Courses are the currency of golf, yet the reality is that most of them are of no value.
To be fair, every course is loved by someone. They anchor communities, commerce, childhood memories, friendships. But from the standpoint of architectural merit, most are products of the Xerox school of golf course design, exhibiting only a faded sameness that you’ve seen previously, and in sharper focus.
Great golf courses are living works of art, so it’s fitting that notions of what constitutes greatness are as subjective as in any other art-form. What is loved by me, may be loathed by thee. Courses – and opinions thereof – are the one thing all golfers share, and the best of them are reminders that the real charm of this game has nothing to do with the PGA Tour or its stars. It lies in the land we walk (or, more often these days, drive).
Every golfer I know maintains a wish list of courses they hope one day to play. For most of us, it exists only in the mind, fetched out for grill room fantasies. For at least one friend of mine, it is a spreadsheet tended with the wistful care of a Victorian love letter. Checking off the contents of this list is a lifetime’s quest.
Where I grew up playing was not on anyone’s wish list. It was a run-down par-3 course near my home in Northern Ireland. My wicked slice and O.B. right on all 18 holes made for a combustible combination, so most every round I hoisted myself gingerly over barbed wire fencing and into a farmer’s field to retrieve my ball, often from a fresh cow pat (This game has been a long series of indignities interrupted by the occasional false epiphany).
I found myself thinking back to those fence-hopping days last week during a round at National Golf Links on the eastern end of Long Island, New York. The quality of my golf has scarcely improved in the intervening decades, but the stature of the courses I besmirch has. I’ve been fortunate enough to play 60-odd of the top 100 courses in the world. Many of the old world’s finest layouts contributed DNA to C.B. Macdonald’s creation — he imported inspiration from St. Andrews, Royal St. George’s, North Berwick, Prestwick and Sunningdale — and almost every fine course in the new world traces its DNA back there. America has no better monument to the craft of course architecture.
National long occupied the top spot on my wish list until I first played it five years ago. That was around the same time my thirst for great courses slackened. The list survives though. Today the top spot belongs to Royal Melbourne. Kingston Heath, less than five miles away, is on there too. Chicago Golf. Fishers Island. Crystal Downs. Cruden Bay. Swinley Forest. Rye. Tara Iti … Like swing theories, no matter how many you’ve experienced, there’s always another.
Along the way there have been courses I still see in dreams (Cypress Point, The Old Course), and some in nightmares (Torrey Pines, Trump Aberdeen). There are places where I have intimate recall of every hole (all 85 at Bandon Dunes) and those where I had no lasting memory of any hole by the time I left the zip code (ChampionsGate in Orlando).
On spectacular clifftops I’ve seen masterpieces (Cape Kidnappers in New Zealand, Shanqin Bay in China) and the odd monstrosity (Old Head in Ireland). Some courses were riotous fun (North Berwick), others were dour slogs (Carnoustie). There have been as many I considered overrated (Tokyo G.C. in Japan, South Korea’s Nine Bridges) as underrated (California Golf Club in San Francisco, Wannamoisett in Providence, Rhode Island).
Of course, these are all subjective judgments that might earn support and objections in equal measure. Which is how it should be. Except on Torrey Pines. That’s just design malpractice and I won’t be convinced otherwise.
Somewhere along that journey among the best courses golf has to offer, I eventually realized that memorability often has little to do with architectural interest or history. That it matters less where we play, than with whom. That criterion, those memories, would produce a very different ranking. National Golf Links is on it, for sure. But so too is a now-lost par-3 course in Northern Ireland, whose most notable hazards were barbed wire fencing and cow pats.
Golfweek.com, Sept. 8, 2019.