What Makes A Great Golf Course

One of Golf Digest’s Top 100 course raters has written an interesting article on what he looks for in a great course: conditioning, routing, design (of individual holes and features), variety, continuity and shot making.

I’d agree with all of these, but think he misses the most important category: fun.

Fun is a key for the higher handicappers who comprise most of the players on a course on any given day.  I’ve played ten of the twenty five listed by Golf Digest as Michigan’s best. Of those, there are two (that I won’t name) of which I have consistently heard players comment: “It’s a beautiful course, but it wasn’t any fun.”

That just isn’t right. How can you have a great course where people aren’t having any fun?

Fun is not as vague a concept as it sounds. A fun course is one that gives everyone equal chances of success and failure if they play within their abilities and from the proper tees. If the holes on a course produce a near certainty of success, that’s not going to be fun. Conversely, if the holes offer up nothing but frustrating failure, then that also is no darn fun.

A fun course is one where afterwards a player can brag about a few good holes, and also shake their heads at some near misses.  A fun course makes players want to go play another nine—not hit the 19th hole feeling so beat-up they need a drink.

A fun course leaves you with positive memories on a cold winter’s day.

Here are a few other things that I look for when reviewing a course:

Hole variety. Clark mentions it in his article, but it is worth repeating here. Some straight holes; some doglegs; a mix of long and short holes. Hole variety give every player a chance to play holes that fit their game.Too much of anything is bad, so mix it up.

Lots of strategic decisions. Good courses make a player use course management and strategy. Good courses are about distances and angles and shot placement, not just hitting the ball as far as possible. Good courses provide choices with varying degrees of risk and reward. In my mind, strategy is the great leveler in golf.

A good opening and closing hole. I like to start and finish with a par five. Par fives are in my mind far more forgiving than threes and fours, and always put me in a good mood. A finishing par three isn’t bad, either.

Reasonable par threes. Nothing spoils a round for me more than finding a 200+ yard par three.

Accessible greens. Greens with open fronts give players a chance to try a variety of shots. That’s fun. A course where every approach has to be flown in high and stop short is not. In fact, the more options a player has going in, or playing around the greens, the better.

Scenery. Woods, parkland, meadow or linksland—a golf course should bring a player closer to the natural world. I rarely have much good to say about a course that winds in and out of a planned community and where the best views of of some millionaire’s back yard. Clark beats around this bush with his “continuity” category, but doesn’t speak to it directly.

Pace of play. Nothing is less fun than waiting on every hole for the group in front of you.

Walkability. A course’s layout should not require a cart to transport players half a mile between holes. And a course’s management should not be so greedy that it requires players to take a cart when none is necessary. Walkers can play just as fast—if not faster—than cart riders.

Decent food and an accessible beverage cart. I don’t think a course needs a four star restaurant, but it should be a step above a 7-11. This is where my local favorite really falls down. A 7-11 would be a step up for that course.

Finally, there’s the matter of value. At the end of the day, I ask if the course delivered what it promised. I remember a movie critic who once wrote that he could give a “B” movie (there was no direct-to-video in those days) five stars if it accomplished what it set out to do. I feel the same way about golf courses. My favorite local muni gets just two stars from Golf Digest. It isn’t fancy or ambitious, but doesn’t pretend to be. Fairways are a mix of weed and grass, but always neatly mowed. It has back-and-forth routing, no fairway bunkers to speak of, and none of the fancy touches of a five star winner. What you get, however, is a decent golf experience for around a buck a hole walking. That’s at least a four star course in my book. On the other hand, I have often found myself questioning whether the top rated courses I’ve played offer a golf experience commensurate with the eighty or a hundred dollars more that they charge. In the case of at least three of the Michigan Golf Top 25, the answer to that is not so clear.

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3 thoughts on “What Makes A Great Golf Course”

  1. I agree with your criteria, especially the cost. I will be traveling to FL in early April for a company function.  We are staying at a Miami area resort with two pretty nice courses.  I read that the cost to play is $250+.  Now I might swallow that fee (or higher) for a one time opportunity to play an iconic course like Pebble, Pinehurst No. 2, etc…  Not ready to pony up that sort of cash for a nice but largely anonymous course.

  2. The courses I like best are those with nobody else on them. I would rather play an average course any day of the week than a fancy one with a lot of traffic.

    Having said that, Pebble remains my dream.


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