The Most Influential Course Architects

By Ryan Watson

The game of golf is littered with the names of the world’s greatest players. Everyone from Harry Vardon, Arnold Palmer, Ben Hogan, and Jack Nicklaus are honored with their names on tournaments, awards, and inside the Hall of Fame. However, the players are just part of the equation. The sport of golf would not be what it is without the visionary course designers and architects that built the world’s greatest courses. And just like golf has constantly evolved as technology has advanced, so too have courses changed and adapted. It’s with this in mind that we look at golf’s most influential course architects. Note: We have only included architects whose builds have been around long enough to influence current designers.

Old Tom Morris

16 June 1821 – 24 May 1908
Signature Courses: Old Course at St. Andrews, Muirfield, Prestwick Golf Club

When your courses have hosted a combined 69 Open Championship, your legacy is secure. In truth, “Old” Tom Morris is a legend in the history of golf. He won 4 Open Championships and was one of the eras greatest golfers. He was also an excellent course designer and is credited with furthering strategic bunkering and the innovation of treating greens with a top dressing of sand. He worked as a greenskeeper at various courses but spent most of his life at St. Andrews, Scotland, where he was born and eventually died. Morris’ designs continue to influence links golf.

Alister MacKenzie

30 August 1870 – 6 January 1934
Signature Courses: Augusta National Golf Club, Cypress Point, Royal Melbourne Golf Club (West Course)

Another British architect, Alister MacKenzie would make his mark outside of Europe as a course designer. Mackenzie acknowledged that he was a mediocre player for most of his life, but nevertheless fell in love with the sport. He became known for implementing undulating greens, narrow and off-centered greens, and large “free form” bunkers. Sadly, MacKenzie would pass away just months before the first Masters tournament at what has become his best known course: Augusta National.

Donald Ross

November 23, 1872 – April 26, 1948
Signature Courses: Pinehurst No. 2, Inverness Club, Oakland Hills Country Club (South Course and East Course),

Donald Ross was born in Scotland but died as an American citizen and one of the country’s most prolific course architects. Ross built numerous courses and while all of his designs are not equal, he still has a portfolio that have hosted numerous PGA Tour events. In fact, Ross’s courses have hosted 34 different majors, all either U.S. Opens or PGA Championships. Ross became known for using a light touch to create natural routing, along with particularly challenging greens that often featured steep drops or a difficult double-plateau shape.

Robert Trent Jones, Sr.

June 20, 1906 – June 14, 2000
Signature Courses: Spyglass Hill, Muana Kea, Royal Ka'anapali

Robert Trent Jones, Sr. is another designer who continues to influence the game. Extremely prolific, Jones has over 400 courses to his name. In all, 63 majors have been held on Jones’ original course or courses he redesigned, not counting the work he did on Augusta National. Jones is well known for how difficult his courses were, with his mantra “hard par, easy bogey” reflected in most of his courses. He also worked as the first architect consultant for the USGA, and often it was Jones that was tasked with making U.S. Open venues even more difficult. His sons, Robert, Jr. and Rees, continue to carry on their father's legacy with their own beautiful courses.

Pete Dye

December 29, 1925 – January 9, 2020
Signature Courses: Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass, Straits Course at Whistling Straits, Ocean Course at Kiawah Island Resort, Crooked Stick Golf Club

Pete Dye was an accomplished amateur golfer, winning tournaments in Indiana and also qualified for the 1957 U.S. Open, before deciding to focus on course design. Dye is notable for pulling golf away from a purely penal form of design and back to using smart routing to force accuracy and also variety into the course. The creative Dye even routed a golf course through Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Brickyard Crossing.

Dye is also credited with bringing back shorter par-4 course that relied on routing rather than length for their challenge. He has won many accolades for his work, including induction into the World Golf Hall of Fame for his contribution to the game.

Tom Fazio

February 10, 1945 –
Signature Courses: Quail Hollow Country Club, Shadow Creek Golf Club, The National Golf Club of Canada

Tom Fazio learned his craft primarily by working with his uncle George Fazio, with whom he collaborated on courses throughout America in the 1960s and 70s. When Fazio jumped out on his own, he showed his skills while focusing as well on charitable endeavors. Fazio courses are often found at resorts and in gated communities, but purists have consistently sung Fazio’s praises despite currently lacking a majors-hosting course. However, Fazio continues to have more of his courses ranked in various top-100 lists than any other designer, showing his quality.

Tom Doak

March 16, 1961 –
Signature Courses: Pacific Dunes, Ballyneal, Barnbougle Dunes

Tom Doak is known for his inventive routing and his adherence to creating minimalist, natural golf. Rather than huge earthworks, Doak looks at a piece of land’s natural topography and tries to make brilliant golf from that blank canvas. Doak won much acclaim for his design of Pacific Dunes, widely considered one of the world’s greatest links courses, and is generally the only North American course to be considered alongside Britain’s great links. Doak took much of his influence from Pete Dye and Alister MacKenzie, and that light touch is evident in all his courses.

Bill Coore & Ben Crenshaw

1946 – (Coore) January 11, 1952 (Crenshaw) –
Signature Courses: Plantation Course at Kapalua, Sand Hills Golf Club, Bandon Trails, Streamsong Red

Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw were both college golfers, though only Crenshaw would go on to play professionally. Crenshaw would go on to win 19 times on the PGA Tour, including 2 Masters wins and a runners up at both the PGA Championship and the Open Championship. In 1986, the pair teamed up to begin building strategic golf courses. Their courses are renowned for being natural and emphasizing the natural beauty while still creating challenging courses, and their influence on Hawaiian golf is particularly strong.

Honorable Mentions: Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, C.B. Macdonald, Seth Raynor, H.S. Colt

About the Author

Ryan Watson is a freelance sportswriter and history professor. He has been an avid fan of golf since his father signed him up for golf camp as a young child. Ryan enjoys following the professional game and learning about new equipment and gadgets.