Great golf courses are easy. Design, conditioning, simple beauty. The ingredients that comprise our best courses, whether by feel or by scientific criteria, are firmly established. The tricky part is everything else; the vast middle tier of quirky, scruffy-around-the-edges layouts that feature just enough redemptive qualities to draw people back. What “best of” lists they crack don’t cover more than a few zip codes. But for one reason or another, they work.
To understand what constitutes an actually not terrible golf course, consider how you would use it in this sentence: “Yeah, it’s not great, but…” The rest is mostly subjective, but there are some common elements that allow us to stomach everything else. For instance:
“Good bones”: Like a once grand colonial fallen into disrepair, here you could squint from the first tee and detect the vague outline of greatness. A gently-winding dogleg cutting through the trees. A face bunker strategically guarding the right side of the green. It’s all there if someone could just put actual sand in the bunkers, and clean up the beer cans in the creek.
Puttable greens: A golfer can tolerate all sorts of indignities across 18 holes, provided those holes conclude with a ball rolling end-over-end in the direction of a cup. Like a great dessert after a bad meal, true greens help you forgive everything that came before.
Variety: One way to combat a course’s shortcomings is by disrupting the monotony. A driver toward that pile of cinder blocks here. A hybrid short of the weird-smelling pond there. They say a good golf course should ask a lot of questions. Occasionally they’re just awkwardly phrased.
Errs on the side of forgiving: Let’s be honest, a golfer is far more capable of suppressing his inner architecture snob if he can string together a decent score. In other words, if you spray it right and find it, if you thin your approach but still watch it roll onto the green, you’re far less likely to get bogged down by strategic deficiencies. Who cares what it looks like, you might break 40 on the back!
Walkability: The only thing worse than a bad golf course is a bad golf course comprised of absurd elevation changes or tedious stretches between greens and tees. At least when walking, you’re privy to exercise and moments of quiet reflection, and you don’t have to trudge back across the fairway because you brought the wrong wedge. You’ll grade the whole experience on a more favorable scale, especially since they can’t ding you $25 for the mandatory cart.
You can get on and you can play fast: Convenience counts, sometimes for a lot. Suppose you have a five-hour layover. Suppose they closed the office early because a water main broke. There are occasions when the main criteria for a golf course is that A) it’s outside, and B) there are few other humans in your way. Check those two boxes and they all feel like Pebble Beach.
Casual vibe: Golf often has to fight off its pretentious instincts of collared shirts and prolonged silence. We’re not saying those elements are bad. But they likely heighten expectation. By contrast, those courses that defy convention—T shirts, portable speakers, allowing you to bring a thermos of some mysterious homemade concoction—take some of the pressure off. Vital to this equation, of course, is that they’re not charging much at the door, otherwise you’re just overpaying for the right to not iron your clothes.
Singular strength: We played a course recently that had patchy fairways and greens that rolled at about 3 on the Stimpmeter. But it did have one neat island green that made for great photos, and it will end up being the one burned in our memory. Golf courses have persisted for decades on the strength of one exceptional hole amidst a sea of mediocrity. Kind of like an awful band from the '80s that managed one mildly catchy tune, and still receives a royalty check. Sometimes it's not about how often you deliver, but that you were able to deliver at least once.
Extracurricular appeal: And then there are times when it’s not about the golf course at all. Awkwardly conceived, with back-ups on every tee, and it doesn’t look good no matter how hard you squint. But … there’s a decent range. And a short game area. Or the 19th hole has a $10 special on nachos and draft beer. When a golf course is getting you there in spite of the golf course itself, it’s like dating a girl mostly because you like her car—highly unsustainable, but fine for now.