’s pros at 6,482 yards but lacking acreage to add length, still ranks 14th.
Yet several top layouts such as Augusta National have been lengthened, and it is reasonable to ask what Jones might think of the new 465-yard 18th hole, for instance. Tom Weiskopf, once a fine player and now a brilliant course designer, says he is worried about Augusta. “My fear is that 25 years from now, when I watch The Masters on TV, I won’t recognize any of the holes,” Weiskopf says.
“It’s all about choices,” says Rees Jones, who has redesigned U.S. Open sites Pinehurst, Bethpage and Congressional, all Top 100 courses. “You lengthen one hole. You bring bunkers closer to greens or relocate greens or use bunkers to tighten fairways — all without changing a great course’s character.”
In the end, it’s all about character. These are the courses whose indomitable integrity shines through, whether they have resisted change or morphed to keep up with it. These are the best of the best.
Keep track of the Top 100 Courses you’ve played with our solid walnut, engraved plaques. To order the World or U.S. list plaque for $195 each (shipping is $14 or $25 overnight in the continental U.S.), call 800-449-4097 or visit www.golfspast.com/top100.