Golf/Travel Articles

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Sarasota, Florida will likely never be known as a premiere golf destination. It’s not the lack of good golf in the area, far from it. It’s just that this medium sized Gulf coast city has far too many attractions to simply be pigeonholed as a golf getaway.  The powdery beaches, the eclectic mix of restaurants, nightlife, shopping and cultural activities are just five of Sarasota’s ongoing attractions.  But there are some excellent public-access golf facilities regardless.

Stoneybrook

One of the toughest tracks in town is called Stoneybrook. This is a formidable Arthur Hills design in an area called Palmer Ranch. Playing 6560 yards from the back tees and 6130 from the middle markers, length here is less of a factor than keeping the golf ball dry. There’s water in play on every hole but one, little of it incidental. 15 holes require both a tee shot and approach steered towards terra firma, and several holes have water in play repeatedly. Beware the staunch 9th hole, 420 yards from the tips and loaded with trouble. Also the tough 12th, a par five requiring more than 200 yards of water, carry from the tips, usually playing into the breeze.  Thankfully, there’s more red stakes than white on the course, recently revamped with smooth-rolling Tifdwarf greens, so wayward shots will require the stroke but not the distance. Be thankful for small favors.

Bobcat Trail

Bob Tway has eight Tour wins including a PGA Championship, but has yet to make an indelible mark as an architect. That’s destined to change if he continues to produce courses like Bobcat Trail, south of Sarasota in North Port. Again, water is a major factor here, present on every hole but two. Large, undulating greens provide an additional challenge on this 6750-yard course. There’s a wide variety of par-4s on the property, ranging from less than 300 yards to more than 440 yards in length. Tee shots need to be shaped in both directions to avoid the strategically placed fairway bunkering. The routing is strong as well; the course commences in a counter-clockwise direction and then becomes a figure eight down the homestretch. Not to worry though, a state of the art GPS System will keep players from getting disoriented.

Waterlefe Golf and River Club

The Waterlefe Golf and River Club has one of the most spectacular settings in the area. The course begins, winds back to and concludes on a particularly beautiful section of the Manatee River, replete with wide expanses of pristine marshes and pleasant coves. This Ted McAnlis design is found in Bradenton, a bit north of Sarasota. This 6900 yard dazzler has four holes that border the river, and the island green finale on the par-5 18th is practically worth the price of admission itself.

Legacy Golf Club

Other worthwhile courses include Arnold Palmer’s Legacy at Lakewood Ranch. This course is absolutely super-sized, situated on 5,500 acres of land, which includes a 165-acre lake. Heron Creek is a fine Arthur Hills design with that rarest of Florida features, a bit of elevation change. Also check out Serenoa, a petite water-park less than 6,300 yards from the tips, with narrow ribbons of fairway separating a seemingly endless series of lagoons and ponds.

Sarasota is a wonderful town for dining, both elegant and casual. Florida is known for its prevalence of chain restaurants, both upscale and family-friendly, and Sarasota is no exception. However, leaving the national brands behind, here are a handful or recommendations of local establishments, unique to the area. Just as there are another dozen courses that could be mentioned in this travelogue, there are three dozen (or more) excellent choices for a fine meal. But we’ll limit things to just a trio.

Marcello Restaurant has a myriad of fine choices on their menu, but this wonderful Italian restaurant is known far and wide for their veal chop. For those who prefer something a bit lighter, they also have a variety of homemade pasta dishes to choose from.

The Shore Restaurant lives up to the name. They feature numerous delectable seafood dishes on their menu, including Kung Pao calamari, lump crab cakes, and a highly regarded tuna tower. Carnivores aren’t forgotten though, as ribs, a ribeye and ‘diner meatloaf’ all take their rightful place on the menu.

Lastly, the Lido Beach Grille at the Lido Beach Resort isn’t as well-known as some of Sarasota’s marquee eateries, but they do an excellent pork tenderloin, caramelized diver scallops and a pan seared red snapper.

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This state’s not often going to be the main (or should we say Maine?) choice for golfers based in or visiting New England. The other five states of the region offer myriad golf charms that are readily apparent. There’s the bucolic setting of the Massachusetts Berkshires, the seaside courses of Connecticut and Rhode Island, the homespun feeling of the mom-and-pop courses in the Lakes Region of central New Hampshire, and the ski resort-centric courses that pepper southern and central Vermont. But mysterious Maine, harder to get to and further off the beaten path, offers dedicated golfers a number of compelling reasons to visit (other than spectacular coastline and ubiquitous lobster shacks).

Partially due to its relative remoteness, golf in Maine is less crowded, less expensive and more accessible than in many places. (Although, remoteness is a fluid and relative concept. Grabbing a National Rental Car at Boston’s Logan Airport and heading up to Portland, Maine is an easy drive that’s a little more than a hundred miles.) The majority of private clubs are open to the public on weekday afternoons, and even when courses get busier in the peak months, players keep moving with an alacrity that reflects the shorter golf season. In other words, no time to waste. Throw in the spectacular scenery, from the long ocean views at Samoset, to the canyons of Sunday River, and Maine has, in a truncated season, most everything a golfer could desire. Here are five great options for the traveling player:

Belgrade Lakes

Belgrade Lakes has become a Maine favorite since its 1999 debut. This Clive Clark design features exciting topography and some of the largest and most undulating greens in the state. With a 115-yard-wide double green lying well below the clubhouse, railroad ties lining many of the bunkers, massive rock piles left over from construction, and occasional long views across Great Pond, this course is a feast for the eyes. The targets here are large, but it’s easy to get out of position, especially around the greens. Favorite holes include the roller-coaster par-four first and the handsome sixteenth, which weaves around a pond, a tree, and a nest of six greenside bunkers.

Kebo Valley

Kebo Valley is the oldest course in Maine, and in addition to the numerous ‘chocolate drop’ mounds, which wreak havoc with errant shots and showcase its antiquity, Kebo has a raw and throwback feel. The course shares a border with Acadia National Park, and there are spectacular views to go along with the deep sense of solitude. The modest length of 6,100 yards is defended by a par of 70 and a series of devilishly sloped greens which are generally kept at their practical maximum of ten on the Stimpmeter, making an approach shot which finishes under the hole a must. The deployment of Kebo Brook and Cromwell Brook, which snakes along seven, eight, and seventeen, and in front of five and nine, ratchets up the difficulty factor.

Sable Oaks

Sable Oaks is an urban oasis lodged between the mall and the airport in Portland, and this fiendish layout is the home course of many of Maine’s top players. Although the woods and the underbrush have been drastically thinned out over the years, straight shots are still a requirement for negotiating these corridors. The up-and-down site features numerous ledges and ravines which provide exciting shot values throughout, including three reachable par-five holes and the drop-shot eighth. The lush fairways and pristine bunkers are among the best in the state. The course was built in 1989 and was one of the first courses to showcase the work of Brian Silva, who has subsequently become an architect of note around New England.

Penobscot Valley

Penobscot Valley is a Donald Ross gem that will appeal to aficionados and casual golfers alike. Architecture fans will be very pleasantly surprised to find this largely untouched gem just outside of Bangor. Brilliantly laid out over wonderful terrain, the course uses every nook and cranny to maximum effect. The presence of over one hundred bunkers, recently restored by Brian Silva, help make this one of Maine’s great driving courses, where you can let it fly on all of the long holes, with varying degrees of risk and reward. The greens are similarly diverse. Some are pushed up, some are continuations of the fairway, but all of them feature a bunker (or quite a few) to gobble up errant shots. Many consider this course to be in the upper echelon of all Donald Ross-designed public courses in New England.

Sugarloaf

Finally, perhaps the best known and most acclaimed public course in the state is Sugarloaf. The broad shoulders of this Robert Trent Jones, Jr. monster have been vexing Maine golfers since 1986. The state’s first mountainside course features wide fairways that transition abruptly into the forest, creating an entertaining nexus of playable and penalizing. The front nine is an engaging trip up, down, and across the outrageous terrain, but the views and golf kick into high gear at the tenth and eleventh, which plunge a combined two hundred feet from tee to green. The Carrabassett River also enters the picture at this point, and weaves in and out of the serene finishing holes. On top off all this, the greens at Sugarloaf are among the most perplexing in the state, rolling and falling away in multiple directions.

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There are many more guitars strapped to the backs of citizens and visitors in Nashville than there are golf bags. A recent visit would peg the ratio at a hundred (maybe a thousand) to one. That’s not totally accurate–there wasn’t a single golf bag to be spied on the lively downtown streets, though it seemed every few minutes one would encounter a guitar case carried by a dreamer in the country music capital of the world.

Golf isn’t immediately evident in the hustle and bustle of the downtown area, dominated as it is by a seemingly endless array of juke joints and saloons, live music pouring out of most every doorway. There’s the charms of Vanderbilt University, the greenery and open spaces of Centennial Park, and the delightfully scenic pedestrian bridge over the Cumberland River that connects the Bridgestone Arena (home of the NHL’s Predators) to Nissan Stadium (home of the NFL’s Titans).

Must-sees include the Ryman Auditorium (original home of the Grand Old Opry) and the County Music Hall of Fame. (Added bonus: these twin icons of music are some ten minutes apart by foot.)

However, if one is inclined to tear themselves away from all there is to see and do (and eat—more on that shortly) in the downtown area, there is some good golf to be found on the outskirts of town.

Grey Stone Golf Club
Grey Stone Golf Club

Perhaps thirty minutes away in the town of Dickson is the aptly named Grey Stone Golf Club, which features rock walls, and most notably, a field of very large boulders flanking the right side of the par-5 twelfth. This Mark McCumber design has more than 120 feet of elevation changes, with mile-long vistas from certain on-course vantage points. The rock walls come into play intermittently, including the tricky par-3 sixteenth, with a wall fronting a putting surface that runs away diagonally. It is the same scenario on the par-5 second, where the wall guards the green, and occasionally repels approach shots that come up a few yards short of the putting surface.

The Hermitage Golf Course
The Hermitage Golf Course

 

Perhaps the most notable aspect of The Hermitage Golf Course is the disparity between the two courses. The General’s Retreat and the President’s Reserve are but two minutes apart via golf cart, but first-time visitors would swear they are in two different areas of the country. Named in honor of Andrew Jackson’s plantation, which is only a mile or so away, the courses at this 36-hole facility are named after two distinct phases in Jackson’s life. He was an army general, gaining distinction for leading his troops in the War of 1812, and eventually was elected as the seventh President of the United States in 1829.

The General’s Retreat is a traditional, tree-lined course with smallish, undulating greens. Described as a shot-maker’s course, it played host to the LPGA Tour for a few years. The finisher is notable, a par-4 with water bracketing both sides of the landing area, though further afield than what appears from the tee. The approach is to a slightly elevated green, close by the clubhouse, which often insures an audience for the golfers finishing their rounds. By contrast, the President’s Reserve is routed through three hundred acres of natural wetlands and swamps. It’s a more spacious facility, with larger greens, less undulation, and feels to many visitors as though it’s been airlifted from the Carolina Lowcountry. On a course with many comely candidates, the eleventh might be the prettiest hole on the property. It’s a downhill par-4 with a nerve-wracking tee shot, which must be guided between a water hazard to the right and a bunker to the left.

Gaylord Springs
Gaylord Springs

Gaylord Springs is another good bet. This Larry Nelson design is close to the Cumberland River, and while there are trees on the periphery, the playing fields themselves are generally wide open and windswept. The opening nine features a couple of reachable par-5 holes, where big hitters might find themselves staring down an eagle putt. The course features plenty of limestone bluffs and hundreds of acres of protected wetlands, so in combination this makes it one of the most serene golf venues in the greater Nashville area.

There aren’t as many great eateries in Nashville as there are juke joints, not even close. That said, Nashville is as far from a food desert as you can imagine. Etch is one of many fine restaurants in town. Try their roasted cauliflower or a Peruvian tuna ceviche as light appetizers, before diving into hearty entrees like pork tenderloin or seared scallops. 5th & Taylor is another handsome bistro catering to the elite gourmands (or Vandy parents, pretty much the same thing) who descend upon ‘Music City.’ There is a bit more southern flavor here, with appetizers like sausage cheddar biscuits and fried pickles. Favored entrees include halibut, bison meatloaf and beer can chicken.

Lastly, speaking of chicken, one of the city’s favored dishes is known simply as ‘hot chicken,’ and one would be well served heading to Hattie B’s Hot Chicken (several locations around town) and turn up the spice level to individual preference. (Only the boldest will opt for ‘shut the cluck up,’ otherwise referred to as ‘burn notice.’) All chicken-lovers can cool down with classic peach cobbler or banana pudding after their main course.

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The British Open (officially known as the Open Championship) hasn’t seen too many actual Brits hosting the famed Claret Jug in recent years. There has been some UK representation of late (Rory McIlroy in 2014, Darren Clarke in 2012—both hailing from Northern Ireland.) But the last Englishman to win was Nick Faldo in 1992.

The Royal Birkdale Golf Club

This year’s iteration is at famed Royal Birkdale in northwest England. While the public is always welcome to play (as is the case nearly universally throughout the UK, even at their finest and most prestigious courses) we will confine our discussion to public-access courses stateside.

Here are a smattering of exceptional open-to-the-public facilities that hold a special place in the hearts of the last five Champion Golfers of the Year. (The super-cool moniker given to the winner of the Open Championship.)

Ernie Els (2012), Phil Mickelson (2013), Rory McIlroy (2014), Zach Johnson (2015), and Henrik Stenson (2016) have combined for ninety-one wins on the PGA Tour, and sixteen major championships. They have also won, in most cases multiple times, on venues that welcome the paying public. Below are some of the highlights:

The Stadium Course

TPC Sawgrass—Stadium Course

Both Mickelson and Stenson have captured the so-called ‘Fifth Major,’ (Phil in 2007, Henrik a couple years later in 2009). The Stadium Course was to be “the most democratic course in the world,” according to management, testing all aspects of one’s game. It was to have short and long par-3s and par-4s, reachable and unreachable par-5s, holes bending both left and right, and no two consecutive holes heading in the same direction, so that a prevailing wind would always make holes play differently. Though it serves as the flagship event on the PGA Tour, and annually attracts the single strongest field in professional golf, it is even more famous as a public-access venue. Eager patrons from all over the globe fill the tee sheet, waiting for their crack at the island green 17th, hoping to flip their short iron over water and onto terra firma. Splashing the tee shot can ruin an otherwise good round, or conversely, a ball that finds green-grass safety can put a smile on the face of a golfer who had been struggling to that point.

Bay Hill

Bay Hill

Ernie Els won there twice, and Mickelson also captured Arnold Palmer’s ‘home game.’ Water provides much of the rigor at this Orlando institution, the view from the third tee is the first indication that massive ponds are in prime position to wreak intermittent havoc with the scorecard. The third, sixth, eleventh, thirteenth and most famously, the eighteenth, all pose danger for either an errant tee ball or approach shot.

 

Champion Course at PGA National

Champion Course at PGA National

Home of the Honda Classic, which has been captured by both Ernie Els and Rory McIlroy, this is the marquee facility of the quintet of courses found in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida. (The Fazio, The Squire, The Palmer and The Estate round out their other offerings.) The course has a championship pedigree, having played host to the 1983 Ryder Cup, and the 1987 PGA Championship. The course is best known for a tough three hole stretch near round’s end. The par-3 15th, par-4 16th, and par-3 17th holes are known as ‘The Bear Trap,’ named after the Golden Bear, Jack Nicklaus, who redesigned the course some twenty years after inception.

Pebble Beach 

Pebble Beach

Phil Mickelson has a stranglehold on this most-desired public venue. The other Open winners under discussion have never tasted victory on the Monterey peninsula, but Phil has won there on four separate occasions. (1998, 2005, 2007 and 2012 for those scoring at home.) Phil knows as well as anyone (other than perhaps Mark O’Meara, also a four-time champ at Pebble and a British Open winner) the majestic beauty and valiant shot-making challenges that make this the single most sought-after tee time in the world of public-access golf. From the flip wedge (or perhaps seven iron, depending on the wind direction) of the magnificent par-3 seventh, to the heroic approach over a chasm of the roiling pacific on the eighth, to the nervy, seaside tee shot on the par-5 finale, no one fortunate enough to play Pebble ever forgets its myriad charms and challenges.

Kiawah Island’s Ocean Course 

Kiawah Island’s Ocean Course 

This is where Rory took home the first of his two PGA Championships in 2012. (He also triumphed at Kentucky’s Valhalla Golf Club in 2014.) Although it will always be most closely associated with the 1991 Ryder Cup, which came down to the very last putt of the final match on the final day, The Ocean Course is slated to hold the PGA Championship once again in 2021. Visitors, even hardened Tour pros, are always amazed at the scale of the golf course, which is absolutely massive. It’s fairly narrow, and always in close proximity to the beach, but stretches almost three miles in length. But the fact is that the dedicated turf on the course is just 55 acres. The vistas, seascape, wetlands, sand and trouble occupy an area six or eight times that size. Brawny as the golf course appears, with generous fairways and oversized greens, it’s dwarfed by the majestic natural panorama that envelops it.

Plantation Course at Kapalua Resort

Plantation Course at Kapalua Resort

Everyone loves Hawaii, and Zach Johnson (2014), Ernie Els (2003) and Phil Mickelson (1994, 1998) are no exception. Their ‘working vacations’ included hard-fought triumphs at the PGA Tour traditional season opener, the Tournament of Champions, only open to those who won an officially sanctioned event the season prior. This Maui must-play features panoramic ocean and mountain views, and the final few holes are almost as steep as an intermediate ski run. The only par-73 on the PGA Tour, the Plantation Course has seven holes longer than 500 yards, but also six par-4s under 400 yards. It’s a beguiling mixture of power and finesse in one of the loveliest golf settings on the planet.

 

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The John Deere Classic is a mid-summer staple on the PGA Tour. Although it doesn’t tend to attract the game’s leading lights on a regular basis, (many saving their energy for the British Open, or Open Championship, which follows close at hand) there have been some notable entries and distinguished champions. Jordan Speith won two out of three years, including his inaugural PGA Tour win in 2013. Steve Stricker pulled off a hat trick, winning three times consecutively in 2009, 2010 and 2011. Of further interest, Michelle Wie played there at age fifteen in 2005, missing the cut by a scant two strokes.

However, the focus of this travelogue is not to showcase the leading and lesser lights who make the annual pilgrimage to Silvis, Illinois to test their skills on the TPC at Deere Run, but to shine the spotlight on some of the many hundreds of golf courses nationwide that have the word ‘deer’ in their name. It’s no short list, and the first entry goes to another long-time PGA Tour venue, Brown Deer Park Golf Course, one of the jewels of Milwaukee’s public golf scene.

Brown Deer Park Golf Course

Brown Deer Park hosted the Tour for fifteen years, from 1994 to 2009, when the tournament was discontinued. Its ‘brush with greatness’ came in 1996, when Tiger Woods, fresh off his third consecutive win in the U.S. Amateur, made his professional debut. He has subsequently made more than a hundred million on the course alone (endorsements aside) but the first twenty five hundred bucks he ever made came courtesy of a sixtieth place finish that fateful week at Brown Deer Park.

 

The vast majority of the other ‘deer’ courses nationwide make no such claim to fame. They are mostly simple and pleasant tests of golf where visitors and regulars plunk down their green fee and enjoy a day on the course. There is no way to accurately gauge how many ‘deer’ courses there might be in the nation, but here’s a ‘starter set’ of eight. Suffice it to say this is just the very tip of the iceberg, or might we say antler?

Running Deer Golf Club

Running Deer Golf Club in leafy Pittsgrove, New Jersey, is worth a visit for a few reasons. First is it’s a serene walk through the forest, and second, perhaps you’ll catch a glimpse of owner Ron Jaworski. The former Philadelphia Eagles quarterback and highly regarded TV analyst owns a small stable of courses, and Running Deer is considered one of the finest in his holdings.

 

 

Deer Valley

Deer Valley is in Hummelstown, PA, just a few short miles from Hershey and Harrisburg. The course features large elevated greens, massive multi-tiered tees and unique hybrid, dwarf bluegrass fairways. From different vantage points during the round there are beautiful views and vistas of Hershey and the surrounding Blue Mountains.

 

 

 

King’s Deer Golf Course

King’s Deer Golf Club in Monument, CO sits at an elevation of 7,400 feet, making it the highest course along the Front Range. Located high atop the Palmer Divide, the course offers incredible views of Pike’s Peak and Mount Herman, as well as Bald Mountain and True Mountain to the north. The playing fields meander through rolling Colorado grasslands, with the front nine more target golf, requiring accuracy off the tee to avoid the native fescue.  The back nine is longer and requires bolder tee shots to insure tenable distances for one’s approach shot.

 

 

Deer Creek Golf Club

Deer Creek Golf Club in Deerfield, Florida offers rolling topography and undulating greens that are not usually found in south Florida. The golf market between Fort Lauderdale and Boca Raton is saturated, but this golf course has always received much-deserved accolades for conditioning and service, keeping it in the top tier of public-access venues in the area.

 

 

White Deer Run

White Deer Run on Chicago’s North Shore is a popular destination with the area’s public golfers. There are loads of high-end private clubs in the vicinity, but White Deer Run attracts steady play, in part due to its unique location on the famed Cuneo Estate in Vernon Hills.

 

 

 

Deer Ridge Golf Club

Deer Ridge Golf Club in Brentwood, CA, not far from the San Francisco Bay Area, is set among the picturesque foothills of Mount Diablo. The golf course hugs the contours of Mount Diablo and winds its way through majestic oaks, with sharp contrasts of color and terrain. Consistent conditioning and excellent greens make this one of the East Bay’s most popular golf courses.

 

Deerwood Country Club

Deerwood Country Club may be located in Mount Holly, New Jersey. However, the course has the look and feel of something found in the Carolina Lowcountry. This links-style course is surrounded by woods and wetlands, and though the ‘tips’ are just a chip shot beyond 6,200 yards, with only a single par-4 beyond 400 yards, this par-70 offers plenty of challenge with its water-laden fairways and tricky greens.

 

 

Deer Island Country Club

Finally, Deer Island Country Club is one of the more notable courses in central Florida. It’s located on the secluded four hundred acre Deer Island, amidst the Harris Chain of Lakes, which is part of Oklawaha River Basin in Tavares, Florida. This Joe Lee design features magnificent views of Lake Dora and Lake Beauclaire, and the panoramic nature of the property allows players to view a wide range of wildlife as they make their way around the course.

 

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Never mind the eight courses at Pinehurst resort, including famed #2, a three-time U.S. Open host venue.  Disregard that there are dozens of additional courses within a short drive of Pinehurst, colloquially referred to as “the birthplace of American Golf.” The fact is that there is fine golf throughout the central, heartland, and Piedmont region of North Carolina. This is the big block in the middle of the richly varied topography of the state, separating the mountain region to the west from the coastal region to the east.

In and around Durham and Chapel Hill, in Greensboro, near Winston-Salem, outside of Fayetteville, there’s plenty to recommend. Good golf in Raleigh? Really.

Duke Golf Club

The Duke Golf Club in Durham, near the campus of the esteemed university of the same name, stands shoulder to shoulder with any of the nation’s best collegiate courses, the infamous Course at Yale included. Robert Trent Jones designed the course in 1957. Five years later, his son Rees took part in the NCAA Championships contested there, ironically, playing for Yale. Some thirty years later Rees returned again, to refurbish his father’s work, and make improvements on a course that had frayed badly in the interim.

Course at Yale

Restored to its original grandeur, this parkland beauty is once again one of the premiere golf venues in the south. It’s tree-lined but not tree-choked, with elevated greens, yawning greenside bunkers and a palpable sense of remove. Several par-5 holes are bisected by streams, requiring careful decision making.  Many of the par-4 holes feature both length and bend of fairway. It’s a worthy complement to the nearby university.

Bryan Park

Bryan Park is a muscular 36-hole public facility in the town of Greensboro. Bryan Park features a Rees Jones original effort called Champions, and a George Cobb designed, Rees Jones-renovated course called Players.  Now more than forty years old, the original Cobb is a side salad to the main course. Champions is a true championship track. 7,150 from the tips and 6,650 from the middle markers, there is plenty of perimeter mounding to help propel would-be errant tee shots back into play.  Bunkers are many and massive, but this parkland beauty really scores points because of its proximity to Lake Townsend. Seven holes border the water, including the all-world thirteenth, a par-4 dogleg stretching 435 yards from the penultimate markers, where the lake comes into play on both drive and approach.

Anderson Creek

Long-time PGA Tour star Davis Love III was born in Charlotte, and more than three decades ago was a Big Man on Campus at UNC-Chapel Hill, before heading off onto a big-time career as a professional. So it only makes sense that as a golf course architect, he’s come home and delivered a couple of big, bold routings in his home state. Anderson Creek is just outside of Fayetteville, little more than forty miles from Pinehurst. It reflects the Sandhills sensibility, with fairways limned with longleaf pines, and generous greens with large roll-off areas and swales. The course, set amidst a housing development, is a straightforward routing, nothing overly tricky, interspersed with a couple of wetland carries and waste areas.

The Preserve at Jordan Lake

The Preserve at Jordan Lake is another housing development outside of Chapel Hill.  This Love design is equally big and even bolder than Anderson Creek, but offers the type of up-and-down golf experience normally found in the mountainous western reaches of the state.  Major elevation changes, encroaching wetlands and forest that put a premium on tee shot accuracy, and occasional rocky outcroppings and deep ravines make this course seem better suited for an Asheville or Hendersonville address. Most of the houses surrounding the course are show-stoppers, large and dramatic. They fit in nicely with this exhilarating test of golf, with a daunting slope rating of 140 from the 6,600 yard penultimate markers, (the back tees are 7,100) which is certainly one of the finest in the triangle region.

Championship Course at Tanglewood Park

Finally, the Championship Course at Tanglewood Park’s moment in the sun was more than forty years ago, when Lee Trevino held off Jack Nicklaus by a single shot in the PGA Championship. But this estimable parkland outside of Winston-Salem has aged well since 1974, and gives daily fee players all they can handle. The clubhouse is located at the apex of the property, and the tee shots at the first and tenth plummet downhill, the approaches to the ninth and eighteenth greens are well elevated. In between are numerous water hazards, well placed, reddish-hued bunkering, and doglegs both gentle and severe.  Tanglewood, unprepossessing, modestly priced, is one of some five hundred courses in this golf-centric state. Pinehurst may be the pinnacle in terms of recognition, but hundreds and hundreds of other courses are well worthy of visitor’s attention, too.

 

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Peninsula Golf Club

Only one notion will generally come to mind when traveling golfers hear the word “Alabama.” Their thoughts are immediately drawn to the world famous Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail, the most ambitious public golf course project in history.

Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail

Now some thirty years old, the Trail has been a staggering success since its 1988 inception. The Trail will welcome its twelve-millionth visitor in 2017, an awe-inspiring number, especially considering the course came into being just as golf’s popularity was reaching its peak and shortly before the game began its slow, inexorable decline that continues today.

The original construction was mind-boggling in scope. The project consisted of 324 holes at seven different sites throughout the state, the land being shaped by some seven hundred pieces of earth-moving equipment simultaneously. The end result, including an additional fifty-four holes later added at Prattville, moved Alabama from an afterthought towards the forefront of golf tourism.

However, there’s more great golf in Alabama that’s found beyond the pale of the Trail. Check out tiny Gulf Shores, for example. This formerly sleepy beach community, about an hour south of Mobile, has little more than ten thousand residents, but there are several courses here that are well worth a visit.

Kiva Dunes

First and foremost would be Kiva Dunes, a Jerry Pate design that has received a number of well-deserved accolades since it debuted in 1994. The course is tucked into a beautiful piece of land on Fort Morgan Peninsula, a narrow sliver of earth separating Mobile Bay from the Gulf of Mexico. Jerry Pate doesn’t spring to mind on the short list of successful players turned architects like Nicklaus, Crenshaw and Weiskopf do, but he should.

Pate won the U.S. Open, U.S Amateur, Players Championship, and was both a Walker Cup and Ryder Cup participant. But to some, he’s anonymous as both a player and course designer. It’s too late to do anything about the former, but the latter reputation is destined to change.

Kiva Dunes offers a scenic nature walk through the sand dunes, scrub oak, pine, and natural wetlands that are endemic to this beach area. As can be expected on such an exposed piece of property, the buffeting wind can be as difficult as any other hazard on the 7,100 yard course. Mere mortals would best attempt to get around starting at the middle markers some six hundred yards closer, while less skilled players should likely opt for the white tees at a shade under 5,900 yards. The immaculate conditioning of the Tifway Bermuda fairways will doubtlessly impress those who can keep the ball in play. Those who have to scramble to find the putting surface will be equally pleased at the Tifdwarf Bermuda greens, which are large and undulating, but not prohibitively slick.

The designer kept the rolling nature of the dunes evident on the fairways, made liberal use of fairway bunkering filled with native sand, and dug cavernous sand pits green side. The end result is a facility that’s both daunting and stunning, and one of the must-play courses in the L.A. (Lower Alabama) area.

Peninsula Golf & Racquet Club

Not ten minutes away on the peninsula is the aptly named Peninsula Golf and Racquet Club, a 27-hole Earl Stone design. This is a much larger property than the 250-acre Kiva Dunes. The Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge touches the 820-acre parcel on two sides, and part of the property abuts Mobile Bay.

Thirty lakes, abundant vegetation and numerous waste areas that line the fairways are the most notable difficulties on yet another finely conditioned track. The original eighteen holes are the Marsh and Lake nines constructed in 1995, the Cypress nine was added in 1999. The Lake nine is the most scenic, with views of the nearby bay, and also contains the majority of housing in the development. Marsh is considered the most difficult, and Cypress, with its subtly bending fairways and abundance of bunkering, offers the most shot making challenge.

Rock Creek

Another nearby course worth a visit is Rock Creek in the town of Fairhope. This championship golf course is both forgiving and visually spectacular. Numerous doglegs are prominently featured throughout the layout along with natural rolling terrain and impressive elevation changes unique to the southern Alabama region. Tall pines and hardwood forests line each fairway and freshwater wetlands ripple throughout the course, adding to the impressive visual effects of the course.

The second hole at Rock Creek will linger long in the memory. This 434 yard par-4 drops seventy feet from tee to fairway with a forced carry approach shot over wetlands to a green featuring a bulkhead wall thirty feet high. Suffice it to say that any player in position to line up a birdie putt on this gauntlet knows how to golf their ball.

Finally, no mention of golf in Alabama can be complete without at least passing mention of the infamous Trail. The southernmost outpost in Mobile known as Magnolia Grove is certainly one of the best of the eight separate locations. The Falls course is nothing short of harrowing; a roller-coaster ride through hills and valleys, with epic approach shots required to find the surface on massive, well bunkered greens. The Crossings course occupies even hillier terrain, although the shot-making requirements aren’t quite as demanding. Their par-3 course is a beauty as well, considered one of the finest in the country.

 

 

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This space has always been dedicated to the traveling golfer, those who have the time and inclination to stroll the Emerald Aisle, grab a high-quality National Rental Car vehicle and enjoy some of the finest public-access and resort facilities in the city or state under discussion.

However, there are also some four thousand private golf clubs coast-to-coast, and these are among the most desirable golf destinations in the country. The age old problem: how to access a tee time at a club that generally doesn’t allow public play? There are ways to get inside the gate, or beyond the velvet rope, so to speak. Here are a few tried and true methods to access a private club that you’ve heard about, always wanted to visit, but for whatever reason, haven’t been able to ‘crack the code.’

Play in a charity golf event. Scores of the nation’s most exclusive and desirable private clubs (not to mention a few thousand others that aren’t on that same elite level) open their doors a few times a year, sometimes more than that, for respectable charities. All in all, there are about 140,000 charity golf tournaments held annually in the United States. Keep eyes and ears open, perhaps even call the course in question to ask about their outing schedule, and donate money to a worthy cause while enjoying a worthy venue. Everybody wins.

Write a letter. This strategy comes under the time-tested maxim: “If you don’t ask, you’ll never get. If you do ask, you might.” A well-worded, respectful letter to the GM or head professional might yield an invitation to a club you’ve long admired, but never had the opportunity to visit. In fact, making that very thought the gist of the letter might pay dividends.

Augusta National

Volunteer at a tournament. This could be a professional event, or even a charity event that needs parking attendants, scorers, registration table personnel, etc. When signing up for a position, inquire if there’s an opportunity to play the course after the fact. Oftentimes there is, as it’s an incentive to attract the cadre of people needed to make the event run seamlessly. (Believe it or not, this gambit even works at the Holy Grail of private clubs–Augusta National. The problem: procuring the week-long assignment as a Masters volunteer is almost as difficult as getting tickets to the tournament itself–lots of competition!)

Ask your golf pro to make a call on your behalf. If you are a member of a private club, your head professional will often have contacts with colleagues at other private clubs. This could be one of several different clubs in a city you’re planning on visiting, or a specific club that’s on your radar. In either case, your own pro can be instrumental in opening doors on your behalf that might otherwise be closed.

Get on a rating panel. There are three major course-rating panels in existence: GOLF Magazine (very hard to crack, only one hundred golf industry ‘movers and shakers’ allowed), Golf Digest and Golfweek. The latter two have turned into minor revenue streams for the magazines. They charge a fee to join, or insist raters continue their education by attending retreats and seminars, which have an associated cost. However–for those who love golf course architecture and travel regularly, (raters are required to rate a certain number of courses annually, and in areas beyond their home city and state) this can be an effective way to gain entree to otherwise hard-to-access private clubs.

Use your network. Seems obvious, but you never know who you know that might know someone associated with a club you’ve wanted to visit. If we can believe the ‘six degrees of separation’ theory, where everyone on earth is connected within half-a-dozen points of contact, it seems logical that a friend, or worst case, a friend of a friend, will know someone at a club you’d like to play.

Join an online reciprocal program. There are websites that endeavor to match private club members with clubs they might want to visit elsewhere. There are even options for those who aren’t affiliated with a private club. There are the no-cost signup options, and then the ‘premium’ memberships, that presumably afford access to a wider range of higher-caliber courses. Visit www.boxgroove.com or www.openrounds.com to learn more about this melding of old-fashion (who you know) and newfangled (everything is just a few clicks away) techniques to visit the private club of your choice.

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Barefoot Resort
Barefoot Resort

At its apex, Myrtle Beach had more than one hundred and twenty golf courses in operation. Now there are a little more than ninety, as economic contraction, widespread housing construction and a general malaise in the golf business have siphoned a noticeable percentage of the course traffic in what’s known as “the golf capital of the world.”

However, Barefoot Resort, an upscale, four-course entrée restaurant in North Myrtle Beach, is bucking the trend. Since the quartet of courses debuted simultaneously in the spring of 2000, tee sheets remain busy, green fees remain on the upper end of the area’s spectrum, and the Barefoot buzz continue to resonate positively throughout the world of traveling golfers.

The major appeal of the golf resort is the marquee status of the four designers: Davis Love III, Greg Norman, Tom Fazio and Pete Dye. Another attraction is the lack of commuting that the all-inclusive resort offers, particularly in comparison to the nonstop traffic patterns on the US 17 corridor, which is the “main drag” through Myrtle. Another plus is the totally different aesthetic of the four courses. Unlike many multi-course developments, where it’s difficult to tell one offering from the next, Barefoot Resort has truly distinct differences in the four golf offerings

The rankings help to tell the story. Of all the courses in greater Myrtle Beach, three of the four offerings at Barefoot fall within the top sixteen. (Only the Norman course is the outlier, ranked just outside the top forty.)

Love Course

Golfers love the Love Course above all. The appeal comes largely from the faux plantation ruins on the short par-4 fourth, and then again on the longer par-4 sixth. It’s a crumbling construction and a conversation starter, but it’s also a Disney-esque contrivance; all style, no substance. The Love Course has wider fairways than the other offerings and tough, turtleback greens with numerous swales and runoffs, which repel off-line shots. Speaking of aesthetics, they are compromised a bit as players take a long tunnel under highway 31 to get to the west side of the property to play holes 14-16. The remaining fifteen holes are on the east side of the roadway.

Norman Course

The Norman Course is defined by numerous waste areas and closely mown chipping and pitching areas.  Fairways are a premium. There are only sixty acres of dedicated turf, with plenty of pine straw and sand bracketing the landing zones. There are four back nine holes close by the Intracoastal waterway, which offers some wonderful visual appeal.  But there’s a greater housing presence here than elsewhere, and members often refer to the course as ‘condo alley.’

Fazio Course

The Fazio Course is a terrific test, the favorite of many members of the Barefoot Landing professional staff.  It’s a stroke harder, a par 71, with deep and very well placed fairway bunkers. It’s visually dazzling, with several petite risk/reward par-4s on the back nine. The greens on the Fazio Course are twice as large as the other offerings, and full of roll and pitch.  They may be easier to hit, but are harder to putt. Only the first two and last two holes are on the east side of the highway, the balance on the west. Unlike the Love Course, where the highway seems to always be buzzing in the background, Fazio’s effort is more tranquil. Wetlands abound, keeping the housing presence minimal.

Dye Course

Finally, the Dye Course is the most unusual and the most thought provoking of the bunch. While decidedly different in many ways, the previous trio all has that low country feel. But the Dye effort is a Myrtle-meets-Scotland sensibility, all ochre fairways, ungainly mounding, pot bunkers, odd angles and visual intimidation. The landing areas are more generous from what they appear on the tee, bracketed with waste areas. For those who know the course it’s a bit easier from the tee box, but newcomers will inevitably tighten up, and steer their pellet into the sandy maws they were so desperate to avoid when staring down from the tee box.

There is no shortage of off-course activities at Barefoot Resort. The Alabama Theatre offers live entertainment from some of music’s marquee performers, as well as seasonal and Holiday extravaganzas. Alligator Adventure is a top-notch reptile zoo, with hundreds of alligators and crocodiles, extremely rare exotic snakes, lizards, tropical birds, tortoises, albino alligators, gray wolves and flamingos. The Barefoot Princess Riverboat cruises the Intracoastal, offering sunset and dinner cruises along with unique sightseeing opportunities.

Restaurants abound, and Greg Norman’s Australian Grille is (pardon the pun) near the top of the food chain. An open kitchen and water views provide the sizzle, but the food (and extensive wine list) is the steak. Speaking of which, they are all premium black angus beef, aged nearly a month, and uniformly delicious. So is the extensive fish menu, including jumbo diver scallops and seared salmon Rockefeller.

“If it swims, we’ll catch it.” That’s the motto of the Flying Fish Public Market and Grill, another superlative dining experience at Barefoot Landing. Shrimp and Grits, Crab Cakes, and all sorts of fresh fish options, prepared in a variety of styles and with custom toppings (herb cream sauce, honey lime butter, mango salsa, tapenade, etc.), make this eatery a ‘go to’ for anyone who enjoys the bounty of the sea.

 

The Meadow Valleys at Blackwolf Run

What’s the best state for golf in America?

A question that always fosters great debate.

Hard to beat the Northeast, especially New York and New Jersey. And California is obviously loaded. Between those three states, they account for nine of the top 20 on Golf Digest’s list of America’s 100 Greatest. Born and raised in Sonoma County, I’ve always been partial to the weather, depth of great golf and 840 miles of California coastline.

Shift the conversation to the best state for public golf in America, and although California still reigns supreme, the Northeastern states go to the back of the line. Meanwhile, the cream of the public golf offerings in the Midwest is rising. And fast.

The Straights at Whistling Straights

My current Top 5 States for Public Golf in America is as follows:

  1. California (led by Pebble Beach, Spyglass Hill and Pasatiempo)
  2. Wisconsin (Whistling Straits, Blackwolf Run’s Championship Course and Erin Hills)
  3. Oregon (Pacific Dunes, Bandon Trails and Bandon Dunes)
  4. North Carolina (Pinehurst No. 2, Mid-Pines and Pine Needles)
  5. South Carolina (Kiawah’s Ocean Course, Harbour Town and Caledonia)
  6. Michigan (Forest Dunes, Arcadia Bluffs and The Loop)

In tabulating the number of courses in Golf Digest list of America’s 100 Greatest Public Courses, there’s a direct reflection of my list above: California leads the way with 10 courses on their list. Wisconsin is second with nine. Then it’s Oregon with eight, North Carolina with seven and South Carolina and Michigan both have five. Hawaii is not in my top 5, but has six courses on GD’s list.

Now, as the U.S. Open comes to Wisconsin, it’s an appropriate time to appreciate what the state has done to move up both lists in the last 30 years.

Prior to 1988, the year Herb Kohler decided he’d add the first of four Pete Dye golf courses to his offerings at the American Club, the state of Wisconsin had hosted one major, the PGA Championship at Blue Mound Golf and Country Club in 1933 (Gene Sarazen), and a Walker Cup at Milwaukee Country Club in 1969. Both are private.

Blackwolf Run

Since Blackwolf Run’s original 18 holes hosted the U.S. Women’s Open in 1998, and counting this week’s U.S. Open at Erin Hills, the state of Wisconsin will have hosted seven men’s and women’s majors in 20 years. Plus, the U.S. Amateur was at Erin Hills in 2011 and the Ryder Cup is coming to Straits in 2020.

Safe to say, Kohler and Dye not only had the vision, they had the execution and they’ve accomplished their mission.

“When we first talked to Pete and asked him to come to Wisconsin to take a look, when he came into town the first thing he saw was a population sign on the edge of town,” says Kohler. “Population 1,923 people.”

Dye’s response: “Who’s gonna come up here and play golf?”

The dynamic duo kept building, and the golfers kept coming. And so did the major championships.

“I had determined from the beginning that our interest was majors,” Kohler told me for a Golf Channel interview I did leading into the 2015 PGA Championship. “I had determined from the beginning that our interest was majors. Not weekly tournaments. Majors. That was how we would differentiate and go to the top if we could be good enough to get majors.”

I know, I know. Just because a course hosts a major championship, and especially a Ryder Cup, doesn’t automatically make that course “great.” But what it does do is bring feet, eyeballs and necessary exposure to get played, rated and ranked. It leaves indelible images and everlasting discussions about holes, shots and champions hoisting significant hardware while impacting the opinions of all who lean into the ropes or glue themselves to their TVs.

Erin Hills

Se Ri Pak’s playoff win at Blackwolf Run inspired Korean domination on the LPGA Tour. We’re still discussing and debating what would’ve been Dustin Johnson’s first major championship in 2010 had he not “grounded” his club in a “bunker.” And who will ever forget Robert Beck of Sports Illustrated’s picture of Dash Day literally dashing into the outstretched arms of his father, who had overcome adversity and outlandish odds to become a major champion.

Sand Valley

And given Dye’s impact on the world of architecture, the setting of both Straits and Blackwolf Run, the current state of Erin Hills and the golf volcano that’s about to erupt at Sand Valley in Rome, Wisconsin, the Badger State just might be scraping and clawing it’s way into the top spot for public golf in America.

Insiders and lists of great golf in Wisconsin go beyond the four courses at Destination Kohler, Erin Hills and Sand Valley, which already includes a Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw design that opened earlier this year. A David McLay Kidd course will open next year. And there are at least one, probably two, and potentially three more courses to come to Nekoosa, which is even smaller and more remote than what was Kohler in 1988.

Oh by the way, they still don’t have the permitting, but Kohler and Dye have designs for a fifth course at the American Club.

“The Wisconsin vs. California comparison is an interesting one,” says Kevin Price, a friend and avid golfer who lived in Wisconsin for 10 years before moving back to Monterey, California in 2009, which is where he was raised. “What’s the most macho public trip in each place? I’d say Pebble, Spyglass, Bayonet, Pasatiempo and Harding Park is an ultimate Northern California itinerary. In Wisconsin, you’d play Erin Hills, Blackwolf Run River, Straits and eventually both new ones at Sand Valley. In that matchup, I’d take California,” says Price. “But only by a slim margin. Seriously, it’s close.”

Price and other Wisconsin insiders also swear by Lawsonia Links, SentryWorld, Lake Arrowhead, Washington County and Brown Deer.

California could counter with Torrey South, CordeValle, PGA West (Stadium) and both at Pelican Hill.

“What Sand Valley does is makes a Wisconsin trip an absolute must,” says Price. “We all know Mike Keiser is going to do it right. And with the space he has out there, the mind reels at the possibilities.”

If you shelve Wisconsin’s short season for a second (roughly April 1 thru October 31), acknowledge there’s no ocean but admit Lake Michigan is a worthy alternative and recognize that a remote course only adds to the adventures and charms of getting there, if you’re top-seeded California, you have to put the pin in on 18, remove your cap and shake hands having won this match 1-up. But down deep, you know this budding golf state they call Wisconsin is a little like a 22-year-old Jon Rahm, a favorite and my pick to win this week at Erin Hills.

Rahm and Wisconsin are already competing with the elite, and they’re both only getting better. And fast.