Golf may have originated in Scotland, but today the United States of America is one of the countries where the game is most popular. Since 1888, when it was first demonstrated in the US on a humble orchard with a hole dug into it, golf has come a long way in the country.A recent study by the international governing body of the sport said that 45 per cent of all the golf courses in the world are located in the US, which amounts to roughly 15,000 courses in total. That’s an impressive and disproportionately large number of golf courses for one country to have, in spite of the fact that in terms of golf courses per capita, the US isn’t even in the top five; those spots are taken by Scotland, New Zealand, Australia, Ireland, and Canada.
The number of US golf courses has actually been decreasing in recent years. However, this is usually attributed to a simple market correction. Although there have been a few panicky announcements of the death of US golf, most serious followers of the game say that it is only the aftermath of a peak, which was driven to a large extent by the rise and decline of Tiger Woods. Now, without a major personality to draw people into the game, its popularity has ebbed somewhat, but the US continues to have huge numbers of players and thousands of amazing golf courses. Here are a few of the best courses in the country, where any golf player ought to spend a few hours of time playing a few rounds.
Augusta National Golf Club – Augusta, Georgia
Augusta National topped Golf Digest’s list of the greatest golf courses in America in 2015, and had already done so at least once before, in 2009. However, Golf Digest of course haven’t been the only ones to recognize the greatness of this elegantly and beautifully designed course, which was inspired by the Old Course at St. Andrews, and is home to the only major tournament to be held at the same location every year: the annual Masters Tournament.
The course was originally designed by Bobby Jones and Alister MacKenzie, but it has gone through so many changes over the years that it is almost nothing like it was when it opened in 1933. In spite of these frequent and often radical changes, Augusta National has always taken a very traditional approach to the game. In fact, the club has been controversial over the years, primarily because of its membership policies, which did not allow African-Americans and women until relatively recently, and which it stubbornly defended.
Cypress Point Club – Pebble Beach, California
Cypress Point Club is set in the middle of coastal dunes and forests, where the natural landscape has been made full use of to provide not only sublime views and a rejuvenating walk across a stunning sea-side location, but a delightful golfing experience. The course was designed by British golf course architect Alister MacKenzie in collaboration with the American Robert Hunter, and was opened in 1928. In the past, there has been some dissatisfaction with how easy parts of the course were, but Cypress Point is now firmly in the top ten of many golf lists. In particular, the 15th, 16th, and 17th holes are highly rated; the 16th is in fact Cypress Point’s signature hole, with its 231-yard tee shot across the ocean.
Merion Golf Club (East) – Ardmore, Pennsylvania
The Merion Golf Club in Pennsylvania’s Delaware County has two courses: East and West. Merion East has long been considered to be among the best, most challenging, and most enjoyable golf courses in the country, and over the decades it has hosted five US Opens, the most recent one being the 2013 Open.
Both courses were designed by a young and inexperienced member of the club soon after its formation, a man named Hugh Wilson. Wilson had never designed a golf course before, and actually spent several months in Scotland and England in order to learn about golf course design specifically so that he could design the courses at Merion. He later went on to design several more courses, but Merion East remains arguably his best.
The 125-acre course has recognizably Scottish bunkers, twisting fairways, and an wide variety of pars and landscapes. One charming feature of the course is the wicker baskets that take the place of flags, an idea that Wilson is said to have gotten from local shepherds while he was preparing in England.
National Golf Links of America – Southampton, New York
With its Southampton location, National Golf Links of America is one of the country’s most prestigious and exclusive golf clubs, and was once called the “snootiest golf course” in the country by Sports Illustrated. Although it has never hosted a major men’s championship, National Golf Links has been the venue for the Walker Cup twice – in 1922, when it first began, and in 2013.
The 250-acre links style course is a par 72 with a variety of long and short holes, and was designed by architect Charles B. Macdonald, who is often considered the father of American golf course architecture. Even today, the National continues to be studied and used as inspiration by golf course architects. Macdonald used classic British courses including the Royal St. George, North Berwick, and Sunningdale Golf Club as his inspiration for the National Golf Links course, and many golfers say that he ended up surpassing the originals.
Oakmont Country Club – Oakmont, Pennsylvania
Oakmont Country Club will host the US Open for the eighth time this year, which means that it will once again be a tough championship. Oakmont is one of the oldest and best golf courses in the country, and for a course that looks extremely easy, with almost no trees and no water, it is an incredibly difficult one to play, at least partly due to its formidable 200-odd bunkers. One of the most famous of them is the “Church Pews” bunker, which is approximately 100 by 40 yards in size, with grassy ridges running across it. It’s not often that words such as “brutal”, “scary”, and “ferocious” are used in what is normally considered a rather languid, gentle sport, but they’ve been used surprisingly often to describe Oakmont.
Pebble Beach Golf Links – Pebble Beach, California
The Pebble Beach golf course is not only one the best in the country, but also one of the most beautiful in the world. This is partly due to its location: hugging the California coastline, with a view of the crashing Pacific waves; and partly due to its design: a figure 8 layout that swings alternately towards the coast and inland towards the woods. With its spectacular views, dramatic shots, and unusual pacing, Pebble Beach was revolutionary when it first opened in 1919. Since then, the course has hosted numerous tournaments, including the US Amateur Championship, the PGA Championship, the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am, and five US Opens, with another coming up in 2019, the centennial year for the course. You may already have visited the Pebble Beach course virtually – it’s part of several golf video games, including the Tiger Woods PGA Tour series.
Pine Valley Golf Club – Pine Valley, New Jersey
Pine Valley may have been started by a bunch of amateur golfers and designed by the inexperienced and idiosyncratic George Arthur Crump, but it has repeatedly been ranked as number one on Golf Magazine’s list of the top 100 courses in the US. Crump, perhaps because he had never designed a golf course before, was incredibly inventive and ambitious in his design, and is largely responsible for making Pine Valley one of the most challenging and thrilling courses in the country. Sadly, he died before the last four holes could be finished, so not only did he never design another course, but he never got to fully realize his vision for this one either. The course was finished and somewhat altered by other great architects, including A.W. Tillinghast and Perry Maxwell, and Crump would probably have been highly pleased with the final results. Every hole is challenging in a different way, and the course as a whole is among the toughest in the world.
Sand Hills Golf Club – Mullen, Nebraska
Golf Digest says that the Sand Hills golf course wasn’t really designed but discovered, and that’s true – the region has naturally occurring prairies on grass-stabilized sand dunes, which architects Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw recognized for their potential. Coore and Crenshaw didn’t need to do much of the usual earthmoving and landscaping that is required for the building of a golf course.
This minimalist, traditionalist approach, where you use the land almost entirely the way you found it, is a large part of the attraction that Sand Hills holds for golfers. The aesthetics and play here are exceptional, and compared to many of the other courses on this list, Sand Hills cost almost nothing to make. The course has been described as the most natural golf course in the US, the greatest golf course of the last 50 years, and holds plenty more accolades; its descriptions are always in superlatives. So it’s no surprise that, in spite of its remote location, plenty of golfers continue to make the journey to Mullen to visit Sand Hills.
Shinnecock Hills Golf Club – Southampton, New York
Many of the courses on this list have hosted the US Open multiple times over their existence, but only the Shinnecock Hills Golf Club can boast about hosting it in three different centuries. Since it was first opened in 1891, Shinnecock Hills has hosted four US Opens, and is due to host another in 2018. The clubhouse was opened a year after the course, in 1892, and is thought to be the oldest in the country. The course was originally designed as a 12-hole course – one of the first links style courses in the country – but was subsequently expanded and redesigned several times and by several different architects, including Charles MacDonald and William Flynn. Most recently, Coore and Crenshaw too made a few changes in preparation for the 2018 US Open. Today Shinnecock Hills is an 18-hole course in the style of a British links course, with a combination of parkland bunkers, sea winds, and a winding, undulating trail.
Winged Foot Golf Club (West) – Mamaroneck, New York
The unusually named Winged Foot is a New York golf club with two courses, again East and West, both of which are in Golf Digest’s top 100. However, it’s the challenging West course that’s in their top 10 list. The course was designed by architect A.W. Tillinghast, and is a par 72 with a rating of 75.7. It’s a historic course that has been the setting for many memorable wins and putts, including the 1929 US Open win by Bobby Jones. Since then, the tournament has returned to Winged Foot West several times, and is set to do so once again in 2020. Jones’ 12-putter, which is what got him into the playoff in the tournament that year, is often re-attempted by both amateurs and pros, but almost always unsuccessfully. According to Tillinghast himself, the 10th hole on the West course is the best par three he ever built.
What are your favourite US golf courses? Let us know in the comments!