As I said in last year’s post, I’ve been blessed in my golf life. I’ve had the privilege and pleasure to play some of the finest courses in the world (and some real goat tracks, too). In 2015, as promised–even while dealing severe tendinitis in my left wrist and still battling the shanks for half the season—my blessings only grew. With a much-anticipated and long overdue trip to Bandon, this list has deepened. In fact, i decided to expand it to 25.
For now, however, here is my list of favorite courses in the world.
- North Berwick (West Links) (East Lothian, Scotland) Is there a better back nine on the planet? Since I’ll never get to play Augusta, no. But Augusta doesn’t have stone walls to hit over or wonky split greens or the original “redan” hole or mounding that mimics Prestwick. If I ever win the lottery, I’m moving here.
- Cruden Bay (Cruden Bay, Scotland) Consider this a 1-B ranking as it plays second fiddle to no one on my list. Quirky and beautiful, CB is proof that a “short” course can capture the imagination and still be challenging. My buddy wants to retire here. If so, I hope he has a spare bedroom I can rent.
- Prestwick (Prestwick, Scotland) Home of the first Open. Delightfully quirky course design by Old Tom. Crazy mounding everywhere. Yet there were “modern” holes too. Shot 81 with a 9 on the famous 17th, “The Alps.” (Nick also took a 9 here and was in the mid 70s, unadjusted.) Miffed after 17, I drove the 18th—with a hybrid. If you’re not having fun here, you’re a golf grouch.
- Royal Dornoch (Dornoch, Scotland) May the The Open never be played here; the secret would get out and too many bad golfers would snatch up the tee times. Played 36 in a day here and it still wasn’t enough. Nice to see it crack Golf Digest’s Top 10 Courses in the World.
- Pacific Dunes (Bandon, OR) (NEW). Like Scotland, only it’s 8 hours from home. Why did I not get here sooner? The golf, the scenery, just spellbinding. Played in a steady 20-25MPH wind so, minus rain, PD barred her teeth—biting me on her beautiful but treacherous par 3s. Oddly, I tamed the famed 4th and 14th par holes with pars. Only one problem with PD: I can’t get back fast enough.
- Muirfield (East Lothian, Scotland) Ernie Els dubbed it “the best bunkered course in the world.” I found why on just about every hole. Weather was fairly miserable. A “big boy” course if there was one. The stateliness and grandness of the course cannot be ignored, either. Title as the Augusta of Scotland is well earned
- Turnberry (Ayrshire, Scotland) Around the 5th or 6th hole my buddy Nick shouted, “Does it get any better than this!?” Of course that was the first day of a two-week Scotland golf pilgrimage and, yes, it got a lot better—not by much, though. History is everywhere. Back nine is better than the front.
- St. Andrews (The Old Course) (St. Andrews, Scotland). Remarkably unremarkable unless you’ve read Alister MacKenzie’s “The Spirit of St. Andrews,” then it’s a magical round through history. Along with the birth of my boys, marrying my wife, one of my most joyful memories was carting a birdie on the 18th. Literally brought me to tears. So did my caddie with his one-liners (on one of my putts: “I hit my grandmother harder.”) and jabs (on me electing NOT to chip over the Road Hole bunker and putt out to the side: “Aw, ya pussy.” Followed by a wink and a smile.)
- Spyglass (Carmel, California) Made a 10 on #1. Then went par-par-par-par. Shot 92 as a 16-year old who had only been playing three years up to that point. After that, I went from being hooked on golf to obsessed. Getting back here and the Monterey Peninsula is a must. Hoping to do so in ’17 when (and if) i make it to my work sabbatical.
- Chambers Bay (Tacoma, WA) Like somebody picked up Scotland and slammed it down on the edge of the Puget Sound. Difficult to walk (reportedly 8 mi.). Not a bad or unmemorable hole to be found. Having the US Open here will be very, very interesting. Price tag ($200 in summer) is too steep.
- Tobacco Road (Sanford, North Carolina) This course is wacky tabacky—and had to move up from its previous ranking! Quirky, wild ride on every hole. Massive mounds, sprawling waste areas and crazy undulating greens. At $69, well worth the 40-minute drive from Pinehurst. Played 35 and half holes—don’t ask. Going back for another 36 in April ’16.
- Bandon Trails (Bandon, OR) (NEW) Purists might bemoan that Trails belies its name by starting and ending in the dunes. This is an empty nit. The transition from windswept dunes to sturdy, storm-battered Monterey Pines is mirrored by the second and 17th holes, one signaling you’re entering stately wood-lined fairways you’re about the enter, the other signaling you’re about to leave them. I did NOT expect Trails to enrapture me so, but it did. I even loved the understated and cozy beach house feel of the clubhouse.
- Old MacDonald (Bandon, OR) (NEW) For only being a few years old, Old Mac has the crusty, even saltiness of a well-worn Scottish course. Even on a foggy, mild and day with just a light breeze, I could still feel that. Like The Old Course, the intermediate holes aren’t terribly memorable but it’s every bit a links course. The more I think about Old Mac, the less I remember it. That, I think, is a deceptive memory.
- The Dormie—(West End, North Carolina) A Coore & Crenshaw gem just 15 minutes from downtown Pinehurst. Wide open fairways. Speedy, subtly undulating greens. Crenshaw’s signature is all over the place. “Biggest” course I’ve played since Muirfield. Sadly, it isn’t getting much play. Hope it’s around in five years.
- Bandon Dunes (Bandon, OR) (NEW) I’ll go to golf purgatory for Bandon being this low, but I have my reasons. Yes, holes 4-6 are incredible, with#5 being one of my favorite. Then there are holes that just don’t make sense: 7, 8, 9, and 13. I think this may be a case of my expectations not being met. Maybe. For now, BD’s greatness escapes me.
- Mauna Kea (Big Island, HI) (NEW) Resort courses aren’t supposed to be this good. Everyone knows the famous 3rd hole with the shot over the ocean, but the 11th…oh heck, see the pictures. And the other 16 holes more than hold their own, particularly the par 5s. Oh, and the first tee was 125 yards from the hotel entrance. Too bad my tendonitis was acting up, otherwise I would have played here more—and at Haulalai and Manu Lani, too.
- Wailea (Gold) (Wailea, HI) What a ride! Low expectations were greatly exceeded. Provides a nice and welcome break from other windy Maui courses. Fantastic views! Forgiving fairways, but big drives are required to score on many holes. Greens were a bit shabby from recent sanding and punching but that’s a nit.
- Pinehurst—#4 (Pinehurst, North Carolina). After being washed out on the 13th hole of #2 by a tropical storm, getting to play #4 twice in ‘13 turned out to be a surprising treat. #13–#15 is the 3-5-3 combo I’ve ever played. Pretty wide landing areas but the greens required accuracy and mirrored its big brother, #2, at times. I wouldn’t mind playing this again in ’16. We’ll see.
- Kapalua (Plantation) (Kapalua, HI) Makes the list almost purely on reputation. Greens are incredibly difficult to read and fast, particularly downwind. Hard not to have fun bombing it down holes 1, 7, 11, 17, 18. Holes into the wind are round wreckers. Ridiculous views Molokai! The price is equally ridiculous: $275. Far too much.
- Pine Needles (Pinehurst, North Carolina). Understated Southern charm set among stately pines, yet very grand feeling. The name is apropos. Quad-triple-birdie-par-par start is likely the strangest start I’ve ever had to a round—including my now infamous Pat Perez moment in a greenside bunker on #1. Very enjoyable course, however.
- Kaanapali (Royal) (Lahania, HI) This is the poor man’s Kapalua, but imminently more playable and fun—and much more affordable. A little touristy at times but for resort golf it’s pretty darn good. Recorded a 364-yard, downhill, wind-aided drive. See? Fun! Playing back into the wind, less record breaking.
- St. Andrews (The New Course) (St. Andrews, Scotland). Lacks the allure and history and memorable holes of the Old Course, but it was 100% links golf. Lacks in the memorability department, but so does the Old Course. Has a more dunes-y feel vs. the OC, too. Much tighter than the OC, too. I might have been the only one from the ’12 trip who enjoyed his round here.
- Gold Mountain (Olympic) (Bremerton, WA). $60 and change to play this course on the weekend? Are you kidding me? What a steal! I thought I played some good munis until I ran into this place. Last two holes are out of character with the rest of the course that makes for a slightly disappointing but forgivable finish.
- Pinehurst—#2. (Pinehurst, North Carolina). Thanks to Tropical Storm Andrea, I’ve never been so wet in my life. Could barely hold onto the club. As advertised, though—long with fairly generous landing areas and upside down teacup greens. Lacks memorability, which is why it’s low on the list. Like I said, I only got through 13 holes so another reason it’s low down. Going back in April ’16. I’d like another go. At $410 that may not be possible.
- Royal Oaks Country Club (Vancouver, WA) (NEW) No wonder the guys the Greenspan World team can putt! (Seemingly half the team belongs here.) There’s not a single flat lie on the lightning fast greens. Front 9 is delightful yet challenging, with holes 1, 4 and 7 being pesky beautiful short holes. Back 9 is a bit of a let down by comparison but holds its own. Played it on a wickedly hot, 100º day. Unusual
Honorable mentions: Colonial Country Club (Dallas, TX); Nairn (Nairn, Scotland); The Links at Bodega Bay (Bodega Bay, California); The Presidio (San Francisco, CA)
Strange omissions: Carnoustie (very meh), Castle Stuart (could be any course in California) and Royal Aberdeen (double meh).