So many elements add up to creating an unforgettable round of golf. It might be a birdie on the toughest hole, the miraculous putt on 18 for your career best, or the golf course itself. Could even be watching your uncle make four birdies to start the round and caring far less about your match and more about him carding the type of score that made him your golf hero to begin with.
Thanks to my day job as a newspaper editor (and my obsession with playing golf whenever and wherever possible) I've had opportunities through the years to play some of the best golf courses in the world. USGA championship media events at Baltusrol and Saucon Valley come quickly to mind as two of the heavyweight classic designs I've been lucky to play.
But as much respect and admiration as I have for the classics, I've come to realize that to crack into the class of "burned into the memory forever" it takes something beyond simply a great golf course.
It usually means seeing something new, experiencing golf in a way you've never previously imagined. Three unique experiences stand out and illustrate exactly how I'd define the formula for truly memorable golf experiences.
In the Wilderness, Among the Wild Life
One of my best golf trips was a tour of the Canadian Rockies, which has to be as peaceful and beautiful as anywhere on Earth. I'll never forget the bold, classic layout and hotel of the Fairmont Banff Springs or the four-hour drive from one end of the Rockies to the other, through the mountains, into a snow squall that nixed our planned afternoon 18 at the Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge.
But thanks to a sunset after 10 p.m., and the sudden clearing skies, we raced out after dinner for five of the most surreal holes of golf in my life. In New Jersey, after a rainy day you might see some deer roaming the vacant landscape. But in Jasper, we saw a family of four bear doing their thing off a tee box. Next was a herd (do you call it a herd?) of a dozen moose that were so impressively built that I couldn't do anything but gawk. By the time we finished our short golf dessert, we'd seen two more bear and plenty of other critters, on the ground and in the sky.
We played the full 18 the following day, and it was evident why it's a Top 100 course in the world. But I'll always remember that night, getting a taste of golf in nature, among the wildlife, far more than any of the great holes.
Desert Golf, on Steroids
My first crack at desert golf came a few years ago when in Las Vegas, with a great experience at Paiute's 54-hole complex. It was so different than anything I knew from home, with the grass seemingly painted into the rocks and barren terrain. I was so intrigued that I set out for Wolf Creek, about 90 minutes from Las Vegas, for what seemed like the most extreme layout I'd ever heard of.
Wolf Creek didn't disappoint. I can admit that it's the only course that I've experienced vertigo on a tee box. After playing the first hole with my mouth agape, completely blown away by the landscape, I ascended the 30-40 steps to the second tee box and realized I was standing on the peak of a cliff with a 70-foot rock face behind me and craggily ground in front of me. Looking out at the forced carry of 150 yards to fairway might as well have been 400. We use the word awesome too often in today's language, but looking out at this hole was absolutely awe inspiring. It continued through all 18 holes.
Unlike many other desert courses, Wolf Creek isn't just grass among the sand. It's golf carved into and throughout the peaks and valleys of Mesquite, Nevada, with elevation changes you can't even fathom (how about a par three with so much drop you can deduct four clubs; or another one-shotter straight up a hill to a flag you can barely see?). Even driving the carts can be an adventure, with speed bumps and railings in place to keep you from bounding off into a ravine should you pay too little attention to what you're doing.
The beauty of Wolf Creek really hit me on a recent return trip. I'd previously played alone and thought maybe my golf nerdery had me falling in love with the challenge and adventure of the course. But this time I brought three friends who can shoot 90 or 130 on any given day. They didn't stop talking about the course the entire trip, especially the guy who was happy just to tee off, play it if it was in the fairway, or drop one next to me if not. He probably only played five holes from tee to cup, but said it was one of his most enjoyable days ever spent on a Vegas trip.
I'm often asked about which is the best course I've ever played and I always balk before answering. But I typically respond, "I'm not sure if it's the best course, but absolutely the coolest course I've even been on is Wolf Creek." My second visit confirmed that, and I think it will become a must-play on every future visit to Las Vegas.
Sharing the Experience
My first two examples of memorable golf were about the landscape and the uniqueness of the course. My third is all about sharing something special with someone you love. In this case, it was the opportunity to play Punta Espada, the heralded ocean-side course that hosts the Cap Cana Championship in Punta Cana, Dominican Republic and enjoy the day with my brother, Cory.
I can recount tales of wonderful rounds, beautiful settings and magnificent facilities until I'm blue in the face. But nothing can match the look on his face as we made our way through the round, with 15 holes either along the ocean or with a view of it. Add in the fact they came to our resort to pick us up, the caddie who found all the balls we'd have lost on our own, and the way they treated us like we were Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus, rather than two schlubs from Jersey made for a magical day. To be able to share that made it all the more special.
Of course, while all the VIP treatment was nice, without a jaw-dropping golf course that has you so close to the ocean that crashing waves send spray onto greens and errant drives on multiple holes will end up on beach, it wouldn't add up to an absolutely remarkable experience. I'll never forget my brother (who only gets out once or twice a year and probably shot 110 that day) hit the most gorgeous drawing 5 wood, stopping just a couple feet from the pin.
The golf course, the atmosphere and the ability to share it - and have him be the one with wide eyes telling our wives all about it that night - makes it as special a day on the golf course as anyone could ever wish for.
Photo Credits: © Wolf Creek: Courtesy of Wolf Creek Golf Club, Mesquite, Nevada; Punta Espada: Ron Varrial; Jasper Park: Courtesy of Fairmont Resorts.