I prefer walking to riding when playing golf. Who doesn't?
But you wouldn't know it by how little I walk. Out of the roughly 1,000 golf courses I've played, I've probably walked less than 100. Most public courses I tackle just don't cater to walking. Many are 7,000-yard modern designs saddled with long distances between greens and tees and/or built on severe terrain that only a mountain goat would enjoy. Cart golf is the business model, and I follow along aimlessly like everybody else.
It's too bad because walking provides a certain rhythm to the round, and leaves you feeling more intimately connected to the course you're playing. It's great exercise. I feel like I play better walking ... except when the walking gets tough, the golf gets tougher, too.
Walking up a ferocious hill on a golf course can take your breath away. I can think of a few places where I needed a few minutes to recover from an uphill slog - the gut-busting climb to the 13th tee at Castle Stuart in Scotland and the trudge up "Cardiac Hill" after the 13th hole at the Leslie Park Golf Course in Ann Arbor, Mich. The walk to the 14th tee at Bandon Trails is so demanding that the famed Oregon resort now carts players up the hill, the only time players sit in a golf cart on the entire 85-hole, walking-only property.
I've even heard a few walking-only courses dubbed "the toughest walk in golf." I played two of them months apart earlier this summer - Mayacama, a private club in Santa Rosa, Calif., and Erin Hills, the 2017 U.S. Open venue in Hartford, Wis. At both courses, I hired a caddie to do the heavy lifting and carry my bag. I don't think my aging back could have handled the job effectively without them.
I'm still not sure if being called the "toughest walk in golf' is a badge of honor or a dig. I'll let you decide.
A good walk spoiled?
I think part of the reason Erin Hills and Mayacama are known as tough courses is they're also hard walks. As the shots mount, so do the steps.
What's interesting about Erin Hills and Mayacama is they couldn't be more different. Erin Hills, one of only six public courses to host the U.S. Open, rolls through the hills of the Kettle Moraine region of rural Wisconsin west of Milwaukee. Mayacama, one of the most exclusive private clubs in northern California, climbs the hilly, rugged landscape of wine country.
Erin Hills, designed by Dr. Michael Hurdzan, Dana Fry and Ron Whitten, is grand in scale, characterized by wide fairways and huge greens. Wispy fescue lines each hole. There are virtually no forced carries except a single pond. On the other hand, Mayacama by Jack Nicklaus can feel tight at times. It is loaded with cross hazards in the form of ponds and canyons. Players must cross bridges and navigate a steep staircase to reach certain greens.
So which is the tougher walk? Perhaps the answer would seem obvious when looking at the scorecards. Erin Hills stretches to a whopping 7,735 yards, a true major championship test, compared to Mayacama's seemingly short 6,787 yards - almost a full 1,000 yards shorter. But it's not that simple.
Despite the yardage disparity, I took more steps at Mayacama than Erin Hills, according to my Fitbit. I walked roughly 16,000 steps (7.57 miles) at Erin Hills and somewhere around 17,000 (8.04 miles) at Mayacama.
Not surprisingly, the walk at Mayacama took a bigger toll on my body. Our caddie offered to use a cart left for groups near the 14th green to drive us up to the 15th tee, the highest point and best view on property. My playing partner and I declined, making the walk ourselves. Maybe that was a mistake. I remember feeling spent on the 18th tee. I subsequently smothered my drive left, leading to bogey on a challenging par 5 that doglegs right over a pond.
At the end of the round, another six-person cart is left near the green to transport players back up to the clubhouse on a hill. When the caddie offered to drive us to the parking lot, I didn't say no.
More "toughest walk" candidates
I haven't walked every great private club to determine what really is the "toughest walk in golf," but I have hoofed it on all of the walking-only resort courses that are all the rage today at Streamsong, Sand Valley, Bandon Dunes, Kiawah Island and Whistling Straits. None of them feel overly taxing. Walking Pebble Beach Golf Links isn't too tough, either.
It's no surprise that two of the toughest walks I've taken are past U.S. Open venues: Bethpage Black, site of the 2002 and 2009 U.S. Opens and 2019 PGA Championship, and Chambers Bay, host of the 2015 U.S. Open.
The famous sign at the first tee that warns golfers of Bethpage Black's ferociousness should also warn them how tough of a walk it can be. It feels like almost every hole plays uphill. Every green is elevated like a two- and three-story building. No matter how comfy your Eccos or Footjoys, your dogs will be barking by the end of the round.
Chambers Bay, designed by Robert Trent Jones Jr. and Jay Blasi, was built in the bowels of a former gravel pit near the shores of Washington's Puget Sound. Such a rare site presents unique challenges on the ground. I remember talking my father sometime around 2011. He struggled keeping up with me. A few years later, I took a buddy half my dad's age, and he was worked over by the walk as well.
Not all tough walks host majors or are modern creations. Opened in the 1930s, Highlands Links in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, is an 8-plus-mile walk and one of Managing Editor Brandon Tucker's favorite rounds in the world. Back then, caddies packed picnics and a round was an all-day affair. The brilliance of the Stanley Thompson design course and the setting in a national park softens the pain, but so will the golf carts on hand if you need them.
Carts aren't an option at the great links overseas unless you petition for special permission. The good news is most of them are flat. There are moments where you climb a dune or crest a hill that will leave you breathless. The hill on Gullane No. 2 in Scotland, the dunes of Enniscrone in Ireland and the blind shots of Royal County Down in Northern Ireland come to mind. The good news is, usually, the views revealed are just as breathtaking. They can help you forget how much your legs are burning.
What's the hardest walk you've experienced in golf? What made it a contender for the "toughest walk in golf"? Let us know in the comments below.