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It’s easy to know when you’re on a golf course that merits a Top 100 consideration. Often the wind, distant views, or even just native plantings and exposed, sandy soil enhances your experience. There is a solid routing that flows sinuously over the terrain and alternates direction. Besides testing the player with every club, the course must also entice the shot maker to move the ball. A slight fade or power draw brings the player to a prime approach angle, and there are architectural nuances in tee angle, bunker location, slope, and green contours. A Top 100 course hits all of these marks.

The National Golf Foundation tells us there are roughly 16,300 courses dispersed among 14,300 golf facilities in the United States. If we take the Top 10 courses in each state, we have 500 of the best courses that could possibly be considered for discussion for a Top 100 list. But does that mean the other 97 percent lack merit? Do they not test the common player’s skill? Do they not allow for a competitive match?

While I’ve played, studied and admittedly even drooled over many top-rated courses, I still get excited to play any course that’s new to me. I don’t harbor any preconceived notion of the course’s value, character, architect or strategy. I approach playing as an opportunity to explore a landscape. My observations and questions begin at the course entry. How and why was the land selected to be a golf course? Was the designer an accomplished player or an architect? Who built the course? Was it an experienced golf construction company or a local contractor led by someone who worked for a famous designer? What were the goals for this course; was it foreseen as a playable course on a limited budget, or a regional destination? As a golf course architect, I consider all of this before even reaching the first tee.

Spending my formative years in Maine — where, interestingly, there isn’t a single regionally-ranked course, never mind nationally-ranked layout — I played all sorts of local courses. Some were older, others newer, and all were public. Many were 9-hole tracks that, for what they lacked in maintenance, they made up for in quirkiness. Interestingly, there was very little difference in maintenance between the newer courses and old tracks.

Most of the older courses had holes that had strategic merit. When held against the top courses in the region, especially courses built in the last 20 years, the older courses’ overall strategy might not have had as many options, but the designers certainly made you think. Sometimes, it was as simple as asking a player to hit the ball to where they could then best approach the 2,500-square-foot green. Other times, trees influenced the shot, forcing players to go either up and over or around. This might have something to do with why I’m not much of a vertical hazard supporter these days! Some of the courses we played were newer, designed after World War II, but were still older than the new crop of 18-hole courses. Back when we played, it was the opportunity to play that mattered, rather than a course’s lack of status as a classic or famous course. None of us really cared.

Today, for many, the opportunity to just play does not seem to be enough. There seems to be more interest in playing the best courses, much of this popularized by social media. I’ve met a number of golfers who haven’t even heard of one of the newer ranked and slightly controversial Sweetens Cove in South Pittsburg, Tennessee. Shocking to me, but should it be?
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This summer I made a point of stopping at various local courses that weren’t normally on my radar. The parking lots were always full, even later in the day — though admittedly perhaps this was due at least in part to COVID-19. Some of the holes reminded me of the quirkiness I use to see on the courses back in Maine. On one course, there were boulders set randomly near or in landing areas. They aren’t strategically located, as they would be if they had been set one-third the fairway width from the best approach to define a “Hogan’s Alley.” Most of the players I observe on such courses have a difficult time knowing what side of the fairway their ball will land anyway. Do they have a moment of surprise when they notice that hitting their tee shot randomly on the right side of the boulder gives them a better angle? Do they learn that an approach shot from the left side is nearly impossible given that the green surface slopes away from them? Is there an, “A-ha!” moment, or do they just chalk up their lack of success to a poorly played shot, not even realizing what the course has to teach them?

Sure, these local courses aren’t great courses, but with improved maintenance they could be well worth a round and could still teach a player a thing or two about strategy. We have to be careful not to overlook such courses in favor of tradition when deciding what makes a good course. Isn’t the quality of a course’s strategy somewhat subjective? Are its pedigree and exclusivity truly the most important measures by which we assess it? In the same token, is difficulty really a measure of how good a course is? From a design perspective, difficulty is the easiest characteristic to achieve. Conversely, providing shot options and clear strategy are much more interesting.

Perhaps good maintenance should not affect course rankings. Design affects the ability to maintain a golf course, and any difficulties are often overcome by increasing the budget. The way a course plays, as in how the ball reacts with the turf, has a lot to do with the designed slopes, but also how tightly the grass is cut and how firm or dry the soil conditions allow. What if course raters were taught to see the shot options, but would also take into consideration lack of maintenance? Should a course’s architectural merit be determined by a facility’s reduced maintenance budget?

From my perspective, the characteristics that have the most influence on my assessment of a course are as follows: Is the course fun? Did it make me think about my shot? Is there variety in playing length? Are the holes unique enough that you can easily describe each one in the car on your way home? Finally, can I walk the course easily (this includes mountain courses — see Capilano in British Columbia)? My favorite course might not be what many would define as the best, but favorites are subjective and personal, and it is important to remember that this is just golf! We are all entitled to enjoy different courses for different reasons, but it’s important to be mindful and not to allow prejudice to prevent you from being open to certain courses over others.

As an architect, one of my main goals is to create an intelligent purpose for the player to strike the golf ball. Through the recent rise in public interest in architecture, increased popularity of architecture websites and creation of numerous classic period architects’ societies, players have a lot more exposure to what good design is (as well as how subjective good design is). We want to “design up” courses, not “dumb them down” with a lack of inspiring strategy. Let’s encourage players to experience good design in its many forms, regardless of status. What a player decides is good design is not up to us. Most golfers are really out to have fun. Look around your region; there are plenty of courses where you can return home having had a good experience. Who knows, maybe they’ll rank in your Top 100 list.

Tim Gerrish is a Rhode Island-based golf course architect and landscape architect with more than 20 years of experience as a project architect. Follow him on Twitter @GerrishRLA. This is his second Golf Course Industry contribution.