What Makes a Golf Course Hard?
I’ve had my butt kicked by Bethpage Black and watched balls tumble off ledges a Shattuck Golf Course. I’ve hit blind tee shots at Tralee only to never see the ball again. I’ve hunted through endless acres of fescue at courses near and far. I’ve three putted from 15 feet above the holes at countless Donald Ross designs.
There’s no collective answer for what makes a golf course hard. Sure the slope and rating on the card might provide some insight into the matter. If you asked most golfers, they couldn’t tell you with any certainly what rating and slope really mean. The higher the slope, the harder the course is the general knowledge most of us have. Once that number creeps into the 140s, you’re starting to look at some seriously difficult golf. However, those numbers don’t tell the whole story. Courses that seem very different in the realm of difficulty might look very similar if you’re just comparing their slope and rating.
Length is part of the recipe for a hard course, too. Many golfers can make any golf course hard if they wander to the back tees instead of teeing it forward. That personal choice is always a tough one, as it can make the day enjoyable or a slog. Threading that “what tee to play” needle is important and may cloud our appreciation of a course. Many times when people say a course is too hard (or too easy), it’s because they played from the wrong tees. Erring on the shorter side tends to make the day better, usually because scores are lower.
There are two categories for hard golf courses - “bad, hard” and “good, hard.”
The line between both types of hard courses is rather bright, I believe. During each round, a good, hard course will unveil itself in some way to entice a player to return. Maybe an argument could be made that every course has to unveil itself in some way lure a player back for another loop.
During my quest I’ve played some different types of good, hard courses. Places like Taconic, Concord CC, Winchester, Boston Golf, and Greathorse come to mind immediately. They are all superb golf courses that I’d play in a moment’s notice even though I know I’d have to have a sharp day of golf to find success, I know that the test is going to be enjoyable. Each of the courses above are also challenging in their own specific way.
Winchester, Taconic, and Concord have that classic Donald Ross New England challenge with tough greens, some excellent par 4s and a few holes where par just doesn’t matter at all. Driving the ball accurately is important, but wild drives are going to lead to a lot of punching out of trees or chopping out of the rough instead of digging through the bag for another golf ball.
Greathorse and Boston Golf are different types of good, hard courses. They provide all sorts of space off the tee, but in different ways. Greathorse’s centerline bunkers are prevalent, where as at BGC a drive on one side of the fairway will change how you can attack the green, let alone an actual pinplacement. Both courses are well bunkered, and Boston Golf’s greens are fun-house wacky (some of them are dialed up a bit too high).
Hard courses come in many shapes and sizes. The strength of each player’s game can even play a role in how they feel about a golf course. Some people rate Boston Golf higher than I do, that might be due to the fact that the weakest part of my game is my chipping, pitching, and reading greens, so those green sites make me anxious. I still enjoy it and understand what Gil Hanse was going for and would never call it a “bad, hard” golf course.
Context like the weather and playing partners and how you’re playing can also impact how hard a course is, however, the hard courses worth playing numerous times will call you back. Golf course architect Troy Miller said on The Fried Egg Podcast that Kiawah’s Ocean Course is one you’d finish playing and have no desire to play it again tomorrow, but you’d want to play next year.
But there are also the bad, hard courses that I’m comfortable having in my rearview mirror, never to play again unless the circumstances were exceptional (a fun golf outing with great people or a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to play with Tiger Woods.).
I sent out the bat signal on Instagram and asked two questions: “What makes a bad, hard course” and “What makes a good, hard golf course.”
The general feeling about bad, hard courses is that they punish players for good shots, have too many blind shots, have narrow playing areas (target golf), there are limited options for attacking a hole, similarity between the holes, forced layups, gimmicky design, unplayable rough. Someone even gave Pete Dye a drive-by with the same sentiment at Troy Miller, “Anything usually by Pete Dye. But he’s not so much bad as he is not fun to play everyday.”
My buddy Matt summed it up well, “Penalizes all but perfection.”
I also received some great answers for good, hard courses: Some birdie chances, natural defenses, igniting our golf imagination with various shot options, good shots rewarded, using clubs throughout the bag, consistency, challenging approach shots, wide fairways, elevation change, strategy, unique/interesting/undulating green complexes.
As I read through the the responses I realized that a lot of the things people don’t like about bad, hard golf courses appear in some capacity on nearly every golf course, but in smaller doses. Holes with forced layups are some of my least favorite (see Black Swan’s fourth hole). If one hole out of 18 has a forced lay-up, that’s fine. If I stand up on 5-7 holes and have to lay-up short of a hazard that is impossible to carry, I’m annoyed.
Architect Robert Hunter once said:
How deadly dull are two or three holes of the same character when they follow each other! Drive and pitch followed by a drive and a pitch is a good deal like serving a watery pudding after a watery soup.
Golfers don’t mind having their brains beat in by a hard golf course. Would we want to do it every single day? Probably not. But, like a strict teacher or coach there has to be some rhyme or reason for the philosophy, otherwise people start to tune them out, uninterested in being yelled at without the promise of any sort of progress or improvement.
A good, hard golf course is going to make a player better. Each course can sharpen a part or parts of someone’s game. Go play Greathorse every day and you’ll become a pretty solid driver of the golf ball and learn quite a few different shots around the greens. Winchester or Concord or Taconic will sharpen your iron shots and distance control (don’t miss long!) and your touch with the flat stick. A good, hard golf course feels like a final exam with some options - a project or an essay. There are options and choices to finding the answer and expressing your knowledge and understanding.
However, a bad, hard course doesn’t make you better in any real capacity. There’s no pay off to the struggle because there’s no explanation for many of the holes. It’s just watery soup and watery pudding over and over. It’s a true/false final exam - hit it here or suffer the consequences.
Last week I played Widow’s Walk for the first time; just uttering the name of the course to fellow golfers stirs eye-rolls, gasps, and shrugs (try it sometime with a Massachusetts golfer). The course is the captain of bad, hard golf courses so far in my quest (read my thoughts here). The course is the same thing over and over again. If you took all 18 holes and dropped them individually into another course, they would be fine. But with their powers combined, the course is one I wouldn’t be too willing to return to. The corridors are tight to play into and while there are options off the tee, they are all created by fear and narrowness, not by opportunity. After playing Widow’s Walk we hopped in the car and drove to Scituate CC for an afternoon nine hole jaunt (which was lovely). I hadn’t realized how tense I felt at Widow’s Walk until I stepped foot on Scituate’s first tee and looked around and could see four holes from my vantage point and had acres of space to hit my driver.
C.B McDonald might have put it best: “Diversity in nature is universal. Let your golfing architecture mirror it. An ideal or classical golf course demands variety, personality, and, above all, the charm of romance.”
After all, don’t we just want to feel loved and appreciated by a golf course. We all have a golf love language; bad, hard golf courses don’t seem to tickle anyone’s fancy.