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The Toughest Cuts

There are tough courses, and then there are these ten monsters
Jun 1, 2000 | By Jeff Williams
The Toughest Cuts

Published May/June 2000

The Toughest Cuts There are tough courses, and then there are these ten monsters

By Jeff Williams

Some like it tough. Some like the holes long, the fairways narrow, the rough high, the greens fast, the bunkers deep and the ponds wide. Some don't break a sweat at the sight of enough sand to constitute a desert. Some only salivate when a water hazard is wider than the Hudson River. Some come alive only when faced with a 260-yard tee shot to a fairway 20 yards from rough to rough.

We're talking about he-man golfers here, gonzo golfers. We're talking about players with the high-tech clubs, the souped-up swing, and the pumped-up ego. We're talking about players who want to take on the toughest courses in the United States.

And brother, there are plenty of tough courses to play. Cigar Aficionado is here to tell you what the 10 toughest golf courses in America are. These courses can collapse an ego like a tent in a hurricane. They are long: long in yards, long on hazards, long on penalty strokes.

The trouble isn't finding them; it's whittling down the field. In the golf course building boom of the past two decades, monster courses (under the guise of the "PGA championship" moniker) were built faster than $600,000 tract houses in San Diego County. Every facet of the game seemed to get more difficult.

With each course description is a set of numbers that includes the course rating and the slope rating, both products of the United States Golf Association's mission to quantify the difficulty of a course. The course rating is determined by certified raters who examine the length, terrain change, bunkering, trees, water hazards, out-of-bounds, green contours and weather conditions to arrive at a number that is an expression of the number of strokes a course should be played in, carried out to one decimal point. Par has nothing to do with it.

The slope rating is the USGA's arithmetical way of altering a person's handicap index based on the difficulty of the course on which that person achieves the handicap. The higher the number, the more difficult the course is, with the highest official number being 155 and the average slope rating being 113. You don't want to know how those slope ratings are calculated. The math might be more difficult than the courses.

The one number you won't find here is the machismo rating. We haven't figured out a way to calculate it, but like an invisible subatomic particle, we know that it exists. What follows, in order, are our top 10 places in golf to pursue that elusive rating.

Yardage from back tees 7,310 Par 72
Course Rating 76.4 Slope Rating 155 plus

When you want to quantify the difficulties of a golf course, you generally do it by the numbers. You look at total yardage, the course rating and the slope rating.

When it comes to the Koolau Golf Course, you need to know only two numbers: The course record is 69, three under par. The course record for lost balls is 63, about 61 above average.

Whoever coined the phrase "It's a jungle out there" must have had Koolau in mind. The course, wrenched into the windward side of the Koolau Mountains, sits in a rain forest less than half an hour north of the Honolulu airport. A Japanese real estate magnate named Masao Nangaku, seeking to build what he hoped would be the world's toughest golf course, hired architects Dick Nugent and Jack Tuthill in 1987 to oversee a construction project with a reported budget of $82 million. The collapse of the Asian market in the early 1990s cost Nangaku most of his empire, but he got what he wanted: the toughest course in the world. Everywhere you look, from every tee, from every fairway, there is jungle. Not only do you have to pass through it, there are 14 forced carries across ravines. (And just what was Tarzan's handicap index?)

Head professional and general manager Rob Nelson says that the course has a slope rating of 162 based on visits by accredited USGA course raters and a special visit from one who didn't believe what the others had told him. "When he came to see it for himself, he agreed with their rating," says Nelson. Never mind that USGA slope ratings don't officially exceed 155.

The most important thing at Koolau is accuracy. You want to have enough balls left to play the 476-yard par-4 18th hole that requires two forced carries, the first over a ravine from the tee, and the second over another ravine to the green. You could use up a half-dozen balls right there.

And who knows, if you're playing really badly, losing and searching for balls constantly, it may take you longer to play Koolau than it does to fly to Oahu from the East Coast.

Yardage from back tees 8,325 Par 77
Course Rating 80 Slope Rating 154

The Guinness Book of World Records calls The International the longest course in the world. Unless there is someone playing 600-yard par 4s on the Bonneville Salt Flats, there is no disputing that The International is long, going on infinite.

This behemoth was designed by Geoffrey Cornish in 1957 to replace the old Runaway Brook Golf Club. Robert Trent Jones was hired in 1972 to make it substantially more challenging.

Standing in front of the clubhouse, you might think that The International was another in a long line of golf courses by the venerable Jones that have stood the test of time. But you better be ready for this test if you plan on playing from the gold tees.

Take the third hole, for instance, a mere 674-yard par 5 that requires a 250-yard carry just to reach the mown fairway and another 10 yards to get past the ladies' tee. Or how about the fifth hole, a 715-yard par 6 that plays to one of the biggest, most difficult greens anywhere. The fifth green is 29,000 square feet--almost two thirds of an acre--and 89 yards from front to back.

And boy, are the two par 3s on the back nine a treat. The 13th is 250 yards over a pond with an evil trap at the front right. The 17th might be the most difficult par 3 that doesn't play over an ocean chasm in a gale. It's 270 yards from the back tee (OK, it's a little downhill). The green is small and two-tiered. If you make a four here, you'll swear you made par.

If you play this course from the up tees, it can be a real delight. From the back, it can feel like boot camp. Just salute the starter and call him Sarge.
NO. 3 WHISTLING STRAITS Kohler, Wisconsin
Yardage from back tees 7,312 Par 72
Course Rating 76.7 Slope Rating 151

This is the first of three Pete Dye courses that are ranked in our top 10. You should know just by looking at the scorecard that Whistling Straits is akin to whistling through a graveyard. The 18th hole is named Dyeabolical. Enough said?

No, not really. Dye builds some hellaciously good courses. By all accounts of those who have survived it, Whistling Straits is one of them. It's one of three golf clubs along Lake Michigan owned by Herb Kohler, the chairman of kitchen and bath plumbing manufacturer Kohler Co., along Lake Michigan, north of Milwaukee. Whistling Straits was host to the PGA Club Professional Championship last summer and will host the 2004 PGA Championship. That in itself says a lot for the place, though it doesn't tell the whole story.

Dye was given the task of building a true links course on the Lake Michigan shore, where the wind whips through without a single tree to deflect its intensity. There is sand everywhere. Every time head pro Steve Freidlander tries to count the bunkers, he gets lost at about 700 or so before he even makes it to the 18th hole.

Then, of course, there's the wind. It's a constant companion, sometimes a constant irritant and often a constant terror. Hey, that's what links golf is about in the British Isles, so stop whimpering. And don't expect to be wheeling any damn golf cart around here. Whistling Straits is a walking-only course.

Dye has built a series of strategically daunting and physically challenging holes, like the 455-yard par-4 fourth hole where the fairway slopes toward Lake Michigan on the left for its entire length. Or the 462-yard par-4 eighth hole where the right side of the fairway slopes down to the beach.

And what about Dyeabolical, the 470-yard par-4 18th hole? It takes a drive of 240 yards to carry a mess of bunkers and deep fescue grasses. Then a long-iron approach shot is played to a four-section green of 15,000 square feet, where a three-putt might even seem a relief. This hole, like many of the others, has a tee even further back. None of these tees is listed on the scorecard, but at full measure the course plays about 7,800 yards. Now Pete didn't really intend all the tees to be all the way back all the time. It just depends on the wind. Or does it?

NO. 4 OCEAN COURSE Kiawah Island, South Carolina
Yardage 7,296 Par 72
Course Rating 78 Slope Rating 152

This was Dye's first attempt at a links course, a wondrously sandy stretch along the Atlantic an hour south of Charleston. The PGA of America chose it to be the venue of the 1991 Ryder Cup matches, and was roundly criticized at home for selecting a course that seemed to favor the European players, who more regularly play links-style golf.

There's enough trouble on the Ocean Course for any three courses. There are forced carries over salt marshes and vast expanses of sand filled with a botanist's candy box of bushes and grasses. The course was softened up a bit after the Ryder Cup matches to give the regular players a break. But there is no break from the wind, which whips off the Atlantic from the south and east--unless a front sweeps in from the west and blows everything out to sea, including your brand-new cap.

You only need to get to the second hole to find every form of danger and nuance that Dye could muster. No. 2 isn't a long par 5 at 528 yards, but it is a strategically demanding one. The tee shot must carry a salt marsh, though not so far to the right as to end up in sand and high grass. The second shot must carry a marshy area about 130 yards short of the green, a carry that can be easily achieved on days when the wind is at your back. The approach to the small, shallow tabletop green is challenging enough with a wedge in your hand, but it's downright terrifying if you have to hit some sort of long iron or fairway wood. No. 12 is a 462-yard par 4 that usually plays into the prevailing southerly wind. There's water down the right side to menace the drive, and water hard against the green on the right.

Like Whistling Straits, there are tees on the Ocean Course that don't show up on the scorecard but can stretch the yardage to nearly 7,900. Surely Pete doesn't want you to play it from there. Heh-heh.
Yardage from back tees 7,650 Par 72
Course Rating 76.4 Slope Rating 42

The Monster Course of the Concord Resort Hotel sits in a peaceful valley in upstate New York, the sort of place you would expect to find old folks on front porches, grandmothers canning jams and parents berating umpires at Little League games.

Yes, you can find all of that in the Catskills. What you came for, however, is a golf course that can kick the rockers out from under the old folks, bust Granny's canning jars and crush abusive baseball parents.

The story goes that Ray Parker, who once owned the Concord, wasn't invited to a prominent social event at Grossinger's, another local resort with well-known golf courses. To give Grossinger's the business, he hired architect Joe Finger and told him to build the toughest golf course he could, something he could market against his rival. Parker also hired legendary touring professional and cabaret singer Jimmy Demaret to be his head professional. Demaret also consulted on the course, along with Texas colleague Jackie Burke Jr.

The Monster opened in 1963. The official length of the course is 7,650 yards, but if the greens superintendent gets up on the wrong side of the bed, he can have his crew push the tees back to more than 7,900 yards. Everything about the Monster is big, but that's what you would expect.

Consider that there is only one par 4 under 400 yards, and the shortest of the par 4s on the back nine is 451 yards. The toughest par on the course, however, might be the 248-yard par-3 seventh hole. Making the hole effectively longer, your tee shot plays to a green elevated above the tee. To the left of the green is a 30-foot drop, the embankment reinforced with a stone wall. Miss the green left and you might as well be hitting up the side of the World Trade Center.

Aptly named, this Monster.

NO. 6 LAGOON LEGEND Marriott's Bay Point Resort, Panama City, Florida
Yardage from back tees 6,885 Par 72
Course Rating 75.3 Slope 152

The devil works in mysterious ways. Right in the middle of a family resort on the Florida panhandle sits one of the nation's toughest courses, and it isn't even 7,000 yards long.

Affable golf pro and television commentator Bruce Devlin collaborated with the architect Robert von Hagge to fashion a Disney World of penal golf guaranteed to make Dad wish he had stayed home, or make the family wish that Dad had stayed home.

In the true spirit of Florida golf, there is enough water on this course to declare it a second Everglades. Penalty strokes can mount up faster than day-trading losses. Bring balls, because you won't find the ones you hit out of play here. Losing a dozen balls a round isn't unusual. Heck, it's the average. There is water on 16 of the holes, though the number-one handicap hole, the 450-yard par-4 third, doesn't have a drop on it.

The first hole is a quick hello, a 542-yard par 5 with water to the front and right of the green and a nasty nest of mounds at the back of it. The par-3 eighth is 208 yards to an island green. There's a short par 4 at the 13th, just 300 yards. Water guards the green. Alligators guard the water. No kidding. The 18th hole isn't that long at 392 yards, though there seems to be more water than fairway, and there's definitely more water than green.

NO. 7 PGA WEST'S STADIUM COURSE La Quinta, California
Yardage from back tees 7,266 Par 72
Course Rating 75.9 Slope Rating 150

Hello, Mr. Dye. So nice to see you again. But we can't keep meeting like this. I'll run out of balls.

Yes, Pete Dye was up to his Hitchcockian ways again when he built the Stadium Course at PGA West. Miss a green, miss a fairway, and you are severely punished. How severely? Well, there's a 19-foot-deep bunker to the left and back of the short par-4 16th. It's a 240-yard carry over water to the 255-yard par-3 sixth hole. You can bail out to the left on this hole and only carry the ball 220, but there's water on the left of the bailout area, too.

The Stadium Course is so grueling that it is no longer used as one of the venues for the Bob Hope Chrysler Classic. The touring pros found it difficult to get around, and their amateur partners couldn't get around it at all. You need a forklift to get some less than agile players out of Pete's bunkers.

The shortest holes tend to be surrounded by the biggest trouble. The 12th hole is only 363 yards, but a 10-foot-deep sand bunker surrounds the green. It's called the Moat on the scorecard. The 17th hole is a par 3 surrounded by water with rocks at the water's edge. It's named Alcatraz.

There's no telling what you might be calling the Stadium Course after you play it. Just don't call Pete Dye. He's heard it all before.

Yardage from back tees 7,524 Par 72
Course Rating 75.7 Slope Rating 150

It's appropriate that Jack Nicklaus should have at least one course in the Top 10 Toughest, and he actually has two. With pins and greens seemingly everywhere, the Renegade is one of his most distinct creations.

There are two pins on every hole, the white flags being easier positions to reach than the gold. There are 12 double greens and six holes with separate greens for the white and gold pins. The toughest the course plays is gold-to-gold, from the gold tees to the gold pins.

Rather typical of a tough Nicklaus course, the driving areas tend to be generous and the green complexes tend to be treacherous. The first hole tells you a lot about the course. It's a 464-yard par 4 with a wide fairway but a shallow green that is surrounded by deep bunkers. Nearly every green at Renegade is elevated and shallow, a combination that makes it very difficult to hold par with long irons or fairway woods, and very difficult to recover from the surrounding sandpits.

If you like tough par 3s, the 230-yard fourth is tailor-made. You are looking at a carry of 215 yards over water to a green that slopes from left to right. If you miss left, you are in a wasp's hive of bunkers and it's next to impossible to get your sand shot close to the hole.

The 13th hole can kill you. It's a 474-yard par 4 with a fairway that collects balls down to the right. The green is only 18 paces from front to back, and even good players often hit fairway woods into this one.

The fairways are bordered by maintained waste areas that you can play from, if you're not dead against a cactus, a mesquite tree or a rattlesnake. If you're like Nicklaus and can hit high, soft long irons, then the greens are nearly flat and simple to putt. But we know you're not like Nicklaus.

NO. 9 BAYONET COURSE FORT ORD Seaside, California
Yardage from back tees 7,094 Par 72
Course Rating 75.1 Slope Rating 139

The Bayonet Course at Fort Ord holds an almost mythical position in the world of California golf. In a state that brims with exquisite private clubs and exquisite resort courses like Pebble Beach Golf Links (a 20-minute drive from Fort Ord), the Bayonet Course stands out as an exceptional public golf course and an excruciating test of golf.

The course was designed by none other than Fort Ord's commanding officer in 1954, Maj. Gen. Robert "Bourbon Bob" McClure. He may have had some help from architect Jack Neville, but it's a better fable if you believe that Bourbon Bob created this gem with help from "volunteer" soldiers stationed at the base.

What Bourbon Bob and his golf platoon wrought is a remarkably sensible course distinguished by narrow fairways lined with gorgeous cypress trees, and greens that tilt and pitch to confound approach shots and frustrate putting. You no doubt have heard of Augusta National's Amen Corner. Bourbon Bob designed Combat Corner, holes 11 through 15.

Qualifying rounds for PGA Tour cards have been played on the Bayonet, and the course has held up to the best players in the world. Three holes on Combat Corner, the 423-yard 11th, the 471-yard 13th and the 215-yard 14th, were the three toughest holes in the 1998 PGA Tour qualifying round.

Former baseball star Reggie Jackson lives in Pebble Beach and plays most of his golf at the Fort Ord courses. "You want to talk about tough, it's the toughest course in the area," Jackson says about the Bayonet. "It can humble you." Quite a statement, coming from Reggie Jackson.

Yardage from back tees 7,204 Par 72
Course Rating 74.7 Slope Rating 139

Some would say that Jack Nicklaus's Tournament Course at PGA West is easy--easy in comparison to Pete Dye's Stadium Course in the same development. Then you start to play the Tournament Course and you come to understand that it's about as painless as a tooth extraction.

Again, Nicklaus gives you a fairly generous landing area for your tee shot, a fairly difficult approach to the greens. But in some cases the tee shot isn't all that easy, either. Consider the 572-yard par-5 15th, which has a bunker eight feet deep running right up the middle of the tee shot landing area.

There is plenty of water on this course. Yes, it's in a desert, but the Palm Springs area gets its water from a giant aquifer that runs underneath the Coachella Valley. While it brings life to the desert, the water becomes death for golf scores.

Both the ninth and 18th holes at the Tournament Course are threatened by water. Your tee shot on the 18th, if pushed to the right, can roll out onto a beach and trickle into a lake. The par-3 eighth has water on three sides of the green, and there is more water still on the par-3 12th. Death by water in the desert; a mirage with penalty strokes.

So there you have it, our top 10 toughest golf courses in America. We have left out many worthy candidates. Pete Dye's courses alone could fill out the list. We've left out some really tough layouts, like Dye's Honors Course in Tennessee and his and Greg Norman's Medalist Golf Club in Florida. We've left out wonderful old Pine Valley in New Jersey, which still strikes fear in most players. And any course that the USGA sets up for the U.S. Open automatically takes a temporary spot in the Top 10 Toughest.

If you're ready, if your clubs and swing are at their best, if your body and mind are tuned, then hoist a bag on your shoulder and accept the challenge. And bring balls. You'll need them. v

Jeff Williams writes about golf for Newsday.


So you think your course is a challenge? Here, in descending order, are 10 courses that will change your mind.

No.1 Koolau Golf Course, Oahu, Hawaii

No.2The International Golf Club, Bolton, Massachusetts

No.3Whistling Straits, Kohler, Wisconsin

No.4 Ocean Course, Kiawah Island, South Carolina

No.5 Concord Resort and Golf Club Monster Course, Kiamesha Lake, New York

No.6 Lagoon Legend, Marriott's Bay Point Resort, Panama City, Florida

No.7 PGA West's Stadium Course, La Quinta, California

No.8 Renegade Course at Desert Mountain, Scottsdale, Arizona

No.9 Bayonet Course, Fort Ord, Seaside, California

No.10 PGA West's Jack Nicklaus Tournament Course, La Quinta, California

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