Courses and Travel

Travelin' Joe's Ultimate Top 100 Courses You Can Play Bucket List

GOLF Magazine's Top 100 Courses You Can Play list yields so many great highlights, it's tough narrowing it down to just the Top 10. Nevertheless, duty calls. It was tough leaving out a trip to Bethpage Black, but I'm not sure that sleeping overnight in your car to procure a tee time there is a highlight or a lowlight. In any case, here are my Top 10 bucket list experiences that are drawn from the Top 100 Courses You Can Play.

Pebble Beach Golf Links, Pebble Beach, Calif.
$495-$530; 800-654-9300, pebblebeach.com

Magical moments come in bunches at Pebble Beach. Say what you will about the price tag - somewhere north of five Franklins these days - but as once-in-a-lifetime experiences go, the cost is irrelevant. It's all worth it for one unforgettable round at this seaside gem that's played host to five U.S. Opens and millions of memories.

No more thrilling, spectacular stretch of holes exists anywhere than holes 7 through 10. And is there anything in golf that can compare with that final stroll up the par-5 18th as it curves to the left around Carmel Bay? Nicklaus's 1-iron in '72, Watson's chip-in in '82, everything Tiger did in 2000 - you have a chance to join them with just one swing.

Bandon Dunes Golf Resort, Bandon, Ore.
$75-$275; 888-345-6008, bandondunesgolf.com

If you build it, they will come - provided they can get a tee time. From Day 1 in the spring of 1999, passionate course connoisseurs have flocked to Bandon Dunes Resort, the greatest "must-play" public course mecca ever built in the United States.

Draped atop the craggy headlands of the Pacific Coast in southern Oregon, Bandon is situated two-and-a-half hours from Eugene and more than four hours from Portland. Half the fun is merely getting there. It's tough to top a facility with four of the Top 15 public-access courses in the country, including the Number 1-ranked Pacific Dunes, but Bandon never stops.

In 2012, they added Bandon Preserve, a spectacular 13-hole par-3 course crafted by Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw. The remote location, often times wacky weather and walking-only policy are plusses for some, drawbacks for others, but for purists, Bandon Dunes is the ultimate buddies trip in the U.S.

Arnold Palmer's Bay Hill Club & Lodge, Orlando, Fla.
$100-$300; 407-876-2429, bayhill.com

After he waxed Jack Nicklaus in an exhibition at Bay Hill in 1965, Arnold Palmer liked the place so much he bought it. Mr. Palmer has held court here since 1976 and there's nowhere else on earth that you're more likely to run into him than in the grill room, in the locker room or on the putting green. Honestly, that's what makes this place great.

Still, not even the King has played the course quite so well as Tiger Woods, a seven-time winner at Bay Hill, including a four-peat from 2000-2003. Perhaps the scariest second shot in golf is the over-the-lake approach to Bay Hill's banana-shaped 18th green. Go long and a nightmare downhill chip from rough or sand awaits, with water beyond. The approach to such a slender target is so tough it even rattles Woods.

"You can't really say 'get up' or 'get down' because you don't really know," says Woods.

To play Bay Hill, you must be a guest of the 70-room lodge, but it's worth the splurge if only to bask in the aura of Tiger's triumphs and potentially to shake hands with the King himself.

Coeur d'Alene Resort, Coeur d'Alene, Idaho
$150-$270; 208-667-4653, cdaresort.com

For two decades, island greens were all the rage in architecture. Coeur d'Alene's version, however, remains unique. Golfers hit to a true floating island, one that's capable of moving up or back on any given day, thanks to a system of cables attached to the bottom of gorgeous Lake Coeur d'Alene.

A six-passenger mahogany boat called "Putter" transports you to the green, where you dock, then putt out. Scores of red geraniums, a pair of gleaming white traps and a smattering of evergreens add beauty to the green, but most beautiful of all is the certificate they create for you if you make par or better. As gimmicks go, it's one of the best ever.

Still, Coeur d'Alene is more than a one-hole wonder. There may be 99 more challenging courses among our Top 100, but Coeur d'Alene might reign supreme in the looks department. For sheer eye candy and the ultimate island green, Coeur d'Alene belongs on your bucket list.

TPC Sawgrass (PLAYERS Stadium), Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla.
$245-$385; 904-273-3235, tpc.com

From the moment you make your tee time, you're thinking about one golf shot - and you know which one I'm talking about. Pete Dye's fiendishly exciting 17th is golf's ultimate gut-check. No par 3 anywhere demands such perfection with club selection and ball flight. Because the tee box isn't elevated, the mildly rippled, apple-shaped island green (which is larger than it looks) isn't framed particularly well, which only increases the feeling of dread. Persistent breezes and a pot bunker jabbed into the right-front of the green complicate matters further. By the time you slow your palpitations to execute a short iron that you know you can hit in your sleep, you'll wake up to the most exciting shot in golf.

Whether you treat the Players Championship as "the 5th Major," what's undeniable is the special buzz that percolates around the event. Unquestionably, the course design itself has something to do with the vibe, thanks to the finest collection of risk/reward holes in golf. You owe it to yourself to sample each and every one - especially No. 17 - at least once in your life.

Pinehurst Resort (No. 2), Pinehurst, N.C.
$360-$420; 855-235-8507, pinehurst.com

One of the rare public-access courses in the U.S. to play host to multiple major championships, Donald Ross' masterpiece is drenched in golf history. As with the Old Course at St. Andrews, the virtues of Pinehurst No. 2 don't jump out at you at first glance, but with the subtlety comes a wallop.

Take the par-4 5th, for instance. Jabbed into the pine-studded sandhills an hour and ten minutes south of Raleigh/Durham is the most harmless-looking scorecard wrecker you've ever played. There's no water and no fairway bunkers. Instead, bewitching contours and a maddening green inevitably funnel approaches far from their intended line.

Phil Mickelson, who competed in the 1999 and 2005 U.S. Opens here says, "No. 5 is a brutal hole. I don't want to say impossible, but very close to it." Recently restored to strategic perfection with exposed sand areas by Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw, Pinehurst No. 2 remains the fiercest test of chipping in the country.

With admirers ranging from Ben Hogan to Tiger Woods, No. 2 easily earns a spot on my bucket list - and should on yours as well.

Harbour Town Golf Links, Hilton Head Island, S.C.
$139-$259; 800-732-7463, seapines.com

As iconic golf landmarks go, few can compare with the candy cane-striped lighthouse that backdrops the 18th green at Harbour Town. With the Calibogue Sound lurking to the left and OB looming right, Harbour Town's closing hole is one of the sport's most unforgettable.

Just following in the footsteps of past champions Arnold Palmer, co-designer Jack Nicklaus and Davis Love III is reason enough to make this a must-play, but the rest of the course is nearly as captivating, including one of the greatest quartets of par 3s Pete Dye ever designed.

Ranked No. 12 in our latest Top 100 Courses You Can Play, Harbour Town dishes out narrow fairways and tiny greens hemmed in by lagoons and live oaks for 16 holes, until it gives way to the sea. Thanks to some recent tweaks by Mr. Dye that included adding bunkers at the 5th and building new back tees at the 12th, 15th, 16th and 17th, Harbour Town's shot values appear intact for the next 40 years.

Whistling Straits, Haven, Wisc.
$185-$420; 800-344-2838, americanclubresort.com

Pair a hotel called the American Club that's unsurpassed in the Midwest for dining, service and spa, with four of the nation's greatest public-access courses and you've got a bucket list trip for sure.

The golf is comprised of the River and Meadow Valleys courses at Blackwolf Run and the Straits and Irish courses at Whistling Straits. Anywhere else and Blackwolf Run's River, a two-time U.S. Women's Open host (in concert with nine Meadow Valleys holes) would be the standout. Here, the headliner is the Straits. With eight holes routed along Lake Michigan, 70-foot-tall sandhills that are garbed in native fescues and roughly 1,000 bunkers, Whistling Straits is a faux-Irish combination of heaven and hell for golfers.

While it's well and good to follow in famous footsteps, thinking of Vijay Singh's and Martin Kaymer's playoff wins at the 2004 and 2010 PGA Championships, respectively, or of Tom Watson's wind-blown back-nine collapse at the 2007 U.S. Senior Open, it's undeniable that the Straits course would be every bit as great even if not a single Hall-of-Famer ever journeyed here.

The Ocean Course at Kiawah Island Resort, Kiawah Island, S.C.
$217-$343; 800-654-2924, kiawahresort.com

No one who follows golf will ever forget the 1991 Ryder Cup Match here, an event dubbed "the War by the Shore." Though Bernard Langer cost Europe the win by agonizingly missing his 6-foot-putt at the last, many contend the real winner was the battlefield itself.

So tough was Pete Dye's creation alongside the Atlantic Ocean that Ray Floyd speculated no one would break 80 if the format were stroke play. Twice in the past 20 years, Dye has softened the layout, but you'll still be whipsawed by the prospect of tackling tidal marsh carries, scrub-topped coastal dunes and fiercely guarded, wildly contoured greens.

The "roar by the shore" in 2012 was tied to Rory McIlroy, who proved at the 2012 PGA Championship that superior play could conquer even the toughest track. With four other excellent courses, miles of pristine beach and the superb Sanctuary hotel, Kiawah Island Resort has to be a mainstay on anybody's bucket list - as it is on mine.

Kapalua Resort (Plantation), Kapalua, Maui, Hawaii
$268; 808-669-8044, kapaluamaui.com

Win a tournament on the PGA Tour and one huge perk vests immediately - You're going to Kapalua. While Super Bowl winners inevitably mouth "I'm going to Disney World," into the camera, Tour champions get golf's version of an amusement park, Kapalua Resort's Plantation course.

When the wind blows, which is virtually always, Plantation serves up one of golf's wildest rides. Why is Plantation a bucket list item? Partially because once in your life, you've got to play golf in paradise-Hawaii. The island of Maui in particular offers the best combination of lush scenery, rare rainfalls and ocean panoramas. The other part of the equation is that you have to experience the inspired architecture of Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw at least once, and it may as well be here.

Hilly, extra-wide landing areas lead to huge, rolling greens, with slopes, ramps and island gusts helping direct your ball-flight path. Most memorable are the downhill-plunging par-4 17th and par-5 18th, both with jungle-strewn canyons to the left and the Pacific Ocean beyond. You may not score birdies and eagles as Tiger Woods and Ernie Els did in their 2000 playoff, but you'll be glad you tried.

 

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