There is no such thing as a really terrible golf course. If you’re playing golf on it, how awful can it be? But if some courses are indisputably better than others, then inevitably, some are worse. Quite a bit worse, in my experience. So bad that they’re worth a detour — if only because they make you grateful for the other better kind.
Worseness is not necessarily a matter of maintenance, or the lack of it. One of the best courses I’ve ever played is Auchnafree, which was laid out by a shepherd, John Pollock, in a glen in Perthshire, Scotland. The cups were tin cans, and the groundskeeping crew consisted entirely of sheep, who took care of the mowing and the fertilizing. On the other hand, I have played resort courses so lush, so perfectly kept up, that they feel a little soporific and unnatural, with the fairways spooling away as if from rolls of Astroturf.
Like greatness in a golf course, worseness starts with terrain. I spend a lot of time in southeastern Massachusetts, on the Rhode Island border: a stretch of landscape that a friend has called the Bermuda Triangle of New England. For some perverse reason, the land there — stony, boggy, sandy, full of scrub pine and poison ivy — has given rise to a surprising number of little nine-holers. Some are unmemorable, a couple are just plain lousy, but a few have some genuine distinction. They’re bad in good ways — or at least unusual ones.