If we look closely at the characteristics of the highly rated courses, it’s easy to start drawing conclusions about what is and is not perceived as good by golfers, or at least the subset that gets to participate in the ranking process.
Two characteristics that many of the top courses share are sandy soil and an oceanfront location. Sand provides drainage and removes the need for a huge and expensive network of subsurface pipes and channels. Because sand is easily moved by wind and water, it tends to be associated with interesting landforms; and because it is easily moved by man, it makes the construction of other landforms relatively straightforward. Only Augusta National, Oakmont, and Merion, among the consensus world elite, are not on sandy soil.
Coastal location is a little more problematic. In pure shotmaking terms, the fact that the hazard one must carry on Cypress Point’s 16th hole is the Pacific Ocean should not matter: The demands would be the same if the hole were played across a field of tall rough. Machrihanish’s famous first hole would set the golfer the same problem whether he had to judge how much of a wetland to bite off, or, as is actually the case, the Atlantic. In principle, New South Wales’s 5th would not be any different if the golfer, on cresting the hill, were faced with a graveyard behind the green instead of Botany Bay.
But golfers are not automatons, able entirely to block out their surroundings, and so it is the presence of the ocean that makes these holes among the world’s most memorable. Golfers are also, as a species, relatively traditionalist, so playing by the sea, where the game grew up, feels subconsciously right. The fact that the seaside tends to be windy, and that a decent wind makes the game infinitely more interesting, also can’t be ignored. So examine lists of the world’s top courses and find, along with Cypress, its near neighbor Pebble Beach. We also find Royal County Down, Royal Portrush, the Old Course at St. Andrews, and Muirfield, plus Shinnecock Hills and the National Golf Links of America.
But there is one other significant factor: age. Almost all of the courses on the most credible world’s top-10 lists predate World War II. Postwar, only Sand Hills and Pacific Dunes, both relatively new projects, have even sniffed a top-10 appearance, while there are no courses at all from the immediate postwar years. Why should this be? Remember the relative traditionalism of golf and golfers. The game has a long history and we are loathe to proclaim a venue truly world class until it has proved itself through the passage of time, a characteristic best articulated by Harry Colt, who said, “the real test of a golf course: is it going to live?”
However, there is something else to consider: fashion. Golf design is subject to fashions of the sort that drive many other art forms. The minimalist movement led by Tom Doak, Bill Coore, and Gil Hanse is the current craze. Four or five decades ago, the “in” look was inspired by the work of Robert Trent Jones and much more obviously artificial.
Literature, a more proven art form than golf design, is subject to fashion, too, but over time, critical thinkers have evolved the concept of the “canon,” a set of works that are accepted as of the highest caliber. Perhaps, in time, we will reach something like that in golf. But for sure, we are not there yet.