In the past decade, Golf News Net Ratings Editor and award-winning travel journalist Eric N. Hart (aka The Mobile Golfer) has played 368 courses in 39 states and another 42 courses internationally. With that broad experience and an extensive background in golf architecture, he has compiled his list of the 50 Best Public-Access Golf Courses in the United States.
10. Ross Bridge (Hoover, Ala.): What kind of course does it take to make my Top 10? It takes the best course on the world famous Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail. It takes a course with at least nine “signature holes” by my count. It doesn’t take a Coca-Cola BBQ Burger — best burger I’ve ever had (though Oscar’s at Zion National Park has something really close) — or an amazing chateau of a hotel, with a waterpark, but the Renaissance Ross Bridge provides those anyway. It takes a course that uses its elevation changes flawlessly and throws beauty at you from ponds, rivers, super-lengthy waterfall features, bridges, boulders and miles upon miles of panoramic views. It takes a course that knows how to build momentum from the first tee of each nine. That is Ross Bridge in spades. (Website)
9. Tobacco Road (Pinehurst, N.C.): I walked Pinehurst No. 2 before Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw “restored” it. Donald Ross’ work looked nice but wouldn’t have made my Top 20. Where would it be today on this list? Who knows? It is on my current bucket list. Tobacco Road, on the other hand, might be the most pleasant surprise of an experience I’ve ever had in golf. I’ve studied a lot of golf architecture and believe Mike Strantz was the most brilliantly warped course designer in golf history. He was never afraid to try something new, never afraid to defy convention. He would have loved to be given a property like Wolf Creek in Nevada — and probably would have made it even more Wolf Creekier. Tobacco Road is a true One of a Kind. A true Must Play. Pictures do not do it justice, not even photos from golf course photographer extraordinaire Brian Oar. Tobacco Road will beat you up, then hug you. Then it will beat you up again. You’ll get to the point to where you embrace the abuse, and then you’ll wonder why more golf architects don’t think outside the box like Strantz did. Score is just a number; experience is so much more. And you can’t score the experience factor at Tobacco Road high enough. (Website)
8. Chambers Bay (University Place, Wash.): I’ve heard all the haters. Consensus seems to be that the USGA really messed up Chambers Bay — it’s no longer the course it was when it was built. But Jordan Spieth didn’t like it before Dustin Johnson handed him the U.S. Open there, and I loved it then. And I still love it. This KemperSports-managed Robert Trent Jones Jr. setup is my kind of place: incredible scenery all around you, train tracks with an operational train cutting through your game, mountains, the water (natural and unnatural distractions) and some absolutely amazing (but very challenging) golf. Up and down beautiful, dramatic and epic in scale, Chambers Bay tested the pros the way a course should test the pros. Equipment and technology aside, who’s got what it takes to play Chambers Bay without whining? I do, that’s who. (Website)
7. Mauna Lani – South (Big Island, Hawaii): Greatness is arbitrary; I understand that. But of everyone I asked which Mauna Lani course was better, not one person said the South. Ironically, the North doesn’t make my Top 100. And the South? Well, apparently I don’t rely on polls to determine my opinions. Look at Mauna Lani from the air and you’ll see crystal blue waters and grass of many greens on lava rock black. You’ll see one of the most photographed holes in the world in the par-3 No. 15. You’ll see palm trees, ponds and some of the most beautiful golf land on Earth. It captivates from every angle and makes you wish you never had to leave Hawaii. Then again, a lot of things about Hawaii make you wish that, but this place is special. (Website)
6. TPC Sawgrass – Stadium (Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla.): I didn’t get into golf until I was 20 years old, but the first course I ever really wanted to play was Pete Dye’s Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass. It took me 18 years to get that opportunity, and when I finally got my chance … when I finally stepped up to the tee box on the world-famous No. 17 Island Green hole … I just knew that I was going to ace it. Instead, I sank a 20-footer for 6 after dunking two in the water. I was disappointed, of course, but it really didn’t take away from the experience, as contradictory as that might sound. It’s an amazing place, next to an amazing Marriott hotel, every bit of what it appears during The Players Championship. Now I just hope it doesn’t take me another 18 years to get back there. (Website)
5. Pebble Beach (Monterey, Calif.): Cypress Point is a bucket-list course for nearly all golfers. It’s often described as “17 great holes and the 18th.” I didn’t mind the 18th on Cypress Point, personally, but I was kind of in awe throughout the round, so maybe I overlooked its perceived flaws. Pebble Beach deserves a similar description, maybe “14 great holes”? So, how does a course with four holes that didn’t wow me end up in the Top 5? Mystique? The Pacific Ocean factor? 10 Signature Holes? The short par-3 No. 7 all by itself? The phenomenal service, great food and celebrities walking by your table at dinner in the Tap Room? What impresses? I didn’t go to Pebble Beach expecting it to be my favorite course — I don’t like people walking through the fairway when I’m teeing off or chaos at the first tee. I also thought Cypress would blow it out of the water. Turns out, though, Pebble Beach was the better golf course in my mind (I played both on the same day for a true comparison). And if you’re heading to Monterey, I was actually more impressed with the private Monterey Peninsula Country Club’s Shore Course than either of the more-lauded duo. (Website)
4. Whistling Straits – Straits (Kohler, Wis.): Pete Dye’s Whistling Straits and Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass have hosted more majors and significant championships over the years than anywhere but Augusta, and Whistling Straits gets the next Ryder Cup on U.S. soil. I followed Rory McIlroy and Jordan Spieth around during the PGA Championship last year and then played the Straits with my son and a couple friends this summer — and it felt like we were playing a completely different course than the pros did. They made it look so much shorter, and they played it from 1,500 yards longer than we did. Crazy. That said, we had a beautiful day for our round, one good caddie, and (other than my four-putt on 18 to shoot an 82) it was my favorite round of 2016 at one of America’s 10 best resorts. I’ve heard people describe Whistling Straits as the Pebble Beach of the Midwest. The resort as a whole? Maybe. The course though? No way … it’s more akin to Pacific Dunes. The Straits is rugged, fescue-lined, unsheltered and tough all the way around. It can bring a grown man to his knees with a single swing, even a grown man married to a Gretzky. I don’t feel so bad about that four-putt anymore (even if I should). (Website)
3. Pacific Dunes (Bandon, Ore.): I didn’t go to Pebble Beach expecting it to be my favorite course ever, but I did go to Bandon expecting Pacific Dunes to be king. Prestige and history doesn’t have to be what makes a course great to me. Fun and value can be every bit as important. I’m not saying Pebble Beach isn’t a valuable experience — it very much is — but if I can play all of my top-three courses or just one round at Pebble for the same cost, what is the better value? Tom Doak’s Pacific Dunes was everything it was cracked up to be and more. It was hard, beautiful and the gorse was something else. The original Bandon Dunes course just ended up impressing me slightly more. (Website)
2. Bandon Dunes (Bandon, Ore.): The knock on Bandon Dunes is that it’s too easy. I’ve heard the same thing said about Gamble Sands. (Both David McLay Kidd designs, incidentally.) “Anyone can shoot their best score ever — at either one.” I’m struggling to see the problem with that. I’ve played Bandon Dunes on a brutally windy day and shot 94 and played it on a rainy but wind-free day and shot 80. And I loved it both times. You would expect every course built at Bandon Dunes Resort after the original to improve on the experience David McLay Kidd created, but that’s why I appreciate his design so much: He was the first to build there and left nothing on which to improve. (Website)
1. Wilderness at Fortune Bay (Tower, Minn.): Making my No. 1 course one that only has a six-month golf season, and is designed by Jeffrey Brauer, and is located in Minnesota (of all places) … is a statement in itself. But I’m going to make more. Take the ocean away from a lot of courses, like a Pebble Beach, and where would that course rank? Add an ocean to a course like The Wilderness at Fortune Bay and you’d be speaking about it like people do Pebble, Bandon and Cabot. That is the amount of drama provided within the framework of each hole. Just to further the case, these are the signature-quality holes at The Wilderness: Nos. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 7, 8, 9, 12, 13, 14 and 18. That’s 12 signature holes and I didn’t even mention No. 16 — the one the course itself deems as its “signature.” Hole No. 1 is the best starting hole in Minnesota and Wisconsin. Hole No. 2 is tough but panoramic. Hole No. 3 is one of the coolest tee shots you’ll ever hit to one of the most dramatic greens in the world. Hole No. 4 can be played so many different ways and ends with a radical green. Hole No. 5 has a Biarritz finish. Hole No. 7 is one of the toughest, short, steep downhill 3-pars anywhere. Hole No. 8 is a beauty along the quarry. Hole No. 9 ends with a pond forced carry. Hole No. 10 would be another signature if it weren’t 40 yards too long (from every tee box). Hole No. 12 is a stunning island-green hole. Hole No. 13 plays over a lake, with loons always patrolling it. Hole No. 14 would fit perfectly at Mike’s Strantz’ Tobacco Road. Hole No. 16 has one of the most amazing approaches. And the finishing hole ends perfectly along the pond. The conditions here are sometimes wet but otherwise spectacular. The service is the best I’ve had in the world, from the bar and restaurant to the pro shop and outdoor attendants. Chef Quaid at the Wilderness Grille should be world-renowned, and General Manager Tom Beaudry deserves to be the highest paid golf manager in the industry. Take all of that and the flawless operational management of KemperSports (with Bandon Dunes, Sand Valley, Streamsong and The Prairie Club in their portfolio), and it should be evident why I drive six hours every year to play it at least twice. We’re cursed by winter in Minnesota but blessed by the proximity and exposure that spring, summer and fall give us to dream destinations like The Wilderness at Fortune Bay.(Website)
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