Rymer: The Four Things I Look For When Considering a First-Time Course Visit

I was recently asked about the four things that are most important to me in a new golf experience. It’s an interesting question, and I’m going to dig into it a bit.

Golf is incredibly subjective. Course ratings are based on preferences of the individual raters. How can a rater place Pebble Beach over the Old Course at St. Andrews? Or how do you place Augusta National behind Pine Valley? How do you do the opposite? It’s a little like asking someone their favorite color. How do you come up with an answer to that?

To some extent all golfers like what they like because of how they play the game. I once had a conversation with Tom Kite about a Ben Crenshaw/Bill Coore-designed golf course. Before I got to my second question, Tom said “Let me guess. It’s wide open off the tee and you can drive it all over the place and still score.” Tom Kite was an extremely accurate driver of the golf ball and he thinks the skill of accuracy off the tee should be rewarded.

Oakmont is the poster child for penal architecture, and if you drive it crooked there you’re going to have a long day. Ben Crenshaw wasn’t so straight off the tee, and he thinks players should be given a chance to recover from a poor tee shot and that skill should be rewarded. Augusta National represents this style of course and strategic architecture. It gives players options and rewards creativity. As Augusta National Co-Founder and Co-Designer Bobby Jones once said, “The difficulty of the second should be in direct proportion to the excellence of the first.”

Strategic courses are wide with little rough. Penal courses are narrow with brutal rough. The style you prefer depends on the strengths and weaknesses of your game. With that said, here are the top four things I look for in a golf course.

(And just for reference, keep in mind that driving the golf ball straight isn’t my superpower. I led the PGA TOUR for three consecutive years in Strokes Gained Houses Hit. I like interior courses that don’t play through subdivisions. I prefer that my drives to find other fairways rather than break glass.)

Here are my preferences, in order of importance:

Condition of the course. If the course is in overall poor condition, then that’s a real turnoff. I like to see healthy turf and a neat, clean appearance across the grounds. I’m not a stickler for super-fast greens. I prefer healthy greens that are firm and consistent over greens that are fast and stressed. I want my ball to react the same on every green, and firmness helps with ball marks. (And if I catch someone not repairing their own ball mark, I’ll pull their underwear up their butt crack).

I have a lot of friends who are superintendents. Though I’m a PGA Professional, I view the job of the superintendent as the most important job on any golf course. People will return to a golf course that is well-maintained. Having neatly folded sweaters is nice, but that’s not what brings customers back. But here’s the caveat: growing grass is not the job of the superintendent. Their job is to prepare a playing surface that works hand in glove with the intent of the design. Many superintendents don’t understand this concept and keep their courses too green, too wet, and too soft. The very best understand the concept, and that’s why they’re at top facilities getting the most money.

I want to make decisions on how I play a golf hole based on my strengths and weaknesses, and how I feel about my game on any given day. I want options. I don’t want to be told by the architect that there is one best way to play this hole. I think hole 13 at Augusta National is the best golf hole on the planet, and here’s why: if you take on the challenge of curving the ball around the corner and pulling it off then you’re rewarded with a flatter lie, shorter shot, and better angle. If you bail your tee shot out to the right then you may still have a chance to go for the green in two – but the ball will be well above your feet, you are playing from much farther away, and the angle is intimidating. You can still pull it off, but the risk is much greater. Maybe the play is to lay up. Maybe it isn’t.

If you miss the first fairway at Oakmont, you’re dead. Grab a wedge and hack it down the fairway as far as you can. No decision to be made. No options. I like golf courses that give me options and allow me to choose my best path. And they need to allow others to do the same.

Golf courses must have a reasonable pace of play. That doesn’t mean play is always fast. It does, however, mean that the pace of play should be consistent. Some courses play faster than others. There shouldn’t be a standard time par across all golf courses but rounds typically should fall in the 3:45 to 4:30 range.

Pace of play on the golf course is a little like driving on the interstate. All drivers don’t drive at the same speed. But to make things work we all have to drive just under the speed limit or no more than 10 or 15 miles over the speed limit. That’s manageable. Don’t clog up the left lane driving 50, and don’t tailgate everyone in front of you who isn’t driving 90. Golf is the same way. It’s unreasonable to think that you can go out and play in three hours all the time. It’s also unreasonable to think you can play at your own pace and make everyone wait on you. The best courses have a reasonable pace of play and utilize technology, policies, and procedures that keep everything moving.

And finally, we get to friendliness of staff. I’m all about having the right balance. I don’t like being waited on hand and foot. I don’t expect anyone to wipe my butt, though it’s nice to have someone slide a roll of toilet paper under the stall if it runs out. I’m happy to carry my bag from the parking lot to the cart staging area. But it’s nice to know there’s a friendly person to answer a question if I’m not familiar with the facility.

The very best operations communicate their rules and policies in a way that makes you feel like the staff is there to help you comply. Their job isn’t forcing you to comply. But golfers need to understand that if they aren’t willing to stay in bounds with behavior, then they can and will be asked to leave the property. After all, unless you own your own course, we are all in this together. Golf courses are a shared resource. It all works best when we are respectful of each other, the staff, the course, and the game.