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).
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
Kidd, a Scotsman, gathered worldwide attention after his inaugural design at Bandon Dunes on the rugged Oregon coast. This seaside gem located on pure links land put the village of Bandon on the golf map and helped make Bandon Dunes a first-class golf resort. The course boasts picturesque dunes, pot bunkers and a number of holes situated right along the Pacific. The 16th, a shortish par 4 situated right on the beach, is among my favorite holes anywhere on the planet.