What makes a good golf course? Try this 3-step course architecture test

Matthew Fitzpatrick walks alongside his dog at Kingsbarns Golf Links in 2017.

Golf course architecture can be a bit esoteric, but there’s one thing most everyone can agree on here in Southern California: Riviera Country Club is a really good golf course.

The host course at the Genesis Invitational is beloved by amateurs and pros alike, particularly those with a keen eye for course architecture, but to the layman who doesn’t really quite understand architecture nuance, why is Riv so good? What about Riviera CC makes it a good golf course?

That’s what we asked Geoff Shackelford on the Drop Zone podcast this week. Shackelford wrote the club history here at RCC and, as a course designer himself he has an interesting 3-step test for analyzing the bones of a golf course. The discussion begins at the 29:10 mark in the podcast below.

1. ‘Do you want to play this course everyday?’

“As someone who was very lucky as a kid to play [Riviera] a lot, it never got dull,” Shackelford said. (His father was a member at the club and he grew up playing RCC frequently.) It’s a very straightforward question. Did you enjoy the course enough that you’d play it again tomorrow, and then again the day after that? And perhaps even the day after that? “You can be a bad golfer and enjoy playing here,” Shackelford said.

2. When you leave the course, can you remember every hole?

Now, this might be a test of memory for some, but to Shackelford a well-constructed course, from the first to the 18th, will be memorable all throughout. Was the seventh par-4 of the day the best hole? Okay, can you remember the sixth par-4 then? “Some people think that’s kind of shallow,” he says, “but when you really go to the great places, you leave there remembering every hole.”

3. Is it a place where you’d want to take your dog for a walk?

Apologies to those strictly in the cat + golf cross-section of the Venn diagram, but would you enjoy the course setting simply by walking with leash in hand. Set the clubs down and just walk among the fairways, trees, hazards, etc. “Here, even though they’ve really created a lot of the green complexes — there’s way more man-made out here than you could ever imagine,” Shackelford said. “But when you walk it, you think that they just planted grass and made a golf course … in Scotland, you go and [see] people walk their dogs on courses. People bring their dogs. It also speaks to a certain culture at a place.”

Does your favorite track check all the boxes? Riviera probably falls short on appreciating dogs on property, but it seems to nail every other category and the sub categories that could exist within.

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