By George Peper
About a month ago, I played for the first time a fine links course on England’s Somerset Coast called Burnham & Berrow. Now, normally this would be an occasion of no particular significance—certainly not worth trumpeting in the first line of a LINKS column—but in this instance it meant something. You see, B&B happened to be the 750th golf course I’ve played.
Yes, I keep track. Call me obsessive, anal retentive, arithmomaniacal, whatever, but for years I’ve maintained an Excel file with a complete record of the courses I’ve played in my life, from my first round at age 12 on the Duck Creek Golf Course in Davenport, Iowa, to Burnham & Berrow last month. And since I doubt I’ll make it to 1,000, this seemed as good a time as any to pause and reflect.
The chronicling began in 1976 when I took a job at GOLF Magazine and started traveling to some very nice golf destinations. At that point, my course count was only a couple dozen and all but a handful of those were within an hour or so of my home in suburban New York. On a sheet of paper, I listed them, appending each course with the estimated year I’d first played it, plus any playing companions or notes of interest from the round. When computers became the norm, I transferred it all to the digital file.
For what it’s worth, I recommend this exercise, whether your own course count is 10, 100, or 1,000. Number one, it’s good exercise for your brain, trying to remember all the places you’ve played. Second, you’ll inevitably forget a few courses but then remember them at odd moments and thereby have the joy of adding to your list without paying a green fee. Third, assuming you keep the list on your computer, you can fiddle with the data in fun ways. My own list is organized alphabetically, but with a couple of clicks I can re-sort the courses to be viewed by year played, course designer, state, or country, even by playing partners. Most of all, it’s great fun every now and then to open up your list and look at your golf wanderings, which I guess is what I’m doing now.
Just shy of 70 percent of my 750 are courses in the U.S., spread across 37 states. Florida leads the way with 99 followed by New York (86), South Carolina (52), and New Jersey (51)—not surprising, as those are all states in which I’ve lived—plus 10 or more in each of Arizona, California, Connecticut, Georgia, Hawaii, Illinois, Massachusetts, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island.
My foreign forays—228 courses—span 34 countries with my spiritual home Scotland dominating in a big way with 67 courses. I’ve managed to hit double digits in eight other countries—Australia, China, England, France, Ireland, Mexico, South Africa, and Wales—but in none of them have I played more than 15 courses.
So what’s my favorite course? The Old Course at St. Andrews, hands down, slam dunk, no other course is close. For those who agree, no explanation is necessary; for those who don’t, no explanation is sufficient, so I’ll leave it there.
What’s my top 10? I don’t have a top 10. I tried to make a list, but I just couldn’t, there were too many beguiling courses locked in a tie for 10th. The best I could do was narrow it to 50 courses I esteem more highly than the other 700. They aren’t the hardest or the prettiest or even the best, they’re simply my 50 favorites, and they fall under a few broad categories.
Seaside Charmers (18)
I’ve often said I’d rather play a mediocre course beside the sea than a great one inland, but these beauties exemplify the best of both worlds: Castle Stuart (Scotland), Cypress Point (Calif.), Fishers Island (N.Y.), Kingsbarns (Scotland), Mid Ocean (Bermuda), National Golf Links (N.Y.), New South Wales (Australia), Newport (R.I.), Old Macdonald (Ore.), Pacific Dunes (Ore.), Pebble Beach (Calif.), Pinnacle Point (South Africa), Quivira (Mexico), Royal Portrush (Northern Ireland), Shinnecock Hills (N.Y.), St. Enodoc (England), Teeth of the Dog (Dominican Republic), and Trump Turnberry (Scotland).
Great Walks in the Park (14)
These courses, combining inspired routing, a sublime setting, and a relentless succession of superb holes, make me want to rescind the above pronouncement about inland courses. Augusta National (Ga.), Blackwolf Run/River Course (Wis.), Caledonia Golf & Fish Club (S.C.), Gleneagles Hotel/Kings Course (Scotland), Loch Lomond (Scotland), Morfontaine (France), Myopia (Mass.), Pine Valley (N.J.), San Francisco (Calif.), Sleepy Hollow (N.Y.), St. Louis (Mo.), The Course at Yale (Conn.), The Dunes (S.C.), Tuxedo (N.Y.).
Great Courses to Grow Old On (7)
Now these are the rarest of gems—not too long, easy to walk, and an enduring joy to play. Maidstone (N.Y.), the Old Course (Scotland), Prestwick (Scotland), Rockaway Hunting Club (N.Y.), Sakonnet (R.I.), Shoreacres (Ill.), Yeamans Hall (S.C.).
Worth the Trip (11)
Yes, they’re in far-flung corners of the globe, but if you have the time, money, and, in a couple of cases, the connections to get yourself on these courses, you won’t be disappointed. Hirono (Japan), Barnbougle Dunes (Tasmania), Durban (South Africa), Kapalua/Plantation (Hawaii), Kingston Heath (Australia), Nine Bridges (South Korea), Noordwijske (Netherlands), Royal Calcutta (India), Southerndown (Wales), Spring City/Lake (China), Titirangi (New Zealand).
As I said, I have no illusions about hitting the magic 1,000, but that doesn’t mean I lack golf wanderlust. Some major gaps remain in my golf course portfolio, so my Excel file also includes a running bucket list. The current top 20 (10 U.S./10 international) are as follows. U.S.: Arcadia Bluffs (Mich.), Ballyneal (Colo.), Camargo (Ohio), Crystal Downs (Mich.), Deepdale (N.Y.), Forest Dunes/The Loop (Mich.), Gamble Sands (Wash.), Mountain Lake (Fla.), Peachtree (Ga.), Wade Hampton (N.C.). International (10): Cabot Cliffs (Canada), Cape Kidnappers (New Zealand), Cape Wickham (Tasmania), Diamante Dunes (Mexico), Kasumigaseki (Japan), Tara Iti (New Zealand), Lofoten Links (Norway), Owners Club (South Korea), Rye (England), Yas Links (United Arab Emirates). I surely won’t get to all (or even most) of them, but I hope to have some fun trying.
How many courses have you played and how do you categorize your favorites? Tell us in the comments below!