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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!