America’s hardest golf courses

By Stephen Hennessey, Golf Digest

May 2020

Even as golf continues to recognize the importance of fun and playability in course design, the measure of championship-caliber golf is still a course’s Resistance to Scoring. How does a course defend par? And is it fair? These courses embody that measurement.

Resistance to Scoring is one of seven criteria we asked our 1,100 Golf Digest course-ranking panelists in the United States and Canada to evaluate in helping us determine our latest America’s 100 Greatest rankings. Using those same evaluations, we’ve determined our 20 Hardest Golf Courses in the United States. By definition, these are courses with the highest measure of difficulty — while still being fair — for a scratch player from the back set of tees.

For some of us, playing these courses every day would beat up our egos. But to play some of golf’s classic designs, the right mentality is just to just enjoy the loop. Otherwise, judging by these comments from our course-ranking panelists, you might be in for a long day. —Stephen Hennessey

Please click on the slideshow below to view the courses:

Golf Digest Panelists comments:
“Even though you know there’s room off the tee, you’re on edge — and your swing doesn’t flow as smooth as it normally does. This might be the ultimate mental test in golf.”

“Risk/reward decisions are not always clear from the tee giving the course a great deal of subtlety. That is the genius of Pine Valley: The irony that one of the biggest, burliest golf courses known to man is also perhaps its most subtle. A true thinking man’s golf course.”

Golf Digest Panelists comments:
“Errant shots will always be punished by Oakmont’s bunkers and rough. And the varied green complexes play extremely firm and fast — some of the toughest in the world.”

“The recent tree-removal program not only opened the course and made it more aesthetically pleasing, but now the trouble is right in front of you. Hard, penal and puts a premium on keeping the ball in the fairway on every hole.”

“This course wears you out. It’s the ultimate U.S. Open test because par is a good score on every hole. Brings single-digit handicappers to their knees. Oakmont makes you play defensive golf.”

Golf Digest Panelists comments:
“Tempting as it is, you’ll get in trouble on most holes if you don’t play toward the middle of the green. Knowledge of how every green breaks with its many undulations is vital to carding a good score.”

“This is a shotmaker’s course. In most cases, righties are required to hit a draw off a tee, then a fade into the green. You’ll use every club in the bag.”

Golf Digest Panelists comments:
“Corridors are narrow and greens are perched high with the most unforgiving set of bunkers imaginable. The slopes of the greens are second to few in the United States.”

“In mind, this is the ideal in terms of Resistance to Scoring. It can be brutally tough but still fair. A golf course that puts the challenge right in front of the player — daring you to pull off a skillful shot.”

Golf Digest Panelists comments:
“You must drive it boldly and with length to find the proper angle in the fairway of getting it close to these pins. One of the toughest tests of golf in the world.”

“A complete exam on every aspect of your game: requires a variety of short-game shots, bunker plays and precision off the tee.”

Golf Digest Panelists comments:
“Proof that length isn’t a requirement for greatness and toughness — but unique design and creative angles does.”

“The difficulty despite the limited tip length of 6,550 is unbelievable. The last 4-5 holes are probably the best finish in golf. And honestly, how good are holes 16-18? Unlike any stretch in the world.”

“The course is simply magnificent. It is brutally tough, but fair and incredibly varied, but woven together so wonderfully.”

Golf Digest Panelists comments:
“This must be the hardest but fairest courses I’ve ever played. Amazing design with no weak holes.”

“One of those courses where you don’t mind getting beat up from hole to hole — because you appreciate the design. What an exceptional layout.”

Golf Digest Panelists comments:
“The Ocean Course demands confidence and commitment on every shot. As you’re enjoying the majestic views of the ocean and clubhouse, you’ll be tested like you’ve never been tested before.”

“When you stray off the beaten path, your ball is lost. The penalties are harsh so you better keep it in play.”

Golf Digest Panelists comments:
“The wonderful slopes of the fairways and greens will test your accuracy. And once you’re on these restored Donald Ross greens, you certainly have work to do to get it home.”

“Don’t plan on scoring unless you’re hitting it close. It’s a huge challenge getting to the green with a number of fairway bunkers and tough rough. This is no picnic.”

Golf Digest Panelists comments:
“A old-school, relentless test of golf. Oak Hill doesn’t let up for a single shot with relatively narrow fairways, enough length and water hazards to make things difficult.”

“Oak Hill East is quite frankly a beast. A magnificently maintained championship venue that is so hard it hurts.”

Golf Digest Panelists comments:
“Pete Dye set out to create the hardest course in the world. And with the normal conditions of heat and wind, he has succeeded. his club is the pinnacle of modern course design.”

“Around the greens, lesser players might think they’ve been to hell and back. But the beauty is, they’ll still come back for the experience.”

Golf Digest Panelists comments:
“Very little out of bounds: The trouble’s all in front of you. Deep rough off the fairways and right up to the green collars makes scoring tough.”

“The perfect golf-course terrain that provides a variety of challenges on each hole: Forced carries, uphill, downhill and many sidehill lies, punitive rough and deep bunkers.”

Golf Digest Panelists comments:
“Very muscular in its definition with elevation changes, raised greens, accentuated bunkers and deep rough. A tough test for championship golf.”

“You’ll find yourself on a bogey train if you’re not on top of your game.”

Golf Digest Panelists comments:
“The views and wind, along with the intimidating bunkers, give Whistling Straits its character.”

“Using deceptive bunkering to alter sight lines off the tee makes this an excellent test of golf. The penalty for missing in the wrong spots are almost too severe.”

Golf Digest Panelists comments:

“Every bit of a test of your entire bag as Pebble Beach is. And Spyglass will beat you up in ways that Pebble doesn’t.”

“Most greens are sloped back to front and require precise shotmaking. There’s no free pars given out here.”

Golf Digest Panelists comments:
“I think this is Tom Fazio’s best work. An outstanding piece of property that plays really tough, but fair.”

“A true mix of targets, sometimes your target will be wide but the next hole it’ll be tight. Relax for a second and you’ll pay the price.”

Golf Digest Panelists comments:
“The new renovation is outstanding. Previously, tee to green was a little boring, but now its full of excitement and angles to look at with the new waste areas.”

“Fast, firm and crowned Donald Ross green complexes provide the challenge here. Once again a great championship caliber test.”

Golf Digest Panelists comments:
“Vistas behind many of the holes make the experience worth it regardless of how you are playing.”

“Best collection of par 3s I’ve ever played. The green complexes are really good — they allow shots to run onto greens. But if you miss on either side, you’ll get to experience MacKenzie style bunkering!”

Golf Digest Panelists comments:
“TV doesn’t do justice to how small these greens are. You better come in with a high ball flight and some spin, or have a strategy for running it up, to get on in regulation.”

“The variety of hazards and hole lengths limit options and distance off the tee (e.g., the bunkering on the 4th, chasm on the 8th, dogleg on the 16th), dictating that the golfer often attack these small greens with a mid- to long-iron. Your long game better be on to score well.”

Golf Digest Panelists comments:
“Find yourself in these deep bunkers around the elevated greens and you’re ensuring yourself of a long day.”

“I was most impressed by the strategy required to navigate the par 5s. A variety of risk/rewards options making these holes quite interesting.”

View Golf Digest article


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