The Different Types of Golf Courses

Aerial view of Kingsbarns links in Scotland

David Cannon / Getty Images

Golf courses are generally grouped in three ways: By access (who can play them), by size (number and type of holes), or by setting and design.

Golf Course Types by Access

Not all golf courses are available to be played by all golfers. Some are private clubs, some restrict access in other ways or give preferential treatment to certain golfers over others. When grouping golf courses by access, here are how those groups are labeled:

  • Public courses: A public golf course is one that is open to the general public. Everyone who plays golf is welcome at a public golf course. Within the public category, there are two main sub-types - the municipal course and the daily fee course. Municipal courses are those owned by cities or counties and run for the benefit of the local citizens (although they are open to all golfers regardless of place of residence). Daily fee courses are also open to everyone, but are privately owned and generally more upscale - and, therefore, more expensive - than municipal courses.
  • Resort courses: A resort course is a golf course that is part of a resort property, typically including a large, luxurious hotel, perhaps a spa and multiple restaurants. Some resort courses are open to the public in the same way a daily fee course is, with guests of the resort receiving preferential tee times and discounted green fees. Most resorts are technically public, but many restrict public access by requiring that you stay at the resort in order to play its golf course(s).
  • Semi-private courses: A semi-private course is one that both sells memberships and allows non-members to play. Those purchasing memberships might receive preferential tees times and discounted green fees, or access to other club amenities or perks.
  • Private courses: Those that are open only to golfers willing to pay a membership fee to join the club. The costs associated with joining a private club vary widely, with the most expensive costing hundreds of thousands of dollars to join. Those ultra-expensive clubs typically cap membership at a few hundred golfers. At most such private clubs, however, non-members are allowed to play as guests of a member.

(Note that the above is an America-centric description. Not all countries have all types of courses; in many countries, there are fewer models. The "semi-private" model might be most common around the world: members join for an annual fee, but non-members can play if a tee time is available and if they are willing to pay the green fee.)

Golf Course Types by Size

Another way of grouping golf courses is by size, which refers both to the number of holes (18 is standard) and the types of holes (a mix of par-3, par-4, and par-5 holes, with par-4s being prevalent, is the standard on a "regulation," or full-sized, course). When grouping courses by size, here are how those groups are labeled:

  • 18-hole course: There really is no dedicated name, no special label, for a standard, full-sized, regulation, 18-hole course. But the 18-hole golf course comprised of mostly par-4 holes with a mix of par-3 holes and par-5 holes is the standard golf course. When the generic term "golf course" is used, this is what most people think of.
  • 9-hole course: A 9-hole course is exactly that, a golf course with mostly par-4 holes plus a few par 3s and par 5s but only nine holes, rather than 18 holes, in length.
  • Executive course: An executive course might come with 18 holes or 9 holes, but will always be shorter - and, therefore, quicker to play - than a "regulation" golf courses with the same number of holes. An executive course will include more par-3 holes and fewer par-4 and par-5 holes. The goal is to allow golfers to finish their rounds in less time.
  • Par-3 course: A par-3 course is one on which all the holes are par-3 holes. A par-3 course will be shorter in length than an executive course, and faster still to play.
  • Approach course: An approach course is one that is even shorter than a par-3 course, one designed primarily to allow experienced golfers to practice pitching and chipping, or intended for use by beginners. Holes on approach courses might include some holes of around 100 yards in length, but most of them will be shorter, some even just 30 or 40 yards. Drop a ball, pitch it to the green, putt out (which is why these are also called pitch-and-putt courses).

Golf Course Types by Setting/Design

The third way of grouping golf courses by type is to group them according to their geographical setting and/or the architectural elements of their design (those are often the same things since courses are often designed to fit into their natural surroundings). There are three main types of courses when grouping by setting and/or design:

  • Links course: A links course is one built on a sandy coastline that is open to the wind with few or no trees, but with plenty of tall coastal grasses. Links courses generally feature large, slow greens and firm, fast fairways; the rough and even the fairways might not be watered except by nature, and the golfer has the option to run his ball along the ground up onto the green. There are often large and deep bunkers. Golf first developed on the links of Scotland.
  • Parkland course: A parkland course is one that is lushly manicured with verdant fairways and fast greens, with plenty of trees, and typically located inland. So named because of the park-like setting. Most PGA Tour courses are good examples of parkland courses.
  • Desert course: A course built in the desert, natch, where the teeing grounds, fairways and putting greens are lush but might be the only grass in the area. Seen from above, desert courses appear as ribbons of green running through seas of sand or rock and cactus. Desert courses are most associated with oil-rich emirates of the Middle East and with the American Southwest.

An issue in categorizing courses by setting/design is that many courses do not fit entirely, or even easily, into one or other groups (aside from desert courses, which are pretty easy to spot). Some may mix elements of both parkland and links. And then there are several other, smaller, less well-defined ways to label courses by setting/design, including heathland courses (interior courses that are well-manicured but lean more toward grass-and-shrub than to tree-lined, associated with England) and sandbelt courses (interior courses built on sandy soil that can resemble parkland or links, most closely associated with parts of Australia and the American Carolinas).