What it’s like playing Karsten Creek, a Top 100 Course You Can Play

Like a lot of highly-ranked, remote golf courses, the drive-in to Karsten Creek makes you wonder. 

What’s at the end of this road? Did I take the right exit off the highway? I thought this course was actually in Stillwater? 

The questions are warranted because that drive-in feels conspicuous. You’ll come across a family of deer on the one-lane strip. The 2.5-mile windy road actually loops you around the entirety of the back nine and deposits you at the clubhouse, with the Stillwater Creek Reservoir waiting in the background. It might not be obvious, but you’ve arrived at the golfing playground of some of the best amateurs in the world. Here are eight things to know about the experience at Karsten Creek, no. 48 on our list of the Top 100 Courses You Can Play.

1. It might be the most difficult course you’ve ever played

… And that’s kind of the point. Former golf coach and current Oklahoma State AD Mike Holder wanted a tough golf course that would be the platform for an incredible golf program. He dreamed it up back in the 1970s and it became a reality in the ’90s when PING founder Karsten Solheim wrote the first check and began a history of funding the facilities.

This golf course is beefy from the 1st hole, which asks you to work the ball left off the tee and also into the 1st green. It’s the perfect setup for the rest of the course, where a good tee shot will only get you so far. You’ll need to hit a great approach, too, to set up any straightforward pars. 

2. Greatness surrounds you

It’s impossible to not think about the OSU golf program out at Karsten Creek. It’s everywhere, from the shrine of achievements in the clubhouse to the fact that you’ll probably run into OSU players while you’re out there. Viktor Hovland spends plenty of time at Karsten Creek, because why not? He’s still the course record holder and loves Stillwater.

3. Straight balls are best, says Hovland

Speaking of young Viktor, one of the best drivers on the planet, Hovland told us that if you want to succeed at Karsten Creek, you’ll need to hit it straight off the tee. My colleague Josh Sens and I quickly understood that, while there are openings in the trees, the shrubbery below makes life super difficult. It’s more hack-it-out than punch-it-out. So hit it straight, just like Hovland. 

4. The best holes are the par-3s

How many courses boast their 11th hole as their best? It’s not clear if Karsten Creek would agree with me, but its par-3 11th is damn good. Perhaps the best on property. A mid-length one-shotter down a chute of tall trees with Stillwater Creek meandering around the tee boxes, running up to a skinny, tiered green that will test any approach. The par-3 3rd might be just as good, with its 10 tee boxes for all kinds of angles. The par-3s at Karsten are indeed very memorable.

5. Be sure to choose the proper set of tees

That might seem like the most obvious advice, but it feels extremely fitting at Karsten Creek. The Cowboy Tees stretch out beyond 7,400 yards. That’s more than just about everyone needs. The Orange Tees are plenty. The Black Tees are a stiff test for even single-digit handicaps. If you’re thinking of choosing a set of tees one-up from your typical distance, that’s probably the best golf course for you. 

6. 17 and 18 provide one helluva finish

If somehow you weren’t in love with Karsten Creek through 16 holes, 17 and 18 ought to do the trick. A forced-carry par-4 with trees and water left and trouble right, 17 might be the most difficult hole on the property, regardless of the tee box you play from. Make par there and you’re doing something really well. Then there’s the par-5 18th, another forced carry over the reservoir that opens to a gigantic fairway and a risk-reward approach into the green. Want a birdie to cap off your round? Trust us: It’s not as simple as it looks.

Karsten Creek
Both 18 (left) and 17 (right) run along the Stillwater Creek Reservoir. Sean Zak

7. It is not cheap, but it’s a worthwhile private-golf experience

The rate for an unaccompanied guest is $400, and for those who play with a member, the guest fee is a much nicer $200. But how many chances will you have to play at top 50 public course in America? The fee includes just about everything you’d get out of a private club, and the sticker shock keeps the play down. You’re essentially paying for an elite golf day and all the privileges of members. So yeah, it’s worth it. 

8. Zoysia fairways are the best

There may not be a better fairway grass in all the land. Due to the steamy climate in the summer and what can be bone-chilling cold in the winter, Zoysia fairways are the perfect grass for this center-of-the-country track. They’re also perfect for average players who sometimes need a little help picking the ball up off the turf. Zoysia is well-known for propping up lies in the fairway, and for that, we love it. 

Sean Zak

Golf.com Editor

Zak is a writer at GOLF Magazine and just finished a book about the summer he spent in St. Andrews.