What I like in a Golf Course
As I type this, I’ve played 66 different golf courses in my life. And as I’ve mentioned on this site, given all the
inconsistencies with the different Top 100 lists that are currently published I decided to make my own personal Top 100 list consisting of my favorite courses. Not the “best” courses in the world, but my favorites. Inherent in this process is the fact that I am forming my own opinions and discovering what I like in a golf course. And even though I haven’t even played 100 golf courses yet, I have discovered precisely what I like in a golf course.
For the rankings on this website, I use the following criteria: beauty, playability, difficulty, variety, aura, and
intangibles. However, there are three criteria that make up the bulk of that intangibles category. In the following paragraphs, I will detail some aspects of a golf course and the golfing experience that influence my intangibles ranking.
For me, the most important element of a golf course is the overall experience. And in order to attain my ideal
experience on a course it is important to understand that I don’t like an over-crowded course because I value peace and serenity while playing. Perhaps the best illustration of this principle can be seen by contrasting Achasta Golf Club with TPC Sawgrass. Everyone knows TPC Sawgrass. It is rated as a Unanimous Gem in the golfing world, it was designed by the legendary Pete Dye, and it annually hosts The Player’s Championship. As for Achasta, it was designed by Jack Nicklaus and it does host a few golf tournaments, but nothing for the PGA Tour and certainly nothing in the ball park of The Player’s Championship (or the “5th major” as it is often referred), and it is not ranked on any Top 100 list. So, clearly TPC Sawgrass is a better golf course than Achasta. But even with all of this, I would choose to play Achasta over Sawgrass any day of the week.
Why would I make this decision? The biggest reason is that a “quick” round at TPC Sawgrass will be 5 hours, while my typical weekend round at Achasta lasts 3 and a half hours. The reason for this vast time discrepancy is the large number of golfers that will undoubtedly be playing Sawgrass on any given day. At Sawgrass, you will be rushed to the tee box to hit your drive, then you will have people standing on the tee box behind you before you even get to your ball in the fairway, meanwhile you will have to wait for the group in front of you to hit their next shot. Ugh!!! Hurry up and wait! At Achasta on the other hand, you will hit your tee shot, leisurely stroll down the fairway after your ball, hit your next shot, and keep going. Before 4 hours have elapsed you will be in your car heading home or in the clubhouse enjoying an Arnold Palmer. To me, that is the ideal way to play golf.
Another aspect of a course that I put a premium on is its history. For instance, The Old Course at St. Andrews is the course that I most want to play out of any course in the world. It is the “Home of Golf”, Old Tom Morris was the long time greenskeeper at St. Andrews, many Open Championships have been held there, and the town of St. Andrews just might be the best golfing town in the entire world. Now, let’s not overlook the fact that this course is regarded as one of the greatest in the world. So, of course I want to play it. But the old 9 hole course at Musselburgh is also a must play for me, as are Downer’s Grove, Foxburg, and Oakhurst Links. None of these will ever make a Top 100 list, but given their historical significance I really want to tee it up there and “feel” that history.
Of course, this history criteria doesn’t have to be related to the oldest course in the world or in the U.S. or anything like that. I like the history of Kiawah Ocean course and its one Ryder Cup event, the “War on the Shore.” East Lake being the home of Bobby Jones and the annual host of the PGA’s Tour Championship is also exciting to me. North Berwick’s “Redan” hole and how many times it has been copied on other courses throughout the world makes me want to play it to see what all the fuss is about. Frankly, I could go on and on, but I think I’ve made my point. A course of historical significance is interesting and exciting enough for me to want to play it and become a part of that history.
The last item on my short list of ideal golf course criteria is a design based criteria and it centers on the course’s architectural philosophy. For my personal taste, I really do not enjoy playing a course that is penal for penal sake. Now don’t get me wrong, I enjoy many other architectural features/aspects. I love risk/reward decisions. I love options. I love having to develop a strategy for an entire hole before you even think of hitting your tee shot. But above all of that, I HATE penal aspects of a course that are put in place for nothing other than penalty’s sake.
For instance, here is a tee shot that I detest.
Why put all that junk right in front of this tee box? This hole is over 500 yards long, has bunkers surrounding both sides of the fairway, has a cross bunker that will affect your approach shot, and has a domed green guarded by bunkers. If a golfer happens to top their tee shot and it goes only 50 to 100 yards, trust me that is penalty enough. You don’t need them to have to re-tee and be hitting 3 from the tee box with all that in front of them. Hitting two from 50 yards further up is hard enough!
For sure, I am all for penal architecture that is appropriately used. The greens at Pinehurst #2 are very penal. If your approach shot is not perfect, you won’t hold the green. And you know what, that is fine!!!
That course is so wide open off the tee that extremely penal greens make sense and when you accompany those greens with the need to understand the best approach angles into them they actually make the course highly strategic.
But things like this…I personally can’t stand.
In fact, this item has moved up my list in terms of order of importance due to the fact that I have begun to play more and more hickory golf. When you play with hickory golf clubs and representative balls of the era, many of thesepenal hazards make the game unplayable due to lack of options regarding how to avoid them and the forced carries with a requirement for stopping the ball dead on contact with the green. You see the hickory clubs I play with have smooth faced irons, so getting spin and bite on the ball is next to impossible. So carrying a bunker into a shallow green with water behind it, always results in a visit to the beach or a watery grave. Both alternatives are not fun, especially if you are not given an alternative route to attack the pin.
In closing, I suppose it is no wonder that The National Golf Links of America is currently my favorite golf course. For starters, you’ve got one of the World’s most private and secluded clubs, which affords itself to leisurely and peaceful rounds of golf played at an appropriate pace. You’ve also got the history element covered in spades with the fact that the course is arguably the most important architectural breakthrough in American golf. And the fact the course was modeled after the world’s greatest links holes all but eliminates the penal for penal sake design philosophy.