Continuing our ‘My Top Ten’ series, we asked Brandon Johnson of Arnold Palmer Design Company about his favourite golf courses.
With so much great architecture to explore, any grouping of bests or favourites are bound to have glaring omissions. This compilation will be no different as there are plenty of destinations still unchecked on my bucket list.
What fascinates me is when greatness sprouts from a not-so-obvious starting point, or when the obvious starting point is resolved with a crafty solution. Simple but genius solutions, cunning resolutions to site problems, clever takes on common themes, to the bold, flashy statements that elicit a smile and head shake in amusement are the types of features I enjoy discovering when I play, study or review courses.
Here are some of my favourites, in no particular order.
Royal Melbourne West (Composite), Australia. It was tough deciding between Royal Melbourne and Victoria across the street, but the ability to intertwine multiple routings on those core holes was a deciding factor. The greatness of this course doesn’t rely on an ocean, attractive views or towering dunes. It’s just pure architecture, a routing that utilises fantastic sandy ground, a masterful set of green complexes and strategic interest derived from contours, bunkers, and firm and fast conditions. It is a recipe for something special.
Royal Dornoch, Scotland. Before seeing and playing it for the first time, a member approached my group in the clubhouse and asked for our opinion of the course. After learning we had not seen it yet, he said: “I’ll give you a piece of advice, lay up on the second hole”. We soon found out this was a par three! Dornoch is pure, never disappoints, and will thrill you with an adventurous out-and-back route that traverses some of the most interesting, rambling contours.
Brora, Scotland. This is a place where you’ll have some of the most fun on a golf course. Who doesn’t enjoy stepping over electric fences that protect greens from sheep, goats, and whatever else roams freely on this wonderful piece of linksland? The raucous contours in the middle of the property are a delight to play over and the people we met there made it extra special.
Balcomie Links at Crail, Scotland. With expansive coastal views, historic ties to Old Tom Morris, and a hint of quirk, the Balcomie course is charming and scores big on the fun factor. With back-to-back par fives and threes, rock walls and funky angles, it is inspirational to experience a place comfortable with its own unique personality.
Tobacco Road, North Carolina. Few courses start with the volume turned up as high as Tobacco Road. From the jaw-dropping opening tee shot, through to the final putt on 18, this course takes you on a wild, twisted journey. This is an imaginative and daring piece of architecture that weaves bold, fanciful forms with classic risk-reward choices and heroic asks of the player. It is a refreshing interpretation of what a golf course can aspire to be. It pushes the boundary on form, challenges the player on what they ‘believe’ to be acceptable, and wins you over with how much fun it is to gaze upon and play. When you think of typical creative starting points and finished products, it is fascinating to witness what was conceived here.
Royal County Down, Northern Ireland. While many links courses have you playing within or between the dunes, Royal County Down asks you to play over them. Blind and obscured shots are plentiful, but the sense of adventure, anticipation and reveal created by attacking landforms this way is the charm of the course.
Sand Hills, Nebraska. Endless views of raw, prairie land stretch far into the distance beyond the course, almost putting you in a trance. Care, restraint, and patience were exercised in creating this remote gem. The light-handed touch allowed the bold site features and design choices to shine. The result is a stunning piece of design work that helped transform the modern practice of golf course architecture.
TPC Sawgrass, Florida. OK, I’m a bit biased here since this was once my home course… and yes, I took full advantage of the access! Very few architects and/or pieces of architecture were as influential as Pete Dye and his creation in a former swamp. The unconventional starting point that Pete moulded and transformed into an architectural canon that changed the course of modern architectural practice for decades is what captivates me. The course was provocative, raw, daring, rule breaking and eventually rule defining as players overcame their shock and began to understand and respect the creation. Despite recent course changes, ever expanding tournament demands and shifts in preferences towards different design styles, it still holds up in my opinion.
Portmarnock, Ireland. In comparison to other links courses in Ireland that showcase massive dunes filled with marram grass, and expansive views out to the coast, Portmarnock is understated. It sits low to the ground, almost devoid of stunning outside views. In contrast, all the interest is focused inwards with firm and fast turf on subtle, micro contours with key, larger elevation changes on a human scale. This culminates in a playing experience that rivals, if not eclipses, its flashier counterparts.
The Old course at St Andrews, Scotland. A bit mysterious, perhaps misunderstood by many, yet revered by most who understand golf. I admire how the course conceals its inner secrets only to disclose them to those who care to know it best. I’m having a blast still learning them. At first glance, one would hardly acknowledge The Old course as outwardly beautiful. Instead, it is full of inner beauty, nuance, charm, personality, soul and reveals its outward attractiveness unexpectedly. It is subtle, you must catch the sun hitting those vexing contours just right, experience the quick bloom of gorse, or see the weathered and worn stone on the Swilcan Burn walls and bridge to get a glimpse of its true beauty. Then you will see what others see and begin to appreciate its mysterious qualities.
My question is, with this as the ultimate precedent, with all its wonderful quirks and oddities, how did things become so predictable and homogenised?