What Makes a Golf Course Good to Play?

Compared to some people I have visited very few golf courses. Probably somewhere in the neighborhood of 100 different courses, if that, over a 20-year golfing life. Looking toward the future, even assuming I play golf for another 20 or more years, I’d be surprised if that number were to grow very much at all.

I don’t really have a “bucket list” of courses I dream of playing with the sole possible exception of the Old Course at St. Andrews (which I suppose every golfer hopes to see at least once). And when I think of future UK golf vacations my dreams are mostly of repeat visits to certain favorites. It’s an unanswerable question whether or not this attitude would be different if I had done more golf travel or less golf travel in the past. I’m guessing the answer is that I’ve simply seen enough to gain whatever perspective I need to understand a bit about how and why courses differ as well as satisfying the apparently finite need for novelty in the courses on which I pursue the game.

So based on that admittedly modest amount of exposure, I’ve formed some fairly simplistic ideas of what it takes to make a golf course “Good To Play” for me. There is a huge variety in visual style, routing, setting and playing characteristics among the courses I’ve experienced but much of that variety falls into the category of distinctions without real difference. For my maximum enjoyment there are really only four simple (to describe) characteristics required.

Putting greens with interesting contours are best. Contours internal to the green are good but interest can also be generated by overall slopes or tilts that bring the contours of the green surrounds into play. In fact, the ideal is to have both internal and external contours that must be taken into account in putting, chipping and approach shot play. I’ll also point out that with the exception of putting, the interest generated by contours can be largely neutered if the greens are too soft and receptive!

Since most courses have at least half of their holes being Par 4’s, I find that variety in lengths and shapes of the putative two-shotters is a very important feature in determining how good a course is to play. Too many dead straight Par 4’s create a feeling of too much sameness, even if the lengths and/or approach shot club selection vary. And nobody likes a course where all the doglegs are either to the right or to the left and/or with all dogleg turning points in similar proportions to the length of the hole.

The one truly crucial element of a good course to play is firm and well drained turf. Golf is no fun when walking on squishy ground nor is it enjoyable to hit shots that splash mud on ones trousers or legs. But even if the conditions happen to be dry enough, there is no substitute for seeing the ball bounce and run after landing nor is there any feeling in golf like the sensation of a well-struck iron shot off a firm, tight lie. The best of the best turf conditions is when those iron and wedge shots make a faintly metallic ringing thump at impact as the slides along making a barely perceptible shallow divot. Excellent putting greens can produce a similar sound when a ball lands.

The fourth element I’ll mention is one that matters but is definitely secondary to the green contours, variety of hole designs and firm turf. That element is the setting of the course. Everyone loves ocean views or long vistas but even among more mundanely situated courses there’s a lot to be said for a quiet setting and a sense of being at home in the natural world. Golf courses are per se created by the hand of man but I personally find that even the most contrived or manufactured design can still feel “natural” to play as long as there’s not an excess of housing, roads, traffics, power lines and other elements of the workaday world intruding on the golfer’s consciousness during play.

The most notable omission in my list is any mention of bunkering. The fact is, I feel that a golf course can be 100% excellent to play even if sand traps are absent or sprinkled about in a perfunctory manner. Having dismissed bunkers as being *necessary* to a course that’s Good To Play, let me hedge by saying that in a very few cases I’ve seen courses where excellent bunkering adds immensely to the playing experience. I’d hold up Ganton Golf Club in Yorkshire as a shining example of excellent fairway bunkering. Frankly, it’s hard to imagine a bunkerless alternate-reality version of Ganton but if such a thing could exist it would no doubt be a good course (albeit lacking in green countouring on quite a few holes). And my own beloved Camden Country Club has more than enough interest in its often elevated green complexes but the bunkers surrounding many of those green really raise the challenge to another level given the tendency of nearly-good shots to trickle their way off the greens.

So there you have it. Give me a course that does a good job with even three of my four desirable elements and I’ll have a fine time playing there as many times as I have the opportunity. If all four elements are in place and especially if the bunkering is also noteworthy, now we’re talking about a course that’s as much fun (for me) to play as even the greatest courses in the world.

I would argue that the “greatest courses in the world” by my estimation are generally ones that check the boxes on my simple list and then take two or three of those elements far beyond the “check mark” and provide extraordinary amounts of green-contour interest, truly outstanding links turf or a spectacular setting like Cypress Point Club or Royal St. Georges. But at some point, I’m having as much fun playing golf as my game will allow and that does not require (fortunately) being at Cypress Point. Those rare courses can provide an almost otherworldly experience and I’m deeply appreciative of the few times I’ve been privileged to enjoy that sort of experience. But appreciating the truly one-off experiences does not (for me) preclude appreciating the day-to-day joys of playing any course that is Good To Play.

This little essay would not be complete without a brief mention of things that are not only absent from my personal list of Good To Play requirements but which positively detract from the experience of playing even an otherwise excellent course. Nobody likes searching through ankle deep or higher rough for golf balls. I live in the land of Bermuda grass and frankly, when the rough is Bermuda it can do its job at less than two inches dept. Anything beyond that is overkill. I find the use of golf carts or caddies pretty much equally distracting from the way in which I am accustomed to playing golf. On a related note, I do not enjoy courses where as much time is spent walking between or to/from the golf holes as is spent on the holes themselves. Generally speaking, the closer my round of golf comes to Just Golf the better. It is impossible for extra staff or amenities to add much to my enjoyment and it is certainly possible for an excess of non-golf distractions to be a detriment. So I have a lot of time for the less-adorned golf operations where one can travel from the parking lot to the first tee and traverse the course with only a bare minimum of distraction from the actual playing of the game.

It’s no surprise that my home course (Camden Country Club in Camden, SC) stands up pretty well under these criteria. Almost anyone who has played there would agree that the green complexes are the heart of the course, for better or worse. People who don’t care for Camden mostly don’t like the greens and conversely those of us who think it one of the better small-town golf clubs around tend to love the greens. Being on mostly sand and having enough surface contour to allow (mostly) good drainage, the course turf is moderately firm I’d say about 90% of the time in summer and the majority of the time in winter. In terms of Par 4 variety, the lengths certainly vary and there’s a nice mixture of straight and dogleg holes. The bunkering is a good mix of traditional greenside defined bunkers and less maintained “waste areas”. And the big plus is that Camden’s the sort of members club where I can show up without a tee time and I can often walk straight from the parking lot to the first tee and be playing golf less than 10 minutes of pulling my clubs from the trunk.