Hit the Links
6 Awesome Golf Courses to Play This FallChristine VanDyk & Angie Lewis, Writers
As the world slowly starts to get back to some kind of “normal,” people are eager to break their cabin fever and enjoy their favorite pastimes again — including golf.
So, when you’re ready, grab your clubs and get your “Fore!” on at one of these must-play courses (in no particular order) in 2021:
Kiawah Island Golf Resort (Kiawah Island, SC)
Home to the 2021 PGA Championship, the Ocean Course at South Carolina’s Kiawah Island Golf Resort was noted by Golf Digest as “the most difficult course in recent major-championship history.” In fact, the magazine consistently ranks the course as one of the top 20 toughest courses in the country.
Built in 1991 for that year’s Ryder Cup, the Ocean Course was originally supposed to be positioned behind the dunes. But when designer Pete Dye’s wife, Alice, suggested giving players unobstructed views of the nearly three miles of stunning coastline from every hole, the entire course was raised. In doing so, the course became substantially more demanding, forcing players to contend with unpredictable, sometimes fierce breezes from the Atlantic.
As described by Golf Digest: “...this manufactured linksland-meets-lagoons layout might well be Pete Dye’s most diabolical creation. Every hole is edged by sawgrass, every green has tricky slopes, every bunker merges into bordering sand dunes.”
Outside Ireland and the United Kingdom, it’s unlikely that any other course in the world is affected by wind as much as the Ocean Course. Depending on wind direction and strength, players may experience up to an eight-club difference from one round to the next.
Are you up for the challenge?
Bucket List Course
Pebble Beach Golf Links (Monterey, CA)
With iconic holes hugging the dramatic cliffs of Carmel Bay, Pebble Beach Golf Links is the ultimate bucket-list course. These seaside greens are hallowed ground thanks to a figure-eight design that hugs the water on the fourth tee and continues alongside the craggy coastline for the next seven holes. The play then drifts inland before making a spectacular return to the Pacific Ocean to finish this once-in-a-lifetime round.
Those iconic holes are what make Pebble Beach so timeless. Where else can you compete on greens you’ve seen in championship play? After all, everyone wants to hit the shot that Jack hit and recreate Tiger’s 273-yard slice around the cypress tree on the 18th hole.
It may be a classic, but is Pebble Beach still worthy of the hype? Definitely. According to Golf Digest, it’s still the best of America’s 100 Greatest Public Courses. Golfweek also put it in the No. 1 spot on its Top 200 Resort Golf Courses for 2021.
Coming off its centennial year, Pebble Beach now boasts plenty of new reasons to visit, including a golf academy and practice facility, refreshed guest rooms, The Fairway One at the Lodge and a visitor’s center with an interactive exhibit hall. Just be aware that tee times are tough to come by and a stay at the resort is your best chance of getting on the course.
Best New Course
Bandon Dunes Golf Resort (Bandon, OR)
Bandon Dunes Golf Resort is a purist’s dream. Located in the middle of nowhere, it’s a throwback to the ancient Scottish links. Raw, rugged and isolated, the resort’s four highly ranked courses elevate the timeless game. The greens are snug against the sweeping Oregon coastline with no houses or buildings to block the amazing views, making the scenery almost as exciting as the game itself.
This is golf the way it was always meant to be. And best of all, the hype isn’t limited to a single track. In fact, there’s no right answer to “What’s the best course to play?” From dawn until dusk, it’s the ultimate golfing destination.
Bandon Dunes recently opened its highly anticipated Sheep Ranch course. Designed by Coore & Crenshaw, the Par-71 stretches out for nearly 7,000 yards. With a mile of ocean frontage and nine holes where earth meets sea, stunning views add to the satisfaction of sinking a putt.
While the new course is garnering much excitement, the Bally Bandon Sheep Ranch isn’t exactly new. Designed by Tom Doak and Jim Urbina, the original course contained 13 green sites on what many consider to be the best piece of property around. Phil Friedman has owned and operated it since 2000 as a sort of personal playground. Only a privileged handful of in-the-know players have experienced these links, which are known for having no definitive routing, allowing golfers to choose their own play.
Friedman is finally ready to share this breathtaking 18-hole course with the world — and eager golfers are already in line to play.
Sheep Ranch’s most noticeable feature may be its natural beauty, but here’s what makes it unique: It doesn’t feature a single bunker. The massive elevation’s dips and falls, coupled with heavy ocean winds, make the links challenging enough.
Always Challenging Course
Bethpage State Park (Farmingdale, NY)
The infamous sign attached to a fence behind the first tee at Bethpage Black reads: “WARNING: The Black Course is an extremely difficult course which we recommend only for highly skilled golfers.”
So what makes these 18 holes some of the most brutal on the planet? To begin with, the course is long — 7,459 yards to be exact. It’s also a PGA par-70, however most everyday golfers take an extra bump on the seventh hole. Regardless of how you play it, given the complexity of the traps and the ups and downs of the hilly design, par is unlikely for even the best golfers. In fact, when Tiger Woods played the course in the 2002 U.S. Open, he was the only player to finish under par.
The course, which is part of Bethpage State Park, has ranked among Golf Digest’s Top 100 Greatest Public Courses for 20 years. In 2019, the publication touted it as the eighth best. So prestigious are these greens that avid players often sleep in the parking lot and rise before dawn in hopes of snagging a coveted slot.
Bragging rights are hard-won on the rough and punishing back nine, which hits fast and hard. Holes 10, 11 and 12 almost guarantee you’ll begin the back side hanging on for dear life and praying for mercy. This driver’s course begs for long-tee balls and the ability to navigate some of the most intimidating bunkers in the country. But despite the struggle, nobody ever calls it unfair. The test that is Bethpage Black is equally grueling for everyone.
Whistling Straits (Sheboygan, WI)
Set on two miles of Lake Michigan frontage, the Straits Course at Whistling Straits is rugged and plagued by wind. Arguably one of the country’s greatest championship courses, it has hosted the 2004, 2010 and 2015 PGA Championships, and was set to welcome the 2020 Ryder Cup, for which play was postponed to September 2021.
Inspired by Irish links, the design of this walking-only course is thanks to Pete Dye. To his credit, the Straits at Whistling Straits places 11th in Golf Digest’s 2020/2021 list of the 100 Greatest Public Courses in America and fifth on GolfWeek’s 2021 ranking of best courses.
The par-72 begins with a dogleg that curves toward Lake Michigan. From there it’s a series of wide-open, rugged landscapes that take advantage of every waterside vista, including eight holes that hug the lake. In addition to more than 500 sand bunkers and natural fescue fairways, the Straits also features an elevation change of nearly 80 feet.
Perhaps more notable is the flock of Scottish blackface sheep that roam the property. Just like a country course in the British Isles, the animals wander along the windy coastline on what is sure to be one of North America’s most postcard-worthy destinations.
The Dark Horse
Streamsong Resort (Bowling Green, FL)
Golfers in the know have undoubtedly played Nebraska’s Sand Hills Golf Club or Sweetens Cove in Tennessee. But an exciting course that many have yet to conquer is the Red Course at Streamsong Resort, which GolfWeek named one of the best courses in Florida for 2021.
What makes it unusual for Central Florida is that there isn’t a palm tree in sight. With holes that snake around wild savanna grasses and deep-water ponds, the links look more Scottish than anything in the Sunshine State.
Designed by the legendary foursome of Gil Hanse, Tom Doak, Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw, all three of Streamsong’s tracks — Red, Blue and Black — are built atop old phosphate pits. Each has received its fair share of accolades, including top rankings in Golf Advisor’s Golfer's Choice: Best of Florida golf courses.
Located between Tampa and Orlando, the 18-hole resort course is over 7,000 yards with a par-72 and a 130 slope. Players agree its challenges include the undulating greens, the change in elevation and soaring sands that give way to deep bunkers.
When you’ve packed up your clubs, the resort also offers a host of other amenities, such as bass fishing, sporting clays, archery and an award-winning spa. In addition, fine dining and a landscape of picturesque lakes make Streamsong a great destination or even an ideal escape from your theme park vacation.
In 2020, Streamsong’s Red and Blue tracks were re-grassed with Mach 1 Ultradwarf Bermudagrass. Its dark-green color, super-fine texture, extreme tightness, exceptional density and overall smoothness create the ultimate putting surface.
After more than a year of quarantining and social distancing, spending a day on the links can be a much-needed boost of serotonin.
Whether you feel comfortable venturing out now or prefer to wait a bit longer before socializing in public, the important thing is to stay healthy — and happy.