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It’s almost inconceivable that land this stunning was made available for golf. For the lucky few who get to play here, they enjoy one of the game’s most inspiring walks as Alister MacKenzie’s design effortlessly transports the player around the diverse property. The iconic par-3 16th, which extends into the churning Pacific, is the game’s most dramatic and photographed hole, but there are endless other highlights, from the forested portion to heaving dunes to its famed jagged coastline. MacKenzie extracted the best from the land in part by breaking the “rules” and having back-to-back par-5s on the front and back-to-back par-3s on the back. The drivable ½-par 9th is another standout with its angled green toward play.
The birthplace of golf features blind bunkers, huge double greens, quirks such as the Road Hole and Hell Bunker and strategic options that vary with the day’s wind. The emphasis on short grass and variety became the foundation for strategic designs that followed, including Augusta National. The Old Course might well possess the fastest, best turf in the sport (despite, or perhaps because of, its constant use) and no design possesses the flexibility in allowing golfers of all ages and abilities to enjoy themselves as a group. Modern architects, take note!
Venue for five U.S. Opens since 1986, most recently in 2018, this is William Flynn’s design masterpiece. Apart from being handed a magnificently spacious piece of land upon which to work, Flynn was given something else nearly as valuable: time. Work started in 1928 and the course didn’t open until 1931. True, the Great Depression began during construction but the grace with which the holes flow across the property is a tribute to the hands-on, slow-build process. The same can be said for Royal Melbourne a few spots below, so lesson learned.
NGLA, or “National,” as it’s known, brought Seth Raynor and C.B. Macdonald together for the first time and what they created still stands as a marvel of strategic design. Some of its template holes, including the Alps 3rd, the Redan 4th, the Short 6th and the Leven 17th, are arguably superior to their namesake holes in the United Kingdom that Macdonald copied. Legendary golf writer Bernard Darwin summed it up nicely when he opined, “The National Links is a truly great course; even as I write I feel my allegiance to Westward Ho!, to Hoylake, to St. Andrews tottering to its fall.”
The evolution over more than 130 years of this design is fascinating and has yielded what many consider to be the game’s finest front nine. Blind tee shots abound, in brilliant fashion at such holes as 2, 5 and 9. On the back side, one feature that was recently expunged was a natural pond 100 yards shy of the 17th green. Member George Combe deserves much of the credit for RCD as he shepherded the course through the transition to the rubber core Haskell ball 120 years ago. Forty percent of the World top 15 (here, Pine Valley, Oakmont, Royal Dornoch, Pebble Beach and Merion) derived much of their substance from individuals who built few other courses. Such designs enjoy their own unique voices with County Down further blessed with staggeringly handsome long views of the Irish Sea, the Mountains of Mourne and the red-brick steeple of the Slieve Donard Hotel.
The immense appeal of Alister MacKenzie’s Golden Age masterwork is captured by former world No. 1 Nick Faldo: “I love the way it plays firm and fast-running, the way the bunkering frames and almost intrudes into the putting surfaces and the brilliance of the bunkering style with the native scrubby look. I’m also a fan of the often very wide fairways that reward positioning and of the mix of long and short par-4s. Add to this the splendid contouring of the greens and the rich variety of approach shots that you play into those greens.” Sir Nick said it all.
No course thrives more on looking mean. Indeed, the beauty of Oakmont is how it doesn’t doll itself up, and yet to a purist the view from the crest of the hill on 15 is as breathtaking as any in the country. The barren landscape possesses few trees and no water, just drainage ditches that traverse the land. There are few daunting carries and the greens are huge, so what’s the big deal? The question is answered at the 1st, with a green that follows the natural contours and slopes away from the player. Let the beating commence! For a course known for its difficulty, what gets lost in the shuffle is the brilliance of its quartet of short par-4s at 2, 11, 14 and 17.