If you were to ask avid golfers for a list of the greatest US courses, you’d assuredly receive responses that included Augusta National, Pine Valley, and Cypress Point. You’d likely also get votes for National Golf Links of America, Shinnecock Hills, Oakmont Country Club, and Merion Golf Club, to name just a few more. We’re not taking anything away from those heralded courses, but a list of golf destinations that are so exceptional—but also so guardedly private—that only their fortunate members and guests can enjoy them is rather limiting. In essence, it’s a collection of aspirational rounds that are just that: fantasies.
That got us thinking. What would a top-25 list of US golf courses look like if we focused only on courses that the public can play? With that in mind, here is our list of the the best 25 US courses you can play. It’s a list that emphasizes layouts that have hosted major championships or annual PGA Tour events, as well as courses that deliver memorable and distinctive playing experiences. In some cases, we also included courses that provide golfers with an opportunity to humbly brag about their rounds after the fact. In the instances when a golf resort with multiple courses is listed, we tried our best to limit our selection to a single course from that property. Had we not, Bandon Dunes Golf Resort might occupy 20 percent of this list.
So, as the golf season kicks into high gear, we hope this group of recommendations help you schedule a few memorable rounds of golf on truly special courses. If you do, enjoy the experience and hit ’em straight!
Bandon Dunes Resort (Pacific Dunes Course), Oregon
Photo: Courtesy of Bandon Dunes Golf Resort
Considered by many to be Tom Doak’s first masterpiece, Pacific Dunes at Bandon Dunes Resort effectively put Mike Keiser’s premier golf property on the map. Not to take anything away from the resort’s eponymous debut course designed by David McLay Kidd, but Pacific Dunes made the golfing world take notice for two reasons. The first, according to Keiser, is strictly about numbers. “One course is a curiosity,” the 77-year-old golf developer has often said. “Two courses is a destination.”
In some respects, the second reason why Pacific Dunes first made an impact is also about numbers. The 6,633-yard course was the first modern layout to let the topography of the site dictate how the course’s routing took shape. As a result, the first six holes on the back nine feature three par 3s, two par 5s, and only one par 4. “I think many outsiders felt that it was very bold,” Keiser says of the decision to build a course with such an unconventional scorecard. “But Tom and I both felt that the routing fit the site perfectly.”
Bay Hill Resort (Champion/Challenger Course), Florida
Bay Hill Club and Lodge
Most PGA Tour venues that are open to the public provide exciting, bucket-list rounds of golf explicitly because of the annual Tour events that they host, the famous shots that have been hit there, or sometimes the famous individual holes that those courses have become synonymous with. The Champion/Challenger course at Bay Hill Resort in Orlando, Fla., checks all of those boxes. Yet, Bay Hill Resort also warrants a visit for its association with one esteemed golfer (and the property’s owner): Arnold Palmer.
The golf course, originally designed by Dick Wilson in 1960, hosted a charity exhibition match in 1965, which Palmer won. It was his first time visiting and playing the course, and he was immediately enamored with it, so much so that in 1970 he took a 5-year lease on the property with an option to buy. In 1979, four years after taking ownership of the course, Palmer secured an annual PGA Tour event, now known as The Arnold Palmer Invitational.
Palmer’s presence can be felt all across the property thanks to photos, statues, and other mementos; yet, The King also left his fingerprints on the golf course via a sweeping renovation in 2009 that redesigned every green, reworked every bunker, and altered the layout of four holes, stretching the total yardage to 7,196. The course is typically open only to members and their guests; however, non-members who stay at the lodge are granted access to tee times.
Bethpage State Park (Black Course), New York
Bethpage State Park
The sign posted on the wrought iron fence just behind the first tee box of the Black Course at Bethpage State Park tells you all you need to know: “Warning – The Black Course Is An Extremely Difficult Course Which We Recommend Only For Highly Skilled Golfers.” That’s not hyperbole. The middle tees play just under 6,700 yards, yet the course rating is more than 3 strokes above par, while the layout’s slope rating comes in just a tick under 150. Even Jordan Spieth ranks the Black Course within the top five most difficult layouts that he’s ever played.
Despite all of the implied frustration that the sign and course ratings suggest, most golfers will be enamored by the prospect of playing a really difficult course—even if it comes at the expense of posting a good score. In that way, a round at Bethpage Black is badge of honor. Moreover, the course makes our list for being one of only six public golf courses that have hosted a US Open. If you should play it, prepare yourself for elevated greens defined by almost indistinguishable contours (meaning putts will break in directions that you might not expect). You should also be prepared for massive and, in some cases, steeply banked bunkers (some of the largest and most creative that A.W. Tillinghast, the course’s original architect, ever built).
In other words, prepare for a challenging round of golf. And if you’re not, you clearly didn’t read the sign.
Chambers Bay, Washington
When Chambers Bay hosted the US Open in 2015, much of the attention on the course focused on bumpy, irregular, and inconsistent putting surfaces—an unfortunate circumstance brought on by native Poa Annua grasses sprouting up across much of the fescue-seeded greens. Such rough conditioning sparked harsh criticism from many of the players competing in the major, which not only detracted from the event but also the golf course’s otherwise dynamic layout.
Since then, Chambers Bay’s superintendent and the team of groundskeepers have re-seeded the greens with the indigenous species of grass, which has allowed the course to shine—and to be appreciated—for what it is. After all, the young course (circa 2007) won its bid for the US Open for a reason.
Although many of the holes at Chambers Bay look and play like a traditional links course, the venue is unique in that it was built across an abandoned sand quarry. For that reason, the course feels like a fusion of links and mountain golf, which introduces a challenging juxtaposition of styles and strategies that golfers must navigate throughout their rounds.
Erin Hills, Wisconsin
Erin Hills Golf Course
Erin Hills, in central Wisconsin, is a young course with a lot of history. That is to say, the undulating topography upon which the course was built was formed thousands of years ago when glaciers receded from the area. Embracing the course’s natural landscape, Erin Hills’ founders cleverly crafted a slogan which gets right to the point: “a course 10,000 years in the making.”
The course hosted the US Open in 2017, which immediately put it on every enthusiastic golf traveler’s radar, but the layout is worthy of considerable praise even without that championship pedigree, largely due to the dynamic elevation changes that shape each hole. Notably, those ridges and hills weren’t manufactured when the course was built in the mid-2000s. “You would never have thought a course naturally shaped by glaciers would have such incredible elevation change on almost every hole,” says Jim Lombardo, Erin Hills’ head golf professional. “It’s remarkable.”
Stretching beyond 7,700 yards from the black tees, the course can be downright brutal, especially if golfers let their egos get in the way. “People who play too far back are in trouble off the tee all day long,” Lombardo acknowledges. “Even if you’re on the fence between two tee boxes, start with the ones that are a little closer. The course is hard enough as it is.”
Firestone Country Club (South Course), Ohio
Firestone Country Club
If you want to play a classic, tree-lined course that is as beautiful as it is challenging, not to mention one that exudes an air of exclusive and has seen some of the sport’s greatest players claim victory, you could try to secure an invitation to Augusta National. However, you could also opt for one of Firestone Country Club’s stay and play packages, which gets you access to the private club’s South Course, a venue that has hosted three PGA Championships and 19 World Golf Championship events.
The parkland layout meanders up and down and across rolling hills, and its pastoral setting can lull first-time visitors into a false sense of security. But make no mistake, the South Course at Firestone Country Club is deceptively difficult. “The South is a very strategic golf course that requires playing from the fairway,” says Tommy Moore, the club’s former director of golf. “If you just miss the fairway by a yard, it’s effectively a half-stroke or full-stroke penalty. It can be punishing, even if you’re just one or two steps off the fairway.”
Adds Jay Walkinshaw, Firestone’s general manager: “Physically, it’s not a challenging golf course. The South is very straightforward and lays out well in front of you, but it requires you to be mentally tough to play almost every shot. It’s a tough test of golf.”
Forest Dunes (The Loop), Michigan
Evan Schiller Photography
If you aspire to tee it up on the Old Course in St Andrews but can’t get across the pond, a round of golf on a Tom Doak-designed golf course here in the States is, in many respects, the next best thing. As a college student, Doak spent a year of independent study in the UK and Ireland, which included a summer caddying at the Old Course and also routinely picking the brain of its resident greenkeeper. During those months, Doak began to understand how subtle ridges and hollows—and the occasional overt mound—can infuse a golf course with character, creating a dynamic environment that can play differently every day.
In Roscommon, Michigan, The Loop embraces that ethos. The course’s minimalist design across firm and fast terrain makes it one of the few layouts in the United States that effectively emulate true Scottish links land. Equally significant, The Loop is one of the few (and the first) reversible courses in the country—it plays clockwise one day and counterclockwise the next. Not only does the course feature examples of classic golf architecture, such as Biarritz and Redan greens, it also encourages golfers to see and appreciate a singular piece of property from different perspectives one day to the next.
Gamble Sands, Washington
Gamble Sands Golf Club
When Gamble Sands opened in 2014, the American links course, set atop an expansive, sandy, desert-like plateau overlooking the Columbia River Valley, represented a shift in design philosophy for architect David McLay Kidd. Prior to that, Kidd had created a series of courses that were equally demanding and difficult, but he broke that mold with Gamble Sands.
Unlike many courses in the Pacific Northwest, which are defined—and sometimes feel constricted—by heavily forested corridors, Gamble Sands is distinctive for being treeless. Because of that, Kidd took the approach that bigger is better. The course features exceptionally wide fairways—to the point that the term “generous” doesn’t do them justice—equally sprawling greens, and it delivers breathtaking vistas.
At Gamble Sands, it’s not inconceivable to say that average players are likely to shoot their best scores. Such a declaration is supported by the fact that Kidd created player friendly ridges and contours that steer shots away from bunkers and other troublesome areas. Furthermore, those wide and firm fescue fairways allow balls to bounce and roll for a long time. Couple that with Eastern Washington’s thin desert air, and the conditions are right for players of all ability levels to hit massively long drives that also stay on the short grass. That’s a foolproof formula for success.
The Greenbrier (The Old White Course), West Virginia
The Greenbrier Golf Club
There aren’t many courses in the country that have routinely hosted a PGA Tour event, are open for public play, and have a deep history stretching back more than a century. The Old White course at The Greenbrier resort in West Virginia is one of them. Designed by Charles Blair (C.B.) Macdonald, the course opened in 1914 and features several classic hole designs from the best links courses throughout the United Kingdom. The 8th hole, for example, was styled after North Berwick Golf Club’s famous “Redan” green; the 13th hole was modeled after the “Alps” at Prestwick; and the 15th hole bears a striking resemblance to the “Eden” hole on the Old Course in St Andrews.
The Old White garnered its name from a hotel that stood on the resort’s grounds from 1858 to 1922, but the course’s design and character cannot be attributed just to C.B. Macdonald. Seth Raynor, one of Macdonald’s contemporaries and associates, assisted in the layout’s original construction and returned during the 1920s to oversee a handful of renovations.
The 7,292-yard course hosted a PGA Tour event for a decade (from 2010 to 2019), but it also served as the venue for the US Women’s Amateur Championship in 1922.
Harbour Town Golf Links, South Carolina
The Sea Pines Resort/Rob Tipton
There aren’t many golf courses in the United States that host annual PGA Tour events—or occasional major championships—that are also open to the public. Harbour Town Golf Links, the headline-stealing course at Sea Pines Resort on Hilton Head Island, is one of them. The 7,099-yard course, which has hosted a Tour event every spring since 1969, is a Pete Dye masterpiece in shot-shaping. It’s also one that requires all players, touring professionals and weekend hackers alike, to implement course management strategies from the moment they step onto the tee box of each hole.
For that reason, a round at Harbour Town Golf Links is much more than an opportunity to simply tee it up where the pros play. “This course forces you to play like the pros play,” says John Farrell, the resort’s director of golf. “Not just where the pros play, but like the pros play. You’ll be challenged in ways that you’re not always challenged, and you’ll hit every club in your bag.”
The Tour-like experience doesn’t conclude when resort guests walk of the 18th hole. When you play a round at Harbour Town, you also have access to the 4,000-square-foot professionals’ locker room located on the second floor of the stately clubhouse. “You’re a PGA Tour player for the day,” Farrell says, “and that doesn’t happen everywhere.”
Kapalua Resort (Plantation Course), Hawaii
Remarkably, the Plantation Course at Kapalua Resort, which opened in 1991, was Bill Coore & Ben Crenshaw’s first completed design project together. Built up and down—and across—a series of steep volcanic slopes that at one time were home to windswept pineapple fields, the Plantation Course wowed resort guests from the moment it opened. Today, some 31 years later, the course still offers plenty of opportunities to hit heroic shots, while a handful of expansive fairways on holes playing downhill and with a favorable prevailing wind allow average players to grip it and rip it without much trepidation.
Coore and Crenshaw returned to the course a couple of years ago to renovate the layout, during which the greens and bunkers were rebuilt with better drainage, all of the tee boxes were laser-leveled, and the entire course was re-grassed. The latter point is the most noteworthy, as the re-grassing effort brought back the firm and fast playing conditions that initially defined the course’s playing experience.
Since 1999, the course has hosted the Sentry Tournament of Champions, a PGA Tour event held the first week of January. The pros often post final, four-day scores that flirt with (or exceed) 20 under par—an indication of the layout’s player-friendly design—but that only adds to its charm for the average golfer.
Kiawah Island Golf Resort (Ocean Course), South Carolina
Kiawah Island Golf Resort
Host of two PGA Championships, an infamous Ryder Cup, and a pair of additional major championships for the PGA of America, the Ocean Course at Kiawah Island Golf Resort boasts a championship pedigree that warrants it being near the top of most avid golfers’ bucket lists. If you should be fortunate enough to tee it up on the almost 7,900-yard-long Pete Dye masterpiece, consider two numbers: 79.1 and 155. Those figures represent the course and slope ratings that the USGA assigned to the Ocean Course from its very back tees.
Fortunately, you won’t have to play from those tee boxes, but that doesn’t mean the course is much easier from any of the more forward tees. It’s simply shorter. “You can patch it together and get around on other courses,” said Brian Gerard, the director of golf at Kiawah Island Golf Resort. “But when you’re on the Ocean Course that’s a difficult patch. Simply put, it will expose your weaknesses.”
For visitors who have only seen it on television, the course comes alive in person, revealing steep and subtle slopes and contours on and around the greens that aren’t always captured or conveyed accurately by the TV cameras. According to Gerard, television broadcasts also don’t do justice to the locale or the course’s sense of place. “The Ocean Course shows very well on TV,” he says, “but you don’t really get the true effect of how it makes you feel until you’re standing on the property. When you get to number five, just standing on the tee and looking around … it’s amazing.”
Mammoth Dunes at Sand Valley, Wisconsin
Stretching to almost 7,000 yards, Mammoth Dunes at Sand Valley in central Wisconsin plays just as long as the resort’s first, namesake course designed by Coore & Crenshaw. Yet, Mammoth Dunes, a David McLay Kidd layout that opened in June 2018, delivers a unique playing experience thanks to generously wide fairways—some exceed 100 yards from edge to edge—and greens positioned into natural pockets in the terrain.
The impact that Mammoth Dunes has on the average golfer’s playing experience is less about providing forgiveness and more about instilling confidence. As Kidd explains, mid- to high-handicappers typically shoot better scores on the course because they hit better shots, and they hit better shots because what they see of the course reaffirms that they don’t have to be perfect to have success. The par-73 course is equally appealing to highly skilled players, since pinpoint accuracy is still required if those players want the best chance at a birdie. In that regard, Mammoth Dunes—which plays around expansive, 80-foot-tall sand dunes, old-growth oak trees, and a plethora of red pines—is the poster course for Kidd’s design philosophy, which emphasizes enjoyment over excessive difficulty.
“We don’t want you to score easily,” he explains. “But we’ll show you mercy if you stumble. You have to hit good shots to make birdie or better; but we’ll give you a chance if you hit a marginal shot, because making birdie is the best thing in golf, no matter how you do it.”
Payne’s Valley at Big Cedar Lodge, Missouri
Big Cedar Lodge
The newest golf layout at Big Cedar Lodge, Payne’s Valley, opened in 2020 and is the second US course designed by Tiger Woods but the first that is accessible to the public (his first US venture, Bluejack National, is a private course about 45 minutes outside of Houston that opened in 2016). Like Bluejack National, Payne’s Valley showcases the love affair that Woods has with the Old Course in St Andrews—the 15-time major champion often points to that historic Scottish layout as his all-time favorite course. Payne’s Valley feature’s wide fairways, low-cut rough that’s intended to keep balls in play rather than penalize golfers, and strategically placed hazards that will challenge good golfers but not require lesser-skilled players to hit shots near or over them.
“My favorite [style of] golf is to play it on the ground, which is links golf,” Woods says. “You can use the ground as your friend. So many of the different golf courses that I play around the world, that’s kind of been taken out of the game. Everyone’s forcing people to play the ball in the air.
“I want the ball running, I want it traveling, I want it moving on the ground,” Woods adds, “and this golf course allows us to do that.”
Pebble Beach Golf Links, California
When it comes to Pebble Beach Golf Links, not much needs to be said. The 7,075-yard layout, originally designed by Jack Neville and Douglas Grant in 1919, has hosted six US Opens, not to mention a celebrity pro-am event since 1947. So whether you want to walk in the footsteps of the world’s best players—names like Nicklaus, Palmer, Woods, and Watson—or world-renowned celebs, such as Bing Crosby, Bob Hope, Clint Eastwood, and Bill Murray, the most famous golf course on Monterey Peninsula has you covered.
When it comes to successfully playing Pebble Beach Golf Links, the secret lies in having a stellar short game. After all, the average size of a putting surface at Pebble Beach is only 3,500 square feet, by far the smallest greens on the PGA Tour. “People say it all the time: These green are small,” says Casey Boyns, one of Pebble Beach’s longest-tenured caddies. “And they are. Even the big greens are small; and there’s so much slope that even the chips are hard.”
Beyond that, the course truly shines for its locale right along the edge of Carmel Bay. Just know that if you’re one of the first groups out in the morning, the rangers are going to be more focused on your pace of play, so if you’re hoping to take your time (and plenty of pictures) during your round, aim (or hope) for a mid-morning tee time.
PGA West (Stadium Course), California
You see plenty of vehicles driving around with bumper stickers brandished with a single number: 26.2. It’s a not-so-subtle way for people to let everyone around them know that they’ve finished a marathon, one of the most grueling tests that a distance runner can take on. In some respects, golfers who complete a round of golf on the Stadium Course at PGA West should take a similar approach, framing their scorecard as proof that they survived one of the more challenging courses anywhere. In fact, there was a time when a prominent golf publication ranked it inside the top 5 most difficult courses in the country.
This Pete Dye design is comprised of holes with foreboding names such as San Andreas Fault and Alcatraz, and those monikers aren’t hyperbole. San Andreas Fault, for example, is marked by a fault line of sorts—a long-running stretch of fairway bunkers down the left side that culminates in a greenside bunker that is better described as a canyon. The base of the bunker is almost 20 feet below the putting surface. Alcatraz, by contrast, is what you’d expect: a par three with an island green that plays more than 160 yards from the back tees.
Factor in that The Stadium Course at PGA West hosts an annual PGA Tour event and every other year serves as the final site for the Tour’s Qualifying School (aka Q School), and it’s easy to understand why the 7,300-yard layout is a course on most avid players’ bucket lists.
Pinehurst Resort (No. 2 Course), North Carolina
From a golf standpoint, the No. 2 course has shone brightly as Pinehurst’s crown jewel since the mid-1930s. Spread out over 196 acres, the course is widely considered to be architect Donald Ross’s pièce de résistance. No. 2 benefited from a comprehensive restoration by Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw in 2010, during which 26 acres of lush Bermuda rough was replaced with natural waste areas and native sandscapes. According to Coore, the course in its restored form now looks and plays in a manner that would please its original designer.
“Pinehurst is a throwback to what golf was when it was a game played in nature and not a botanical garden,” Coore explains. “If you play a course like No. 2, most often every round something memorable is going to occur. That memorable moment may be really happy and positive, and it may be the exact opposite. There’s that element of unpredictability. It’s the element of the unknown. That’s the thrill. It’s what’s captured people’s imaginations for hundreds of years about playing golf.”
Beyond those experiences, golf travelers who make their way to the sand hills of North Carolina and play the No. 2 course can also revel in the thrill of playing a course that has hosted three US Opens and was recently named the first anchor site for that major championship.
Sea Island Resort (Seaside Course), Georgia
Simply put, passionate golfers who have never been to Sea Island are missing out. The coastal vacation destination in southern Georgia is home to multiple private golf clubs with exceptional practice facilities—hence why so many PGA Tour pros call the island community home. But Sea Island is also home to a classic resort community with three noteworthy courses of its own, the most prolific of which is the Seaside Course.
Although the course was re-designed by Tom Fazio several years ago, its roots can be traced back to 1929. It was then, during golf’s golden age of design, that Harry S. Colt and Charles Alison initially laid out the course. Today, the Seaside Course is the most dramatic layout of the three at Sea Island Resort, and it artfully marries manicured fairways and greens (in the Tom Fazio tradition) with plenty of dunes and native areas planted with tall, wispy maritime grasses and wildflowers.
The coastal course can be mighty challenging when the winds blow, and even in benign conditions the layout is no pushover. But then, resort guests who tee it up on the course likely know to expect that. After all, a course like Seaside wouldn’t annually hosts a PGA Tour event each fall if it didn’t have some bite.
Shadow Creek, Nevada
NFL Hall of Famer (and golf enthusiast) Jerome Bettis describes Shadow Creek as “North Carolina majesty in the middle of the desert.” It’s an apt description, though we also see a lot of Augusta National in the place, which makes sense given that Tom Fazio designed and built the course in 1989 and the longtime golf architect allegedly has had a hand in renovating the site of the Masters for years.
Regardless of what comparisons spring to mind, it’s clear—and likely undisputable—that Shadow Creek delivers one of the finest and most memorable going experiences anywhere. As an MGM Resorts Entertainment Destination, the course is available for guest play but only for those who are also guests of an MGM Resorts International property. Fortunately, that’s not a very limiting criteria in Las Vegas, since 13 properties are branded with the MGM Resorts insignia. Those who are lucky enough to play this course will be whisked to and from the club via limousine and upon arrival, they’ll be greeted by their caddie for the day.
Just how special is a round at Shadow Creek? Consider the perspective of PGA Tour player and Las Vegas resident, Ryan Moore: “Anyone who gets invited to go play Shadow Creek has to go. It’s one of the top five golf courses on the planet. The course is unbelievable—it’s an amazing facility and in great shape. It will be one of the best golfing experiences you’ll ever have.”
Spyglass Hill, California
Pebble Beach Company
There are few guarantees in life, but one of them is knowing that if an avid golfer is making a trip to Pebble Beach, they’re most excited about playing the resort’s eponymous golf course. By contrast, Spyglass Hill doesn’t get quite as much love or attention, but it should. In fact, many who have played all of the resort’s golf courses will argue that Spyglass is the best layout out of them all.
Initially conceived by Robert Trent Jones Sr. in collaboration with the Northern California Golf Association, the course was designed to resemble two exclusive (and iconic) courses on the East Coast: Pine Valley and Augusta National. The course opens in the dunes just off of 17 Mile Drive and transports golfers up into the hills of Monterey Peninsula. Along the way, players are likely to spot plenty of wildlife, including blacktail deer, and they’ll be better protected from strong gusts that blow off the bay. “You’re out there in these backwoods and it’s like it’s its own world,” says Casey Boyns, one of Pebble Beach’s longest-tenured caddies. “It’s a different feel and a different vibe [compared to Pebble Beach Golf Links]. It’s quieter.”
Streamsong Resort (Red or Blue Course), Florida
Streamsong Resort, Photo: Larry Lambrecht
The first two courses at Streamsong Resort were simultaneously designed and built, and they shine equally bright in part because they share the same general piece of property. In fact, when golf architect Tom Doak and the course design duo of Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw each visited the property to survey the land and draft a proposed routing of their courses, they found that certain proposed holes for one routing worked better with the other layout and vice versa. In the end the two courses—Red, designed by Coore & Crenshaw, and Blue, designed to Doak—intersect and overlap at numerous points, yet both deliver unique playing experiences. They even look different, which is a remarkable achievement.
Additionally, the Red and Blue courses at Streamsong are bucket-list golf experiences for the dynamic, untraditional Floridian terrain upon which they’re built. Because Streamsong Resort was constructed upon a site that was previously a phosphate mine, the topography is unnatural; however, the stacked mounds and trenches created by that former mining operation naturally revegetated over time, giving the site a more organic appearance. “If you brought me in blindfolded,” says Doak, “Florida would’ve been the last state that I would’ve guessed I was in.”
Torrey Pines (South Course), California
Since its inaugural tournament in 1895, golf’s US Open Championship has been contested at only six non-private golf courses. The South Course at Torrey Pines has welcomed the esteemed major championship on two occasions (most recently just last year), which by itself makes the 7,015-yard layout a bucket-list destination for golf (the course can stretch to 7,802 yards, but only golfers receiving special permission can play from those very back tees). However, the 65-year-old course, which also hosts an annual PGA Tour event in late January or early February, deserves to be on your bucket list for reasons beyond its major championship connections.
For starters, the South Course at Torrey Pines offers sweeping views of the Pacific and the southern California coastline. Many of its holes also introduce dramatic approach shots to greens that were recently repositioned closer to the edges of several canyons thanks to redesign efforts led by architect Rees Jones, who conditioned the course for its two major championships. And while avid golfers are likely to fixate on the professional events that have been played at Torrey Pines (and how the pros played each hole), it’s important that they remember that the course was also designed to be a fun and playable experience for golfers of average ability. That means mid- to high-handicap players won’t always need to attack the greens through the air. They can hit bump-and-run shots that bounce and roll up onto the putting surfaces. “On a number of holes, they can access the green on the ground,” Jones says. “The pros don’t do that.”
TPC Sawgrass (Stadium Course), Florida
Aside from Augusta National and Pebble Beach Golf Links, the Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass may be the most famous golf course in the United States by virtue of the fact that the 7,245-yard layout has hosted The Players Championship every year since 1982. “What I love about the Stadium Course is that it feels like I’m challenging history throughout a round,” says Tom Alter, the vice president of communications for the PGA Tour. “If I remember certain players having a similar shot during The Players Championship in the past, I can compare how I did against some of the greatest players in the world.”
The championship course is noteworthy for not favoring a particular playing style—a characteristic that is evidenced by the varied list of PGA Tour pros who have won The Players Championship over the years. That being said, golfers who exercise restraint and don’t try to overpower the golf course off the tee will typically have the greatest success. You’ll also want to settle your nerves when you reach the course’s iconic 17th hole. That tee shot will be the most important one of your round. “When people hear that you played the Stadium Course,” Alter says, “the first question that everyone asks is, ‘How did you do on 17?’”
Whistling Straits (The Straits Course), Wisconsin
When Herb Kohler hired Pete Dye back in the late 1990s, tasking him with the design and construction of The Straits course at Whistling Straits, the resort’s owner and developer gave Dye a single marching order: “Make it look like Ballybunion.” Dye obliged, bringing in more than 10,000 truckloads of sand. In the process he took a flat parcel of land that had once supported a military airstrip and transformed it into a dynamic golf course that emulated the rugged, windswept links of southwestern Ireland.
Even though the 7,790-yard championship golf course hugs the shores of Lake Michigan, those waters are very rarely in play. Instead, The Strait’s course primary defense—aside from the strong winds that often blow off the lake—are its bunkers. Want proof? Consider the par-5 11th hole, aptly named Sand Box. There are more bunkers on that one 645-yard hole than there are across all 18 holes of The River course, another championship layout that Dye designed and built for Kohler back in the late 1980s.
Visitors who are lucky enough to play The Straits course not only get the opportunity to experience such a memorable (though difficult) round of golf, they also get the chance to play a course that has hosted three PGA Championships and, most recently, the Ryder Cup in 2021.
Yale Golf Course, Connecticut
For decades, the Yale Golf Course was a tough track to get on—you had to be a current student or faculty member at the university, a member of the club, or a guest of a member. You might not think that a university’s golf course would have much clout, but the 6,409-yard layout is historic, one that exists as the byproduct of a collaboration between C.B. Macdonald and Seth Raynor, two golden age course architects who collectively are responsible for the design of more than a dozen of the most prestigious and heralded golf courses in the country.
The once-private course opened for play in 1926, but only within the last year or so has it opened its gates to non-members with the caveat that those aspiring golfers complete a request form. What can those first-time players expect? Wide rolling fairways that lead to expansive greens guarded by deep bunkers. The course is also home to the first Biarritz green in the United States, and many consider it to be one of the finest examples of the template green outside of the original design in France.
Heralded as one of the finest collegiate courses in the nation, Yale Golf Club has earned such accolades almost from the moment it opened for play. Prestigious sportswriter Herbert Warren Wind described the course this way in 1937: “A back-breaking job over an untouched plot of rugged land whose hazards and greens have the kind of dimensions that one would have expected of Michelangelo.”