Golf Courses vs. "Golf Experiences." Which Way Do You Lean?

Quick question for you: What are the best golf courses you've ever played?

Okay, here's another: What are the best golf experiences you've ever had?

Are they the same or different?

This is one of my favorite conversations to have with fellow golfers: what differentiates a golf course from a golf "experience." In other words, what goes beyond the pure enjoyment of the course?

I'll give my criteria and some examples of each type and then I'd love to hear yours.

Great Golf Courses

Naturally, the determining factors that make a golf course great have to do with design and architecture. If you recall our piece from a few months ago on the various golf course ranking lists and methods, we discussed this in some detail. These are the most important questions to which a golf course needs to answer "Yes!" if it's going to be considered great:


  • Variety - Do I use every club in my bag, and am I encouraged to hit different shots with those clubs? Is there a beguiling short par three and a stout 230-yarder? How about a drivable par four and a 450-yard beast? A reachable par five and a true three-shotter?
  • Harmony - Do the holes, though encompassing a wide variety of lengths and demands, nevertheless work well together? If the land on which the golf course sits features a couple different environments (e.g. forest and open meadow sections), did the architect lead me in and out of them sensibly? Is the sum of the course's 18 greater than the constituent parts? Is the course walkable?
  • Look & Feel - Do the landforms that I encounter make visual sense, especially as it relates to the strategy laid out by the holes I play? Are the fairways and greens firm, and do they encourage the greatest joy of the game: watching a ball bound across the turf toward the hole? Is the course clearly playable by high-handicappers and accomplished golfers alike? When I putt out on 18, do I find myself wanting to go back to the first tee?

At the same time, at least for the sake of this debate, the "great golf course" is distinct from the "great golf experience" because it may lack some of the peripheral amenities some facilities tout. The low-frills approach can be very charming, in that it allows the golf course to stand out in a player's memory all the more vividly.

In my recent travels, one example of this category is Greywalls at Marquette Golf Club, on Michigan's Upper Peninsula. Most golfers might expect a consensus top-50 public course in the United States to have a bunch of extra amenities, but beyond a very modest practice range, pro shop and restaurant, it's all about the phenomenal, Mike DeVries-designed golf course here. In fact, players must take about a 10-minute cart ride from the pro shop up a huge hill just to get to Greywalls' first tee. That said, a separate Greywalls clubhouse is planned for the next couple years.

Another golf facility making headlines recently for its stripped-down presentation of golf is Sweetens Cove Golf Club, east of Chattanooga, Tennessee. This nine-holer, designed by Tad King and Rob Collins, opened a couple years ago and just debuted in this year's Golfweek "Top 100 Modern Courses" list. Pretty impressive for a nine-holer that doesn't have a practice range or a formal clubhouse.

Great Golf Experiences

The nuts-and-bolts architecture of a course is important, but there are many other factors that can contribute to an overall golf experience. Here are the big ones:


  • Conditioning - You'll notice I left this out of the section above, and you might well disagree. But whenever I hear someone rave about a great golf experience, the first thing out of their mouth is something to the effect of, "It was in incredible condition." Obviously great conditions can enhance a great design, but there are a lot of less-heralded courses made memorable by immaculate conditioning, which is why I'm putting this category here.
  • Facilities - An over-the-top practice facility is another huge asset to places seeking to create an awesome golf experience, mostly because it's an easy way to make us rank-and-file golfers feel like pros. Titleist NXT or Pro V1 Practice balls on the range are usually an indicator of such aspirations. A putting green with bespoke little flags in each of the holes? A separate short-game area? Both speak to the golf experience.
  • The Clubhouse - Big, fancy clubhouses tend to be home to two big elements of the "golf experience:" pre- or post-round food and beverage, and the locker room. Great clubhouse restaurants and bars, from the Tap Room at Pebble Beach to the Ryder Cup Lounge at Pinehurst, can add considerably to an already memorable day on the course, not just with their menus but with memorabilia and/or a great view back onto the course. Likewise, a comfortable and well-appointed locker room can serve as the venue for the anticipation before a round and reflection afterward. A bonus: big shower heads that rain gallons of water down on you per minute.
  • The Service - Being greeted by a course or club employee as you arrive tends to set a positive tone, and the post-round cleaning of clubs can bring it full-circle. If there's a mint-scented cold towel, you know you're being given a golf experience, too.

In the resort realm, Sea Island epitomizes the "golf experience." Yes, the flagship Seaside Course is very good in its own right, but in order to truly, well, experience the place, you'll want to warm up on a practice range with one of the best views in golf, walk the Seaside Course with one of the resort's excellent caddies, enjoy lunch (and the sweetest sweet tea in the South) in the locker room and, last but not least, take a long shower under one of the antique, rainfall-like shower heads with nearly the water pressure of a fire hose. Those other activities and amenities have nothing to do with the course itself, but they certainly elevate the experience.

Another definite golf experience destination is Quivira Golf Club in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, whose all-inclusive (i.e. food and beverage at three on-course "comfort stations") approach matches the personality of the destination. Warming up on the range with the Pacific Ocean lapping at the shore just a few dozen yards away started things off quite nicely on my December visit.

What makes defining a "golf experience" tricky - and therefore a lot of fun to debate - is that personal preferences vary widely. Many golfers care only for what's between the first tee and the 18th green. For others, the post-round pint and/or lunch is as important as the golf that precedes it. Still others' tastes vary depending on when and where they're playing.

Where do you come down in this debate -- would you rather play a great golf course...or have a great overall golf experience? Please share your thoughts with us below!

Tim Gavrich is a Senior Writer for Golf Advisor and the Managing Editor of the Golf Vacation Insider newsletter. Follow him on Twitter @TimGavrich and on Instagram @TimGavrich.
26 Comments
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Rich

Too me the best is when you have a little of both, the courses need to be challenging and scenic There should be a place to eat drink, and unwind. You know golfers/ from guests

I personally find it offensive when little things aren’t cared for such as dirty pro shops , unclean restrooms, generally not paying attention to details!

So if the courses are in good shape I have a tendency to overlook somethings

Wayne Talsky

One of many great golf courses/experiences was The Bridge, located on the south fork of Long Island. It is exclusively private and from the moment you arrive, you are made to feel like "you have arrived!" The staff was warm, polite and accommodating. The Clubhouse is very modern but once inside it has a very warm feeling about it. The facilities and the course are absolutely incredible!! The round was enhanced by the walking with knowledgeable caddies. Afterwards, we used the locker rooms and had a wonderful shower and lunch.
The day was perfect for creating memories with friends, playing golf, breathtaking views of the water and just enjoying all that golf can offer...

Brad

Personally, for me, the best courses and experience were at the same place, Bandon Dunes. Went for 3 days of golf by myself and it was absolute heaven. Accomodations are nice and super convenient located on the property, free shuttles from your door to all the courses, pro-shops, restaurants and driving range. Four of the most jaw droppingly gorgeous and thoughtfully laid out courses, from the deep in the woods Trails course, to the links style Old MacDonald to the unbelievably gorgeous ocean vistas on Bandon and Pacific Dunes. And there's the newer Bandon Preserve, a shorter par 3 course that is unbelievably fun, not to mention The Punchbowl, their putting layout. Awesome caddies and everyone there from the bartenders to the front desk staff is spot on. After 36 holes, there was a hot tub ready if your back is feeling stiff. When you're ready for grub, they've recreated an Irish pub with great food and the drinks flow and everyone is meeting each other and in a great mood. And there's a smaller, more intimate bar with poker tables in the basement where stogies are encouraged. Everything about the place is absolutely heaven. Only thing I can say bad about it is the wind can be seriously vicious.

Tom P-Sugarmill Woods, Fl

The best part of golf is standing on the first tee and being thankful that you are on the right side of the grass...and playing a round with good company!

Adam

Biggest killer for me is a course that is too crowded--which invariably leads to being slow.

Second biggest killer is cartpath only, generally with paths that are far away from (and either far above or far below) the fairway. Leads to a long, slow day....

Next is a course with poor ergonomics. Having to climb down rocks to get from the pro shop to the starter (I'm not kidding!), counfusing course routing without proper markings and directions, having to exit the fairway with your cart 150yds before the green, not allowing golf carts into the parking lot, no water buckets on the course, windscreens on all of the carts that won't pull down (because they are a solid sheet of plexiglass), having the driving range between holes #2 and #3 (and so you have to drive the cart path backwards to get back to hole #1), having to go way out of your way to visit the clubhouse at the turn (and no comfort/food station on the course instead), the list goes on...

TimGavrichGA Staff

Dave--

GREAT call on Secession. It's one of my favorite whole-experience golf places anywhere. The course, the caddies, the locker room, the bar, the people...it's as complete a golf club as one could ask for.

--Tim

Rich

Best experience for me is maximum back to back days of golf with good friends. A great uncrowded course with excellent staff can heighten the experience, but the worst is still a good time out with friends.

Mike G.- Raleigh, NC

Great question....

I appreciate both, but for me, it must start with a great layout!! Challenging, interesting, devilish holes. Then, you need outstanding conditioning (meaning bunkers are carefully groomed every day, the rough is tough but fair, not 4"+ deep, the greens are smooth and fast with few ball marks. The fairways are mowed carefully, not too low, not too high.

A great golf experience starts with outstanding customer service and friendly staff who meet you when you pull in the parking lot. People who are excited to see you there, offer to help or answer any questions you might have. A fully equiped Pro Shop, a well maintained driving range and friendly first tee starter,....not a grumpy old dude. On the course, it's important to have Marshalls who actually marshall,...meaning they stay on slow groups and encourage them to pick up the pace, watch them, and if they fall two holes behind, they need to be told to pick up their balls and move forward. That will likely piss them off but make a bunch of other golfers much happier. Look to satisfy the majority, in this particuar case. Just sayin....

A really nice facility where showers, locker room and 19th Hole are all welcoming and open to guests are the final pieces. Again, outstanding customer service can make up for weaknesses in other ways.

Places that I've played that stand out,....Pinehurst #2,#9, #8, #4, #6; Pine Needles & Mid Pines...in Pinehurst, NC; Torrey Pines....LaJolla, CA; Maderas, CC....Poway, CA; Orlando Ritz Carlton CC; Landfall CC (Dye and Nicklaus, WIlmington, NC); Cape Fear National GC...WiIlmington, NC; Cape Fear CC, Wilmington; Birck Boilermaker Complex (two Dye courses...West Lafayette, IN); Several in Myrtle Beach, SC (Caladonia, True Blue, TPC Myrtle Beach, Heritage; Shadow Glen CC (Olathe, KS); StoneRidge CC (Poway, CA); Snowmass, CC.. (Snowmass, CO); Cordillera, CC...(Edwards, CO); Crested Butte, CC...(Crested Butte, CO); Hasentree, CC (Wake Forrest, NC).

Lawrence Paine

St Enodoc, Cornwall - UK: links course with no flat fairways & unique features eg Himalaya bunker. Will email you pix from club website.

Allan

Play twilight golf at The Wynn. Hot, but the drinks flow, the caddies are great, and the course is stupendous.

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Golf Courses vs. "Golf Experiences." Which Way Do You Lean?
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