Golf Channel turns 25 on January 17th, 2020. Once considered a harebrained idea belonging to Arnold Palmer and business partner Joe Gibbs, it is now the most-watched single-sport television network, and deeply ingrained in sports media culture. Turns out golfers like watching the game when they're not playing it.
The last quarter-century of televised golf coverage has produced some of the most watchable (and re-watchable) moments in the game's history. And even though the adage that pro golfers would play in a parking lot if the money was good holds some truth, the savvy consumer of the game has long been aware that on the best grounds where the best golfers in the world ply their trade, drama - with the occasional moments of spicy controversy - will tend to ensue.
In the past 25 years, TV quality has improved considerably, from HD to 4K. So have the venues themselves. Today's pro schedules and major tournament rotations have more variety on them than ever before.
The Golf Advisor Staff has come up with 25 events in the past 25 years when the golf course itself was just as much of a story as the players. Naturally, major championship venues have been fertile ground for these stories, but courses have made news in smaller or one-off events as well. Here's our overview, in chronological order.
Chime in with your favorite venues in the last 25 years in the comments below!
1998: Scary hole location mars U.S. Open finish
It's somewhat unusual for a course to finish on a sub-350-yard par-4, much less a U.S. Open venue. But that is the case on the Lakes course at The Olympic Club, where in Friday's second round, a hole location in a particularly steep part of the green wrought havoc on several golfers' putts, including eventual runner-up Payne Stewart.
"You know, I was watching the putt-putt championships this morning on ESPN before I came out, and it resembled that hole a lot," Stewart said, drawing laughs from the crowd in the media center.
1998: Tight confines confound pros at Sahalee
Trees are a common sight on a golf course, but perhaps none have been more imposing on our TV screens than at Sahalee, site of the 1998 PGA Championship and 2016 Women's PGA Championship. That year, Colin Montgomerie called it "a lovely course ... it's a beautiful place to play and a beautiful test of golf...The trees get in the way too often...That's the only problem. From above, I'm sure it looks like you can only walk single-file down the fairways."
The corridors didn't bother Vijay Singh, as the Fijian beat Steve Stricker by two shots to take his first major championship.
1998: Local knowledge aids Internationals at Royal Melbourne
The International squad crushed the Americans for their only outright Presidents Cup victory to date in 1998, owing in part to a lack of recent practice by many of the American side's players, as well as a more intimate familiarity with the firm surfaces and design intricacies of the Alister Mackenzie-designed course. Though subsequent contests at Royal Melbourne have produced American victories, in 2011 and 2019, the course has made the event far more thrilling.
1999: 'Carnasty' finally demoralizes Van de Velde
At a Carnoustie Golf Links looked back on as one of the most brutal major championship setups in the modern era, the golf course was the true winner, and its final victim was the most memorable. Standing on the 72nd tee three shots clear of Paul Lawrie and Justin Leonard, Jean Van de Velde played carelessly, visiting a burn and a bunker en route to a triple-bogey, followed by a losing effort in a playoff. His collapse will be an eternal example of hubris in the face of a tough golf course.
“Sure, I could have hit four wedges,” he told GolfChannel.com's Mercer Baggs in a 2018 story. “Wouldn’t they have said, ‘He won The Open, but, hey, he hit four wedges.’ I mean, who hits four wedges?”
2000: The Coore & Crenshaw era begins on TV
Although David Duval won in record fashion at the first Mercedes Championship on Maui's dynamic Plantation course at Kapalua in 1999, it was the epic 2000 battle between Ernie Els and Tiger Woods that left the TV audience enamored with the new course by Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw.
The two titans traded blows on the dramatic par-5 18th hole in regulation and during the playoffs before Woods sunk a long putt to win his fifth consecutive Tour event. The shot-making was mesmerizing, as was the setting overlooking the mountains and ocean.
"He's 24. He's probably going to be bigger than Elvis when he gets into his 40s," El said of Woods.
2000: Tiger tames The Old Course
Never mind the difficulty of navigating the Old Course at St. Andrews for a round without having to deal with a lie in one of its stacked-sod bunkers. How about doing it for four rounds in a row under major championship conditions? On a course that is so defined by its bunkers that they all have names, master tactician Tiger Woods navigated around the Old's pits of despair en route to his eight-stroke victory.
“It may be years before I fully appreciate it," said Woods. "But I am inclined to believe that winning The Open at the Home of Golf is the ultimate achievement in the sport.”
2002: Only Woods under par in Open-Doctored Bethpage Black
Rees Jones put some major teeth into Long Island's famed muni in order to make it a stout test for the world's best. The field came away with more than it bargained for, as some players early in the week found they might not be able to conquer the carries over fescue to reach certain fairways. No one finished under par except for Tiger Woods, who claimed his second U.S. Open by three shots over Phil Mickelson.
"The USGA made it playable for one guy (Woods)," Scott Verplank told Sports Illustrated after a wet and difficult second round, "and he's a freak of nature."
2004 (and 2018): Shinnecock Hills gets away from the USGA
USGA setup man Tom Meeks took a raft of criticism for the hole location on the par-3 7th hole at Shinnecock Hills in 2004, where the green ultimately had to be syringed between groups in order to keep golf balls from rolling from the cup clear off the green.
Flash forward 14 years, and the setup became the story again, this time during the third round, when Phil Mickelson's antics on the 13th green brought attention to yet another on-the-edge hole location.
2010: A Strantz redo's debut
The late Mike Strantz is one of the most recognizable modern architects, given the popularity of his courses at Tobacco Road Golf Club in North Carolina and Caledonia and True Blue in South Carolina. His final project, a renovation of the Shore Course at Monterey Peninsula Country Club, has been part of the rotation at the PGA Tour's AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am for a decade now, and puts some annual spotlight on the architect, who passed away in 2005.
2006: One driver for Tiger at Hoylake
Extreme conditions tend to make the best players even more impressive. The dry, dusty turf at Royal Liverpool Golf Club in the 2006 Open Championship didn't exactly drive scores crazy-high, but it did highlight perhaps Tiger Woods' most underrated skill as a golfer: His ability to game-plan.
Knowing the ball would run dozens of yards once it hit the ground, Woods hit practically nothing but his patented, low-trajectory 'stinger' shot off the tee all week, missing only eight fairways for a two-shot win over Chris DiMarco. He hit driver once.
"In an era when the long iron is practically dead, Woods showed his long-iron play is alive and well," Michael Bamberger wrote in Sports Illustrated. "He controlled his distances by controlling the trajectory. The excellence of his strikes was announced by the clouds of dirt and grass kicked up by his clubhead."
2006: Furrowed rakes at Muirfield Village
Jack Nicklaus asked the PGA Tour to use furrowed rakes at the Memorial Tournament and began a three-year trial to see if creating small sand trenches for the ball to nestle in would put the teeth back into the bunkering. The results were mixed - the furrows made it noticeably tougher to reach the green from Muirfield Village Golf Club's fairway bunkers, but not much tougher to get up and down from greenside bunkers - and the experiment ended. But there were a lot of skeptical players, normally used to absurdly perfect sand conditions, that first week.
"Are we not supposed to make anything?" 2003 PGA Championship winner Shaun Micheel said, according to the Toledo Blade. "Hey, fill 'em with water and paint hazard lines around them. There's a lot of frustration. [The players] had no warning. We showed up Monday, and they were furrowed and raked sideways. Today, every trap is raked parallel to the fairway. So they changed the conditions.
"They used to have the most beautiful sand here. What's wrong with guys shooting good scores?"
2007: Johnson plods along to Masters victory
Augusta National is the game's most-ballyhooed venue, owing to its Alister Mackenzie design roots, plus a raft of refinements - not all of them for the better - in its 85-year history. One recent lament has been that the course's lush maintenance program keeps the ball from running out, taking some emphasis away from positioning shots according to advantageous angles than originally intended.
Frigid temperatures, wind and bouncy conditions reigned over the 2007 edition of The Masters, with shortish-hitting Zach Johnson navigating his way to a Green Jacket at the unusually high score of 1-over par 289, the highest winning score since Jack Burke, Jr. won in 1956.
A much-discussed element of Johnson's tactical play: He did not go for a single one of Augusta National's famously tantalizing par 5s in two shots. Instead, he laid up every time, still making 11 birdies in 16 tries. In an era where power is the preeminent skill of the best golfers, this was an example of brilliantly restrained course management.
"It was a polarizing setup, extolled by some players as the ultimate test and reviled by others for a numbing difficulty that drained much of the excitement that golf fans have come to expect from the Masters," Alan Shipnuck wrote for Sports Illustrated.
2010: Dustin's bunker blunder at Whistling Straits
With more than 1,000 bunkers, Whistling Straits is one of golf's most famous manmade tests. Pete Dye crafted his vision of Ireland on Lake Michigan, and the 2020 Ryder Cup host has seen its share of memorable moments in a relatively short lifespan. In 2010, Dustin Johnson cost himself a chance to win the PGA Championship when he made the mistake of grounding his club in one of the course's hundreds of sandy scrapes. Even though this spot was in the middle of where the crowd along the 18th hole had been standing, it was nevertheless a bunker by local rule. The penalty Johnson incurred cost him a spot in a playoff with Bubba Watson and eventual winner Martin Kaymer.
2014: Pinehurst's new face shown to men's and women's fields
The third U.S. Open held on Pinehurst No. 2 took on a whole new meaning when the USGA announced that the U.S. Women's Open would be held the week after. The move made sense in some ways (saving the USGA infrastructure expenses) and created questions in others (some women felt slighted, playing as an afterthought to the men).
As a venue, Pinehurst No. 2 took center stage because: 1, Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw's 2011 restoration of the Donald Ross gem, replacing the rough with natural sandscapes dotted with wiregrass, and 2, the course brownout that caused Donald Trump and others to criticize the look on TV.
In the end, the women stole the show, with Michelle Wie's victory much more compelling than Martin Kaymer's blitzkrieg of the field.
2015: Fowler conquers Sawgrass' island greenThe Players Tee to Green: Closing stretch at TPC Sawgrass
Other than The Masters, few tournaments owe their identity to their host sites more than The Players Championship at TPC Sawgrass' vaunted Stadium Course. And without question, the demands the course places on golfers is symbolized by the island-green 17th hole, which claims its share of victims every year. In 2015, however, it won Rickie Fowler the tournament, as the charismatic Californian birdied the hole five of the six times he played it all week, including twice in a playoff to beat Sergio Garcia and Kevin Kisner.
2015: Players, Player roast Chambers BayFrom rocks to riches: The Chambers Bay story
Chambers Bay was one of two ambitious new venues selected for the 2010s and represented a stark departure from the event's notorious combination of narrow fairways and penal rough. Instead, Chambers Bay featured forgiving fairways and huge greens with a premium on angles and shot-making across wall-to-wall fescue turf. But the condition of the greens throughout the week became a hot topic. Henrik Stenson likened them to "putting on broccoli" and by the weekend, the flames were fanned by Gary Player's assault on the course design and Billy Horschel's "Plinko" gesture following a missed putt.
Chambers Bay has since switched to poa annua greens, but looking back, the course might be vindicated, considering the star-studded leaderboard, the incredible Sunday drama in prime time and the world's best putter at the time, Jordan Spieth, eventually proving victorious. Is a future major in the cards?
2016: Hanse overcomes obstacles in Rio
The return of golf to the Summer Olympics after more than 100 years was a highly publicized event many years in the making. Adding to the intrigue was the fact that the host country of Brazil had little in the form of golf infrastructure to host the game's best in front of a global audience. So a very public and documented bidding process by eight architects took place. Each firm presented ambitious plans for the venue with the dual purpose of hosting the very best golfers in the world but also help introduce new players to the game after the medals are awarded.
Ultimately, it was Gil Hanse who won the opportunity, in large part due to his commitment to move his family to the site for construction. There were question marks about whether the course would be completed in time due to land and development arguments among other issues but Hanse and his team got the job done.
"I was very naive about doing business in Brazil, Hanse told Golf Channel in 2015. "But all those issues have impacted the timeline and not the quality of the golf course."
2016: A new match play venue to Dye for
The move from Dove Mountain to Austin Country Club in 2016 put new excitement back into the timeless match play format. Pete Dye's Austin Country Club, an ambitious development along the shores of Lake Austin that opened in 1984, features an alluring combination of risk-reward strategy and fabulous scenery along with an intimate, limited crowd size that includes "sailgaters" along the lakeside holes. Viewers gasp at 400-plus-yard drives on the downhill (and often downwind) par-5 12th hole with the Pennybacker Bridge looming in the distance followed by attempts to drive the green at the 13th (and controversial "backboarding" thanks to grandstands behind the green).
"[The players] like it because it gives everybody a little bit of hope," said Geoff Shackelford prior to the 2016 event. "That said it's still a Pete Dye course and it's still going to give them some bounces that annoy them a little bit."
A memorable Tiger Woods-Rory McIlroy duel in 2019 helped springboard Woods towards a Masters crown weeks later. With the tournament under contract through at least 2023, it appears the Texas capital, with an illustrious history in the sport thanks to Harvey Penick, has become a worthy home of this signature piece of the spring schedule.
2018: Trinity Forest marks radical departure from Las Colinas
TPC Las Colinas, the longtime home of the AT&T Byron Nelson event, was in many ways the archetypal PGA Tour course: lush conditions, tree-lined fairways and a smattering of water hazards. When the event moved to Coore & Crenshaw-designed Trinity Forest in 2018, it represented a radical departure from the norm. Trinity Forest's open-plan design and links-in-Texas aesthetic confounded some pros at first but is gaining acceptance year by year.
"Every time that someone plays it they're kind of scratching their head on it a little bit," Hunter Mahan said prior to the first event. "The next time they play it and next time they play it, oh, they start to understand it, understand the nuance of the golf course and understand it's kind of a second-shot golf course and so many different ways to play the hole, depending on the winds or pin position, that could change your strategy off the tee."
Unfortunately for Coore-Crenshaw fans, the PGA Tour revealed in early January they will abandon Trinity Forest after 2020 due to infrastructure concerns.
2018: New event becomes appointment TV for architecture buffs
When the USGA decided to create a brand new event, it chose one of its five founding clubs for the inaugural edition. The 2018 U.S. Senior Women's Open took place at Chicago Golf Club, designed by C.B. MacDonald and one of the most exclusive private clubs in the U.S. In addition to TV coverage of this prestigious venue, typically rated among the country's 10 to 20 best, it was an exceptionally intimate spectator experience devoid of ropes and the usual hassles of big-time tournament golf. At 79, JoAnne Carner became a crowd sensation by making the cut at the par-73 layout.
"Every hole looks different," eventual champion Laura Davies said after a practice round. "There's great bunkering. Wide fairways but you can't stray beyond the borders of the fairways because that long stuff is taking no prisoners. You're going to lose a ball in there probably. But yeah, just love the green complexes. You can hit it close -- you think you've hit it close, then you've got a 40-yard chip. It's a thinking senior women's golf course. You have to really be sharp because you'll make bogeys out of good shots, which is what a great golf course will do to you."
2018: Team USA drowns in rough at Le Golf National
The Albatros course at Le Golf National hosts a European Tour event annually, but nothing could have prepared the 2018 American Ryder Cup team for the grassy-sandy-watery death trap that awaited them on France's most diabolical course. A 10-million renovation made the "Bethpage Black of Europe" even tougher, adding bunkers and lakes at every seemingly turn.
Gnarly rough and tangled sidehill lies unraveled the favored Americans, who fought among themselves afterward and looked downright outclassed in a 17.5-10.5 beat down. Only Justin Thomas, who scored four pointed, competed in the French Open earlier in the summer, and it showed.
"I had more players show up for that practice round than I could have hoped for, and we were prepared," U.S. Captain Jim Furyk said. "I feel like we played our practice rounds (during an unofficial team visit that summer) and we understood the golf course. We got out-played."
2018: Millions change hands at a modern marvel
The high-stakes affair in Las Vegas between Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson promised a pay-per-view glimpse of Shadow Creek, then streaming issues led to the removal of a paywall, too. The Tom Fazio design, commissioned by Steve Wynn in the 1990s, showcased such excesses as a greenside bunker shot played over a waterfall, and made-for-TV playoff wedge shots off the putting green. The Match showed how a course can be manipulated for viewer interest.
"To be able to create something so Utopian like this is a testament to the ownership and what their vision was for this property, and what they've done is just incredible," Woods said of Shadow Creek during the pre-match press conference.
2019: A fresh look at Augusta National
The 2019 Augusta National Women's Amateur was the first televised event outside The Masters to be staged on the famed Augusta National, bringing the world's top amateur female golfers to the course the weekend before The Masters. It gave golf fans not only a chance to watch more tournament golf there, but also to see the course played from different tees. For those clamoring for an equipment rollback, Jennifer Kupcho's brilliant hybrid on the par-5 13th hole reflected Alister Mackenzie's wish for a "monumental" decision regarding trying for the green in two shots.
The event also provided everyday golfers a glimpse at how their games might translate playing Augusta National, as well as how it might have played before 21st-century equipment rendered such fairway-metal approaches unnecessary for most of The Masters field.
"It was a lot of fun to play the course today," Kupcho said after a practice round. "It was a lot longer than I expected. I had a lot of long irons in, which I'm a pretty long hitter, so I wasn't really used to that. ... It's crazy that they are actually letting us play the course."
2019: Pasatiempo proves it's not all about yardage
Although Pasatiempo has hosted the Western Intercollegiate 73 times, 2019 was the first year the prestigious college event hosted by San Jose State University was televised on Golf Channel. For those golfers who haven't been lucky enough to play the course where Dr. Alister Mackenzie lived in Santa Cruz, Calif., it was a glimpse into the mastery of the famous architect's best public design.
Curvaceous bunkers and penal, perplexing green surrounds help to defend what is a short course (less than 6,600 yards) by modern standards. Western Intercollegiate alumni - including former champions Ken Venturi, Johnny Miller, Mark O’Meara, Duffy Waldorf and Bobby Clampett - have gone on to win more than 350 PGA Tour events, including 40 majors.
“The course is so unique,” Chris Zambri, USC's men's golf coach, told Golf Advisor in 2019. “It’s one of the best courses in America. On top of that, it’s got some real unique features you don’t see at other places these days. It’s always special in that regard. And to have television here makes things way more interesting for us for sure.”
2019: Royal Portrush exceeds expectationsToughest Tracks: Rory at Royal Portrush
2019 was a monumental year for major championship venues, capped by the return of the Royal Portrush and Northern Ireland to the Open championship rota. Views of the Antrim coastline combined with proper Irish breezes and raucous spectators made for an exciting setup.
As stellar of a course as the Dunluce Links was, it was some internal out-of-bounds that proved costly for the local favorite, Rory McIlroy, who found his ball on the wrong side of the stakes on his first tee shot of the tournament. A teary-eyed McIlroy was cut after 36 holes but Irishman Shane Lowry delivered an epic weekend of golf, expertly managing conditions and the course, running away with the event by six shots.
A return seems likely. "The golf course has been incredibly well presented," Northern Irishman Graeme McDowell said afterwards. "And everyone is telling me this is their favorite Open venue they've ever been to up. So many ticks in all the right boxes this week."