Fairways that don't slant left or right into creeks and trees.
Fairways that have decent grass.
Fairways more than ten yards wide with a decent landing area somewhere, anywhere.
Greens that aren't covered with sand or gravel from aeration.
- Courses that are challenging, but fair.
- Not overly crowded (5+ hour rounds where you have to wait at every shot suck the life out of me)
- Reasonably affordable
- In at least decent condition (not hitting off barren/crabgrass fairways)
Really though, the bottom line is #2 and #3 above. I'm not overly picky and I've golfed some real goat tracks - the course I learned to golf on years ago was nicknamed "Goat Hill". I've played some truly beautiful, lush courses and I've played others where I intentionally aimed for the bunkers because they offered the best lie on the course. As long as the price is decent and they don't pack golfers in like cattle, I'll play it and enjoy it.
Beyond the obvious of well maintained fairways and greens, courses I enjoy the most are usually a bit longer than average(7000+) with enough room to hit driver and a emphasis on tough approach shots and faster than average greens.
I really enjoy Donald Ross courses perhaps because they mostly fit the bill of what type of courses I prefer and I think they still stand up to the test of time. I've had the pleasure of playing three of his so far, Glens Falls CC, The Sagamore, and Wilmington. Someday I will play Pinehurst #2,,,,,Someday!!!
Things that annoy me:
-Decent condition greens, I can't keep score if there's gravel and gouges in the green. Aeration at least chases away some of the crowds. If putts don't roll it's impossible to play good golf, as well as messing up short game shots. The greens also should be consistent as possible.
-Greens and pin positions that play slippery when the rest of the course is soft; I have this one on the 14th at my local, the green is exposed to wind and slanted so it drains faster. I've hit the green in regulation several times within 12 feet, since it's a 5 iron and wedge onto an elevated green with plenty of room. I usually get the ball to roll 6 feet back at me when I got it to die a foot from the hole. I have a perfect uphill putt, even when I'm over the false front on my second, but it's either make or hit the same one for par. You can only make a birdie if you get above the hole and make a quick breaking putt that will roll 15 feet by. It's very hard to even leave the ball within 6 feet. I usually stay on the next tee to watch the prior group play it since there's always a wait. Very rare to see less than a 3 putt. On the plus side, a punch wedge with a little off it will roll back from the rear part of the green like a pro.
-Forcing you to hit the same shot too often; my home course suffers from this as a par 60, you hit way too many 9 irons.
-Poorly marked courses or those with too much hidden trouble. As I have a rangefinder now, the few holes I suspect to be way off the marked yardage can be checked, but it throws havoc into your yardages for clubs. And some people overestimate their power due to this.
-Courses that are overly deceptive, especially on the tee shot.
Things I like:
-Yardage book or detailed scorecard, and courses with plenty of markers in useful spots.
-Courses you can hit every shot in the bag, especially creative ones.
-Good match play holes, especially when they allow recovery. I like to be able to win with one good shot rather than lose because of a bad one. This penalizes players of different ability differently. Courses that require a grind tend not to be as fun unless it's a tourney or something. I'd rather be able to have some highlights.
-Courses that don't punish risky play. It's great to be able to hit the hero shot, but it should be punishing to those playing shots beyond their ability.
-Cheap to play, both in terms of losing balls and greens fees.
The key for me is a balance between affordability and upkeep. I'll pay a little bit more for a bit nicer, if it's not too much.
Case in point: Here in Tyler, there are 2 courses I play frequently, one of which is $44 and one of which is $51. The $51 course is more than $7 nicer than the $44, so we'll play that one more frequently, even though it's a bit more expensive.
I like both because they offer variety in their holes, but don't overly penalize players when you hit an errant shot. I like the ability to recover after a wayward drive and — like someone mentioned above — I'd rather play a course that lets me score with one really good shot than ruins a hole with one bad shot.
I like parkland style course. Also like when each hole is separated from the others. Since I'm from a northern climate, treelined fairways make for a nice launch pad from the tee box. Bent grass tees, fairways and greens are most common up here. Dirt ground ... not sand based, either.
Courses with large greens are nice, too. I don't like the typical old course design of straight out and straight back with all straight holes of varying length with small round greens. I can deal with straight line holes that are nicely contoured and visually interesting with hills, traps and other potential hazards to play around ... or in!
I like courses that cut large pine trees up from the bottom and roughs that are not too deep. Both of these attributes help speed up play keeping golfers from prolonged ball searches after errant shots.
Par three holes should put a premium on tee to green shots. If you miss, there should be a degree of penalty in all directions.
I like courses where I can play 6200 yards at longest and still feel I'm getting the full impact of the course. Like to get my money's worth!
Courses that reward good shots and penalize bad shots are preferred. Not that I hit good shots with much regularity, but line driving one 20 yards over the green should cost you at least one shot, maybe two. Or driving the ball two fairways over shouldn't provide a clean shot back to the green, IMO.
Good greens first and foremost. A great lie on a close-cut fairway should be the reward for driving the ball in the fairway. Bunkers with consistent sand texture. Well manicured courses are a real plus--especially when its consistent from hole to hole. Water, waste areas, traps and naturalized areas all add interest and break up the monotony of grass, grass and more grass areas. Nice to see hawks, deer, herons, groundhogs and other wildlife hanging out with us while we play.
Cost: I'll pay to play nice tracks. Fortunately, in NE Ohio we can play some really nice courses for not a lot of money. It's rare to pay more than $100 for my Sunday afternoon rounds for both the wife and me. She appreciates 'nice courses' as well.
Lot's of things figure into it but most important to me is a good design that is fair. I've played some courses here where it seems the greens layout wasn't well planned. I don't mind a challenge but when 80% of the green is so sloped there isn't a way to hit it close because even the perfect shot rolls 20 ft away from the hole IMO it's a flaw. One local place has an elevation change in the middle of the green that's steep enough to qualify as a motocross jump and there's two of them. They do crazy stuff like putting the flag at or near the apex and there's no way to land it there. I'm willing to overlook just about anything else. When the greens are so whacky that GIR doesn't lead to a legit chance for birdie or par it seems like overkill to me. More about what I don't like than anything.
At this point I'm mostly choosing courses by price, but I still know what I like and what kind of courses I'd play exclusively with the funds. I'll take as a given that I'm more drawn to courses that are well-maintained. I want fairways in good condition without lots of bare or dead spots, healthy greens that roll true and not too slow. I can enjoy both mid-speed and fast greens. Given that, I prefer:
1) Emphasis more on the difficulty of approach shots. I don't like playing courses that require you to hit 3W or Driver off the tee to a ridiculously tight window to have a good look at the approach and within a still very tight window just to avoid super penal rough or OB. I'd rather have the accuracy challenge off the tee be about an approach from the best spot on the fairway being much easier than the approach from the worst spot on the fairway, but still having a reasonably large landing zone for not just losing the tee shot. Then I like at least some holes with challenging approaches, with some greens well protected by slopes or rough or bunkers or with tiers to a great approach gives a very makeable birdie putt but an approach to the wrong part of the green gives a difficult 2-putt.
2) Lots of holes with options off the tee. I'm longish for an amateur, so I like having holes where I can choose either to hit 3i or 2h off the tee and have a very high FW % but have to hit a more difficult mid or mid-long iron approach, or I can choose to hit 3w or Driver to a tougher, tighter landing zone but where I'll have a much easier wedge approach if I hit it.
3) Variety. Some really long holes, some tight driveable par 4s or par 5s very reachable in two with two somewhat risky shots. A few flat holes, some holes with pretty big elevation changes between tee shot landing zone and green. Some straight, some big dog legs. A few holes with tough water or (more likely in SoCal) tough OB or scrub to carry or avoid. Also I like variety in the par 3s, with a couple you can approach with scoring irons and a couple that require tough long iron shots.
I like courses that make you think on every shot. Good conditions are also a given. You play better on better courses. My home course is Colgate University Seven Oaks. This is a RTJ layout. Long, huge greens and heavy rough. If you play easy courses, you might as well go to the driving range and pound balls without thought. You'll improve your game as much by playing challenging courses as much as you will by playing with better golfers.
Eight years ago I designed and built a golf course from scratch. I look at the layouts and conditioning of courses very different than I used to.
Like onephenom the 1st thing I look at is price. Golf is an expensive sport, I'm not a rich man, I'm also new to the game. I go to courses that I consider a good bang for the buck. Perhaps someday if and when I improve (currently taking lessons) I'll be more picky but right now I look at price 1st.