December 1, 2021 By: Derek Duncan — The end of the year is a time for reflection, an opportunity to look back and remember the paths that led us to this point, hopefully in celebration. It’s also a time to count the votes.
From roughly March through the middle of September, select members of Golf Digest’s course ranking panel traveled the U.S. and Canada to conduct evaluations of 58 new and newly renovated courses from 2020 and 2021. Sixteen of those fell into the New Course category, though only nine were built on undeveloped land, including this year’s winner (the others were new designs constructed over existing golf properties).
Renovations and remodels, large and small, have been keeping designers busy since the rapid decline of original course development in 2009. This is where the vast majority of architectural work is being done, and to better honor it, Golf Digest has chosen to divide remodels into two broad but distinct categories. (For more on our new distinctions, click here.)
2021 will be remembered for the depth of the renovation category. Four America’s 100 Greatest Courses stalwarts underwent prominent renovations—Baltusrol’s Lower Course, Congressional’s Blue Course (opening photo), Muirfield Village and Oakland Hills’ South Course—while a number of other historic properties including Beverly Country Club in Chicago (Donald Ross), Bloomfield Hills near Detroit (H.S. Colt), Fox Chapel in Pittsburgh (Seth Raynor), Hillcrest Country Club in Los Angeles (William Watson) and Shady Oaks in Dallas (Robert Trent Jones) also saw improvements by contemporary designers.
With another year remaining on the magazine’s two-year evaluation cycle (the 2021-2022 America’s 100 Greatest ranking can be found here), it’s still too soon to tell where the Best New winners will land, or whether these substantial renovations and remodels at existing clubs will significantly elevate their status. For reference, we’ve included their post-renovation scores from evaluations taken in 2021, though bear in mind these numbers don’t include the Conditioning category since most new work needs extra time to heal.
2021 BEST NEW (OVERALL)
WINNER: CAPROCK RANCH GOLF CLUB, VALENTINE, NEB.
Gil Hanse and Jim Wagner; 6,998 yards, Par 71; Score: 53.9253
The original owner of this property in north-central Nebraska first contacted Gil Hanse to design the course in the early 2000s. It took nearly 20 years—and different ownership—to complete the task, but the wait was worth it. Opened Summer 2021, the members-only CapRock Ranch is the latest addition to the golf wonderland that is the vast Nebraska Sand Hills, where architects dream of going to do as little as possible. Half the course explores the gentle, grass-covered dunesland, and the other seven holes frolic along the rim of the Snake River Canyon, dropping 100 feet or more to the bottom. Scoring in both splash and sublimity, CapRock is uncommonly diverse and picturesque, a meeting of melodic minimalism and intense moments of orchestral wonderment.
Panelist Comments: “The combination of the dramatic, picturesque holes along the rim of Snake River Canyon and the prairie holes is certainly one of the most unique course designs both in the sand hills and the United States…While the breathtaking holes on top of the Snake River Canyon will garner most headlines, the holes played through the chop hills hold their own…#9 is a hole like I have never seen before with such a dramatic change depending on where the tee box is for the day…Possibly one of the most intriguing and best routings I have ever witnessed…Many times you need to choose the correct side of the fairway to hit to in order to have a look at the green…There are multiple ways to play each shot on each hole whether it be with trajectory on an approach shot, angles to take off tee boxes, chip shots around the green – there are options.”
2021 BEST RENOVATION
SECOND PLACE: OAKLAND HILLS COUNTRY CLUB (SOUTH COURSE), BLOOMFIELD HILLS, MICH.
Gil Hanse and Jim Wagner; 7,509 yards, Par 72; Score: 56.1180
There’s a new definition in the dictionary when you look up “Restoration”: Oakland Hills South Course. The famed South Course has undergone an extraordinary change over the past two years, with Donald Ross’ original conception of the property recovered for the first time since 1950. That’s the year Robert Trent Jones made major bunkering and fairway alterations to the course in preparation for the 1951 U.S. Open, sending the club on a 70-year path of tree-planting, narrowing, bunker re-configuration and green shrinkage, most recently under the direction of Rees Jones. Ross understood the size and undulation of Oakland Hills was profound and built enormous bunkers and massive, rolling greens to showcase it. Hanse hit on that theme, basing his restoration on images of every hole from a recently discovered pamphlet from 1929 that provided ground-level details of most greens and bunkers. Smaller putting surfaces that had been encroached by sand traps and mounds have been widened, trees were taken down to reestablish views across the course and Ross’ large fairway bunkers now create strategic left-right shot shapes. The course is almost completely unrecognizable, in the best of ways. Perhaps the Oakland Hills entry in the dictionary needs a new definition. Suggestion? Majestic.
Panelist Comments: “Next to Oakmont this is the most demanding course that I have ever played. This really is tough and yet reasonably playable with no forced carries, although lesser players will struggle with the numerous false fronts…The greens may be the best I have ever played, in terms of conditioning, movement and variety…The challenge is still primarily in the green complexes, which have undulations unlike anything I have seen on a Donald Ross design…Hanse did a tremendous job of opening up sight lines and bringing out the natural slopes of the fairways. Great course made better…This is the best renovation/restoration I have played in many years. It is brilliant…Designer Gil Hanse has gone on record saying that he favors building playable courses for everyone and that tee selection is paramount. However, the shortest tees he offers here are STILL way too long for the average player, or especially, the average woman.”
THIRD PLACE: BALTUSROL GOLF CLUB (LOWER COURSE), SPRINGFIELD, N.J.
Gil Hanse and Jim Wagner; 7,550 yards, Par 72; Score: 54.6756
If it’s not clear by now, here’s the latest: Gil Hanse and Jim Wagner are the most in-demand designers in the country for club renovations and restorations, and they’re closing in on Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw, and Tom Doak, for original work as well. Hanse and Wagner have restored classics like Los Angeles Country Club’s North Course, Merion, Winged Foot, Fishers Island and The Country Club, and they’ll soon begin working on Oakmont to prepare it for the 2025 U.S. Open—and those are just the clubs in the top 20 on America’s 100 Greatest ranking. CapRock Ranch in Nebraska won this year’s Best New Course award, and Muirfield Village narrowly prevented Hanse and Wagner from claiming the Renovation category as well. The restoration at Baltusrol’s Lower Course isn’t as dramatic as Oakland Hills, but it’s nonetheless significant and much needed. The intricate details of A.W. Tillinghast’s greens have been recreated, lost bunkers have been reinstated, trees were thinned, fairway lines adjusted and tournament tees added. The biggest impact may be the work done around the edges of the greens, where shoulders and mounds have been lowered to better showcase the sterling putting surfaces. The changes could mean a sizable ranking jump for the Lower, and Hanse and Wagner will soon begin a similar effort at the club’s Upper Course, which has even more to gain.
Panelist Comments: “The course was always exceptional but now it is more fun with creativity essential on and around the greens…The tree clearing really opens up the vistas of the property and showcases the subtle land movement. You didn’t realize the rolling topography of the first few holes and finisher previously when the trees cramped the property…I thought one very interesting thing to see was the mix of fairways that led up to greens vs. the elevated greens. Unlike some courses that have the same theme throughout, there was a solid mix here…I especially enjoyed the final few holes including the par-3 16th that has a well-protected green that floats like a cloud between numerous bunkers surrounding the green…After 7 inches of rain three days before, I was concerned the course might be wet. But balls were bouncing and greens were holding and running fast.”