Judging the value of a golf course
Why does each of us react so strongly, and often very differently to a golf course – any new course, or the re-visiting of one beloved? Sure, we love golf, and the quintessential nature of the game is that every golf playing field is different – perhaps only cross-country running and equestrian events, sailing and skiing share that special distinction. But a golf course examines our senses and invades the cortex of our brains at a walking pace – it’s a slow experience, or rather an inexorable accumulation of little experiences, and ebb and flow of sensual reactions to what we see, feel through our feet and in the thrust of the club in our hands at impact, judge in some special golfy part of our brain in contemplating the distance and height of the shot before us, even smell in the new-mown grass, or springtime.
And, in all this, we bring to our reaction to a golf course, knowledge – some learnt sense of what is ’correct’ about the setting, the examination, the stimulus of every golf hole we play. We say we unconsciously or overtly understand the principles of what makes for a ’good’ golf hole, and thus we are inclined to judge a course as ’valuable’, or ’excellent’, ’dreary’ or ’wrong’ depending on the number of holes in it which fit our notions of what we’ve learnt to be correct.
My personal attitude to judging the quality of a golf course is more complex than adopting a purist and puritanical reaction to ’architectural principles’ which some commentators feel they know better than most. I’m a little wary of the herd mentality: “so-and-so says that course is lousy, or there’s this and that just so wrong about it, and he/she knows golf so well, so it must be true.”
Candidly, an analysis of what golf course architecture really means is a somewhat subjective and historical matter – it waxes and wares according to many factors – the replacement of horse-and-scoop earthworks with the bulldozer and huge scraper, Sarazen’s discovery of the bulbous flange on the first sand wedge, the development of differential irrigation controls, the vast knowledge of how to mow and nurture new grass types, to name just four.
Sure, most of the tenets, the real principles of golf architecture remain inviolate, are pretty-well understood by most of us, and new developments in how the game is played are absorbed in the interplay of those principles in the compass of each course we play. (And we tend, don’t we, to ’forgive’ the absence of such lofty principles in our home course – a little bit, let’s be honest?). However, there is, in my opinion a personal reaction always by those of us lucky enough to have played and studied many courses, which is not merely tailored to whether an individual venue respects utterly a catalogue of so-called principles of value.
As in buildings’ architecture, or in the action/reaction history of great art, there is a somewhat jerky growth in understanding why one course assumes a sublime status, and others are thought of as less than that. Thus, the Miesian principles of the skyscraper, that the structural bones of the edifice are made obvious, apparent, clothed in glass – a minimalist approach summarised by Le Corbusier as “less is more” – that’s understood, accepted, often lauded. But each of us reacts differently to different skyscrapers don’t we? – the overall thrust of the design, the detailing, the stimulus it affords us individually, even on a day-to-day basis? Its presentation? The weather?
So with golf courses. This article is really my 10 most beautiful courses, and I had to swerve a little, and get a little philosophical, because I believe there is an argument for considering a golf course as ’beautiful’ even if it’s not set on clifftops, or in glorious dune-bound land with far away views of mountains. Thus, in my view, Cypress Point is a magnificent golf setting where the spasms of ruptured sand, and rearing seas crashing and sucking on rocky bulwarks act as an accomplishment to sound golf architectural values. The adjacent Pebble Beach shares somewhat similar terrain, but in no way satisfies my ’definition’ of golf beauty or architectural ’convincingness’.
So, I judge a golf course’s value and status from the following viewpoints, and think we would all learn from one another, and further share the joys which golf gives us, if everyone contributed their own viewpoints on what makes a course truly valuable.
- Does the course apparently use the natural land contours and features in a way which looks as though nature gave it up to be mown for play?
- Is there visual ’golfing’ stimulation in contemplating the terrain in front of me on very much of the play journey? (That’s special, and individual, not necessarily geared to purist principles).
- Are there some unusual, even quirky design episodes which quicken the golfing brain, ask the strange question, and stamp the course as one I cannot, will not forget? (eg blind shots, a pair of trees 20 metres apart, defining three separate drivelines, with the green exploiting the taking of the most difficult line!, a reverse tier green etc.)
- Is the place, in summary, one where I have a rollicking good time with my mates, or feel quest contentment in playing my best, and want to come back again and again? (Mackenzie was a specialist in making the golf examination look and feel much harder than it actually plays for ordinary skill levels – look at Royal Melbourne, where most of us score far better than what looks like can be contemplated).
These are my top ten courses in the world, and also, inexorably my most beautiful, using the above attitudes as intrinsic to the judgement task. Not in order, because it varies on a day-to-day basis according obviously to opportunity and how I feel.
- St Andrews – the Old Course (Scotland)
- Pine Valley (USA)
- Augusta National (USA)
- Royal County Down (Ireland)
- County Louth, Baltray (Ireland)
- Cypress Point (USA)
- Royal Melbourne (Australia)
- North Berwick (Scotland)
- Ballybunion Old (Ireland)
- The Dunes (Australia)