The exquisite beauty of golf is that it's such an elegant game. You simply have to hit a small white ball where you want it to go. But, as golfers know, theory and reality are usually at odds. In fact, it's far easier to get to your dream golf destination than to get that ball to behave.
Fortunately, those destinations are often what make this delightfully maddening game so rewarding. Choosing the best of them is as difficult as sticking your tee shot on the green of Royal Troon's "Postage Stamp" or at No. 17 at TPC Sawgrass. So we've narrowed the field to courses that offer access to amateur, nonmember golfers. You may have others that you'd like to add — such as Pinehurst No. 2 in North Carolina or the Kiawah Island Ocean Course next door in South Carolina — but you won't be disappointed by any of these.
True devotees of the game owe it to themselves to pay their respects to this land where the game was born. The names — St Andrews, Carnoustie, Royal Troon — are fabled. In fact, Bobby Jones once remarked that if he could play only one course for the rest of his days, it would be St Andrews. The unforgiving winds of historic Carnoustie, where the game has been played for centuries, are as challenging as the timeless links-style layout. And the Old Course at Royal Troon, on Scotland’s western shores, has hosted eight British Open Championships while bringing the world’s finest golfers to their knees. As historians of the game have noted, golf in Scotland is not a pastime; it’s a way of life.
2. The Pacific Northwest
Pacific Dunes and its sister course, Bandon Dunes, in Bandon, Ore., are at the top of the list of superb courses that are transforming the Northwest into a must-visit region for golf aficionados. Pacific Dunes, a relatively new course that opened in 2001, displays the genius of designer Tom Doak, who was smart enough to work within the undulating, rough-cut terrain along the Pacific Ocean. Scotsman David McLay Kidd is responsible for Bandon Dunes, another oceanside links course that would make his countrymen proud.
Although hockey may be the national pastime, Canada knows golf. Perhaps the best is found in the province of Alberta. Squeezed into a verdant valley, surrounded by the massive peaks of the Canadian Rockies, Jasper Park Golf Course is a bold and breathtaking venue. But the brilliant course design created by Stanley Thompson is just as bold. Not to be outdone by its Alberta neighbor, the Banff Springs Golf Club is another remarkable Thompson achievement, winding along the Bow River in the shadow of the twin peaks of Sulphur Mountain and Mount Rundle.
4. Great Lakes
The Straights Course at Whistling Straits, born out of two miles of Lake Michigan shoreline, is a slice of Scotland on the outskirts of Sheboygan, Wisconsin. The walking-only links-style course is a Pete Dye classic that takes full advantage of the craggy contours of this waterfront parcel while adding deep pot bunkers and even a flock of Scottish sheep. And did we mention the wind? If you’ve made the trip, treat yourself to a round at the neighboring grassland-and-dunes Irish Course. This Top 50 track is as easy on the eye as it is challenging to play, with inconvenient streams, ravines, and massive sand traps. Arcadia Bluffs Golf Course in Arcadia, Michigan, is another phenomenal waterfront option in the Great Lakes region.
The oil-rich nation of Dubai, part of the United Arab Emirates, is a man-made fantasyland of sparkling skyscrapers. The golf is out of this world as well. The renowned Emirates Golf Club features two championship 18-hole courses, the Majlis course and the daunting Faldo course. The refurbished Dubai Creek Golf and Yacht Club, reopened in 2005, offers a fair but compelling golf test, as does Robert Trent Jones Jr.’s Al Badia course in Dubai Festival City. The best, though, may be The Address Montgomerie Dubai. Resembling its namesake designer — Scotland’s Colin Montgomerie — it features wide, sympathetic fairways of the links-style layout, but can show a temper if you don’t treat it respectfully.
The Pebble Beach Golf Links, situated on the knob of land that is the Monterey Peninsula, is generally considered one of the finest public courses in the United States. And for good reason. This dramatic course, a favorite of Jack Nicklaus, was literally carved into the coastline by designers Jack Neville and Douglas Grant, offering jaw-dropping vistas, the occasional ocean breeze, and an unparalleled golf experience. Another favorite California golf destination is Palm Desert, California, and the Firecliff course at Desert Willow Golf Resort is one of the finest in the Coachella Valley.
Alabama’s Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail is a collection of 11 first-rate resorts, conceived by an Alabama businessman and realized by the celebrated course designer himself, Robert Trent Jones Sr. The trail crisscrosses the state, so the centrally located Birmingham airport provides a start for access to all 11 resorts — from the 54-hole Hampton Cove in the northeast to the Marriott Shoals Hotel & Spa on the Tennessee River, and from the giant (8,191 yards) Renaissance Ross Bridge Golf Resort to the idyllic Grand National on Lake Saugahatchee.
8. New York State
Bethpage State Park in Farmington, N.Y., often referred to as the “People’s Country Club,” boasts five 18-hole courses. But the crown jewel tucked among the Long Island hardwoods is the famed Black Course, which has hosted the U.S. Open Championships twice since the turn of the century (2002 and 2009). Designed by A.W. Tillinghast, the Black Course first opened in 1936 and has withstood the test of time. The rippled layout has fabulous fluidity from hole to hole, but it’s heavily bunkered and can prove fiendishly difficult for the unprepared.
Not only does the tiny island of Bermuda have more golf terrain per square mile than anywhere else in the world, but that terrain is also consistently outstanding — and challenging. While the visually arresting Ocean View Golf Course gets the lion’s share of attention, the Port Royal Golf Course on the island’s South Shore is also a must-play. Originally designed by Robert Trent Jones Sr., this public course has undergone several thoughtful renovations, making it the longest in Bermuda, with 6,842 verdant yards overlooking crystal blue waters. The 235-yard 16th hole, which hooks along the rocky shoreline, is considered among the best par-3s in the world.
10. Home of the pros
Home of golf’s “fifth” major — the Players Championship — TPC Sawgrass in Ponte Vedra, Florida, is another stunning Pete Dye design. The TOUR Players Experience at TPC Sawgrass gives duffers of every ability a chance to feel like golf royalty by offering all the accoutrements that professional golfers enjoy, right down to personalized lockers, your own caddy, a private lounge and restaurant, and a round of 18 at the sumptuous Stadium Course. Dye set out to create a golf course that didn’t favor any one style. The result is nothing short of magnificent. Like the game itself, TPC Sawgrass is a humbling experience that punishes mistakes but rewards great shotmaking.