What helps make my list of best golf courses? An unbeatable setting

December 1, 2019

GOLF recently unveiled its Top 100 Courses in the World, which included all the well-known iconic gems like Augusta National, Cypress Point, St. Andrews and, well, you get the picture. But there’s more than one way to make a list, so here’s ours! Over the next month, GOLF staffers will take their turn creating their own ranking, but not of the best courses in the world — the best courses they’ve played. Enjoy, and if you haven’t made the time to create your own list to dissect and look back on, now’s the time to get started.

My top 10: Sean Zak

Everyone loves a list! That is until you have to create one on your own. That’s when things get tough. Are the Streamsong courses some of the 10 best I’ve ever played? How about that gorgeous day on the quirky Claremont Country Club? Is that one of my 10 best?

This ranking stuff is more difficult than it appears, so kudos to our Top 100 Raters. They’re the brains behind this beautiful ranking. As for me, I rated my own list of courses on three very subjective criteria:

1. How you are treated there
2. The golf setting/vibe
3. The brilliance of the design

Can you beat the golf setting that is the Old Course? No chance. But does Pine Valley have a better collection of golf holes? Yes, undoubtedly. The composite of those three things is tucked away somewhere in my mind, the results of which can be seen generically below. My regards to Sleepy Hollow, Streamsong, Stanwich, Torrey Pines and Erin Hills, who all just missed the cut.

1. Pine Valley

I’m convinced there is no better group of 18 holes, from the first tee to the 18th green. Shocker! This is one of those things you only understand after playing. The 8th hole is so damn simple and yet so damn difficult. Same with the 10th. And the 3rd. And the 12th. You get the point. Everything is a challenge, and if you handle that challenge, you’ll have accomplished something that felt so simple in form. I haven’t seen a golf course like it.

2. St. Andrews Old Course

You can sit behind 18 and watch players finish at St. Andrews all evening long.
You can sit behind 18 and watch players finish at St. Andrews all evening long.
Sean Zak

T2. Pinehurst No. 2

This is more of a compliment for Pinehurst than an appreciation for St. Andrews. (I just couldn’t bring myself to rank the Old Course no. 3. Couldn’t do it.) Simply put, Pinehurst employs some of the best caddies in the world, most of which make you feel like your 2:15 p.m. tee time is just as important as Martin Kaymer’s during the 2014 U.S. Open. That vibe, coupled with the porch overlooking 18, matches the similarly brilliant finish at St. Andrews. Usually the 18th hole feels like a reprieve — no more bogeys! — but all I wanted to do at St. Andrews and Pinehurst was grab a beer and pull a chair up to the green and watch others finish.

4. Morfontaine

The setting at Morfontaine is as quaint and quiet as can be. On a Monday in September, there may have been 20 golfers on the property. For “the Augusta National of France,” as it’s commonly hailed, that might make sense. Where I might normally dislike that exclusivity, the silence was magnificent.

Morfontaine combines a little Pine Valley with Pinehurst in the French countryside.
Morfontaine combines a little Pine Valley with Pinehurst in the French countryside.
Sean Zak

5. Chicago GC

The design at CGC is as good as it gets for courses in the Midwest, with C.B. Macdonald’s template holes littered throughout. Everything about Chicago Golf Club is old school, including the ancient artifacts hanging on the walls within. The clubhouse is a museum of sorts for the game, and no part of the property takes away from that.

6. Whistling Straits

The 2020 Ryder Cup course will play like the Wisconsin I know (hopefully), which the 2015 PGA didn’t live up to in hot, stormy August. We’re bound to get plenty of wind off Lake Michigan and some cold morning temps thawing into the afternoon. That’s how I prefer to think of the links-like nature of Whistling Straits. The golf holes are so demanding off the tee that you could very well hate your time there. Add in a $500 price tag and it’ll never be the greatest course per value, but it’s still really damn good.

7. Chambers Bay

Chambers was tortured for how, during one unseasonably hot week, the USGA altered it to test the best players in the world. Its collection of golf holes are slightly less-challenging than Bethpage, but offer more fun for the common player. It’s the best municipal course in America, and the views over Puget Sound (particularly at sunset) add a phenomenal scenery to it all. You can also play it for a pretty cheap price ($185 out-of-state).

The sun setting over Puget Sound creates an incredible setting at Chambers Bay.
The sun setting over Puget Sound creates an incredible setting at Chambers Bay.
Sean Zak

8. Bethpage Black

Hanging out behind the first tee of Bethpage Black, rapping a couple putts while you wait, there’s this looming feeling of eventual doom. And everyone around you is just sick enough of a golfer to get excited about that. The Long Island beast is so brutally tough (especially for those who can’t hit it long and straight) that you probably don’t want to play it more than once or twice a season. But the aura it holds is really unlike any muni in America. You deserve a beverage when it’s all done.

9. Macrihanish

Mac’ proudly claims to have the best opening tee shot in the world, and you’d be hard-pressed to deny it. With Atlantic Ocean winds whipping into Macrihanish Bay, all you have to do is cut the corner over the beach as much as you dare and then hit a long iron in. It’s as remote as most golf courses can get, which means when you stumble into the pub, you’re bound to have just locals, golfers and local golfers. You don’t need anything else.

10. Royal Aberdeen

Playing on a ‘proper links day’ with cool, 15-20 mph winds just strong enough to annoy you, the ancient design reminds you, “Damn, the people who designed golf courses way back when really knew what they were doing.” Like many old Scottish links (Aberdeen claims to be sixth oldest), on a tame day, the course is very gettable, and the North Sea is always there as a gorgeous backdrop.

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