06 Oct 2022 | Clubs and Facilities |

The top public courses in the USA

by Golf Australia

Pebble Beach image
The 17th at Pebble Beach, which ranks No. 1 in America's public access courses. Photo: Getty

By Richard Allen

Next northern summer will see a huge jump in Australian golfers heading on long-awaited golfing pilgrimages overseas, mainly to the well-trodden links of Scotland and Ireland.

Top-class golf courses have been built in the USA in recent years on the back of great interest from golfers and their willingness to travel and spend. Many of the best are accessible to the public.

Here are 10 American public access courses worth flying over the Pacific to play. All are ranked in the top 100 in the country, eight in the top 40. They are not cheap to play and the exchange rate is not your friend at the moment – you won’t get much change out of $800 for a round at Pebble Beach – but golfers know they only live once.

1. Pebble Beach (California, #8 in the USA) Pebble Beach, on the Monterey Peninsula south of San Francisco, has always attracted superlatives. Nine of its holes are perched above the crashing Pacific surf—the fourth through to the tenth, plus 17 and 18. Opening in 1919, it has hosted five US Opens, winners including Jack Nicklaus in 1972, Tom Watson in 1982 and Tiger Woods in 2000, when he won the title by 15 shots. Irishman Padraig Harrington said afterwards: ‘I just looked at the scoreboard in total wonderment.’

2. Pacific Dunes (Oregon, #18) Designed by Tom Doak and opened in 2001, Pacific Dunes is regarded as the best of the courses at the fabulous Bandon Dunes complex, near the tiny town of North Bend in Oregon, in the USA’s north-west. Like Pebble Beach its great holes run along the Pacific Ocean – particularly four, 10, 11 and 13. The back nine has four par-threes. Golf magazine says simply : ‘Golf really doesn’t get much purer than this.’

3. Whistling Straits (Wisconsin, #23) Course architect Pete Dye transformed an abandoned army air base along a three-kilometre stretch of Lake Michigan, 110 kilometres from Milwaukee, into an imitation Irish course, with rugged fairways, great water views and more than 1,000 bunkers (with no rakes). The course has hosted three US PGA championships, the most recent won by Australian Jason Day in 2015. This year the USA Ryder Cup team trounced Europeans at the course, in a very lopsided final. If you make the trip, it would be a pity not to play nearby courses The Irish and Blackwolf Run.

4. Kiawah (Ocean Course) (South Carolina, #24) Another Pete Dye creation, 40 kilometres southwest of Charleston, Kiawah Island runs along three kilometres of wind-swept Atlantic Ocean coastline, its raised fairways giving golfers fine views of the roiling surf. Built for the 1991 Ryder Cup, the course has hosted many other large events since then, including 50-year-old Phil Mickelson’s extraordinary win in the 2021 US PGA championship.

5. Shadow Creek (Nevada, #27) Shadow Creek, just out of Las Vegas, started out as a private course when it was opened in the early 1990s. Designed by Tom Fazio, it is one of a kind, its startlingly green fairways contrasting against azure blue skies and the jagged brown peaks of the Nevada desert mountains. Travelling to Vegas is a necessary downside, but you can always skip the casinos and have two rounds at Shadow Creek.

6. Pinehurst #2 (North Carolina, # 29) Built in 1902 by the peripatetic Donald Ross and later tweaked by both Australian Walter Travis and – 100 years later – by Ben Crenshaw and Bill Coore, Pinehurst # 2 is a must for any serious golf tragic. Playing firm and fast, often to upturned saucer greens, the course will test the mettle of any golfer. When you are done, there are another eight courses at the resort to play.

7. Bandon Dunes (Oregon, #37) July, August and September are the best months to visit Bandon Dunes, and there are six courses to choose from: Pacific Dunes (see above), Bandon Dunes, Bandon Trails, Old Macdonald (a tribute course to Charles Blair Macdonald the so-called father of American course design), the par-three Bandon Preserve, and Sheep Ranch, which opened in 2020. Designed by Scotsman David McLay Kidd in 1999, Bandon Dunes gets rave reviews, particularly the holes overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Bandon Trails is really worth playing, while Old Macdonald’s crazy, undulating greens will drive you nuts.

8. Bethpage Black (New York, #40) Based in Farmingdale on Long Island – not far from New York City – Bethpage Black has spectacular conditioning. Many golfers used to sleep in the parking lot to guarantee a game (first come, first served) but online bookings have made it far easier. Take note: you need to verify your handicap. The sign on the first tee says it all: ‘Bethpage Black is an extremely difficult course recommended only for highly skilled players’. Tiger Woods won the US Open there in 2002, while Brooks Koepka shot a course-record 63 during his US PGA victory in 2019. Bethpage Black will host the Ryder Cup in 2025.

9. Erin Hills (Wisconsin, #46) Erin Hills, northwest of Milwaukee, was designed by three little-known architects – Michael Hurdzan, Dana Fry and Ron Whitten – and opened in 2006 as an affordable public course. After changes were made – some greens moved and a blind par-3 eliminated – and the hosting of the 2011 US Amateur (won by American Kelly Kraft), the US Golf Association selected it to host the 2017 US Open, which was won by Brooks Koepka with a most un-US Open score of 16 under par.

10. Spyglass Hill (California, #51) Despite sitting in the shadows of its illustrious neighbours Pebble Beach and the uber-private Cypress Point further along the coast, Spyglass Hill – part of the Pebble Beach golf group, which includes Pebble Beach, Spanish Bay and Poppy Hills – is certainly worth playing, although it is not easy. Former Golf Digest editor, Cal Brown, says Spyglass Hills is ‘remorseless in exposing golfing weaknesses.’ Its five opening holes have eye-popping views of the Pacific Ocean (the short dog-leg fourth, with its long sinuous green, is a stand-out), but it then heads inland through hills covered with majestic Monterey pines and well-placed water hazards. Some say Spyglass is Robert Trent Jones’ best work, and his best course never to have hosted a major event.

- First published in the Australian Financial Review. Richard Allen is a Golf Australia board member, author and journalist.

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