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The best courses, or the most beautiful?
By Randy Schwartz
Baltusrol , Congressional, Hazeltine, Medinah, Oak Hill, Oakland Hills, Olympia Fields, Pebble Beach, Riviera, Southern Hills, Winged Foot.
Do you know what these great golf courses have in common? If you guessed that they have all hosted a PGA Championship and a U.S. Open you are correct. Now, can you tell me what course was recently left off of a golf publication’s list of its top 100 courses in the United States? You would have had to guess the North Course at Olympia Fields to be correct.
Most recently, Olympia Fields’ North Course hosted the 2003 U.S. Open won by Jim Furyk. Before that event, it hosted the 1997 U.S. Senior Open won by Graham Marsh. The 1961 PGA Championship was won by Jerry Barber and the great Walter Hagen won the 1925 PGA Championship.
In what may have been the original “Dual in the Sun,” Johnny Farrell beat the immortal Bobby Jones by one stroke – they were tied after 72 holes and Farrell beat Jones by one stroke after a 36 hole playoff. Can you imagine playing 108 holes with the winner being determined by one shot!
Other champions on the North Course include Jack Nicklaus (1969 Western Open) and Sam Sneed (1938 Chicago Open). The course has always challenged the best players and the onslaught that gains in equipment technology have brought. In fact, only four players bettered par in the 2003 U.S. Open.
The North Course has appeared in every Top 100 issue since Golf Digest started publishing its list, one of only 24 to have such an honor. And in 1993, none other than Davis Love III, Fuzzy Zoeller, Tom Kite and John Daly came to play the 14th hole – the tee shot is into a valley on this 440-yard par 4 with a creek that winds along the right side and crosses the fairway twice, with the second shot to an elevated green sloping severely from back to front – as part of the inaugural Chrysler’s American Great 18 golf holes TV show.
And the North Course isn’t done yet. It will host the world’s best amateurs when the 2015 U.S. Amateur is played there.
The place oozes golf history, championship golf, and the “Sistine Chapel of clock towers.” It is hard to argue with Olympia Field’s website boast as the “Host of Champions.
So how could Links Magazine leave it off of its top 100 list? I sent an email to George Peper, the editor of Links Magazine for a comment. He didn’t reply but I don’t blame him because I wouldn’t reply to me either. (As an aside, don’t you hate it when a news show or the newspaper tries to reach someone or asks for a comment and the journalist says something like “they declined to comment” or “they didn’t return our call.” Talk about being guilty before proven innocent.)
This isn’t meant to be an indictment of Links Magazine for leaving the North Course off the list – although I am curious how it didn’t make it. Rather, it got me thinking what really defines a great golf course? If I knew the answer to that question I would probably be a golf course rater for Golf Digest or Links Magazine rather than writing this article. But seriously, what makes one golf course “worthy” of being considered a top 100 course and another not?
All golf courses are really only a collection of 18 golf holes. And each golf hole has a teeing ground at the beginning and a hole at the completion of it. Some holes are straight and others curve and turn. Sand and water are not necessarily requirements of a “great” golf hole. But it seems they do really influence our decision.
Take for instance what is widely regarded as the best finishing hole in golf, the 18th hole at Pebble Beach. What makes the 18th a Pebble such a great hole? The hole is a flat par 5 that is not overly long and is possible to reach in two (ok, for the longest hitters its reachable in two). It’s got a tree almost in the middle of the fairway and bunkers in the driving area. It has a long bunker up the left side of the fairway toward the green and the smallish green is protected by bunkers. But the entire right side of the fairway is bordered by homes!
If you were to put this hole in any other landlocked course you would say: “What’s the big deal?” But when you design this hole so that the entire left side of the hole borders a water hazard – not just any water hazard but the Pacific Ocean – you immediately have a hole worth noting. So is this such a great design or is it a beautiful golf hole to look at?
Perhaps the real beauty of the collection of holes at any “great” golf course is how it sits and flows on the land. When you stand on any tee does the land immediately tell you how you’re supposed to play the hole or does the architect fool you into a less obvious path?
Is it a “natural” course? All the better if minimal dirt was moved as many of the classic courses like Olympia Fields. But many times the modern designer, with the benefit of massive earth moving equipment and what seems like an unlimited budget, can create that same dramatic course out of a really boring piece of land.
There’s always talk about shot values and resistance to scoring being key elements of a great golf course. And they certainly are. But going back to my Pebble Beach example, what separates the 18th there from any other similar par 5 (except for the Pacific Ocean water hazard) is the shear beauty of that hole.
Do we need another Top 100 list that is made up of the “most beautiful” golf courses in the United States? And if there was such a list, wouldn’t it be interesting to see how many of the current Top 100 courses would also be on the most beautiful list?