Much as life on earth, golf first emerged from the sea, taking root on sandy deltas and shorelines, what golfers now call linksland, where it remained for generations before moving inland. As the game moved closer to population centres, those who staked out golf holes sought sandy soil whenever possible, for good reason: Sand would sprout springy turf, which bounced the golf ball and quickly drained after heavy rain. Invariably, where there was sand, there was wind, pushing and shaping landscapes onto which golf holes logically fit, carving out dips and hollows that served as bunkers. Wind was also an essential element. Without it, golf was simply pub darts.

Grand early courses clung to the coastlines. Those that couldn’t tried to emulate the look, feel and experience. That changed in the middle of the past century, when courses became a major sales tool of housing developers on ill-suited sites. The game became aerial and heroic, over chasms and lakes, down rocky hillsides and canyons. Architects used bulldozers as their pencils, some producing layouts with no more artistry than road builders.

That dark period is behind us, halted by the collapse of the housing economy and by a new generation of golf architects who are endeavouring to bring golf back down to earth. They seek seaside settings for their work, and though precious few are still available in the United States, elsewhere on Planet Earth, ocean waves lap against some of the most gorgeous layouts ever seen.

That’s clearly evident in Golf Digest’s second biennial ranking of the World 100 Greatest Golf Courses. Forty-six of the Top 100 are courses on seaside venues. That includes Northern Ireland’s Royal County Down, a surprising though deserving new No.1, replacing New Jersey’s Pine Valley, which has plenty of sand but no ocean and is now No.3 on our exclusive list.

Royal County Down opened in 1889 and features the Championship Links and the Annesley Links.
Royal County Down opened in 1889 and features the Championship Links and the Annesley Links.

Royal County Down, on rugged, windblown topography along the Irish Sea and beneath the Mountains of Mourne, features snarling bunkers edged by marram grass and dates from 1889. At the other end of the same spectrum is Cabot Cliffs, which Golf Digest named the Best New Course of 2015 just two months ago. It debuts at No.19 on our World ranking, 74 spots ahead of its companion layout, the three-year-old Cabot Links. Both are strung along bluffs above the Gulf of St Lawrence in northwest Nova Scotia, Canada, with the Bill Coore/Ben Crenshaw-designed Cabot Cliffs at a higher elevation and providing the most thrills and photo ops via eight holes that hug the coastline.

Another Coore/Crenshaw creation, Shanqin Bay Golf Club, in seaside sand dunes on China’s Hainan Island, joins the World list at No.37. Said by some to be the best course in Asia, Shanqin Bay is so dramatic and entertaining that it has apparently bedazzled China’s ruling Communist Party, which a year ago closed 66 courses across the nation – including many new ones – but spared Shanqin Bay.

Toss in Coore and Crenshaw’s other World 100 designs – No.40 Barnbougle (Lost Farm) along the ocean in Tasmania and No.53 Friar’s Head above Long Island Sound in New York – and they’re arguably the hottest design firm in the business today.

The Eighth at Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw’s no.37 Shanqin Bay in China.
The Eighth at Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw’s no.37 Shanqin Bay in China.

King Island’s Big Debut
Our ranking is based on an editorial review by 600 international panellists, more than 1,200 course-evaluation panelists across North America and with added insights by the editors of 30 international Golf Digest editions. Such global coverage is responsible for the discovery of Cape Wickham Links Golf Club on King Island, Australia, just three months old but worthy enough to make our ranking at No.24. With 11 holes touching Bass Strait and ocean views from the other seven, this exciting new destination was designed by American architect Mike DeVries and golf writer Darius Oliver.

The trio of Mexican courses on the World 100 are right on an ocean. No.52 Diamante (Dunes) on the Pacific side of Mexico’s Baja Peninsula is a Davis Love III design that was recently improved by replacing two inland holes with two new ones on sand dunes along the beach. The nearby Ocean Course at Cabo del Sol, newly ranked at No.70, is a unique Jack Nicklaus design that plays atop arid desert hills then descends to the Sea of Cortez on each nine. Tom Fazio’s Querencia, ranked No.98, is just up the coast from Cabo del Sol, perched on hills above the sea.

Nicklaus has four courses ranked among the World 100, which puts him second to Coore and Crenshaw for the most among active golf architects. Besides Cabo del Sol, two other Nicklaus designs are oceanside: No.76 Punta Espada on the Caribbean in Cap Cana, Dominican Republic, and No.94 Sebonack Golf Club overlooking Great Peconic Bay on Long Island. Nicklaus collaborated with Tom Doak on the latter. Doak also has No.16 Cape Kidnappers in New Zealand – 600 feet above the ocean but an ocean venue nonetheless – and No.33 Barnbougle Dunes in Tasmania and No.39 Pacific Dunes on the Oregon coast. Curiously, his links-like Ballyneal in the sand dunes of Eastern Colorado, ranked 68th in 2014, failed to make the list this time.

A Look At Rio And Beyond
Also conspicuous by its absence is the seaside Castle Stuart Golf Links in Scotland, a Gil Hanse-Mark Parsinen collaboration that had been 87th on our 2014 list. Hanse’s as-yet-unnamed 18 holes in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, won’t open for public play until after it hosts the Summer Olympics golf competitions in August, so it won’t be up for consideration until our next World 100 is announced, in 2018.

Tom Doak's spectacular new masterpiece: Tara Iti is tipped to hand New Zealand another entry into the World's 100 Greatest Courses next year.
Tom Doak’s spectacular new masterpiece: Tara Iti is tipped to hand New Zealand another entry into the World’s 100 Greatest Courses next year.

Other just-opened courses that could crack our list include King Island’s Ocean Dunes, practically next door to Cape Wickham; Playa Grande in the Dominican Republic (remodelled by Rees Jones); South Cape Golf Course in South Korea, a Kyle Phillips design (whose Yas Links on Persian Gulf sand dunes is No.46); the Tom Fazio-designed Christophe Harbour on St Kitts; Comporta Dunes, a David McLay Kidd layout in Portugal; and Doak’s Tara Iti in New Zealand.

Not coincidentally, all are adjacent to an ocean – a seemingly new norm for a world ranking.

Golf Digest World 100 Greatest Golf Courses

1 Royal County Down GC (Championship) Newcastle, Northern Ireland

2 Augusta National, Georgia  US

3 Pine Valley New Jersey, US

4 Cypress Point Club Pebble Beach, US

5 Royal Dornoch (Championship) Scotland

6 Royal Melbourne (West) Black Rock, Australia

Shinnecock Hills Southampton, New York, US

8 St Andrews Links (Old) Fife, Scotland

9 Muirfield Gullane, Scotland

10 Merion (East) Ardmore, Pennsylvania, US

11 Oakmont CC, Pennsylvania, US

12 Pebble Beach Golf Links,US

13 National Links of America Southampton, NY, US

14 Winged Foot (West) Mamaroneck, NY, US

15 Fishers Island Club, NY, US

16 Cape Kidnappers Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand

17 Sand Hills  Mullen, Nebraska, US

18 Kingston Heath  Heatherton, Australia

19 Cabot Cliffs Inverness, Canada

20 Golf de Morfontaine Mortefontaine, France

21 Hirono GC, Hyogo, Japan

22 Trump Turnberry (Ailsa) Scotland

23 Sunningdale (Old) England

24 Cape Wickham Links King Island, Australia

25 Portmarnock (Championship), Dublin, Ireland

26 Carnoustie Golf Links (Championship), Scotland

27 Royal Portrush (Dunluce), Northern Ireland

28 Seminole  Juno Beach, Florida, US

29 Ellerston GC Hunter Valley, Australia

30 New South Wales GC La Perouse, Australia

31 Crystal Downs CC Frankfort, Michigan, US

32 Chicago GC Wheaton, Illinois, US

33 Barnbougle Dunes Bridport, Australia

34 Muirfield Village Dublin, Ohio, US

35 Royal Birkdale Southport, England

36 Oak Hill CC (East) Rochester, NY, US

37 Shanqin Bay  Hainan Island, China

38 Oakland Hills CC (South) Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, US

39 Bandon Dunes  (Pacific Dunes), Oregon, US

40 Barnbougle Lost Farm Bridport, Australia

41 St George’s Golf and CC Etobicoke, Canada

42 The Country Club (Clyde/Squirrel) Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, US

43 Fancourt (Links) George, South Africa

44 Kiawah Island (Ocean), South Carolina, US

45 Royal St George’s  Sandwich, England

46 Yas Links Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates

47 Royal Porthcawl, Wales

48 Wade Hampton  Cashiers, North Carolina, US

49 Kauri Cliffs Northland, New Zealand

50 North Berwick, Scotland

51 Whistling Straits (Straits) Haven, Wisconsin, US

52 Diamante (Dunes) Cabo San Lucas, Mexico

53 Friar’s Head Baiting Hollow, NY, US

54 Trump International Golf Links, Aberdeen, Scotland

55 Royal Melbourne (East) Black Rock, Australia

56 Casa de Campo (Teeth of the Dog) La Romana, Dominican Republic

57 Riviera CC Pacific Palisades, California, US

58 Sentosa (Serapong) Singapore

59 Prairie Dunes CC Hutchinson, Kansas, US

60 Los Angeles CC (North) US

61 Swinley Forest  Ascot, England

62 The Alotian Club Roland, Arkansas US

63 Pinehurst (No.2), North Carolina, US

64 Kawana Hotel Golf Course (Fuji), Shizuoka, Japan

65 Lahinch (Old), Ireland

66 National Golf Club of Canada Woodbridge, Canada

67 Southern Hills CC Tulsa, US

68 Gozzer Ranch G & Lake C Harrison, Idaho, US

69 Kingsbarns G Links St Andrews, Scotland

70 Cabo del Sol (Ocean) Los Cabos, Mexico

71 Valderrama  Sotogrande, Spain

72 The Honors Course Ooltewah, Tennessee, US

73 Shadow Creek North Las Vegas, Nevada, US

74 The Bluffs Ho Tram Strip Ho Tram, Vietnam

75 Spring City G & Lake Resort (Lake), Kunming, China

76 Punta Espada  Cap Cana, Dominican Republic

77 Olympic Club (Lake)San Francisco, US

78 Club de Golf MemphrémagogMagog, Canada

79 The Club at Nine Bridges Jeju Island, South Korea

80 Peachtree  Atlanta, US

81 San Francisco, US

82 Royal Lytham & St Annes, England

83 The Els Club Teluk Datai Kedah, Malaysia

84 Nirwana Bali  Tabanan, Indonesia

85 TokyoSayama City, Japan

86 Sheshan International  Shanghai, China

87 The National (Old) Cape Schanck, Australia

88 Leopard Creek CC Malelane, South Africa

89 The Golf Club New Albany, Ohio, US

90 Bandon Dunes (Bandon Dunes), Oregon, US

91 Machrihanish  Campbeltown, Scotland

92 Sunningdale (New) England

93 Cabot Links Inverness, Canada

94 Sebonack  Southampton, NY, US

95 Emirates GC (Majlis) Dubai, United Arab Emirates

96 Naruo, Hyogo, Japan

97 Jumeirah G. Estates (Earth) Dubai, United Arab Emirates

98 Querencia  Los Cabos, Mexico

99 Gary Player CC Sun City, South Africa

100 Olgiata, Rome, Italy