Who is the greatest golf course architect ever*? Golf Digest’s March Madness Bracket Challenge seeks to find out

Courses

I was sitting at home last Sunday, as most of us were, looking at my children running around the house and wondering how we were all going to make it through the upcoming weeks together without sports. The blank television screen looked like a black hole that not only refused to emanate joy, but seemed to absorb it.

That’s when I had a Twitter notification from a follower (Eric Hart, @themobilegolfer), suggesting that someone with a sizable following (of the four people he tagged, my following (@feedtheball) is by far the smallest) start a ‘March Madness’-style bracket, in which we seed the 64 courses designed by the best 64 architects, then have people vote round by round.

Good luck with that, I thought.

Then I looked at the kids again. And the black television. And I got to work.

Over the next few days I mocked up the regions and seedings in the spirit of the cancelled NCAA basketball tournament. I submitted them to Twitter, got incredible feedback from architecture fans and professionals alike (much of it constructive), made alterations, ran those by Senior Editor of Architecture Ron Whitten, absorbed his scorn and mild rebukes, made more alterations, and so forth.

Eventually I assembled 64 participants (actually 70, counting Tuesday’s and Wednesday’s “play in” games), and seeded and divided them into four regions. I can say, with a kind of absolute pride that only NCAA tournament committee members can appreciate, that not a single person will be 100-percent pleased with the bracket. I’d gladly take 70-percent satisfaction. But here it is.

The rules are simple: Architects are represented by only one course—their best or very close to it—and grouped together as closely as possible by geography (the two Texas courses were once in the Midwest bracket, then the Southeast, and now they’re split. I think Texas prefers not to be defined anyway).

Beginning Thursday, each first-round “matchup” will be posted on Twitter for live voting. Kind of like the NCAAs, the leading vote-getter (each round’s poll will be live for 24 hours) advances, and the loser goes home (or stays home, as the case may be now). From there the tournament will run like the basketball version: The first round will be held on Thursday and Friday, Round 2 on Saturday and Sunday, with the Sweet 16 commencing the following Thursday.

Remember, you are voting for the course and the architect. How you allocate that distinction is up to you, but this is not merely a “best course” tournament. I’ve done my best to get as many diverse designers into the field as possible, representing the full, beautiful range of styles and historical eras. Ultimately, for you, voting will come down to head vs. heart decisions—will you have the conviction to pull the trigger for the underdog?

And if you derive joy or entertainment from this little diversion, be sure to thank, or follow, Eric Hart. You never know how an idea is going to turn out until you put it out there.

Click here to vote.

RON WHITTEN’S EAST REGION OVERVIEW

  1. PINE VALLEY (GEORGE CRUMP) v. 16) THE STANWICH CLUB (WILLIAM & DAVID GORDON)
  2. MAIDSTONE (WILLIE PARK JR) v. 9) MYOPIA HUNT CLUB (HERBERT LEEDS)
  3. MERION (EAST) (HUGH WILSON) v. 12) ENGINEERS CLUB (HERBERT STRONG)
  4. NGLA (C.B. MACDONALD) v. 13) FORSGATE (CHARLES BANKS)
  5. FISHERS ISLAND (SETH RAYNOR) v. 11) HOLLYWOOD (WALTER TRAVIS)
  6. SHINNECOCK HILLS (WILLIAM FLYNN) v. 14) TACONIC (WAYNE STILES & JOHN VAN KLEEK)
  7. GARDEN CITY (DEVEREUX EMMETT) v. 10) EASTWARD HO! (HERBERT FOWLER)
  8. OAKMONT (HENRY FOWNES) v. 15) PITTSBURGH FIELD CLUB (ALEX FINDLAY)

The most top-heavy of any region, as one could conceive of the top four seeds being the final four. But not in this tournament, as they’re all in the same bracket. Big surprise is the absence of Bethpage (Black) from the East Regional. I can’t even get my own colleagues at Golf Digest to accept the fact that it was designed by Joe Burbeck, not A.W. Tillinghast!

Sleeper matchup here is No. 7 Garden City against No. 10 Eastward Ho! Those are two Old School designs, with Garden City being rustic and low profile while Eastward Ho! tumbles across Cape Cod hillsides overlooking the ocean. This one’s a toss-up. I don’t see any lower seeds knocking off any higher ones. No. 1 Pine Valley will face No. 4 National Golf Links in one semifinal, No. 3 Shinnecock Hills versus No. 2 Oakmont in the other. I predict the finals in this bracket will be Pine Valley vs. Shinnecock Hills. Higher seed Pine Valley wins.

Derek’s take:

The more I looked at the composition of this region (the “Herbert” region), the more I felt it was necessary to go all-historic, all-blue blood. The Northeast is where so many of the traditions and design trends in American golf were born and nurtured, and where many of the early British and American professionals and architects lived and worked, so it didn’t seem appropriate to place modern courses against the likes of Merion (East) and Shinnecock Hills. Hence, Bob Cupp, who deserves to be in the tournament and would have been here with Liberty National, was moved out west, and Bayonne, a course that would have been a 15/16 seed, isn’t in the tournament.

This is a ridiculously tough bracket—a region of death, one might say. That’s one reason A.W. Tillinghast is represented by San Francisco Golf Club in the West: We thought it best to balance out the regions. And San Francisco is more than deserving. Moving William Flynn out, perhaps to Cherry Hills in Denver, was also considered, but Cherry Hills is no Shinnecock, and he’s got a fighting chance to advance out of the bracket as is.

Click here to vote.

RELATED: Golf Digest’s latest ranking of the Best Courses in Every State

RON WHITTEN’S SOUTHEAST REGION OVERVIEW

  1. PINEHURST NO. 2 (DONALD ROSS) v. 16) SECESSION (BRUCE DEVLIN)
  2. JUPITER HILLS (GEORGE FAZIO) v. 9) PINE TREE (DICK WILSON)
  3. TOBACCO ROAD (MIKE STRANTZ) v. 12) KINLOCH (LESTER GEORGE)
  4. OHOOPEE MATCH CLUB (GIL HANSE) v. 13) OLDE FARM (BOBBY WEED)
  5. SHOAL CREEK (JACK NICKLAUS) v. 11) BAY HILL (ARNOLD PALMER)
  6. PEACHTREE (ROBERT TRENT JONES) v. 14) OCEAN FOREST (REES JONES)
  7. BLUEJACK NATIONAL (TIGER WOODS/BEAU WELLING) v. 10) SWEETENS COVE (ROB COLLINS/TAD KING)

An even bigger surprise is the absence of Augusta National in the Southeast playoffs. See what happens when you postpone The Masters? People quickly forget about you. I guess Bluejack National will have to serve as its proxy. This is the weakest of the four brackets, in part because of two nine-hole courses (vying for the 10-seed) and two very fine designs deserving of seeds—Boca Rio and Secession—forced to Play-In (Secession earned the spot in the first round).

The selection committee got interesting, as it often does, with some first-round matchups in this region. Peachtree is ripe for an upset, with Rees Jones’ Ocean Forest having a chance to topple his daddy’s ho-hum layout. Another interesting first-round match is No. 6 Shoal Creek vs. No. 11 Bay Hill. It’s Jack versus Arnie, just like in the old days. ))No. 4 Ohoopee Match Play__, a recent Best New winner, might be ranked a too high for new course, and in the first round it’ll square off against another former Best New winner, Olde Farm, which is seeded surprisingly low at No. 13. I see one semifinal being No. 5 Tobacco Road vs. No. 1 Pinehurst No. 2, an epic battle akin to Duke vs. North Carolina. On the other side, No. 2 TPC Sawgrass will beat Ocean Forest in the semifinal and face Tobacco Road in the final. My heart says Tobacco Road wins that match-up, but my gut says TPC Sawgrass.

Derek’s take:

You might call this the “Players” bracket, with courses represented by the game’s greatest sticks: Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, Tiger Woods, Bruce Devlin, George Fazio. Not to mention Pete Dye, who was an accomplished amateur player, and Steve Smyers, who still shoots in the 60s. Bobby Jones would have been here too had Augusta National been included, but our position is that the original course was primarily (or primarily enough) the product of Alister Mackenzie, and he’s in the tournament with Cypress Point.

This region essentially reflects the golf that exists here, which is to say, much of it’s on the younger, modern side. There was always going to be discussion about where to put Donald Ross, but the two most likely places were Pinehurst No. 2 or Seminole, both located in the Southeast (Pinehurst won in a landslide between the two in a Twitter pre-poll). Another question was what Dye course to choose, and the TPC edged out the Ocean Course at Kiawah in another poll. And while we’re talking polls, we asked whether Gil Hanse’s Ohoopee Match Club or his Black Course at Streamsong should be the pick, and Ohoopee ran away with it (his new No. 4 course at Pinehurst could also have been used).

Click here to vote.

RELATED: Golf Digest’s latest ranking of America’s 100 Greatest Courses

RON WHITTEN’S MIDWEST REGION OVERVIEW

  1. SAND HILLS (BILL COORE & BEN CRENSHAW) v. 16) THE CLUB AT OLDE STONE (ARTHUR HILLS)
  2. MILWAUKEE (CHARLES ALISON) v. 9) OLD ELM (HARRY COLT)
  3. MAMMOTH DUNES (DAVID MCLAY KIDD) v. 12) WILD HORSE (DAVE AXLAND/DAN PROCTOR)
  4. KINGSLEY CLUB (MIKE DEVRIES) v. 13) STOATIN BRAE (ERIC IVERSON, DON PLACEK, BRIAN SCHNEIDER, BRIAN SLAWNIK)
  5. ERIN HILLS (MICHAEL HURDZAN/DANA FRY/RON WHITTEN) v. 11) ARCADIA BLUFFS (BLUFFS) (RICK SMITH/W. HENDERSON)
  6. LAWSONIA—LINKS (LANGFORD & MOREAU) v. 14) PRAIRIE CLUB—DUNES (TOM LEHMAN)
  7. DOUBLE EAGLE (JAY MORRISH & TOM WEISKOPF) v. 10) THE QUARRY AT GIANTS RIDGE (JEFF BRAUER)
  8. PRAIRIE DUNES (PERRY & PRESS MAXWELL) v. 15) WOLF POINT (MIKE NUZZO)

A Midwest without Muirfield Village? If Jack Nicklaus were on Twitter, he’d unfollow us immediately. And how does nine-hole Dunes Club in Michigan stand a chance in a Play-In against cult-favorite Wolf Point of Texas? Skeptics will say that with Stoatin Brae seeded No. 13, Tom Doak is getting two bites at the whole enchilada, but I believe him and his crew when they say he had nothing to do with its design.

As I have a dog in this bracket, I really shouldn’t comment, except to say that I’m concerned about an upset here. No. 12 Arcadia Bluffs (Bluffs) could knock off No. 5 Erin Hills in a battle of the glacial landscapes. My sleeper is No. 11 Wild Horse, who’ll win against No. 6 Mammoth Dunes, because while they both offer the same sort of wide-open fun, Wild Horse offers it at a fraction of the price. In the semifinals, it’ll be No. 1 Sand Hills versus No. 4 Kingsley and No. 2 Prairie Dunes against its public offspring, No. 11 Wild Horse. The finals will be Sand Hills vs. Prairie Dunes, The Inspired versus The Inspiration. Prairie Dunes prevails in a tight finish.

Derek’s take:

Because this region covers so much geographic territory—and is so geologically and climatically diverse—it was challenging to seed. That’s why this is the most hodge-podge section of the bracket, with classics from large northern cities, picks from the vast prairies and ranching dunes in America’s interior, a Texas representative and courses well up into the wilds of Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin.

The first several selections were easy. After that it was a struggle to find the right courses and representations—more architects and places came on and off the Midwest list than any other region, and many debates and arguments in favor of one course/architect or another were waged. Everyone has favorites, and they’ll all be disappointed in some fashion. Welcome to tournament time.

Click here to vote.

RON WHITTEN’S WEST REGION OVERVIEW

  1. CYPRESS POINT (ALISTER MACKENZIE) v. 16) DESERT FOREST (RED LAWRENCE)
  2. OLYMPIC CLUB (LAKE) (WILLIE WATSON) v. 9) WILSHIRE (NORMAN MACBETH)
  3. SAN FRANCISCO (A.W. TILLINGHAST) v. 12) SAND HOLLOW (JOHN FOUGHT)
  4. PEBBLE BEACH (DOUGLAS GRANT/JACK NEVILLE) v. 13) PUMPKIN RIDGE—WITCH HOLLOW (BOB CUPP)
  5. CAL CLUB (KYLE PHILLIPS) v. 11) INGLEWOOD (A.V. MACAN)
  6. PACIFIC DUNES (TOM DOAK) v. 14) THE CLUB AT BLACK ROCK (JIM ENGH)
  7. CHAMBERS BAY (ROBERT TRENT JONES II/BRUCE CHARLTON) v. 10) SHADOW CREEK (TOM FAZIO)
  8. RIVIERA (GEORGE THOMAS) v. 15) STANFORD GC (BILLY BELL, SR.)

My money is on No. 10 Shadow Creek upsetting No. 7 Chambers Bay, but that’s the only probable upset in the first round. By the way, what in the world is Inglewood doing in there? It’s not even close to being A.V. Macan’s best work.

Desert Forest deserves better than a first-round match against No. 1 Cypress Point. Nobody will beat Cypress Point. It’ll be an easy winner over No. 4 Pebble Beach in the semifinals and Pacific Dunes in the finals, and then will win it all, beating Pine Valley on Saturday night and Prairie Dunes on Monday.

Derek’s take:

The West is a curious mix of old and new, with classic California courses predictably grabbing some of the high seeds and a few modern designers making long-shot runs. Unlike the Midwest, where there was an abundance of choices, fewer worthy architects and courses overall presented themselves in the West. But those that did are very good. The story here is one of contrasting styles, and styles make fights so there should be some fascinating toe-to-toe matchups.

One of the biggest questions during seeding was where to send Tom Fazio. Ask 10 people what the best Fazio course is, and you’ll likely get 10 different answers. He started in the Southeast with either Wade Hampton or World Woods, then was shipped to Victoria National in the Midwest, before landing at the course that really made his fortune, Shadow Creek in Las Vegas. His preferred expression of architecture is to build immense, created landscapes, so Shadow Creek feels like home for him. For us, too.

The West is also a region long on ocean views, and it will be fascinating to see how that affects the voting. We’ll see if this becomes a brains vs. beauty contest. Of course, the biggest beauty of all, Cypress Point, also has brains, and she’s going to be tough to beat. The question is, how much love will Pacific Dunes, or Pebble, get in a head-to-head match with her, if they get that far?

Click here to vote.

RELATED: Golf Digest’s latest ranking of America’s 100 Greatest Courses


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