It’s tempting to describe Golf Digest’s fourth biennial ranking of the World 100 Greatest Golf Courses as a contest between advanced age and youth, legends versus new kids, Old Guard versus Upstarts.
I’m speaking not of the architects responsible for the courses, but of the courses themselves. Twenty-three of the 100 Greatest courses outside the United States for 2020-’21 were founded in the 19th century, including Northern Ireland’s Royal County Down, No. 1 in our world ranking for the third consecutive time. Granted, every one of those 23 courses has been expanded, revised, modified, reshaped and remodeled many times in many ways over many decades, but they were heralded in their youth and remain cherished today in the eyes of our Course Ranking Panel, which includes more than 1,700 North American golfers and over 350 international players.
The Old Guard dominates the top 10. There’s No. 3 Muirfield, created in 1891; No. 4 Royal Dornoch (1892) and No. 6 Old Course at St. Andrews (1848). Royal Portrush, site of last year’s Open Championship and ranked eighth, has been around since 1888. Farther down the list are veteran layouts less modified and more reflective of an earlier game of persimmon and even hickory: the delightful North Berwick (1877) at No. 39, the natural Machrihanish (1876) at No. 46 and the classic Prestwick (1851) at No. 66. The Old Guard are all vintage designs that still carry a lot of clout.
But there’s a youth movement at every corner of our latest ranking. Thirty ranked courses were built in the 21st century, including two in the top 10 and seven of the top 20. Nearly a third of the courses on our list are not yet 20 years old; five of them aren’t even five years old.
No. 1 Royal County Down, originally routed by Old Tom Morris and subsequently tinkered with by a half a dozen designers (most recently Donald Steel), is being challenged by Tari Iti in New Zealand, a dazzling Tom Doak design from 2015 that made its debut at No. 6 in 2018 and jumps to No. 2 on this survey.
But in truth, our world ranking isn’t as polarizing as statistics make it seem. Panelists aren’t examining birth certificates or sell-by dates. They’re examining course architecture, and if Tara Iti has a chance to someday replace Royal County Down at the top, it’s because Doak’s design reflects the same sort of strategies and features that have made Royal County Down so admired and feared over the centuries. It just might be that Tara Iti, and its young kin, add a few more crowd-pleasing wrinkles.
NO. 1 VERSUS NO. 2
County Down and Tara Iti have some things in common and some clear differences:
► The routings have a glorious natural flow among oceanside sand dunes, large and small. County Down’s dunes are mostly covered in dense marram grass and dotted with blooming gorse; Tara Iti has far more exposed sand. Both have bunkers snarling with heavy turf moustaches, but those at Tara Iti mostly merge with surrounding raw sand.
► Both have blind shots. White rocks and barber poles serve as targets at County Down; at Tara Iti, there are grassy sideboards visible to feed shots into hidden greens.
► The putting surfaces at Royal County Down are flattish but small and hard to hit when the wind blusters off the nearby Irish Sea. The greens at Tara Iti are big with countless knobs and dips and have more recovery options for shots blown astray by Pacific winds.
► Both layouts represent links golf, where yardages mean less than shot making. Many consider Royal County Down a supreme examination of one’s game, which is why it earns such high scores. Tara Iti offers a wider variety of angles and bailouts, perhaps making it more playable and thus the top contender among the latest generation of worldclass courses.
The talent of the respective architects should not be discounted. Old Tom Morris, whose craft involved the rudimentary staking out of fairways and greens wherever the land suggested, is responsible for the original layouts of seven ranked courses—the most of any architect. Besides County Down, Muirfield, Royal Dornoch and Royal Portrush in the top 10, there’s also No. 31 Lahinch, No. 53 Cruden Bay and No. 66 Prestwick. He also remodeled two of the top 100 courses, No. 6 Old Course at St. Andrews and No. 20 Carnoustie. Many of his original routings remain.
Doak, whose career has been based on embracing the Old School idea of letting nature dictate the design, but who also uses modern technology to enhance topography where Mother Nature falls short, has been involved with 11 of the top 100. Besides Tara Iti, he and his dedicated team have designed No. 16 Barn bougle Dunes, No. 22 Cape Kidnappers and Australia’s St. Andrews Beach, which is tied for No. 91. Doak has also remodeled seven others, including both 18s at Royal Melbourne and No. 70 Mid Ocean Club in Bermuda.
TARA ITI IS THE TOP CONTENDER AMONG THE LATEST GENERATION OF WORLD-CLASS COURSES.
As hot as Tara Iti is, it’s not the most dramatic rise on our list among 21st-century designs. Six-year-old South Cape Owners Club in South Korea, which debuted in 2018 at No. 49, moves up 40 spots to No. 9 this year.
The design by Kyle Phillips (who also has No. 27 Kingsbarns and No. 48 Yas Links on our list, and has remodeling credit at No. 7 Morfontaine and No. 38 Valderrama) runs along the rocky cliffs of an ocean shoreline. It features two par 3s over ocean coves and another that plays out to an intimidatingly narrow green on a peninsula. It’s rugged where Tara Iti is graceful, and it’s conceivable that both could be contending for the No. 1 spot in our next world ranking.
South Cape’s rise was dramatic, but it wasn’t the biggest move on this year’s list. Kawana Hotel’s Fuji Course in Japan (a “tweener” 20th-century design) moved up 49 spots, from No. 75 in 2018 to No. 26 in 2020. A 1932 layout by English architect C.H. Alison, it occupies ocean bluffs much like South Cape and several others on this ranking. Incidentally, Alison’s longtime design partner, H.S. Colt, has 13 courses on the list (six originals, seven remodels), matching Martin Hawtree (one original, 12 remodels) for the most on the list by a single architect.
Of the 10 courses that join our World 100 ranking, four are 21st-century designs:
► No. 88 Trump International Golf Links Doonbeg in Ireland (2002).
► No. 89 Ba Na Hills Golf Club in Vietnam (2016).
► No. 90 Ayodhya Links in Thailand (2007).
► No. 94 Kinloch Golf Club in New Zealand (2007).
Only one newcomer was an Old Guard layout: No. 78 Royal Cinque Ports in Kent, England. It originally opened in 1895. The other five newly ranked courses are 20th-century designs:
► No. 63 Tokyo Golf Club (a 1939 layout back on the ranking after a two-year absence).
► No. 82 Le Golf National’s Albatros course in France (opened in 1990 and site of the 2018 Ryder Cup).
► No. 96 Portstewart (Strand) in Northern Ireland (1910).
► No. 98 Tralee in County Kerry, Ireland (1986).
► No. 100 King’s Course at Gleneagles Hotel in Scotland (1919).
For those suspecting that our future world rankings will be dominated by Upstarts, there is this fact: Of the 10 courses from 2018 that failed to remain on our latest ranking, six were 21st-century designs and four were from the 20th century. Not a single 19th-century design dropped off our list. The Old Guard isn’t just well-established, it’s entrenched.
For more on the World 100 and for the country-by-country rankings, please go to golfdigest.com/go/100greatest.
1 (1) ROYAL COUNTY DOWN G.C. (Championship)
Newcastle, Northern Ireland
Old Tom Morris (1889), Donald Steel (remodeled, 1998)
2 (6) TARA ITI G.C.
Mangawhai, New Zealand
Tom Doak (2015)
3 (4) MUIRFIELD
Old Tom Morris (1891), H.S. Colt (1925), Martin Hawtree (2011)
4 (2) ROYAL DORNOCH G.C. (Championship)
Old Tom Morris (1892), George Duncan (1947), Donald Steel (1993), Tom Mackenzie (2013)
5 (3) ROYAL MELBOURNE G.C. (West)
Black Rock, Australia
Alister MacKenzie, Alex Russell (1931), Tom Doak (2015-’16)
6 (5) THE OLD COURSE AT ST. ANDREWS
Allan Robertson (1848), Old Tom Morris (1865-’85), Martin Hawtree (2013-’14)
7 (14) MORFONTAINE G.C.
Tom Simpson (1927), Kyle Phillips (2004)
8 (7) ROYAL PORTRUSH G.C. (Dunluce)
Tom Gilroy (9, 1888), Old Tom Morris (9, 1889), H.S. Colt (1933), Martin Ebert (2015)
9 (49) SOUTH CAPE OWNERS CLUB
Namhae Island, South Korea
Kyle Phillips (2013)
10 (10) TRUMP TURNBERRY (Ailsa)
P.M. Ross (1951), Martin Ebert (2015)
11 (9) CABOT CLIFFS
Bill Coore, Ben Crenshaw (2015)
12 (13) KINGSTON HEATH G.C.
Des Soutar, Mick Morcom 1925), Mike Clayton (2002)
13 (50) HIRONO G.C.
C.H. Alison 1932), Martin Ebert (2018-’19)
14 (8) SHANQIN BAY G.C.
Hainan Island, China
Bill Coore, Ben Crenshaw (2012)
15 (12) SUNNINGDALE G.C. (Old)
Willie Park Jr. (1901), H.S. Colt 1922), Donald Steel (1986)
16 (11) BARNBOUGLE DUNES
Tom Doak, Mike Clayton (2004)
17 (16) BALLYBUNION G.C. (Old)
Lionel Hewson (9, 1906), Reginald Beale (9, 1927), Tom Simpson (1937), Martin Hawtree (2011), Graeme Webster (2015)
18 (16) THE CLUB AT NINE BRIDGES
South Korea David Dale, Ron Fream (2001), David Dale, Steve Wenzloff (2016)
19 (31) ELLERSTON G.C.
Hunter Valley, Australia
Greg Norman (2001)
20 (21) CARNOUSTIE G. LINKS (Championship)
Allan Robertson (1838), Old Tom Morris (1895), James Wright (1931), Martin Hawtree (2006), Martin Ebert (2016)
21 (24) CAPE WICKHAM LINKS
King Island, Australia
Mike DeVries, Darius Oliver (2015)
22 (17) CAPE KIDNAPPERS G. CSE.
Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand
Tom Doak (2004)
T-23 (15) ROYAL BIRKDALE G.C.
George Lowe (1897), F.G. Hawtree, J.H. Taylor (1931), Fred W. Hawtree (1974-’85), Martin Hawtree (2010)
T-23 (19) ROYAL MELBOURNE G.C. (East)
Black Rock, Australia
Alex Russell (1932), Tom Doak (2012)
T-23 (20) ST. GEORGE’S G. AND C.C.
Stanley Thompson (1930), Tom Doak, Ian Andrew (2015)
26 (75) KAWANA HOTEL G. CSE. (Fuji)
C.H. Alison (1936)
27 (30) KINGSBARNS G. LINKS
St. Andrews, Scotland
Kyle Phillips, Mark Parsinen (1999)
28 (22) ROYAL ST. GEORGE’S G.C.
W. Laidlaw Purves (1887), H.S. Colt (1914), Martin Ebert (2010)
29 (39) SWINLEY FOREST G.C.
H.S. Colt (1911), Frank Pont (2012)
30 (41) ROYAL PORTHCAWL G.C.
Ramsay Hunter (1898), H.S. Colt (1919), Martin Ebert (2011)
31 (34) LAHINCH G.C.(Old)
Old Tom Morris (1894), Alister MacKenzie (1928), Martin Hawtree (2003)
32 (27) CASA DE CAMPO (Teeth of the Dog)
La Romana, Dominican Republic
Pete Dye (1971)
33 (18) NEW SOUTH WALES G.C.
Le Perouse, Australia
Des Soutar, Carnegie Clark, Alister MacKenzie (1928), Eric Apperly (1936), Greg Norman (2010), Tom Doak (2018)
34 (47) DIAMANTE G.C. (Dunes)
Cabo San Lucas, Mexico
Davis Love III (2010)
T-35 (43) CABOT LINKS
Rod Whitman (2013)
T-35 (63) PUNTA ESPADA G. CSE.
Cap Cana, Dominican Republic
Jack Nicklaus (2006)
T-35 (33) SUNNINGDALE G.C. (New)
H.S. Colt (1923), Martin Hawtree (2010)
38 (42) VALDERRAMA G.C.
Robert Trent Jones (1975), Kyle Phillips (2012)
39 (25) NORTH BERWICK G.C.
East Lothian, Scotland
David Strath (1877), C.K. Hutchison (1935)
40 (58) PORTMARNOCK G.C. (Championship)
W.C. Pickeman, George Ross, Mungo Park (1895), Martin Hawtree (2000-’04)
41 (32) ST. GEORGE’S HILL G.C.
H.S. Colt (1913), Martin Hawtree (2003), Tim Lobb (2018)
42 (64) TRUMP INTERNATIONAL G. LINKS
Martin Hawtree (2011)
43 (37) KAURI CLIFFS
Matauri Bay, New Zealand
David Harman (2000)
44 (76) JACK’S POINT G. CSE.
Queenstown, New Zealand
John Darby (2008)
45 (67) RYE G.C. (Old)
Douglas Rolland, H.S. Colt (1894), Sir Guy Campbell (1959)
46 (61) MACHRIHANISH G.C.
Charles Hunter (1876), Sir Guy Campbell (1948)
47 (26) BARNBOUGLE LOST FARM
Bill Coore, Ben Crenshaw (2010)
48 (44) YAS LINKS
Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates
Kyle Phillips (2010)
49 (40) ROYAL TROON G.C. (Old)
Charles Hunter (1878), Willie Fernie (1909), Martin Ebert (2014)
50 (81) ANYANG C.C.
Kunpo-shi, Kyonggi-Do, South Korea
Chohei Miyazawa (1968), Robert Trent Jones Jr. (1997)
51 (74) LOCH LOMOND G.C.
Jay Morrish, Tom Weiskopf (1992)
52 (36) NATIONAL G.C. OF CANADA
George Fazio, Tom Fazio (1974), Tom Fazio (2005)
53 (56) CRUDEN BAY G.C.
Old Tom Morris, Archie Simpson (1899), Tom Simpson (1926), Tom Mackenzie (2015)
54 (28) JACK NICKLAUS G.C. KOREA
Incheon City, South Korea
Jack Nicklaus (2009)
55 (60) HAMILTON G. AND C.C. (West/South)
H.S. Colt (1915), Tom Clark (1999-2005)
56 (38) FANCOURT HOTEL & G.C. (Links)
George, South Africa
Gary Player, Phil Jacobs (2000)
57 (46) ROYAL LYTHAM & ST. ANNES G.C.
George Lowe (1897), H.S. Colt (1923), Martin Ebert (2010)
58 (89) FAIRMONT JASPER PARK LODGE G.C.
Stanley Thompson (1926), W.H. Brinkworth (1948)
59 (79) SENTOSA G.C. (Serapong)
Ron Fream (1983), Gene Bates (2007)
T-60 (53) CASTLE STUART G.C.
Gil Hanse, Mark Parsinen (2009)
T-60 (80) WOODHALL SPA G.C. (Hotchkin)
Harry Vardon (9, 1905), H.S. Colt (9, 1912), S.V. Hotchkin, Sir Guy Campbell (1926), Tom Doak (2018)
62 (52) EMIRATES G.C. (Majlis)
Dubai, United Arab Emirates
Karl Litten (1988), Tim Lobb, Ross Perrett (2014)
63 (NR) TOKYO G.C.
Saitama City, Japan
Komei Ohtani (1939), Gil Hanse (2010-’18)
64 (71) ROYAL ABERDEEN G.C. (Balgownie)
Robert Simpson (1888), James Braid (1925), Martin Hawtree (2011)
65 (77) PARAPARAUMU BEACH G.C.
James Watt (1930), Alex Russell (1952)
66 (95) PRESTWICK G.C.
Old Tom Morris (12, 1851), Charles Hunter (6, 1883)
67 (29) HAESLEY NINE BRIDGES
Yeoju County, South Korea
David Dale (2009)
68 (83) OLD HEAD OF KINSALE
County Cork, Ireland
Ron Kirby, Eddie Hackett, Paddy Merrigan, Joe Carr (1996), Ron Kirby (2013)
69 (65) LEOPARD CREEK C.C.
Malelane, South Africa
Gary Player, Phil Jacobs (1998), Ernie Els, Greg Letsche (2007)
70 (54) MID OCEAN CLUB
Tucker’s Town, Bermuda
Charles Blair Macdonald, Seth Raynor (1923), Tom Doak (2014-’15)
71 (84) NARUO G.C.
Inagawa, Hyogo, Japan
Rokuro Akaboshi, Shiro Akaboshi (1929), C.H. Alison (1930), Harry C. Crane (1948)
72 (66) WALTON HEATH G.C. (Old)
Herbert Fowler (1904), Donald Steel (2011)
73 (45) VICTORIA G.C.
William Meanor, Oscar Damman (1927), Alister MacKenzie (1927), Mike Clayton, Geoff Ogilvy, Mike Cocking (2015)
74 (51) CAPILANO G. & C.C.
West Vancouver, Canada
Stanley Thompson (1937), Doug Carrick (2016)
75 (55) WATERVILLE G. LINKS
Eddie Hackett (1972), Tom Fazio (2003)
T-76 (35) THE BLUFFS HO TRAM STRIP
Greg Norman (2014)
T-76 (87) HIGHLANDS LINKS
Ingonish Beach, Canada
Stanley Thompson (1941), Ian Andrew (2011)
78 (NR) ROYAL CINQUE PORTS G.C.
Tom Dunn (1895), Sir Guy Campbell (1949), Martin Ebert (2007)
79 (57) METROPOLITAN G.C.
J.B. Mackenzie (1908), Alister MacKenzie (1926), Neil Crafter, Paul Mogford (2016)
80 (85) ROYAL ADELAIDE G.C.
Cargie Rymill, C.L. Gardiner (1905), Alister MacKenzie (1925), Tom Doak (2015-’17)
81 (72) ROYAL LIVERPOOL G.C.
Robert Chambers, Geordie Morris (1871), H.S. Colt (1920), Martin Hawtree (2010)
82 (NR) LE GOLF NATIONAL (Albatros)
Robert von Hagge, Hubert Chesneau (1990), Ross McMurray (2016)
83 (73) SIAM C.C. (Old)
Ichisuke Izumi (1970), Lee Schmidt, Brian Curley (2007)
84 (T-68) GANTON G.C.
Tom Chisholm, Robert Bird (1891)
85 (62) SHESHAN INTERNATIONAL G.C.
Neil Haworth, Robin Nelson (2004)
86 (88) SPRING CITY GOLF AND LAKE RESORT (Lake)
Robert Trent Jones Jr. (1995)
87 (99) FAIRMONT BANFF SPRINGS G. CSE. (Thompson)
Stanley Thompson (1929), Les Furber (1999)
88 (NR) TRUMP INTERNATIONAL G. LINKS DOONBEG
Greg Norman (2002), Martin Hawtree (2014-’16)
89 (NR) BA NA HILLS G.C.
Da Nang, Vietnam
Brit Stenson, Luke Donald (2016)
90 (NR) AYODHYA LINKS G.C.
Peter Thomson, Ross Perrett, Tim Lobb (2007)
T-91 (70) CABO DEL SOL (Ocean)
Los Cabos, Mexico
Jack Nicklaus (1994)
T-91 (86) ST. ANDREWS BEACH G. CSE.
Tom Doak, Mike Clayton (2004)
93 (97) QUERENCIA C.C.
Los Cabos, Mexico
Tom Fazio (2000)
94 (NR) KINLOCH G.C.
Taupo, New Zealand
Jack Nicklaus (2007)
95 (92) THE EUROPEAN CLUB
Brittas Bay, Ireland
Pat Ruddy (1992, 2000-’11)
96 (NR) PORTSTEWART G.C. (Strand)
A.G. Gow (1910), Willie Park Jr. (1913), Des Giffin, Michael Moss (1992)
97 (98) THE NATIONAL G.C. (Moonah)
Cape Schanck, Australia
Greg Norman (2001)
98 (NR) TRALEE G.C.
Arnold Palmer, Ed Seay, Bob Walker (1984), Brandon Johnson (2013)
99 (100) WESTERN GAILES G.C.
Willie Fernie (1894), Fred W. Hawtree (1975)
100 (NR) GLENEAGLES HOTEL G.C. (King’s)
James Braid, C.K. Hutchison (1919)