Explaining GOLF’s latest Top 100 Courses in the U.S. ranking — where enjoyment is the ultimate reward

CapRock Ranch in Valentine, Neb., debuts at No. 59.

Brian Oar Photography

Flashback: 1986. It was in the fall of that year when I met Dick Youngscap. He had just built an interesting course in Nebraska. No, not Sand Hills (more on that later). The course to which I refer is Firethorn, in Lincoln, the state’s capital. While touring the property, Dick shared interesting stories about what it was like working with Pete Dye, Firethorn’s architect. The course was fetching for many reasons, one of them being that the site, at the time, was bereft of homes and offered the kind of “open” golf that I had experienced only in the UK. (I knew of Prairie Dunes, some 250 miles to the south, but had not yet been.)

Check out GOLF’s newest Top 100 Courses in the U.S. ranking | Methodology: How we rate courses | Meet our expert panelists

I had always thought that if you owned a course, pretentiousness would come part and parcel. Not in Youngscap’s case. He spoke plainly, truthfully and used words that even my 23-year-old self could understand. Little did I know what a gigantic impact he would have on the game, to say nothing of my view of design.

Spin the clock forward to 1994, when Youngscap had just finished overseeing the construction of another course in the Cornhusker State, in the remote region known as the Sand Hills, about 300 miles west and north from Firethorn. The course had distinct advantages, one of the most important being that it sat on top of the Ogallala, one of the world’s largest aquifers. Water, even here, would not be an issue. The issue was figuring out how to drape 18 holes on the expansive property and connect and relate each one to the others. Literally, any direction you turned, there was some sort of fascinating design option. The task of tackling these Nebraska dunes and the myriad of routing possibilities fell to Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw. Course architecture has thrived ever since.

GOLF’s other course rankings: Top 100 Courses in the World | Top 100 Courses You Can Play | Top 100 Value Courses in the U.S. | America’s Best Municipal Courses | Top 100 in the U.K. and Ireland | Top 100 Short Courses in the World

Sand Hills fostered the modern Field of Dreams principle in course construction: Build it and they will come. Its priority was hyper-focused on the purity of the golf experience. Selling real estate never figured in. Memberships sold out quickly, with one of the first to ink his name to the Sand Hills roster being Chicago businessman Mike Keiser (more on him later). The course debuted on our 1997 U.S. ranking at the No. 10 spot. Lofty, for sure. Flash in the pan? Anything but. In this year’s Top 100, Sand Hills climbs to No. 6, one spot ahead of Augusta National.

Target Practice

We don’t publish course distances for our Top 100 courses. What’s the point? We think it distracts from what really matters, which are cool targets, both to aim toward and recover to. Our panelists tend to start at the green and work back toward the tee. Pine Valley (No. 1), Oakland Hills (No. 19), Somerset Hills (No. 26), Yeamans Hall (No. 44) — all replete with stellar targets. Same goes for a newcomer: Brookside (No. 96) in Canton, Ohio. Granted, some panelists see a few of Brookside’s greens as too extreme at today’s speeds. Had just a few of them had a slightly softer opinion, this 100-year-old Donald Ross design would have finished higher. Regardless, when judging a course for yourself, it’s wise to start at the end. Building a great green complex takes enormous skill and remains the primary difference between good and great architecture.

The top course on GOLF’s list, Pine Valley, is proof positive that most wonderful designs start at the green. LC Lambrecht

Don’t Quit Your Day Job

As we all know, joining a private club or vacationing to some of the public-access winners wreaks havoc on your wallet. Rather than bemoan the expense, let’s use this moment to celebrate courses that don’t, such as Lawsonia Links (No. 79) in Wisconsin and Davenport (No. 95) in Iowa. Leave it to common sense values found in the Midwest not to be swept up in unnecessary, costly thrills or conspicuous greenkeeping. (I know of one course with an annual budget of $900,000 — for its bunkers!)

On the Horizon

Is there hope for new courses in densely populated areas? The jury is out. Land costs are through the roof — if you can find the land. For the good of the game, and as evidenced by our panel vote, a better strategy is to focus on restoring Golden Age gems, private or otherwise. The restoration efforts at both The Country Club, east of Cleveland, and Lake Merced, outside of San Francisco, are already garnering rave reviews.

The Lido at Sand Valley. Brandon Carter/Courtesy Sand Valley

My guess is that you’ll continue to see a tidal wave of new course openings in rural areas. We’re anxious to see Brambles, two hours north of San Francisco, which promises bouncy conditions when its zoysia fairways finish knitting in. And, as reported in our last issue of the magazine, the Keiser brothers are planning to debut their first solo projects — The Lido and Sedge Valley — in 2023 and 2024. The brothers aren’t stopping there and plan to start new projects in Colorado, Florida and Texas. Their father isn’t slowing down, either, with projects of his own looming in Oregon, California and Scotland. Where there are pockets of sand, there are Keisers.

The charming Southern town of Aiken, S.C., has a pair of courses (Tree Farm and Old Barnwell) on its outskirts that will soon expand the area’s golf riches, which include Palmetto (No. 99) and Aiken Golf Club (whose sub-$40 green fee makes it one of the country’s great bargains). Brookville, Fla. (pop: 8,500) is witnessing a comprehensive overhaul at World Woods, now Cabot Citrus Farms, driven by Ben Cowan-Dewar, who has worked with Keiser since 2006. Seven courses will be opening in the greater Palm Beach area, including a second course at MacArthur by Coore & Crenshaw. King-Collins is set to capitalize on their Landmand momentum with the opening of Red Feather in Lubbock, Texas.

Guess what? All 12 of these courses feature sandy soil. ’Nuff said!

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