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Musings on Greatness

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).  Both of my 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.

Of the courses I re-played in 2017, 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 below.

I ask you, which are your 108 in 48ers, and why?


108 in 48ers

SAND HILLS – Mullen, NE

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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.

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ESSEX COUNTY CLUB – Manchester-by-the-Sea, MA

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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.

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PRAIRIE DUNES – Hutchinson, KS

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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.

NATIONAL GOLF LINKS OF AMERICA – Southampton, NY

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Photo by Jon Cavalier

If C.B. Macdonald and Seth Raynor’s attempt to create the ideal golf course falls short of the standard for perfection, it’s not by much.  The routing and strategic design, the variety of hazards, the greens, and the numerous iconic views conspire to create magic.  Caring for such an intricately conceived course is no small feat, and Superintendent William Salinetti’s team does a masterful job.

KINGSLEY CLUB – Kingsley, MI

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Go ahead, call me a homer.  The rollicking ride that Mike DeVries has created 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

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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 Palmer’s team relentless refines the course and revels in creating firm and fast conditions that accentuate every nuance of Raynor’s creation.

LAWSONIA LINKS – Green Lake, WI

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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

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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.

KITTANSETT CLUB –  Marion, MA

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An argument could be made that this Frederic Hood and William Flynn design is the best flat site course in America, especially after a Gil Hanse restoration.  Strategic challenges abound, and the set of one-shotters are second to none.  Superintendent John Kelly’s team continues to bring out every bit of Kittansett’s unique character.

BALLYNEAL – Holyoke, CO

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Ballyneal is far and away my favorite Tom Doak design.  It is a glorious collection of holes that meander through the Chop Hills.  Birdies do not come easy, but the course doesn’t beat you up either – it strikes the perfect balance.  Jared Kalina’s team knows quite well how to provide fast and firm conditions, and the staff and membership conspire to make it the golfiest club I’ve ever visited.

OLD ELM CLUB – Highland Park, IL

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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

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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 Patrick are always willing to grab their sticks and geeks won’t find better company anywhere.

SAND HOLLOW – Hurricane, UT

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Subtle and strategic on the front nine, and breathtakingly bold and beautiful on the back, Sand Hollow has it all.  This is a bit of a cheat as the back nine would require a cart to get around multiple times in one day, but I am making an exception.  It’s that good, especially with the fast and firm conditions presented by Superintendent Wade Field’s team.

DUNES CLUB – New Buffalo, MI

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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.

OLD MACDONALD – Bandon, OR

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Photo by Jon Cavalier

Old Mac is not my favorite course at Bandon Dunes, but it is the only one that makes the 108 in 48 cut for me.  The width and scale create the possibility of holes playing dramatically differently from one round to the next.  The execution of the homage to CBM by Tom Doak, Jim Urbina, et al is spot on and glorious to explore for golf geeks.  Superintendent Fred Yates’s team provides ideal conditions for lovers of bounce and roll.


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Copyright 2018 – Jason Way, GeekedOnGolf


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2016 Geeked on Golf Tour

A pattern seems to be developing.  As I watch the snow fall out my window, I reflect back and think, “It can’t get any better than this year’s golf tour.”  And then the next year comes around, and it does.  That was the story of 2016.  Just when I thought golf adventuring couldn’t get any better, it did.

I got around quite a bit this year.  First the stats: Played 51 courses (30 for the first time), including 6 U.S. Open Venues, in 15 states.  Gloriously exhausting, and tremendously rewarding.

Before getting into detail on the courses played, a few takeaways from the year:

This was the year I realized that I don’t like playing alone all that much anymore.  I would rather be in the company of a fellow geek or two.  Being able to share these adventures with kindred spirits makes the experiences richer, including geeking out about golf on long car rides or over a well-earned meal and drink.  This year, I had the good fortune of deepening existing friendships, and creating new ones around the country.  Golf is magical that way.

Golf has always been a walking sport for me.  This year, I came to realize that riding in a cart takes too much away from the experience for me to do it.  Even if it means that my game suffers a bit from fatigue, I prefer to walk.  Hiking around Sand Hollow, 81 holes in a day and half at Prairie Dunes, 45 holes at Sand Hills – sure, these walks were taxing.  But I like the exercise and the experience of the courses is significantly more vivid.  There might come a day when I am no longer able to walk and play.  On that day, I will take a cart.  Until then, it’s walking for me.

Although I did play in quite a few fun matches with friends, I did not keep score once this year.  In 2016, it didn’t seem to matter, so I didn’t bother.  It was quite liberating.  I was still plenty happy to make pars and birdies, but there was no pressure to do so.  Instead, I was freed up to attempt creative shots that, when pulled off, are the golfing memories I cherish the most.

Finally, I fell in love with the replay this year, or as my buddy Peter says, “Going around and around.”  My weekend at Prairie Dunes, and replays of great courses like Shoreacres, Crystal Downs, Sand Hills, and Boston Golf Club brought this into focus for me.  Playing new courses is great, but I find myself yearning more and more for the depth of experience that comes from the replay.

Enough philosophizing, on to the course highlights of 2016.

One course cracked my Top 5 favorites this year – Sand Hills.  Those who have been know how magnificent it is.  It is perfect.  Beautiful land, with 18 wonderful holes laid upon it.  For a photo tour, check out my September to Remember post here.

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Two additional courses cracked my Top 10 – Myopia Hunt Club and Prairie Dunes.

Playing Myopia is like stepping back in time to an era that pre-dates formal architectural styles.  It is a special place.  For much more on Myopia, check out Jon Cavalier’s course tour and my June Buddies Trip Recap.

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My weekend at Prairie Dunes was an all-timer.  After 81 holes in a day and a half, I got to know the course well, and I am grateful for the chance.  Strategy and variety abound, and those greens…oh my.  For a complete tour of Prairie Dunes, check out my visit recap here.

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Four additional courses cracked my Top 20 – Philadelphia Cricket Club, Oakmont, Kittansett Club, and Ballyneal.

Keith Foster’s work restoring Tillinghast’s Philly Cricket is off the charts.  It is breathtaking and all the right kinds of challenging.

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Oakmont is of course, Oakmont.  It was a neat treat to get to play this incredible course in a U.S. Open year.  Many hours of sleep were sacrificed for the experience, and it was worth every minute.

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Kittansett Club, with the benefit of a Gil Hanse restoration, blew me away.  This William Flynn design might be the best flat-site golf course in America.

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Like so many do, I fell in love with the Ballyneal experience.  Great golf-geeky membership, and my favorite Tom Doak course to date (yes, I have played Pacific Dunes).

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My quest to play all of the U.S. Open venues continued this year, and I knocked six more off the list – Glen View Club, Myopia Hunt Club, Philadelphia Cricket Club, Oakmont, Erin Hills, and Inverness Club.  A wide variety, all wonderful courses.

(Click images to enlarge)

 

I had high expectations for most of the courses I played this year, but there were a handful that exceeded my expectations.  My biggest surprises of the year were Orchard Lake, Sand Hollow, Whitinsville, Highland Links, George Wright, and Sweetens Cove.

After coming across a photo tour of the newly renovated Orchard Lake Country Club on GolfClubAtlas, I was dying to see it.  What Keith Foster and Superintendent Aaron McMaster have done there is jaw-dropping.  For even more on Orchard Lake, check out my C.H. Alison appreciation post here.

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Sand Hollow is one of the most unique golf courses I have ever played.  The terrain is amazing, it has great holes – it is just plain cool.  I already have a return visit planned for February, 2017.  For more photos, check out my Las Vegas trip recap here.

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My golf buddies were a little skeptical when I added a 9-holer they had never heard of to our Boston itinerary.  After the first time around Whitinsville, they asked if we could stay the whole day.  They simply do not make courses like this anymore.

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The early morning trek out to the end of Cape Cod was worth the effort.  The Highland Links waits there, nearly untouched by time, and perhaps America’s only true links course outside of Bandon, OR.

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Boston has an embarrassment of riches in private golf, but it was a public track that pleasantly surprised me the most this season – George Wright.  The story of its creation as a WPA project, with Donald Ross as architect blasting holes out of the rock with dynamite is terrific.  In recent years, this gem has been getting the polish it deserves.

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Every golf geek I know who has made the pilgrimage to Sweetens Cove has come back a convert.  Count me among them – Sweetens Cove is everything that is great about golf, and golf course architecture, all packed into 9 holes.  For more about Sweetens Cove, check out my interview with Rob Collins, including his course tour.

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Toward the end of the season, it became evident that I have developed a fascination with 9-holers.  Winter Park CC, The Dunes Club, Whitinsville, Marion GC, Highland Links, Sweetens Cove, and Eagle Springs were all highlights for me in 2016.  I intend to include as many 9-holers as I can in my adventures going forward.

After another year of unbelievable golf experiences with great people, I am tremendously grateful.  Many thanks to those who have pitched in to make these adventures possible.  Time to start lining up 2017…

Happy New Year!


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Copyright 2016 – Jason Way, GeekedOnGolf


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ONE FOR THE AGES – PRAIRIE DUNES

A weekend recap and photo tour from one of America’s greatest courses, Prairie Dunes Country Club

 

Gunch: The epitome of everything dirty and nasty.

Gunch is the word that the staff and members use for the native areas that line the holes at Prairie Dunes.  The definition above is fitting.  The gunch is the sole aspect of Prairie Dunes that is not perfectly pleasurable.  The staff is welcoming, the land is beautiful, and the course is a work of Maxwell genius.

My weekend visit to Prairie Dunes was not just a golf trip.  It was an immersion experience in everything that is great about the game.  A full photo tour is below with my commentary about the course and its architecture.  A few thoughts about the experience:

The first thing that made this trip great was the company.  I have mentioned this in previous posts about my trips to SE Michigan and Boston this year, but it’s worth saying again – golf adventures are infinitely better in the right company.  I was fortunate to spend my weekend at Prairie Dunes with my buddies Chuck, Derek, and Michael.  Not only are they genuinely good guys and fun to be around, but from my perspective, they get it.  They are well traveled, and they have had direct exposure to golf course architects and developers.  They have refined tastes and understand that there are reasons why a course like Prairie Dunes is great, beyond its inclusion on Top 100 lists.

The second thing that made this trip and all-timer was how we played.  From Saturday at 7:30am until Sunday at 2:30pm we played 90 holes (Michael tacked on an extra 18 after sunset on Saturday).  We had fun matches for small stakes, we played from almost every tee on the course, we took turns calling shots, we smiled, we laughed and we talked a lot of golf.  It doesn’t get geekier or more joyous.

And last but not least, the course made this trip one that I will never forget (and one that we are already planning to repeat).  Prairie Dunes is the total package of beauty, variety, strategy, art, and fun.  On to the tour…

The Course in Photos

Prairie Dunes is the joint work of the father and son, Perry and Press Maxwell.  For more on the course history, I suggest the relevant chapter in Anthony Pioppi’s book To The Nines, and Ran Morrissett’s course profile on GolfClubAtlas.com.  Although they never worked on the course together, the holes they created work beautifully together.  There are noticeable style differences, but no weaknesses in either.  The consensus in our group, after much discussion, was that the course is stronger for the variety.

From the tee, the course is as strategic as any I have played.  Not so much because of the placement of hazards, although there are plenty of killer bunkers and gunch.  It is strategic because of the angular play.  On almost every hole, the player is confronted with a decision to make about how best to get in position to approach the green given the wind and pin position.

The greens at Prairie Dunes are in the conversation for the best set on the planet, and for good reason.  Michael referred to them as potato chips, which was perfect.  They are glorious, artful potato chips that provide endless fun in the approaches, the short game, and putting.

To bring it all together, the course is perfectly maintained to accentuate its attributes.  It is a role model for tree management.  Fairways are kept wide, firm and fast, and the first cut of rough is playable.  Green speeds are quick, but reasonable.  It is mint.

One can easily see how Prairie Dunes has influenced Bill Coore and other top modern architects, and players are lucky for that influence.

HOLE #1 – Par 4 – 435 yards – Perry Maxwell

The opener is a solid dogleg left par-4 that gives a first taste of what’s to come throughout the course.  A variety of lines can be taken off the tee, and it is always best to know and account for the pin position when approaching the undulating green.

 

HOLE #2 – Par 3 – 161 yards – Perry Maxwell

The second is the first of the world class set of one-shotters.  It plays uphill to a tiered green benched into a hill.

 

HOLE #3 – Par 4 – 315 yards – Press Maxwell

The third is one of many great short 4-pars at Prairie Dunes.  It plays at an angle left off the tee, tempting the player to bite of more than they perhaps ought to – especially given the challenge in holding the green from awkward distances.

 

HOLE #4 – Par 4 – 168 yards – Press Maxwell

The fourth is another wonderful short par-3.  It almost feels like the son’s homage to the father’s second hole.  Unlike the second though, the 4th will accept running shots on the left side that feed into the center of the green.  Judging distance in the wind is an especially fun test.

 

HOLE #5 – Par 4 – 418 yards – Press Maxwell

The par-4 fifth plays uphill and into a prevailing wind to an elevated green.  It is much more stout than the yardage on the card.

 

HOLE #6 – Par 4 – 370 yards – Perry Maxwell

The course returns to Perry’s holes with the sixth.  A devilish little downhill par-4 with a fantastic green.

 

HOLE #7 – Par 5 – 512 yards – Perry Maxwell

The 7th features a semi-blind tee shot and plays back to a green set near the clubhouse.  The green is surrounded by some of the most beautiful bunkering on the entire course.

 

HOLE #8 – Par 4 – 440 yards – Perry Maxwell

Prairie Dunes’s signature hole is a roller coast ride of a par-4 that plays up to the top of a hill, and then over a valley to an elevated green that you really don’t want to miss.

 

HOLE #9 – Par 4 – 426 yards – Perry Maxwell

This straightaway two-shotter requires a carry over the gunch followed by an exacting approach to a green divided into sections by internal contours.  Being in the wrong section makes a two-putt a challenge.

 

HOLE #10 – Par 3 – 185 yards – Perry Maxwell

Described by Maxwell as his finest par-3, the green is set among the dunes.  It is a sublime little hole that is perfectly capable of exacting punishment.

 

HOLE #11 – Par 4 – 453 yards – Press Maxwell

The eleventh is a big, long par-4, but success or failure on the hole is determined by something little – a mound front and center of the green that can send a misplaced approach any which way.

 

HOLE #12 – Par 4 – 390 yards – Press Maxwell

I have never enjoyed a hole where trees dictated strategy more than the 12th at Prairie Dunes.  Lay back and leave room to play over them, or take them on and leave a short approach?  There is no right decision, but whatever choice is made, the player better execute.

 

HOLE #13 – Par 4 – 395 yards – Press Maxwell

Yet another angled fairway that forces the player to pick a distance and a line and make a confident swing.  Weak approaches are sent back by the false front on this elevated green.

 

HOLE #14 – Par 4 – 377 yards – Press Maxwell

An elevated tee reveals the green, but not the landing area for the drive, which is obscured by a large hump.  To further confound the player, the green is tiered, with the lower tier hidden in back.

 

HOLE #15 – Par 3 – 200 yards – Press Maxwell

The gap between the trees is bigger than it appears on this uphill par-3, but try telling that to your mind as you stand on the tee with a long iron in your hand and the wind blowing.

 

HOLE #16 – Par 4 – 408 yards – Press Maxwell

The sixteenth plays uphill to a green guarded by bunkers front left and right, and a steep-sloped runoff back right.  The final Press hole begins the tough closing stretch.

 

HOLE #17 – Par 5 – 500 – Perry Maxwell

This par-5 plays uphill over a rolling fairway to a green perched on a high point on the property.  It is simple, with just one bunker, but is plenty demanding with a green that propels weak approaches down a steep bank right.  My favorite hole on the course.

 

HOLE #18 – Par 4 – 382 yards – Perry Maxwell

The home hole is the perfect culmination of the Prairie Dunes experience – an angled tee shot, playing downhill to a heaving fairway and then back up to one final genius green fronted my a mound left and surrounded by rugged bunkers.  The player is left wanting for nothing, except for a return trip right back over to the first tee.

 

 

 

Copyright 2016 – Jason Way, GeekedOnGolf