A Top 100 ranking. What makes a course great, or deserving of such a title.

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All it took was a trip to Mexico to get my mind reeling about the Top 100 golf courses.

“Depending on the Tide, you may have to take a boat over or play the alternate 3rd hole.”  

“Ummm, Excuse me?”

I was asking about Tail of the Whale. It’s why I’m here in Punta Mita, Mexico. The Tail of the Whale is the par 3 third hole or 3B, to be exact, of the Pacifico course. Jack Nicklaus designed Pacifico with this hole in mind. From the Gold Tees, it plays 158 yards over the Pacific Ocean and is the only natural island green in the world. Golf.com has the course rated as #77 in the Top 100best public course you can play in North America. I’m here to play the Tail.

My 8 Iron cleared the rocks coming out of the water and barely rolled on the green. I was first out and had a low tide. With most of the stone path barely rising above the water, I made my way across to the island green, very carefully watching my step. The green’s bigger than I thought it would be, and the bunkers had fluffy sand. The fact the course put a bunker on an island green in the Pacific Ocean takes a certain amount of gravitas. I marveled at the rocks rising from the back of the island, creating a natural backstop that I’m glad I didn’t go long into. I went to my ball, missed my 10-foot putt, but happily took my not quite tap-in par. No, I didn’t beat the Tail, but I didn’t lose either.

I started to walk back but stopped.

Sometimes you know when you’re experiencing something special. This was one of those times. I grabbed my phone and took a short video. Then I tried to experience everything I could. The wind, the smell of the salt water, the sound of the water beating on the rocks and splashing over. I soaked it all in, knowing this was special. I couldn’t stop thinking about the Tail of the Whale for the rest of the round.

Top 100 Punta Mina

Most signature holes don’t come so early in a round. While I couldn’t stop thinking of hole 3b, I also couldn’t help but compare the emotion of playing it to every hole after it. It felt like getting back into the dating pool after losing your soul mate. Even good holes felt flat. Being a Top 100 course is both a blessing and a curse. Once something gets put on a list, it becomes subject to comparison with our experiences. A thought popped into my head, If I took hole 3b and used it to replace the island hole at Paiute Wolf, which course would I like better? Such a simple thought, right?

Spark the flames, and a whole new world is right in front of you

Most thoughts are like faces in an airport, there and then quickly forgotten. Other thoughts, though, stick around. Some are even like a tree in a dry forest. Once that tree is sparked, the flames start to jump from tree to tree. Was that a great course? One thought runs into another. Would my imaginary Wolf 3B course be a Top 100? Once sparked, you don’t know where the spark will go. How many good holes are needed for a course to be great? Can a course be great without any standout signature hole? The Tail of the Whale sparked thoughts in me. I didn’t know it then, but that spark turned into a raging obsession. I will define what I think makes a great course and talk about it with everyone I can. Please consider the following information when reading future articles I post about the courses I’ve visited.

Here’s a link to a YouTube video about Punta Mita: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=td99hdHX-ZI


What would you say if I asked you what your favorite course was?

My instant answer is Southshore in Vegas and Black Wolf Run River in Kohler. I haven’t given much thought to why they’re my favorites. I just knew that I loved them both. Playing Pacifico made me think about what makes a great hole and what makes a great course. Here’s what I’m thinking. A great hole must have the following.



Options

The first thing needed for a great hole is options for how to play it. Different factors such as wind, pin position, rough length, time of year playing, or even how I feel that day should make me change my approach. A perfect example of this is #11 at Rhodes Ranch.  

Short Par 4 with water going down the right side. Depending on the tee boxes, it’s roughly 260ish to clear the water and 285ish to reach the green. I can lay up on the left side, hit 3 wood to clear the last bunker giving the best look into the green, or grab the driver and try to bomb it there. Each option presents a different risk-reward profile. What makes this better is the options are presented for most of the tee boxes allowing a larger group of players to be challenged. If I can grab driver without thinking 14 times on a course, it’s not for me. My handicap says I chose to grab the driver 14 times despite thinking, but that’s another article.

Sophisticated Greens

This sounds like a justification for charging $20 for a side dish on the strip, but Sophisticated Greens means that the Pin Placement can dramatically affect how you play a hole. If a green is perfectly flat with no bunkers, it doesn’t matter how you hit or land your approach shot. I don’t find many flat greens, though. Greens can slant towards you, away from you, slant left, slope right, have tiers, bunkers on different sides, and even the grain of the grass growing can impact how you would want to land on the green. Number 18 on the Concord course at Revere is my favorite example of this.

A par 5 with a ton of elevation change that with a good drive, sets up a “go for it in two” situation. It’s tricky because a massive ditch runs in front of the green, heavy left-to-right slope, and bunkers all along the back. Pin position determines if I go for it here; okay, fine, the Pin position will at least make me think about laying up. With a front pin, it’s an automatic go for it with a tad too much club. Worst case, I’ll hit long into the bunkers, but I won’t be short-sided. Back pin or even left pin, and I’m going to lay up. I can’t land it short and run it up without bringing the ditch into play, and if I go long and hit a bunker, I won’t be able to stop the ball coming out, resulting in a two or three-putt.  

Fair

Pete Dye was allegedly quoted as saying, “Life isn’t fair, neither is this golf course” regarding Bulle Rock. While we can debate if Mr. Dye hates golfers, it isn’t up for debate; a golf hole needs to be fair. Fair as in a golfer shouldn’t be punished for hitting a good shot. When they do hit a bad shot, they should have a way to recover. Unlucky bounces happen without question, but one bad shot shouldn’t be an automatic triple bogey.  

Chimera has palm trees directly behind a fairway bunker, blocking your path to the green. I will always hate them for it, even as the rest of the course is solid.

Sweet Emotions

The most subjective of the criteria and the most important. A hole must draw a response from you. Is there an amazing view? Have you seen it on TV and want to compare yourself to a pro? Did your friend get shot down by the cart girl here? Are you in the middle of nature? Is it just beautiful? Did you do something amazing on the hole? When I saw Tail of the Whale, it took my breath away. When I played Sand Hallow, I was thankful my friend, and I got to see the back nine for the first time together. It doesn’t matter if you’re going out to drink beer with the boys or chasing a PGA card, being on a golf course should make you feel something. This is and always will be the most critical part of being a great hole.  

Now that we have thought out what makes good holes, figuring out what makes a great course is easy.

Conditions

The first and most apparent is the course must be maintained. Pebble beach would suck to play if they stopped maintenance for a month or two. Yes, it would still be a great walk.

Variety

It’s accepted that we’ll have two 9-hole loops with ten par fours, four par threes, and four par fives as a loose standard. Par 71s are around, as is the occasional par 70 and the much rarer Par 73. What keeps it interesting is the variety within those holes. Let’s go back to Par 71 Rhodes Ranch and look at the par 4 breakdowns.

LengthCount
<3503
350-4004
>4004

 

Without much in the way of elevation change or water Rhodes manages to have a solid mix of short, mid, and long holes that play differently. This course has a ton of variety. The Par 3s also play 167, 202, 191, and 212. Different enough that we should be able to play at least three different tee shots. It can’t feel like we’re playing the same hole repeatedly. Cough, Bali Hai, Cough

Continuity

While we can’t play the same hole over and over, the holes do need to feel like they belong together. Not long ago, I was walking through a house up for sale. Every room had word art. Live, Laugh, Love as far as the eye can see. The dog bowls even had Slurp and Gulp on them. Then I walked into one room that was painted black. It was chalkboard paint, but without anything on it, it was just black. It was such a jarring sight; I couldn’t even consider the house. When there are significant changes in a course, it dampens the experience. Mountain Falls is two really cool 9-hole courses.  You just have to walk in knowing the front and back are completely different. The worst for me is when there are different sands in the bunkers. Nothing can ruin a course faster for me from a continuity perspective.

Approachable

The course must have tee boxes that allow for a challenging but fair experience for golfers.

Natural

They’re real, and they’re spectacular. This is one that people have disagreed with me on; however, a golf course shouldn’t be created; it should be found on the land. During design, there will always be a certain about of earth moved. If I can tell it wasn’t there before, it diminishes the experience for me. As much as I loved Whistling Straights, I sometimes felt I was playing a created course on 2K. It’s the same reason I’m not in a hurry to play Shadow.



Incredible Settings

Okay, it has to be natural, and it has to be special. I don’t want to keep picking on Rhodes, but this is the perfect example of what makes a course good but not great. There are houses on every hole of Rhodes.  Hell, some holes there are houses on both sides of the hole and in front of the hole on Rhodes. It’s good, but could never be great because of it.  For that reason, it will never be able to compete with the Paiute/Coyotes of the world. 

After sorting that out, I now have time to give my answer. If I could take Pacifico 3B and put it with Paiute Wolf, it would easily be better than Pacifico and would be a Top 100 course for sure.  

Thanks for reading! I’ll be using these criteria as I’m playing courses around the country.  Let me know what I missed or what you disagree with in the comments below!

Follow Cliff Harris:

Hi, I'm Cliff. I love golf, golf equipment, travel, food, and bourbon. I decided to start seriously playing golf in 2019 and have found it to be my passion. I'm obsessed with golf course design, strategy, and experiencing unique golf adventures. I'll be sharing my thoughts as I wander around the country and beyond, attempting to play as many courses as I can.

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