Golf exploded in popularity in 2020, and for rather obvious reasons. It was one of the few safe, fun things to do outdoors, other than cowering under a tree and glaring at joggers like an ornery beagle.
But, as many new golfers quickly learned, you can’t just golf anywhere. Most of the top courses require a membership that can be costly - especially for a new golfer exploring the sport as a hobby.
The good news is: you don’t need to travel far to find amazing public golf courses.
Here are a few dream courses we’ve had our eye on. They’re either courses the pros played on, or they’re noteworthy for their beauty and design.
As to just how many shots you bungle, well, that’s up to you.
In the interest of geographical diversity, we’ll focus each list number on different states and parts of America. But keep in mind, many of these courses are adjacent to other fantastic ones.
1. Pebble Beach CA: As golfers, we’re contractually obligated to include this one. If we didn’t, the golf police would hunt us down at a walking pace. Pebble Beach hosted the U.S. Open in 2019 for a reason. It’s easily one of the most beautiful courses in the world. With a winding path over beating surf and the crisp Pacific breeze, every moment of this course is a visual feast. Plus, it’s right next to Monterey which is full of other incredible courses like Spyglass and Spanish Bay. There’s also fantastic wine in the area. So, if you have a long suffering partner who just can’t bear to watch you expertly finagle yet another shot into the largest ocean on earth, at least they’ll have something else to do.
2. Bethpage Black, NY: Equally famous, this is a Mecca for golfers. You can walk where Tiger walked and try to absorb his mystical powers. This is a legendarily difficult course with miles of bunkers and hilly, tricky, technical terrain.
3. Bandon Dunes, OR: Another Pacific Ocean-adjacent course, Bandon Dunes is about four hours from Portland near a stunning, barely developed chunk of coastline, sometimes called “The Lost Coast.” It feels a little like the end of the world here. But it’s absolutely worth a trip. For one, there are four other incredible courses nearby: Sheep Ranch, Pacific Dunes, Old Macdonald and Bandon Trails. These were all made by world-class designers and are equally stunning. Even better, if you fancy a side trip, the nearby redwoods are one of the most incredible natural sights in the world. You’ll feel like you’ve gone back in time.
4. Kiawah Island, SC: The Ocean Course is a relatively new course with a rich history of famous events, including 2021’s PGA Championship. Appropriately, it’s insanely difficult, but with a marvelous layout and ocean views you probably won’t care at all. The cheaper courses nearby can be fun, but they’re a grade down in quality. Either way, there’s no shade here. Bring sunscreen unless you want to spend the rest of your trip slathered in aloe, thinking about how you totally almost got an eagle.
5. Kapalua Plantation Course, HI: Frankly, the north shore of Maui is worth visiting even if you were going to skip rocks in the ocean. The views are breathtaking, distractingly so. You don’t often get to watch dolphins while you play. Just don’t underestimate Hawaii’s rainy season. As a plus, the nearby Hana road is a famously fun, winding adventure over crashing cliffs.
6. Whistling Straits, WI: Once an army training base, then a toxic waste dump, this Lake Michigan-adjacent course looks and feels like Ireland. As the saying goes, this is a course so nice you’ll forget how bad you are. There are a surprising amount of great courses in this state, like Erin Hills, Sand Valley, Blackwolf Run (River Course) or Mammoth Dunes. Just don’t expect to be golfing year-round.
7. Shadow Creek, NV: A quick Uber from the Las Vegas Strip, this course was bankrolled by Steve Wynn of Wynn Casinos. Similarly, there’s something surreal and over-the-top about this place, with its waterfalls and thousands of pine trees out in the baking desert. But beneath its opulence is a damn good time with incredible service and course quality. That said, if you want something more natural, go for the stunning Wolf Creek course in nearby Mesquite.
8. TPC Sawgrass, FL: Home of the Players Championship, this course was made from a swamp by famous designer Pete Dye. Dye often favored short target courses, and this is no exception, with fairly small greens that reward accuracy. This is all to say, don’t get too ambitious. Either way, Florida is full of equally-famous courses like Streamsong, World Woods, or Innisbrook. Just remember, yes, the gators are actually real and no, they are not your friends.
9. Forest Dunes, MI: It may surprise you to know that Michigan has some of the highest ranking public courses in the country. This famous loop is wonderfully fun, with the course reversing directions every day. Even without the loop, it’s a unique experience with a very firm green causing your ball to roll much farther than you’re used to. Just bring bug spray in summer. It’s hard to concentrate when a mosquito is in your nose.
10. Pinehurst, NC: Over a hundred years old, Pinehurst is still legendary as the site of the 2014 U.S. Open. Designed by architect Donald Ross, this course almost single-handedly helped cement America’s reputation in the international golfing world. Some holes have been restored to their 1919 appearance, so you’re really playing golf history here. Plus, natural vegetation has been introduced where possible, giving it a rustic feel. The Dormie Club course is a fan favorite.
America has stunning natural beauty and given that so much of golf is about appreciating nature, we really had too many good options to choose from.
We know, we shouldn’t have omitted Torrey Pines, Sand Hills, the National, and all the rest but these are the tough decisions to make. Really, the smartest thing we could do is quit our jobs and golf around the country for a year. Right?