What is the best golf course you’ve ever played? What is your favorite course? Your least favorite?
After you take a minute to ponder those questions, consider this: Why? What is it about the course you chose that you like or dislike?
Very often, golfers get a feeling about a golf course, and they can’t really say why. That why I want golfers to take a closer look at the golf courses they play, because there are very definitive features about every golf course that separates it from others.
For many years I was a course rater for Golf Digest’s top 100 courses. Their system is as objective and fair as can be, but there will always be certain subjectivity to rating golf courses, because every golf course is unique and they all have design features that make them so. Some courses are inland and some are seaside, while others are quite flat or hilly. But from a playing perspective, let’s take a look at some features that you see every time you play but may not have noticed.
Conditioning: This is rather obvious. Is the course in good shape? Budget is obviously a factor — Augusta National has a bit more to work with than your local muni.
Routing: This is one of the most important design features of any course. Which direction do the holes play? Every golf course has a prevailing wind for the golf season in that area, and most architects take this into consideration. Start with the par 3s; do they play in different directions to allow use of every wind condition (Pine Valley)? Do the holes play in a variety of directions and lengths so golfers do not have to play a group of similar holes in succession: (Pinehurst #2). The lack of land on links courses very often dictates that the holes play out to the 9th hole and back into to the 18th. On inland or “Parkland” courses, the architect can route the holes so they play in a variety of directions, because playing every long par-4 playing in the same direction tends to get old.
Design: The next time you play a hole and see bunkers or water hazards, ask yourself why the designer put them there. If the hole is calling for a long iron or hybrid, the green might be long and open in front. A short hole, by contrast, might have a small, well bunkered green expecting wedge shot approaches (No. 13 at Merion). This is another reason to play the tee markers your length allows; you should not be hitting hybrids to a small, protected green.
Also, take a look at the green complexes (greens, bunkers, slopes) and see what way they face. Are they angled to the right or left of the fairway? Why does it matter? Well, consider the hole shape; the green should be angled to a direction that would reward the best tee shot. If you play a long dogleg-right and you fly the bunker guarding the right side; a good, fair course would likely design the green facing the right to create a clear shot in. It would simply be unfair to angle the green to the left, because your risk was not rewarded.
Short holes may have very narrow fairways, and longer holes should give us a little room off the tee. It is true that the designer often has to work with whatever the land offers (budget dictates how much earth can be moved). But when whenever possible, these features make a golf course a little more fair and fun for everybody. If the golf course is wide open with very few hazards actually in play, the greens may be undulating, and well protected (this is why Augusta National plays so much more difficult now). Green complexes often complement the design.
Consider a Cape Hole: No. 6 at the Bay Hill Club. You can cut off as much as you’d like, but it comes at a risk. If you can cut off 50 yards more than me, your location should get some reward. It’s all about angles and playing to optimum spots for your next shot.
Pete Dye is a master at this and the way he disguises it. Consider a fairway sloped severely from right to left; (No. 17 at Olympic Club). If every ball is bound to end up left side, it might not be fair to play into a green sloped or angled to right side. Or the famous short, often driveable par 4 like No. 17 at TPC Scottsdale, which is a fun hole for everybody with great penalty for not pulling off the career drive. There are so many designs, and they are too numerous to mention. These are just a few examples to get you to look at the golf course through more “strategic” eyes.
Variety: The best courses have a mix of doglegs, straight holes, long and short ones, all playing in every direction possible. I played a course once that had 13 doglegs out of 14 driving holes: another where every par 3 measured more than 200 yards and was over water! And of course we often get municipal courses that play up and back, up and back (to save land use). But these golf courses lack variety. At this year’s U.S. Open at Merion, for example, the par 3s played from 98 yards to 255!
Continuity: Take all those different holes, but somehow they all go together on this property! They form one great piece of landscape art. This is the problem sometimes with the “Replica” course (designs of famous holes throughout the course). Every hole might be a good design, but the holes simply don’t belong on the same golf course!
Shot Making: Does the golf course require high shots, low ones, fades and draws? Does it force the player to use every club? When you have to come in low, does it allow you run the ball; or when you have to come in high to stop the ball?
These are just some of the ways you can look at a golf course and begin to realize why the great ones are truly great, and why there are so very few of them. Of course we can’t all play Pebble Beach every day, but even at your home course you’ll learn to appreciate design and see that it is not some random selection by the architect. I’d love to hear some of your favorite course and take a minute to explain why.
As always, feel free to send a swing video to my Facebook page and I will do my best to give you my feedback.