The decade starting in 2010 presented some real challenges to course designers. With the economy struggling, new golf courses were no longer being built, which meant even golf’s most well-known architects saw the number of projects sharply declining. Despite those initial lack of opportunities came a level of ingenuity in designing courses, giving us a fascinating period in course architecture. With resources scarce at times, designers championed sustainability and efficiency in a way the 2000s hadn’t necessitated. But our biggest takeaway is the renewed emphasis on fun being evident in the building of the next great golf courses. These aspects can be found in the best courses built this decade, a list determined by the scores submitted by Golf Digest’s 100 Greatest course-ranking panel before our latest 100 Greatest and Best in State rankings, published this year.
Ohoopee Match Club and Ozarks National, which just earned the No. 1 spot on our Best New Private and Public rankings, were not eligible for this list, since the deadline for the below list was Sept. 2018. They’d surely make our list, but we can’t add them retroactively. Also note: Our 100 Greatest panel only evaluates United States and Canadian courses, so this ranking does not include international stalwarts such as Tara Iti, Cape Wickham or Adare Manor.
Though this decade was marked mostly by clubs seeking course designers to do renovations at already existing courses, this decade’s contribution to the collection of great golf in North America is still strong. Here are the 13 highest-scoring courses, built between 2010 and 2019, as voted by Golf Digest’s 1,700+ course-ranking panelists:
13 . Streamsong (Black), Fla. — Streamsong became one of the country’s leading golf destinations this decade. Streamsong Black was the third design built at this former phosphate strip-mine land. With more than 300 acres on which to work, Gil Hanse knew he needed to build something distinctive. He did just that: Streamsong Black might contain the largest, most unique set of greens in this country, with each one averaging 13,000 square feet, second likely to the Old Course at St. Andrews according to our Ron Whitten. Streamsong Black earned Golf Digest’s 2018 Best New public award.
12 . Trinity Forest, Dallas, Texas — Probably the most unique course to host a PGA Tour event, Trinity Forest is a faux links layout on a former landfill in South Dallas. Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw had a plot of 146 acres, small for a new golf course site, and delivered with really interesting features, including a double green for the third and 11th holes. It’s the most firm-and-fast test on tour, with balls rolling as far as 40-50 yards if the course is dry. Trinity Forest won our 2018 Green Star environmental award for the maintenance of its Trinity Zoyzia grass to a single-cut, from tee box to fairway.
11 . Silo Ridge Field Club, Amenia, N.Y. — About an hour and 30 minutes north of Manhattan, Silo Ridge is a Discovery Land Co. project built on the site of the former Segalla Country Club, which was made public and renamed Island Green Country Club, then blown up and totally redesigned by Tom Fazio and his son, Logan. The topography is impressive, winding through old farm fields before routing its holes close to the mountainside. Silo Ridge made an impressive debut on Golf Digest’s Best in New York list, ranking just behind Long Island stalwarts such as Piping Rock, The Creek and Atlantic, but did not earn enough votes for our last ballot to be eligible for our Second 100 Greatest ranking.
10 . Mammoth Dunes, Nekoosa, Wis. — In describing “fun” as a trend in course design in the introduction, Mammoth Dunes comes immediately to mind. David McLay Kidd and his team—criticized for a few years for building courses that were admittedly too difficult—put a renewed emphasis on fun after a return trip to Kidd’s Bandon Dunes 10 or so years ago. They built playable and popular designs in Gamble Sands in Washington and Huntsman Springs in Idaho. Then in building the second course at Wisconsin’s Sand Valley resort, Mammoth Dunes, Kidd and team firmly planted their flags in the sand with the biggest, boldest example of their energized philosophies. Mammoth Dunes has some of golf’s widest fairways, keeping players of all skill levels in the game off the tee, and some dramatic features, such as the drivable par-4 hole that plays downhill from a 80-foot sand ridge to a Redan-like green.
9 . Streamsong (Blue), Fla. — What perhaps makes Streamsong so unique is that its first two courses, the Blue (above) and the Red (read below), were designed and built at the same time, by rival design teams working in collaboration with each other. The Blue, the work of Tom Doak’s Renaissance Design Team, features some green designs with massive shelves and dips, like you’d expect from Doak’s team. But it’s also very playable and favors those playing the ground game on this ultra firm Bermuda grass. Ranked second among Streamsong’s three courses on Golf Digest’s Second 100 Greatest lists, Streamsong (Blue) debuted on our rankings at No. 120 on our Second 100 Greatest and currently sits at No. 138.
8 . Dismal River Club (Red), Mullen, Neb. — Built among breathtaking backdrops in the sand hills of Nebraska, this is yet another unique Tom Doak entry in the list of the best contemporary golf courses. There are no formal tee boxes at Dismal River’s Red course, opened in 2013, just broad, freeform pads with yardage markers. The last six holes are routed in a valley, and as one of our panelists describes: “They are unlike anything in golf and are truly world class. They approach being the greatest finishing holes of any course in the world.”
7 . Bluejack National, Montgomery, Texas — There are definite parallels between Tiger Woods’ creation outside Houston and Augusta National. The tall, mature pine trees line these wide fairways with no rough, just like what you might find in Georgia. Bluejack National made its debut on Golf Digest’s Second 100 Greatest at No. 114, Tiger’s first course on a Golf Digest nationwide ranking.
6 . Streamsong (Red), Fla. — Coore and Crenshaw’s Red course is ranked highest among the three courses at Streamsong, coming in at No. 112 among Golf Digest’s Second 100 Greatest courses, falling just three tenths of a point of the No. 100 spot across our seven scoring categories, signaling how close the rankings are. The variety around the Red is evident, both in terms of types of holes—with a nice mix of bump-and-run links holes and target-like water holes—and green designs, with perched greens like Pinehurst and also massive, multi-level ones like St. Andrews.
5 . Sand Valley, Nekoosa, Wis. — An unharvested pine plantation sitting 108 miles north of Madison, Wis., Mike Keiser saw this land in 2013, on the hat tip of course-shaper Craig Haltom, and four years later, Keiser celebrated the opening of the first course his Wisconsin resort. Coore and Crenshaw were a fitting team to create Sand Valley, a mix between Pine Valley and Sand Hills, the latter of which is Coore and Crenshaw’s trademark design. But Sand Valley has its own personality, with some dual fairways, gigantic sand spits, enormous greens and even a hidden putting surface. The coolest part? It looks like Sand Valley has existed in its current form for decades and decades. It was Golf Digest’s Best New Course of 2017.
4 . Cabot Links, Nova Scotia, Canada — The older sister to Cabot Cliffs (scroll down) is not a natural links, though it looks and plays like it. Cabot Links was man-made by designer-shaper Rod Whitman on a coastal coal mine staging area that serviced mines beneath the sea. Bump-and-run on firm fescue turf is the game on this understated layout, with muted dunes, austere bunkering and gentle, generous greens. Call it Canada’s Portmarnock, though Ireland has no match for Cabot’s postcard par-4 11th, a dogleg-left around a tidal yacht basin. In early routings, that was going to be the closing hole.
3 . Old Macdonald, Bandon, Ore. — An ode to the Founding Father of American Course Design, C.B. Macdonald, Old Mac is the second course by Tom Doak and Jim Urbina at Bandon Dunes, and the fourth 18-hole course that opened. The brainchild of Mike Keiser and his respect to the old-school design elements of Macdonald, Doak and Urbina created some of the architects’ favorite template holes that sit on some of the most interesting topography on property.
2 . Cabot Cliffs, Nova Scotia, Canada — Another sensational Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw design, Cabot Cliffs overflows with variety with its southernmost holes in Lahinch-like sand dunes, its northernmost atop Pebble Beach-type ocean cliffs and bits of pine-lined Scottish highlands in between. The course has six par 5s, including three in the space of four holes, and six par 3s, plus an additional one-shot bye-hole aside the fourth. Sporting the same fescue turf mix as nearby sister course, Cabot Links, some tee shots seem to roll forever, but so do errant shots that miss greens. The cliff-edged par-3 16th is quickly becoming one of golf’s most photographed holes.
1 . Congaree, Ridgeland, S.C. — Golf Digest’s Best New private winner last year, Congaree had not yet accumulated enough ballots to be eligible for our last 100 Greatest. Its scores, though, make it the highest-ranked course built this decade, ranked by our Golf Digest course panelists. And its debut on our national list is likely to come in our next iteration. Tom Fazio, not necessarily known as a minimalist, took a gently piece of land about an hour inland from Hilton Head Island and transported gigantic oak trees and created hills, ridges and lakes that appear like they’ve been there for hundreds of years, and routed a superb design around those features. Fazio’s Shadow Creek creation cost at least $45 million back in the late 1980s. Congaree, a similar concept, built about 25 years later, likely had a price tag of at least that amount for the club’s two billionaire member-owners Dan Friedkin and Bob McNair.
Two more bonus picks, not ranked by our panelists:
Sweetens Cove, the nine-holer outside of Chattanooga is Rob Collins’ first design—the first of many, I’m guessing. He’s now busy building 18 holes in Nebraska.
Sweetens is my pick because it transformed a pathetic little 9-hole rural course with the rarest of things—a destination nine hole course. Every hole has unique character and individual quirks. I’ve played it with fellow golf writers who loved it, and I’ve played it with average golfers who hated it, and that’s okay. The best golf courses should be controversial, should ignite debate, should be anything but bland. Most of all, Sweetens is fun to play (although a few high handicappers thought the greens were too difficult to putt), and most of the others on your list—the Best New winners in particular, have their strengths in areas other than fun. —Ron Whitten
The Sandbox, Neekosa, Wis.: The continued momentum of building alternative-golf offerings at resorts around the country is worthy of our celebration. Whether it’s The Cradle at Pinehurst, Bandon Preserve and the Punchbowl, or The Sandbox, the 17-hole par-3 course at Sand Valley, you can’t choose one as your favorite and be wrong about it. I got to play The Sandbox with Mike Keiser and David McLay Kidd’s father, Jimmy, before the grand opening of Mammoth Dunes. And it was one of my favorite rounds of the past decade. Coore and Crenshaw’s creation is a designer to be enjoyed by every age range and all levels of player. The green designs at The Sandbox elevate it to the top of my list, as Coore and Crenshaw really had fun with bold contouring. You can walk it in an hour with just a few clubs and a beer in hand. Play it, and you’ll find the inspiration about what golf should look like for the next decades to come. —Stephen Hennessey