I eat, sleep and breathe golf. I literally spend hundreds of hours each month coordinating and/or booking golf trips for clients with Stays + Plays Travel Agency (see bio). One group leader recently asked me a question I’ve fielded no less than 1,000 times the past decade: “What are THE best group golf getaways in America?” NOT the most heavily saturated destinations. THE. BEST.
Based on my own experiences at hundreds of American resorts and courses, and the expert opinions of those in the golf travel industry I respect most, here is my Best list.
NOTE ON RANKING CRITERIA: The destination must have at least five Top Tier (B+ or Better) public golf courses within a 100-mile radius. (Note: If I left a signature course out, I either haven’t played it or didn’t like it enough. The intent is not to slight any specific resort or city…this is all about geographical reality.)
30. New York City (New York)
Courses: Bethpage State Park (Black & Red), Trump Ferry Point, Pound Ridge, Montauk Downs
Best Kept Secret: Crystal Springs Resort
New York City is arguably the Private Course Capital of the World. Between it and New Jersey you’ve got Shinnecock Hills, National Golf Links, Bayonne, Liberty National, Sleepy Hollow, Maidstone, Friar’s Head, Fisher’s Island and a thousand other elite properties on which most golfers will never set foot. But, all around the city there are public studs too, like Pete Dye’s literal “rock star” at Pound Ridge, the PGA Championship host Bethpage Black on Long Island (check out Bethpage Red too). The links-style Trump Ferry Point sits under the Whitestone Bridge in the Bronx and gives some pretty amazing Manhattan skyline views (which you obviously pay for). And then, way out on the point of Long Island is the historic and publicly revered Montauk Downs. New Yorkers love their golf, so tee times at the best courses are sparse. But they’re worth the time and effort if you can get on. And if you want to get away from the city, go to Crystal Springs Resort in New Jersey, with a great putting course, epic Bio Pool, and a handful of fun courses with only a few dumb holes (Who starts a course with two driveable par 4s?) Fly into JFK, Newark or La Guardia. Your best base would be on Long Island near Bethpage Black. The hotels out there aren’t great but the golf is. (Shinnecock Hills is hosting the US Open there in June!)
29. Dallas/Fort Worth (Texas)
Courses: Cowboys Golf Club, Pine Dunes, TPC Four Seasons Las Colinas, Old American, The Tribute
Best Kept Secret: Tour 18 in Flower Mound
The weird thing about golf in north Texas is there’s seldom an ideal time to play. Outside of April, May, September and October, it’s either too hot or too cold. You don’t have to worry much about rain or snow, but the greens get baked and/or frozen on many courses and I’ve found (through six years living and playing there) that while some of the layouts are really good, conditioning is often an issue. That said, there are an awful lot of fun tracks if you DO hit the weather lottery. Jeffrey Brauer is criminally underrated as a designer (one of my “Top 3 Golf Architects in America”) and he designed Cowboys Golf Club — yes, home course of THE Dallas Cowboys. The Colony has Old American and The Tribute right next to each other for a fun 36-hole day. Venture out a little bit to play Golfweek’s No. 1 rated course in the state, Pine Dunes. And then there’s Tour 18, a great replica course in Flower Mound that lets you take on some of America’s most signature holes. Fly into DFW Airport and make your base at one of the many great hotels in Grapevine.
28. Denver (Colorado)
Courses: Red Sky Ranch (Norman & Fazio), The Broadmoor (East), Keystone Ranch (Resort & River), Commonground, Arrowhead
Best Kept Secret: Marianna Butte in Loveland
Colorado is the prettiest state in the US. Also the highest. (Take that however you want.) The ball flies a long way here, especially at mountain courses like Red Sky Ranch which (truthfully) pairs with Beaver Creek Resort (100 miles exactly from the Denver suburb of Golden). You can spend a few nights in either Beaver Creek or Vail (at any Vail Resort property) and play both courses then add Keystone Ranch on your way back. Around Denver, The Broadmoor is in a class of its own as a golf and family resort. Arrowhead gets an “A” for scenic impressions with its “shark tooth mountains.” Commonground is a lot of fun, and Marianna Butte is well worth the drive up to Loveland. There’s another course here that used to be great—starts with an “F”—but they tend to think they’re better than everyone else and that attitude always rubs me the wrong way. For all the muni courses in the country that know how to run their golf, there are occasional ones like this one that don’t. Fly into Denver International Airport and get ready to move around. It’s the lack of one central ideal base that holds Denver back. Otherwise, this place is special.
27. Big Island (Hawaii)
Courses: Mauna Kea, Mauna Lani (South & North), Four Seasons Hualalai (Nicklaus), Waikoloa (Kings)
Best Kept Secret: The Lava Lava Beach Club
Similar to Maui, for sheer beauty and oasis stature, Hawai’i Island (The Tourism Bureau HATES it when people call it The Big Island…even though it IS) could easily be a Top 10 Golf Destination if it didn’t cost so much in time and money to get out here and then to stay here. That prevents most golf groups from even considering it. That said, if your friends are all wealthy, this is a MUST visit. I listed Mauna Kea first because it’s the most iconic, but personally marginally prefer the South Course at Mauna Lani over it. There are some that even like the North Course at Mauna Lani over BOTH the others (crazy people). And then there’s the Jack Nicklaus course at the Four Seasons Hualalai that hosts a PGA Tour event every year. Waikoloa has two golf courses, the Kings Course and the Beach Course. The Kings course is distinctly better, though the Beach Course DOES have two epic holes. Everyone flies into the Kona Airport—a pretty cool open-air port. Any golfer with a family in tow should stay at the Hilton Waikoloa—my #1 rated Family Resort in America. Golfers without families along should still consider it, or stay at Mauna Kea or Mauna Lani (each with two courses as well). At least once during your trip take in a Luau (at Mauna Kea or the Hilton Waikoloa) and have dinner at the Lava Lava Beach Club to toast the sunset with all those “in the know.” Aloha.
26. Los Angeles (California)
Courses: Pelican Hill (Ocean South & Ocean North), Trump National, Terranea Resort, Monarch Dunes
Best Kept Secret: Oak Quarry
Los Angeles ends up ahead of Hawai’i Island because it’s cheaper. Barely. Fly into LAX airport and stop at In-n-Out Burger on your way to any of three ideal bases: Terranea Resort with its great short course near Trump National, or Pelican Hill in Newport Beach (south of Disneyland) with its two stunning oceanfront courses, or head a little north to Monarch Dunes in Nipomo with its Pascuzzo & Pate 18-hole Old Course and spectacular 12-hole par-3 “Challenge” course. Pelican Hill rivals Torrey Pines in magnificence. The lodging is pricey, but the experience is surreal. On the flip side, Monarch Dunes might be the best value golf resort experience on the coast, and Terranea might be the most fun non-championship experience in the state. People ask if they can do L.A. and Monterrey/Pebble together on the same trip. I mean…sure…but why? Give each their own due time and respect. Speaking of time, you’ll hear rumors of six-hour rounds at Oak Quarry. The last time I played Pebble Beach our round was over six hours, and I’d still consider it and Oak Quarry a “must play.”
25. Portland (Maine)
Courses: Belgrade Lakes, Boothbay Harbor CC, Sunday River, Samoset, Ledges
Best Kept Secret: Sebasco Harbor Resort
Anything But a Secret: Red’s Eats in Wiscasset
It’s hard for me to believe how beautiful Maine is (especially May-September)! After my last visit I tried to move out there. My wife and kids were even willing. Golf and writing jobs were just too few and far between. (Fingers still crossed.) Anyway, I’ve got a good friend out there who pretty much runs the Maine golf scene. His name is Peter Webber (email@example.com), and he’ll gladly help you put together your group’s dream Maine golf trip. Let me just say that the best Stay, Play & Eat combination for golf groups would be Sebasco Harbor (Stay), Boothbay Harbor (Play) and Red’s Eats (Eat) — lobster rolls, baby! Sebasco has cabins on the water and a great little nine-hole course, not far from Boothbay Harbor — a dynamite track whose recent mega-million renovation made it arguably one of “America’s 10 Most Underrated Courses.” The course everyone knows about, Belgrade Lakes, is also the course everyone MUST PLAY, and if you have kids in tow do everyone a favor and visit Sunday River. The lodging, Action Park, food and mountain golf are unforgettable. It’s not the ideal golf group resort because it lacks QUANTITY of golf, but it’s certainly a spectacular golf resort. I’m sure Peter will recommend The Samoset Resort on the ocean to groups as well, and another somewhat hidden gem is Ledges Golf Club, down near the New Hampshire state line. You can fly into Portland if that works, otherwise Boston’s Logan is close and convenient for big groups coming from all over.
24. Seattle (Washington)
Courses: Chambers Bay, Gold Mountain Resort (Olympic), Salish Cliffs, Washington National, Suncadia Resort (Prospector)
Best Kept Secret: Druid’s Glen
Can you call a course that locals consider one of the 10 Best Courses in the State a “Best Kept Secret”? Sure you can, because of how often it gets overlooked by people in town to play Chambers Bay and Salish Cliffs. Druid’s Glen is a beautiful, extremely-high-value and pretty challenging round of golf. A golf writer friend of mine, Tony Dear, considers it and Washington National two “must-play, high-value” rounds in the Seattle area. Not only is it beauty at the base of enormous beauty, Mount Rainier, but you can ride GolfBoards there, too. Good fun. Chambers Bay got a bad rap thanks to the US Open there. That course deserved WAY better than that. Given the remarkable dump-to-diamond transformation, incredible service and general, breathtaking awesomeness of the course, don’t believe ANYONE (not even Gary Player) who tells you it’s anything less than a “Bucket List” experience. EVERY golfer should play it twice. I tend to tell golf groups to make one trip base at the Little Creek Casino Resort to play Chambers and the Gene Bates designed Salish Cliffs, then go north to a Holiday Inn Express or something near Washington National and Druid’s Glen. Consider Suncadia Resort for its three courses and Gold Mountain too—both a bit out of the way but worth it.
23. Pittsburgh (Pennsylvania)
Courses: Nemacolin Woodlands Resort (Mystic Rock, Shepherd’s Rock), Omni Bedford Springs (Old), Olde Stonewall, The Quarry (Canton, Ohio)
Best Kept Secret: Latrobe Country Club
I cheated with the Best Kept Secret…I know. You can’t play there unless you’re someone special, which I’m not, (or stay at the nearby Marriott) but the guy connected to it sure was. Arnold Palmer learned to play golf there, when it was just a nine-hole course and later helped build it out to 18 with his father, Deacon. I received an invitation to play there once and almost drove over (from Minnesota) but ended up going to Scotland instead for two weeks. Tough call. Fly into Pittsburgh International Airport and make sure you spend at least two nights and three full days at Nemacolin Woodlands, one of my Top 5 Family Resorts in America — with an on-site zoo, spa, infinity pool, Action Park, zipline, incredible views and a stellar golf facility with some remarkable Pete Dye golf, including the new Shepherd’s Rock. Mmake sure you visit Nemacolin and Omni Bedford Springs Resort both someday, with or without a golf group. Both of those properties are on the opulent side, but you can find a good budget hotel in the Pittsburgh area to play Olde Stonewall, and make the drive from there to play one of the few great courses in Ohio—The Quarry in Canton.
22. San Diego (California)
Courses: Torrey Pines (North & South), Barona Creek, The Grand, La Costa, Aviara
Best Kept Secret: Goat Hill Park in Oceanside
San Diego is an amazing beach city. I lived there for nearly five years, and then I had a kid. You have to be a near millionaire to live in San Diego with kids. The rest of us just vacation there, and vacationers can find Sea World, Legoland, the San Diego Zoo and Wild Animal Park AND some pretty spectacular golf up and down the SoCal coastline. The PGA Tour hits Torrey Pines North and South Courses in La Jolla every year, and they’re both municipal courses so you can play them. They just cost an arm and a leg. You can spend your other arm and leg at The Fairmont Grand Del Mar — a property I’ve never had the pleasure of STAYING at, with a truly impressive course. There are other high-end golf excursions on fancy resorts, like La Costa and Aviara at the Park Hyatt Aviara Resort, both in Carlsbad. And then there’s a pair of high-value trips to Barona Creek Resort and/or The Journey at Pechanga Resort in Temecula’s Wine Country. Finally, I’ll wrap this segment up by adding to Matt Ginella’s LOVE STORY for Goat Hill Park. I last played it before Lud passed away, and don’t yet own a hat or shirt from there, but I’ll say this…this par-65 “People’s Park of Oceansice” is a round you could play every day, perhaps as good of a value as there is in all of golf. Kudos to John Ashworth, David Emerick and Geoff Cunningham for saving it, and to Ginella for tirelessly promoting it.
21. Bend (Oregon)
Courses: Tetherow, Pronghorn (Nicklaus), Brasada Ranch, Sunriver Resort (Crosswater & Woodlands)
Best Kept Secret: The Ranch House Restaurant at Brasada Ranch
Bend is easily one of my five favorite cities in America and one of the five cities in America I would move to today if I could. Many consider it the “Outdoor Activity Capital of the World” in part because you can golf, ski (Mt. Bachelor) and ride the river all in the same day most of the year. It’s also called “Beer Town USA” and “Beervana” too, so…something to think about there as well. Bend is a stunning city with some truly remarkable golf. I direct golf groups to stay at Brasada Ranch because of their amazing food and large lodging options, and also at Tetherow whose relatively new lodge is fantastic and on-site of the area’s best golf course — a David McLay Kidd gem that should be considered another “Bucket Lister.” Anyone who knows me, knows that Kidd is my favorite living architect (my journalistic dream is to write his biography someday…his and Tom Brady’s), but there’s no bias in my insistence to play this course…ask anyone. It’s unfortunate that you can’t play both courses at Pronghorn, but the Nicklaus course at least gives you a taste of the greatness. Sunriver Resort is 30 miles south of town, but with 63 holes of golf and some remarkable Stay & Play packages for groups, you shouldn’t come to Bend without seeing if something there works for you. You can fly into Bend Municipal or Portland’s International Airport and drive over.