By Phil Hamilton
Golf courses are what separates golf from lesser sporting pursuits.
Golf is the only sport where the fields of play can vary so much – from the sand dunes of linksland to courses carved through forests. Not only do golf courses have to look good but, more importantly, they must play well. That means they must challenge the good golfer while still being enjoyable for the casual hacker.
New Zealand is lucky to have more than 400 courses with the best and most photogenic known around the world.
However, there is a lot more to New Zealand golf than the top resort courses. It’s the access and affordability that make golf special here with most regions having at least one course that stands out, although often not the first one that comes to mind.
Thanks to the wall to wall coverage of the PGA Tour we’ve been infected with the American disease that equates conditioning and difficulty with quality.
This means the best of our courses are assumed to be those top resort courses which is not always the case.
Instead we have chosen to focus on the courses that offer the best golf while also showing a sense of place, a sense of New Zealand.
While good conditioning is nice (and that doesn’t mean green and lush), it’s not essential and some of our favourite courses are decidedly scruffy. They are all walkable because golf is a walking sport.
Difficulty is among the worst ways to judge a course. Any mug can make a course hard – just lengthen and sprinkle liberally with water and bunkers. The real test is a course that is challenging and fun.
This is done by building interesting holes that require some thinking about the best way to play – giving options depending on your skill level. The best holes don’t reveal themselves on the first play but need to be worked out like a puzzle.
Views are always nice but certainly not essential.
And the main criteria is that a course must make you want to play it again and again.
By Michael Donaldson
An unspoiled walk.
The old “good walk spoiled” Mark Twain quote is inversely apt. Golf takes place in a huge outdoor arena and requires a walk of many kilometres. The walk should be enjoyable. Whether it’s spoiled or not comes down to your demeanour.
But what makes a good walk?
First, a well sign-posted and easy to follow route. You go from here to there – from tee to green, green to tee – and you do so naturally. And each micro journey from tee to green it should be pleasing on the eye, with a little teasing for the brain. It’s not a mindless shuffle – you’re aware and involved in the journey. And there should be choices – like google maps there should be options: what’s the best way to get from here to there based on my ability?
Views are important but they can be over-rated – especially views of the ocean. Such views are peripheral experiences that can add layers pleasure but they are not the primary motivation … if you want that then a walk by the ocean will suffice.
On a macro level the walk should entertain and enliven. Just as a window shopping in a city street is completely different from a bush walk, so a golf walk has its own character. Sun, colour, birds, wildlife, water, hills … and landscape. The whole picture should have an aesthetic value. Playing golf between rows of houses? No thanks.
That said, beauty is in the eye of beholder, and there are no accepted rules as to the way a golf course should work. But when you play one that doesn’t work you know it. It may not be an eyesore but you will feel limited in options, bored, unchallenged, disappointed. Fairways too narrow and straight, holes without shape, bunkers and mounds in disproportionate size to the surrounding landscape, greens that sit oddly in the land, paths that get in the way, water and trees that intrude, lack of definition. If you just want to hit balls as far as you can in an open field, go to the driving range.
A good course should be playable for all ages and skill levels – with tee choices, landing spots, areas to misses that allow all players to make the journey. No point in having a 180m carry over a ravine as the only option to start a hole. An island green is not for everyone. If there’s a Road Hole-like bunker on the challenging line for excellent players there must be an alternative route for the 24-handicapper or 12-year-old learner.
The overall feeling should be fun. Like your favourite childhood game, you will want to play it again and again.
Part of the fun is the land itself. It has to invite you to play and you should feel at home in it.
Luck should play a part too. An odd bounce – good luck, bad luck – they are part and parcel of the experience. A surprise or unlikely twist keeps you on your toes.
Golf for many of us is an analogy for life. Can we make the right decisions, execute the shots, accept the fickle nature of luck, control our emotions, find joy in the doing?
All sports are like this to an extent but most take place on flat fields, courts, smooth surfaces, enclosed spaces. Golf offers varying terrain that has an impact on the outcomes.
The essence of golf is that there’s no rival – you are both the competitor and the rival. On that note, there’s another odd expression in golf, that the course is your rival. Maybe. But it’s also your team-mate, your co-conspirator, your mentor.