Breaking Bad – What Makes a Golf Course Bad?

Great golf courses, like beauty, are really in the eyes of the beholder.  There are some who loath golf course rankings, feeling they are subjective and breaking down individual components of a course can detract from the overall experience.  Fact is, I can’t disagree with these sentiments.  The context of my love for golf course rankings and the conversation over quality courses is this very subjectivity.  I enjoy them but don’t take them too seriously.  I acknowledge that there are significant ramifications from being on a top 100 list or a top 59 list.  For courses 101 or 60, they miss out on the publicity and promotion and potential benefit.   But now look what I have done, I’ve gone down the rabbit hole of quality.

I understand why publications won’t shine a light on bad courses.  Perhaps over a beer after a round players will lament on a course they’ve played and characteristics they didn’t like.  Maybe it is the frustration of getting beat up on a tough design, or the pro shop staff who in an effort to multi task were short, or outright rude.  For some, its dropping over $100 to play a course they feel is merely marginally better than their $35 muni, or, the horror of a course where the greens and tee boxes resemble shag carpeting or the number of divots on the fairway make you feel you’re playing on the moon.   I set a poll on Twitter asking which matters most in making a course ‘bad’?  The criteria were conditions, layout, people or value.

 

The worst course I ever played was a local 9 hole course in Ontario.  The course no longer exists, having been sold for development.  I doubt many tears were shed, though as players perhaps we romanticize the idea of playing on a goat track which had little to no redeeming characteristics save the space for us to drag our clubs out and swing.  Sure, we hated it when we played there, struggling for a patch of grass on the fairway to avoid the hardpan lie we drew.  Acknowledging that reading the greens was fruitless since the ball would inevitably bound around on its own unique path that could never be replicated if you tried.  The argument for the ultra low-end, entry level course is perfectly valid…give a father and his daughter a place where they can spend two hours, learn the game and enjoy each other’s time.  I’d argue we need more courses like this, good or bad.

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Playing on Christmas Eve (as I did in 2015), the bar for bad golf simply doesn’t exist for me!

 

The poll was meant to identify the unexpectedly bad.  The ‘hey, everyone else loves this course but me’ bad.  And back to John Gordon’s argument of subjectivity, bad courses, like good courses will be identified for uniquely different reasons.

One of favourite golf writers in Robert Thompson.  Robert has a gift of writing with clarity and incredible honesty.  His critique of courses – many found on the same top 100 or 59 lists which I speak of – is clear and intelligent in its rationale.  It is refreshing to read someone with conviction admonishing courses for perceived shortcomings.  And this is not to say, by any means, he feels these courses are bad.  More that, in his opinion, they are not as great as the accolades they’re received.  He simply shines a light on aspects of the course and the golfing experience that he didn’t enjoy.

So to be completely honest, I acknowledge that is one of my drivers in this whole exercise.  By engaging on Twitter with golfers and other golf writers to ask and discuss, what makes a course bad I am hoping to build on my critical thought of golf course quality.   As for my poll a slight majority of responses were around conditioning and that makes sense.  I was intrigued that almost 50% of responses were split in areas of layout, people and value.   Bad golf, like great golf, is highly subjective.

I am not advocating for a list of bad courses in Canada.  I am merely seeking greater understanding around the complexities of this issue and to continue to engage around all that is great…and perhaps less than great, in golf in Canada.  I’ll be one of the first to crack open publications or view sites that share their ‘best of’ lists.  I’ll be active on social media with people, always happy to discuss and share favourite courses.   I welcome your stories, thoughts and comments.

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Tarandowah – A Must Play – Both for Quality and Value

http://www.puregolf.net/home.htm

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It really is only 10 minutes south of Highway 401. I say that because it feels like you’re much further away. Its 30 minutes from downtown London, ON though I’m sure some can make it quicker. Coming from Mississauga, it was only 90 minutes. Tarandowah Golfers Club is, let me say, one the greatest value plays in Canada. That is not to take away from its quality in any way. In fact, I would argue the challenge in marketing Tarandowah is whether to focus on its quality or its value. I had the pleasure of playing on a cool October morning in 2014 and with an early tee time ventured west along Highway 401 to experience this course.

The website provided me an outstanding online special and for slightly less than $25 (taxes included) I was able to get a tee time as a single. Playing midweek meant the course would not be as busy and I could take my time and really enjoy the experience. I have heard much about Tarandowah as a value play in Ontario. I was aware of its accolades and went as far to contact Robert Thompson who plays there regularly to get some insight on the course.

The course offers five tee boxes and while the yardage may be one of the first determinants, it is important to understand this is a par 70 layout and there will be some long holes; 5 and 11, most notably. These are brutish but as the course designer, Dr. Martin Hawtree, mentions on the website, “I’ve never bought into that obsession with fairness”. Well my decision to play the white tees, at about 6200 yards, felt like a great decision.

It is a links-style layout with wind and grasses featuring as main defenses for the course. There is small grove of trees in the middle of the property but that is it. And it was a good thing as the morning I teed off there was a heavy frost. Once the sun peaked high enough on the horizon it melted relatively quickly and after a 45 minute delay I was off.

Bunkering at Tarandowah

Bunkering at Tarandowah

I simply love the layout of this course. It creates an appearance that the course was really built around the natural landscape, which is another key element to links golf. Being late in the season, I was particularly impressed with the course condition but it was more from a sense of course condition than an overly manicured setting. I can honestly say I had not played greens in 2014 which rolled truer and more consistently than those at Tarandowah. They were very fair. I was able to walk the course; there are some subtle elevation changes but nothing overly drastic.

The course required some intelligent play. On some holes, like 1, 6 and 13, it is important to be strategic off the tee. Others, like 5, 9, 11 and 18 there was opportunity (and need) to hit a driver far to have a chance of getting on in regulation. There is a creek (perhaps a burn) that cuts through the course and requires some decision making on holes 4 and 17. The par 3’s have good diversity in length, direction and in their challenge.

I was able to play the course as a single in 3 hours. I was playing well but I was very aware of the time I was taking in making decisions. And this is without considerable wind which would have made my round more challenging. I plan to come back annually; it is a course I really appreciated. It is unabashedly challenging, and as mentioned, home to some of the best greens I’ve ever putted on.  But for now, strike another course off my Canadian bucket list.

 

Greenside on the challenging 11th

Greenside on the challenging 11th

Aura –5 out of 10 – The course really isn’t too far from the GTA and while it is less than 10 years old I really feel this is one of the best hidden gems in Canada. I will be bringing some friends along next year to experience this course and will seek their insights around what makes this course so good.

Value (cost / experience) – 9.5 out of 10. I paid $25 to play here on a Friday in October. Granted, it was a special rate but I really can’t find better value than that. For $1399 you can be a 7-day unlimited play member. It makes me want to move closer to London but with a weekend high green fee of $61 in the summer, I won’t mind driving down more often.

Course Condition (fairways/greens, layout) – 8.5 out of 10 – The tee boxes were terrific, there were some damp spots on the course but such is that time of year. The fairways were in excellent shape and were well defined. But I loved the greens. They were fair in terms of slope and speed and ran as true as any I played all season.

Overall Experience (how did the round make me feel; would I return) – 9 out of 10 – I’m coming back. The fact I had to really think my way around the course and in certain spaces power my way around the course made it a unique and enjoyable golf experience. Don’t worry, Dr. Hawtree, on a windy day I am sure there’s very little that is fair about your course.

Highlight (what is great about the course) – As mentioned, the 5th and 11th play long and slightly uphill. I had a great day with my driver but even still was left with hybrids to the greens. While I missed the green on both (despite excellent shots) I was able to get the ball up and down for pars. Add to that an unsuspected birdie on 10 which is no slouch in itself I was very pleased to play that tough threesome of holes -1.

Recommendation (magic wand…what would I change) – Next time I’ll coordinate my schedule a little better and extend an invitation to golf journalist Robert Thompson, simply poor planning on my part. And while I’d welcome the chance to talk about golf in Canada I know from experience that Tarandowah would demand our undivided attention.

My Best Shot – My approach on 10 following a perfect draw 3-wood off the tee was tracking right at the stick. The ball stopped and rolled back to 5 feet leaving me a slippery downhill birdie putt which I was fortunate to make.

Good golf versus great golf

“It’s the little things that separate the good from the great”

–          Bob Schneider

My first encounter with the good v great golf course question was in reviewing a blog post by Robert Thompson in his CanadianGolfer.com blog. Specifically, Robert was writing about the challenges and current shortcomings of the state of golf in Prince Edward Island, specifically Crowbush Cove.  With a recent trip to Cape Breton Island in my rear view mirror and with good memories of world class and top ranked Canadian courses like Cabot Links and Highlands Links and an underrated gem like The Lakes, I shifted my gaze and anticipation to PEI.  Robert’s premise is that PEI offers good golf but not great golf and the chance to upgrade Crowbush Cove is the real hope to move the needle to true greatness for golf in PEI.

For myself, a public player who is only starting to explore Canada’s excellent public golf courses I was taken aback by this critical and candid review. But it did leave me with a lingering question of what makes a golf course good versus great?  And like many debates in the world of golf there is a significant element of subjectivity to it.  I have played courses over the past year or two, highly touted courses, which are not ‘great’ in my opinion.  They’re very good courses I’d happily experience again but I don’t prefer them to others and there are characteristics about them which I do not enjoy.  I acknowledge others may disagree, especially since they sit prominently on top 50 or 100 lists.

So allow me to wade into the debate and offer my opinion to help support myself and others answer this difficult question.

Factors such as location, scenery, layout, conditioning, unique/ memorable quality, facilities and staff are the foundational pieces around greatness.  But I offer forward the following for consideration which complement the clear factors above:

–          Enjoyment

–          Relevance

–          Worthy of travelling to play

–          Challenge

–          History (a trait which I find to be underrated)

–          Diversity (of holes throughout the 18)

–          Fairness

–          Value

But perhaps greatness, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. And with that, I can take comfort in knowing I have some courses off the beaten path which I find to be great.   For that reason I am comfortable offering my opinion and listening to criticism around what courses are good and what courses are great.  After my fall 2015 trip to PEI I can offer an informed opinion on the greatness of PEI golf.  For now, I am happy to reflect on my own experience, read and listen to others and explore what greatness in Canadian public golf means to others.

What do you feel makes a golf course great?

A Tougher Winter Than We Could Have Ever Imagined?

Robert Thompson had been commissioned by the OGSA to write about the state of golf courses following the difficult winter we’ve had in eastern Canada.  Through this work he has championed education, awareness and invited dialogue around the effects of this winter on many courses in Ontario and throughout Canada; most notably, the losses of greens through winter kill.  Thompson identifies that Poa annua grasses which many courses have used did not survive the winter and now, when combined with a less than ideal spring and low numbers playing as a result of this all could spell trouble for the golf industry in Canada.

The real eye opener for me was seeing 45 passionate responses to his blog post dated April 25, 2014 on his blog Going for the Green.  There were opinion from golfers, superintendents and likely others.   While sharing a strong passion for the game, this discussion created considerable noise but very little clarity on root causes or solutions to the issues at play.  I understand it, people care and they are deeply passionate about the game of golf.

But I am curious to know how research can help inform this conversation? I know nothing about agrostology (or any other aspects of botany), or golf course maintenance to be more specific so I have been lurking.  But for a topic with significant social and economic impact I would wonder how a program like University of Guelph’s Turfgrass management program could support this?  Do they already do so?  I am sure they’re not the only school in Canada engaged in this field of study.  I am confident that OSGA has a strong relationship with academic researchers but do they have a strong Knowledge Transfer and Exchange (also called Knowledge Translation or Knowledge Mobilization) plan?

Research is one component to help understand and address complex issues, but only one. In some cases economics drive decision making, or in others, strong public opinion (or a majority vote from courses’ Board of Governors).  But allowing the time and space for evidence informed decision making could help address complex scientific and economic issues and help create a foundation of sustainability and health for the courses and the industry. I feel Robert has done significant and very strong work here in opening us up to the complexity of issues here and the importance they have had in the short term, and possibly the long term.   And while I feel for all courses, it is public courses, with marginal profit margins and restricted funding bases to be able to offset losses in revenues or an inability to make significant investments in infrastructure that I am most concerned about.

Not to be flippant, I plan to more aggressively support public courses in my home province of Ontario…just doing my part. But I will also help people like Robert who are leading an important conversation on an issue we all care about; the future of the golf industry.