Serious golfers everywhere warm to the term “sweater weather” and understand that winter golf vacations don’t always have to be in the tropics. Temperatures might be less than ideal in the five destinations below, but to the hardy, they are worth the trip. The bit of winter chill in the air may necessitate an extra garment, but it also means extra savings.
As a bonus, playing in something other than prime time usually means less crowded courses, which means you have time for more golf. Don’t be dissuaded by morning frost or a lack of daylight. For many, winter golf is the best of all.
Few more glorious summer golf spots exist in the U.S., but winter in San Diego is a pleasant surprise. Average daytime highs from December through February range from 65 to 68 degrees, but better yet, the normal low is only 50 degrees, with only 1.5 inches of rain per month, which means you can play early-and often. Here’s where to play.
7,607 yards, par 72; Green fees: $87-$181
Already one of the nation’s busiest municipal courses, Torrey Pines South is basking in unprecedented demand, with the 2008 U.S. Open due in June. Still, you’ve got a fighting chance to duel with the South in shoulder season, when tourists are elsewhere.
Play the tips at your peril. Rees Jones’ 2001 re-design stretched the layout to exhausting lengths, with 28 new bunkers in the process, yet he amp’d up the drama quotient as well, by moving greens closer to the canyon edges. Steroids seem to have bloated the 483-yard, par-4 4th, which is perched on a bluff with the ocean to the left and the 504-yard, par-4 12th, which is just plain brutal, but the risk/reward, par-5 closer offers even 12-handicappers a legitimate shot at birdie, if they can avoid the pond that fronts the elevated green.
7,088 yards, par 72; Green fees: $120-$200
Players who arrive at the 2007 Nationwide Tour Championship should sharpen their spikes, so firm and fast are the fairways and greens at this rolling tribal course that twists through rock-embedded mountain foothills 40 minutes inland from the coast. Ball control is a must at Barona, because more than 100 large, tattered-edge bunkers await sidespinning or poorly struck shots.
Punch shots from the firm turf will test your recall from playing across the Pond, but the British Isles have few holes that resemble the 566-yard, par-5 17th or 472-yard, par-4 18th, each with water that spells a miserable end to a hooked shot.
7,021 yards, par 72; Green fees: $100-$205
Believe it or not, winter weather is pretty good here, despite the hard rain that used to fall seemingly every year in late February when the pros rolled into town for the Accenture Match Play Championship. For years, La Costa’s tournament course was comprised of nine holes from the South course (holes 10-18) and nine from the North (1-3 and 13-18). The South was famous for its closing stretch of into-the-wind holes, known as “the longest mile,” but the more attractive set belonged to the North.
Best of the Dick Wilson/Joe Lee-designed bunch was the par-3 16th, its tee box in the shadows of the hilltop clubhouse, which called for a mid-iron over water to a shallow green ringed with four bunkers. It was here in 1997 that Tiger Woods stopped Tom Lehman cold in their one-hole Mercedes Championships playoff, nuking a 7-iron to a few inches to seal the deal.
6,835 yards, par 72; Green fees: $59-$120
Open only since July 2007, this municipal layout was 15 years in the making, but where value is concerned, it was worth the wait. Designed by veteran Phoenix-based architect Greg Nash, who formerly partnered with Billy Casper, The Crossings trots out a fistful of holes that overlook the Pacific, along with wild elevation changes, canyon-framed fairways and swatches of coastal scrub dotting the rough. It’s not terribly long from the tips, but seaside breezes make this a worthy test.
Memorable holes include the 556-yard, par-5 7th, its back tee stuck into a rock wall ledge and its shallow green guarded by a cascading water feature; the 402-yard, par-4 11th, with its 10-story drop to the fairway and the 407-yard, par-4 18th, with its Pacific Ocean backdrop. Best of all, non-residents can enjoy the ride for under $100, Monday through Friday.
HILTON HEAD ISLAND, SOUTH CAROLINA
Residents exhale with a “whoosh” when winter rolls around and the swarms of summer and fall visitors have vamoosed. They have their island back all to themselves-except for a few savvy tourists that don’t mind a little crispness in the air-and a bit o’ savings at the pro shop. With winter daytime highs average between 60-65 degrees, midday golf is perfect, even if early mornings are on the frosty side.
6,973 yards, par 71; Green fees: $240-$295
Springtime and Harbour Town go hand-in-hand, but if you can survive without blooming azaleas and massive crowds, you’ll enjoy it just as much. Host to the PGA Tour’s Heritage event since 1969, this is the layout that put both Hilton Head Island and architect Pete Dye on the map. Dye had consulting help from a fellow named Jack Nicklaus, but the waste bunkers, railroad ties and funky, tiny greens are pure Pete Dye.
Unforgettable is the 458-yard, par-4 18th, that slithers along Calibogue Sound, with its iconic red-and-white-striped lighthouse looking in the backdrop, but most of Harbour Town is devoted to slender holes where the premium is on placement, where native marsh, lagoons, boarded bunkers and overhanging tree limbs pose endless problems. Yes, it’s dead-flat, but it’s a wild ride nonetheless.
7,081 yards, par 72; Green fees: $84-$129
Granted, the ferry ride to Daufuskie Island from Hilton Head might be a trifle brisk in mid-winter, but there are few better spots to thaw out than at this Jack Nicklaus-designed stunner. The tree-lined front nine is chock full of ’80s-style, attractive Nicklaus brutes with alternate routes of play that culminate in shallow, well-fortified greens, but it’s the back nine you’ve come to play. The 187-yard, par-3 16th and 400-yard, par-4 17th introduce you to the Atlantic Ocean, but the showstopper is the 560-yard, par-5 18th, its fairway bisected by a tree and bunker complex. Lapping at the fairway’s border is the Atlantic, which hugs the right side right up to the green. Even if you play safely left, take a quick trip up the right side just to see what you’re missing, It’s worth the detour.
7,103 yards, par 72; Green fees: $140-$200
The latest Hilton Head must-play is an extreme makeover of the island’s second oldest layout, a 1966 George Cobb product called Sea Marsh. Cobb was a pretty fair talent, once serving as consulting architect for Augusta National, but he could never have contemplated what Pete Dye has wrought.
In a nutshell, Dye retained the old corridors and most of the trees, but transformed everything else, turning marshmallow into monster, but one that’s fun to play. Modestly sized greens are now dished out in sections, putting an emphasis on precise approaches, but the real messes will shake out before then, thanks to Dye’s reliance on a multitude of water and sand hazards, many bulkheaded by wide wood planks and grass walls. You might lose a sphere or two-or more-but you won’t encounter a dull hole from start to finish.
Player Nine: 3,298 yards, par 36; National Nine: 3,361 yards, par 35; Weed Nine 3,357 yards, par 36; Green fees: $53-$82
Gary Player’s original 18 dates to 1989 and while there’s little that’s original about it, the entire layout is pure fun, right down to the price tag. The finishing holes on both nines are worth the price of admission, notably the 440-yard par-4 9th on the National, which asks for a 175-yard carry from the back tee.
While the eight-year-old Weed nine looks similar, it plays quite differently from its elder siblings and shouldn’t be missed. It’s firmer, more bouncy and offers more variety, especially around the greens. The beguiling blend of holes, the uniformly fine conditioning and the lack of intrusive housing make Hilton Head National the best value in town.
ALABAMA’S ROBERT TRENT JONES GOLF TRAIL
Even at the height of peak season-whether spring or fall-Alabama’s Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail has been the poster boy for superior value. However, head to Crimson Tide country in winter and you’re talking about a steal, not a deal. With normal highs from December through February ranging in the 53-62 degree region, sweaters are the norm, not the exception, but practically empty are a slew of rugged handsome layouts along the Trent Jones Trail-at prices that will think about staying all winter.
8,191 yards, par 72; Green fees: $90-$125
If it were a professional wrestler, the Trail’s newest course would bill itself as the Birmingham Behemoth, to be sure, but proved quite playable for the Champions Tour pros as host for the Regions Charity Classic this past May. Digging the course most was Dr. Dirt, Brad Bryant, who went 12 under on Ross Bridge’s vast, sprawling fairways, which feature similarly scaled greens and bunkers.
Ten holes edge lakes, but landing areas and greens are so roomy, it’s not that tough to avoid the trouble. What is unavoidable, however, is the gargantuan length of nearly every hole, with par-3s that range from 207 to 239 yards, par-4s from 454 yards to 518 and par-5s from 571 yards to 698. Sure, you can move up a tee box or two, but make no mistake, Ross Bridge is one seriously long slog.
7,055 yards, par 72; Green fees: $40-$77
Built on land donated by U.S. Steel in Birmingham, the Ridge is yet one more iron-hard Trail track that delivers on value. Shelved into the rolling peaks and valleys of the Appalachian Mountains, the course may frustrate first-timers with its blind shots over mounds and narrow shots through forests.
Nonetheless, Oxmoor is worth the journey, due in part to memorable holes such as the 592-yard, par-5 9th, with its well-guarded green positioned on a plateau, as well as the 176-yard, par-3 17th where the green sits nine stories below the tee. Unique is the green at the par-5 12th and the tee box at the par-4 13th, both of which are located on top of a gray shale mesa left over from long-ago mining operations.
Canyon Nine: 3,746 yards, par 36; Loblolly Nine: 3,551 yards, par 36; Sherling Nine: 3,681 yards, par 36; Green fees: $40-$77
Cambrian Ridge, 40 miles south of Montgomery, could very well be the most dramatic of the Trail sites, with the most attractive vistas, steepest terrain, boldest bunkers and tallest trees. Sherling/Canyon offers the best test, but if it’s variety you seek, check out the Lobolly, which is as placid as it sounds, with flatter fairways and slightly shorter holes than its sisters.
Sherling offers plenty of muscle-witness the 636-yard 8th, a brutal par-5 that features a mother lode of yawning fairway bunkers. The enormous is green is multi-tiered and a haven for three-putting. Now comes the hard stuff. Fortify yourself at the turn, because Canyon’s first hole is a 501-yard, par-4, with an uphill approach. What follows is the 275-yard, par-3 second. Got a club for that? If so, you’ll use it again at the 8th, a 258-yard par-3. Better make that drink at the turn a protein shake.
7,149 yards, par 72; Green fees: $40-$77
Ranked No. 70 on GOLF Magazine’s Top 100 Courses You Can Play, Grand National’s Lake course would be worth the price at double going the going rate-but let’s not go there. Instead, we’ll focus on November 19, 2007 through February 29, 2008, when you can walk one of the top public tracks in the nation for under $45.
With 12 holes that flirt with 600-acre Lake Saugahatchee, there’s no guarantee you won’t have to reload a few times-and that goes for your camera as well, thanks to sparklers such the 522-yard, par-5 12th that doglegs to left around the lake and the fearsome 230-yard, par-3 15th, which plays to a long and narrow island green.
Lee Trevino once remarked that the coldest he ever was in his life was in the Las Vegas desert, at the 1971 Sahara Invitational. While it’s true that desert mornings and evenings can get surprisingly intemperate, typical daytime temps are relatively mild, averaging 58-65 degrees for highs from January to March. So roll the dice, bring your windshirts and risk a few bucks on the links. Over the long haul, you’ll spend less money outdoors than you will indoors.
7,239 yards, par 72; Green fee: $500
As of March 2000, it’s no longer the impossible-to-get-onto layout of legend, but Shadow Creek remains the ultimate Hollywood set come to life, an oasis of pine trees, rolling hills, flowers and waterfalls hewn from a poker table-flat, lifeless plot of desert by magicians Wynn and Tom Fazio.
Even the most curmudgeonly of purists would acknowledge that Shadow Creek is worth its stripes for its finish alone, with the eye-popping, watery, 164-yard, par-3 17th taking a backseat only to the 564-yard, par-5 18th, a risk/reward wonder that eases past three ponds set on a diagonal, each tempting with a bite-off-as-much-as-you-can-chew proposition. Five bills is a lot to ask, but if you want to be dazzled-at any time of year–this is the place.
7,604 yards, par 72; Green fees: $105-$220
The toughest and costliest of Paiute’s three courses is a distinctive Pete Dye design that opened with a Shell’s Wonderful World of Golf match in 2000 that witnessed Karrie Webb edging Annika Sorenstam, 64-65. Well, it wasn’t so hard for those two, but for most, it’s a howler, thanks to ever-present winds, glassy greens and dense, wildflower-dotted brush cruelly edging every fairway.
All the club’s photos feature the 182-yard, island-green, par-3 15th, but the most compelling par-3 on the course is the 206-yard 8th, with its artful contouring, stern bunkering front-right and steep fall-offs in back.
7,002 yards, par 71; Green fees: $199-$325
Wildly overpriced and lacking a practice facility, Bali Hai also suffers from a so-close-to-the-airport location that you could likely snag a cocktail from the flight attendant in your backswing, if you can concentrate at all given all the jet noise. Yet, for all that, if you’ve got the dough, go for it. You’ll save nearly $100 on cab fare alone, as the course is just a five-minute ride from the heart of the Strip and the layout itself features a fun, gorgeous, South Seas-themed design from Lee Schmidt and Brian Curley and a restaurant, Cili, that’s among the best of its kind in the U.S. While a few of the par-4s and 5s are a bit cramped for some tastes, a pair of par-3s, the 9th and the 16th, will linger long in memory.
6,525 yards, par 70; Green fees: $82-$104
In its checkered history an earlier version of this 48-year-old course played co-host to the PGA Tour’s Sahara Invitational and when the Tour returned to Las Vegas in 1983, it was one of four courses used in Fuzzy Zoeller’s victory. Its current incarnation is a 2004 makeover by Schmidt-Curley, who slashed yardage, but improved character and playability. What remains are the handsome mountain views and some mature trees as well as a killer closing hole, a 371-yard, par-4 that is nearly surrounded by sand and water.
PINEHURST, NORTH CAROLINA
To serious traveling golfers, the very name “Pinehurst” conjures up images of reverence and awe, on a par with the apex of golf destinations, St. Andrews and Pebble Beach. Of course, most of this reverence applies to a spring visit, when the dogwoods and azaleas are blooming in full force. If you’re on a budget and are willing to brave the elements a bit, many area resorts offer midwinter packages, when courses are at their least crowded and green fees at their lowest. Prepare to bundle up, however, as average daytime highs are mid-50s for December through February.
7,335 yards, par 72; Green fees: $299-$359
Following in famous footsteps doesn’t get much better than at historic Number 2. For starters, it’s a really easy walk, especially with a caddie lugging your sticks and second, every golf legend in this century and the last has made the same journey. Payne Stewart and Michael Campbell have won recent U.S. Opens here, but there’s so much more. In 1940, Ben Hogan won his first pro tournament at No. 2, the starred in the 1951 Ryder Cup here. Jack Nicklaus won the North and South Amateur here in 1959; 26 years later, his oldest son won the same event.
To be fair, you’ll pay for all that history, but at least in winter, you’ll save $60 off peak spring rates to tackle the fiercest short game test in the U.S.
7,015 yards, par 71; Green fees: $115-$240
Pine Needles played host for the third time in 2007 to the U.S. Women’s Open, which witnessed so much rain, perhaps they should have scheduled it for January. Trading rain gear for sweaters seems fair so long as you can tackle this 1927 Donald Ross when it’s playing firm and fast, the way it should play.
Premier shotmakers Annika Sorenstam, Karrie Webb and Christie Kerr have triumphed here, which proves you’ve got to have some game to conquer the sloping fairways and crowned greens at holes such as the petite par-3 3rd, the dogleg-left par-5 10th and the formidable par-4 18th, where getting the ball to the green is easier than keeping it there.
7,092 yards, par 72; Green fees: $189-$239
Considerable debate exists as to which Pinehurst course is second best. Not only does Number 8 garner a majority of votes, but many whisper that it’s even better than Number 2. Them’s fighting words in Pinehurst, but it’s undeniable that Tom Fazio’s modern interpretation strikes a chord. Its clever Ross homages-swales and crowns and chipping areas-please the purists, as they frustrate even highly skilled short game practitioners while the rolling terrain and healthy carries over wetlands and dune ridges makes you appreciate your game-improvement clubs that much more.
Thrilling but brutal back-to-back expressions of Fazio’s skills are the 238-yard, par-3 8th with its forced carry over scrub-filled wetlands and the 441-yard par-4 9th, with an uphill drive over a veritable desert, followed by an approach to a green large enough to house three little greens. If the course and weather beat you back come January, at least you’ve saved $50 for your troubles from what you’d pay in spring.
6,554 yards, par 71; Green fees: $49-$124
Towering sandhills, remarkable variety in landscape shaping and bunker design and plenty of alternate routes to get from tee to green characterize this 1998 Mike Strantz design. Or, put another way, Tobacco Road at times resembles golf on acid, so warped are some of the landforms and putting surfaces. Blind shots, mounds in incomprehensible places and greens that list like a ship in a storm explains how a 6,500-yard course can boast a slope of 150. The Road isn’t suited to everyone’s tastes, but chances are good you’ve never experienced anything like it, which makes it a must-play, especially for winter prices that top out at $59.