When you get right down to it, there are only a handful of absolute “must play in a lifetime” golf locales. That’s not to say there aren’t loads of exceptional places to tee it up and have an absolute blast with clubs in tow, but here are the five ultimate golf experiences to be had at least once before we go off to the 19th hole in the sky.
Pebble Beach Golf Links
The ultimate “must do” golf experience in the U.S. is Pebble Beach Golf Links on the magnificently beautiful Monterey Peninsula. Robert Louis Stephenson called it the “greatest meeting of land and sea on Earth.” I wholeheartedly agree. Though the green fee is a staggering $495, it’s worth every penny. The course is beyond great, especially the beguiling holes (Nos. 7 — 10) hugging the craggy shores of Stillwater Cove. The crescendo of walking up the storied par-5 18th with the deep blue Pacific flanking the entire left side is one of the great thrills in golf.
If you’re only going to do it once, my advice is to just bite the bullet and spend the money to do it up right. Stay at The Lodge at Pebble Beach, which starts at $800 or so a night, but is loaded with creature comforts and amenities. Have drinks and dinner in the humming Tap Room that has hosted most every golf-loving celebrity from Bob Hope to Bill Murray to Justin Timberlake. Savor the ambience of the Pebble Beach experience. It’s the best we have in this country. The memories will be priceless.
Bandon Dunes Golf Resort in Southern Oregon is probably the closest golf mecca we have in the U.S. to the wonderfully natural links-style courses of Scotland and Ireland. Though semi-remote, a few hours’ drive from the bigger cites in Oregon, Bandon is proof “if you build it, they will come.” Golfers from the world over now make the journey there to play its marvelous quintet: Bandon Dunes, Pacific Dunes, Bandon Trails and Old McDonald. Each design navigates the wild and wholly terrain and spectacular seaside sand hills. I could only play Pacific Dunes, my personal favorite of the four, for the rest of my life and be as happy as a golfer could be.
Mostly what raises Bandon to the top of the heap is that it showcases Mother Nature in all her glory: deer running amok, invigorating sea air, incredible seascapes, and pure joyous exceptional golf. If you stay at the resort, green fees run from $75 in Dec. to $270 during the summer (June — Sept.). There are excellent accommodation options including The Lodge, which starts at $220 a night during the high season. Bandon Dunes is so very, very much worth doing.
Bethpage Black, out on the middle of Long Island 45 minutes from midtown Manhattan, is an absolute must for any golfer worth his or her salt. But, please note, it comes with a stern warning sign on the first tee proclaiming the course is playable only for “highly skilled golfers.” Many, including me, think it’s the hardest golf course in the U.S. and perhaps the world. We golfers can be masochistic sorts, but even after it beats up me yet again, I just want to play it once more after my fragile golfing psyche recovers.
Built in 1936 by famed course designer A.W. Tillinghast on the undulating, bucolic land of Bethpage State Park, no golf carts are allowed on the Black. It’s a strenuous
Old Course at St. Andrews
The ultimate golf experience anywhere, hands down, is Scotland’s Old Course at St. Andrews, the birthplace of the game. There is nothing quite like it as every step from the first tee shot to holing out on No. 18 is like walking through golf’s history. Thankfully, bored Scottish shepherds invented this crazy pastime over 500 years ago while hitting rocks with sticks on this swath of turbulent terra firma while the sheep meandered peacefully in the seaside dunes. It turned out this thin cut of land hard on the North Sea in the Kingdom of Fife was perfect for the new time killer. Your golf resume just isn’t complete unless you play where the whole thing started.
There’s an eerie, timeless feeling to the proceedings as the routing begins and finishes smack dab near the center of the bustling burg of St. Andrews and right alongside the Royal and Ancient Clubhouse, the most iconic landmark in the game. The first person to be written about playing golf was Mary Queen of Scots in the mid-1500s. She was crazy about the game and played St. Andrews often. Of course, she was later beheaded by Queen Elizabeth I who clearly wasn’t a golf fan. A round on St. Andrews will run $250 from April to Oct. It might well be the best deal in golf. There’s absolutely nothing else like it for us golf nuts.
Few countries can match the bounty of Ireland’s golf offerings with its plethora of gems: Ballybunion, Royal County Down, Waterville, Enniscrone, Lahinch, Carne, Portmarnock, Ballyliffin; to name only a few. But, Northern Ireland’s Royal Portrush is the cream of the crop. As the home course of Irish golfing greats Rory McIlroy, Darren Clarke, and Graeme McDowell, Portrush is a true championship challenge that tests every facet to the nth degree, but we mere mortal golfers can savor it as well and give it a go.
The course is delightfully natural with constant surprises on how the fairways snake to and fro or how a putting green sits majestically into a sand dune shelve like it was intended to be there all throughout the ages. The holes are mostly secluded from each other so there’s a prevailing peaceful bliss as you try to get your ball into the hole with as few strokes as possible. But even if your score at the end is nowhere near as low as that of a golfing genius like McIlroy, you do know you just played one of the finest golf courses there is. Royal Portrush is world-class. Green fees are around $250, and as with the courses mentioned above, well worth it at last once in a lifetime.
David Wood is the author of Around the World in 80 Rounds