By my reckoning, I have teed it up at 266 courses. I know that there are guys and gals out there who have likely exceeded that number, but 266 seems to be a lot to me. The number might actually be higher – last night, for example a Facebook post mentioned Bermuda’s Port Royal, a track that features the dramatic par-3 16th hole. I had forgotten about playing there; the only possible explanation that I have for that oversight is the fact that it was while on honeymoon with my ex-wife.
I’m always slightly giddy with anticipation over playing a course for the first time. At the end of that initial encounter, I’ll have formed an basic opinion – did I like the course or did I not?
It’s rare that I coming away not liking a course on some level – more on that in a moment – but there are certain tracks that not only don’t I like, but that I would urge folks to not come within a 50-mile radius of them.
One such course is Possum Kingdom, located just outside of Mineral Wells TX. Now, Possum Kingdom Lake is gorgeous; it’s bordered by high cliffs and features several scenic coves to park a boat to wile away a summer afternoon.
But when one asks about the course and gets the response, “Bring plenty of balls and watch out for snakes,” this should be an immediate red flag. And Possum Kingdom delivers on both counts. Many of its fairways are canted so that even if one finds the middle of the fairway, the ball will not only not stay there, but it will roll off the course and into some sort of a ravine where not even Clyde Beatty would venture. Add to that an inordinate amount of forced carries and other gimmickry, and one will wish that the 19th hole was located immediately after the 8th.
Fortunately, I can usually find some sort of redeeming quality about most courses I’ve played. Sometimes it’s simply that the track is nice to walk. But what makes a good or great golf course, or a course that is liked or abhorred, are topics that will invoke lively conversation.
Take the setting, for example. Some folks prefer tree-lined fairways, others favor open vistas. Some live for the seaside links of Scotland, others long for the tall pines of the Sand Hills that comprise Pinehurst and its surrounding area.
Then there’s the degree of difficulty vs. strategic options argument. Some players prefer a course that dictates to them where to place the ball; others like a course that presents various options to attack a given hole.
My personal criteria for evaluating a course really comes down to two questions:
- Did I enjoy the experience?
- Would I go out of my way to play there again?
Question 1 is admittedly broad, and I will break that down further:
- Does the course offer realistic tee options for players of different skill levels?
- Is the course visually pleasing?
- Is it reasonably maintained?
- Note the use of the word “reasonably.” A course doesn’t need to be 50 Shades of Green for me to enjoy it. Give me well defined fairway and rough areas with relatively smooth running greens (and I really don’t care about the speed), and bunkers that have sand that can actually be raked, and I’ll be a happy camper.
- Do the green complexes offer a variety of options for chipping, pitching and putting?
- Was the pace of play acceptable?
That last point is key and can be attributable to either 1) the layout and difficultly of the course or 2) the management of play by those in charge.
In regard to point 1 . . .many courses built between the 1980’s and, say, now have been built around real estate developments where the distance between one green to the next tee can be an extremely difficult walk or long cart ride. Tidewater in Myrtle Beach comes to mind. On one hand, the architect created a wonderfully eclectic golf experience that cuts through maritime forests and at times borders the Intercoastal Waterway. On the other hand, one can guarantee a four and a half to five hour round because one is often times driving a half mile between holes (walking is out of the question).
Point 2 can be attributable to any number of factors – overbooking tee times, rangers not addressing slow groups on the course, players wanting to play the tips when they have no business doing so.
The question of whether I would go out of my way to play a course again generally means that all five of my criteria were met. Any of the courses I’ve played in Scotland I’d return to in a heartbeat (those I’ve played multiple times are The Old Course, North Berwick, Cruden Bay, Turnberry, and Crail). Most courses in the Sand Hills, for sure.
And there are a few courses to which I’d return for what I can only describe as semi-mystical experiences. At the fine course at the Sedona Arizona Hilton, which runs through a valley surrounded by red rocks, I was preparing to hit an approach to the 7th green when our group was engulfed by what the locals describe as a vortex – the wind came up and blew in a circular motion around us for about two minutes. This was supposed to be some sort of mind-changing experience, and maybe there’s some truth to it, as my 7-iron shot that followed wound up about 4 feet from the pin.
Another time, a friend and I were playing The Highland Links, a 9-holer located near the tip of Cape Cod in North Truro, MA. The links were established in 1892, and, honestly, I don’t think an ounce of earth has been moved on the course since then. I had recently read Michael Murphy’s Zen-like golf tome, Golf in the Kingdom, and the course that Murphy describes in the book (which many believe to be the Balcomie Links at Crail) seemed to fit the surrounding to the point where I was driving my friend crazy by quoting lines from the story. In any event, we reached the 6th tee, which affords a dramatic view of the Truro Lighthouse and the Atlantic Ocean. As we admired the surroundings, a voice from behind said, “Pebble Beach has nothing on this, hey lads?”
I turned around; the man who spoke wore what appeared to be a caddy’s outfit (although he carried no clubs) and had the look of a year-round Cape Cod resident – white-haired and bearded with a rather ruddy complexion. “Yep,” he continued, “you don’t need to pay $450 for this view.” I turned back toward the lighthouse, paused for a moment and then turned to ask him a question – and he was gone, just as suddenly as he appeared.
And then there’s the odd story of Grandote Peaks, a Tom Weiskopf/Jay Moorish gem located in La Veta, Colorado, a small town located to the west of Pueblo. I played it back in 1998 and thoroughly enjoyed everything about it, and, since I’m back in state for a while, looked forward to perhaps making my way there again.
However, in looking it up for tee time availability, I found that Grandote Peaks is permanently closed. Apparently, it started as a riff between the club’s owner and the town over land ownership and zoning issues. Things went quickly downhill from there, and apparently the land has found another, ahem, recreational purpose.
Hey, at least it’s being put to good use.
[Note: For the complete list of courses that I’ve played, feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I’d love to know where you’ve played, as well. Or, you can click below to download. No viruses, I promise!]