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Golfweek’s Best 2021: The top architects on the Modern, Classic Courses lists


Whose likenesses would be shaped from rock if there existed a Mount Rushmore for golf course designers? It’s a hard call to decide who fills out that most illustrious foursome, but two designers would be locks. 

First, some background. It’s impossible, of course, to judge a designer’s portfolio based solely on number of courses built. Likewise, it would be impossible to add some less-prolific designers to any such shrine because the influence of their work lacks scale – their courses might be incredible, but there simply weren’t enough holes built for some designers to reach the highest peaks. 

Better to use Golfweek’s Best 2021 top-200 lists of Classic and Modern Courses in the United States, with 1960 as the demarcation point between the two. These two lists represent the elite of the elite. And while there are dozens of architects who have earned at least partial credit with their names listed on these top courses, the top 20 designers on the two lists have combined credits on more than 300 of the 400 courses listed. 

Golden era course designer Donald Ross designed Seminole Golf Club in Florida, which is pictured atop this story. (AP files; Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images for the top photo)

At the apex are clear leaders – as judged by volume of top courses in the U.S. – for both the Classic and Modern lists: Donald Ross earned design credit for 65 of the top 200 Classic Courses, and Tom Fazio earned credit on 46 Modern Courses as well as two Classics that he redesigned or renovated. 

Any count of this type can be complicated by complete redesigns, renovations, restorations and a thousand shades of gray between the three. Particularly for the older Classic Courses, multiple designers are credited with contributions as some layouts have evolved. Singular design credit is more rare on these Classics than on the Modern tracks. 

Work has continued on many of the Classics since 1960, so even Modern architects might appear in the credits for several of the Classics. A great example is the Country Club of Detroit, for which Charles H. Alison, Harry S. Colt, Robert Trent Jones Sr. and Tom Doak all appear in the design credits, with Doak working in 2011 to restore the course more closely to Alison and Colt’s original intent. 

Pinehurst No. 2 was designed by Donald Ross. (Courtesy of Pinehurst Resort)

There are dozens of similar examples throughout the Classic list, and the presence of more than one designer in the credits of any course is in no way intended to diminish the contributions of other listed designers, even though a particular designer’s influence may have been reduced. 

Other courses have only one designer listed, even as those layouts have been tweaked since they opened. Pinehurst No. 2 in South Carolina is a prime example. Originally created by Ross, the course was altered multiple times before the talented design team of Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw in 2010 completed a restoration to more closely match Ross’s original design. 

Next door to Pinehurst No. 2, Ross’s No. 4 course also saw decades of change before Gil Hanse and Jim Wagner in 2018 completely renovated the track, with Ross still in the credits. Hanse and Wagner installed new hazards and greens – and even several new corridors – making what Hanse has called “an entirely new course” on the same property. Hence, the course was placed on the Modern list even though golf began on that ground more than a century ago. 

Clearly, there are many gray areas when it comes to who built what and who deserves how much of the credit. Instead of diving too deep into those weeds, this story focuses on any designer credited with significant alterations to top courses – the same as the Golfweek’s Best rankings do.

These rankings also focus on the best successes for each designer, as is the inherent nature of rankings. Some designers build fewer courses, earning a higher percentage of representation on the lists than do other designers. Golfweek’s Best lists are not intended to compare designers’ efforts as a percentage of their total work, only to recognize great courses regardless of who designed them. 

What is not in doubt is Ross’s influence on American golf. Born in 1872 in Dornoch, Scotland, Ross is credited with the design or renovation of more than 400 courses around the world. His lay-of-the-land style – before the advent of heavy, mechanical earth-moving equipment – has shaped the ethos for many of the best modern designers. 

And it wasn’t just volume for Ross. His top courses include No. 2 at Pinehurst (where he served as the golf professional and where he died at age 75), Seminole and Oakland Hills’ South, and he designed almost a third of all the top 200 courses on Golfweek’s Best Classic list for the U.S., including 30 of the top 100 Classics. 

Tom Fazio pictured in 2001 (Mark Boster/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

Fazio, who has built more than 200 courses around the world, has a similar grip on much of the Modern list for courses built in or after 1960 in the U.S. Born in 1945, Fazio started his career in the family design firm before striking out on his own in 1972. He has earned credit on 46 of the top 200 Modern Courses, including 21 in the top 100 on that list, as well as done significant work on two Classic Courses on that list’s top 100. 

An interesting way to think about it: That’s almost 200 miles worth of great golf holes, just counting Fazio’s courses on the top 200 lists. 

“For me, when we get hired, I know the expectation of the person that’s hiring us. They expect it to be the best it can be,” Fazio told Golfweek in March. “That sounds so trite, so automatic, but it’s not. It’s true. … It has to be as good, better than anything you’ve ever seen. …

“It’s motivation, the expectation for how you’re going to live your whole life. From the time I started in the ’60s, it’s always been that whatever you do, it’s going to be the best it can be. And it just keeps going that way. … Call it luck, God, whatever. Somehow you get the job done. That’s why we get paid very well … And that’s what the expectation is. And I’m always looking at, what’s next?”

Estancia in Arizona was designed by Tom Fazio (Courtesy of Estancia)

Fazio is just as interested in his courses that don’t make the top-200 lists as those at the top, believing many of them to be worthy of higher ranking. 

“I’ll also say one other thing, not a facetious thing but on the other side of that list that has many of those top golf courses,” he said. “I have many golf courses not on that list still, or down on the bottom of it, and they’re just as good as the top ones. So it’s just a matter of opinion sometimes, because there’s a lot of good golf courses out there.”

He’s right. Ranking courses is a game of opinions. But Golfweek’s Best incorporates the opinions of more than 850 raters who scour the nation to sample courses, and the cumulative opinions show clear affinity for his – and Ross’s – work. 

– Golfweek’s Tim Schmitt contributed

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