Course Rater Confidential: Takeaways, trends and more from our newest Top 100 ranking

Cabot Links (pictured) and Cabot Cliffs were both ranked in the top 12 of GOLF's Top 100 Courses You Can Play list.

Brian Oar

GOLF’s Top 100 course panelists are among the most respected and well-traveled course evaluators in the game. They’re also keen to share their opinions. In this series, we’ll unlock their unvarnished views on all questions course-related. Check out GOLF’s latest Top 100 Courses in the World, Top 100 Courses in the U.S., and Top 100 Courses You Can Play. Meet all of our Top 100 panelists here.

GOLF Magazine recently released its 2020/21 ranking of the Top 100 Courses You Can Play, which this year ventured outside the United States to also include Canada, Mexico, Bermuda and the Caribbean. Pebble Beach is No. 1, beating out Pinehurst No. 2 and Pacific Dunes. Aside from its famously scenic setting, what about Pebble’s architecture makes it so special?

Jon Cavalier, panelist since 2021, has played 75 of the World Top 100: Though its picturesque setting above the Pacific is certainly Pebble’s calling card, the small, pitched, difficult greens are its most architecturally memorable feature. Even in rare calm, these tiny targets are tough to hit, and harder still to hit in the proper spots — in wind, it can feel impossible — but there are few thrills in golf that compare with seeing a perfectly struck approach land safely on one of Pebble’s greens. Beyond that, Pebble’s routing is terrific. The course starts inland, makes its way to the ocean for one of the most spectacular stretches in golf (Nos. 4-10), turns back inland for a respite and then returns to the coast (Nos. 17-18) for its famed crescendo.

Walter Harris, panelist since 2009, has played 69 of the World Top 100: Absolutely agree with Jon — cannot put it any better.

Pete Phipps, panelist since 2021, has played 64 of the World Top 100: Pebble’s setting and routing are obviously remarkable, and it deserves to top this list. Architecturally, the question is if they’ll ever do a true restoration. Coore/Crenshaw brought new life back to Pinehurst No. 2 by simply taking it back to the original look and feel. When you go to Pebble Beach’s own website, you can read about the history of the 7th hole. Take a look at the photo from 1928 and then picture more sand-dune bunkering scattered across that course. Doing so would bring Pebble Beach into the conversation with its neighbor, Cypress Point.

What was the biggest surprise you noticed in the Top 100?

Cavalier: Bandon Dunes Resort, with a whopping FIVE courses in the top 20, should be proud of a remarkable accomplishment, and it’s indicative of increasing appreciation for perhaps the most important design trend of all: fun. Aside from the Bandon courses, the lofty ranks of places like Cabot Cliffs, Cabot Links, Gamble Sands, Sand Valley, Mammoth Dunes, Chambers Bay and Ozarks National signal a shift away from a penal school of design and toward wider fairways, larger greens and shorter and sparser rough. These designs can be plenty challenging for better players while remaining accessible and enjoyable to average golfers.

Harris: The addition and positioning of Lawsonia Links, which also broke into the Top 100 in the U.S. with the most recent ranking. The Golden Age masters Langford & Moreau are getting well-deserved recognition.

Phipps: Walking is back! In reviewing this list, it’s both refreshing and a relief to see so many public courses that emphasize and sometimes even require walking. While the designs are great at places like Bandon, Cabot, Streamsong, Sand Valley, Silvies Valley and so many of the new-age public offerings, it’s even better knowing they all promote walking. Good on these places and good for all the golfers walking off those overpriced omelettes.

Our newest Top 100 Courses You Can Play list proves elite golf experiences are for everyone
By: GOLF’s Course Raters and Ran Morrissett, Architecture Editor

Which sleeper course are you most excited to see get the recognition it deserves?

Cavalier: Sand Hollow in Hurricane, Utah, is a course I have long viewed as a must-play. The design is excellent, the turf is generally perfect, and the holes on the back nine are as dramatic as any inland set in the world. This is a course that should be on everyone’s list.

Harris: Lawsonia Links, completed in 1930 in the depths of the depression, in a sparsely populated part of Wisconsin. It has stood the test of time with amazing green complexes and bunkering and a solid routing. Well-deserved recognition!

Phipps: Having binged on many Shell’s Wonderful World of Golf episodes via YouTube, I’m going with Mid Ocean Club. A match between Tony Lema and Peter Alliss from 1966 showcases this C.B. Macdonald layout. I would love to see how footage from 1966 compares to what the course looks and plays like nowadays. Thankfully for the rest of us, this private club now allows some public play, coordinated well in advance. We don’t have many opportunities to play a Macdonald, so go ahead and add a Bermuda trip to your post-lockdown travel plans.

Sand Hollow in Hurricane, Utah, was ranked No. 33. Brian Oar

What’s the best course not on the Top 100 list?

Cavalier: Leatherstocking Golf Course in Cooperstown, N.Y., is a beautiful 1909 Devereux Emmet design on the shores of Lake Otsego. It’s impossible not to enjoy well-preserved classic golf architecture presented in a setting this gorgeous.

Harris: Having lived in the Cleveland area for eight years (10 years ago) and introducing my two golf-passionate sons (now 23 and 21) to the game at Fowler’s Mill, east of Cleveland, I would add this early Pete Dye design to the list. Great routing and hole designs and many fond memories playing golf there with my sons. And what a bargain price-wise.

Phipps: It’s worth giving Butterfield Trail in El Paso a special shout-out. Set against the beautiful Franklin Mountains, this 2007 Fazio design is affordable and fun, and the fact that it still exists is victory enough. In May 2020, the El Paso International Airport decided to close Butterfield Trail for good, due to the course operating at a loss and airports taking massive hits during Covid. Fast forward to today and Butterfield Trail has been resuscitated thanks to a new lease and operator. Here’s to the avid golfers of West Texas, New Mexico and neighboring Mexico keeping Butterfield Trail around forever.

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