Our team is golf-obsessed, and we frequently debate which golf courses are the best. In doing so, we discovered that some of us have a favourite golf course designer.
Our golf experts have travelled the world, playing the creations of the men listed below, and have come to recognize a specific design style or trait that they like. This could turn into another one of those lists you have to check off.
The Evolution of Golf Course Design
Golf course design has a long and storied history, evolving over centuries alongside advancements in agronomy, equipment technology, and playing strategies. The first golf courses emerged in Scotland and England in the 15th century, when shepherds would hit stones into rabbit holes on linksland, the sandy coastal terrain where golf originated. These rudimentary courses eventually became standardized to 18 holes by the late 18th century.
Early American golf courses aimed to emulate the classic links of Scotland and England. Courses such as Chicago Golf Club, Shinnecock Hills, and National Golf Links of America incorporated windy conditions and fescue grass to simulate the challenge of true links golf. Architects learned that the American climate and soils necessitated certain adjustments, leading to the development of courses suited for inland play. Architects experimented with contouring techniques to incorporate strategically placed hazards, bunkers, and greens complexes. This transition marked the inception of golf course architecture as its own distinct discipline.
The early 20th century ushered in the golden age of golf course design. As the game increased in popularity, renowned architects arose to meet the demand for additional high-quality courses. Architects such as Alister Mackenzie, Seth Raynor, Charles Blair Macdonald, and others built a number of America’s most iconic and challenging layouts during this era. Advances in agronomy, irrigation, and earthmoving capabilities empowered architects to maximize the strategic potential of sites through bold shapes, penal hazards, and large, undulating greens. The golden age produced designs that not only required shot-making excellence, but also emphasized enjoyment and aesthetics.
Early Golf Course Architects
Old Tom Morris
Hailing from St. Andrews, Scotland, Old Tom Morris established himself as one of history’s foremost golf course architects during the 19th century. Morris began his career as an acclaimed player, winning four Open Championships in the 1840s and 1850s. He later became the head greenkeeper at Prestwick Golf Club, where he designed the original 12-hole layout that twice hosted The Open.
Around this time, Morris began receiving requests to design courses across Scotland and England. His minimalist philosophy involved laying out holes across the natural landscape with few earthmoving alterations. Morris is credited with standardizing the 18-hole course length, integrated greenside bunkers, and improved hole routing principles. Some of his most acclaimed designs include Royal Dornoch, Muirfield, and Lahinch.
A leading architect during the golden age, A.W. Tillinghast designed some of American golf’s most renowned courses between 1910-1940. Prior to architecture, Tillinghast built a career as an accomplished golfer and writer. His designs often implemented unique contours, small greens, and penal bunkering to create risk-reward strategies.
Some of his most famous works include Bethpage Black, Baltusrol, Winged Foot, and San Francisco’s Harding Park. Tillinghast was known for his bold shaping, incorporation of natural sites, and strategic bunker placements. His courses have consistently challenged the world’s best players at major championships.
Donald Ross has built and renovated the most golf courses in history by a wide margin. Originally from Scotland, Ross worked as an apprentice to Old Tom Morris before moving to America in 1899. He spent most of his career based out of Pinehurst, North Carolina, where he refined his design techniques and philosophy.
Ross’ designs featured small, sloped greens that rejected mediocre shots. He was also renowned for his skillful bunkering. Some of his most prominent designs include Pinehurst No. 2, Oakland Hills, Seminole, and East Lake. Ross prioritized playability and strategic bunkering to pose options, requiring golfers to think carefully on each shot. His prolific career resulted in over 400 original course designs across America.
Originally trained as a surgeon, Alister MacKenzie brought a spirit of experimentation to his golf course designs. MacKenzie believed that golf holes should present alternative options to engage creative thinking, but still penalize poorly executed shots. He was also adamant that courses must be beautiful and handle drainage well.
Some of Mackenzie’s most famous collaborations include Cypress Point, the West Course at Royal Melbourne, and Augusta National with Bobby Jones. His partnership with Jones produced one of history’s most iconic courses for The Masters Tournament. Mackenzie also worked with several top architects to design other major championship venues.
The Golden Age of Golf Course Design
The 1920s to 1930s marked the golden age of golf course architecture, characterized by the prolific work of prominent designers and major advancements in playability and aesthetics. This era produced a number of America’s most revered golf courses, setting lofty standards for architects to follow.
Robert Trent Jones Sr.
The most prolific architect of the post-WWII era, Robert Trent Jones Sr. designed over 500 courses worldwide. Jones introduced a more strategic philosophy reliant on length and water hazards rather than dense bunkering. He was also one of the first architects to incorporate water hazards and target-style greens on inland courses.
Jones’ most acclaimed works include Spyglass Hill, Bellerive, Hazeltine National, and the Lake Course at The Olympic Club. While criticized by some for excessive difficulty and gimmicky designs, Jones’ courses brought a modern flair that captivated country clubs across America. He’ll be remembered for designing numerous major championship venues and pioneering the stadium-style course.
Pete Dye pioneered a penal, risk-reward design style that dared the best players to attempt high-tariff shots. Taking influence from Alister MacKenzie, Dye used railroad ties, pot bunkers, and water hazards to intimidate golfers psychologically. His designs often incorporated an island green or other gimmicky features.
Some of Dye’s most revered works include TPC Sawgrass, Whistling Straits, Kiawah Island, and the Ocean Course at Kiawah Island. While divisive among critics, Dye designed courses that consistently challenge professionals yet enable enjoyment for average golfers playing the correct tees. His railroad tie bunkering and island greens became signature trademarks.
The Golden Bear’s prolific design career has spanned over 300 golf courses across the globe. Nicklaus’s designs tend to utilize generous landing areas, optical illusions demanding accurate distance control and strategic options that reward local knowledge. His courses often feature a risk-reward par-5 18th hole to produce drama.
Nicklaus’ most prominent designs include Muirfield Village, Castle Pines, The Bear’s Club, and Cabo del Sol. His style combines attributes from both Jones and Dye, offering visual intimidation and strategic options with less severely penal hazards than Dye. Nicklaus has led one of architecture’s most successful design firms, and excelled at designing courses that appeal to touring professionals as well as members.
One of contemporary golf’s most prolific architects, Tom Fazio has designed over 160 golf courses worldwide since the 1970s. His designs feature extensive shaping, white-sand bunkers, and water hazards guiding players towards ideal shot angles. Firm, fast-draining green complexes allow for pin placements on slopes and extensions.
Some of Fazio’s most acclaimed works include Shadow Creek, Quail Hollow, Longaberger, and CordeValle. Fazio often collaborates with top course owners and club officials during design to maximize value and meet the needs of future members. His custom creations and remodelling projects fuse seamlessly with the natural environment.
Modern Golf Course Architects
Advancements in agronomy, drainage, irrigation, and earthmoving allow contemporary architects to further enhance playability and conditioning compared to previous eras. Architects increasingly use 3D software to digitally sculpt greens and hazards. Firm, fast, and fun playing conditions are more feasible with modern innovations.
Bill Coore & Ben Crenshaw
The team of Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw has produced a catalogue of highly acclaimed designs since 1991, often consulting with golfing experts for strategic insights. They create courses that feel entirely natural through minimal earthmoving and seamless green contours.
Their most revered works include Sand Hills Golf Club in Nebraska and Bandon Trails at Bandon Dunes Resort. Coore and Crenshaw expertly route holes to maximize optional shot values and take advantage of the natural terrain. Critics praise their designs for ingeniously crafted greens, challenging angles, and strategic bunkering options that engage creativity.
Gil Hanse gained fame from building the Olympic Course in Rio along with designing Castle Stuart in Scotland. Hanse embraces firm, fast playing conditions modeled after the windswept British Isles links. His bunkering and green contours mimic classic features with bold, modern style.
Some other notable Hanse designs include the Black Course at Streamsong Resort and Les Bordes Golf Club in France. Hanse often produces reversible routings, allowing championship venues to switch nines for tournament play. His minimalist, natural designs embody worldwide trends favoring sustainable, low-cost maintenance practices.
Tom Doak is revered as one of history’s finest golf course “field architects,” shaping holes entirely by hand without bulldozers. His designs implement principles inspired by famous architects such as MacKenzie, Maxwell, and Raynor. Doak strove to take natural landforms and produce strategic holes with options for the best players.
Doak’s most acclaimed works include Pacific Dunes in Oregon, Ballyneal in Colorado, and Cape Kidnappers in New Zealand. Critics adore his designs for arresting scenery, seamless integration into the native landscape, strategic bunkering, and artful contours. Doak embraces firm, fast playing conditions to enhance the ground game.
Notable Golf Course Design Firms
Spearheaded by Jack Nicklaus and his sons, Nicklaus Design has created acclaimed courses across the United States and worldwide since the 1970s. Staying true to the values instilled by Jack Nicklaus himself, the firm produces playable, variety-filled golf courses that challenge professionals while entertaining members.
Some of their most prominent designs include Muirfield Village, Cabo del Sol, Killeen Castle Ireland, and Kingsbarns Golf Links in Scotland. While Nicklaus handles major design decisions, his sons Jack Jr. and Steve work actively with the construction teams to translate their father’s vision responsibly. The firm has embraced sustainable practices to minimize environmental impact.
Led by architects Kyle Franz and Dave Axland, Renaissance Golf produces modern interpretations of classic golf architecture in a sustainable manner. Their designs utilize native areas and fast playing surfaces to generate multi-option holes reminiscent of ancient Scottish links. Firm greens with sharp edges incorporate today’s green speeds.
Two major designs by Renaissance include Bluejack National near Houston and Streamsong Black. The architects work closely with clients to tailor each course based on location, budget and intended membership. Renaissance embraces sustainable practices to lower costs and promote diversity in ecosystems surrounding the course.
Mike DeVries Golf Course Design
Mike DeVries established his boutique golf architecture firm out of Teton Valley, Idaho in 2011 after years of apprenticeship. His minimalist designs prioritize strategy, variety, and firm playing conditions allowing greens to accept bump-and-run shots. DeVries adheres closely to the preferences of clients during each new project.
DeVries has produced several highly ranked designs including Cape Wickham in Australia and The Creek Club in California. With an advanced agronomy degree, DeVries also utilizes his scientific expertise to make long-term maintenance practical for superintendents. His meticulous fieldwork and construction style have produced excellent results on a wide range of properties.
Over centuries of evolution, golf course architecture has advanced from rudimentary links in Scotland to sophisticated designs fit for major championships worldwide. Architects continue building on the principles established during the golden age while benefiting from modern technology to shape responsibly without overwhelming natural landscapes. Contemporary architects also aim to reduce maintenance costs and environmental impact through strategic design suited for drier conditions.
As equipment and agronomic capabilities progress, architects must carefully balance innovation and tradition by learning from golf’s rich design history. The greatest courses strategically test elite players while providing playing options that enable enjoyment across all skill levels. Thanks to visionary golf architects, both classic and modern masterpieces offer memorable challenges for generations to come.
Golf architecture is the practice of designing and constructing golf courses. It involves shaping the landscape to incorporate challenges, undulations, hazards, and aesthetics that make up an enjoyable and strategic course.
Golf course design is the creative process of developing a layout for a golf course, including considerations such as routing holes, positioning hazards and bunkers, sculpting greens, selecting grass varieties, and ensuring maintenance practicality.
When choosing a golf course architect, it’s important to select someone with expertise in your region, experience designing courses for your budget, skill in implementing your vision for challenge and playability, knowledge of sustainability practices, and a style that fits the natural landscape.
Some of the main parts of a golf course include: fairways, greens, tee boxes, rough, bunkers, water hazards, dogleg holes, doglegs, cross bunkers, waste areas, cart paths, driving range, practice greens, clubhouse, and pro shop. Different elements are strategically incorporated by golf course architects.
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