Not all golf courses are created equally. Much of golf course design relies heavily on the natural terrain and ecosystem where the course is located. While you aren’t the one who designs the course, you can adjust your play for the type of golf course to gain a leg up on the competition.
Below, we’re going to walk you through the various types of golf courses. We’ll let you know where they’re most commonly found, and give a few high-profile examples. Everything you need to know.
While you’re playing golf, with friends or those you get paired with (who might become your friends), conversations tend to involve golf. Golf stories, golf courses, golf architects. You won’t struggle with the first category, but courses and golf course architects are where people lag behind. Knowing the type of golf course you’re playing is the first part of contributing to the dialogue or even knowing what everyone’s talking about.
1. Links Course
One of the most common golf course types is a links course. But, if you find yourself asking “what is a links golf course?”, you’re hardly alone. A links golf course is one of the oldest styles you’ll find. These originated in England and Scotland, where the game was first played.
Considering golf has been around since the 15th Century, some might consider the design ancient. Yet, links golf courses have stood the test of time and are still played on today. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that much of our golf community loves the historical aspect of the game.
You’ll find links courses in areas close to the sea—in other words, most of Europe. Links courses are largely flat, with wavy elevation changes rather than steep. You’ll have a good idea of where you’re hitting the ball, and will always receive a fair amount of roll thanks to the typical hard ground and steady terrain.
When I think of links courses, I picture a wide-open landscape. Instead of trees and water, there are other challenges. This means rough that is way too long and bunkers that can take the best of golfers more than one shot to escape. Even with constant wind from being near the sea, accurate players have a good chance to do well. If you’re a bit wild, especially off the tee, be ready for a long day.
Some of the most well-known links golf courses are the Old Course at St. Andrews in Scotland, Royal Portrush in Northern Ireland, and Pebble Beach in California.
2. Heathland Course
Heathland golf course aren’t all that different from links courses. These are also most common in Europe. For the most part, they embody a lot of the same characteristics such as sandy soil and bunkers that won’t quit. Again, a lot of what defines these types of courses is where they lay on a map.
Heathland golf courses are inland, away from the sea. One of the biggest differences this produces is that wind is less of a factor. We won’t say it goes away entirely, but anyone who has played at each type can feel the difference immediately. There are more trees at these courses, but the terrain itself is similar to links courses.
Another thing you immediately notice at a heathland golf course is the beautiful landscape. Now this is not the work of a greenskeeper, but of nature. Since these courses are inland, grass and natural flowers, heath, grow long and create natural hazards. As a result of little upkeep, they are also firm and fast.
Sunningdale Golf Club in England is arguably the most famous heathland golf course. Unfortunately, many of the other great options lack in recognition simply due to the fact they aren’t links courses in Europe.
3. Parkland Course
Parkland golf courses are what most Americans usually play. This type of course carves its way through a natural landscape and is surrounded with trees, which serve as the biggest hazard. Parkland courses use what is available to them. If the area is hilly, you have a hilly course. If the land is flat, architects can get a bit more creative, but the course is still flat.
While links and other courses can be sandy and brown, parkland golf courses are green as a result of regular watering. There are clearly defined fairways and rough, sometimes multiple cuts. In general, these courses are found inland and trees protect the golfers from most wind.
The most popular of this type of course, and arguably the most famous golf course in America is Augusta National in Georgia, the course which hosts the Masters. TPC River Highlands, home of the Travelers Championship is also a parkland design. This is the course which produced a memorable playoff where Harris English prevailed after 8 holes in 2021. Better yet, is gave us Jordan Spieth holing out from a bunker in 2017 leading to the most viral clip golf gave us in years.
If you live in the United States or Canada, there’s a good chance your local course has a parkland design.
4. Desert Course
Desert golf courses are, you guessed it, found in the desert. This doesn’t mean they are all sand, but that the land surrounding it is. Depending on the course, the desert terrain can be 5 yards or 50 from your intended tee-to-green path.
If you’re playing a desert course, goal number one is to have fun. Just kidding, it’s to stay on the grass and off the sand. Keep yourself on the grass and you have a better chance of playing well than a wild hitter spending all their time trying to get back on the grass. Common sense, right?
Desert golf courses are nice because you lose fewer balls, but they play very difficult. These courses are exciting and different for someone unfamiliar with the region. They’re flat and what you see is what you get—far fewer blind shots than any other type of course.
The only desert course to crack the Golf Digest top-100 is The Quarry at La Quinta in California. Funny enough, the other most popular desert course is also located in La Quinta. The course we’re referring to is PGA West Stadium Course, host of The American Express.
5. Championship Course
A championship golf course comes less from design features and more of what the course is all about. While it’s not easy to define, a championship golf course is almost something you know when you see it—or someone tells you about it.
Championship golf courses have a variety of definitions. To help with your understanding of the basic types of golf courses, we’ll walk you through a couple.
When a golf course is home to 36 holes, one 18 is usually considered the “championship” course. In this scenario, the championship course is more difficult and kept just as good or better as the other 18 holes. By assigning the title of championship course to one set of 18, courses are able to charge a bit more for this option. For this reason, it becomes a bit more alluring to golfers visiting for the first time.
If you’re at a course with two 18’s, but aren’t sure which is the championship course, look at the prices. If they’re equal, then ask where they hold the club championship. If one course is any better than the other, that’s where they’ll host their top tournaments.
Other times, when people refer to a championship course, it’s because of tournaments hosted there. Whether it’s on the local, state, or professional level, it all depends on what people think of the course. Most individuals don’t call a course a championship course. Instead, it’s usually a larger group of people after the wording catches on.
More or less, a championship course is just what it’s called. There are no specific guidelines, difficulty requirements, or minimum length. The conversation around championship courses changes based on who you’re talking to. After all, a championship course can be whatever you want.
6. Par-3 Course
When a course has only par-3 holes, it is a par-3 course. These courses can also be referred to as pitch and putt courses. Most golf course types have names that aren’t as descriptive. A par-3 course is all par-3’s (with the rare exception).
Pitch and putt courses are ones with holes so short pitch shots are all it takes to get around. If there is one distinction to make between the two, pitch and putt courses usually have a par-4 or two. Looking at it from the outside, this is all that prevents it from being fully classified as a par-3 course.
When you’re teaching a new golfer or introducing a child to the game, a par-3 course is a great place to go. With shorter distances and a more laid-back feel than a normal course, strokes are fewer, scores are lower, and less time is taken.
A par-3 course can be anywhere geographically, and are generally only 9 holes. For the most part, a lack of space is the only thing separating these from stretching out into your typical length courses.
7. Executive Course
Want to play a shorter course with some hole variety? Then you want to play an executive golf course. An executive course is like a par-3 course in that many of the holes are par-3’s, but this option lets you take the driver out of your bag a couple times. Additionally, an executive course with 18 holes is also fairly common.
When this type of course began popping up, it was through to the business world—see the “executive” part of the name. Some companies had these courses themselves for their workers. Granted, they served the top tier of employees who could sneak in a morning or afternoon round.
Nowadays, executive golf courses are not just for those at a certain business, but are almost always open to the public. While they are not very common, they pop up all across the country. An executive course is also great for beginners or anyone looking to play a full 18 in a couple hours.
What are most pro courses?
Nearly all professional golf tournaments are held at links or heartland courses. Besides being the oldest and most common types, these courses are tweaked to be a tougher test of player ability.
With only the rarest of exceptions, any time you watch a pro tournament in Europe, it will be on a links course. Watch the players tee off in the United States and the ratio is a bit different. If it’s close to the sea, you can lean towards it being a links course. Move it inland and a parkland course is more likely.
Parkland courses can be harder to recognize because much of their tree cover is missing. This is to make way for larger spectator and camera areas. This is especially true around tees and greens, but through the fairways the heartland style of courses comes out.
The beauty of golf courses designed for PGA-level tournaments is that the budget to sculpt and manicure them is near limitless. Pro courses do not need to conform to the topography around it. If a PGA architect wants to add massive slope, a big greenside drop-off or even a water hazard, they can get it done.
As a result, the types of golf courses the pros play can are blurry. Nevertheless, the two types you will almost see on TV as you watch the best in the business play are links or parkland, with features of both woven in.
Golf and the occupied environment
As you can see, types of golf courses are more than if it’s 9 or 18 holes. Much of what determines the type of course is the environment around it. Unlike sports with standard courts, fields, and tracks, golf has more freedom.
Every time you step onto the first tee of a course, you get something different. Much like no two rounds are ever the same, no two courses are the same. Forced carries are decided by natural elevation changes. Ponds and creeks automatically increase the difficulty of a shot. Natural grasses and heath create boundaries leading to shots you never want to take.
You play golf against other competitors, yourself, and the course. Land and location drive each of these battles, making golf one of the most unique sports there is. Thanks to varying environments across the globe, we’re able to keep golf fun and new (and continue the types of golf course conversation wherever we go).