The idea of tossing your clubs into the trunk and hitting the open road for a golf trip has never been more appealing, especially with record-low fuel prices. Whether you're driving your own wheels or touring around in a rental, freedom—and the first tee—beckons. Based on the quality of the destination and the sheer thrill of the journey itself, here are the three best golf road trips in North America.
San Francisco to Pebble Beach (115 miles)
Whichever route you use to head south from San Francisco, you'll eventually wind up on scenic California Highway 1, which then deposits you on sublimely beautiful 17-Mile Drive—golf's greatest thoroughfare. The best $10 you'll ever spend will give you access to the private road (it's free for hotel guests), which twists through the Del Monte Forest, emerging early and often at the Pacific Ocean and the entrances to a collection of earth's greatest courses.
The venue for five U.S. Opens and 70-plus years of PGA Tour events, Pebble Beach Golf Links (pebblebeach.com; $495–$535) indisputably remains a bucket-list track as it approaches its hundredth birthday. No more thrilling, spectacular stretch of holes exists anywhere than Pebble's fifth through 10th. And can anything in golf compare to that stroll up the par-5 18th as it curves to the left around Carmel Bay? Other must-plays are Spyglass Hill (pebblebeach.com; $395–$435) and Spanish Bay (pebblebeach.com; $270–$310). If you can somehow call in the ultimate favor to get onto ultra-exclusive Cypress Point Club (ranked No. 2 in the world), you owe it to yourself to do so.
Compelling options abound on and around the Monterey Peninsula. Our pick is Pebble Beach Resorts (pebblebeach.com; from $670). As a hotel, the Inn at Spanish Bay shines brightest with its modern, airy digs, outstanding sea access and outdoor fire pits that are ideal for cocktailing. Its off-the-main-road location means it's free of Homer-and-Marge types looking to snag a photo. Spanish Bay's sibling, The Lodge at Pebble Beach, offers our favorite room, the Sloat Suite ($2,600–$3,960 per night), which overlooks the 18th green and the Pacific.
Awash in dark wood, trophies and tournament memorabilia, the Tap Room inside The Lodge at Pebble Beach is perhaps the greatest 19th hole of all. A round at Pebble, followed by a Tap Room burger and an icy draft beer, is a perfect day. For more ambitious fare, go upstairs at the Lodge to Stillwater Bar & Grill for Monterey Bay Red Abalone and sweeping views of the ocean.
Get your camera ready for marker number 16 on 17-Mile Drive: The Lone Cypress awaits. An enduring image of the West Coast, this 250-year-old wind- and wave-lashed tree clings to a granite outcropping that jabs into the Pacific. It evokes resilience, hope and beauty.
Essential sites start with the Monterey Bay Aquarium, the architecturally rich town of Carmel-by-the-Sea and the Joullian Vineyards Tasting Room in Carmel Valley, where Tom Watson's brother, Ridge, is vintner. Pasatiempo Golf Club (pasatiempo.com; $260–$292), a 1929 public-access Alister MacKenzie layout, is worth the detour to Santa Cruz, about 60 miles south of San Francisco and less than an hour's drive north of the Monterey Peninsula.
Chicago, Ill. to Kohler, Wisc. (145 miles)
It's a straight shot up I-94 from Chicago to Kohler, but once you hit Milwaukee you're routed north on I-43. If you're searching for serious scenery as you leave Chicago, start on aptly named Lake Shore Drive. In Evanston, take Sheridan Road north through the country-club suburbs along Lake Michigan. Eventually, you'll reach Lake Bluff, where you'll head a few miles west and start your interstate driving and your journey to Kohler.
Rippling fairways, walls of sand, fescue-cloaked hillocks and bluff-top holes along the water call to mind southwest Ireland. Except that Pete Dye's Whistling Straits (americanclubresort.com; $395–$500) is apple-pie American and has hosted the PGA Championship three times. A major venue in its own right is the resort's Blackwolf Run River course ($200-$285), twice a U.S. Women's Open host. Pete Dye's typically hard edges, ligament-snapping rough, steep, grass-faced bunkers and holes that skirt the Sheboygan River are highlights. Whistling Straits' Irish course ($140–$195) and Blackwolf Run's Meadow Valleys ($140–$195) make for worthy companions.
Twice the top-rated resort in North America in GOLF's Premier Resorts Awards, the Tudor-style American Club (americanclubresort.com; from $396) offers three lodging options: one on-site, another across the street in the Carriage House annex (which provides extra space and unbeatable Kohler Waters Spa access) and the third down the street at the value-oriented Inn on Woodlake (starting at $192). Traditionalists should make their best effort to stay in the main building at least once. Built in 1918, it's rich in history, and it used to house Kohler's immigrant employees.
Before you leave the Windy City, chow down on a true Chicago original: deep-dish pizza. Many pay homage at Pizzeria Uno's first, 1943 location, though others swear by Lou Malnati's. Once at the four-star American Club, the Immigrant Restaurant offers unmatched regional artisanal cheeses; the Horse & Plow serves up grilled local bratwurst; and the Whistling Straits clubhouse sweetens your day with sticky toffee pudding.
Hold your phone steady in the winds sweeping off Lake Michigan at Whistling Straits' par-3 seventh. Called "Shipwreck," the hole skirts the shore and plays to a tough bunkered green benched into a hillside. Then remind yourself that Pete Dye created this hole and its elevations from a poker table–flat military base turned toxic waste dump.
If you confined your trip to Chicago's attractions, you'd never leave town. So with great golf as the carrot, head 35 miles northwest of Milwaukee to play Erin Hills (erinhills.com; $265), the linksy, Ireland-in-the-Heartland venue for the 2017 U.S. Open, that stretches a gargantuan 7,776 yards.
Ingonish Beach to Inverness, Nova Scotia (96 miles)
The road that takes you from Highlands Links to Cabot Links incorporates one of the most glorious stretches of pavement ever conceived—Cape Breton Island's Cabot Trail. Swinging north along the edge of the Atlantic Ocean, then rounding the edge of Cape Breton Highlands National Park and swinging southwest along the Gulf of St. Lawrence, few roads on earth deliver such an elongated expanse of stunning coastal panoramas. The Trail traverses steep, rocky cliffs and twists through old-growth forests, offering up moose, bear and eagle sightings. At Margaree Harbour, the Cabot Trail meets the Ceilidh Trail, which leads directly into Inverness and Cabot Links.
Begin your Cabot Trail adventure at Highlands Links (highlandslinksgolf.com; $59US–$90US), called the "Cypress Point of Canada for sheer beauty" by the late George Knudson, a Canadian who won eight times on the PGA Tour. Architect Ian Andrew has helped restore this sprawling 1939 Stanley Thompson design, which mixes forests with Atlantic Ocean vistas. At journey's end, you'll sample Canada's greatest seaside golf, starting with Cabot Links (cabotlinks.com; $65US–$155US), a rumpled 2011 Rod Whitman creation that features holes such as the par-4 sixth, which boomerangs around a fishing harbor, and the tiny par-3 14th, which heads straight to the beach. Finally, feast on Cabot Cliffs ($65US–$155US), a dune-laden, year-old Bill Coore/Ben Crenshaw design. It wows with maximum variety and drama, with cliff-top holes reminiscent of Pebble Beach on the north end of the property and south-end holes that are nestled closer to the beach.
Cabot Links (cabotlinks.com) in Inverness features the 48-room Cabot Links Lodge ($130US–$278US) and a collection of two- and four-bedroom villas ($433US–$1,226US). All have handsome, pared-down décor and offer modern conveniences and golf and sea views. Start your trip at Keltic Lodge Resort and Spa (kelticlodge.ca; $175US–$258US) in Ingonish Beach. Its Old World charms and next-door access to Highlands Links make it ideal.
It's tough to beat the fresh local lobster and the Atlantic salmon and halibut entrees at Cabot Links' Panorama Restaurant, followed by a nightcap at the Cabot Bar. Whisky connoisseurs can travel a little farther south to Glenora Inn & Distillery (glenoradistillery.com) in Glenville, home to North America's first distiller of single malt whisky. The on-site pub features local music twice daily, and the dining room is acclaimed for its regional specialties, such as a creamy seafood chowder full of haddock, clams, scallops and lobster.
There are dozens of "look offs" on the southbound Cabot Trail journey along Cape Breton's west coast. Just when you think the panoramas can't get any better, along comes the next one to prove you wrong.
If you're hankering for a snack break at the halfway point of the Cabot Trail, look no further than the Rusty Anchor (rustyanchor.co) restaurant in Pleasant Bay. Its Connecticut-style lobster roll (butter only—no mayo) is simple perfection, and as you chomp away you can spot whales in the bay below.