The past year saw the opening of several new golf courses of note, COVID-19 notwithstanding. And while the pandemic certainly hindered the number of people who have been able to play these layouts, it has done nothing to diminish the desire among golfers to give them a try once travel becomes easier.
What follows is a list of the four most exciting 18-hole courses to come online in 2020, as well as a pair of short courses that are attracting a fair amount of attention of their own. Located in the wilds of northern Michigan and along the western shores of Nova Scotia’s Cape Breton Island, they are part of a growing trend of layouts that have fewer than the traditional number of golf holes but give up nothing in terms of design, interest and playability.
The roster also features three short courses at established golf resorts that will open in the spring and summer of 2021. They include a nine-hole track by Tiger Woods at Pebble Beach on California’s Monterey Peninsula and a new layout at Destination Kohler in Wisconsin.
Taken together, they ensure that when it comes to new golf course design, 2021 will be regarded as a very good year.
Remarkably, things keep getting better at Bandon Dunes. Already home to four of the most celebrated golf courses in the United States (Bandon Dunes, Pacific Dunes, Bandon Trails and Old Macdonald), the resort added a fifth last year that is every bit as good.
Called the Sheep Ranch and located on grounds where ovines once grazed, the course is laid out on a 150-acre tract that overlooks the Pacific Ocean. That’s a smallish piece of property for 18 holes. But architects Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw nonetheless found a way to deftly fit a par-71 track onto it.
The Sheep Ranch is nothing if not breathtaking, with nine of the green sites constructed on cliffs that rise high above the beaches below. One of those sits on a spit of land that protrudes into the Pacific and serves as a double green for Nos. 3 and 16, the ocean creating a sense of negative space behind the putting surface that makes actual distances to the pins difficult to discern. On other holes, golfers are compelled to hit tee shots over gaping chasms. There are no bunkers on the entire Sheep Ranch course, and Coore says he is relying on the winds that blow steadily off the water to protect par.
But frankly, par will likely not matter much to most players who tee it at the Sheep Ranch. Rather, it will be the pleasure of walking that piece of land with their sticks and savoring the genius of the course design and the sweeping ocean views that serve as the backdrop.
Bass Pro Shops founder Johnny Morris established this resort in 1987 as a way of bringing people to the Ozark Mountains so they could experience the part of southwest Missouri he has long called home. Ever the outdoorsman, he first offered fishing, hiking, horseback riding and shooting. Eventually, Morris determined that golf might be another attraction, and he started building courses. Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player and Tom Fazio each designed tracks at Big Cedar, as did Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw. Now comes the first public-access layout ever fashioned by Tiger Woods.
It’s named Payne’s Valley, in honor of the late Payne Stewart, the PGA Tour professional and three-time major championship winner who grew up in nearby Springfield and died in a 1999 plane crash. The course is routed in and around wooded ridges and up and down hollows that in some cases are bisected by twisting creeks. And the limestone rock formations that rise throughout the track endow it with a sense of theater as well, especially as backdrops to the 18th green and also a charming par-3 “bye hole” where any remaining bets from the round may be settled.
“Tiger wanted this course to be challenging for really good players, approachable to average players and accessible to all,” says Beau Welling, who runs his own golf course design firm and serves as a senior design consultant to Woods. “The fairways are wide, there are several sets of tees, and he gave golfers lots of recovery options around the green.”
Woods opened the course this past fall in an exhibition with fellow tour professionals Justin Rose, Rory McIlroy and Justin Thomas. They raved about the layout, and the public likely will as well.
It’s the layouts of a certain age that get most of the attention in St. Andrews, the ancient ecclesiastical center that is also known as the Home of Golf. Think of the Old Course, where golf has been played since the mid-1400s, and the neighboring New Course, which is certainly that in comparison — yet hardly contemporary given that it opened in 1895.
But the area also boasts some modern gems, such as Kingsbarns, which is situated on the Firth of Forth estuary some 5 miles out of town and came online to great acclaim in 2000. And most recently Dumbarnie Links. Located a little farther down the road, in the coastal town of Leven, it was “ready for play” last spring. But the pandemic and the resulting lockdowns have not allowed Dumbarnie to truly hit its stride.
It no doubt will once golfers start traveling again. And those that visit this Clive Clark-designed links course, which is fronted by a mile and a half of beach, will not be disappointed. The water views are the first thing visitors will notice, and also how the course is routed on two tiers of land divided by an abandoned railway bed. A former member of the European PGA Tour who played in the 1973 Ryder Cup, Clark took what had been linksland (and part of the Earl of Crawford’s Balcarres Estate) and transformed it into a splendid ground for golf, moving some 500,000 cubic yards of earth to create more than 600 dunes.
Friends who have teed it up at Dumbarnie praise the variety of shots the course presents, the different clubs they have to hit and how they can run their approaches onto the greens. As manufactured as the course may be, they say that its rumpled fairways, gnarly pot bunkers and well-contoured greens make it feel as if it has existed for centuries. Dumbarnie is just one more reason to come to the Home of Golf and mix in a little of the new with the old.
Cabo San Lucas, Mexico
The seaside setting of Greg Norman’s newest design effort, on the southernmost tip of Baja California, is almost reason enough to commend his course at Rancho San Lucas. But then there’s the layout itself, which the Aussie has smartly routed through scrubby cactus forests, rugged dunes and along sandy beaches, the cerulean waters of the Pacific Ocean in constant view. With the back tees measuring a tick over 7,200 yards, it can challenge the best players in the world. But Norman made it playable for a wide range of players, building five sets of markers. He also kept bunkering to a minimum, constructing just over 40 for the entire layout, and created something of a course within a course in the form of a 12-hole loop in a part of the layout that is not so exposed to the ocean. That way, golfers have a place to play when the wind is really up (and it often blows 20 to 30 knots).
Rancho San Lucas gets a golfer’s attention right away with an elevated tee on the par-5 1st that overlooks an inviting, shamrock-green fairway running between a towering pair of sand ridges and to a massive green backed by another dune. The Pacific is visible to the left, and it is possible to spy not only fishing vessels chugging up and down the coast from that vantage but also pods of gray whales, breaching and spouting.
Several holes on the back nine are just as arresting, especially Nos. 14, 15 and 16, the wide swaths of fairways and ample greens of the par 4s bordered on both sides by oyster-white beach sand. As for the par-3 17th, with its testy island green, it is reminiscent of the iconic 17th hole at TPC Sawgrass in Ponte Vedra, Florida.
Inverness, Nova Scotia
This retreat in the old mining town of Inverness on the west coast of Cape Breton already possessed two of the best 18-hole golf courses in all of Canada: the Rod Whitman-designed Cabot Links, which overlooks the Gulf of St. Lawrence and opened in 2012, and Cabot Cliffs, which Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw crafted on land just up the coast to the north four years later. With the opening this past summer of The Nest, Inverness can now lay claim to having the finest short course in North America.
Whitman produced this 10-hole, par-3 track with Dave Axland, who helped build many of Coore and Crenshaw’s most celebrated courses before teaming up with Whitman to form their own design firm. The Nest is located inland and uphill from Cabot Cliffs and overlooks its last eight holes, on land that Whitman describes as featuring “an open meadow, a coastal forest and several deep washes.” Holes range in length from 95 to 232 yards, and bunkers present the same rugged look of those on the Links and Cliffs. There is one double green on the Nest, on Nos. 4 and 9, and one water hole, on the fifth, where the green is guarded by a trio of bunkers.
Whitman says the land on which the Nest is routed is “interesting, fun and varied.” So is the golf.
Forest Dunes, some 200 miles northwest of Detroit, underwent a similar evolution. The first course there was an 18-holer designed and constructed by former British Open champion Tom Weiskopf. It opened in 2000. Then a second, reversible track came online in 2016. Dubbed the Loop, it was brilliantly conceived and crafted by Tom Doak and quickly made its way onto the most reputable top-100 lists.
The Short Course came along a few years later. It was the brainchild of resort owner Lew Thompson, an Arkansas trucking magnate who determined that he needed to make things more fun for his current customers — and for the new ones he was hoping to attract to this rather remote retreat. He asked a pair of up-and-coming architects in Riley Johns and Keith Rhebb to handle the job. The end result was a 10-hole track measuring 1,135 yards, with greens constructed to funnel balls toward pin locations and increase the likelihood of holes-in-one.
The architects made a name for themselves a few years back with a superb restoration of a historic but rather down-at-the-heels nine-hole municipal course in Winter Park, Florida. And Thompson, who ran his trucking business for many years out of a laundromat before making his millions by hauling frozen turkeys for Butterball, hoped for a similarly successful effort when he asked them to build the Short Course. Early returns indicate that they more than hit their mark.
The grass was only growing in when I visited Forest Dunes in 2019, so I was unable to play it. But I could easily see its potential. The first hole takes golfers up a hill to the top of a dune dotted with trees and then leads them into and out of a dell and across another dune. There is great variety of holes and ways they can be played, with Rhebb telling me that they wanted golfers to be able to get around using just one club if they so desired.
Playing music – and playing barefoot – are encouraged, and so are eightsomes, all of which speak to Thompson’s desire for the Short Course to evoke a sense of fun.
Another sign of the pleasure that Thompson wants to promote is how the layout begins and ends at an outside pavilion that features a very well-stocked bar.
“That was no accident,” Rhebb told me.
Given that Kohler has been in the plumbing supply business for 128 years, it is appropriate that the company dubbed the latest addition to its portfolio of Pete Dye-designed golf courses The Baths of Blackwolf Run. Slated to open in June, it includes a par-3 course as well as a 2-acre putting green. Chris Lutzke, a protégé of Dye’s, served as architect of this track, receiving assistance from Kohler Co. executive chairman Herb Kohler, who helped Dye create the four 18-hole courses that have made this golf resort one of the finest in the world.
Kohler says he drew deeply from his collaborations with Dye, who passed away last winter. The goal was to make the Baths challenging but also a place for golfers to “hang out” when their games on one of the big courses were done, preferably with a beer and cigar in hand.
Constructed on 27 acres between the first and 11th holes of Meadow Valleys, one of the two 18-hole tracks at Blackwolf Run, the Baths typically plays as a 10-hole short course, but the layout can also be configured to provide three-, six- or 12-hole experiences. There are four water features but no forced carries. As for the putting green, which is modeled after the fabled Himalayas course in St. Andrews, it can be set up with 18 or 27 holes laid out to be played in a number of ways.
Architect David McLay Kidd crafted this 14-hole, links-style track in fruit-orchard country well east of Seattle. He describes QuickSands as “a golfing playground” and says that rounds on this course, slated to open May 1, will be “wild, exciting, unpredictable and most of all great fun.” Built in high desert across 25 acres of sand dunes in view of the Columbia River, it has holes that range from 60 to 160 yards in length and carry names like Crater, Corkscrew and Donut. Those appellations connote a sense of whimsy, and so does the course-wide sound system through which the resort owners will pipe in music each day. Just as pleasurable are the short-game shots that Kidd’s latest creation will ask players to make.
Best known for the Bandon Dunes track he designed in the neighboring state of Oregon more than two decades ago, Kidd also designed the highly ranked 18-hole Gamble Sands layout at this scenic, central Washington resort as well as the 100,000-square-foot Cascades putting green. The addition of QuickSands only elevates the golf experience.
Pebble Beach, California
Tiger Woods made his mark at Pebble Beach as a tour professional when he captured the 2000 U.S. Open here in historic fashion, winning by a record 15 strokes. Two decades later, he is showcasing his talents as a course designer.
His job was to create an entirely new short track on a site that had been home to the nine-hole Peter Hay Golf Course since 1957. The result is 670-yard layout with low-cut chipping areas around what Woods calls “strategically contoured” greens. He says that the Short Course is made to “reward creativity” and “to introduce new players to the game and bring families together.”
The most interesting hole on this new layout, and the one everyone will want to play most, is the second. Tiger’s goal was to replicate the famous seventh on the Pebble Beach Golf Links, with the same distance (106 yards), the same downhill elevation change, the same green dimensions and the same six bunkers surrounding the putting surface. It also plays in the same direction, right toward Stillwater Cove.
Editor's note: As of this writing, Tiger Woods is recuperating after suffering multiple leg injuries in a single-car accident in Southern California. We wish him a quick and complete recovery.