Scouring Golf Magazine’s “Top 100 Golf Courses in the World”, golfers everywhere check off their conquests. Some are lucky to check one, others ten, and still the even more fortunate have 25 tracks where they can recall the distinct character, detailed bunkering principals and rich traditions of each course played. But one 33-year-old Boston resident, Fergal O’Leary, is able to describe firsthand the holes and shots he has hit on all 100 courses.
O’Leary, an employee of professional services giant Ernst & Young, grew up in Ireland and was always captivated by the tourists who flocked to his country with stacked itineraries to play the best courses in Ireland.
This curiosity stayed with him as he ventured to the United States for a summer job as a looper at The Country Club in Brookline, MA. It became quickly apparent to O’Leary how different golf was in America. The majority of the top golf courses in America were extremely exclusive and closed off to the public, the opposite of golf across the pond where outsiders are not only welcomed but encouraged to experience the greatest golf courses.
In 2005, O’Leary finished college and officially inhabited Boston full-time. At that point, he decided to embark on a tall task. He set out to play the top 50 courses in the United States with the desire to recreate the golf trips he had witnessed in Ireland.
By September 2011, O’Leary had already surpassed his top 50 list and played all 100 courses, the youngest to ever do so at age 28. But instead of settling for this accomplishment, O’Leary saw himself now over halfway to playing the world’s top 100 courses.
Fast-forward to August of 2015, and Fergal (then just 32 years old) was playing Durban C.C. in South Africa, his final feat of the world’s top 100.
the fried egg: I think the first question that jumps to the top of everyone’s mind is how did you do this?
Fergal O’Leary: It was purely out of determination and a passion of seeing the world’s best golf course architecture. Having grown up in Ireland, I saw so many tourists come and play the best courses in my country and it made me want to emulate them in America. I first set out to play the top 50 courses in America, an especially tough feat for a non-American without connections to the world’s best clubs.
After accomplishing that, I was over halfway to playing the top 100 in the world. When you begin to look at the top 100 in the world, you see a concentration of courses in North America, Australia, Asia, a handful in continental Europe and a bunch in the United Kingdom which I had played growing up in University golf.
Luckily, I spent a number of years traveling for work through Asia and Australia, which I would always bring my clubs with me and was able to knock those out and then it left me with the Caribbean and a couple courses in France and Spain.
What’s the best piece of advice you have for someone trying to emulate your mission?
My best piece of advice is you have to know why you are doing it. If you don’t have a purpose and an objective you will lose track and not be taken seriously.
My purpose and driving force was to see the best golf course architecture in the world, given most of the best courses in the world are very private, you have to have a driving force behind why you want to see these courses. Money can’t buy you into these clubs, you can be as rich as anyone in the world but if you don’t get an invitation to play you never will. You have to build relationships with members of clubs and be smart with your travel. If you have a clear purpose, you have a chance that members will host you, from there you need to be very respectful of the game, protocols of the club, most especially when you are traveling internationally due to the differing cultures.
Who is your favorite golf course architect?
Overall, I would say Harry Colt. He is the grandfather of architects, if you look at the golden age of architecture, all of the great architects either worked with him or studied under him. Charles Allison was his partner and protege, Dr. Alister MacKenzie worked with him. His principals and courses I am the most fond of, I love the way he was able to use the land he was given to build great courses as opposed to the modern era that relies heavily on bulldozers.
Favorite Colt course?
He’s done so many great courses from Royal Portrush to Sunningdale to St. George’s Hill, but if I had to hang my hat on one I would say Royal County Down.
In all your travels, what would you say is your favorite course?
I get asked this question almost everyday and I have two different answers, my favorite course to play and what I think is the best course.
My favorite place to play is Shinnecock Hills, a list of phenomenal architects have worked there including William Flynn and Harry Colt. I think that its use of the land is phenomenal and the course is as hard as there is in the U.S. Open rotation.
As a scratch player, there are a lot of courses that you can break par, but at Shinnecock if you shoot a 72 you feel like you’ve won the powerball.
I think the best course is Cypress Point, what Alister MacKenzie did there was remarkable.
Favorite Course outside the top 100?
El Saler in Spain, was ranked up until 2013 and got a bad rap on conditioning, but I played it recently and was blown away. Half of the course is in a pine-tree forest and the other half is a seaside links course on the ocean’s edge, I couldn’t believe I was in Spain hitting those shots. I have a vote for the top 100 and will vote for it for the rest of my life.
In South Korea there is a new course called the South Cape Owners Club, a Kyle Phillips design that’s on the periphery of joining the top 100. It has all of the iconic Kyle Phillips bunkering that Kyle is known for, very similar to Dr. Alister MacKenzie’s principals. If you can imagine Kyle’s work at the California Club of San Francisco, he took all of that brilliance to an oceanside property in South Korea.
With private clubs being tough to get on, what’s your favorite public course?
I would say Pacific Dunes, I am a big fan of the Bandon Dunes resort. It’s the best golf destination in the States and possibly the world. They have four courses with a fifth coming, all designed by the top architects around today: Tom Doak, Jim Urbina, Coore and Crenshaw, David Kidd.
I have been there 3 times and Pacific Dunes is my favorite. I love the routing, what Doak did with the land is marvelous, he used the ocean and maximized the sand dunes. You could spend all day out there with your camera. I hope that every golfer with the means can get out there at least once in their life and takes advantage of the great courses there.
Who were the most memorable playing partners that you encountered in your travels?
I think it’s always an incredible treat when you get the opportunity to play with Tour professionals. A couple that I was able to play with are Paul McGinley, Miguel Angel Jimenez and Pat Perez. Half the time you are more nervous than everything else, but if you aren’t paying attention to every one of their swings and comments you are missing an opportunity to learn from them.
What’s the best way for someone who loves golf but doesn’t know much about golf course architecture to learn more about it?
Websites and books are a great way to start, I contribute for the website Top 100 Golf Courses and that is a really comprehensive source. Books are a really great way to learn the foundation of golf course architecture.
You can learn a lot from reading but the best way is to go out and see architects work in person. Most of the great architects designed public courses you can play.
For example, if you are studying an architect such as Dr. Alister MacKenzie. He is known best for his designs of Augusta National, Cypress Point and Crystal Downs, but he also designed Pasatiempo, a public access course, which has arguably his best green complexes and bunkering of all.
What’s the next golf challenge for you?
In terms of playing courses, I am not focused on playing “Top 100 courses,” I am the first to admit you have to take the list with a grain of salt. I have a list of courses that I am looking to play because I have read about their architecture or they have been recommended to me. So I will continue to go and play the courses on that list.
I have also been trying to get in touch with the Golf Channel to get them to include golf course architecture more prominently in their programming. It’s a vital piece of the game, and it’s overlooked in their programming where they look at the venue, hotel and statistics but not the architecture which is the foundation of everything.
For everyone who would like to read more about Fergal’s travels, he is the lead correspondent for American courses at www.top100golfcourses.co.uk
Editor’s note: Fergal O’Leary completed Golf Magazine Top 100 Courses in the World (all courses from 1993 to 2013).