Last week's column by Jason Deegan on the golf courses that pull on our heartstrings received loads of nostalgic comments from our readers. One of them was a special request inquiring about walking courses:
"Jason, how about an article on best walkable courses in U.S. and/or best executive or Par 3 muni courses? Right now with COVID-19 many courses are walking only...kind of refreshing for those of us that can still enjoy a good walk spoiled in comfort / without achy joints!"
I'll share a handful below. But while curating the list, my mind immediately raced to two golf courses in particular:
Lions Municipal Golf Course, my home course in Austin.
Cape Breton Highlands Links, a Canadian national parks course I've journeyed to play on three separate occasions.
On the surface there isn't a whole lot they have in common. Lions is a compact routing and about five miles start-to-finish. On a rare day when the course is empty, I can hoof it comfortably in under two and a half hours. Highlands Links, meanwhile, is a trek deep into a remote national park that is closer to 8 miles out and back. You don't rush a round here. It's a good reminder that some golf courses built before the golf cart were still pretty brawny treks, as described to me once by Graham Hudson, longtime general manager at Highlands Links.
"Golf was an all day affair," he said. "The golfers would take caddies and bring a picnic."
Most of the holes at Highlands Links are self-contained. Walking courses are sublime when you feel alone in the wilderness. But they can also be a joy when you feel like a part of the community the whole round. Nowhere is this more evident than at St. Andrews. But a lot of town courses around the world have a bit of this flavor as well (Niagara-on-the-Lake and Audubon Park, two short courses, come to mind immediately). Lions, just minutes from a bustling downtown metro, has a community golf feel on a 140-acre, trapezoid parcel. Many holes on the sub-6,000-yard layout play parallel to another. There are various converging points in the routing, such as the water coolers at the 5th and 7th tees, and on the back nine at the 16th tee. At a local course where every group seems to know one another, it's a fun and social feature.
The routing is also such that it's easy to bounce around and skip holes, which is particularly great during twilight. The 5th, 9th, 12th and 16th greens are a short walk to the clubhouse.
No-can-do at Highlands Links, which is an out-and-back routing with sparse evidence of human civilization. But bustling Lions and yawning Highlands Links absolutely share some elements that make their walks stand out.
Reveals are an essential element to a memorable walking round. Possibly the greatest "reveal" hole in golf is the trek up the hill of the 9th hole at Royal County Down which reveals the town and Mountains of Mourne. Or maybe it's the 8th at Pebble Beach or the 6th at Lahinch or the 15th at Cabot Cliffs.
Highlands Links' reveal comes early. After a modest opener, from the woodsy tee of the par-4 2nd hole, you see a sliver of a fairway that bends down to the right. As you enter the fairway, you turn the corner and see distant mountains, the ocean and beach. Suddenly you feel very small and at the edge of the continent, which you practically are. Reveals are nice in a golf cart but the anticipation that builds step-by-step is goosebumps-inducing.
Lions, to its credit, has a similar, Hill Country-style reveal on the 6th. Off the tee, you challenge a beautiful live oak on the right and then turn the corner to see the west Austin hills and my favorite green on the course, an optical illusion that always baffles new players to the course. I'm so fond of it that it's on my Twitter header.
Green-to-tee walks: Short green-to-tee distances are a perk of comfortable walking courses, but a routing can and should have an exception or two, especially if the walk is beautiful. I always look forward to the somewhat elongated walk at Lions from the 11th green to 12th tee. You pass by the signature 16th hole (the "Hogan" hole) and then stroll down the hill and under one of the finest live oaks on the course. A short par 5 eagle opportunity awaits at the end.
As for Highlands Links, the leafy trail beside the Clyburn River bank from the 12th to 13th is peaceful and solitary. A great walking course doesn't tire, it invigorates. To architect Stanley Thompson's credit, as rugged the course's terrain is, the walk doesn't beat you up.
Pretty much every old seaside links is a pleasant walking course thanks to one very important element: temperature. Golf can be enjoyed walking basically anywhere as long as it's not too hot or humid. Give me a party-sunny skies, a gentle breeze and temps in the 50 or 60s and I'll surely be smitten by the walk. But if it is hot, some well-placed trees for shade always come in handy. Both Lions and Highlands Links have no shortage. I've noticed that as I age, I spend less time on the course looking at my scorecard and more of it admiring trees.
Without further ado, here are some favorite courses I've walked: It is by no means a definitive list - instead more of a roster of the first ones that came to mind when I first pondered the question. Some, Jerry, are short golf courses. I'd love to hear your favorites in the comments below.