Merion (East) was a landmark of sorts for me: my 500th course played. With its unparalleled history (Jones in 1930, Hogan in 1950) and wicker-basket flags, it quickly zoomed into my top 5.
Rhode Island (1996)
A dandy moment in the Ocean State -- taking in the ancient, exclusive Misquamicut Club in Westerly on an autumn afternoon aflame with burnt-orange colors. Willie Anderson holes dating to 1895 mix with 1923 Donald Ross beachside holes, and the result is a joyous golf experience.
South Carolina (1995)
While on a family vacation on Hilton Head Island in 1976, my dad wouldn't spring for the buck-a-hole cost of Harbour Town. Yes, Harbour Town cost $18 back then! I got my chance two decades later, stood even-par after 14 holes, contemplated the enormity of my best-ever round -- and bogeyed my way home. Our post-round celebration at the Quarterdeck, by the candycane- striped lighthouse, eased my woes. ($139-$259; 800-732-7463, seapines.com)
South Dakota (1984)
About a 90-minute drive from Mt. Rushmore, the ninehole Wall Community Golf Course provided me with the novel experiences of paying at the first tee via an honor box, and playing oiled-sand greens. Smoothing a path to the hole with a roller, then reraking the “green” upon holing out plain tickled me. Alas, in 2002 an all-grass track replaced the Old World layout. ($21-$24; 605-279-4653)
Playing hooky from the PGA Championship in Atlanta, I took on Black Creek Golf Club, a Brian Silva–channeling–Seth Raynor design with many homages to the master, like deep bunkers and punch-bowl greens.
It was a Saturday morning. I boarded a private plane in Hilton Head, flew to Dallas, checked in at the Four Seasons and played the TPC at Las Colinas, the host of the Byron Nelson. A dinosaur-sized steak greeted me at III Forks restaurant. The next day, I watched from a luxury box at Texas Stadium as the Oakland Raiders edged the Cowboys 13-12. We then jetted back to Hilton Head. Best. Weekend. Ever. ($195; 972-717-0700, fourseasons.com/dallas)
St. George, Utah, is one of the most underrated destinations. Red sandstone bluffs mark the landscape, as do lava rocks that line holes 15, 16 and 17 at Entrada at Snow Canyon, a private track open to guests who stay at the Inn at Entrada. ($135-$170; 435-634-7100, innatentrada.com)
The Golf Club at the Equinox, a hilly 1926 Walter Travis design retooled by Rees Jones in 1992, radiates Yankee charm. Loaded with elevated greens, it could be a Currier & Ives print, complete with birches, maples, mountain brooks and a white church steeple rising out of the trees. ($79-$115; 802-362-7870, equinoxresort.com)
My first visit to the Homestead introduced me to the Cascades, a William Flynn design that boasts pristine beauty amid tree-covered mountain slopes. I'm still a sucker for that red brick clock tower poking from the trees. ($195-$225; 800- 838-1766, thehomestead.com)
West Virginia (1993)
Talk about first-tee jitters. Sam Snead himself joined me for my tee time at the Greenbrier's Old White course, as did dozens of trips: Special edition onlookers. That night, I helped Sam read the dinner menu (he'd forgotten his glasses) and roared at his endless (and unpublishable) stories. ($200-$325; 855- 453-4858, greenbrier.com)
A late April snow didn't stop Chambers Bay associate designer Jay Blasi and me from teeing off on the municipal layout that's hosting the 2015 U.S. Open. Pelted by an onslought of hail, I endured end-of-days weather, but the innovative design enthralled me. ($99-$205; 253-460-4653, chambersbaygolf.com)
After rounds on Blackwolf Run and Whistling Straits' Straits course, I added some culinary research projects, including a Two-Horse Hitch sandwich (a burger topped with a sliced bratwurst) for lunch at the Horse & Plow. Dinner at the Whistling Straits clubhouse featured the best sticky toffee pudding I've feasted on in the States. Good thing I had two more courses to walk the next day. ($185-$420; 800-618-5535, americanclubresort.com)
What I most recall about the Jackson Hole Golf & Tennis Club, a Robert Trent Jones Jr. beauty, is the Grand Tetons piercing the heavens in every direction. ($65-$195; 307-733-3111, jhgtc.com)
This article first appeared in the October 2012 issue of Golf Magazine, which is on newsstands now. Subscribers can download the issue on their tablets at golf.com/allaccess.