Phil Mickelson called Oakmont Country Club the hardest course the pros have ever played, a relentless test from start to finish with no let-up – as it should be for the U.S. Open.
But Oakmont, long ballyhooed as one of the hardest courses in the country, isn't quite at the top of the list when it comes to the most difficult U.S. courses by measure of the USGA Course Rating System™ for everyday play.
Here are five penal layouts that will put any golfer's skills to the test and perhaps have them longing for the 19th hole well before the round is over. In assembling this list, the USGA Course Rating System was taken into consideration along with both Slope Rating ® and Bogey Rating ™, so difficulty is gauged for your scratch golfers as well as your average amateur who tees it up once a week.
(The USGA Course Rating evaluates a layout from the perspective of a scratch golfer, while the Bogey Rating does the same for a bogey golfer. The Slope Rating is the relative difference between both, essentially an indicator of how fast scores are rising on a given course for the non-scratch golfer).
Yes, there will be some courses deemed slightly more challenging for scratch golfers and others perhaps considered a sterner test for bogey players. But the five courses below present the most comprehensive challenge — across the board — for male golfers of all abilities.
THE INTERNATIONAL — Bolton, Massachusetts
There's long and then there's the Pines course at The International.
The par-73 layout, built in 1954 and reworked by Robert Trent Jones in 1972, has long been considered one of the longest in the world. It plays to a whopping 8,325 yards from the Gold (or "Tiger") tees and features three par-4 holes in excess of 530 yards. The par-5 finisher is 656 yards, yet there's an even longer par-5 on the property: the 674-yard third hole.
There's also a par-6 hole that is 715 yards. When played from the back tees, The International is ranked as the hardest golf layout in the U.S. according to all three ratings. It has an unrivaled 81.7 Course Rating, a 155 Slope Rating and a Bogey Rating of 112.2.
There are more manageable tees at the Pines course, but for sadists or super long hitters, the back tees are as difficult as it gets in the sport.
PIKEWOOD NATIONAL — Morgantown, West Virginia
High atop a mesa in the mountains near Morgantown, West Virginia, is the breathtaking Pikewood National. Designed in the tradition of classic architects like Donald Ross and Alister MacKenzie, this challenging, picturesque and ultra-private course is a spectacular walk through mature forests and immense rock outcroppings.
Enjoy the views, but bring your A-game to a course that has holes nicknamed "On The Rocks," "Audacity," and "Old Bastard." Dow Finsterwald, a former Ryder Cup captain and PGA Championship winner, called Pikewood National the "most challenging, fair and beautiful course in the world."
From the back tees, it has a 155 Slope rating, a 78.9 USGA Course Rating, and a severe 109.4 bogey rating.
RICH HARVEST FARMS – Sugar Grove, Illinois
This property, which started as a six-hole backyard course for computer billionaire Jerry Rich, now ranks among America's greatest and hosted the Solheim Cup in 2009.
The exclusive private club was influenced by Augusta National and designed by Rich, who interviewed five architects before discovering he could draw the plans himself. Home to the Northern Illinois golf teams, the course is active in amateur golf — having hosted the Western Amateur and Palmer Cup last year and the NCAA national championships in 2017.
It will be a thorough examination of the best college players in the nation, as the Professional tees at Rich Harvest Farms play to 155 Slope rating, a 79.1 USGA Course Rating and a 108.4 Bogey Rating.
OAK TREE NATIONAL – Edmond, Oklahoma
What happens when you give architect Pete Dye an edict to build the most challenging golf course in the U.S.? That's what Oak Tree National founders Ernie Vossler and Joe Walser wanted in 1974 when they hired Dye, who's called the layout the finest inland golf course he's created.
Built on a 640-acre countryside expanse, Oak Tree National's tough design is only compounded by Oklahoma's notorious winds. It was the site of the 1988 PGA Championship, the 2006 Senior PGA Championship and the 2014 U.S. Senior Open, where only four players shot below par.
Another course with a 155 Slope Rating from the Black tees, Oak Tree National also has a 79.3 USGA Course Rating and a 108.7 bogey rating, the third-highest in the nation. Needless to say, bogey golfers shouldn't be playing those tees.
KIAWAH ISLAND OCEAN COURSE – Kiawah Island, South Carolina
As the host of the 2007 Senior PGA Championship and the 2012 PGA Championship won by Rory McIlroy, Kiawah Island's Ocean Course is probably the best known of the courses on this list.
Another Pete Dye design, the difficulty of the layout was influenced by his wife, Alice, who during construction suggested raising the course to have unobstructed views of the Atlantic coastline from every hole rather than sit behind the dunes.
The course has more seaside holes than any other course in the Northern Hemisphere (with 10 right along the Atlantic Ocean) and the result is that the layout is exposed to the location's brisk and unpredictable winds.
There are no prevailing winds, so good luck with day-to-day strategy and players can occasionally experience up to an 8-club difference on holes depending on the direction or strength of the wind.
From the Championship tees, the 79.7 USGA Course Rating is the third-highest in the nation. The Bogey Rating is 108.1 (fifth-highest) and the Slope Rating from the Championship tees is 153, though resort guests would be well-served to tee it forward.
Difficult is a relative term in golf.
Every golfer has a course that stands out in their mind as the most difficult they've played. It could depend on the layout, the weather, the competition, the ability of the player, or the type of game they brought to the course that particular day.
For the U.S. Open, Oakmont will be playing to a USGA Course Rating of 77.8 and a Slope Rating of 148.
Here are some other courses that didn't crack the Top 5 but, according to their ratings, present the nation's most severe challenges (at least from their longest tees):
- Butler National – Oak Brook, IL
- Medalist Golf Club – Hobe Sound, FL
- Ballyhack Golf Club – Roanoke, VA
- TPC Treviso Bay – Naples, FL
- Kenai Golf Association – Kenai, AK
- The Honors Course – Ooltewah, TN
- Blessings – Fayette, AR
- The Pete Dye Course – French Lick, IN
- The Golf Club of New England – Stratham, NH
- Ko'Olau Golf Club – Kaneohe, HI
Other well-known courses will also be in the mix for many golfers: Pine Valley (NJ), TPC Sawgrass (FL), Bethpage Black (NY), Whistling Straits (WI) and Hazeltine National (MN), the site of this year's Ryder Cup competition.
The beauty of the three rating systems is that it provides a more complete picture of the relative difficulty of a course for a given golfer. You can't just take Slope Rating and use that as the equation for absolute difficulty.
This is where the term "Target Score" comes into play. It's a way to estimate what you might shoot for a given set of tees.
It can seem daunting at first, but is actually relatively simple. To figure out Target Score, take a player's Handicap Index ® multiplied by the Slope Rating of tees played. Then divide that by 113 (standard slope rating) and round the result to the nearest whole number. After that, simply add the given tee's USGA Course Rating (rounded) to find the Target Score and see what you'd shoot to "play to your handicap."
Here's an example using a 20.0 Handicap Index:
Bethpage Black Blue tees: 20.0 x 152 / 113 = 27 + 78.1 = 105
Oakmont's Championship tees: 20.0 x 148 / 113 = 26 + 77.8 = 104
The International Pines Course: 20.0 x 155 / 113 = 27 = 81.7 = 109
A Handicap Index is only played to about 20% of the time. The average score, when Target isn't achieved, would typically be 2 to 4 strokes higher than a Target Score.
It's a great way to make sure you're picking the right tees for your ability and aren't getting discouraged when you don't play to your handicap, which is based on potential ability and not an average of all your scores. The bottom line, most golfers can take a pass on the Tiger Tees at The International's Pines Course.
That said, part of the fun of golf is the challenge that different courses present. While most have similar traits, the playing fields are all endlessly unique.
So, what was the most challenging course you've ever played and why?