My 10 favorite golf course architects and their standout layouts

One question I am constantly being asked is, "Who is your favorite golf course architect?" While I can't give a definite answer without doing many great designers an injustice, it's also impossible to compare the "classics" to the contemporary architects.

As the times changed, so did the art of golf course architecture. Back in the day, there were no bulldozers and heavy machinery, so courses were built with shovels and mules. Architects, however, were often able to pick the land of their choice. They did not have to work around home sites, and there were no environmental restrictions.

Today's designers often have enormous budgets and can move all the dirt they want, but there are many other challenges they have to deal with. So when you look at the very best architects, I think it's only fair to include today's as well as yesterday's stars.

Here are my 10 all-time favorites (in no particular order).

Tom Doak

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Doak has been the talk of the golf world ever since his Oregon coast meisterwerk Pacific Dunes created worldwide attention. Golf is Bandon's "raison d'etre" -- and Doak's bona fide links course is the shining star. The unorthodox layout features back-to-back par 3s and only two par 4s on the back nine. It's no coincidence that Pacific Dunes has been ranked the best public-access course in the country (ahead of Pebble Beach).

Ben Crenshaw and Bill Coore

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The hottest design tandem in golf first made headlines for Sand Hills Golf Club in rugged western Nebraska, arguably the best modern golf course in the world. Their "minimalist philosophy" -- the course has to fit the lay of the land -- has made them the most sought-after duo in the business today. Streamsong Red in Florida, built in 2012, has been lauded as one of the premier new courses. It sits on top of a former phosphate mine and offers a golf experience unlike anything else I have ever seen.

Tom Fazio

Unfortunately, I have yet to play Shadow Creek, generally considered Fazio's finest design open to the public (if you stay at an MGM property and are willing to pay the $500 green fee, that is). Of the many Fazio layouts that I have already played, his course at Red Sky Golf Club is among my favorites. The entertaining layout sits at an altitude of more than 7,500 feet and offers breathtaking mountain vistas. Players are taken on a journey through open sage-covered hills, dense aspen forest and around a highland lake. The finishing hole is a par 5 that is reachable for many players because of the long distance golf balls travel at the course's high elevation.

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Pete Dye

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Dye has possibly influenced the art of golf course design more than anyone else in recent memory. Dye is infamous for moving "heaven and earth" -- using plenty of railroad ties and laying out sadistically difficult courses such as the Stadium Course at PGA West, Whistling Straits and the Players Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass. I have tortured myself on a number of Dye's evil layouts. The Ocean Course at Kiawah Island received worldwide recognition when it hosted the "War by the Shore" -- the 1991 Ryder Cup -- shortly after its inception. The punishing Dye creation features a number of bunkers, water hazards and gorgeous ocean views, and it brought the world's best players to their knees at the 2012 PGA Championship, when the winds were howling.

Jack Nicklaus

While the Golden Bear is arguably the best golfer of all time, his course designs are a constant subject to criticism -- especially his earlier designs. They were described as too hard and demanded players to play a number of high fades -- Nicklaus' trademark shot. Among his more than 270 golf courses on all continents, however, there are a few highly acclaimed ones. I must have played at least 18 Nicklaus designs, and Pronghorn has been my favorite ever since I first played it. Nicklaus laid out a fun track that stuns guests with outstanding mountain views. Whenever I have played there, the course has been in immaculate shape. It has to be one of the best manicured public-access courses in the country.

Dr. Alister MacKenzie

The "good doctor" is famous for laying out three of the best golf courses in the world: Cypress Point Club, Augusta National and Royal Melbourne. One course that is often overlooked is Pasatiempo, where MacKenzie spent the last years of his life (he had a home right off the sixth hole). This par-70 layout might be the longest 6,500-yard course on the planet. A number of holes play uphill, and MacKenzie's trademark "finger" bunkers and undulated greens are featured throughout the round.

Donald Ross

Ross, who grew up in Scotland, has more than 400 golf course designs to his credit. As one of the preeminent golf course architects of the early 20th century, he designed such notable courses as Oakland Hills Country Club, Oak Hill Country Club, Seminole Golf Club and Inverness Club. But Pinehurst No. 2, which will host the U.S. Open and the U.S. Women's Open in 2014, is widely considered to be his legacy. The course recently underwent an extensive renovation by Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw and reopened to rave reviews (unfortunately, I haven't gotten to play it since). This gem is characterized by the trademark humpback greens that even give elite golfers fits.

A. W. Tillinghast

The eccentric Tillinghast worked on more than 250 golf courses. "Tillie" (as the noted architect was often called) has created masterpieces such as Winged Foot Golf Club, Quaker Ridge Golf Club, Baltimore Country Club, San Francisco Golf Club and Baltusrol Golf Club. His best layout accessible to the public is the infamous Black Course at Bethpage State Park in New York. Obsessed golfers regularly sleep in their cars to get a tee time for the next morning. Bethpage Black, which hosted the U.S. Open in 2002 and 2009, is a tribute to the "Golden Age" of golf course design. A word of caution: The course is extremely challenging, and it isn't too easy to walk (golf carts are not permitted).

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Jim Engh

I would argue that most golf course architects are artists, but Engh is a real artist in the truest sense of the word. He really thinks outside the box, and many of his creations aren't without critics. His "love it or hate it" style surely polarizes. I have been a fan of his work ever since I played The Golf Club at Black Rock in Idaho, and I have visited most of his designs since then. The Golf Club at Redlands Mesa is one gem that has gathered national attention and acclaim. This spectacular design features 11 elevated tees, carpet-like fairways surrounded by the high desert, and mind-boggling views of the surrounding red rocks and the Colorado National Monument. Many first-time visitors are blown away by the golf experience and by the grandeur of the scenery.

David McLay Kidd

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Stephan Guertler is a golf writer and a member of the Golf Writers Association of America. He is based in Vienna, Austria and travels the world to review golf courses, destinations and resorts.
15 Comments
Commented on

Including Nicklaus is an absolute joke. Go somewhere else for architect content.

Staff
Commented on

While I agree with you, it's silly to paint a broad brush over Golf Advisor. I'd put our editorial team's knowledge and experience over any publication in the industry. Our three-person staff has played more than 2,000 courses combined, which is probably more than other staff, even one that might be twice our size. Also, consider that this story is from a freelancer during the early days of the website who no longer contributes articles. Keep reading. You won't be disappointed.

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how do you not include William Flynn in this list....Merion, Shinnecock, The Country Club, Kittansett, Cherry Hills....

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Why do golf course architects have to demolish trees that have been in existence on golf courses for almost a century. Their particular style might just be a `fad` but Whoosh - the trees, no matter what species, are gone ; There is no putting them back because they made a mistake, the ground is now soggy where it has never been soggy before, because there are no tree roots to soak up the water, and SORRY never comes into the conversation.

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Stephan, although totally agree with your inclusion of DONALD ROSS on this list, you really ought to a) educate yourself and b) visit ANY course that you write about. You wrote, "The [Pinehurst No. 2" course recently underwent an extensive renovation by Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw and reopened to rave reviews (unfortunately, I haven't gotten to play it since). This gem is characterized by the trademark humpback greens that even give elite golfers fits." C&C's GREAT RESTORATION was FIVE YEARS AGO!!! and your assertion of "trademark humpback greens" is just FALSE. Please correct your article. Thank you!

Staff
Commented on

Note the date on the story: The article is from 2014 and has not been updated since then.

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Commented on

Hello Stephan,
Excellent article...Do you have a more updated one?
Regards
Maximos Giannopoulos
GREGOLF
ceo
Athens Greece
www.gregolf.gr

Commented on

Agree with you on selecting Tom Doak who did Cape Kidnappers and Tara Iti in New Zealand which are ranked in the top 100 courses in the world. There is a growing number of golfers seeking out Tom Doak's courses which are extremely enjoyable to play.

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Gruezi, Stephan! Danke sehr für die Akkoladen für meinen Ur-Großvater, A.W. Tillinghast. Wir haben ein paar süße Geschichten aus seiner schöpferischen Zeit Anfang der 1900er Jahre. Meine Mutter ist leider letztes Jahr heimgegangen, aber sein Erbe lebt weiter in seinen Golfplätzen.

Commented on

Ha... I understood it just fine, but jumped at the opportunity to write in German (I was born in Germany). I translated my response for the rest of our audience. Many thanks for reading.

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Hi Mike -- do you need a translation? I thought Stephan Guertler would receive the comment, otherwise I would've written in English... :-)

Commented on

Wir bekommen nicht viele Kommentare auf Deutsch, aber das ist sehr interessant. Ich bin sicher, Sie haben viele tolle Geschichten. Vielen Dank für Ihren Kommentar. -- translation: great to hear from you, even in German. I'm sure you do have lots of interesting stories!

Commented on

The man doing the best work today is Ron Garl. Best sites and unlimited budgets on the oceans.

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You clearly need to go play some Gil Hanse.

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Hi Stephan - have you ever been to Kaskada Golf Resort in Brno? Best regards Jonathan

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My 10 favorite golf course architects and their standout layouts