Golf can be beautiful. More often that not it’s an exercise in damage limitation.
No matter how good your last shot, you could screw it all up with the next.
We thought we’d take a look at the courses most likely to leave the rest of us blubbering, defeated wrecks, promising next time we’ll do better, or at the very least not take it so seriously.
1. The Ocean Course, Kiawah Island, South Carolina, United States
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Top on our list has to be the Pete Dye-designed Ocean Course . Dye designs golf courses so difficult and torturous that he’s earned the nickname “The Marquis de Sod.”
Nowhere is this more evident than at the Ocean Course. Capable of being played at over 7,900 yards from the back tees the course’s combination of huge sand dunes, thorny marshes, fiendish pot bunkers and superslick greens will reduce even the game’s best to gibbering wrecks.
It’s so tough that when the Ryder Cup was staged here in 1991 the game’s very best players including Seve Ballesteros, Nick Faldo, Colin Montgomerie, Fred Couples and Payne Stewart were winning holes with double-bogeys.
2. Carnoustie Golf Links, Dundee, Scotland
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Laid out along the brutal North Sea coast, Carnoustie quickly earned the nickname “Carnasty” during the 1999 Open Championship, when the course played so tough that it reduced Sergio Garcia to tears after he finished dead last.
Measuring 7,421 yards, par-71 the course can play much longer when the wind whips in from the North Sea — which it usually does.
Riddled with fiendish pot bunkers the course has even become part of a phrase in 21st century warfare — the Carnoustie effect meaning the “psychic shock experienced on collision with reality by those whose expectations are founded on false assumptions.”
This is probably what happened to Jean Van de Velde at the 1999 Open. Leading by three shots playing the last hole the Frenchman proceeded to implode, visiting the notorious Barry Burn, taking seven shots to finish the hole, and losing the resultant play-off to Scotsman Paul Lawrie.
3. Ko’olau Golf Club, Oahu, Hawaii, United States
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Though not as tricky as our first two, Ko’olau is still a monster golf course. When it first opened officials gave the course a 162 rating for difficulty, but USGA headquarters wouldn’t accept this as the upper rating for difficulty is 155.
So they sent their own team out to Hawaii to rate the course. The result, an even higher slope rating of 172.
Since then the course has undergone alterations to make it easier to play (its slope is now 152) but fairways surrounded by Hawaiian jungle, over 80 deep bunkers, and six deep ravines make it a brute to play which is why it’s third on our list.
4. Whistling Straits, Kohler, Wisconsin, United States
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Another Pete Dye-designed exercise in masochism, Whistling Straits is suitably located on the site of an abandoned artillery range on the shores of Lake Michigan.
When current world No. 3 Lee Westwood first saw the course he said, “I’d been told there are 10 difficult holes and eight impossible ones. I’m still trying to work out which the 10 difficult holes are.”
When Golf Digest magazine staffers visited the course they counted 967 bunkers. Yes, 967 bunkers on one course. That’s an average of almost 54 per hole. Some of them are so small there’s barely room for golfer and ball. Some of them are barely recognizable as bunkers, as Dustin Johnson found to his cost playing the final hole at the 2010 US PGA Championship with a one shot lead.
Johnson’s tee shot landed on what he thought was some bare ground so he grounded his club before playing his second shot. Then he was told he’d been in a bunker and the subsequent two-shot penalty meant he missed the play-off by one shot.
5. Jade Dragon Snow Mountain Golf Club, Lijiang, Yunnan, China
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The longest golf course in the world at 8,548 yards, Jade Dragon Snow Mountain includes a 711-yard par-five (and two more that measure over 680 yards), a 525-yard par-four and a 270-yard par-three.
Of course the thin air of its location, more than 3,040 meters above sea level in the Himalayas, does make the golf ball fly further. But it also makes it fly further left or right, making it an extraordinarily difficult course for even the best golfers to break 80.
6. Palm Course, Saujana Golf Club, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
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The Palm Course at Saujana is so tough it’s been nicknamed “The Cobra” and its fangs have tested many of the world’s top golfers as it’s hosted six of the last 13 Malaysian Opens, a co-sanctioned European/Asian Tour event.
Past winners include former world number one Vijay Singh. With jungle lining many fairways, and water and sand hazards in abundance, just getting to the green is a struggle.
But that’s when the real problems start because The Cobra’s super fast, heavily undulating putting surfaces are probably the hardest to putt on in the world, including those at Augusta. Only great putters win at Saujana.
7. Bethpage Black, New York, United States
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This course , one of five at Bethpage State Park in Long Island, New York, is so tough it has a sign by the first tee that reads “The Black Course Is An Extremely Difficult Course Which We Recommend Only For Highly Skilled Golfers.”
Which is why it’s hosted the U.S. Open twice — in 2002, when only winner Tiger Woods broke par, and in 2009, when only five players broke par with winner Lucas Glover finishing at four under.
Its narrow fairways, tangly rough, plateau greens, and huge sculptured bunkers combine to make the Black Leopard, as the late designer A. W. Tillinghast lovingly called it, a vicious brute of a golf course.
It plays 7,426 yards from the back tees but, unless you’re a true professional or a registered masochist, don’t even think about playing from them.
8. Cape Kidnappers, Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand
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Cape Kidnappers isn’t just a tough golf course, it’s a dangerous golf course with 183-meter cliffs plunging straight into the sea close to the edge of several fairways.
Designed by Tom Doak with many holes completely exposed to winds whipping in off the Pacific Ocean just keeping your ball on line is tough. Rumpled fairways, particularly on the front nine, throw tee shots into the rough and apparently good approaches can bounce on the putting surface and then run off into deep greenside bunkers.
But it’s the back nine that are really tough, and spectacularly beautiful, with narrow strips of fairway running between those cliffs and yawning chasms filled with scrub, rough and trees.
The pros haven’t played a tournament here yet, but when they do it’ll be fascinating to see how they score.
9. Le Touessrok Golf Course, Ile aux Cerfs, Mauritius
courtesy Le Touessrok golf course
Designed by two-time Masters champion Bernhard Langer of Germany, Le Touessrok golf course is set on its own island and is the only one I know that cannot be reached by road, only by speed boat or helicopter.
It’s stunningly beautiful but also extremely tough. Many holes have extra long carries from tee to fairway or from fairway to green over mangrove swamps, water hazards, or huge bunkers, a few of which are over 200 yards long.
A variety of tees mean that the average golfer can cut down the carry distance from tee to fairway but the carry from fairway to green remains the same. I would love to see the world’s top professionals play this course from the back tees.
The beauty comes from the fact that many of the holes play right beside the white sandy beaches and turquoise blue waters of the Indian Ocean whilst the glistening ocean is visible from many other holes.
10. Championship Links, Royal County Down, Newcastle, Northern Ireland
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Frequently voted the best golf course in the world outside the United States, Royal County Down is also one of the toughest in the world.
Its fairways are narrow strips bordered by purple heather and golden yellow gorse. Beautiful, yet almost impossible to recover from. Many of its deep bunkers are also almost impossible to get out of.
There are many blind shots were golfers playing Royal County Down for the first time will need a local caddy to show them the right spot to aim at. Many greens are domed and will throw anything less than perfect into a greenside bunker or greenside rough.
Huge sand dunes isolate each hole from the others but they won’t protect you from the wind that usually blows in from Dundrum Bay besides which the course is laid out.
The magnificent Mourne Mountains are visible from every hole. This is a real “Beauty and the Beast” golf course and as such a worthy conclusion to our tour of the world’s toughest golf courses.
Tony Smart is a lifelong golf fanatic and journalist.
Editor’s note: This article was previously published in 2012. It was reformatted and republished in 2017.