These days fifty bucks will barely fill the gas tank in your SUV or cover a family night out at the movies. But it can still get you a round of golf at a great course near you. We polled our course-ranking panelists and a network of regional golf experts to find the 50 best courses for under $50. Course design and conditioning were factors, but the key is cost: every course in the Thrifty 50 costs less than $50 for non-residents at least four days a week in high season, walking or riding. And these aren’t twilight rates!
South-central Nebraska is a long way from anywhere, but it’s worth the trail ride to get to Wild Horse. This “Carnoustie of the Corn Belt” tumbles through windswept, treeless terrain, where half the battle is keeping the ball from trundling into links-like bunkers and tall native grasses. So complete is the test offered that Wild Horse has been described as the public version of nearby Sand Hills. That comes as no surprise: course architects Dave Proctor and Dave Axland were instrumental in helping Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw create that celebrated course.
Less than an hour’s drive from downtown Los Angeles, Rustic Canyon uses Old World design challenges to achieve golf’s most delicate balance: testing top-level players while providing a hugely enjoyable experience that reminds less-skilled why they play the game. The design team of Gil Hanse, Jim Wagner and Geoff Shackelford deployed heaving fairways that lead to firm, fast greens, all protected by bold and imaginative bunkering. Washes and environmentally protected areas crisscross the routing, but most holes are wide enough to accommodate multiple means of approach. The only variables in a round here are your levels of skill and hubris: Rustic Canyon will let you thrive or perish on either one.
Whenever your tree-loving kids tell you that golf is bad for the environment, tell ’em about Old Works. Thirty miles west of Butte, Jack Nicklaus capped a Federal EPA Superfund site and built a typically strong test of golf atop it. The most memorable feature is the black slag bunkers; the slag is from an old copper smelting plant, the remnants of which forms a unique backdrop to many holes.
Just like Wild Horse, Lakewood Shores in remote northeast Michigan is another faux links that scores high in the value department. It’s all about the gales at the Gailes: the premium is on controlling your trajectory in the wind off gusts off Lake Huron. Master that and the only challenge is avoiding the deep (and often blind) bunkers and wispy fescue grasses that line the rippling fairways.
Hiawatha Landing has way too many trees to be confused with a links, but the gorgeous golden fescues that frame the fairways are as attractive as anything across the pond. Located about three hours northwest of New York City, just west of Binghamton, this Brian Silva/Mark Mungeam design is highlighted by jagged edge bunkers that melt into the landscape.
This 10-year-old gem from designer John Harbottle III is a ray of sunshine for golfers in the perpetually rainy Pacific Northwest. Sitting just across Puget Sound, west of Seattle, the Olympic Course is routed through avenues of tall firs and was a deserving host of the 2006 USGA Amateur Public Links.
Don’t let the name deter you: this course only sounds like some guy’s backyard project. Willinger’s is 30 miles from downtown Minneapolis but sports a wild, way-out-there ambiance. The opening nine is flattish and wanders around multiple marshland areas, but the layout really comes alive on the topsy-turvy back nine that’s tucked into the trees.
It’s not too long ago that the only reason folks drove miles out of their way to Four Corners region of the Southwest was to pose for pictures while straddling the only dot on the U.S. map where four states touch each other. Now Pinon Hills, in farthest northwestern New Mexico, gives golfers a better reason to rack up the miles. Sandstone outcroppings and deep canyons serve as handsome hazards on this Ken Dye design, but it’s the wildly undulating greens that can send scores skyward.
New Yorker Stephen Kay was turned loose on this treeless site overlooking Lake Sakakawea in northwest North Dakota and the results is the Dornoch of the Dakotas: a near-authentic links experience with fast-running fairways, 82 ingeniously placed bunkers, and a location that will let you play until 10:00 p.m. in the height of summer. And all for $40!
Wayward hitters will find plenty of intimidation at Gray Plantation, and not just from the water hazards that lurk on 12 holes-many of those hazards are teeming with alligators. In the heart of Cajun Country, architect Rocky Roquemore carved wide fairways from a forest of tall pines but what Rocky giveth he taketh away with the occasional forced carry to an island green.
Stick a pickaxe in your bag because this dynamite layout was sculpted from a former gravel quarry mined by the father of PGA Tour player Chris Smith and the rocks that remain can ruin your round. Wetlands, trees and heaving terrain complement an inspired routing by Pete Dye protege Tim Liddy that’s situated 70 miles north of Indianapolis.
You shoulda made a toin at Albuquerque. Had you done so, and headed north for 15 miles to the Santa Ana Pueblo, you would have found its namesake golf club with its mostly flat fairways that ease past the Rio Grande. You would have also discovered some of the most consistently quick, tough-to-two-putt greens west of the Pecos, along with desert brush lining the fairways and mountains all around.
13. Callippe Preserve
6,748 yards, par 72; Greens fee: $42 and up
This 2006 addition to the Bay Area golf is scene is a welcome one, thanks to its close proximity to San Jose and San Francisco, its memorable mountain vistas and to its greens fee that won’t induce sticker shock in a locale where a mil will get you a one-bedroom cracker box. Architect Brian Costello routed the course to take full advantage of the twisting Happy Valley Creek and stuck holes 11-14 adjacent to Callippe butterfly sanctuaries.
Fifteen miles north of Salt Lake City is the simply named layout that offers simply superb value-a scenic, true championship track for under $30. The course name refers to the Salt Lake Valley, but other attractions are the Wasatch Mountain backdrops, multiple elevated tees and a variety of sidehill lies and creek-influenced holes.
15. Capstone Club of Alabama
7,032 yards, par 71; Greens fee: $39 and up
Architect Gil Hanse proved he could create sophisticated, yet affordable courses with California’s Rustic Canyon and this Deep South design just east of Tuscaloosa is further proof. The layout balances thickly treed holes with more wide open ones, but always there’s something interesting going on, be it the huge variety of bunker shapes, the 120-foot drop to the fifth green or the curling stream to negotiate at the 17th.
OK, so Oklahoma isn’t the first place you think of for great resort golf courses, but this seven-year-old Randy Heckenkemper design could help alter that perception. With typical prairie winds, dense tree cover and 15 holes routed on hilly bluffs above Lake Texoma, near the Texas border, Chickasaw Pointe offers one of the best state park tests in golf.
With its high-octane football air attack and Bobby Knight running the basketball team, Texas Tech’s three-year-old golf course might get overshadowed-except that it’s such a dynamo in its own right, it more than holds its own. Minimalist Tom Doak maxed out the dirt-moving here, converting a flat old cotton field into vast mounded fairways with greens to match that successfully accommodate the strong West Texas winds.
Suburban Denver is blessed with an abundance of topnotch value-priced courses and this 1985 Pete and Perry Dye design leads the way, with a plethora of water hazards, railroad ties, British links-style native roughs and pot bunkers. Wide fairways wind along the South Platte River, making for a scenic, if windy experience, especially at such holes as the lake-guarded par-3 eighth.
Fifty-five miles east of Columbus is Zanesville, the self-proclaimed pottery capital of the U.S., and perhaps it’s not a bad idea for first-timers to this 1990 Michael Hurdzan design to grab some clay and mold it to the firm, fast putting surfaces to get them to slow down. Besides fast greens, the challenges include significant elevation change and club-twisting rough all on a compact site that lends a classical feel to the layout.
20. The Tennessean Golf Club
7,183 yards, par 72; Greens fee: $36 and up
Paris in the spring is quite lovely, especially if you’re teeing it up at the The Tennessean, a heavily forested layout in Paris, Tennessee, 100 miles west of Nashville near the Kentucky border. It was the perfect job for architect Keith Foster, who lives in Paris, Kentucky. We’re not sure if Foster speaks French or not, but his design oozes joie de vivre in the form of severely undulating fairways and greens, rock outcroppings, chasms and creeks.
21. Texarkana Golf Ranch
7,370 yards, par 72; Greens fee: $23.50 and up
There can’t be a tougher golf course in the United States that costs less to play than this untamed Ranch. Hacked out of wooded terrain adjacent to Bringle Lake, this Jim Fazio Jr./Hank Haney design is so demanding, you might even pay Haney his hourly rate just to guide you around the eight dramatic shoreline holes. With holes like the 234-yard par-3 15th that plays to an island green, it’s easy to see how the Ranch earned its 76.7 rating and 149 slope.
Prayer and contemplation may be in order at this 1989 Jim Spear design that’s not only situated 20 miles southwest of Cedar Rapid, but also sits within a utopian religious site that’s listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Unless you can keep it out of the white oaks that frame the hilly fairways, however, you will find no salvation in your score.
With all of the acclaimed public courses in the Chicagoland area, you’d have to have rocks in your head to drive 85 miles to play golf, right? Yet Chicagoans do it all the time, to get a crack at the pride of Rockford, a Dick Nugent gem that compares favorably to his Kemper Lakes layout, for a quarter of the price. High-lipped bunkers, easy-to-lose-a-ball-in rough, scattered mounding and the 203-yard island green eighth add up to trouble for wayward hitters.
Ongoing home construction has diminished the Murph’s aesthetic appeal, but the Ken Kavanaugh prairie links design remains as solid as ever, dating back to the layout’s 2000 debut when Nick Faldo posted a 69, then likened the challenge to what he experienced at Sand Hills. When the USGA’s Amateur Public Links arrives here in 2008, the winner will be the guy who keeps it out of the golden fescues and away from the deep, sprawling bunkers and rusted farm implements strewn about the property.
Northwestern Wisconsin isn’t near anything; the closest big city is Duluth, Minnesota, so don’t plan on playing a lot of early spring golf at Big Fish. When it thaws out, however, you’ll fall hook line and sinker for this Pete Dye/Tim Liddy design that mixes open, linksy holes with hardwood-framed beauties in a well-balanced package that also features closely mown chipping areas, little mounds and big ones and Dye’s seemingly random, but ultimately strategic bunkering.
39. Rochelle Ranch Golf Course
7,925 yards, par 72; Greens fee: $22 and up