Geography is critical to any discussion of nine-hole courses. Ask a Westerner if he has played any good ones lately and he might look at you sideways. Ask a New Englander and he may never shut up. It's a question of space: Where the sky is big and land plentiful, there are few nine-hole courses. Where land is in short supply, the countryside is littered with them. After the Dunes Club, here are the nine best nine-holers in the U.S.
?Whitinsville (Mass.) Golf Club. The clear-cut No. 2, Whitinsville has two things that the Dunes Club does not: a hole that's a consensus choice as one of the top 100 in the country (the 446-yard par-4 9th) and the imprimatur of one of the world's most respected designers ( Donald Ross). Opened in 1925, the course's greens feature the subtle deception that is the mark of Ross. Brian Silva, who has restored the bunkers, calls Whitinsville "a first-rate piece of land that was used brilliantly. It's everything that's great about vintage design."
?Fisher Island Golf Club, Miami Beach. Living in a playground for the rich where 200-foot yachts compete for mooring space, Fisher Island residents would sooner carry their own luggage than play a second-rate course, and this P.B. Dye design is plenty good enough to satisfy them. It's good enough for touring pros, too. The regular and Senior tours have held unofficial events here. If you stay at the island's pricey resort, you too can play this extremely well-maintained course, which is accented by huge undulations on the greens. Bring Dramamine.
?Puakea Course at Grove Farm, Lihue, Hawaii. The course on Kauai won't open until mid-November, and it isn't likely to be a nine-holer for long, but Grove Farm is too spectacular to keep off our list. Dramatic in the extreme, the course offers fabulous views of the Pacific and is built amid volcanic cliffs, massive ravines, giant sinkholes and lush, tropical undergrowth. Steven Spielberg filmed part of The Lost World: Jurassic Park nearby. Designer Robin Nelson wisely decided not to compete with the untamed surroundings and kept the contours simple. "The developers are thinking about another nine; desperately praying for it, actually," says Nelson.
?Highland Golf Links, North Truro, Mass. Perched on the rugged tip of Cape Cod and exposed to the Atlantic, the Links is about as close in spirit to the storied seaside courses of western Scotland as an American course can get, yet it's everything most great courses are not: inconsistent (three holes are mediocre), public and designed by a couple of unknowns, Willard and Isaac Small. Opened in 1892, Highland is one of the oldest tracks in the country—Francis Ouimet played there after the course replaced its sand greens with grass in 1908—and has been significantly altered over the years. But the current routing still has a timeless quality as windswept holes run up and down huge escarpments, into ravines and alongside a working lighthouse.
? North Haven Golf Club, North Haven Island, Maine. The underrated Wayne Stiles laid out this beauty in 1932, and it remains pretty much as he designed it. Generous landing areas funnel down to demanding greens, many perched splendidly but precariously at the water's edge. North Haven is also extremely well-conditioned, unlike many of Maine's island courses. Everyone talks about the 3rd hole, a 130-yard par-3 along Waterman Cove, but there isn't a single dud among the nine.
?Ansley Golf Club, Atlanta. Most turn-of-the-century city clubs abandoned their courses and opted to rebuild at newfangled country clubs. Ansley, though, held onto its course, and it is now a private oasis in the heart of downtown. Built in 1912, Ansley is tight, unorthodox and well-maintained. The greens are old-fashioned and funky, but players will better remember the ancient oaks that blot out the encircling urban landscape. Ansley also has a unique set of alternate tees and greens. For example, the 4th hole is a par-4, but the 13th is a par-5 that plays to a separate green, which is surrounded by the second-most-famous azaleas in Georgia.
?Elkhorn Valley Golf Course, Lyons, Ore. Thirty-five miles east of Salem, Elkhorn Valley is off the beaten path but worth the trip. It took 11 years for owner Don Cutler to cut through the red tape and to design and build this daily-fee course, which forms a tree-lined loop in the shadow of Mount Horab in the Cascades. The layout is clearly homemade, but also great fun, affordable ($14 for nine) and drop-dead gorgeous. Two of the three par-3s play across canyons, and bears, coyotes and deer as well as elks roam the fairways.
?Birchwood Country Club, Westport, Conn. A private course only an hour from New York City, Birchwood has greens that are something special. Fabulously contoured by Orrin Smith, they feature velvet bent, a unique and supremely fine strain of grass. The smoothest-putting grass of them all, quality velvet is seldom found this far south, but the grass thrives at Birchwood, giving the course a mystical, tree-grows-in- Brooklyn quality.
?Sunnylands, Rancho Mirage, Calif. On the exclusivity scale, there's private and then there's personal. Everyone assumes that Sunnylands, Walter Annenberg's personal course, is very good, but testimonials are hard to come by because so few people have played it. "Sunnylands is my favorite nine-hole course in the world," says one of the chosen few, Raymond Floyd. "Dick Wilson did an amazing job of routing the holes to nine greens from very different tees." While the 2nd green serves the 2nd hole, it also serves the 17th hole, but from another direction.