If you live in the lower 48, at least one of these nine golf courses is within striking distance and open to the public. So what are you waiting for? Fill up your tank and make a tee time.
1. Southeast: TPC Sawgrass Stadium Course, Florida
There are more than 1,300 golf courses in Florida and the finest is the Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass. It’s home to The Players Championship, one of the biggest and richest tournaments on the PGA Tour. Due to the iconic island green 17th hole, the course sits squarely on many players’ bucket list. It’s a short par-3 that shouldn’t pose much of a problem, yet the resort’s caddies estimate more than half of amateurs who play the course lose at least one ball to the abyss.
The Pete Dye-designed track is a mettle tester through and through: The final crescendo—the par-5 16th, the infamous 17th, and the cape-hole-designed par-4 18th—is rigorous and wonderfully telegenic. But the 15 spectacular holes that come before can also bite or reward players of all stripes.
2. Southeast: Pinehurst No. 2, North Carolina
North Carolina’s sand hills boast some of the finest golf courses, but the crown jewel is Pinehurst No. 2. The track, which dates to 1907, has hosted more single golf championships than any course in America. Named an anchor site for the U.S. Open, the course will test the world’s best in 2024, 2029, 2035, 2041, and 2047.
When Scottish architect Donald Ross arrived in the States, the game on this side of the Atlantic was still in its infancy, but he went on to father what’s now known as the cradle of American golf, constructing four courses of the first golf resort in the U.S. While his resume includes 400 courses across the U.S. and Canada, Pinehurst No. 2’s early design remains his masterpiece. It was re-invigorated by Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw in 2010 to restore Ross’ original magic and reduce water consumption.
Lofty pines, native grasses, and sand frame 18 spectacular holes. The sand-based soil plays firm and fast in the summer and requires precise shots and creative thinking. You’ll also need patience to score well. If you miss the fairway, it’s unlikely you’ll lose your ball, but you’ll face a tough shot to the hole—not to mention every fiber of your short game will face a stress test around Ross’ notorious turtleback greens.
3. West Coast: The Pebble Beach Golf Links, California
Pebble Beach needs no introduction. It’s iconic, even for non-golfers, and simply one of the best tracks, public or private, on the planet. The course’s views of Stillwater Cove and the Pacific Ocean make for a spectacular setting that’s hosted six U.S. Opens and the annual AT&T Pro-Am tournament.
Every golfer, at some point, owes themselves a round at Pebble. The Jack Neville and Douglas Grant design opens with a few ‘inland’ holes—and while you do get a peek at the water on the fourth and fifth, the majesty of Carmel Bay and the Pacific Ocean only truly washes over you on the fairway of the sixth hole. From the green, the vista is one to behold. The bliss builds as you play down the coast along Carmel Beach and fails to wane even as the course turns back inland because you know you’ll see it again at 17 and 18. That final hole is one of the most unforgettable in the game—a stunning crescendo to a bucket-list round.
4. West Coast: Pacific Dunes, Oregon
Golfers who return from a trip to Bandon Dunes are hard pressed to choose a favorite from the six courses. And truth be told, it’s a fool’s errand as they’re all jaw-droppers. That said, Pacific Dunes often tops pilgrims’ lists. The Tom Doak design is the second course built at the resort. Set atop steep cliffs, it’s a shaped and sculpted modern American links that harnesses the natural beauty of the terrain and the raw power of the Oregon Coast to create some of the greatest seaside golf in the world.
Apart from the setting, the design itself is interesting. The ninth hole plays up an embankment and approach shots are hit to one of two separate green complexes, depending on where the hole is cut that day. The back 9 feature four par 3s and 3 par 5s, including the long and challenging 18th.
Because of the seaside setting, the wind at Pacific Dunes can really blow. If you’ve never played in a serious breeze, you’ll need to not only factor the gales on full shots and putts. (Remember, when it’s breezy, swing easy.) Rumor has it the resort is booked through the rest of 2021, so get your reservation in early for 2022.
5. The Great Lakes: The Straits at Whistling Straits, Wisconsin
The Straits course at Whistling Straits sits along the Wisconsin shore of Lake Michigan near Sheboygan, a little over an hour from Milwaukee. The site, before becoming a golf course in 1998 at the behest of plumbing tycoon Herb Kohler, had been a World War II-era army base that tested anti-aircraft weapons.
For the transformation, Pete Dye needed 13,000 truckloads of sand and countless bulldozers to shape this homage to Irish golf along the flat shore. The result is a stunning 7,790 yard par-72 course that’ll test the best in the game. The course has hosted three PGA Championships and is due to host the Ryder Cup in September 2021.
The course is walking-only, so you’ll want a caddy to not only tote your bag, but also help you navigate Dye’s signature visual deceptions. During a round you’ll need to skirt more than 1,000 bunkers that pepper the course, as well as a flock of Scottish Blackface sheep. Though the herd poses less of a hazard than the sand.
6. Southwest: Paako Ridge Golf Club, New Mexico
This New Mexico gem sits at 6,500 feet above sea level, so golfers need to take elevation into account. The ball will fly much farther than when playing in less lofty environments. A scant half-hour drive from Albuquerque, the course is a collection of three sets of nine holes designed by Ken Dye (though he only built the first 18), so plan on a longer-than-usual round. Many of the holes at Paako also feature major elevation changes that’ll add extra calculus to club selection. But the views are sublime, and you’ll want to remember to bring your camera along. Jaw-dropping green complexes and near-perfect conditions set along the Sandia Mountains make Paako Ridge imperative for any player within range.
7. South: Ozarks National, Missouri
The folks at Branson Tourism estimate the Missouri destination is within a day’s drive for 50 percent of the U.S. population, which is part of why it’s a hot spot for family vacations. For golfers headed to Branson, Bass Pro Shops billionaire Johnny Morris has created a slice of paradise. His ode to rustic luxury, Big Cedar Lodge boasts three 18-hole courses, the Tom Fazio-designed Buffalo Ridge; Payne’s Valley, Tiger Woods’ first public track; and Ozarks National.
Architects Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw created Ozarks National as a misty mountain hop. Named Golf Digest’s best new public course of 2019, fairways run along ridges and ravines abound, ready to swallow mishit shots. Several holes require players to fire over gorges, but many others allow for creative play along the ground to access greens. At a little over 7,000 yards, the course is not overly long, but its spectacular views are sure to wow.
8. Midwest: Dunes Course at The Prairie Club, Nebraska
Valentine, NE, is without a doubt the heart of “fly-over country.” But The Prairie Club is reason enough to put your feet on the ground in this tiny town. Getting there requires a drive as Denver is six hours by car. But the sojourn is worth the schlep as golf on the Dunes Course is pure.
Tom Lehman and Chris Brands laid out this gem, one of the resort’s two courses, back in 2010, and it meanders in and out of an abyss of grass-covered sand dunes. It looks nothing like the Nebraska you may have driven through in past cross-country road trips. The par-73 can play over 8,000 yards but there’s no need to tip it out, especially if the winds are up. Generous fairways on most holes provide options off the tees, but stunning cavernous bunkers are to be avoided. Best to employ a bit of strategy and work backward from the greens and consider the angles before you hit your tee shots.
9. Northeast: The Black Course at Bethpage State Park, New York
Known as The People’s Country Club, the Black Course at Bethpage State Park is the pride of New York. Some of designer A.W. Tillinghast’s finest work, the course presents a serious challenge from the first tee to the final putt. The Black Course has hosted two U.S. Opens and a PGA Championship. It’s also a regular stop for FedEx Cup playoff events and will welcome the Ryder Cup in 2025.
Both visually stunning and intimidating, the course is a brute. It’s long, the rough is thick, and it features large elevation changes. If you can keep your drives in play, you’ll have a shot at scoring, but if you’re spraying it off the tee, you’re going to have a long day. Another staggering challenge to playing the Black is the walk. It’s one of the toughest in the game and golf carts aren’t allowed. Over an average round, players trek eight miles (plus a vertical ascent equivalent to a couple dozen flights of stairs). So, make sure you eat a good breakfast.
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