Muirfield and Lahinch," I answered without hesitation.
"What?!" came the charge from another who didn't even ask the original question. "You've always said Lahinch and Ballybunion Old were your two favorite golf courses in the world!"
"Correct," I answered my accuser in the pursuit of my defense. "But your presumption lacks context. I wasn't asked 'what were my two favorite courses in the world?' I was asked what are the two best courses in the world that I have played."
Thus, an afternoon of blissful debate ensued as we played our regular four-ball.
"Best" vs. your "favorite"
Funny, isn't it, when you consider the difference between the question of which courses you have played that you would name as the "best" versus your "favorite," and the considerations that would go into each?
To me, the "best" designation should be applied with extreme prejudice, as little emotion as possible and with an engineer's precision. The "best" is not supposed to be draped with sentiment, nor influenced by the history it has hosted (but isn't it interesting that the courses on the "best" lists are almost always the ones that have seen significant history played out upon them?). Take for example, Muirfield, host of the 2013 Open Championship won by Phil Mickelson.
This Harry Colt-designed masterpiece fits all of the criteria as the best: Its routing allows the ever-present winds to impact you in a variety of ways from one hole to the next (this is in contrast to the Old Course at St. Andrews -- one of my "favorite" courses -- where the predominant wind blows from your right going out and from your left coming home). In typical links fashion, a strategy of how to play the course is not mandated. Rather, creativity is likely your most important asset, however, you will be asked to use every club in your bag. The aspect that impresses me the most about Muirfield is that it can challenge, even confound, the greatest golfers in the world, yet it is as fair a test of golf (which does not translate into being easy) as any that I have seen.
Your "favorite" course might be a muni
"Favorite" is something different all together. If it is your "favorite," then a course can fit any condition or definition. Your "favorite" course might be a muni that you grew up playing, like the Donald Ross-designed Triggs Memorial Golf Course in Providence, R.I. Because it's a municipal course, it is the consummate blue-collar golfing experience: hard as a rock, grass that is thin where it should be thick and thick where it should be thin, and with a long line of eager lunch-bucket 9-to-5'ers waiting to tear it up. While you could fall in love with Triggs because it is a Donald Ross course with a distinguished history, I love Triggs because of my own history of playing there back when I was in school and just discovering the game.
Lahinch: Where "best" and "favorite" meet
You may have noticed that the Old Course at Lahinch was on both my "best" and "favorite" course lists. How many courses would make both lists for you? Lahinch is one of my favorites because everything about it is unique. The course sits in the middle of the town and the culture of the town of Lahinch, Ireland is built around this gem of a course first designed by Old Tom Morris, redesigned by Dr. Alister MacKenzie with more recent modifications by Martin Hawtree. Lahinch is a tough-but-fair test of golf. To score well at Lahinch you need a steely nerve and to be striking the ball well, for the strong ocean breezes will expose a less than squarely struck shot. The ocean, cliffs, castle ruins and general moonscape of this links course are so beautiful so as to be stunningly distracting. Lahinch is a place that awakens the soul, which is why it is atop my "favorites" list, but it is also a consummate test of golf on a course in perfect harmony with the land, which is why it is on my "best" list as well.
I love diving into discussions such as this with my friends because the spectrum of answers are so broad, fueled by vast array of emotions and experience. About the only guideline we adhere to is the "that you have played" rule. Without this caveat, the discussions become one of what are your "best" or "favorite" bucket-list courses that you want to play.
Hmmm, come to think of it, that sounds like a pretty fun conversation as well.
What's your favorite golf course that no one has ever heard of? Tell us in the comments below!