I’ve been at this for a long while. Along the way, I have played every imaginable type of golf course, from ultra-exclusive, regular major championship venues and modest resort courses to “country club for a day” municipal tracts and low budget mom ‘n’ pop 9-holers.
The first thing you learn is that there is no such thing as an average golf course. How can there be, when maintenance budgets at 18-hole layouts range from $300,000 a year to $3 million? That diversity, in fact, is what makes each round so interesting. After all, the rulebook on the game indicates only one industry standard — that the hole to which you are playing measures four-and-one-quarter inches in diameter.
The differentiation that results means golf has the most varied and compelling playing fields in sports. Terrain, width of fairways, soil composition, the playing textures in terms of grasses and the lengths of holes vary. You also have teeing ground options that enable you to play “the same course” differently from day to day. And the layout presents itself differently each day based upon wind direction and hole location.
You quickly get a good sense of the kind of facility you’re visiting. Personally, I much prefer courses where it’s obvious I have the option to walk. I don’t care whether it’s a prestigious private club or a daily fee with a shack for a clubhouse and dirt for fairways: nothing puts me off more at the outset than seeing a long line of motorized golf carts by the pro shop, as if you’re expected to ride rather than walk. It sets a bad tone. Alarm bells go off.
So, too, places that abound in instructions. Directional signage everywhere. Long lists of rules about proper attire. Postings about that day’s Stimpmeter readings. A pin sheet. It is TMI in my fragile world.
The same goes for vertical intrusion on the golf course. The need for a cemetery stone-like marker on each tee showing yardage and a hole map is indulgence that mars the ability to scan the horizon and appreciate the terrain. Ball washers create the same intrusive effect and should be done away with.
One of the great assets any golf course has is its natural setting. Don’t hide it. The first time I played Northland Country Club in Duluth, Minnesota, the back of the downhill par-4 13th hole was curtained by trees, hiding a spectacular long view of Lake Superior behind it. The next time I was there, the trees were gone and the hole conveyed a stunning infinity edge view with the lake as a deep backdrop.
Not every course has that kind of setting. The interior views compel at many courses — or they would, if only the club removed what look like ornamental Christmas tree plantings and other amateurish landscape elements better suited for a snow globe than a golf course.
Clubs waste time and labor setting up colored flags denoting front, middle and back. Whatever happened to judgment as an element of golf? Besides, many golfers now are equipped with handheld (or cart-borne) distance devices that can determine where the hole is cut. The vast majority of golfers would benefit from never aiming for a flag and simply playing for the front third of every green. One color flag, please — ideally, solid yellow, which shows up more clearly than any other. Just ask any golf course photographer.
It’s not snobbery. It’s about ease and simplicity of setup. The same goes for mowing patterns. Golfers would benefit in terms of definition and seeing the shape of a hole if the course did not have an intermediate cut and instead showed the contrast of fairway height against a singular rough cut. That would also marginally reduce the labor burden of maintenance.
Given the wide range of budgets and client expectations, it’s understandable that some courses have more resources to devote to setup. The difference is in how that’s deployed. Golfers would be better served if the focus in maintenance were on topdressing the approaches and firming up the areas short of greens, for example. That’s a much better use of resources than layering in four different heights of collar and light rough around the putting surface — or spelling out the club’s name in an annual flowerbed behind the signature waterfall par 3.
Regardless of pedigree, what counts in golf course presentation is being true to one’s identity without pretension. As with so much of life, ease and simplicity go a long way toward showing off native virtue.