Golf Courses & Resorts

Golf Courses vs. “Golf Experiences.” Which Way Do You Lean?

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Quick question for you: What are the best golf courses you’ve ever played?

Okay, here’s another: What are the best golf experiences you’ve ever had?

Are they the same or different?

This is one of my favorite conversations to have with fellow golfers: what differentiates a golf course from a golf “experience.” In other words, what goes beyond the pure enjoyment of the course?

I’ll give my criteria and some examples of each type and then I’d love to hear yours.

Great Golf Courses

Naturally, the determining factors that make a golf course great have to do with design and architecture. If you recall our piece from a few months ago on the various golf course ranking lists and methods, we discussed this in some detail. These are the most important questions to which a golf course needs to answer “Yes!” if it’s going to be considered great:

  • Variety – Do I use every club in my bag, and am I encouraged to hit different shots with those clubs? Is there a beguiling short par three and a stout 230-yarder? How about a drivable par four and a 450-yard beast? A reachable par five and a true three-shotter?
  • Harmony – Do the holes, though encompassing a wide variety of lengths and demands, nevertheless work well together? If the land on which the golf course sits features a couple different environments (e.g. forest and open meadow sections), did the architect lead me in and out of them sensibly? Is the sum of the course’s 18 greater than the constituent parts? Is the course walkable?
  • Look & Feel – Do the landforms that I encounter make visual sense, especially as it relates to the strategy laid out by the holes I play? Are the fairways and greens firm, and do they encourage the greatest joy of the game: watching a ball bound across the turf toward the hole? Is the course clearly playable by high-handicappers and accomplished golfers alike? When I putt out on 18, do I find myself wanting to go back to the first tee?

At the same time, at least for the sake of this debate, the “great golf course” is distinct from the “great golf experience” because it may lack some of the peripheral amenities some facilities tout. The low-frills approach can be very charming, in that it allows the golf course to stand out in a player’s memory all the more vividly.

Greywalls is all about golf - and what a golf course it is, with heaving terrain and enchanting views of Lake Superior.

Greywalls is all about golf – and what a golf course it is, with heaving terrain and enchanting views of Lake Superior.

In my recent travels, one example of this category is Greywalls at Marquette Golf Club, on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Most golfers might expect a consensus top-50 public course in the United States to have a bunch of extra amenities, but beyond a very modest practice range, pro shop and restaurant, it’s all about the phenomenal, Mike DeVries-designed golf course here. In fact, players must take about a 10-minute cart ride from the pro shop up a huge hill just to get to Greywalls’ first tee. That said, a separate Greywalls clubhouse is planned for the next couple years.

Another golf facility making headlines recently for its stripped-down presentation of golf is Sweetens Cove Golf Club, east of Chattanooga, Tennessee. This nine-holer, designed by Tad King and Rob Collins, opened a couple years ago and just debuted in this year’s Golfweek “Top 100 Modern Courses” list. Pretty impressive for a nine-holer that doesn’t have a practice range or a formal clubhouse.

Great Golf Experiences

The nuts-and-bolts architecture of a course is important, but there are many other factors that can contribute to an overall golf experience. Here are the big ones:

  • Conditioning – You’ll notice I left this out of the section above, and you might well disagree. But whenever I hear someone rave about a great golf experience, the first thing out of their mouth is something to the effect of, “It was in incredible condition.” Obviously great conditions can enhance a great design, but there are a lot of less-heralded courses made memorable by immaculate conditioning, which is why I’m putting this category here.
  • Facilities – An over-the-top practice facility is another huge asset to places seeking to create an awesome golf experience, mostly because it’s an easy way to make us rank-and-file golfers feel like pros. Titleist NXT or Pro V1 Practice balls on the range are usually an indicator of such aspirations. A putting green with bespoke little flags in each of the holes? A separate short-game area? Both speak to the golf experience.
  • The Clubhouse – Big, fancy clubhouses tend to be home to two big elements of the “golf experience:” pre- or post-round food and beverage, and the locker room. Great clubhouse restaurants and bars, from the Tap Room at Pebble Beach to the Ryder Cup Lounge at Pinehurst, can add considerably to an already memorable day on the course, not just with their menus but with memorabilia and/or a great view back onto the course. Likewise, a comfortable and well-appointed locker room can serve as the venue for the anticipation before a round and reflection afterward. A bonus: big shower heads that rain gallons of water down on you per minute.
  • The Service – Being greeted by a course or club employee as you arrive tends to set a positive tone, and the post-round cleaning of clubs can bring it full-circle. If there’s a mint-scented cold towel, you know you’re being given a golf experience, too.
Post-round lunch in the Men's Locker Room is a Sea Island tradition not to be missed.

Post-round lunch in the Men’s Locker Room is a Sea Island tradition not to be missed.

In the resort realm, Sea Island epitomizes the “golf experience.” Yes, the flagship Seaside Course is very good in its own right, but in order to truly, well, experience the place, you’ll want to warm up on a practice range with one of the best views in golf, walk the Seaside Course with one of the resort’s excellent caddies, enjoy lunch (and the sweetest sweet tea in the South) in the locker room and, last but not least, take a long shower under one of the antique, rainfall-like shower heads with nearly the water pressure of a fire hose. Those other activities and amenities have nothing to do with the course itself, but they certainly elevate the experience.

From the clifftop first comfort station (foreground) to the oceanside practice facility (background) in addition to an engaging and scenic golf course, Quivira succeeds in crafting a memorable golf experience.

From the clifftop first comfort station (foreground) to the oceanside practice facility (background) in addition to an engaging and scenic golf course, Quivira succeeds in crafting a memorable golf experience.

Another definite golf experience destination is Quivira Golf Club in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, whose all-inclusive (i.e. food and beverage at three on-course “comfort stations”) approach matches the personality of the destination. Warming up on the range with the Pacific Ocean lapping at the shore just a few dozen yards away started things off quite nicely on my December visit.

What makes defining a “golf experience” tricky – and therefore a lot of fun to debate – is that personal preferences vary widely. Many golfers care only for what’s between the first tee and the 18th green. For others, the post-round pint and/or lunch is as important as the golf that precedes it. Still others’ tastes vary depending on when and where they’re playing.

Where do you come down in this debate — would you rather play a great golf course…or have a great overall golf experience? Please share your thoughts with us below!

25 Comments

  1. PJ Thompson

    May 16, 2017 at 8:26 am

    A great ‘experience’ will never make up for a lack of a great golf course but a great golf course without the amenities can still be a great ‘experience’- except when it comes to service. Nothing wrecks it quicker than bad service.

    Sometimes you get both. Most memorable are the ‘comfort stations’ at Discovery Land properties like Gozzer Ranch or Yellowstone Club.

  2. Ashley

    May 16, 2017 at 8:33 am

    Pace of play – nothing kills a round of golf faster than slow play!

  3. pete from NH

    May 16, 2017 at 9:00 am

    As I slowly work my way through my bucket list of courses I find it is the customer-focused people more than the pure ammentiies that make the experience most excellent. Caddies at Bandon Dunes and Kohler who make you feel so comfortable that you hire them for your whole stay, a caddy at Pebble Beach who on the 7th tee insists you “pause and look around–you want to remember when you stood here”, Kiawah Island walking up to the range, your caddy standing next to a clock set to your tee time, your name written below it, asking “which club would you like to start with”. Starters at Pinehurst and Harbor Town who sincerely welcome you. Memories that last a long time.

  4. Dragon

    May 16, 2017 at 9:26 am

    Either at a great affordable price

  5. Bill

    May 16, 2017 at 9:38 am

    I like the golf experience when staying at a resort, but prefer the basic great golf course that is in excellent condition 90% of the time.

  6. 50 States 50 Courses

    May 16, 2017 at 9:55 am

    Quivira is nothing short of amazing! It’s one of my favorite courses to date. It was hard for us to fully embrace the idea of the comfort stations, and a round at our own pace when you’re used to keeping up with the group ahead of you! The “drink service” starts at the driving range, where they had coffee and fresh OJ on hand. The first comfort station (in your picture) was complete with a full bar, tea sandwiches, trail mix, granola bars, etc. The mid-round comfort station is the greatest, with a chef who served us up some phenomenal quesadillas with fresh avocado.

    If phenomenal complementary food and drink aren’t your gig, the views and hospitality will win you over. Each hole presents its own beauty, but five and six are just spectacular. Every staff member was hospitable, but we loved the greenskeeper who gave us nothing short of 20 balls he found on the course after watching me bail a couple oceanside.

    If you’re in Cabo, head over to the neighboring Cabo del Sol Ocean course. It’s also a thing of beauty, and they have an intense taco bar at the turn!

    Fallen Oak in Mississippi is another great home to the great golf experience. So few people play here, that you’ll get the celebrity treatment from the moment you’re buzzed in the gate. Prepare to have every aspect attended to while you enjoy this peaceful round.

  7. Wally Dennis

    May 16, 2017 at 10:12 am

    The full-day experience at Muirfield would have to be at the top of the list. 18 holes of four-ball in the morning, changing into jacket and tie for lunch, followed by 18 holes of alternate shot in the afternoon will always be one of my greatest golf experiences.

  8. MIke

    May 16, 2017 at 10:18 am

    I’ve played well over 500 courses in my life, and best total golf experience for me came from a week in the town of St. Andrews. When we stayed there, I couldn’t help but think that all of those golfers on tour buses running around the country playing different course were missing out on entire atmosphere of the town.

    People walking through the town with their golf clubs, golf talk in the pubs and restaurants, the golf shops, and all of the history of the town itself, all contributed to one amazing time! The Old Course at St. Andrews may or may not be one of your favourite courses, but I would think that the experience of playing a course that has been traversed by all of the best golfers of all time would be something that most golfers would treasure the rest of their lives. It’s also so cool to have people watch you tee off, and watch you play in on #18! If you’re there on a Sunday, just walking around the course and soaking in the atmosphere and history only adds to a lifetime memory.
    In addition to the Old Course, the other courses at St. Andrews provide similar experiences of links golf. And, St. Andrews serves as a base for visiting other courses and points of interest in the area.

  9. Alex326

    May 16, 2017 at 11:21 am

    In order:
    Overall course condition – smooth greens , lush fairways, nice sand , etc
    Course design, forced water carries, driveable par 5, elevated tees, island green
    Staff friendliness a la Quail Lodge
    Course beauty/surrounding – waterfalls, ocean , flowers , mountains
    Clubhouse amenities – quality of food, view,

  10. Paul Boyd

    May 16, 2017 at 12:06 pm

    Played Quivira in March and it is possibly the most scenic course I have played. The views are comparable to Pebble Beach but the significant elevation change may put it ahead of Pebble. The comfort stations provide first class food and the course condition was exceptional in March. The elevation change also makes for very interesting options on par 4s. It is a must play in Cabo and may surpass Diamante’s Dunes course in the rankings.

  11. Dan Walker

    May 16, 2017 at 12:12 pm

    I begin my experience-rating in a course’s Pro Shop…Orange County, California’s COYOTE HILLS, FULLERTON, RIVERVIEW, and DAD MILLER have excellent Pro Shop associates…very friendly and helpful. The next experience I look for is in how the course architect laid out the course…two of the greatest course experiences I’ve had were at Chino Hills’ VELLANO, and Jurupa, CA’ OAK QUARRY! Bother challenging yet fair! Have Fun!!!

  12. mike

    May 16, 2017 at 12:55 pm

    I’ve played nearly 1000 different courses in 23 countries, and for me the best part of the “experience” is the basic golf. St Andrews of course, but the best was playing it in 1972 in three hours, no caddies, learning it as we went around. Golf in New Zealand on the little country courses rather than the $400 “experience” courses is fantastic. And discovering hidden gems in places like Iceland, Belgium, Sweden, or even Cruit Island in Ireland, make the most wonderful experiences. The worst killer of my golfing joy is when a place tries too hard, with valets, forecaddies, club cleaners, all with their hands out– invariably, these places have pro shop employees who seem to wish they were somewhere else. Give me an unpretentious little course that is glad to see you, half empty so I can finish in three hours, and I will die happy.

  13. Gregg

    May 16, 2017 at 1:39 pm

    Old Head- Ireland. Location, location…hands down the best.

  14. James "shortgame" Allen

    May 16, 2017 at 5:30 pm

    Best golf course… Shadow Creek in Las Vegas, Best experience… Maui , hands down… great golf, great service and great cart girls LOL

  15. Mike Hyde

    May 16, 2017 at 8:05 pm

    All of the comments are super good but for me the best part of a golfing experience is standing on a tee box and looking around and seeing a magnificent view that strikes you and wants you to return. The VISTA is the greatest!

  16. Dave Rafus

    May 16, 2017 at 9:39 pm

    Great Golf courses:
    Pasatiempo in Santa Cruz, CA and Eastward Ho on Cape Cod. All 36 holes will blow you away as you go back in time.

    Golf Experiences:
    May River in Bluffton,SC and Secession in Beaufort, SC. The golf is secondary to the ‘cool factor’ at both these properties. Go early and explore….stay late and enjoy

  17. Allan

    May 16, 2017 at 9:43 pm

    Play twilight golf at The Wynn. Hot, but the drinks flow, the caddies are great, and the course is stupendous.

  18. Lawrence Paine

    May 17, 2017 at 6:06 am

    St Enodoc, Cornwall – UK: links course with no flat fairways & unique features eg Himalaya bunker. Will email you pix from club website.

  19. Mike G.- Raleigh, NC

    May 17, 2017 at 10:09 am

    Great question….

    I appreciate both, but for me, it must start with a great layout!! Challenging, interesting, devilish holes. Then, you need outstanding conditioning (meaning bunkers are carefully groomed every day, the rough is tough but fair, not 4″+ deep, the greens are smooth and fast with few ball marks. The fairways are mowed carefully, not too low, not too high.

    A great golf experience starts with outstanding customer service and friendly staff who meet you when you pull in the parking lot. People who are excited to see you there, offer to help or answer any questions you might have. A fully equiped Pro Shop, a well maintained driving range and friendly first tee starter,….not a grumpy old dude. On the course, it’s important to have Marshalls who actually marshall,…meaning they stay on slow groups and encourage them to pick up the pace, watch them, and if they fall two holes behind, they need to be told to pick up their balls and move forward. That will likely piss them off but make a bunch of other golfers much happier. Look to satisfy the majority, in this particuar case. Just sayin….

    A really nice facility where showers, locker room and 19th Hole are all welcoming and open to guests are the final pieces. Again, outstanding customer service can make up for weaknesses in other ways.

    Places that I’ve played that stand out,….Pinehurst #2,#9, #8, #4, #6; Pine Needles & Mid Pines…in Pinehurst, NC; Torrey Pines….LaJolla, CA; Maderas, CC….Poway, CA; Orlando Ritz Carlton CC; Landfall CC (Dye and Nicklaus, WIlmington, NC); Cape Fear National GC…WiIlmington, NC; Cape Fear CC, Wilmington; Birck Boilermaker Complex (two Dye courses…West Lafayette, IN); Several in Myrtle Beach, SC (Caladonia, True Blue, TPC Myrtle Beach, Heritage; Shadow Glen CC (Olathe, KS); StoneRidge CC (Poway, CA); Snowmass, CC.. (Snowmass, CO); Cordillera, CC…(Edwards, CO); Crested Butte, CC…(Crested Butte, CO); Hasentree, CC (Wake Forrest, NC).

  20. Rich

    May 17, 2017 at 10:19 am

    Best experience for me is maximum back to back days of golf with good friends. A great uncrowded course with excellent staff can heighten the experience, but the worst is still a good time out with friends.

  21. Tim Gavrich

    May 17, 2017 at 1:49 pm

    Dave–

    GREAT call on Secession. It’s one of my favorite whole-experience golf places anywhere. The course, the caddies, the locker room, the bar, the people…it’s as complete a golf club as one could ask for.

    –Tim

  22. Adam

    May 17, 2017 at 3:59 pm

    Biggest killer for me is a course that is too crowded–which invariably leads to being slow.

    Second biggest killer is cartpath only, generally with paths that are far away from (and either far above or far below) the fairway. Leads to a long, slow day….

    Next is a course with poor ergonomics. Having to climb down rocks to get from the pro shop to the starter (I’m not kidding!), counfusing course routing without proper markings and directions, having to exit the fairway with your cart 150yds before the green, not allowing golf carts into the parking lot, no water buckets on the course, windscreens on all of the carts that won’t pull down (because they are a solid sheet of plexiglass), having the driving range between holes #2 and #3 (and so you have to drive the cart path backwards to get back to hole #1), having to go way out of your way to visit the clubhouse at the turn (and no comfort/food station on the course instead), the list goes on…

  23. Tom P-Sugarmill Woods, Fl

    May 17, 2017 at 6:06 pm

    The best part of golf is standing on the first tee and being thankful that you are on the right side of the grass…and playing a round with good company!

  24. Brad

    May 19, 2017 at 1:58 am

    Personally, for me, the best courses and experience were at the same place, Bandon Dunes. Went for 3 days of golf by myself and it was absolute heaven. Accomodations are nice and super convenient located on the property, free shuttles from your door to all the courses, pro-shops, restaurants and driving range. Four of the most jaw droppingly gorgeous and thoughtfully laid out courses, from the deep in the woods Trails course, to the links style Old MacDonald to the unbelievably gorgeous ocean vistas on Bandon and Pacific Dunes. And there’s the newer Bandon Preserve, a shorter par 3 course that is unbelievably fun, not to mention The Punchbowl, their putting layout. Awesome caddies and everyone there from the bartenders to the front desk staff is spot on. After 36 holes, there was a hot tub ready if your back is feeling stiff. When you’re ready for grub, they’ve recreated an Irish pub with great food and the drinks flow and everyone is meeting each other and in a great mood. And there’s a smaller, more intimate bar with poker tables in the basement where stogies are encouraged. Everything about the place is absolutely heaven. Only thing I can say bad about it is the wind can be seriously vicious.

  25. Wayne Talsky

    May 20, 2017 at 5:00 pm

    One of many great golf courses/experiences was The Bridge, located on the south fork of Long Island. It is exclusively private and from the moment you arrive, you are made to feel like “you have arrived!” The staff was warm, polite and accommodating. The Clubhouse is very modern but once inside it has a very warm feeling about it. The facilities and the course are absolutely incredible!! The round was enhanced by the walking with knowledgeable caddies. Afterwards, we used the locker rooms and had a wonderful shower and lunch.
    The day was perfect for creating memories with friends, playing golf, breathtaking views of the water and just enjoying all that golf can offer…

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