We no longer live in the fruitful nineties, those halcyon days when golf courses sprang from the ground like cornfields in Iowa. According to the National Golf Foundation, 156 new layouts were scheduled to open in the United States in 2004, a mere 60 percent of the number from a decade before. But what last year's new offerings may have lacked in quantity, they more than compensated for in quality.
On the public-access side, only the most fully capitalized projects now get built in the U.S., which is why the developers are increasingly Native American tribes with casinos on-site—and why the layouts are consistently first-rate. Of course, deep-pocketed private-club entrepreneurs still roam the land, notably a pair of Arkansas heavyweights who've each built spare-no-expense clubs in their home state. But these days the headiest action is taking place on the international front, with the ready accessibility of prime golfing terrain yielding spectacular courses even in the farthest reaches of the globe. To wit, architect Tom Doak weighs in with a Down Under trifecta that may collectively define his career. But he's far from alone: Tom Fazio, Gary Player, Greg Norman, Robert Trent Jones Jr. and Arnold Palmer have also painted noteworthy newcomers on the international canvas. Taken as a whole, the thirty debuts here prove that it's no longer a question of how many new courses there are—just how many great ones.
CAPE KIDNAPPERS GOLF COURSE, TE AWANGA, HAWKE'S BAY, NEW ZEALAND
Financed by hedge-fund tycoon Julian Robertson and routed on fingers of land nearly five hundred feet above Hawke's Bay, this vertigo-inducing course, creased by ravines and patrolled by gannets, belongs more to heaven than to earth. Several holes are pressed to the edge of serrated cliffs, with deep "saving bunkers" designed to snare balls headed for oblivion. Shot values are a match for the aesthetics, which are off the charts, as is the scale of the five-thousand-acre sheep ranch designer Tom Doak was handed for his first overseas project. Doak describes the land as "tilting toward the sea on a broad plane, with deep valleys dividing it into a series of ridges jutting out toward the edge of the cliffs." The soil is volcanic, not sandy, and lacks the subtle undulations of a true links, yet the Cape, with its firm turf and steady winds, offers seaside golf at its finest. A masterpiece of minimalist design (with maximalist views), Cape Kidnappers is not only the course of the year, it's the new eighth wonder of the golf world.
Architect: Tom Doak. Yardage: 7,137. Slope: 141. Greens Fee: $275. Tee Times: 011-64/6875-1900, capekidnappers.com.
ANGELES NATIONAL GOLF CLUB, SUNLAND, CA
Nestled at the base of Angeles National Forest, this desertstyle track appears airlifted from the Southwest. Routed across a rock-strewn washbasin dotted with thorny scrub and cottonwood trees, the club was seventeen years (and four name changes) in the making. Lead designer Steve Nicklaus, Jack's forty-one-year-old son, built a cleverly bunkered course with a subtle, classic touch. The scenery is special: Soaring peaks rise behind several greens, À la Palm Springs.
Architect: Steve Nicklaus. Yardage: 7,141. Slope: 140. Greens Fees: $78-$98. Tee Times: 818-951-8771, angelesnational.com.
ARROYO TRABUCO GOLF CLUB, MISSION VIEJO, CA
This Orange County newcomer occupies a generous parcel crisscrossed by Trabuco Creek, which plays as a lateral hazard on seven holes. Set in the Ladera Open Space Reserve, Arroyo Trabuco is also one of a handful of courses in the region unmarred by real estate. Lakes and dry creeks must also be avoided, but mostly this out-and-back, links-style layout cut below dun-colored foothills is designed for guys who love to bang the driver—like codesigner Tom Lehman.
Architects: Casey O'Callaghan and Tom Lehman. Yardage: 7,011. Slope: 134. Greens Fees: $55-$85. Tee Times: 949-305-5100, arroyotrabuco.com.
ATUNYOTE COURSE, TURNING STONE RESORT AND CASINO, VERONA, NY
Handed a tract of virgin land east of Syracuse by the Oneida Indian Nation and asked to create a special place for high rollers, Tom Fazio responded with a parkland spread nonpareil. Vast stretches of open space and numerous water features (lakes, streams, waterfalls) showcase the natural beauty of upstate New York. Course conditions are peerless; so is the level of service at Atunyote (uh-DUNE-yote, meaning "eagle") and the new resort.
Architect: Tom Fazio. Yardage: 7,315. Slope: 140. Greens Fees: $175-$200. Tee Times: 315-829-4653, turning-stone.com.
FIGHTING JOE COURSE, ROBERT TRENT JONES GOLF TRAIL AT THE SHOALS, MUSCLE SHOALS, AL
Fighting Joe is the longest Robert Trent Jones Trail course yet and the first attributed to Roger Rulewich alone, who previously served as chief architect for the project's namesake. Set on wooded bluffs high above the Tennessee River and named for Confederate General "Fighting Joe" Wheeler, this rolling test, massive in scale, "strikes a nice balance between subtle and severe," according to Rulewich.
Architect: Roger Rulewich. Yardage: 8,092. Slope: 138. Greens Fees: $37-$45. Tee Times: 256-446-5111, rtjgolf.com.
GILLETTE RIDGE GOLF CLUB, BLOOMFIELD, CT
A bold, unabashedly urban design bounded by busy thoroughfares and spread across the Cigna insurance company's 600-acre campus outside Hartford, this well-groomed course, framed by rolling berms and giant oaks, is routed over and around natural ponds, man-made lakes and meandering streams. Several greens occupy plateaus set above rockrimmed creeks. Visual highlights range from stone sculptures by Noguchi to a blocky office building constructed in the 1950s as an ode to "international modernism."
Architect: Arnold Palmer Course Design. Yardage: 7,191. Slope: 135. Greens Fees: $60-$80. Tee Times: 860-726-1430, gilletteridgegolf.com.
KINDERLOU FOREST GOLF CLUB, VALDOSTA, GA
In the sleepy town of Valdosta, near the Florida state line, classicists Davis Love III and his brother Mark, who have stamped their takes on Donald Ross and Seth Raynor across the Southeast, have built a biggie with a split personality. Creeks, hardwoods and an old borrow pit mark the open, rolling front nine; the back nine enters a forest of pine, dogwoods and azaleas.
Architect: Davis Love III Signature. Yardage: 7,781. Slope: 144. Greens Fees: $65-$75. Tee Times: 229-219-2300, kinderlou.com.
LAKOTA CANYON RANCH GOLF CLUB, NEW CASTLE, CO
Colorado's red-rock country merges with the Rockies at this Jim Engh layout, an hour's drive from either Vail or Aspen. On a stark, high-desert plateau cut by deep canyons, Engh continues his pattern of cutting-edge design, carving a breathtaking mile-high course with 600 feet of elevation change. Tees cling to hillsides, fairways plunge into canyons, bowl-like greens corral stray shots. Lakota's holes, like those of a novelty golf calendar, appear airbrushed onto the rocks.
Architect: Jim Engh. Yardage: 7,111. Slope: 137. Greens Fees: $65-$75. Tee Times: 970-984-9700, lakotacanyonranch.com.
MAY RIVER GOLF CLUB, BLUFFTON, SC
Bounded by three rivers and dotted with interior lagoons, May River, one of Jack's most thoughtful designs, proceeds from a maritime forest to high (for the Low Country) river bluffs. Covered in salt-tolerant paspalum grass, this versatile test is marked by flashed-face bunkers and crowned greens that spill off to shaved hollows. It's open only to guests of the new Inn at Palmetto Bluff, a luxurious, lowkey retreat with fifty cottages.
Architect: Jack Nicklaus. Yardage: 7,171. Slope: 140. Greens Fees: $175-$240 (resort guests only). Tee Times: 866-706-6565, palmettobluffresort.com.