Golf Course Types: Ultimate Guide

Introduction

You might have heard people describe a course as “links” or “parkland”. If you are not entirely sure what they meant or what other types of courses there are then this post should help you understand the difference.

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Classification by Terrain

Most people divide up golf courses based on the type of terrain they are set in.

Types of Golf Course
St Andrews – Old Course

Links

The oldest type of golf course. Linksland is an area of sandy soil generally within sight of the sea.

Some claim the word links derives from the concept of the ground that linked the sea to the more usable land. It is more likely to derive from the word hlinc.

The location of links courses means they are exposed to strong winds and generally have long grass and bunkers as their primary hazards. You generally don’t see water hazards on a links course with the exception of the occasional stream or drainage ditch.

Another trademark of a links course is pot bunkers. These feature steep revetted faces which can make escaping extremely difficult.

Links courses are very much as nature intended as the only machinery available was man or horse.

The type of turf means it is possible to play the ball on the ground much of the time and indeed given the wind this might be the best option! A links fairway is usually like a rumpled duvet with all manner of tricky lies making shots challenging.

True links courses are primarily found in the British Isles. They are used by the R&A to host The Open Championship and other competitions they run.

The most famous links course is St Andrews – Old Course. Other famous links include:

  • Muirfield Golf Club
  • Royal Troon Golf Club
  • Carnoustie Championship Golf Links
  • Royal Lytham and St Anne’s Golf Club
  • Royal Birkdale Golf Club
  • Royal St George’s Golf Club

Some lesser-known ones include Silloth-on-Solway Golf Club, Littlestone Golf Club, Saunton Golf Club and St. Enodoc Golf Club.

2008 Open Championship - Tom Watson - clipped
Tom Watson

Links golf can be an acquired taste. Tom Watson won 5 Open Championships but for a long time says he didn’t really “get” links golf.

Some courses are called links when in reality they are not. Pebble Beach Golf Links for example. While it is by the sea it is not a true links.

There is also a tendency to describe certain newish courses as “inland links” because they have no trees and long rough.

Unfortunately the type of soil these courses are built on means they are not really links. They aren’t free draining and won’t allow you to run the ball along the ground.

parkland course
Parkland style course

Parkland

Overwhelmingly the most common style of golf course. While there is very little genuine linksland available there is ample amounts of land available to develop a parkland-style course.

Unsurprisingly a parkland-style golf course features lots of trees. Hence why they are called parkland as they resemble a park. The trees are usually the biggest hazard and provide some definition.

You will also find water hazards can be more prevalent than on a links. Modern designs in particular will often use water as it is much more damaging to a player’s score. It also has the added advantage of doubling up as a water source for any on-site irrigation system.

While parkland courses will feature bunkers they will tend to be less severe than those you would find at the seaside.

Courses built in the past 30 or 40 years often included American-style bunkers which are basically just enormous areas of sand.

Some of the more famous parkland courses would be Augusta National Golf Club, The Brabazon at the Belfry, Stoke Park and Brocket Hall.

In the UK you may find parkland courses that have been created on the grounds of former stately homes such as Moor Park. They may also wander through grounds designed by famous architects like Capability Brown – Patshull Park.

Heathland classics in Surrey

Heathland

In some ways, heathland courses are a mixture of links and parkland.

The best heathland courses will have links type sandy soil that drains well and offers excellent surfaces to hit from. They will also have trees usually in the form of silver birch or pine. Just to make your life more interesting the rough will often be inhabited by heather and gorse.

Heather can be very difficult to escape from and gorse positively evil!

The southeast of England in particular is blessed with a variety of wonderful heathland courses. The Berkshire and both the courses at Sunningdale, St George’s Hill and Walton Heath to name a few.

Not to be left out you have Alwoodley, Sherwood Forest and Notts Golf Club further north.

As with links courses, the majority of heathland tracks are in the UK.

Personally, I think heathland courses are the best type of inland course.

desert style golf
Desert style course

Desert

No prizes for guessing where desert golf courses are located.

Some of the most famous desert courses have been built in California, Arizona and Nevada. Such as PGA West Stadium, Shadow Creek, Indian Wells and TPC Scottsdale Stadium. More recently there has been a spate of this construction on the Arabian Peninsula.

Many of these types of courses try to recreate an authentic golf experience by transplanting areas of grass into the desert. The player hitting from one oasis to the next.

If a golfer misses the grassed areas then he will find his golf ball in the desert and who knows what sort of trouble that may cause him.

The far from ideal growing conditions means it can be very expensive to maintain such courses and they often need to use unusual methods. For example, some courses will use seawater for irrigation by using salt-tolerant grasses.

Golf course architecture has definitely become more penal down the years. Some designers like Tom Doak will try to incorporate classical elements into their new designs.

There is also another type of desert golf course, one which is much more rough and ready. You carry a piece of astroturf with you to hit from and rather than greens you have browns.

Before The Emirates GC, there was Buck Sands Golf Course, laid out in the desert. The browns are created by mixing sand with lubricating oil and diesel fuel. Special scrapers are used to keep the surface flat enough for putting.

Gorse on the cliff path - geograph.org.uk - 1243456
View of Carlyon Bay GC

Clifftop

Another self-explanatory category.

Clifftop courses are relatively few in number but can be very enjoyable places to play golf. Many possess stunning scenery.

Some examples of clifftop courses include Pebble Beach Golf Links, Carlyon Bay.

The biggest problem is deciding what counts as a clifftop golf course. Really I would suggest you need a number of holes running along the cliffs rather than just one or two.

Sandbelt Courses

Due to a geological quirk of fate, the area around Melbourne in Australia offers wonderful terrain to build a golf course.

Wonderful natural terrain that provides a great environment for golf and even allows the use of the old-fashioned run-up.

Famed architect Alistair Mackenzie designed or consulted on a number of courses in the area. Some of the most famous courses are Royal Melbourne Golf Club, Kingston Heath Golf Club.

Downland Courses

The definition of downland according to Collins dictionary:

rolling upland, esp in the chalk areas of S Britain, characterized by lack of trees and used mainly as pasture

So you can expect a downland golf course To feature steep slopes and good quality free draining turf.

Finegolf gives an excellent explanation of how downland areas came to be.

The Downs Course at Goodwood is a classic example of downland golf, designed by James Braid. Featuring fast running fairways, undulating greens and dramatic elevation changes.

Stadium Courses

A relatively recent phenomenon, made possible with the advent of moving machinery.

Anyone who has been to an Open Championship at St Andrew’s knows that the flat nature of the property means it doesn’t give spectators a great view.

By building mounds alongside fairways and around greens it gives spectators a better experience.

Famous examples include TPC Sawgrass Stadium, PGA West Stadium and TPC Scottsdale Stadium.

Snow & Ice Courses

Probably the rarest type of golf course is one built on snow or ice.

Playing in such an environment offers unique challenges. No doubt the biggest being trying to avoid frostbite or snow blindness!

Starting in 1997 an ice course near Uummannaq, Greenland has played host to the annual World Ice Golf Championship. Although it has been canceled due to bad weather on more than one occasion.

Other competitions have been held in Austria and even Argentina!

Even the USA has got in on the act with the Grimes Hill Country Club Invitational. The club in Vermont hosts a 3-hole tournament to determine the best snow golfer.

For book lovers here are some great coffee table books about the most interesting and highest rated courses in the world:

Remarkable Golf Courses: Whether it’s the highest or lowest or the most northerly or southerly this book has you covered.

Planet Golf USA: A gorgeous look at some of the best courses in the US.

The Finest Nines: For those who like their golf in smaller pieces, a look at some of the best 9 hole courses in the United States.

The Anatomy of a Golf Course: What makes a great course? Tom Doak, one of the best course designers guides you through this topic.

Lofted: Inspiration for traveling golfers looking for destinations a little off the beaten path.

Classification by Access

Golf course ownership models can be used to classify golf courses.

As a general rule private clubs will be in the best condition while municipals will probably not be so well maintained.

Public

The UK is blessed with a wide range of public courses owned by local authorities.

In fact, some of the most famous championship courses are actually public courses.

Many people don’t realize that The Old Course at St Andrew’s is a municipal course. In addition, the New, Jubilee, Castle, Balgove, Strathtyrum and Eden are all administered by the Links Trust on behalf of the town.

Similarly, Carnoustie’s links including the Championship Links are also owned by the town.

Birmingham and neighboring Sandwell also had an array of courses run by the local council. Two of them have now been or are about to be closed (Brandhall and Corngreaves) and a third seems likely to be converted from 18 holes to 9 (Hilltop).

In the early part of the 20th Century the 5-time Open Champion, JH Taylor was a great proponent of municipal golf. He was a co-founder of the NAPGC (National Association of Public Golf Courses) and went on to design several public courses.

Public ownership and access are not limited to the UK however with some famous courses also being municipally owned. Torrey Pines for example in the United States.

The other type of public access course is privately owned with a company or individual running it and attempting to make a profit.

The green fees charged at courses like this can vary wildly from bargain basement to super expensive. Course condition and design also vary just as much.

At the cheaper end of the spectrum, you might pay $20. At the top end would be a course like Spyglass Hill which is around $350.

Private

A private club will require you to pay an annual membership fee to gain access to the facilities. There may also be some form of joining fee levied on new members.

Depending on the club, you may need to be introduced by existing members or be able to provide a reference from a former club.

Often membership will only be offered after an interview with one or more club officials. You may need to prove your playing credentials by joining a club official or professional for a round of golf.

At private courses, the members are the owners. The club would be run by an elected committee and usually, there would be paid staff to handle the day-to-day administration.

Just to confuse you a private course has a slightly different meaning in the US compared with the UK.

In the UK all but a handful of private clubs will allow visitor green fees on certain days or at certain times. The green fee would depend upon how prestigious the club is. In the US this would be called semi-private.

In America, a private club will mean members and their guests only. Many of the courses used for US-based majors will be private, for example, Winged Foot and Pine Valley.

Resort

Resort golf courses are just one of the amenities offered either by a hotel or by a more wide-ranging leisure complex.

Courses like this will tend to be designed and maintained to be relatively forgiving with little or no rough and wide fairways. This is to try and keep a reasonable pace of play where many of the players may not be experienced golfers.

Most resort courses will allow casual visitors to pay a green fee but this will usually be higher than the rate paid by guests staying at the resort.

Classification by Length

The closest thing to a standard golf course would be 18-hole traditional parkland courses. They are probably the most common.

The vast majority of golf courses will fall into one of the categories below however there are always some outliers.

For example, in recent years a number of 12 hole courses have sprung up. The theory is that 18 holes are too much or too time-consuming for certain people but nine holes are perhaps not enough.

The Yards in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida is a recent example. It is a par 44, 12 hole course with holes measuring up to 600 yards it is certainly no pitch and putt!

Even legends such as Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods have dabbled with shorter forms of the game with some of their recent designs.

GolfPass wrote an article a few years ago listing some of the courses with “odd” numbers of holes between 4 and 21!

18-hole

What everyone now considers the standard “size” golf course after the Old Course at St Andrew’s changed to become 18-holes. Other courses copied the “Home of Golf”.

9-hole

Where land or budget is limited, a shorter golf course of just nine holes may be built. To give players wanting to play 18 holes a bit more variety many nine-hole courses have a second set of teeing areas for the back nine. Some even have alternate greens to spice things up.

Executive

An executive course may be either 18-hole or nine-hole. It would consist of shorter length holes than you might find on a “normal” nine or 18 hole course. This allows players to get around quicker.

Jack Nicklaus playing the Par-3 course at Augusta National

Par-3

A par-3 course will offer either nine or 18 holes all being par-3. Usually, the greens on such a course would be much smaller than you would find at a full-size course because you will only be hitting shots up to 120 yards.

Golf Course Types: Conclusion

So now you know your links from your parkland and what an executive golf course actually is.

In certain parts of the world, you can get your golf fix with a 7-hole or 13-hole round!

No need to be baffled in the clubhouse the next time your friends are chatting.

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