Punch shots: The toughest courses ever played by the Golf Advisor staff

When the U.S. Open last visited fearsome Oakmont Country Club in 2007, the United States Golf Association actually had to slow down the greens to host the tournament. Only eight rounds finished under par. The winning score -- by Angel Cabrera -- was five-over-par.

Every golfer likes a challenge, but how about the taste of humble pie? Oakmont is regarded by pros as possibly the toughest course in the U.S. Open rota. Chances are the 2016 U.S. Open at Oakmont could be another barrage of bogeys.

"I really think it is the hardest golf course we've ever played," Phil Mickelson said June 8 at the FedEx St. Jude Classic. "A lot of golf courses, when it challenges you tee to green the way Oakmont does, it usually has a little bit of a reprieve on the greens, and you really don't at Oakmont."

The staff writers here at Golf Advisor are hardly tour pros, but we've teed it up on some of the world's toughest courses, too. We could probably name 30 or more soul-crushing tracks we never want to see again. We've narrowed it down to the three toughest rounds of golf we've ever played. Five of these nine courses are among our newly revealed Golf Advisor's top 50 toughest courses, according to Golf Advisor raters.

Jason Scott Deegan's three toughest rounds

The mind game at Bethpage Black, the two-time U.S. Open venue originally designed by A.W. Tillinghast in 1936 and renovated by Rees Jones in 1997-98, starts on the first tee. The sign above the tee box reads -- "Warning -- The Black Course is an extremely difficult course which we recommend only for highly skilled golfers."

The white tees play so long (6,684 yards) that I rarely hit an iron into any of its handful of elevated greens. In addition to battling such brutal rough, breaking 100 feels like winning your own personal open. Up next are the 2019 PGA Championship and 2024 Ryder Cup. (Read Deegan's full review of Bethpage Black.)

Golfers should say a prayer before playing Ko'olau, which, in a twist of irony, is owned by the First Presbyterian Church of Honolulu on the rainy side of Oahu in the shadow of the Ko'olau Mountains. The course's slope of 154 is among the highest awarded by the USGA.

I thought I played pretty well when I only lost eight balls in the layout's dense jungle and ravines. I broke 100 -- my only goal for the day. True to form, Golf Advisor ranked its 18th hole among the scariest holes in America. (Read Deegan's full review of Ko'olau Golf Club.)

Given the choice, I'll play the more enjoyable North course at Oakland Hills every day over the brutal South course Ben Hogan called "The Monster." I've played Oakland Hills, located in Bloomfield Township, Mich., more times than any other World Top 100 course -- four times -- and I'm still at a loss how to solve its perplexing greens and its maniacal rough. Shooting in the 80s continues to allude me. (Read Deegan's full review of the South Course at Oakland Hills.)

Brandon Tucker's three toughest rounds

It's no secret that this gig affords me the chance to play some truly special courses on occasion. Few courses got me as jacked up to play than the gem of the North: Crystal Downs, an Alister MacKenzie-designed classic in northern Michigan. To say my game collapsed like a sack of potatoes, by the first green no less, would be an understatement. The course is just 6,500 yards from the tips but is every bit of a challenge thanks to wispy grass lining both sides of fairways, some tough elevation changes and incredibly fast, sloping greens. My first par of the day came on the 17th - a tricky short par 4 the rest of my group had trouble with ... go figure. A replay here would be my ultimate mulligan. (Read Tucker's full review of Crystal Downs.)

I had the chance to play Oakmont on the Monday after the 2007 U.S. Open as part of the media drawing, so we were treated to rock-hard greens, narrow fairways and wrist-bending rough (just ask Phil Mickelson). I managed a few pars here, particularly on the back nine, but I mostly remember just how difficult it was to stick balls on the green. You needed an incredible amount of spin, even with a wedge, to hold them. Putts above the hole had virtually no chance of getting close. And if you did in fact find the fairway, the lies were tight. On the 18th, I was lying two from about 75 yards out and skulled a sand wedge about six rows up into the grandstands, causing numerous, screeching clanking sounds, in front of plenty of onlookers. It was one of my more embarrassing shots in a golf career full of them. (Read Tucker's full review of Oakmont.)

I knew I had to put a Pete Dye design in my top three most difficult rounds since his designs usually have me so defeated that by the back nine I'm calculating a rough estimate of what the pawn shop might take for my clubs. I'm going with the Stadium Course because I played and succumbed to it twice. The first time I made one par, and the second time I scored a whopping two of them! Practically every tee box fails to "suit my eye" and even if I did find the fairway — which is essential, by the way, you're not going to hit these small greens buried in the thick rough -- my approach shot would end up in jail. The day I eliminate a two-way miss and the game gets a little steelier, this will be the first course I jump on a plane to play for some (I hope) payback. (Read Tucker's full review of the PLAYERS Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass.)

Mike Bailey's three toughest rounds

One of the most beautiful and perfectly conditioned courses in the United States, the Pete Dye Course at French Lick, which can be stretched to more than 8,100 yards, is also one of the hardest. With tall fescue, nary a level lie on the course (including the landing zones on the narrowing fairways), and difficult greens with near impossible up-and-downs for mortal golfers, Dye at French Lick is the kind of course that whatever your normal tees are on other courses, move up a set on this one, particularly on the par-3 16th, which can play as long as (get this) 301 yards, has water and yellow stakes all down the right side and high and ball-gobbling rough along the left side. (Read Bailey's full review of the Dye Course at French Lick Resort.)

No surprise here, another Dye design -- this one a collaboration between Pete and son Perry Dye - makes the list. Built on a difficult site with rock outcroppings and boulders, Pound Ridge probably looks a little harder than it really is, but make no mistake, it's really tough. There's very little room for error as the fairways pinch in the closer you get to these really well-protected greens. Also, many of the boulders were left in place, and they aren't easy to avoid, including "Pete's Rock" on the par-5 13th and "Headstone," a rock formation near the par-3 15th green. (Read Bailey's full review of Pound Ridge.)

Like many Mike Strantz-designed golf courses, Royal New Kent in Providence Gorge, Va., can be mind-boggling. That's because little is conventional. This link-style course provides blind shots, unusual angles, dramatic greens and a rolling landscape that provides a different test from every set of tees. The "Invicta" tees are nearly 7,500 yards, but unless your handicap is in the plus range, forget about it. In fact, I played it from 6,100 yards because there are no easy shots with all the angles, mounds and deceptive looks, and it was plenty challenging, but fun. First-time players should tee it up with someone who has course knowledge. (Read Bailey's full review of The Tradition Club at Royal New Kent.)

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My hardest round was the first and last time I played Wolf Creek in Mesquite, NV.  Just an insane layout with ups and downs unlike anything I've ever seen.

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Played WC in Mesquite a few years ago.  Visually intimidating, the hardest part is knowing your yardage, especially with the elevation changes.  A must play no matter what your handicap - but be forewarned - swallow your pride and play from the appropriate tee boxes or you will regret it...:)

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Ko'Olau is maybe my favorite course to play ever, and I've played Pebble four times.  I just love it.  I broke 90 once I think, but couldn't now.  Not enough distance anymore.  18 is scary.  The whole course is a relatively unknown gem.  So worth playing as you travel through the rainforest.

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What, no Princeville Prince??!!

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Speaking for myself, I excluded it from consideration since it's been softened since the two times I've played it, not to mention it's also not even open at the moment. But it is certainly a special beast. 

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Right there with you on Bethpage Black, it is an exhausting test - as much mentally as physically. Honorable mention to Firestone, which my host insisted we play from the tips. LIke Dubs Dread at Cog Hill, they both have punitive rough - any ball going can only be chopped out. Don't be concerned with advancing the ball - just put it back in play.

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Punch shots: The toughest courses ever played by the Golf Advisor staff
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