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.
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.