Back when there were no internet stories to write and no TV responsibilities to fulfill, Tim Rosaforte and I used to play a lot of golf on the road. We’d go to a tournament site and work hard for five or six hours. Around 3 p.m., Tim would make a phone call, and by 3:30, we’d be standing on the first tee of a premium layout maybe 10 minutes from the actual PGA Tour event.
They haven’t incorporated a city where Rosaforte couldn’t land the biggest fish in the pond. “You guys play better courses than we do,” veteran Scott Verplank once mused, and if that was truly the case, most of the time, it wasn’t when we went to Charlotte. Quail Hollow CC is without question one of the best locales on the schedule: great atmosphere, super-friendly for spectators, a sensible and very challenging design.
On that smiley-faced note, I take you on a trip through my list of the the Tour’s 10 best courses. Majors and rotating “specialty events” not included:
10. Harbour Town – Gets the nod over Torrey Pines and Greenbrier's Old White, although many Tour pros would have the Hilton Head track in the middle of the pack. A clever, unique voyage with a strong variety of holes. Could use a trimming of overhanging limbs in the fairways, but I’m a critic, not a landscaper.
9. Innisbrook – Perhaps no longer the most underrated course of the bunch, although the recently vacated title sponsorship could jeopardize the St. Pete/Clearwater stop. You have to remind yourself that it’s Florida. A meat-and-potatoes test with lots of trees and elevation change. Hopefully, this one sticks around.
8. TPC Sawgrass – Over-designed and pimped-up, in the opinion of many, but still a quality venue. The 16th is a fabulous par-5, the leadoff batter in the much-heralded closing stretch, but there are a half-dozen holes better than 17 and 18. The Stadium strikes me as an obstacle course for the big boys, which isn’t really a compliment.
7. Muirfield Village – Jack’s Place might deserve better, but I can’t go higher than seventh. Conceived to accommodate long hitters, it's not exactly the monster of yesteryear, and the targets are too ample for short irons. Nicklaus did an excellent job on an absolutely stellar piece of land. Time and technology are to blame here.
6. East Lake – An old-school ballpark with lots of muscle, and when the rough is up, good luck fellas. Position on the greens is essential to success. The par-3 18th doesn’t bother me; at least the millionaires have to hit a long iron in and wish upon a birdie. A stout collection of par 4s define this relatively simple design.
5. Firestone – If you’re among the cliché-thinkers who say this layout is boring, go play it three or four times. Nobody beats this place up, at least not when it’s suitably conditioned. No design stop has stood up to modern equipment longer or more adequately. Come back in 100 years and 12 under will still win half the time.
4. Congressional – I hemmed and hawed about including this one, but it’s a “regular” Tour stop that moved to Philly to make way for the softest U.S. Open ever played. If they ever figure out how to grow grass here, we’re talking about one of the top 40 courses in America. Strongest features are the awesome closing stretch and overall sensibility. It beats you up one stroke at a time.
3. Riviera – A daring, imaginative trip and forever a favorite among the Tour pros, Riviera is where class meets sass. Even in the heart of southern California’s muddy season, the George Thomas creation always shines. Just a very cool place to play golf. In the early fall, I’m thinking there isn’t a weak spot on the grounds.
2. Quail Hollow – It’s now hard to believe the Tour left this place in the mid-1980s, when it transferred the old Kemper Open to suburban D.C.’s vastly inferior TPC at Avenel. You would never get tired of playing Quail Hollow. Good golf is rewarded without exception, and bad golf will lead you straight to the bar. I’d point out the terrific finishing stretch, but it starts on the first tee.
1. Pebble Beach – A gem in every sense, an American treasure that can't be compromised because the layout would work anywhere. Presiding over the Pacific, however, Pebble is almost worth the two arms and three legs it costs to play. Small greens, strategic nuances galore, and from the 12th hole on, you'd better know what you're doing. Worthy of every golfer's bucket list, not just the guys who get paid to play for a living.