7 ironclad tips for playing GOLF’s Top 100 Courses: The Etiquetteist

GOLF’s latest ranking of the Top 100 Courses in the U.S. can be read two ways: as a source of spirited grill-room debate, or as a swift kick in the pants.

Boy, are there a lot of good spots to play. The only sticking point is that most of them are private. So, what’s the best way to see them without crashing the gate or sneaking, unseen, underneath the fence? And once you’re on the grounds, what are the unwritten codes of conduct?

Steve Lapper is a GOLF course rater. He’s also part-owner of a private club, so he gets out quite a bit as both a host and a guest. Etiquette tips for playing a Top 100 course? Here are Lapper’s top 7 takeaways.

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Getting On

1. Take Part in a Charity Event

This isn’t so much etiquette as economics. A large number of Top 100 clubs host charity outings, open to anyone who can pay the entrance fees, which, Lapper says, usually range from $400 to $1,000 per spot. Not a bad way to go if you’ve got the dough.

2. Get Invited by a Member

This is another straightforward path, but there are still right and wrong ways to go about it. In general, it’s best not to force it. Pretend you’re back in high school and trying to land a prom date. You don’t want to come off as desperate or pushy. Make your interest (gently) known — many members of top clubs are proud to show their courses to outsiders who are genuinely keen to see them — and let the chips fall where they may.

3. Write a Letter to the Club

Granted, this won’t get you on at Augusta. But in some cases, a sincere, well-crafted letter to the club has the power to open doors. As part owner of a course, Lapper says he fields a fair amount of correspondence. “When a letter comes from someone who seems genuinely interested in the club’s history or architecture, it can definitely be persuasive,” he says. “It’s a different story if they seem like a trophy hunter, just looking to cross another course off their list.”
top 100 courses

It’s here! GOLF’s 2020-21 ranking of the Top 100 Courses in the U.S.

By: GOLF’s Course Ratings Panel & Ran Morrissett, Architecture Editor

Once You’re There

4. Know the Basics

What are the dress codes? Are caddies required? Any specific protocols you need to follow? Start by calling the club or checking the club’s website for answers to these questions. If you still need clarity on some detail or another (Do you have the green light to tip the bag drop guy, or is flashing cash like that considered gauche?) a polite query to your host in advance is perfectly okay.

5. Covering Costs

This is a potentially awkward conversation, best saved for the least potentially awkward setting, so not on the first tee and not mid-round. Nor does Lapper recommend waiting till the 19th hole, as by then your host is apt to have concluded that you are cheapskate. (Hey, maybe he’s right.) Instead, Lapper recommends a discrete conversation toward the end of your round, as you’re coming up 17 or 18. Tell your host that you greatly enjoyed the day and that you’d very much like to cover your guest fees. It’s likely that your offer will be declined. Don’t push the issue. But it’s pretty standard practice for guests to cover their host’s caddie fees, so you aren’t out of line to politely insist on that.

6. The Golden Rule

You just shot 136 and, mid-way through the round, your cellphone buzzed with a text from your spouse, requesting a divorce. So it’s been a bad day, but that’s no excuse. You should still abide by what your grandma taught you: treat everyone, from the parking lot attendant to the locker room shoe guy, as you like to be treated. Come to think of it, treat them even better than that.

7. Send a Thank-You Gift

A nice bottle of wine. A great book on course design. A well-considered gift makes for a gracious gesture. You can bring it to the course and hand it off in person, so long as you don’t make a grand show about it. But Lapper recommends mailing it after to spare your host the hassle of lugging it around. “It is,” Lapper says, “a slightly classier touch.”
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A golf, food and travel writer, Josh Sens has been a GOLF Magazine contributor since 2004 and now contributes across all of GOLF’s platforms. His work has been anthologized in The Best American Sportswriting. He is also the co-author, with Sammy Hagar, of Are We Having Any Fun Yet: the Cooking and Partying Handbook.