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2009 In Review: Best Golf Courses

With golf showing for the holidays (and me tiring of writing about Tiger), I thought I’d take the time to reflect on some of my experiences in 2009.

As anyone who reads this blog knows, I have a passion for golf design and great golf courses. This year was a spectacular one for me in that respect, allowing me to witness two of the best in the UK (Sunningdale Old and Royal St. George’s), as well as a number of great ones in the U.S. (Friar’s Head, National Golf Links of America, Cypress Point, Pebble Beach, Pacific Dunes). Finally it was nice to see some terrific Canadian courses, namely St. George’s in Toronto, Hamilton in Ancaster, Highlands Links in Nova Scotia (now with fewer trees!) and Richard Zokol’s Sagebrush near Merritt, B.C.

The U.K.

I’ve now made five trips to Scotland, England and Ireland over the past decade. I’ve seen many of the great courses of Scotland and Ireland, but was woefully under when it came to England. A chance trip in the spring changed some of that, with a whirl-wind visit to Royal St. George’s (where Ben Curtis won the last British Open) and Sunningdale (where I saw Old and the equally great New).

The 5th at Royal St. George's with its green hidden behind some lumpy dunes.

The 5th at Royal St. George's with its green hidden behind some lumpy dunes.

Royal St. George’s (review) reminded me of an English version of Carnoustie or Portmarock — tough, relatively low-lying and excellent. Lots of great elements here to mess with your perceptions, and I’ve found myself thinking about the fourth and fifth holes — two excellent par-4s — a great deal. Both use some degree of blindness, but both offer enough room for a golfer to survive and recover from a near miss.

The remarkable 10th at Sunningdale Old

The remarkable 10th at Sunningdale Old

 

Sunningdale (article) was old school — from the clubhouse to the sporty course. It also had several fantastic holes — inlcuding the tremendous 10th, which demonstrated that an 100-year-old course could stand up to anything modern equipment can throw at it.

The U.S.

The 16th at Cypress Point -- one of the game's grandest stages.

The 16th at Cypress Point -- one of the game's grandest stages.

The highlight of the year had to be my Cypress Point/Pebble Beach (review) double-header. Cypress stood up to my expectations and left me debating the merits of the 18th hole (an average finish to a remarkable course or simply a bad hole?) while Pebble’s stretch starting on the 7th and through the 10th is about as good as I’ve ever experienced. Making par on the 18th at Pebble and not hitting one in the water at the 16th at Cypress stand out for me when I think back over the year.

Pebble Beach: The best approach shot in golf?

Pebble Beach: The best approach shot in golf?

I also had the chance to return to Bandon Dunes Resort, touring Old Macdonald (preview), the facility’s fourth course, with co-designer Jim Urbina. It is a fine addition to the resort, though I’ll be intrigued at whether visitors will understand the Macdonald connection. Regardless, this makes the pilgrimage to Bandon make even more sense for many when Old Mac opens next year.

Old Macdonald's Short Hole

Old Macdonald's Short Hole

Lastly, I undertook a quick two-day tour of Long Island, seeing the terrific Friar’s Head (article), which demonstrates how a new private club should be built and the level of attention needed to make it a success, and National Golf Links of America, which proves the best golf is timeless.

National Golf Links' famed punch bowl green.

National Golf Links' famed punch bowl green.

Canada

A visit to Highlands Links (review) in Cape Breton is always a highlight of any year. I’ve been six times in the past decade, and this time it was exciting given the tree clearing which was underway. I went to the course in regards to a feature I was writing about it for ScoreGolf, specifically in regards to a potential restoration. That has yet to happen — and the government should be ashamed of its inaction considering Highlands Links is one of the elements of Canada that ranks on a world scale. That said, Graham Hudson, the GM of Highlands, is doing the best he can with limited resources. Time for the bureaucracy to step aside, hand over some cash and restore this Canadian gem.

The 9th at Highlands Links with fewer trees and more grass on its green.

The 9th at Highlands Links with fewer trees and more grass on its green.

On the other hand, I had the chance to see Richard Zokol’s Sagebrush (review), a course I’d visited 18 months earlier when it was under construction. This course is a tremendous accomplishment and as much fun to play as I’d hoped it would be. Architect Rod Whitman created a terrifically crafty, smart and savvy design on a difficult site. When it plays hard and fast — which appears to be most of the time — Sagebrush is as much fun as any course in Canada. The first truly great modern course in Canada since The National in 1975? Could be.

Beauty and the beast -- Sagebrush's 7th hole

Beauty and the beast -- Sagebrush's 7th hole

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Robert Thompson

A bestselling author and award-winning columnist, Robert Thompson has been writing about business and sports, and particularly golf, for almost two decades. His reporting and commentary on golf has appeared in Golf Magazine, the Globe and Mail, T&L Golf and many other media outlets. Currently Robert is a columnist with Global Golf Post, golf analyst for Global News and Shaw Communications, and Senior Writer to ScoreGolf. The Going for the Green blog was launched in 2004.

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