I've been fortunate enough to play dozens of top courses with many memorable holes. To narrow the list to my top nine holes is no easy task since my favorite hole is usually the one I'm playing. But here are nine that would make for a pretty spectacular front side, in no particular order.
1. Old Course at St. Andrews, 17th hole, par 4, 455 yards
The most challenging hole on the course where it all began. The holes with their rumpled charm get better with each playing as you learn the quirks and bounces. This is especially so at the Road hole, where your first thought on the blind tee shot is to avoid hitting golfers coming up the parallel 2nd hole. Your second thought is not to hit the ball in the Old Course Hotel, the corner of which you have to carry (aim for the H). The second shot is one of the toughest in golf, requiring a long run-up approach to hold the diagonal green, while missing both the Road bunker and the road itself.
2. Pebble Beach Golf Links, 8th hole, par 4, 416 yards
With so many great holes from which to choose at Pebble, it's difficult to pick just one. But it's hard to disagree with Jack Nicklaus, who called the approach over Carmel Bay his favorite second shot in golf. A blind drive of 240 yards leaves you a mid-iron second over the steep cliffs to a heavily bunkered and sloped green.
3. Cypress Point Club, 16th hole, par 3, 233 yards
Cypress Point is often referred to as a masterpiece, and for good reason: It was the coming together of the game's greatest architect, Alister MacKenzie, with his greatest canvas. To think that he built this hole when golfers played with hickory shafts is astonishing. He wanted it to play as a par 4 until Marion Hollins convinced him to make it a one-shotter. There isn't a more daunting (or beautiful) tee shot—if you go for the green, that is. The fairway left is an attractive bailout for a lot of players.
4. Riviera Country Club, 10th hole, par 4, 311 yards
Perhaps the best short par 4 in America. The temptation is to pull out the big stick and have a go at the green, but leave it anywhere right, even in the fairway, and par becomes a good score because the green slopes away from the player. Laying up left with a long iron or fairway metal isn't a guarantee either, since the green is so narrow, maybe 10 yards wide, requiring a very precise approach.
5. Baltusrol Golf Club (Lower), 17th hole, par 5, 650 yards
One of A.W. Tillinghast's best par 5s, which is saying something considering how many great ones he designed. A true three-shotter with lots of deep bunkers. The emerald ribbon of fairway tilts from left to right while the hole doglegs right to left, making the lay-up over a series of cross bunkers especially difficult. The uphill green is heavily bunkered in front.
6. Merion Golf Club (East), 11th hole, par 4, 369 yards
One of the prettiest and most historic holes I've ever played. A downhill tee shot leaves a wedge approach into a small green protected on the left by one of Merion's famous shaggy bunkers and front, right and back by Cobbs Creek. This is where Bobby Jones played his last shot as a career amateur. After closing out Eugene V. Homans 8 & 7 to win the 1930 U.S. Amateur and the final leg of the Grand Slam, he retired from the competitive golf.
7. Harbour Town Golf Links, 18th hole, 452 yards
One of the best finishing holes on the PGA Tour. The fairway is extremely wide, but it doesn't appear that way from the tee, where all you see is the long carry over the salt marsh to the peninsula and out of bounds right. The marsh can also come into play if you drive it too long. The green is small and difficult to hit, especially with the prevailing wind off Calibogue Sound, which abuts the green on the left. How often do you see red stakes practically on the green?
8. Muirfield, 8th hole, par 4, 443 yards
The No. 1 handicap hole on one of the toughest links courses there is. Bunkers, gorse and heather on the corner of the dogleg-right hole force you to play it safe by keeping your drive left off the elevated tee. Your approach has to carry a giant bunker that sits about 30 yards short of the green, but get lucky and catch the down slope on the backside and you might end up with a tap-in birdie as I did last October.
9. Sherwood Country Club, 7th hole, par 5, 570 yards
This is actually the 16th hole during the Target World Challenge, but whatever the order in the round it's one of Jack Nicklaus' best risk-reward holes. It's a pretty easy par if you lay up the whole way, but the temptation is so great to hit your elevated tee shot close to the brook and then attempt to reach the well-guarded green in two.