At last, we’re here – the top-5 to round out my top-25 courses I’ve played.
As a refresher, here are the prior installments: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 and Part 4.
And here’s the list thus far:
- Sharp Park Golf Course, Pacifica, CA
- The Boulders, Carefree, AZ
- Torrey Pines (South), La Jolla, CA
- Grand Cypress (The New Course), Orlando, FL
- St. Michaels Golf Club, New South Wales, Australia
- Corica South, Alameda, CA
- Streamsong Red, Bowling Green, FL
- Poppy Hills Golf Course, Pebble Beach, CA
- Rustic Canyon Golf Course, Moorpark, CA
- Pacific Grove Golf Links, Monterey, CA
- The Golf House Club, Elie, Scotland
- Indian Wells (Celebrity), Palm Springs, CA
- Half Moon Bay (Ocean Course), Half Moon Bay, CA
- Bandon Dunes, Bandon, OR
- Castle Stuart Golf Links, Inverness, Scotland
- Bandon Trails Golf Course, Bandon OR
- The Old Course, St. Andrews, Scotland
- Royal Troon Golf Course, Troon, Scotland
- Carnoustie Golf Links, Carnoustie, Scotland
- Kingsbarns Golf Links, Fife, Scotland
So, here we are – and if you’ve been paying close attention (and when it really gets down to it, I hope you have NOT, there’s a global pandemic going on and other things to focus on), I think I’ve paved a fairly clear path to at least three of the remaining five courses. But why be coy about the whole thing? Let’s dive into it.
5. Pasatiempo Golf Club, Santa Cruz, CA
I went to college at UC-Santa Cruz, and of all the many regrets I’ve have in retrospect – the girl I didn’t pursue, only to discover years later she wished I had…the fact I started as a Political Science major, only to not take a single Politics class until my junior year…wishing I hadn’t decided to park my car on the street that one night, only for it to get crushed by an AstroVan driving out of control… — the biggest regret is that I didn’t play golf in college, and therefore never had an opportunity to even consider playing Pasatiempo. I finally corrected that last year, and have spent almost every day since wondering how I can get back down there.
Pasatiempo is, of course, a course designed by Dr. Alistair Mackenzie, and from the opening hole, you know you’re in for something special.
The par-3 3rd hole, at least from the Championship tees, is just brutal. About 190 yards straight uphill with bunkers guarding everywhere, if you can walk off with a par or bogey, you should be thrilled. The sixth hole has the bonus of have Dr, Mackenzie’s former house and one of the more lethal greens you’ll find, especially if the pin is in the back left.
But the back nine is, in my opinion, maybe the best nine-hole stretch in golf. The 10th hole has you teeing off across a barranca, and another barranca runs down the left side of the hole.
The 11th is an uphill par-4 that requires precision on the drive and approach and is so challenging, I just had to laugh. And the 16th hole, a par-4 with a three tiered green, is similarly challenging. My buddy McD hit his approach to within
a few feet 12 inches (McD has requested this edit, approved) and drained the putt for a birdie, which should have been worth even more than -1. But, in fairness, if his shot had landed a few feet in another direction, he could have been completely off the green and/or in a green side sand trap. It’s just that close. The course finishes off with a par-3, something you rarely see but doesn’t feel weird at all. It’s an amazing hole, and I’m not sure there’s an easy pin placement on the green. This is truly one of the gems in all of golf, and I can’t wait to get back.
4. Old Macdonald, Bandon, OR
When I went up to Bandon Dunes, I was very excited to play great golf courses. But, I didn’t really know that much about it. I certainly didn’t know where the name “Old Macdonald” came from (it’s in honor of legendary golf course designer Charles Blair Macdonald). And, I’ll just crib straight from the link above to discuss the intent and inspiration for this golf course:
What would Macdonald have created had the Oregon Coast been his canvas? Inspired by Macdonald’s iconic work, course architects Tom Doak and Jim Urbina crafted a course that seeks the answer upon vast greens, among myriad angles of play, and from the depths of fierce bunkers. By celebrating these classic concepts of design, we honor the traditions of this game we love.Source: bandondunesgolf.com
And I’ll be even more honest – even if I had known this, I wouldn’t have gotten much out of it. Even today, I’m not a huge Golf Course Architecture (GCA) guy, but I have realized that there are a lot of designers I actively seek out (and who populate this list). Tom Doak is for sure one of them, and he did a masterful job here. Many of the holes are “template” holes, like the par-3 8th hole, named “Biarritz.” I didn’t know what a Biarritz was (my caddie told me on the tee), but I knew that I loved the two tiered green with a ‘trench’ in the middle, and how it made the tee shot even more thoughtful.
I’d never heard of the Ghost Tree, but once I saw it on the third tee, and from other vistas on the course, it stayed in my thoughts (and now is on my hybrid’s head cover) and this picture from Christian Hafer spends a lot of time as my iPhone wallpaper:
Old Macdonald is in some ways the most controversial course on property, because it doesn’t look like any other course you’ve likely played, at least in the United States. It’s rough and rugged, and aside from the Ghost Tree, there are few trees and the widest fairways you’ll likely find. There’s also tons of trouble with bunkers and gorse, and it will likely beat you up.
My favorite holes include the third (sending it over the hill the Ghost Tree on leads to a steep downhill towards the green, which could result in one being just off the green, or could leave you with a sidehill lie behind a massive mound and no view of the green whatsoever), the Biarritz 8th, and the par-4 7th, called “Ocean.” The drive on Ocean stays on the same level as the tee box, but the second shot is to an elevated, almost invisible green. It’s a tricky approach shot, and when you climb the hill you realize that the green is massive, but going long is death – because behind the green is a cliff that overlooks (you guessed it) the ocean.
When I started putting this list together, there’s a lot of things that go into what makes it a favorite. Some of them are:
- Was it fun to play?
- Did it challenge me?
- Did it feel different, and special?
- How much did/do I think about the round after I played? (We all do this, right?)
- How eager am I to run back and play it again?
Old Macdonald is off the charts with all of these. I only wish it could be higher on the list.
3. Turnberry (The Ailsa Course), Turnberry, Scotland
So. This one was tough for me. Turnberry is owned by … maybe my least favorite person in the world. This isn’t a politics blog, so I’ll leave it at that – but it is enough of an issue that I considered not visiting and giving any of my money to this apricot-colored individual. But, after thinking about it, I realized that the course has been there for a long time, and god willing, it will be there for a much longer time after the current ownership is long gone.
And man … I’m so glad we played it. I mentioned in my last post about Troon that we had 30-35 mph winds off the coast. By the time we reached the top of the course, you are asked to stop at the halfway house – which is the lighthouse in the picture below, and also happens to be the birthplace of Robert the Bruce. The gentleman directing us to the halfway house begrudgingly admitted the winds were blowing at 40mph at least. It was … crazy.
The wind was brutal, but it didn’t get in the way of a great time. And, on those rare times when one hit a shot without spin, the wind actually didn’t get in the way too often. Turnberry also featured some of the most brutal rough we saw in Scotland. Here’s AC trying to hit out of the rough that is ON TOP of a fairway bunker, somewhere on the front nine:
Now, look at above photo and realize that lies in that rough are … well, rough.
This is all just to say that despite it being hard – did I mention the 45mph wind? – we were having so much fun. And then, we stepped onto the 11th tee, called “Maidens.” A short par-3, the hole is surrounded by trouble short and to the left. After I predictably found the front sand trap, AC stepped to the hole, landing it on the right side of the green, and we watched it roll left towards the flag and just … disappear.
That’s right, the guy we nicknamed “Ace” got his first hole-in-one at Turnberry. Look how happy he was! (And yes, he brought his putter out because he wasn’t convinced it was an ace.)
All of this is to say, whether you like or loathe the current owner of Turnberry, the golf course is something truly special, beautiful and capable of lifetime moments like this.
2. Pacific Dunes, Bandon, OR
Again, if you’ve been paying attention you know that Bandon Dunes, Bandon Trails and Old Macdonald have already shown up on this list. So it’s no shock that Pacific Dunes is here, too. And it’s ALMOST my favorite course that I’ve ever played.
I’ve never played Pebble Beach, but I’ve walked it a few times and without question, I think Pacific Dunes is somehow more scenic and interesting. (I’ll pause for a moment to let the heat from that HOT TAKE die down.) It wasn’t until I finished my round that I realized the back nine has FOUR par-3’s, three par-5’s and just two par-4’s. And it doesn’t feel weird or gimmicky even once.
The first of those back-nine par-3’s is the 10th, a downhill shot with a partially hidden green and the Pacific Ocean looming in the background. Part of the charm is that all this leads to it being hard to really gauge the distance (it’s downhill, but there’s wind coming off the coast, plus how far is it away really?) and it’s also a friggin runway model:
None of this is to say that the front nine isn’t special. The 4th hole, which runs North to South along the coast, is just shockingly good. It’s corollary, running South to North, and perhaps one of the greatest holes I’ve ever played, is one of the few par-4’s on the back nine, the 13th:
There were large stretches of this round where I didn’t much feel like saying anything … I just couldn’t stop soaking in the strategy and the views and the just utter sense of peace I had walking the course. At some point, I said to AC and bobbycuts something along the lines of, “This course is…” and AC responded with a simple, “Yeah. I know.” Tom Doak designed this course and if it’s not his masterpiece, I don’t know what is.
So, if it’s so great, how could there be anything better? Well, there’s only one.
1. Royal Dornoch (Championship), Inverness, Scotland
When we booked our Scotland trip, our first itinerary included the courses near Fife as well as Troon and Turnberry. It wasn’t until I talked with an old high school friend (who, as it turns out, was performing a root canal on me) who insisted that I amend my trip to include Castle Stuart and Royal Dornoch. He was so persistent that I looked more into it, and suddenly realized we were maybe missing something special, so AC and I added a few days to get up to Inverness and check it out.
In retrospect, I’ve never been so happy to have needed to get a root canal. We lucked into perfect weather, with very little wind, and we were just able to play what might be the most pure golf course on earth.
I found my first pot bunker in Scotland next to the first green, and managed to get out with a makable par putt (which…I missed). The second hole is one of the hardest par-3’s on the globe. (Tom Watson has famously said the hardest shot on the course is your second shot on #2, which says it all.)
The No Laying Up video on Royal Dornoch made good references to the Yardage Guide (the “Book of Yardage,” in their vernacular) as it contains psalm like wisdom on each hole. (Which makes sense as it was written by Rev. Susan Brown.)
For that second hole, the brutally tough short par-3, here’s the advice:
Plateau green with steep fall off on both sides and rear. The green slopes back to front.
Small is beautiful – and testing. One word can build up or knock down. How can the little work we speak be more encouraging?Royal Dornoch Yardage Book
I mean…what? I confess to not seeing most of this on the course, only when we were reviewing our round later that evening.
The par-4 5th is one I think about a lot. From an elevated green, bunkers run straight down the right side of the fairway in a way that seems impossible to miss. I somehow landed between two of them, and then found the massive, hilly green.
The long narrow green is guarded by bunkers to the front and left, and slopes left to right.
Looking down from on high, think about a highlight in your life. As you walk to your tee shot, tell your partner what for you, is one of the moments you have felt more ‘blessed’.Royal Dornoch Yardage Book
I haven’t kept up with the Top 100 Golf Course lists over the years, but back in 2018, the one I looked at had Dornoch just behind Royal County Down in terms of Best Public Courses in the world. I think about so many holes from that day – the par-4 4th (“Achinchanter”) where I piped a three-wood down the left side of the fairway, chunked my approach and then putted from almost 50-feet away to a tap-in par. I think of the par-3 10th (“Fuaran”), an elevated green surrounded by bunkers that I hit one of my best tee shots in Scotland. I think of the famous par-5 14th (“Foxy”), the only hole without bunkers on the course, where I posted a score so horrendous it looked like the legal age of consent but absolutely loved the layout and challenge as it beat the snot out of me.
And I think a LOT about the uphill par-4 16th (“High Hole”), which requires a tremendous tee shot (not sure of the grade of the hill, but it’s severe, even if that photo below doesn’t show it) and then course knowledge so you avoid blasting your second shot over the green and down the hill that lies behind it. I got lucky and found my ball sitting in some grass just down that hill, but I could see a sea of old Titleists at the bottom, lying in a shallow grave.
I wish I could go back to Royal Dornoch. I WILL go back to Royal Dornoch. Yes, it takes a long time to drive up to Inverness, but Castle Stuart, Brora, Nairn, Tain and other courses are there too. It’s SO worth it. It’s the best course I’ve ever played in my life, and even if it required getting a root canal to get me to book the trip, it was worth it and then some.
Thanks for reading.