Restoration and redesign were the architectual buzzwords in 2013, as design connoisseurs embraced a spate of inspired renovations in the U.S. and abroad. Updated or restored bunkering, improved irrigation and occasional rerouting can make courses feel new, or at least refreshed, as our best-renovation winners show. And while new courses are still in short supply, those that did debut in 2013 are true standouts, with Tom Doak's private Dismal River (Red) in the sandhills of Nebraska leading the way. Public players seeking value can celebrate our Best New Course You Can Play, Max A. Mandel Municipal, a Robert Trent Jones II design in Laredo, Texas, that charges less than $50 during the week. Over the next 12 months, anticipated new courses by the likes of Tiger and Trump will enter the arena. Until then, we'll embrace the marvelous layouts that opened, or reopened, their doors this past year.
BEST NEW COURSE OF THE YEAR: Dismal River Golf Club (Red)
Mullen, Nebraska; private
The latest if-you-build-it-they-will-come destination to pop up on the prairies of the Midwest is only "dismal" in name. Even with a prime piece of real estate, that wasn't always a given. Not only did Tom Doak edge out Tiger Woods for the design commission, but between his other masterworks on sandy soil, Coore/Crenshaw's nearby Sand Hills and an acclaimed Jack Nicklaus course already on property, the pressure was on Doak to nail this one. He did. The fescue fairways, which allow for linkslike ground-game options, play firm and fast — they're watered with only 1,100 irrigation heads, half what the Nicklaus course uses. Meanwhile, the bentgrass greens, with fewer chaotic contours than some of Doak's other winners, offer premium putting. A throwback yardage [6,994 from the tips], an unconventional routing [the final par 5 comes at the 10th] and a smattering of blind, lay-of-the-land shots are standards in Doak's arsenal. The layout itself is more unusual. Mostly walking-friendly, it opens with eight holes in the dunes, though on relatively flat terrain; at the ninth, it crosses the clubhouse road and closes in a dramatic valley, surrounded by bluffs that rise more than 200 feet. In the end, Doak has again crafted a fun, compelling, natural layout with almost limitless shotmaking options for every handicap. You can't ask for more.
BEST NEW U.S. COURSE YOU CAN PLAY: Max A. Mandel Municipal
Laredo, Texas; 7,069 yards, par 72; $46-$56; 956-726-2000, themaxlaredo.com
Even before this Robert Trent Jones II design enjoyed its official grand opening in the spring of 2013, locals were already calling it "the Max." I can't say whether that was shorthand for the course's namesake benefactor, or its spectacular views of the mighty Rio Grande, or its unbeatable mid-week prices. The reason may not matter; for its combination of value, views, and playability, the Max is just that. While its affordability alone is worth celebrating, playability makes it worth the trip. Jones, associate Mark Voss and their team draped the layout over sandy bluffs overlooking the river, with arroyos, mature mesquites, artfully etched bunkers and native grasses mixed in as aesthetic and strategic elements. He also created junior tees and added routing options so that the course can offer easy loops of three-, six-, nine- or 18 holes. Abutting the Texas-Mexico border, 150 miles south of San Antonio, the Max isn't close to… well, anything, but it's a winner in every other way.
BEST NEW INTERNATIONAL COURSE: Guacalito de la Isla at Mukul Resort
Rivas, Nicaragua; 6,676 yards, par 72; $175; 800-390-8844, mukulresort.com
David McLay Kidd boasts design credits [and Best New Course awards] on some of golf's choicest real estate, ranging from St. Andrews to Bandon. At the other end of that scale is Nicaragua. But Kidd's latest creation, opened in February 2013, may raise that country's golf profile from zero to respectability. And why not? There's plenty here that's unique, including howling monkeys, mountain and jungle surroundings, and suspension bridges leading to some greens. In fairness, this is neither Kidd's most sophisticated nor most memorable design. However, it is likely his most playable and environmentally sensitive creation, and the wide fairways and benign green contouring are the perfect way to introduce a nation to enjoyable, if breezy, resort golf. For seasoned players, there's still much to savor — good luck defying the heckling primates on the seaside par-3 closer, which practically melts into the Pacific Ocean.
BEST INTERNATIONAL RENOVATION: Abiko Golf Club
Tokyo, Japan; private
No architect influenced Japan's classic courses as much as England's C.H. Alison. More than 80 years after Alison left his mark, deep, boldly sculpted bunkers in that country are still referred to as "Alisons." It's not surprising, then, that this prestigious Tokyo club turned to the most prolific architect in New England, neo-classicist Brian Silva, to spruce up this 1930 design by Alison disciple Rokuro Akaboshi. With co-designer Kye Goalby, Silva transitioned the old Japanese two-green system — one bentgrass, the other local korai grass — down to one, and also reshaped and repositioned bunkers to give them aesthetic and strategic flair. Their work didn't stop there, however. The pair also altered a handful of holes to inject more drama into the picturesque setting, most notably by moving the green of the par-4 fifth to the edge of a ravine. Silva and Goalby succeeded by retaining all of Abiko's classic virtues while adding both new textures and visual excitement throughout.
BEST NEW U.S. PRIVATE COURSE — HONORABLE MENTION: The Cliffs at Mountain Park
Travelers Rest, South Carolina; private
Globe-trotting Gary Player has design projects in 36 countries. His new effort — and there's no shame in being edged out for top honors in this category by Tom Doak's Dismal River — is actually stateside. Located on a valley parcel edging the North Carolina/South Carolina border near the Blue Ridge Mountains, the newest addition to the Cliffs Communities stable is a links/parkland mashup. Run-up areas funneling to the green are the norm here, even as the North Saluda River snakes its way through the layout. Variety is the theme. The par-3 seventh weighs in at only 125 yards from the tips, while No. 16 is a beefy 245-yard one-shotter; muscle-bound par 4s such as the fifth and 14th are balanced out by the enticing, drivable, downhill 320-yard 17th. Generous fairways and minimal rough enhance playability and help you relax as you prepare to hit your tee shots — although native grasses form a handsome hazard for wayward swings. Where, exactly, the 78-year-old golf great finds the energy to get his passport stamped so often is a tribute to the Black Knight's legendary fitness. The flags Player has planted on this Mountain are a tribute to his admirable course-design legacy.
BEST U.S. RENOVATION YOU CAN PLAY: Mistwood Golf Club
Romeoville, Illinois; 7,040 yards, par 72; $55-$90; 815-254-3333, mistwoodgolf.net
Raymond Hearn is no stranger to Renovation of the Year honors — he picked up the award for his work at Chicago's ancient Flossmoor Country Club in 2009. But this year, he takes home our Best U.S. Renovation You Can Play award for altering one of his own designs, one that only dates to 1998. Why renovate now? Owner Jim McWethy's position was simple: "We want to elevate Mistwood into the ranks of the best golf courses in the Midwest." The result? Mission accomplished. Fescue grasses replaced much of the traditional rough, decreasing fertilizer and pesticide usage, lowering maintenance costs and enhancing wildlife habitats. New stone walls around lakes and ponds add a distinctive touch, as does the addition of 19 stacked-sod-wall bunkers, a rarity in the region. Hearn saved the most dramatic transformation for the par-5 third, relocating the green and converting the creek in front of it to a pond behind it. Mistwood may have been young for a face-lift, but this beauty is ready for its close-up.
BEST U.S. PRIVATE RENOVATION: Paramount Country Club
New City, New York; private
This was a crowded category in 2013, but no course or club was so completely transformed as Paramount. Thanks to attentive new ownership, this venerable track — created in 1920 by A.W. Tillinghast as a private estate course for Paramount Pictures founder Adolph Zukor — is approaching its own Hollywood ending. Club owners recognized the tarnished Tillinghast gem and enlisted former Tom Doak wingman Jim Urbina to revitalize it. Urbina, our 2010 co-architect of the year for his work on Bandon's Old Macdonald, restored some spots and sympathetically renovated others. Tree removal and bunker reclamation revived forgotten course strategies and opened up captivating views of the Palisades, most brilliantly at the par-4 sixth, with its memorable skyline green. Especially notable is the unusual par-3 18th, reimagined as a classic Tillinghast "reef hole," with a diagonal ridge and bunker dictating options. Head pro Steve Scott famously finished second to Tiger Woods at the 1996 U.S. Amateur. Almost 18 years later, his revitalized Paramount is finally coming out on top.
BEST U.S. RESORT RENOVATION: Mid Pines Inn & Golf Club
Southern Pines, North Carolina; 7,040 yards, par 72; $75-$180; 910-692-2114, pineneedles-midpines.com
Mid Pines President Kelly Miller knows from great golf courses. After all, he's won multiple club championships at both Pine Valley and Seminole. Kyle Franz was an itinerant young shaper/architect who pulled stints with Tom Doak, Gil Hanse and Kyle Phillips, among others. When Miller took notice of the field work Franz was doing nearby for Coore and Crenshaw at their masterful restoration of Pinehurst No. 2, a lightbulb went on, introductions were made and Miller tabbed Franz to rejuvenate Mid Pines, a 1921 Donald Ross creation. The results are brilliant. Roughly 400 pines were yanked out, restoring width, angles and strategies. Green areas and contours were put back to Ross's specs and regrassed with ultra-dwarf Bermuda, which provides firm, consistent surfaces year-round. As he had done at Pinehurst, Franz replaced fairway rough with hardpan sand speckled with wire grass. Bunkers regained both their menace and their beauty. Fairway corridors remain the same, but otherwise, the course sports a look not seen since our grandfathers were children. While Pinehurst No. 2 will likely always be the region's top attraction, fans in search of authentic Donald Ross should flock to Mid Pines.
ARCHITECT OF THE YEAR: Tom Doak
Architecture's boy wonder is now the other side of 50, but he still exhibits youthful glee when presented with a wonderful site. Such was the case at Nebraska's Dismal River [see p. 94]. Jealous competitors might say it's easy to build a great course when you start with such a remarkable, sand-based site. But Doak had formidable challenges to conquer, notably the inevitable comparisons to the other minimalist master pieces of the last 20 years, including his own Pacific Dunes, the top-ranked course you can play in the U.S. Doak has said that his objective in designing a course is that "it should look like it's been there forever." He adds, "I like to build natural-looking courses and to let the natural contours of the ground generate the interest in the course." Unquestionably, that strategy has helped Doak scoop up scores of awards and accolades over the past 15 years, and we're here to place one more on the pile. For his commitment to cost-effective, walkable designs that tantalize with options rather than frighten with hazards, Tom Doak is our architect of the year for 2013.