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The Ten Toughest Courses

Are tough courses, and then there are these ten monsters
Jeff Williams
From the Print Edition:
Kevin Bacon, May/Jun 00

(continued from page 3)

We're talking about he-man golfers here, gonzo golfers. We're talking about players with the high-tech clubs, the souped-up swing, and the pumped-up ego. We're talking about players who want to take on the toughest courses in the United States.  

And brother, there are plenty of tough courses to play. Cigar Aficionado is here to tell you what the 10 toughest golf courses in America are. These courses can collapse an ego like a tent in a hurricane. They are long: long in yards, long on hazards, long on penalty strokes.  

The trouble isn't finding them; it's whittling down the field. In the golf course building boom of the past two decades, monster courses (under the guise of the "PGA championship" moniker) were built faster than $600,000 tract houses in San Diego County. Every facet of the game seemed to get more difficult.  

With each course description is a set of numbers that includes the course rating and the slope rating, both products of the United States Golf Association's mission to quantify the difficulty of a course. The course rating is determined by certified raters who examine the length, terrain change, bunkering, trees, water hazards, out-of-bounds, green contours and weather conditions to arrive at a number that is an expression of the number of strokes a course should be played in, carried out to one decimal point. Par has nothing to do with it.  

The slope rating is the USGA's arithmetical way of altering a person's handicap index based on the difficulty of the course on which that person achieves the handicap. The higher the number, the more difficult the course is, with the highest official number being 155 and the average slope rating being 113. You don't want to know how those slope ratings are calculated. The math might be more difficult than the courses.  

The one number you won't find here is the machismo rating. We haven't figured out a way to calculate it, but like an invisible subatomic particle, we know that it exists. What follows, in order, are our top 10 places in golf to pursue that elusive rating.    

NO. 1 KOOLAU GOLF COURSE Oahu, Hawaii
Yardage from back tees
7,310
Par 72
Course Rating
76.4
Slope Rating
155 plus  

When you want to quantify the difficulties of a golf course, you generally do it by the numbers. You look at total yardage, the course rating and the slope rating.  

When it comes to the Koolau Golf Course, you need to know only two numbers: The course record is 69, three under par. The course record for lost balls is 63, about 61 above average.  

Whoever coined the phrase "It's a jungle out there" must have had Koolau in mind. The course, wrenched into the windward side of the Koolau Mountains, sits in a rain forest less than half an hour north of the Honolulu airport. A Japanese real estate magnate named Masao Nangaku, seeking to build what he hoped would be the world's toughest golf course, hired architects Dick Nugent and Jack Tuthill in 1987 to oversee a construction project with a reported budget of $82 million. The collapse of the Asian market in the early 1990s cost Nangaku most of his empire, but he got what he wanted: the toughest course in the world. Everywhere you look, from every tee, from every fairway, there is jungle. Not only do you have to pass through it, there are 14 forced carries across ravines. (And just what was Tarzan's handicap index?)  

Head professional and general manager Rob Nelson says that the course has a slope rating of 162 based on visits by accredited USGA course raters and a special visit from one who didn't believe what the others had told him. "When he came to see it for himself, he agreed with their rating," says Nelson. Never mind that USGA slope ratings don't officially exceed 155.  

The most important thing at Koolau is accuracy. You want to have enough balls left to play the 476-yard par-4 18th hole that requires two forced carries, the first over a ravine from the tee, and the second over another ravine to the green. You could use up a half-dozen balls right there.  

And who knows, if you're playing really badly, losing and searching for balls constantly, it may take you longer to play Koolau than it does to fly to Oahu from the East Coast.    

NO. 2 THE INTERNATIONAL GOLF CLUB Bolton, Mass.
Yardage from back tees
8,325
Par
77
Course Rating
80
Slope Rating
154  

The Guinness Book of World Records calls The International the longest course in the world. Unless there is someone playing 600-yard par 4s on the Bonneville Salt Flats, there is no disputing that The International is long, going on infinite. 

This behemoth was designed by Geoffrey Cornish in 1957 to replace the old Runaway Brook Golf Club. Robert Trent Jones was hired in 1972 to make it substantially more challenging.  

Standing in front of the clubhouse, you might think that The International was another in a long line of golf courses by the venerable Jones that have stood the test of time. But you better be ready for this test if you plan on playing from the gold tees.  

Take the third hole, for instance, a mere 674-yard par 5 that requires a 250-yard carry just to reach the mown fairway and another 10 yards to get past the ladies' tee. Or how about the fifth hole, a 715-yard par 6 that plays to one of the biggest, most difficult greens anywhere. The fifth green is 29,000 square feet--almost two thirds of an acre--and 89 yards from front to back.  

And boy, are the two par 3s on the back nine a treat. The 13th is 250 yards over a pond with an evil trap at the front right. The 17th might be the most difficult par 3 that doesn't play over an ocean chasm in a gale. It's 270 yards from the back tee (OK, it's a little downhill). The green is small and two-tiered. If you make a four here, you'll swear you made par. 

If you play this course from the up tees, it can be a real delight. From the back, it can feel like boot camp. Just salute the starter and call him Sarge.    

NO. 3 WHISTLING STRAITS Kohler, Wisconsin
Yardage from back tees
7,312
Par
72
Course Rating
76.7
Slope Rating
151  

This is the first of three Pete Dye courses that are ranked in our top 10. You should know just by looking at the scorecard that Whistling Straits is akin to whistling through a graveyard. The 18th hole is named Dyeabolical. Enough said?  

No, not really. Dye builds some hellaciously good courses. By all accounts of those who have survived it, Whistling Straits is one of them. It's one of three golf clubs along Lake Michigan owned by Herb Kohler, the chairman of kitchen and bath plumbing manufacturer Kohler Co., along Lake Michigan, north of Milwaukee. Whistling Straits was host to the PGA Club Professional Championship last summer and will host the 2004 PGA Championship. That in itself says a lot for the place, though it doesn't tell the whole story.  

Dye was given the task of building a true links course on the Lake Michigan shore, where the wind whips through without a single tree to deflect its intensity. There is sand everywhere. Every time head pro Steve Freidlander tries to count the bunkers, he gets lost at about 700 or so before he even makes it to the 18th hole.  

Then, of course, there's the wind. It's a constant companion, sometimes a constant irritant and often a constant terror. Hey, that's what links golf is about in the British Isles, so stop whimpering. And don't expect to be wheeling any damn golf cart around here. Whistling Straits is a walking-only course.  

Dye has built a series of strategically daunting and physically challenging holes, like the 455-yard par-4 fourth hole where the fairway slopes toward Lake Michigan on the left for its entire length. Or the 462-yard par-4 eighth hole where the right side of the fairway slopes down to the beach.  

And what about Dyeabolical, the 470-yard par-4 18th hole? It takes a drive of 240 yards to carry a mess of bunkers and deep fescue grasses. Then a long-iron approach shot is played to a four-section green of 15,000 square feet, where a three-putt might even seem a relief. This hole, like many of the others, has a tee even further back. None of these tees is listed on the scorecard, but at full measure the course plays about 7,800 yards. Now Pete didn't really intend all the tees to be all the way back all the time. It just depends on the wind. Or does it?    

NO. 4 OCEAN COURSE Kiawah Island, South Carolina
Yardage
7,296
Par 72
Course Rating
78
Slope Rating
152  

This was Dye's first attempt at a links course, a wondrously sandy stretch along the Atlantic an hour south of Charleston. The PGA of America chose it to be the venue of the 1991 Ryder Cup matches, and was roundly criticized at home for selecting a course that seemed to favor the European players, who more regularly play links-style golf.  

There's enough trouble on the Ocean Course for any three courses. There are forced carries over salt marshes and vast expanses of sand filled with a botanist's candy box of bushes and grasses. The course was softened up a bit after the Ryder Cup matches to give the regular players a break. But there is no break from the wind, which whips off the Atlantic from the south and east--unless a front sweeps in from the west and blows everything out to sea, including your brand-new cap.  

You only need to get to the second hole to find every form of danger and nuance that Dye could muster. No. 2 isn't a long par 5 at 528 yards, but it is a strategically demanding one. The tee shot must carry a salt marsh, though not so far to the right as to end up in sand and high grass. The second shot must carry a marshy area about 130 yards short of the green, a carry that can be easily achieved on days when the wind is at your back. The approach to the small, shallow tabletop green is challenging enough with a wedge in your hand, but it's downright terrifying if you have to hit some sort of long iron or fairway wood. No. 12 is a 462-yard par 4 that usually plays into the prevailing southerly wind. There's water down the right side to menace the drive, and water hard against the green on the right.  

Like Whistling Straits, there are tees on the Ocean Course that don't show up on the scorecard but can stretch the yardage to nearly 7,900. Surely Pete doesn't want you to play it from there. Heh-heh.    

NO. 5 CONCORD RESORT AND GOLF CLUB MONSTER COURSE Kiamesha Lake, New York
Yardage from back tees
7,650
Par
72
Course Rating
76.4
Slope Rating
42  

The Monster Course of the Concord Resort Hotel sits in a peaceful valley in upstate New York, the sort of place you would expect to find old folks on front porches, grandmothers canning jams and parents berating umpires at Little League games.  

Yes, you can find all of that in the Catskills. What you came for, however, is a golf course that can kick the rockers out from under the old folks, bust Granny's canning jars and crush abusive baseball parents.  


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