If winning majors is what separates legendary golfers from merely good ones, shouldn't the same theory be applied to golf course architects?
More than 125 courses have hosted a major championship since 1860, the first year of The Open Championship. And it's no surprise that many famous golf course architects designed the majority of these major venues. Great architects make great courses, and those courses, in turn, help produce great champions.
Coming up with the 20 golf architects who have had the most influence on major championship golf wasn't easy. It took nearly a month of research. I looked at three categories to determine where each architect should rank: How many major championship courses they designed, how many major championship courses they renovated and how many majors have been played on those courses after their work was completed.
Designing a course garners more weight than doing a renovation. That's why Rees Jones - nicknamed 'The Open Doctor' for so many renovations on courses that hosted the U.S. Open - didn't make the top 10, although his handiwork has greatly influenced modern majors. It was just as difficult determining how much credit architects such as Tom Bendelow or Old Tom Morris should get for designing courses that have greatly evolved for more than a century.
What's interesting are the names who didn't make the cut. Robert Trent Jones II, designer of Chambers Bay, host of the controversial 2015 U.S. Open, hasn't done enough work on major venues to join his father, Robert Trent Jones Sr., and his brother, Rees Jones, in the top 20. Arnold Palmer and/or his firm have worked on Oakmont and Pebble Beach, for example, but, despite a massive body of work, didn't design a course good enough to host a major. You could argue that Herb Fownes (who designed Oakmont) and Jack Neville (the man behind Pebble Beach) have influenced their share of majors at those legendary courses, but their one-hit wonder status didn't move the needle enough for inclusion, either.
Also missing are the architects who are all the rage today: Gil Hanse, Tom Doak and the duo of Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw. Those famous modern minimalists have all worked on major venues (Coore and Crenshaw notably for their restoration of Pinehurst No. 2), but nobody has designed a new course worthy of a major. Maybe with a few more renovation projects, they can climb onto this list.
20. Tom Bendelow
Comment: The "Johnny Appleseed" of course designers laid out hundreds of courses in the early 20th century, but all of them have been redone, so he rarely gets credit today. His critics say he merely staked sites for greens and tees without much thought to strategy.
Total impact: Two designs, three renovated courses and nine majors.
19. Willie Park Jr.
Courses designed: North Course at Olympia Fields (U.S. Opens in 1928 and 2003. PGA Championships in 1925 and 1961). Minneapolis Golf Club (1959 PGA Championship). Meadowbrook Country Club (1955 PGA Championship).
Other majors impacted by his work: None.
Comment: Park is one of a handful of Scotsmen who made their marks early in American course architecture. Donald Ross followed up Park's original routings at Minneapolis GC and Meadowbrook to make them major worthy. Meadowbrook's original six-hole course by Park remained in play as holes No. 2, 3, 7, 10, 11 and 18 for several generations until a recent renovation by Andy Staples that debuted this spring as a way to celebrate the club's 100th anniversary.
Total impact: Three original designs and six majors.
18. Devereux Emmet
Courses designed: Blue Course at Congressional Country Club (1976 PGA Championship and U.S Opens in 1964, 1997 and 2011). Garden City Golf Club (1902 U.S. Open). Pomonok Country Club (1939 PGA Championship). Red Course at Eisenhower Park Golf Club (1926 PGA Championships at what was then the five-course Salisbury Golf Club). Pelham Country Club (1923 PGA Championship).
Other majors impacted by his work: None.
Comment: Emmet, a name unrecognizable to most golf fans, designed a slew of early championship courses, although Pomonok CC no longer exists in upstate New York. It's debatable calling the Blue Course at Congressional an Emmet design since both Robert Trent Jones Sr. and his son, Rees Jones, have made ample revisions since 1957.
Total impact: Five designs and eight majors.
17. Donald Steel
Donald Steel at Primland Resort in Virginia
Courses designed: None.
Opens impacted by his work: Royal Liverpool Golf Club (2006, 2014). Royal Lytham and St. Annes Golf Club (1988, 1996, 2001, 2012). Ailsa Course at Trump Turnberry Resort (1986, 1994, 2009). Championship Course at Carnoustie Golf Links (1999, 2007). Royal Birkdale Golf Club (1983, 1991, 1998, 2008). Royal St. George's Golf Club (1985, 1993, 2003, 2011). Old Course at Royal Troon Golf Club (1982, 1989, 1997, 2004, 2016). Old Course at St. Andrews (1984, 1990, 1995, 2000, 2005, 2010, 2015). Muirfield (1987, 1992, 2002, 2013).
Comment: From the 1980s until 2006, this Englishman was the R&A's go-to guy for consulting and tweaking classic links that host The Open. His philosophy was it is "better to leave well alone." His tweaks often were merely shaping of bunkers or the occasional new green. His most extreme revamping brought Hoylake (Royal Liverpool) back into the rotation in 2006, 50 years after its last major championship in 1967. Martin Ebert, who worked for Steel, has taken over this role with the R&A and will likely someday join this list, considering his recent renovations at Turnberry and the Dunluce links at Royal Portrush Golf Club, site of the The Open in 2019.
Total impact: Nine renovated links and 35 Opens.
16. Willie Watson
Other majors impacted by his work: Interlachen Country Club (1930 U.S. Open). The Minikahda Club (1916 U.S. Open).
Comment: The Lake Course is, by far, Watson's legacy, although Hillcrest remains an exclusive club in L.A. for the Hollywood elite. Not much of his original design at Interlachen survived a complete rerouting by Ross. Several of his original holes live on at Minikahda, despite later changes by Bendelow and Ross.
Total impact: Two designs, two renovated courses and eight majors.
15. James Braid
Courses designed: Carnoustie Golf Links (The Open in 1931, 1937, 1953, 1968, 1975, 1999, 2007).
Opens impacted by his work: Royal Cinque Ports (1920), Old Course at Royal Troon Golf Club (1923, 1950, 1962, 1973, 1982, 1989, 1997, 2004, 2016).
Comment: Following holes created by Allan Robertson (widely considered golf's first professional) and Old Tom Morris, Braid's sweeping changes at Carnoustie in 1926 made the links a fearsome challenge that started attracting majors. His work at the other two links was complementary. For example, at Royal Cinque Ports, called "Deal" by the locals, Braid reorganized the layout in 1919 following the ravages of the first World War by making new holes at No. 8, 10 and 11 and modifications to 13, 14 and 15. Henry Cotton made more tweaks after WWII.
Total impact: One design, two altered links and 17 Opens.
14. Charles Blair (C.B.) MacDonald/Seth Raynor
Courses designed: Blue Mound Golf & Country Club (1933 PGA Championship), Chicago Golf Club (U.S. Opens in 1897, 1900 and 1911). Onwentsia Club (1906 U.S. Open). St. Louis Country Club (1947 U.S. Open).
Other majors impacted by their work: Shinnecock Hills Golf Club (U.S. Opens in 1986, 1995 and 2004).
Comment: It's virtually impossible to separate this dynamic duo, although Raynor warrants a solo design credit at Blue Mound in Wisconsin. Both men relied heavily on template holes they found overseas and brought to America. MacDonald founded Chicago Golf Club in 1892, designed its original holes, then signed off on his protégée, Raynor, to modernize the course in the 1920s. MacDonald designed St. Louis CC in 1892, but it was Raynor who finished it in 1914 as the layout that stands today. MacDonald also laid out the first nine holes at Onwentsia in 1895.
Total impact: Four designs, one early renovation and nine majors.
13. Rees Jones
Courses designed: None.
Other majors impacted by his work: South course at Torrey Pines (2008 U.S. Open). Bethpage Black (U.S. Opens in 2002 and 2009). South course at Oakland Hills Country Club (PGA Championship in 2008). Highlands course at Atlanta Athletic Club (PGA Championships in 2001 and 2011). Blue Course at Congressional Country Club (U.S. Opens in 1997 and 2011). Medinah Country Club No. 3 (2006 PGA Championship). The Country Club (1988 U.S. Open). Lower course at Baltusrol Golf Club (1993 U.S. Open. PGA Championships in 2005 and 2016). Hazeltine National Golf Club (PGA Championships in 2002 and 2009. 1991 U.S. Open). Pinehurst No. 2 (U.S. Opens in 2005 and 2014). Sahalee Country Club (2008 PGA Championship).
Comment: The man nicknamed "The Open Doctor" isn't higher on this list because none of these courses are "his" designs, although it's likely neither Torrey Pines (2001 redo) nor Bethpage Black (1997-98 redo) would have landed majors without his efforts to make them tougher. His work at The Country Club prior to the 1988 U.S. Open led to gigs preparing a collection of famous private clubs for modern majors - Baltusrol (work completed in 1992 and 2004), Sahalee (1996 renovation), Hazeltine (for all three majors after 1990), Pinehurst (adding back tees prior to 2005 U.S. Open), AAC (2006 renovation), Congressional (multiple times starting in 1989), Medinah (tweaks in 2002 and 2010) and Oakland Hills (alterations in 2006-07). His penal style has come under scrutiny in recent years. Phil Mickelson has been an outspoken critic, and Oakland Hills almost approved changes to erase the work of Jones and his father, RTJ Sr., to return to the more classic look created by Ross, the original architect.
Total impact: 11 renovated courses and 19 majors.
12. Jack Nicklaus
Jack Nicklaus at the 1978 Open (Getty Images)
Other majors impacted by his work: Pebble Beach Golf Links (U.S. Opens in 2000 and 2010). Augusta National Golf Club (Masters 1985-present). Pinehurst No. 2 (U.S. Opens in 1999, 2005 and 2014). South Course at Firestone Country Club (1975 PGA Championship).
Comment: The greatest player of all-time has also earned his place among the most influential architects. In addition to Shoal Creek and Valhalla, he left small imprints on three of golf's most legendary venues – in the 1980s working on Pinehurst No. 2 and Augusta National, while later building one new hole, the cliff-top par 3 fifth, at Pebble Beach in 1998.
Total impact: Two designs, four course renovations and 11 majors, not including the Masters.
11. Dick Wilson
Courses designed: East course at BallenIsles Country Club with partner Joe Lee (known as the Champions Course at the original PGA National Golf Club for the 1971 PGA Championship). South Course at NCR Country Club (1969 PGA Championship). Laurel Valley Golf Club (1965 PGA Championship).
Other majors impacted by his work: Columbus Country Club (1964 PGA Championship). West Course at Winged Foot Golf Club (U.S. Opens in 2006, 1984, 1974 and 1959. 1997 PGA Championship). East Course at Merion Golf Club (U.S. Opens in 1971, 1981 and 2013). Aronimink Golf Club (1962 PGA Championship).
Comment: Wilson is perhaps his generation's most overlooked architect. He was good enough to be brought in to renovate Winged Foot, Aronimink and Merion prior to early majors and earn Arnold Palmer's blessing to lay out Laurel Valley.
Total impact: Three designs, four renovated courses and 13 majors.