Quick question for you: What are the best golf courses you've ever played?
Okay, here's another: What are the best golf experiences you've ever had?
Are they the same or different?
This is one of my favorite conversations to have with fellow golfers: what differentiates a golf course from a golf "experience." In other words, what goes beyond the pure enjoyment of the course?
I'll give my criteria and some examples of each type and then I'd love to hear yours.
Great Golf Courses
Naturally, the determining factors that make a golf course great have to do with design and architecture. If you recall our piece from a few months ago on the various golf course ranking lists and methods, we discussed this in some detail. These are the most important questions to which a golf course needs to answer "Yes!" if it's going to be considered great:
- Variety - Do I use every club in my bag, and am I encouraged to hit different shots with those clubs? Is there a beguiling short par three and a stout 230-yarder? How about a drivable par four and a 450-yard beast? A reachable par five and a true three-shotter?
- Harmony - Do the holes, though encompassing a wide variety of lengths and demands, nevertheless work well together? If the land on which the golf course sits features a couple different environments (e.g. forest and open meadow sections), did the architect lead me in and out of them sensibly? Is the sum of the course's 18 greater than the constituent parts? Is the course walkable?
- Look & Feel - Do the landforms that I encounter make visual sense, especially as it relates to the strategy laid out by the holes I play? Are the fairways and greens firm, and do they encourage the greatest joy of the game: watching a ball bound across the turf toward the hole? Is the course clearly playable by high-handicappers and accomplished golfers alike? When I putt out on 18, do I find myself wanting to go back to the first tee?
At the same time, at least for the sake of this debate, the "great golf course" is distinct from the "great golf experience" because it may lack some of the peripheral amenities some facilities tout. The low-frills approach can be very charming, in that it allows the golf course to stand out in a player's memory all the more vividly.
In my recent travels, one example of this category is Greywalls at Marquette Golf Club, on Michigan's Upper Peninsula. Most golfers might expect a consensus top-50 public course in the United States to have a bunch of extra amenities, but beyond a very modest practice range, pro shop and restaurant, it's all about the phenomenal, Mike DeVries-designed golf course here. In fact, players must take about a 10-minute cart ride from the pro shop up a huge hill just to get to Greywalls' first tee. That said, a separate Greywalls clubhouse is planned for the next couple years.
Another golf facility making headlines recently for its stripped-down presentation of golf is Sweetens Cove Golf Club, east of Chattanooga, Tennessee. This nine-holer, designed by Tad King and Rob Collins, opened a couple years ago and just debuted in this year's Golfweek "Top 100 Modern Courses" list. Pretty impressive for a nine-holer that doesn't have a practice range or a formal clubhouse.
Great Golf Experiences
The nuts-and-bolts architecture of a course is important, but there are many other factors that can contribute to an overall golf experience. Here are the big ones:
- Conditioning - You'll notice I left this out of the section above, and you might well disagree. But whenever I hear someone rave about a great golf experience, the first thing out of their mouth is something to the effect of, "It was in incredible condition." Obviously great conditions can enhance a great design, but there are a lot of less-heralded courses made memorable by immaculate conditioning, which is why I'm putting this category here.
- Facilities - An over-the-top practice facility is another huge asset to places seeking to create an awesome golf experience, mostly because it's an easy way to make us rank-and-file golfers feel like pros. Titleist NXT or Pro V1 Practice balls on the range are usually an indicator of such aspirations. A putting green with bespoke little flags in each of the holes? A separate short-game area? Both speak to the golf experience.
- The Clubhouse - Big, fancy clubhouses tend to be home to two big elements of the "golf experience:" pre- or post-round food and beverage, and the locker room. Great clubhouse restaurants and bars, from the Tap Room at Pebble Beach to the Ryder Cup Lounge at Pinehurst, can add considerably to an already memorable day on the course, not just with their menus but with memorabilia and/or a great view back onto the course. Likewise, a comfortable and well-appointed locker room can serve as the venue for the anticipation before a round and reflection afterward. A bonus: big shower heads that rain gallons of water down on you per minute.
- The Service - Being greeted by a course or club employee as you arrive tends to set a positive tone, and the post-round cleaning of clubs can bring it full-circle. If there's a mint-scented cold towel, you know you're being given a golf experience, too.
In the resort realm, Sea Island epitomizes the "golf experience." Yes, the flagship Seaside Course is very good in its own right, but in order to truly, well, experience the place, you'll want to warm up on a practice range with one of the best views in golf, walk the Seaside Course with one of the resort's excellent caddies, enjoy lunch (and the sweetest sweet tea in the South) in the locker room and, last but not least, take a long shower under one of the antique, rainfall-like shower heads with nearly the water pressure of a fire hose. Those other activities and amenities have nothing to do with the course itself, but they certainly elevate the experience.
Another definite golf experience destination is Quivira Golf Club in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, whose all-inclusive (i.e. food and beverage at three on-course "comfort stations") approach matches the personality of the destination. Warming up on the range with the Pacific Ocean lapping at the shore just a few dozen yards away started things off quite nicely on my December visit.
What makes defining a "golf experience" tricky - and therefore a lot of fun to debate - is that personal preferences vary widely. Many golfers care only for what's between the first tee and the 18th green. For others, the post-round pint and/or lunch is as important as the golf that precedes it. Still others' tastes vary depending on when and where they're playing.
Where do you come down in this debate -- would you rather play a great golf course...or have a great overall golf experience? Please share your thoughts with us below!