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What makes a good golf course?

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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.

No. 12 at Augusta National Golf Club.

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.

Ian Poulter playing No. 13 at Merion GC in the 2013 U.S. Open.

Ian Poulter playing No. 13 at Merion GC in the 2013 U.S. Open.

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.

No. 17 at The Olympic Club.

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!

No. 7 at Pebble Beach Golf Links.

No. 7 at Pebble Beach Golf Links.

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.

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Dennis Clark is a PGA Master Professional. Clark has taught the game of golf for more than 30 years to golfers all across the country, and is recognized as one of the leading teachers in the country by all the major golf publications. He is also is a seven-time PGA award winner who has earned the following distinctions: -- Teacher of the Year, Philadelphia Section PGA -- Teacher of the Year, Golfers Journal -- Top Teacher in Pennsylvania, Golf Magazine -- Top Teacher in Mid Atlantic Region, Golf Digest -- Earned PGA Advanced Specialty certification in Teaching/Coaching Golf -- Achieved Master Professional Status (held by less than 2 percent of PGA members) -- PGA Merchandiser of the Year, Tri State Section PGA -- Golf Professional of the Year, Tri State Section PGA -- Presidents Plaque Award for Promotion and Growth of the Game of Golf -- Junior Golf Leader, Tri State section PGA -- Served on Tri State PGA Board of Directors Clark is also former Director of Golf and Instruction at Nemacolin Woodlands Resort. He now directs his own school, The Dennis Clark Golf Academy at the JW Marriott Marco Island in Naples, Fla.. He can be reached at dennisclarkgolf@gmail.com

19 Comments

19 Comments

  1. Nick

    Aug 12, 2016 at 10:46 pm

    I was just googling “what makes a great golf course” and things like that when I came across this article. Just wanted to say that I enjoyed the article and your criteria. I have played a lot of golf courses across the country, and while the classic golf courses are cool for their history, a lot of them are lacking when it comes to creativity. They are all straight back and straight through. and sure dog legs are cool but most of the time its essentially the same thing only with a little bend in the hole. I like to see a designers imagination. I love when designers give you options off the tee. They give you a safe tee shot, just expect a more difficult angle. I personally enjoy golf courses that allow many options when entering the green and have some large undulations in or around them in the form of mounding. so if you take that easier tee shot and have the more difficult angle, you might have to run it up the left and let a mound roll it next to a right cut hole guarded by a pond. Its always fun to hit a shot 20 yards left of the hole and have it end ten feet to the right of the cup. That’s what story’s and a great time are made of. It also rewards a properly executed golf shot, and a well thought out plan for the hole. I especially enjoy it when creativity is rewarded. so say that there is a pond left and you can bounce it of a mound on the right of the green. It just adds to the course in my opinion.

    Okay so after all of this, Id like to say that my favorite golf course to play is one that’s pretty far away. It has a brilliant layout that features amazing views and a plethora of options off each tee and every approach shot into its greens have more then one choice. I really do highly recommend this course to anyone and everyone who reads this comment. Its also my first comment of any sort because I’m not one to do this but I just thought I should get my voice out there. The course is called the Quarry in Minnesota. It is the number 1 public course in the state according to golf digest and is the number 25 public course in the nation (last year number 20). Beautiful views and a layout that could not compliment the naturally rugged terrain of the course any better. Every hole forms one more tile of this masterfully built mosaic in northern Minnesota.

  2. Pingback: One Trip, Many Courses: How To Plan A Full Golf Trip | Quality Inn Sudbury

  3. robert horneman

    Aug 5, 2013 at 9:05 am

    My ranking of US courses are: #1 Olympic, #2Rivera, #3 LACC. Never played any top ranked courses east of AZ.
    My favorites in Europe are the European club, Waterville, Lahinch, Tralee, Balybunion ,Old Head , Kingsbarns and Royal Portmarnick.
    Played the Old Course ,loved the history and the 17th hole. The rest of the course was pretty boring except watching some old Scots playing golf with their dogs following them. I guess the dogs can go into the Gorse to find their lost ball!

  4. Martin

    Aug 2, 2013 at 9:05 pm

    Royal County Down is a fantastic course! Full of beauty, tradition and wonderful, natural design. I would also like to mention The Glashedy Links (Ballyliffin GC). A modern, demanding links course designed by a man who really knows the game and links golf: Nick Faldo.

  5. Ritch Gallagher

    Aug 1, 2013 at 9:38 am

    I have played a lot of courses over the years. My favorite place to play in the US is Bandon. I have played three of the four courses, need to make another trip, and they have the ingredients I like. Walkable, encourage the ground game and bring links golf to the States. Oakland Hills, The Prince course at Princeville in Hawaii, Carnoustie and the Stadium course at PGA West have to rank as the most difficult courses I have played.

  6. Regis Staley

    Jul 31, 2013 at 6:02 pm

    I rate the Black Course as one of the best. In reality though you have to be in good shape to walk it and truly enjoy it. Maidstone and National unforgettable. But my hands down favorite is Old Head on the southern tip of Ireland. Nothing I’ve ever played compares. In Myrtle its Heritage and I have played them all. I look for the architecture and the experience. How did the architect use the natural layout. What type of mix is there on the par 3s, 4s and 5s. A Short Par 4 with a dogleg followed by a long straight par 5. Can I be talked into playing another 18?

  7. Bill Ziegler

    Jul 31, 2013 at 4:51 pm

    I have been fortunate enough to play a lot of golf in a lot of wonderful places. To me, my five favorite courses are as follows – Cruden Bay (Scotland), Royal Dornoch (Scotland), Pacific Dunes (Oregon), Harbor Town (South Carolina) and Theodore Wirth (The Muny I grew up playing in Minneapolis).

    You have to have a soft spot for the course where you learned the game.

  8. Jim

    Jul 31, 2013 at 4:40 pm

    I’ve played some very nice courses in Canada, USA, Mexico, and Europe but the one I played 100+ times/yr trumped the 2 leading complaints of the working class golfer… “costs too much and takes too long”. It was a nicely conditioned 5100yd par 65 course; 9 par 3’s, 7 par 4’s, and 2 par 5’s. I’d usually play after work & dinner and it took me 2.5 hrs walking. I’ve since moved too far away with only highly ranked ‘monsters’ in the area so I don’t play nearly as much any more. Playing the forward tees at the longer courses doesn’t shorten the playing time as I still have to follow high handicappers playing the wrong tees (I’m a 6.2) for 4+ hours. I seldom have the time nor budget to play these ‘favorite’ or highly ranked courses. So my ‘favorite’ course has to be the one I played most often.

  9. Brian

    Jul 29, 2013 at 4:24 pm

    I’d say design, variety, and conditioning, in that order, are my top factors. I think another attribute to consider might be history. Most courses with history tend to be well conditioned, but history can certainly make up some for any lack in design and variety. Knowing that the greatest golfers to have played the game walked the same grounds you’re walking and remembering some of the greatest shots and moments from the game’s history are awesome feelings.

    A course that I really enjoy playing in my neck of the woods is a Mike Strantz design called Tot Hill Farm in Asheboro, NC. Many would probably know his more popular Pinehurst design, Tobacco Road. Tot Hill Farm is every bit as scenic and dramatic, but a lot less gimmicky, and a consistently more difficult test of golf.

  10. Damien

    Jul 29, 2013 at 3:44 pm

    I’ve played a number of the top 100 courses in the U.S. and consider the River Course @ Black Wolf Run to be the “best” parkland style course I’ve played. Only complaint: Par 3 13th which requires a righty to hit a draw or a lefty to hit a fade / cut with a long-iron with no bail out area.

    Worst: Minebrook Golf Club in Hackettstown, NJ.

  11. Mats "Pump 2"

    Jul 29, 2013 at 1:34 am

    As I’m from Sweden, I havn’t played many US courses, the best one I’ve played to my mind is Torrey Pines South and North course. In Europe, one of my all time favourite courses is Dunluke Course at Royal Portrush. In Sweden: I have to go with Bro Hof, Stadium Course, hosts the Scandinavian Masters on European Tour, a course in mint condition. Over and out! 🙂

  12. Sean

    Jul 27, 2013 at 2:48 pm

    I think for the average golfer a course that allows you to play the ball on the ground. Many modern course designs require forced carries that many average golfers can’t navigate (180 to 200 yard range).

  13. Martin

    Jul 26, 2013 at 9:08 pm

    I am not a scratch bomber so I don’t need the course to be brutally hard, I like to walk and have a bad knee so long very steep hills in either direction are no fun for me.

    I like a mix of holes, some hard, some easier, the biggest things to me is consistencly of turf, sand and greens and having a bailout area on very long carries. Extremely fast greens are no fun for me, particularly on a course I don’t play very often.

    I don’t really have an absolute favourite course, Eagle Creek outside Ottawa is pretty great, redtail Landing near Edmonton and Raven at Verrado near Phoenix are memorable for me.

  14. george

    Jul 25, 2013 at 5:45 pm

    national golf links of america southhampton ny – there is no better golf course
    the worst course ive played ……… the woods at cherry creek riverhead long island – are you kidding me ???????????

    • george

      Jul 25, 2013 at 5:50 pm

      bethpage black is quite overrated as is the entire complex of 5 courses

      • Anthony

        Jul 26, 2013 at 9:09 am

        I totally disagree. Especially as someone who live five minutes from the complex.

        You have one of the best courses in the country with Black (public or otherwise). Black has it’s faults, like a lack of a finishing hole, but realistically if that tee shot isn’t in the fairway, the rough is so thick and the bunkers right and left make it an impossible approach to a domed, uphill, well protected green. My biggest gripe with Black is the walk up 15. Even after you putt and walk off the green the walk up to the 16th tee takes a lot out of you. But I love that course.

        The Red there has so much character and offers long, short, east, and challenging holes that allow you to use every club in your golf bag. You can also play many of the holes several different ways. This is probably one of my favorite golf courses.

        The Blue offers one of the most challenging front 9’s out there. As a matter of fact, I hate the front 9 on blue because I have tremendous difficulty with it. Just last Friday I went out in 51 and came in with a 40 (I play to a 13). Sure the back gets easier and shorter, but again, the course allows you to play every club in your bag and multiple types of shots.

        The Green and Yellow are two short courses. But make no mistake they can bite you in the rear end. The Green and Yellow courses greens are challenging to make up for the lack of length. There are subtle slopes that I have trouble picking up. You think the putt is going straight and then it breaks one way or another.

        I mean know disrespect by disagreeing with you. Between the five courses at Bethpage and the three courses at Eisenhower, LI golfers have seven really good municipal course to keep in their summer rotation and never get bored. It’s where I play 90% of my rounds, so I understand I can be a little bit of a homer on this one.

      • Dennis Clark

        Jul 26, 2013 at 12:49 pm

        George: Tell us what it is you don’t like about Black, perhaps in the context of my article

      • Abu Dhabi Golfer

        Jul 29, 2013 at 11:20 am

        Having played over 300 courses in over 20 countries, Bethpage (Black) is the 3rd best inland course I have ever played – behind Sunningdale (Old) in England, and Royal Melbourne (West) in Australia.

        Some peoples’ standards are just way too high!!! LOL

    • Dennis Clark

      Jul 26, 2013 at 12:50 pm

      What is specifically about national that makes it the best IYO?

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Opinion & Analysis

The History of Course Design is Yours to Play at Oglebay

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There is a much-talked about “New Golden Age” of golf course design underway that is driven by demand for ever-more spectacular courses at the top end of the resort golf market. Destinations such as Streamsong, Bandon Dunes, Cabot Links, Sand Valley and others provide the traveling golfer a spectacular golf experience; unfortunately, it comes at a price tag that is equally spectacular. When a week playing golf in Florida can cost as much as a week in Scotland, where do you go for a golf getaway that doesn’t require a second mortgage?

Oglebay Golf Resort in Wheeling, West Virginia, doesn’t just provide an affordable golf vacation option; with its three golf courses, it provides players the chance to experience a condensed history of American golf course design through its three courses. The resort sits on land that was once owned by a wealthy industrialist and is now a part of the city park system. Located about an hour from Pittsburgh, Oglebay draws the majority of its golfers from Pennsylvania, Maryland, Ohio, Virginia and West Virginia. It’s kind of cool that when you drive to Oglebay from the Washington, D.C., you hit all of those states except Ohio, which is just a few minutes away from Wheeling. The area is especially picturesque in the autumn months when the changing colors of the leaves are at their peak.

The property has a rich history in the business and sporting history of West Virginia, but the three golf courses, Crispin, are a special prize that taken together form a primer on the history of golf design in the past 90 years. The 5,670-yard Crispin course is a one-off design by local golf enthusiast Robert Biery that was completed in 1930 and is a fascinating study of design techniques of that era. The slopes and elevation are severe and extreme by today’s standards. A clue was the raised eyebrow of the assistant pro when I said that I would walk the course. Uneven lies are the order of the day, the product of a time when there was neither the money nor equipment readily available to create gentle slopes and even surfaces; the course is true to the original contours of the West Virginia hillside.  There is little relief on the greens, which run a little slower than typical greens but make up for it in size and slope. It is by far the shortest of the three courses but the par-4 8th hole and par-5 9th holes are a thousand yards of joy and pain.

Hole No. 6 at the Klieves course

The Klieves Course is a 6,800-yard, par-71 Arnold Palmer design that was completed in 2000. The design features broad fairways, mildly undulating greens and opportunities for heroics on short par-4’s, all the prototypical characteristics of modern resort golf courses. While some architects choose to torture and torment, Palmer courses put a premium on fun and this one is no exception. The par-5, 515 yard 6th is a great example of the risk/reward available without that challenges the resort golfer without the need to humiliate. The course is very well maintained tee to green, and you’ll want to keep a fully charged battery to take photos of the vistas from the elevated tee boxes.

Hole No. 13 at the Jones course

In my humble opinion, the true gem is the Robert Trent Jones course. The 7,004-yard, par-72 Course carries a healthy 75.1 rating/141 slope from the back tees. It utilizes a gorgeous piece of land that meanders across the West Virginia hills to give a mesmerizing collection of holes that are equal parts scenery and challenge. Both nines start from elevated tee boxes hitting down into valleys that offer classic risk/reward propositions. Usually I have no problem identifying a favorite hole or two, but on this course it’s difficult. Having said that, the stretch of No. 4 (par 3, 193 yards), No. 5 (par-5, 511 yards) and No. 6 (par-4, 420 yards) are among the best I have played anywhere as a show of nature’s beauty and the at of laying out a golf hole. And the four par 3’s are not the place to pic up an easy birdie. The only one less that 190 yards from the tips is the 158-yard 15th, which is protected by a small, undulating green. All in all, it’s a perfect representation of the genius of Robert Trent Jones.

The golf is good at Oglebay and the prices are better. You can get in 18 at the Oglebay courses for as little as $32…on the weekend. And when you’re not playing golf, you can take advantage of the myriad of outdoor sports activities, tour the Oglebay mansion, hit the spa or visit the Glass Museum on the property (I promise it’s a lot more interesting than it sounds). There’s a lot of great new golf resorts out there and that’s a good thing for the golf industry, but destinations like Oglebay prove that there’s a lot of life left in the old classics as well.

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Legend Rees Jones speaks on designing Danzante Bay in Mexico

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