Hundreds gathered by the bay, right about where the first hole would be, to listen to the men who would shape the land into a world-class golf course. One was Jack Nicklaus, the best player the game had ever known, who on this day stepped again into his role as a golf course architect. The other was Tom Doak, who stepped into the role of golf course architect two decades ago.
After a light luncheon under a tent, Nicklaus and Doak and the course's developer, Mike Pascucci, took to the dais to explain plans for the great course, to answer questions about style and philosophy. Immediately to the east was the Shinnecock Hills Golf Club, the first 18-hole course in America, which was, at that moment, hosting the United States Open Golf Championship. Immediately to the north was the National Golf Links of America, the first true championship course in America. Surrounded by greatness, this piece of land, on the South Fork of Long Island 100 miles from Manhattan, was no doubt destined for greatness itself. Nicklaus and Doak, golf course architects, had been given the job of fulfilling that destiny.
It's a big job, fulfilling greatness. That's why, over the last two decades, golf course architects have become big deals. That's why the hundreds gathered to listen to Nicklaus and Doak lay out their plans for the Sebonack Golf Club, a private club that will be right at home among the other very-high-end private courses in the East End of Long Island. That's why the big-name architects get fees in the millions and their names on the scorecards. The art of pushing around dirt has never been so well regarded or so well compensated.
The profession has been around for a while. The term "golf course architect" was first used by Charles Blair Macdonald, who founded and designed Sebonack's neighbor, the National Links of America. When the course opened in 1911 it was like no other in the land. Most courses, including the first Shinnecock course, which opened in 1891, were rudimentary, laid out by members with perhaps the help of an imported Scottish professional. Macdonald, from Chicago, was schooled at St. Andrews, Scotland, where he gained a keen sense of the game. When he designed the National—and it was a design in every sense of the word—he incorporated features from Scottish golf holes. The National was a marvel, and still stands the test of time.
In the early part of the twentieth century, men like Donald Ross, A. W. Tillinghast and Alister MacKenzie roamed the land, laying down courses like Pinehurst No. 2, Winged Foot and the Augusta National Golf Club. Now it's men such as Pete Dye, Jack Nicklaus, Rees Jones and Robert Trent Jones Jr. and Tom Fazio who are leaving marks across America—and across continents. Their names are associated with courses such as Whistling Straits, Muirfield Village, Atlantic Golf Club, Princeville Golf Club and Black Diamond Ranch.
To be sure, the modern architect has much at his disposal, like accomplished assistants and a team of dirt shapers who render what's on paper from what the land provides. Only Pete Dye is an accomplished small-equipment driver, but the key to achieving the dream of the developer and the goal of the architect is a melding of dozens of people who share a sensitivity to the land and to the game.
Since it is fashionable to rank golf courses—Golf Magazine, Golf Digest and Golfweek do it regularly—we thought that we would try our hand at ranking golf course architects. It is no easy undertaking, and because we are ranking a top 10, we will leave out many architects who are doing superb and distinguished work. Greg Norman has increasingly expanded his golf course design business with the likes of Doonbeg and The Course at Wente Vineyards to his credit, but he doesn't make the top 10. Steve Smyers, Brian Silva, Kyle Phillips and even the great Arnold Palmer are among those who have done excellent work without making this list. But a list of 10 is like out-of-bounds markers—if you are out by an inch, you're out.
These rankings, done in consultation with Golfweek architecture editor Bradley S. Klein, are wholly subjective. You could consider criteria such as sensitivity to land, routings, hole variety and such, but it really comes down to impressions. So here is a list of the architects who have made the deepest impressions on us.
1 Pete Dye
Pete Dye isn't just a piece of work, he's all work. There may never have been a golf course architect so intimately involved in his work, one so passionate and dedicated. So what if some find him just a little crazy. What Dye has created is not only a portfolio of memorable golf courses, but also the environment in which all modern architects thrive. He has defined golf and golf courses by this statement: "Golf courses aren't natural. If they were natural, they wouldn't be golf courses."
Dye's reputation—and the foundation of modern architecture—can be traced directly to the building of Harbour Town Golf Links on Hilton Head Island, South Carolina, in 1969. Harbour Town, which Dye did in conjunction with Jack Nicklaus, was a break from the repetitive styles of post—Second World War architects Robert Trent Jones and Dick Wilson. Though Jones and Wilson did excellent work, much of it was predictable: runway tees, wide fairways with bunkering at 260 yards, big greens protected by wave bunkers.
At Harbour Town, Dye changed that thinking. The tees and greens were small, and the fairways were narrowed by what came to be called waste bunkers. It was at Harbour Town that Dye became known for his use of wood scraps and railroad ties to shore up the faces of some bunkers and greens. It was the idea of his wife, Alice, whose contribution to Dye's work is monumental.
In 1982, Dye's controversial Tournament Players Club at Sawgrass, just south of Jacksonville, Florida, opened, to the howls of PGA Tour players who were now going to have to play it annually in the Players Championship. "They ruined a perfectly good swamp," J. C. Snead said at the time. Now it's recognized as an outstanding course with an outstandingly dramatic hole, the par-3 17th with an island green surrounded by water (also Alice Dye's idea). This August, the PGA Championship, was slated to be played on Dye's Whistling Straits Golf Club, a links-style course that he completely manufactured for the king of commodes, Herbert V. Kohler.
There is just no underestimating Dye's impact on the golf architecture and absolutely no reason to rank him anywhere other than No. 1.
2 Tom Fazio
You could argue that being given an unlimited budget by a developer with unlimited vision would allow any architect to create a visionary course. But regardless of who the developer is or how much money is available, Tom Fazio has demonstrated for more than two decades that he is a visionary golf course architect who brings a bagful of creativity to every project.
The course that highlighted his portfolio and fueled his mystique was Shadow Creek, the completely invented wonder that was the dream of Las Vegas hotel mogul Steve Wynn. In the late 1980s, Wynn, rapt with Fazio's work, gave him a chunk of desert and told him he wanted Eden. That's what he got. Shadow Creek is a Pacific Northwest course burrowed into the land, hiding the immediate barren landscape and highlighting the distant mountains. At first it was Wynn's private track for high rollers; later it became available to play for the price of a big suite at the Mirage. Now the greens fee is $500 plus the price of a room.
Fazio is in such demand that, like Dye, he doesn't do any sales or marketing, doesn't have a Web site, isn't eager to give out his phone number. But with some 150 swell courses to his credit, well-heeled developers find him. His work is dramatic, sculptural and challenging. Among his most magnificent offerings are the Quarry in La Quinta, California, the Quarry Course at Black Diamond Ranch in Lecanto, Florida, and the nearby World Woods Golf Club, a public 36-hole facility. His Hudson National course, which sits within a short crow's flight of Winged Foot and Westchester Country Club, is considered one of the New York area's toughest hidden gems. And who was it that Augusta National Golf Club called in to tune up its course for future Masters?
Nearly all of Fazio's work lies within North America, but he has recently overseen the renovation of the Waterville Golf Links in Ireland. "It was an act of friendship and of love, more than anything," says Fazio, whose body of works reflects exactly those characteristics.
3 Ben Crenshaw and Bill Coore
This is the first of two design partnerships on this list and it is a very close-knit one. Crenshaw, the two-time Masters champion, and Coore, a protégé of Pete Dye, have been together since 1986. The adjective reverential comes to mind when they talk about their work or when others talk about it. Crenshaw and Coore are highly selective about the site they will work on and will work on only two jobs at one time. Coore is extremely hands-on, often parking himself at a site for months to get all the details right.
Perhaps no other architects let the site dictate the layout more than Crenshaw and Coore. They aren't interested in moving a couple of million yards of earth to create a course. Rather, they are looking to move as little as possible. Their seminal work is Sand Hills Golf Club in the great outback of Nebraska. Where an ancient sea once flowed, C&C walked the land dozens of times and discovered the most natural of golf holes, a true inland links worthy of comparison to all the great links courses of the world. Said Coore of Sand Hills: "If we did not create one of the world's truly outstanding golf courses, [we] had failed."
Crenshaw has a special fondness for the East End of Long Island, for its courses and their place in the history of the game. He has taken some of his cues from Shinnecock Hills and National, as well as from visits to the United Kingdom and Ireland. He and Coore designed two new private clubs in the area, the East Hampton Golf Club and Friar's Head. While East Hampton is still relatively unknown, their Friar's Head course is gaining gushing reviews, which come on top of other gushing reviews for Hidden Creek in Atlantic City, New Jersey, Cuscowilla in Lake Oconee, Georgia, and Chechessee Creek in Okatie, South Carolina.
4 Jack Nicklaus
Well, you would expect to find Jack Nicklaus on this list, wouldn't you? It's not because he is the greatest player in the history of the game, either. It's because he has overseen, in a surprisingly hands-on way, the design of 275 golf courses around the world, many of them worthy of consideration on any list.
The majority of Nicklaus's time over the past decade has been devoted to his wide-ranging design business that has taken him to every continent except Antarctica. It helps when you have your own Gulfstream jet. After getting into the business with Dye at Harbour Town, Nicklaus started a design relationship with Desmond Muirhead that led to the design of the Muirfield Village Golf Club in Nicklaus's hometown of Columbus, Ohio, a course that annually holds his PGA Tour event, The Memorial.
Nicklaus's design history comes in two parts—the courses he built before Colleton River in South Carolina, and those that came after that course was opened in 1992. The courses Nicklaus built in the late '80s where steroidal in nature, difficult championship layouts that, he says, were demanded by developers who wanted to cash in on his name and the severest challenges of the game. Nicklaus calls it his humps and bumps era. Then, at Colleton River, a few miles from the bridge that leads to Hilton Head Island, Nicklaus built a meandering low-country course around marshes and near the river that has nary a bump on it. It's a lovely, very member-friendly course, and it made Nicklaus seem warm and fuzzy as well.
The Nicklaus list spans all sorts of private, public and resort courses, of almost every style. Castle Pines in Castle Rock, Colorado, hosts a PGA Tour event. Valhalla Golf Club outside Louisville, Kentucky, owned by the PGA of America, has hosted two PGA Championships. His new Mayacama Golf Club, a gathering spot for wine country moguls in Santa Rosa, California, is a wonderful routing through the hills and ravines just north of the city. Nicklaus also has 63 holes of golf under his imprint in Los Cabos, Mexico, where, not incidentally, he loves to go fishing. The Bear's tracks are everywhere.
5 Tom Doak
Tom Doak's portfolio may be small, but his achievements loom large. Not the least of which is publishing The Confidential Guide, a book with his personal rating of golf courses and thus his personal rating of other architects. How audacious, how bold, how arrogant?
He is another protégé of Pete Dye and, like Dye, is a straight shooter. He has also published his "Minimalist Manifesto," his paean to less is more in architecture, and his critique of players who want every lie to be perfect. And what does he say of them? "Instead of building character, we're raising a generation of coddled champions who can't even shrug off a bad lie and dig themselves out of a divot."
So there. Though his published views may be controversial, his design work is exceptional. His Pacific Dunes course at the Bandon Dunes complex in coastal Oregon is magnificent minimalism. Though the course has been open for only three years, it's as if it has been there forever, because Doak has allowed the land, which has been there forever, to dictate exactly what he did. The fairways are wide to allow for the coastal winds, but the approaches and greens are tricky, even lovingly quirky in spots. Another course that he's designed is Lost Dunes in Bridgman, Michigan, which would lead you to believe he's a dunesman at heart.
Doak has been a consultant for the renovation of a number of classic courses, including the Garden City Golf Club on Long Island, and his reputation has grown internationally as well. He has two spectacular courses in the lands down under, Cape Kidnappers in New Zealand and Barnbougle Dunes in Australia. Back in the States, his pairing with Nicklaus to design Sebonack Golf Club is an interesting alliance that will bear, pardon the term, watching.
6 Rees Jones
Let's just say that Rees Jones and his brother, Robert Trent Jones Jr., were born to move dirt around. As the sons of the most prolific architect of all time, Robert Trent Jones, the Jones boys were properly routed at birth to their calling.
Outside of Nicklaus, Rees Jones is probably the most visible contemporary architect. His name is peppered on all sorts of best lists. He's the unofficial U.S. Open "Doctor," tuning up Open courses at the behest of the United States Golf Association or host clubs. Though he started his work with his father, his big break came in doing renovation work for the Country Club at Brookline in advance of the 1988 U.S. Open. He did major restoration work at Congressional prior to the 1997 Open and at Bethpage Black in advance of the 2002 Open. His complete renovation of the Torrey Pines South Course in La Jolla, California, the annual site of the Buick Invitational, earned that course the 2008 U.S. Open.
Before Crenshaw and Coore made their mark on Long Island, Jones had done so with the Atlantic Golf Club in Bridgehampton in the early '90s, and he followed it up with another course nearby, The Bridge. He has a summer home in the area, and like Donald Ross did at his home courses in Pinehurst, North Carolina, Jones is fiddling with his Long Island courses regularly.
If there was a knock on him in the early '90s, it was that his fairway bunkering was boring and repetitive and tended to be peanut-shaped. But he has broadened his scope on all aspects of design, which he will gladly tell you since he is so accessible. Among his new courses that get raves and awards are Ocean Forest on Sea Island, Georgia; Cascata, near Las Vegas; the Huntsville Golf Club in Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania; Nantucket Golf Club in Siasconset, Massachusetts; and the Golf Club at Briar's Creek on Johns Island, South Carolina. Jones has been extraordinarily busy during the last decade. You could say that the Doctor is always on call.
7 Robert Trent Jones Jr.
You've seen the commercials. You know, the Titleist ads with John Cleese and a beleaguered golf course architect who is terrorized and kidnapped. That would be Robert Trent Jones Jr., who is donating his fees from the ads to Refugees International. Jones Jr. resembles his father in his design, although with an extra flair. Like his father, he is an international gallivanter. He designed the first course in Russia, the Moscow Country Club, which took 20 years from beginning to its opening in 1994. He has courses in 38 countries and on six continents, including Finland, Norway, the Netherlands, Portugal, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, the United Arab Emirates, China, South Korea, Malaysia, Thailand, Hong Kong, Japan, Australia and New Zealand. He even built a few in the United States, such as Southern Highlands in Las Vegas and the Bridges at Rancho Santa Fe, and he's all over Hawaii like a blanket of leis.
"I'd like to think that I've evolved," says Jones. "I've gone from what my dad did to being one of the first environmentally friendly architects, to being very bold like Dye and Nicklaus in the '80s, to making things that are more playable in the '90s. I'm very much a strategic architect, not a penal one. And I've become very sensitive to what equipment has done to courses. I don't use length just for length. I use angles."
A good example of his contemporary work is a course he built for the Oneida Indian Nation in Vernon, New York, called the Kahulyat Golf Club at Turning Stone Resort. The Oneida Nation built the outstanding golf complex near its casino operation, and is the host to the New York State PGA Championship. The club pros rave about the place. It's the sort of project that Jones looks for. "I can choose what I want to do and I look for the quality of the land and the commitment of the owner to the game of golf," he says. "I'm not interested in doing something so that someone can build houses around it."
8 Tom Weiskopf (with Jay Morrish)
Unlike the longtime pairing of Crenshaw and Coore, this twosome has split up. Both have gone on to design fine tracts, but their work together was splendid: big, bold courses on big, bold sites, which somehow befits Weiskopf, who was a big, bold player in his PGA Tour days. He won the 1973 British Open and 15 PGA Tour events, but he could never get out of the shadow of his fellow Ohio State alumnus, Jack Nicklaus, something he has managed to do as an architect.
Weiskopf had a wonderful golf swing, but didn't have the head to match. He was a land mine waiting to go off, and he exploded on too many occasions. At the age of 41, Weiskopf quite the PGA Tour to become an architect full-time, a decidedly bold move, and the right one.
He clearly has a head for golf courses, and in conjunction with Moorish he did some real beauties in Arizona where he lives—The Rim in Payson, Forest Highlands in Flagstaff, Troon Golf and Country Club in Scottsdale. Elsewhere there is the very neat Double Eagle Club in Galena, Ohio, and the pristine Loch Lomond Golf Club near Glasgow, Scotland. He was nearly swallowed up by a peat bog on the latter property while walking over it late at night.
Weiskopf's favorite architect is Alister MacKenzie, especially his work at Cypress Point and the Ohio State University Golf Course. He laments that because so much of golf course work is residentially driven, he can't design walkable courses anymore. But he gets to do what he loves, which is considerably better than playing tournament golf and watching his mind explode.
9 Jim Engh
What? You haven't heard of Jim Engh? Well, you just have.
The Colorado-based Engh is emerging as one of the brightest and edgiest architects in the land and he has a bunch of awards to show for it, such as 2003 Golf Digest Architect of the Year.
A graduate of Colorado State University with a degree in landscape architecture, Engh worked in Europe for years supervising the design and construction of courses for a British builder. It gave him his foundation, but his inspiration comes from the bold nature of Irish links golf. He's a member of the Carne Golf Club, an immensely muscular links course on the Atlantic in County Mayo.
Engh just isn't afraid to push the envelope, much like Pete Dye. His Club at Black Rock in Coeur D'Alene, Idaho, and his Redlands Mesa Course in Grand Junction, Colorado, push the envelope until it's about to burst. At Black Rock he lodged a green between two giant rocks; when other rocks were unearthed during the digging, he came up with a green that's nearly entirely encased by rocks with a pond in front and two small waterfalls. "It's not natural to the average golf experience," says Engh. "But as long as you make it playable, it can work. And it's certainly spectacular."
At Redlands Mesa, he created a short par-4 hole with the drive defined by two buttes. The green is in a box canyon. There is little margin for error. Violent ricochets and scuffed-up balls are the product of the slightly errant shot. "Golf is the only artwork that you can really get inside of to experience," says Engh. "And you can compete with it, too."
10 Robin Nelson
Much is made of the golf courses on Maui at Kapalua, Wailea and Makena. They are all very fine courses with wonderful views of the ocean and mountains. But for my money, the best course on Maui is less than a 10-minute drive from the airport, just past the last of the Kahalui shopping centers. The Dunes at Maui Lani is a delightful surprise, a public course with greens fees about half those of the resorts, and it plays through some remarkable land that includes dunes left over from an ancient epoch. And it's why Robin Nelson is on this list.
After a 10-year governmental nightmare, his Royal Kunia Country Club has just opened on Oahu and is easily the best course on the island, with well-framed holes and stunning views. He calls himself an evolving minimalist, but when you do work in Hawaii, the land is generally so substantial that even minimal work yields maximum results. He has also designed the second course at Mauna Lani on the Big Island, the Mimosa Golf Club in the Philippines and the Jade Dragon Club in China. He gets plenty of renovation work, jobs that often come through word of mouth, and there are plenty of good words to describe his work.
Jeff Williams is a sportswriter for Newsday on Long Island.