Of the 10 categories in which Golfweek’s Best course raters are asked to assign scores in their course evaluations, the “walk in the park test” is perhaps the least understood. It’s certainly the one we as panelists get the most questions about.
There’s no denying that assigning a number to how enjoyable a place is to spend half a day is a particularly slippery and subjective enterprise, but there are a few ways in which raters might gain a toehold in interpreting this category. (Other categories for raters include memorability of par 3s, par 4s and par 5s; conditioning; and the like.)
Here’s a story that might be illustrative. Last May, I had the great fortune to be invited for a round at the National Golf Links of America in Southampton, New York. The timing seemed auspicious, but when the day arrived the weather was less than ideal: low 40s, steady rain and a gusty, biting wind that made bogeys feel like pars. Despite the conditions, our host was both gracious and game, and our entire Gore-Tex-clad group had a blast from start to finish.
As we strolled down the hill on the wonderful 17th, a hole named Peconic, I said to our host, “You know, every time I come here I’m amazed by one thing above all – I seem to always finish my round with more energy than when I started.”
That is inspiring architecture. That’s a course that aces the walk in the park test.
Great golf courses tell a story. The genres may vary – perhaps it’s a tale of epic heroism (Pine Valley in New Jersey), or a subtle chamber drama (Pinehurst No. 2 in North Carolina) or a mystery with a solution key that varies day to day (the Old Course at St. Andrews, Scotland) – but they always situate the golfer at the center of a compelling narrative.
Architects use routing – which is the subject of its own Golfweek’s Best rating category – to pack as much interesting golf as they can into the property’s confines, but I would argue they do not always create great stories. Even some highly rated courses do not necessarily excel as walks in the park.
Naturally, some sites are more conducive to a great walk in the park than others, but the most talented architects have a knack for drawing out and amplifying their inherent sense of place. Inviting the golfer to explore how different environments transition from one to another often helps.
Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw do this beautifully at Friar’s Head in New York and Bandon Dunes Golf Resort’s Bandon Trails in Oregon. Stanley Thompson exploded his routing at Cape Breton Highlands Links, justifying some longer walks between tees and greens to fully showcase the magnificent rivers, mountains and valleys of the Nova Scotia wilderness. At Dismal River Club’s Red Course in Nebraska, Tom Doak opted for an unconventional “open-jaw” routing – the course ends a solid half-mile away from where it began – to produce first-rate hole variety and a compelling environmental narrative.
Other courses may offer a collection of challenging or interesting shots, yet somehow they create a feel as if the player is tracking around the same piece of ground without much sense of purpose.
Let’s go back to basics, though.
The key word in this category is “walk.” At the risk of sounding like Captain Obvious, it is infinitely easier to evaluate a course’s merits in this category on foot rather than from the seat of a golf cart. There are plenty of good courses that were designed with motorized transport at the front of mind, but how many of them are truly great?
A few years ago, I played New Zealand’s famed Kauri Cliffs and stubbornly chose to walk it. Those who have been there probably will not be surprised that I didn’t enjoy it as much as my riding partners. It’s still an incredibly beautiful place, but the golf does not prioritize this most ancient of design imperatives.
This isn’t to directly equate the walk in the park test with walkability. After all, on the other end of the spectrum, we’ve all played our share of highly walkable courses that don’t tell much of a story. It’s merely to suggest that the latter should probably factor into consideration to some extent.
The hardest aspect to quantify in the walk in the park test, but perhaps the most rewarding to bear in mind while at play, may be that it leaves room for the rater – or any player, for that matter – to express his or her appreciation for non-architectural aspects that enhance the experience of spending half a day chasing a little white ball.
Those considerations are highly subjective. It might be a potent juxtaposition, such as the awesome feeling of watching a tee shot fly far and sure against the backdrop of Beverly Hills skyscrapers at Los Angeles Country Club. Or it might be an organic, human-scale connection with the surrounding community. Maybe for you it’s a club that welcomes dogs, or maybe it’s linked to a tightly knit routing that allows groups to whip around in three hours.
For me, there’s almost a sense of timelessness to a great walk in the park. One of my favorite rounds of 2019 came at Wisconsin’s Lawsonia Links with fellow Golfweek’s Best raters Mike Hopkins and Chris Hufnagel. We tackled William Langford and Theodore Moreau’s masterpiece on a hot and humid Midwestern summer afternoon. Hopkins played modern equipment, Hufnagel bagged a set of 1970s-vintage persimmons and blades, and I moved up a set of tees and played century-old hickories. We marveled at the course’s consistent ability to provide entertaining golf for all three of us.
We walked smoothly yet unhurriedly through a routing that highlighted, in turn, small-town farm country, dense pine forest and a grand, wide-open and boldly undulating stage reminiscent of nothing less than Shinnecock Hills. We spent a not-insignificant portion of the round expressing how downright lucky we felt to be on that particular golf course, on that day.
We were in the throes of a great walk in the park. Indeed, discovering and celebrating what makes for your ideal walk in the park should be at the heart of every golfer’s journey.
– Thomas Dunne serves as a rater panelist for Golfweek’s Best, helping to shepherd the Golfweek’s Best course rankings.