The 10 best new golf courses of 2018

December 29, 2018

Right site, wrong track. Taking an existing golf course, abandoning it and draping over its terrain an entirely new layout — or at least one infused with completely new features — is a recurring theme in design these days. Perhaps it’s splitting hairs to label one course brand new as opposed to calling it a major renovation or redesign. But there’s no ambiguity about our best new course of the year: Sand Valley’s Mammoth Dunes, in Wisconsin. No design in memory so successfully melds strategy, playability and spectacular aesthetics. It’s tons of fun, too.

6,935 YARDS, PAR 73

Architect David McLay Kidd faced a tall order when tasked with creating the second course at Central Wisconsin’s Sand Valley Golf Resort. After all, its Coore/Crenshaw–designed track, Sand Valley, captured our Best New Course You Can Play award in 2017 and ranked No. 52 in the U.S. among all courses. How do you match or possibly top that? Easy. You craft a layout that checks every box — from its distinctive, sand-based setting and joy-filled appeal for both low- and high-handicappers, to its plethora of individually memorable, strategy-laced holes that unfurl on a massive scale.

Hewn from restored sand barrens speckled with native vegetation and perimeter trees, Mammoth Dunes plays like an inland links, with emphasis on the ground game. The ball darts here and there, and it’s up to the player (and perhaps his caddie, on this walking-only course) to solve the puzzles the contours present. Enormously roomy, rumpled fairways allow golfers to choose their own path to the target, amid vast areas of open sand and gargantuan greens. While the landing areas are plenty wide, finding the spot that provides the most advantageous angle into the green is paramount.

The drama soars at the drivable 332-yard, par-4 sixth, which wows with a gigantic sand feature short and right, and a horseshoe-shaped green. The top postcard moment arrives at the shortest (90-150 yards) hole, the 13th, which plays across a chasm of sand 50 feet deep to a narrow green that stretches 50 yards front to back. Kidd’s current design credo is to deliver maximum fun and minimal frustration. After what you’ve accomplished at Sand Valley, here’s looking at you, Kidd.

Mammoth Dunes Sand Valley 5th Hole
The 5th Hole at Mammoth Dunes at Sand Valley in Wisconsin.

7,509 YARDS, PAR 72

At Adare Manor in 1995, Robert Trent Jones Sr., built what many considered the greatest parkland course in Ireland. Twenty years later, the resort’s new owner, renowned Irish entrepreneur JP McManus, had other ideas: We can do better. So he gutted the layout and enlisted Augusta National’s consulting architect, Tom Fazio, together with Fazio’s senior design associate, Tom Marzolf, to start fresh.

It’s a coin flip as to whether Adare is a brand new course — as Fazio asserts — or merely a major remodel, which involves a complete redesign. We’ll opt for the latter, as the routing and golf-hole corridors remain as they were, but the look and playing appearance from old to new is starkly different. Picture an endless green carpet of fairway grass, with no traditional rough, à la the home of the Masters.

Although the flattish front nine at Adare won’t remind you of Augusta, everything else will. Only 42 bunkers dot the course, and they’re of brilliant white sand and simple shapes. Distinctive local flora accents every hole. But the greens are the story, propped up well above the fairways and sporting yips-inducing speed with slopes to conquer if you miss the putting surface. Look for a Ryder Cup here in the near future, which is precisely what McManus envisions.

7,319 YARDS, PAR 72

As low-key private clubs go, this one’s nearly off the grid. Ohoopee Match Club is situated on the Ohoopee River in rural Georgia, 75 miles west of Savannah. It’s the quietly realized vision of Michael Walrath, a tech mogul and venture capitalist who thought it would be fun to create a place where he and his pals could enjoy match-play golf. In Hanse Golf Design, he found the perfect accomplice to execute that vision.

Hanse peeled away layers of convention to craft a 22-hole layout atop a rolling, forested, lakeside property that was once an onion farm. Eighteen holes form the traditional layout; the extra holes, including a few that criss-cross each other — à la many ancient Scottish links — will be the basis of an alternate, par-69 “Whiskey Route” track of 5,600 yards that should be ideal for members seeking to walk a second round in a day.

The course is bracketed by native sandy soil, scrubby vegetation and gorgeous live oaks, but it’s plenty wide to allow for multiple options off the tee. Artfully sculpted bunkers of all sizes, inspired contouring on and around the greens, and a good number of half-par holes provide Ohoopee with endless risk/reward opportunities, making it ideal for match play.

1,177 YARDS, PAR 23

As golf tries desperately to become more inclusive and more innovative, it needs facilities that greet all players with a bear hug. Silvies Valley Ranch extends its arms with a giant smile. Seneca, Oregon isn’t easy to get to — it’s 220 miles west of Boise and 320 miles southeast of Portland — but if you’re craving an amusement park of serious golf, together with the City Slickers experience of an actual working ranch, Silvies is tough to top.

It boasts not one, but two championship courses that are played in reverse on an every-other-day basis, a nine-hole par-3 course, and — new for 2018 — McVeigh’s Gauntlet, a seven-hole spread of par 3s and short par 4s that features goats for caddies. As gimmicks go, it’s a great one, especially considering the layout’s steep, rugged terrain. The leashed goat-caddies are well-prepared; they tote a handful of clubs in leather golf bags, fully equipped with satchels for supplies and drinkholders for your beverages. As entertainment goes, from golf to goats to cattle drives to rifle shooting, Silvies Valley Ranch is worth the journey.

McVeighs Gauntlet at The Retreat & Links at Silvies Valley Ranch
McVeighs Gauntlet at The Retreat & Links at Silvies Valley Ranch.

7,140 YARDS, PAR 72

The first Robert Trent Jones II design in Ireland is much like RTJ Jr. himself: whimsical and remarkable. Hogs Head occupies a site that once housed Skellig Bay, a golf course built in 2006 that failed financially. Jones kept five hole corridors — but none of the features — and developed 13 others, qualifying this as a new course. What emerged is Chambers Bay lite. Hogs Head is a headlands course, not an authentic links among sand and dunes. Instead, it’s set atop 100-foot bluffs over the Atlantic Ocean.

However, the course is sandcapped, yielding firm and fast conditions, and is carpeted in fescue from tee to green, so it plays like a links, complete with wind and water views. As with Chambers Bay, it offers many open entrances to greens, so players
can choose running shots or an aerial attack, depending on preference and conditions. On different holes Jones invokes MacKenzie at Augusta, A.W. Tillinghast at Winged Foot and H.S. Colt at Royal Portrush, but they’re homages, not replicas.

Most memorable is the par-3 13th, which has two separate greens, one of which hugs the ocean. It’s not a gimmick — since the oceanside green is susceptible to salt- spray damage in high winds, it’s taken out of play at times, usually in winter. Other standouts are the cliff-edge, 425- yard, par-4 12th; a double green at the 570-yard, par-5 14th; and the dramatically rolling Biarritz green at the par-5 sixth. Toss in front-nine holes that hopscotch the swift-rushing, salmon-filled Finglas River and you have an Irish layout of unparalleled variety. Hogs Head definitely lives up to its club motto: “Built by friends, for friends, for fun.”

Hogs Head Golf Club
Make it all the way to Hogs Head Golf Club in Waterville, Co. Kerry, Ireland? Well then make sure your round is worth it.

6,941 YARDS, PAR 72

Pair the name “Nicklaus” with “Ohio” and the results are typically magical. Valley of the Eagles is proof that the magic is alive and well. Nicklaus Design transformed a tired and ultimately shuttered private club called Spring Valley into a layout that truly befits its name. It soars. Gone is the mundane routing, countless trees and tangled, overgrown brush. What’s left are a few familiar hole corridors, some gorgeous specimen trees and the handsome rolling property. New is virtually everything else.

The Nicklaus Design team, with associate David Savic leading the way, crafted a fun, compelling new spread, with standouts that include the 276-yard, par-3 fifth, which demands an aerial approach over water and bunkers to an elevated green, and its petite counterpart, the 120-yard, par-3 10th. The best hole might be the 569-yard, par-5 18th, a risk/ reward jewel that twice asks for water carries.

Most remarkable is how the Nicklaus team revived a spectacular Midwestern property with a clearing job that reveals nature’s wonders, amid a strategic routing that takes full advantage of those wonders. Steep valleys, sizable hills, exposed rock outcroppings and a ten-story shale cliff are in view, in play or both. The Black River twists through the terrain, yielding beauty and multiple decision-making opportunities. Spring Valley was forgettable. Valley of the Eagles is anything but. Call it Nicklaus magic.

6,874 YARDS, PAR 72

Rees Jones is no stranger to reviving tired municipal courses — Bethpage Black and Torrey Pines (South) are testament. Now add another South course to the list. At Corica Park, owned by the city of Alameda and a mere six miles from downtown Oakland, Jones hit the refresh button on a worn-out 1957 Billy Bell Jr., design that was 15 years past its prime. Together with Steve Weisser and two principals from Greenway Golf Management, George Kelley and Marc Logan, Jones transformed the pedestrian if once-popular track into virtually a brand new layout that channels the strategy- infused Melbourne Sandbelt courses of Australia.

Fast-running fairways, run-up ramps into low-slung greens, artfully configured bunkers and wispy native fescue grasses grace the layout. The drivable par-4 eighth, the burly par-4 12th and the reachable par-5 15th are standouts. Corica Park is easily walkable, full of options, and golfers have flocked from near and far to try it out since its late June opening. It may never host a U.S. Open, but Corica Park (South) is a major winner in its own right.

Corica Park South
The 6th hole at Corica Park South Course.

7,226 YARDS, PAR 72

Every time Gil Hanse has waved his design wand over a project for the past three years, he’s won an award. This year, Hanse, partner Jim Wagner and their team collected a few more trophies, none more richly deserved than what they earned for their extreme makeover of Pinehurst No. 4. Whether this is a redesign, as Hanse’s working plans state, or a brand new course, as Hanse himself asserts, it’s a remarkable piece of work.

Hanse and his crew plowed under Tom Fazio’s popular predecessor, a 1999 creation that had long been a staple of Top 100 Public Course lists. Why abandon Fazio’s 4? Because Pinehurst felt they could do something truly special. And they did. While the new No. 4 shares the same plot, everything else is radically changed. Gone are the artificial pot bunkers, propped up greens and gussied-up parkland features.

In their stead are extra-wide fairways that take full advantage of the most impressive undulations at Pinehurst. Vast sandy areas bracket and criss-cross fairways. User-friendly kick slopes help propel properly struck shots onto low-profile greens. The changes at the par-5 ninth best illuminate No. 4’s transformation. Fazio’s version featured 25 pot bunkers sprinkled liberally throughout. Hanse’s work sports a massive cross-bunker hazard. No. 4 may never reach the tournament stature of its fabled No. 2 sibling, but for strategy, visuals and enjoyment, it’s in a class by itself.

Pinehurst Resort No. 4
The newly redesigned 9th hole at Pinehurst No. 4.

1,652 YARDS, PAR 51

The Sandbox at Sand Valley Golf Resort continues the trend of recently built par-3 courses that are family-friendly but compelling for all. Architects Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw, together with developer Mike Keiser, pioneered the “odd number of holes” concept at Bandon Dunes with their brilliant 13-hole, par-3 Preserve spread. There are 17 holes here and they’re all worthy. Designed to be tackled with just a few clubs, the holes unfold over a sandy tract dotted with native scrub and situated
next to the resort’s lodge, so it’s extremely convenient to access — and inspiring to play.

Coore, Crenshaw, associate Jim Craig and the Keiser family peppered the layout with wild, funky contours. Some holes pay homage to C.B. Macdonald classics and others are pure originals. The longest hole is 149 yards from the Crenshaw tees, but from a set of shorter Coore tees, 104 yards is the max. There’s even a set of tees that encourages the use of only a putter. Good players are engaged by the imaginative contours and beginners by the scenery and relative lack of obstacles. After one season, it’s clear: Golfers of every skill level dig the Sandbox.

The 10th hole at Sand Valley Golf Resort.

7,165 YARDS, PAR 72

Twice a winner of the British Open, Greg Norman knows his way around a links. His latest work confirms that. KN Golf Links Cam Ranh sits along a five-mile stretch of sandy white coastline in south central Vietnam, an hour’s flight from Ho Chi Minh City. The coastal dunes site yields a classic links experience; it’s hard and swift-running, framed not by trees but by low- profile native vegetation, and buffeted by breezes off Cam Ranh Bay.

Toss in ideal elevation change, rippled fairways, inspired contouring on and around the greens — much of it natural — and stirring ocean views from most holes, and you have a touch of Scotland in Southeast Asia. A pair of downhill par 4s, the 10th and the 15th, are especially memorable as they play toward the sea. Norman already owns the two top-ranked courses in Vietnam, Bluff Ho Tram Strip and Danang (Dunes). Look for KN Golf Links Cam Ranh to complete the trifecta.