There are more than 15,000 golf courses in the US, but just a handful would be considered “bucket list” destinations for the game’s aficionados. These six courses may be a bit pricey, but playing them will stir the soul, inspire envy in your golf buddies and remain an indelible memory for those fortunate enough to visit. It shouldn’t be difficult to get on the courses, but advance reservations are always helpful. Plan now for the spring or summer, or get discount rates this winter (only Whistling Straits is closed in the winter).
Pebble Beach Monterey, California
Located on California’s Monterey Peninsula about two hours south of San Francisco, Pebble Beach tops most any golfer’s bucket list for several compelling reasons. The first is the scintillating beauty of the golf course. The crashing surf of the Pacific just steps from the emerald fairways is as breathtaking a site as most golfers will ever behold. Second, the strategy and skill the golf course requires test all who confront it. Example: The eighth hole is a par four that no less of an authority than Jack Nicklaus says offers the greatest approach shot in golf. An ocean inlet, found at the base of a practically vertical cliff, bisects the fairway. The tee shot requires careful placement, as a too-bold stroke will tumble your ball into the sea. The third factor is that Pebble drips history. Nicklaus won a US Open here. So did Tom Watson and Tiger Woods, among other luminaries. To stroll the fairways of Pebble Beach is to walk in the shadows of the giants.
Cost: Pebble Beach green fees run about $500 per person. PebbleBeach.com
The Ocean Course Kiawah Island, South Carolina
The Ocean Course at South Carolina’s Kiawah Island was created in the early 1990s by mastermind golf course architect Peter Dye. It doesn’t yet have the history of Pebble Beach, but it is a “must-play” by any standard. It’s an exhilarating, windswept walk among the dunes featuring bottomless bunkers, perched greens, dense foliage, waving fescue grasses, sea views from every hole and an unrelenting series of challenges. Golfers walking off the final hole who aren’t bushed by the challenges they confronted on this seaside gem will be few and far between. The course is fairly narrow, always in close proximity to the beach, and stretches almost three miles in length. The course has some notable history despite its relative youth. The 1991 Ryder Cup was played there, the outcome in doubt until the final putt. It remains the most memorably famous international match since these biennial competitions commenced in the 1920s. The Ocean Course also hosted the 2012 PGA Championship, won by Rory McIlroy, and will host the PGA Championship again in 2021.
Cost: Green fees run about $375 per person…December through February, about $100 less. KiawahResort.com
Whistling Straits Sheboygan, Wisconsin
Whistling Straits in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, about an hour from Milwaukee, is another wonderful creation by Pete Dye. And the backstory is astonishing. The site was a World War II army base, an ecological ruin filled with concrete bunkers and fuel storage tanks. But it also featured seventy-foot bluffs rising above the shoreline of Lake Michigan, which compelled resort owner Herb Kohler (the plumbing-supply magnate) to envision a one-of-a-kind golf course there. By the time Pete Dye was done scalloping the landscape, the wondrous creation of fescue grasses and bunkers surrounding tilting fairways looked as if it were sitting on top of the Irish Sea. Kohler even imported a flock of blackface sheep to roam the course along the lakeshore unencumbered, adding a uniquely appealing touch.
The wind whips, and temperatures can drop a dozen degrees in an hour’s time when a front moves through. This is wild and woolly golf, although occasionally serene and perfect on a midsummer’s day, and one of the nation’s most coveted tee times. The Straits hosted the 2004, 2010 and 2015 PGA championships and will host the 2020 Ryder Cup.
Cost: Green fees are about $395 per person. AmericanClubResort.com
Bandon Dunes and Pacific DuneS Bandon, Oregon
Bandon Dunes, on the central Oregon coast about four hours south of the international airport in Portland, is one of golf’s unlikeliest success stories. Golf-loving entrepreneur Mike Keiser searched the nation for a seaside locale with springy, firm turf similar to that of the traditional courses he admired in the UK. When he discovered the desired topography, he wasn’t concerned that the property was so far from a population center—he felt the course would be worth the drive. To make things tougher, he decreed that there would be no golf carts available—all visitors would walk. The first course was a success and spurred the development of another course, then a third and a fourth. The original course debuted in 1999 and was designed by a young Scotsman named David McLay Kidd. The architect produced an elegant figure-eight routing that proceeds from the clubhouse to the sea and back on each nine. The course features broad fairways, deep sod-walled bunkers and sizable greens. Several holes on each nine are in close proximity to the cliffs abutting the roiling sea, which is pockmarked with the elaborate rock formations jutting from the water and pounded ceaselessly by the surf that makes this stretch of coastline so memorable.
Iconoclastic architect Tom Doak came on the scene soon after. Pacific Dunes, which debuted in 2001, is located north of the first course and is even more dramatic. It has seven holes perched precariously 100 feet above Whiskey Run Beach, where a lucky golfer might see migrating whales beyond the surf line. Pacific Dunes offers quirkier, riskier golf than the original, with less dirt moved and more humps and hummocks in the fairways. Tee shots and approaches are more exacting here than on Bandon Dunes, and the routing is decidedly nontraditional, with four par 3s and three par 5s coming on the inward nine. In less than two decades, the Bandon Dunes complex has been elevated to “must play” status by golf cognoscenti the world over.
Cost: Green fees can be as high as $275 per resort guest in midsummer high season, but replay rates (playing a second round in the same day) are about half off. BandonDunesGolf.com
Pinehurst #2 Pinehurst, North Carolina
Pinehurst #2 is one of nine courses available at this bastion of tradition and gentility in the North Carolina sand hills. It is far and away the marquee venue and the most compelling reason visitors have been making the trek to the area for more than a century. This is a Donald Ross design, and of the hundreds of courses that the Scottish master created, none are held in higher regard than #2. The course, created in 1907, is a Plain Jane in comparison with other courses that are, say, perched above the sea. Instead the genius of the design of Pinehurst #2 is in the subtlety of the green complexes. Approaches that are seemingly targeting the flag end up rolling back off the front edge, while boldly stroked shots will easily filter past the pin, over the putting surface and down into the swale behind. It’s maddening, but that’s why it’s a masterpiece. In 2010, the design firm of Bill Coore & Ben Crenshaw (the latter a two-time Masters champion) began to restore the natural and strategic characteristics that were the essence of Ross’s original design and that had changed over time. The result is a golf course where very few trees encroach and there is virtually no water in play. Pinehurst #2 has hosted more than a dozen important championships. The US Open has been played there on several occasions, as has the Ryder Cup, PGA Championship and others.
Cost: Green fees are about $480 per person, reduced to $370 in November and December. Pinehurst.com