LIKE the wine lover collecting Robert Parker ‘100 point’ bottles, a certain type of golfer exists who travels the globe in search of World Top 100 golf courses.
Some are easily found. Public courses like The Old Course, Pebble Beach or Bethpage Black can be played by pretty much anyone prepared to stump up the cash.
Mostly they are expensive (Pebble is around $AU700 these days) but some offer great value - none better than Barnbougle Dunes at $110.
More commonly, though, the top 100 is full of courses which are difficult to get on.
Knowing members is critical and groveling isn’t out of the question.
I’ve been extremely fortunate through my career to have played my share of great courses around the world.
In my various travels I’ve met members and also happen to be friends with many architects who have either designed or consult to these gems, so on various trips I’ve managed a game here and there.
On our recent trip to the US where we are rebuilding Shady Oaks Golf Club in Forth Worth, Texas, the opportunity came up to travel to Chicago for the weekend to see a couple of especially rare gems - no doubt making the top 100 seekers green with envy.
First stop, Chicago Golf Club. Designed in 1894 by the father of course design in America - Charles Blair MacDonald - it was the first 18-hole course to open in the country.
It also happens to be one of the most exclusive clubs in the world with just 125 members - the most ever in its history!
A chronic slicer, MacDonald routed the course in a clockwise loop keeping the boundary (and the trouble) down the left of each hole.
Later on, his partner would redesign the course, keeping the basic routing but altering most parts of the design.
MacDonald and Raynor regularly used famous holes from the UK as inspiration to the point where virtually all their courses feature a number of what became known as ‘template’ holes (The Redan, Road, Short, Punchbowl, Biarritz and so on).
Chicago features a number of these but their Redan is a standout and perhaps the best version in existence.
It features a huge tilt in the green from right to left and front to back, much bigger than at Shinnecock Hills, National Golf Links or even the original at North Berwick in Scotland.
From the top-right corner to the back-left it drops perhaps eight or 10 feet.
The greens as a whole are some of the best I’ve ever seen. Varied, interesting, complex and wild.
Everyone in our group putted off the green at some point – twice into bunkers!
The 2nd hole of the revered Chicago Golf Club.
Next stop, The Dunes Club. This is the private course of renowned golf resort developer Mike Keiser and one of the few ‘9-holers’ to have been ranked among the top 100 in America.
Located in New Buffalo – a lakeside township a few hours north east of Chicago – his dream was to create a course that looked and played like Pine Valley.
Set on 90 acres of woodland and sand he knew the site long before it was made into golf.
His family had a holiday house just down the road and when his kids were young they would often wander through the woods hitting balls cross country “aiming at trees and making up golf holes”.
When he heard that a developer had plans to turn it into housing he decided to purchase the property to stop it being developed but, over time, the concept of building a golf course materialized.
The Dunes Club is all about the golf. From the outside there is nothing indicating a golf course – just a clearing in a long row of trees and a gate just wide enough for cars to enter and exit.
There are no carts, no cart paths, caddies are encouraged (and really do help add to the experience) and there are no tee markers.
With up to six or eight teeing grounds per hole it allows golfers to play from wherever they like and if 18 holes are being played you can vary your tee location for the second nine.
Mike had spent time trying to route the original course but, realising his own limitations, eventually hired architect Dick Nugent to help.
The nature of the ground reminded both men of Pine Valley – the greatest course in the world – and its influence is clearly evident in many of the green sites and the use of sprawling sandy wastes.
The course is beautiful, tranquil and oozes elegance and its also in perfect condition, thanks to just 100 members and barely 3000 rounds per year.
The Dunes Club is 'only' 9 holes but it is world class.
The third leg of the trip was a visit to Mike Keiser’s newest venture – Sand Valley.
Built in a remote section of Wisconsin – around five hours from The Dunes Club – it combines pine trees with vast tracks of undulating sand dunes.
Combined with a climate perfect for the growing of fescue – the greatest of all grasses for golf – it makes for the ultimate golfing landscape.
Unlike the Dunes Club and Chicago Golf Club, the course is entirely public in keeping with Keiser’s other successful developments at Bandon Dunes and Cabot Cliffs.
The design is fantastic but somewhat expected given the track record of designer Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw on sites like this.
In keeping with the enormous scale of the site the fairways are wide, allowing golfers a multitude of lines from the tee.
Greens are also expansive but cleverly defended by bunkers or contour to make this a pure strategic experience.
Even when out of position, there are options to play creatively and recover. The turf is firm and bouncy and green sites have been designed with the ground game in mind.
All of these things conspire to make for a fun game of golf. The public golfer doesn’t want hard, they want fun.
Coore and Crenshaw have done it again at Sand Valley.
And so ends one of my most enjoyable, and educational, golf odysseys.
Three rounds and 1000 kms in three days covering three of the world’s great golf experiences.
Not a bad way to spend a weekend off work!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Mike Cocking is an architect and partner with one of Australia's leading golf design firms - Ogilvy Clayton Cocking Mead. Click here for OCCM's website
Mike is currently spending his time at Peninsula – Kingswood CGC on major course improvements – a project especially dear to his heart, having joined the club as a 15 year old and representing the club for almost two decades.
After completing a Bachelors degree in Environmental Engineering in 1998, Mike gained a scholarship with the Victoria Institute of Sport's golf program.
Over the next few years he represented Victoria and Australia in various team events, winning a number of major competitions including the 2000 Victorian Amateur Championship. Travelling extensively for competition play also allowed Mike the opportunity to seek out and study many of the world’s best courses.
His passion for the game and his inquisitive nature fuelled his interest in golf course architecture, and in 2000 he launched his career as a designer. Major projects have included redesigns at Bonnie Doon (Sydney), RACV Healesville, RACV Torquay and Royal Canberra.
Mike is also a keen artist and a selection of artwork can be found on his website.