First things first – there is no such thing as objectivity when it comes to assessing the greatness of a golf course. And objectivity in ranking one golf course’s greatness versus another? Please.
Fortunately though when it comes to having good geeky fun with your buddies talking golf courses, objectivity is irrelevant. What is relevant when having the endless discussions and debates is the standards by which one assesses a course. The standard matters because it gives context. There are several standard that my fellow geeks and I like to use:
- The Memorability Standard – Can you remember every hole on the course the next day?
- The 18th Green to 1st Tee Standard – When you walk off the final green, do you want to go right back out?
- The One Course for the Rest of Your Life Standard – Could you be happy playing just that one course every day for the rest of your life?
- The 10 Rounds Standard – When comparing courses, how would you split ten rounds among them?
These are all good standards, and provide interesting perspectives on the greatness of courses. A new standard materialized for me in 2017, and I am now on the hunt for courses that qualify.
The inspiration for this standard – which I call 108 in 48 – is Prairie Dunes. I had the good fortune of spending another weekend in Hutchinson this year (thank you Charlie). My annual visits to PD have been golf binges. Around and around we go. Every time I come off the 18th hole of that course, I want to go right back out.
My experiences at Prairie Dunes have set the standard in my mind. The question is, which courses would I want to go around 6 times in 2 days? What that means to me is, which courses are interesting, challenging and fun enough to stand up to that kind of immersion experience? Can’t be too hard or I get worn out. Can’t have weak stretches of holes or I lose attention. Can’t be too easy or I get bored with the lack of challenge. And of course, the greens have to be great.
Prairie Dunes passes the 108 in 48 test with flying colors for me for three reasons: First, the sequence of holes is packed with variety from a length, straight vs dogleg, and directional perspective. Second, the greens are, well, you know. Third, the course is drop dead gorgeous – color contrast, texture, land movement, tree management – it is just the right kind of candy for my eyes.
Two of my other all-time favorites, Essex County Club and Maidstone also pass this test, but for different reasons than PD. Both Essex and Maidstone play through multiple “zones”. Essex has its brook/wetland zone and its stone hill zone. Maidstone with its wetland zone and linksland zone. This gives them both a meandering adventure feel that I find compelling. Both are outstanding at the level of fine details.
All three of these courses share a peaceful, refined beauty in common that creates a sense of transcendence during the course of a round. The passage of time melts away.
There are a handful of other courses that meet this standard for me. There are also quite a few courses that I love dearly and consider favorites that do not. My list of current 108 in 48 qualifiers is presented below, in no particular order. Note that I have disqualified courses that I have only played once, as profound as their first impression may have been (e.g. National Golf Links of America, Sleepy Hollow, Ballyneal, Kittansett). Another group of courses that I love dearly have been disqualified because they are too hard or too strenuous for me to pretend that I could actually walk and play them six times in two days (e.g. Boston Golf Club, Desert Forest, Chicago Golf, Sand Hollow).
108 in 48ers
SAND HILLS – Mullen, NE
If you have been to Sand Hills, you know. Coore & Crenshaw’s modern masterpiece, lovingly cared for by Superintendent Kyle Hegland‘s team, is incredibly strong from start to finish. It is no surprise that it started the revolution that has grown into a second Golden Age.
ESSEX COUNTY CLUB – Manchester-by-the-Sea, MA
This Donald Ross course resonated with me from the first play, and repeat visits deepen my love of it. It doesn’t hurt that, just when I think that Superintendent Eric Richardson’s team can’t make it any better, they prove me wrong, again.
PRAIRIE DUNES – Hutchinson, KS
In addition to my thoughts above, I would add that the combination of Perry and Press Maxwell holes adds even more variety to the course, and if there a better set of greens in America, I would love to hear the argument. Superintendent Jim Campbell’s team presents the course beautifully, and the staff and membership could not be more welcoming.
KINGSLEY CLUB – Kingsley, MI
Go ahead, call me a homer. The rollicking ride that Mike DeVries has created at Kingsley Club has its share of thrills, but is also packed with strategic questions that take repeat plays to answer. The staff creates the perfect vibe for a golf geek, and our Superintendent Dan Lucas? Nobody is better.
SHOREACRES – Lake Bluff, IL
Seth Raynor took what might have been a challenging piece of property to some architects and devised one of the most brilliantly routed golf courses I have ever seen. The central ravine feature is used brilliantly and provides a wonderful contrast to the bold template features greens. Superintendent Brian Chasenky is following in the footsteps of Brian Palmer by relentlessly refining the course while providing firm and fast conditions that accentuate every nuance of Raynor’s creation.
LAWSONIA LINKS – Green Lake, WI
I’ve said it before, and I will keep saying it – Lawsonia is the most underrated golf course in America. Attempt to describe the scale of the features created by William Langford & Theodore Moreau in this bucolic setting is pointless. It must be experienced to be believed. The quality of conditions that Superintendent Mike Lyons and his crew deliver with modest green fees makes Lawsonia an unbeatable value.
MAIDSTONE CLUB – East Hampton, NY
In addition to my comments above, it is important to note the brilliance of Coore & Crenshaw’s restoration work on this Willie Park, Jr. gem. Having visited pre- and post-renovation, there were moments that I could not believe I was playing the same course. Superintendent John Genovesi’s team continues to push forward with fine tuning that perfectly walks the line between providing excellent playing conditions and allowing the course to have the natural feel intended by the designers.
OLD ELM CLUB – Highland Park, IL
Another homer alert – I grew up going around Old Elm as a caddie and we were allowed to play every day, which I did. I loved the course as a kid, but with the progressive restoration back to Harry Colt and Donald Ross’s vision that has been undertaken by GM Kevin Marion, Superintendent Curtis James, Drew Rogers and Dave Zinkand, OE has gone next level.
SWEETENS COVE – South Pittsburg, TN
The King-Collins creation is everything that golf should be. Strategically challenging, visually interesting, and holes punctuated by stellar greens. Combine the design with the ability to play cross-country golf and it is impossible to get bored going around and around Sweetens. Need a playing partner? No worries, Rob and his staff are always willing to grab their sticks and geeks won’t find better company anywhere.
CRYSTAL DOWNS – Frankfort, MI
It’s difficult to believe that Crystal Downs was once under the radar, but perhaps that’s how the membership of this Northern Michigan family club likes it. Dr. Alister MacKenzie and Perry Maxwell collaborated to create an outward nine that might be the best in America, and an inward that’s no slouch either. Superintendent Michael Morris and his team present the course in the perfect manner for players to enjoy unlocking its secrets over time.
DUNES CLUB – New Buffalo, MI
The Keiser family’s club is the perfect place to loop around endlessly. A variety of holes, solid greens, and multiple teeing options make these 9 holes play like 36+. Mr. Keiser has recently embraced tree removal across the property opening up views, and allowing Superintendent Scott Goniwiecha’s team to expand corridors of firm turf. No need for a scorecard, just go play.
FRIAR’S HEAD – Baiting Hollow, NY
The back nine at what some consider to be Coore & Crenshaw’s best design gets all of the pub, and for good reason. But each time I go back, the front nine gets stronger in my mind. Recent tree clearing and flawless presentation by Superintendent Bill Jones and his team make every loop around this Long Island gem a special experience.
SKOKIE COUNTRY CLUB – Glencoe, IL
Take a little Bendelow, some Langford & Moreau, and a healthy dose of Ross, mix ’em up, and you have one of the mot underrated privates in the land. Ron Prichard’s retrovation unified the feel of Skokie, highlighting the outstanding greens, and hall-of-fame Superintendent Don Cross and his crew continue to fine-tune for a membership with a very high golf IQ.
AIKEN GOLF CLUB – Aiken, SC
The course that Jim McNair and his family have created represents community golf at its finest. Aiken Golf Club is beautiful, embedded in its neighborhood, and packed with enough challenge and architectural intrigue to keep even good players interested for endless loops. All at a price that make you feel like you’re stealing.
CALIFORNIA GOLF CLUB OF SAN FRANCISCO – South San Francisco, CA
The experience of Cal Club’s Macan-MacKenzie-Hunter-Phillips course is made all the greater by its sense of place and all-world camaraderie. There are no weak holes, and plenty of highlights from tee-to-green and on the putting surfaces, which are painstakingly presented by Superintendent Javier Campos and his team. I have yet to find a better spot to be for an emergency nine at the golden hour.
OLD TOWN CLUB – Winston-Salem, NC
One thing is clear, Perry Maxwell was good at his job. At Old Town Club, he routed a wonderfully varied course over rolling terrain. The retrovation, led by Dunlop White and executed by Coore & Crenshaw, puts Old Town back where it belongs – among the nation’s best. If you’re not hooked by the opening stretch of the three holes, the jaw-dropping reveal from the 4th fairway will certainly do the trick.
CEDAR RAPIDS CC – Cedar Rapids, IA
Iowa is flat, right? In the case of the land on which Donald Ross built Cedar Rapids CC, the answer is a resounding WRONG! On this palette, The Donald employed some of his most colorful design. The course, having been retrovated by Ron Prichard, Tyler Rae, Superintendent Tom Feller and a determined core group of members, is now a must-see stop in the Midwest golf rota.
Copyright 2020 – Jason Way, GeekedOnGolf