Golf Courses & Resorts

What Do You Think Of This New Way To Classify Golf Courses?

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There may be a better way to choose the golf courses you play.

During a recent trip through Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and central Wisconsin, I played and passed by some other courses with ski areas nearby, and it got me thinking: what if we classified golf courses the way ski resorts classify their ski runs?

After all, Bethpage Black, the host course of last week’s The Barclays, is the perfect example of what I’m talking about.

Let me explain:

In case you’re not a skier, here’s a quick rundown of how individual slopes/runs at a ski area are classified:

  • Green Circle – The “bunny slopes.” These are a ski area’s easiest runs, with wide corridors and a general slope of about 25% or less.
  • Blue Square – This describes the bulk of the runs at most mountains, with a slope from 25% to 40%. These may be a little daunting for the rank beginner, but for anyone with more than a modest amount of prior experience, these are the most fun and popular runs.
  • Black Diamond – With grades of more than 40% in places and other things like jumps and moguls, these runs are best for fairly experienced and avid skiers.
  • Double Black Diamond – Like their singular cousins, but even more challenging and potentially dangerous to a non-expert skier.

Now, what would this look like for golf courses?

Green Circle
Par-3 and executive courses would comprise this category. Such venues tend to be perfect places for juniors and other beginners to get introduced to the game and play their first few rounds without getting discouraged. We’re as excited as anyone to learn that these types of courses and experiences are making a comeback.

Bandon Preserve is one of the most notable Green Circle-type courses in the world. (Sean Ogle/BreakingEighty.com)

Bandon Preserve is one of the most notable Green Circle-type courses in the world. (Sean Ogle/BreakingEighty.com)

What these courses are like: Composed as they are of short holes with little in the way of bad trouble and an eye toward faster play, “Green Circle” courses are coincidentally well-named, as their greens are likely to be pretty simple in both shape and contour. Recent versions of this course type, though, are becoming more adventurous while still remaining playable for all. The Coore/Crenshaw-designed 13-hole par-3 Preserve Course at Bandon Dunes is one of the best Green Circle courses we have encountered. Others include the Horse Course at The Prairie Club and the six-hole pitch-and-putt at PGA Golf Club in Port St. Lucie, Florida.

Blue Square
The majority of 18-hole, longer-than-executive-length (say, 5,400 yards and par 66 or 67 up to about 6,800 to 7,000 yards, par 72, give or take) golf courses fall into this category. Your local muni is almost definitely one of these, as are most of your local private clubs, especially if they opened before 1960 or so. Golfers up to a 30 handicap or so are going to enjoy themselves, provided that they play the right set of tees. Back-tee yardages will top 6,000 yards, with Slope ratings from the 120s to the middle 130s.

Sweetgrass has the hallmarks of a Blue Square: generous corridors, fun greens and a healthy dose of playability from all tee markers.

Sweetgrass has the hallmarks of a Blue Square-type course: generous corridors, fun greens and a healthy dose of playability from all tee markers.

What these courses are like: These courses tend to have wider fairways and keep forced carries over water and wetlands to a minimum, but ratchet up the challenge on and around the greens, with interesting and confounding undulations and fairway-length chipping areas. A lot of the hottest current architects like Gil Hanse, Tom Doak and Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw are Blue Square specialists. Of the courses I saw last week, Sweetgrass Golf Club at Island Resort & Casino, a Paul Albanese/Chris Lutzke design, is a great example, as is the new Coore/Crenshaw course at Sand Valley Golf Resort in central Wisconsin. Other Blue Squares include the Bandon Dunes courses in Oregon, the Streamsong courses in Florida and classic layouts like Pinehurst No. 2, which, despite its U.S. Open pedigree and tough reputation, is a course where very few golfers will lose a ball, since that challenge is primarily concentrated on and around its greens.

Black Diamond
Courses that aggressively market themselves as “Championship” courses will be more likely to fall into this category, especially high-end resort courses of the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s. Back-tee yardages are likely to top 7,000 yards, with Slopes into the middle 140s.

Greywalls Golf Course is a perfect Black Diamond: the challenge is stout at times, but the scenery and design brilliance make it an absolute must-see. This is the stunning par-3 sixth.

Greywalls Golf Course is a perfect Black Diamond: the challenge is stout at times, but the scenery and design brilliance make it an absolute must-see. This is the stunning par-3 sixth.

What these courses are like: If your handicap is above 15 or so, even from the right set of tees, you’re likely to encounter narrower fairways, deeper bunkers and more plentiful water hazards than usual. Bring an extra sleeve of golf balls and a sense of humor to this class of course. I would consider the spectacular Mike DeVries-designed Greywalls Golf Course at Marquette Golf Club a Black Diamond, due to the wild undulations and abundance of potentially shot-ruining rock outcroppings that dominate much of the front nine. That said, Greywalls should be on every golfer’s bucket list, along with other Black Diamonds like TPC Sawgrass, Torrey Pines South, Blackwolf Run and Whistling Straits.

Double Black Diamond
These are the toughest golf courses you will find, and if your handicap is expressed by double-digits, good luck: it might be a long and frustrating day. Slopes from the back tees on these courses may top 150, and they may even hang in the 140s and upper 130s from shorter tees.

What these courses are like: Just take the same criteria for Black Diamond courses and amp up the danger. Famous private courses like Pine Valley and Oakmont, as well as the Ocean Course at Kiawah Island are prime examples. I also count the wild and sublime Tobacco Road in North Carolina as a Double Black Diamond due to its back-tee slope of 151, even though the distance from those tees is only about 6,500 yards. And last week’s PGA Tour venue, Bethpage Black, would count as well.

Bethpage Black, this week's Tour stop, famously boasts a sign warning golfers of its extreme difficulty. A big Double Black Diamond sign would fit right in next to it. (Jake Struebing)

Bethpage Black, this week’s Tour stop, famously boasts a sign warning golfers of its extreme difficulty. A big Double Black Diamond sign would fit right in next to it. (Jake Struebing)

Why You Should Use This Scale
These classifications are subjective, of course, but you can usually tell whether a course you’re considering playing on your next golf vacation is going to be more like a Blue Square or a Double Black Diamond from looking at the scorecard on the course’s website.

If you’re traveling somewhere with a lot of golf courses and you have a wide range of handicaps in your group, try and find a couple Blue Square-type courses to start your trip and don’t overload on the real bruisers, lest your higher-handicap buddies find their “vacation” more taxing than anticipated.

And of course, it’s worth noting that a beginning golfer taking on Bethpage Black is likely to have a miserable day with a lot of hacking around, whereas a first-time skier taking on a Double Black Diamond run is likely to end up in the hospital.

Finally, it looks as though golf course architecture is continuing to shift toward the building of Blue Square-type courses. The 1960s through early 2000s saw thousands of long, demanding Black Diamond courses get built, only to find their audiences unwilling to pay top-dollar time and again for a rough golf experience. Courses that amuse, rather than bruise, are back in vogue, which is a relief for the vast majority of golfers.

What do you think of this method of classifying golf courses? Useful to you? Something you’d like us at Golf Vacation Insider to use in future reviews?

As always, we’d love to hear your thoughts below!

37 Comments

  1. PJ Thompson

    August 30, 2016 at 10:12 am

    Seems irrelevant and/or counterproductive. For one, most courses have multiple teeing grounds making multiple golf courses of varying difficulty. The general conclusion is that most golfers ‘get over their skis’ when choosing which tees to play despite the option. Second, golfers tend to be attracted to the prestige of difficult courses.

    Slope and rating are already more detailed indicators of difficulty, yet often ignored.

  2. Lee Magwood

    August 30, 2016 at 10:16 am

    Great idea.

  3. RockyLaddo

    August 30, 2016 at 10:18 am

    An interesting concept, especially if it used as an additive approach in lieu of a replacement. When selecting courses that I like to play, I place a premium on whether the course has multiple tees that allow me to play a maximum of around 6000 yards.

  4. George S

    August 30, 2016 at 10:24 am

    Thumbs up. A great idea, go for it.

  5. ghl

    August 30, 2016 at 10:26 am

    Great idea, go with it.

  6. Tom Durbin

    August 30, 2016 at 10:30 am

    Why do we have double black and black diamond courses? They only discourage most golfers and potential golfers and usually cost way too much which tends to influence potential golfers about the cost of the game…these courses are one of the main reasons golf is on the decline…that and pace of play.

  7. Kirk

    August 30, 2016 at 10:32 am

    I love this because it allows me and my group to make an educated decision. I recently traveled with a group of buddies – none of them better than a 20 handicap. unfortunately, we played some courses that beat em up badly and impacted the fun.

    I am not a black diamond skier so I would never venture down the hill thinking that harder is better. unfortunately, the only thing you can break by playing too hard of a golf course is your ego…

  8. Jay Thomas.

    August 30, 2016 at 10:36 am

    Absolutely a great idea. Clever of you to think of it and surprised no one else has before – better than looking at slope. Architects nearly killed the game with the over the top courses they designed that so few could endure (nor pay for) more than once. Played TPC Sawgrass not long ago as a 9 handicapper and never want to see it again – except on tv. Conversely, played Tom Doak’s course in Montana and Fuzzy Zoeller’s course in southern Indiana and had a hoot – challenging courses, but ever so playable.

  9. Tom Hudson

    August 30, 2016 at 10:40 am

    I think the slope explains the toughness best of all. The condition of the course is what needs ranking. Bent grass fairways, manicured bunkers, etc. That is lost in the ski type ratings.

  10. Gary Duprey

    August 30, 2016 at 10:41 am

    Your system isn’t necessary as the currently used system works well and is less confusing than yours. Nice try though.

  11. Mike Schultz

    August 30, 2016 at 10:48 am

    I like the idea, as both a skier and golfer that has planned many outings for both I believe what is most important is that everyone have a good time. This would help in that regard.

  12. Gary

    August 30, 2016 at 10:48 am

    I totally agree that “Blue Square” courses are most beneficial to the game. I’ve maintained that the reason why the game did not take off the way it should have in the 80’s and 90’s is that there was way too much emphasis on degree of difficulty and pristine conditioning, and not nearly enough on playability.

  13. Tim

    August 30, 2016 at 10:52 am

    I think it’s a great idea! There is always a lot of press for “great courses” (like Arcadia Dunes in Michigan), but until you get there you really don’t know how difficult a day you might be about to have!

  14. Sonny Seay

    August 30, 2016 at 10:54 am

    Yes include. It would be a great golf vacation planning tool. I like it.

  15. James Swanson

    August 30, 2016 at 11:05 am

    Totally agree. For us (mid/high handicap) amateurs, golf is a game, not a challenge to a beat down. I like beautiful courses and will pay money for them, but am not interested in “bring a dozen” challenges. I also don’t have any interest in playing a NBA star one-on-one in my driveway! If golf is to stay viable, courses (and they abound) need to be playable for the vast majority of us mere mortals. A look at the rating/slope is a good start. A direct rating system as you propose would be great. Thanks

  16. Michael

    August 30, 2016 at 11:13 am

    You’re missing the trees paying attention to the forest. Golf has become a more inclusive sport with more juniors, women, and senior participants. Unfortunately, courses, no matter how creative you get in rating them, were designed for men and the placement of tees rarely evens the playing field for those driving the ball less than the “real” average driving distances for ameteur men golfers.

    Take one of the par 5 holes at a course my wife and I play often. From the white tees, it mesures 489 yds – from the red tees, 480 yds. Equitable distance research shows that the “average” ameteur woman and senior golfer have 25% less distance club-for-club as the “average” ameteur man golfer. When my wife tees up on that 480 yd par 5 hole, it is like me facing down a par 5 measuring 640 yds.

    My point is this. When I play golf with my wife, she should be using (within reason) the same clubs I do from tee to green. The USGA handicap permits us to compare relative scores, but there is no adjustment factor for comparing our relative experiences on the course. Too often I find myself hitting driver – 9-iron while my wife is hitting driver – 3-wood.

    Let’s scrap your ski slope analogy and adopt course ratings more relevant to making the links more enjoyable for “all” golfers. Imagine how quickly change would occur if course ratings came with warning labels such as … The tees on this course place golfers with driving distances below 225 yds at a severe disadvantage.

    Divert your attention to the tees. It’s time we all recognized that it’s not enough to adjust scoring. We need to adjust golfing experiences.

  17. Carla

    August 30, 2016 at 11:16 am

    Sounds like a fun twist. But each run on a mountain is designated, just like each golf hole can have it’s own difficulty. Some mountains (and courses) are generally more or less difficult, but on our course (Bandon Crossings) for example, #2 is green circle, #3 is blue square, and #18 is black diamond (in my opinion). Variety is the spice of life.

  18. Tim Gavrich

    August 30, 2016 at 11:19 am

    Michael–
    I think both consideration of proper tee yardage and our general ski-type rating system can coexist. Our recent piece on Arthur Little and Jann Leeming was a lot of fun to research and write, and provides a good general system for choosing the right set of tees. That said, I think you can still have a “Black Diamond” golf course have correctly-spaced tee markers STILL qualify as a Black Diamond AND have a “Blue Square” course with correctly-spaced tees, and be able to observe that they’re still of distinctly different difficulty levels. Does that make sense?
    –Tim

  19. Tim Gavrich

    August 30, 2016 at 11:21 am

    Carla–
    That’s a great point, and definitely a complicating factor in this enterprise. Still, without having played Bandon Crossings but being familiar with architect Dan Hixson’s work, Id venture that the course would be a Blue Square overall. It’s pretty generous off the tee, not many forced carries, and provides the bulk of the challenge on and around the greens, yes?
    –Tim

  20. Jbl

    August 30, 2016 at 11:34 am

    Great idea! Do it.

  21. Howard

    August 30, 2016 at 12:26 pm

    Dumb idea. Most courses I have played have a variety of easy to very difficult holes. We already have a handicapping system 1-18 for the holes, and several sets of tees. Any golfer with a handicap higher than 10 should always play the whites, and count your lost balls.

  22. Paul Whitley

    August 30, 2016 at 12:35 pm

    Doesn’t golf already do this by handicapping each hole on a side and by giving a slope and rating? You know before you tee off if the slope is 140 it’s a challenging course and if you’re on the number 1 handicap it’s the most difficult hold on the front.

  23. Ken

    August 30, 2016 at 12:52 pm

    Good idea. You could also consider the above golf course ratings/rankings by not only the overall golf course but by using those rankings and ratings for each Teebox.
    Since probably less than 80% of all golfers, men and women, break a score of 100, golf courses should consider setting their tee boxes with a designated range of handicap for each Teebox. Not just designating tee boxes by colors. Many golf courses in Florida have set tee boxes indicating a range of handicap for each tee box, and this speeds up play, and makes for a more enjoyable experience for all on the golf course.

  24. Mrs. P.

    August 30, 2016 at 1:21 pm

    As a former skier, I think this is a great alternative way to describe a golf course and assist in selection–particularly when on vacation trying to find a local course without a lot of local knowledge. Yes, golf needs to continue to revise and simplify rules (as is occurring now) and make any other changes like some sort of classification system to help this sport to appeal to younger players–and to older women, like myself.

  25. cksurfdude

    August 30, 2016 at 1:30 pm

    Totally 100% completely in favor of this idea.

    Too many golfers…
    1. waaaaay over-estimate their ability and hold up every group behind them;
    And,
    2. ignore rating, slope and length.

    Too many courses do not offer multiple tee options, other than Men’s / Champions / Women’s … ie. no Seniors, etc. … and too many golfers just plain refuse to “play forward”…

    Our game has placed such an emphasis on bombing the drive, and … too many amateur / weekend golfers are just not capable of *accurately* bombing a drive down a championship course fairway…

    And, yes – I often play from the Women’s Tees when I’m out with my wife (when there’s no Seniors), and use a hybrid or an iron and, yes – I hit a lot of fairways and GIRs and am enjoying the game and am improving every facet of my play (other than only bombing a drive).

  26. Jim

    August 30, 2016 at 1:34 pm

    Excellent article and idea. The game is frustrating enough. Overreaching makes fora miserable experience and this concept would be very helpful for families and reasonably thinking people.

  27. Larry H

    August 30, 2016 at 2:36 pm

    I live in Upstate/Western NY (Rochester) and have skied since I was 12. I started golfing as a caddy at 13. I’m now 61. I’ve worked in the ski business and would be considered an expert skier. I’ve skied blacks, double blacks and triple black in VT, NH and Maine. (Early in the day, not when I’m tired)
    When I was a 24 year old single guy, a bunch of us “scramblers” at work were going to play some tougher course Saturday morning. One of our co-workers who was a 14 HC said, ” You guys have no business on that course”. I probably lost 8-10 balls that day.
    Later in life I told people the point of skiing is to have fun. Ending the day in one piece is not the point. (I broke my leg at 15 on a slope I had no business on. Taught me a lesson. I know guys who have died. Sad but true.)
    Most ski hills have 15-20% greens and 20-80% a range of blues. Only 15-20% are black or double black. Why? Because the market is families and intermediates. The ski patrol does not enjoy getting some injured novice off a double black.
    Experts will go to expert mountains like Alta, Utah. Also most experts are pros or in the industry and don’t pay for their lift tickets. Kind of like pro golfers.
    The idea is a good one because a blue square or a double blue will “easily” tell a skier/golfer they belong on this course or the correct tee boxes.
    I am a Civil Engineer so I understand rating/slope. I have worked on golf course projects, one a municipal redesign. (So seniors 70+ could play in under 5 hours,< 100). I play a course with tees at 6,200.
    Most peoples eyes glaze over when math comes into play. Getting people feeling good about their golfing experience so they come back is what's important. Some will eventually move into the technical side of the game and pay attention to swing speed, spin rate, shaft flex etc.
    The championship courses of the 80's, 90's and 2000's are for small segment of golfer and I wonder if they were helpful in "growing the game".

  28. Al

    August 30, 2016 at 2:52 pm

    This is a great idea. Too many of the “new” courses are just too danged hard. Designed for single handicappers. I live in Phoenix. Believe me, I know. A few years ago, they were building dozens of resort and high-end living type courses around here. I’ve tried many of them but have given up on those type courses. I’m a high (15-20) handicapper. I liked some of the views, but I couldn’t play’em. Not so much the length, but green complexes are killers. Forced 150 yard carry over many bunkers t elevated greens backed by more bunkers. Good golfers use short clubs and can stick. I have to use mid-irons, and even if I carry, there is no chance of staying on the green. Now that I’m older, I have to use long irons. Even if I get a good drive and good second shot, it takes 4 or 5 to get down from there. I don’t play them anymore. I like the easier blue course concept. There is long (7600 from the tips) course east of Phoenix, designed by Tom Doak in the ’80s. It is long, but playable for somebody like me, especially since the tees have reasonable distances for all levels. A few challenging green complexes, but not all of them so I stand a chance sometimes beat my handicap. (I just wish they would take better care of it.)

  29. MC

    August 30, 2016 at 3:02 pm

    While I think it would be a good idea to try it, I believe the most discouraging part of golf is pace of play. Too many high handicap golfers take too many practice swings, hover their ball too long at address, wait an inordinate amount of time to let the group in front of them move over 250yds down the course, before hitting their ball less than 150yds and many times into high ruff or woods, and then spend too much time looking for their ball. If you can fix this, I think you would find an uptick in the number of golfers.

  30. Howard

    August 30, 2016 at 7:11 pm

    Too many times I have been behind golfers who because their buddies are playing the blues they think they have to. Ego’s are going to get in the way a good portion of the time, also thinking you are better than you are. That said, I think it is a good idea. It would give you an idea when planning a golf trip on what courses might be suited for you if you haven’t been in that area before. I once read that you play the blues if your handicap is below 10 and the whites if you are 10 to 18. I know a lot of golfers who are 22 and 23 and I can tell you right now they won’t be playing the red’s. LOL

  31. David

    August 30, 2016 at 10:51 pm

    I am one of those folk who never had the opportunity to play golf until I could retire at 65. Right now I play at two local courses, both of which cater to folks such as myself (one is nine holes and the other is eighteen). I have heard that the big courses are having aa bit of a hard time as their patrons are get older and are not being replaced. I live beside the twelfth hole of a prestigious course, and it is not all that busy. Perhaps there is a niche for all types of courses but only if there is a sufficiently large demand for what the local citizens can afford.

  32. Rick Kelly

    August 30, 2016 at 11:53 pm

    Personally, I think this is totally ridiculous.

  33. Mark

    August 31, 2016 at 7:14 am

    Wonderful concept!!…….I’ve seen many a golfer quit the game due to the frustration of, high handicaps and tough courses. No mid to high handicappers will improve their game by hacking around on tough course, no matter how beautiful they are!

  34. Mae

    September 5, 2016 at 10:04 pm

    No external rating system will overtake the internal ability people give themselves…!

  35. Jim G

    September 6, 2016 at 3:34 pm

    I’m sorry, but doesn’t SLOPE Rating already to that ? It should allow a golfer to understand the difficulty relatively between courses. So you are going to classify each set of Tees also. A good deal of the courses are easy up front but move it back and it becomes heck. One of the biggest problems in golf which adds to slow play is EGO and playing Tees you have no business playing. Move up, enjoy your round and play quicker

  36. Mike D.

    September 6, 2016 at 3:39 pm

    About as dumb an idea anyone can dream up. The diamonds in skiing are for safety so a beginner doesn’t bite off more than they handle otherwise they will wind up in the hospital. However just the opposite would happen in golf as every 20 handicapper wants to test how they do on the big boy courses. Absolutely insane idea.

  37. Norm S

    September 19, 2016 at 12:46 am

    Not a great idea. What is it you want to accomplish? Golfers who are good enough that they care about their handicaps are good enough to play most courses. Golfers who don’t belong on tough courses, don’t care about their scores. Golf is about the experience.

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