While going stir crazy at home, dreaming about the trip to Pinehurst I just cancelled, wondering what the routing at Sheep Ranch is really like, and trying to decide if it’s brave or scummy to find out if any courses in the Bay Area are actually letting folks play … I’ve been going through a countdown of my favorite courses that I’ve actually played. To be sure, I would have expected some of the courses on the Pinehurst trip to knock a few of these off the list, but this is the list for now.
(A note: This is the part of the list where my 2018 trip to Scotland starts rearing its presence, and it won’t be the last part. Just a heads up.)
First, the list so far:
25. Sharp Park Golf Course, Pacifica, CA
24. The Boulders, Carefree, AZ
23. Torrey Pines (South), La Jolla, CA
22. Grand Cypress (The New Course), Orlando, FL
21. St. Michaels Golf Club, New South Wales, Australia
20. Corica South, Alameda, CA
19. Streamsong Red, Bowling Green, FL
18. Poppy Hills Golf Course, Pebble Beach, CA
17. Rustic Canyon Golf Course, Moorpark, CA
16. Pacific Grove Golf Links, Monterey, CA
And now…let’s dive back in for the new additions to the list:
15. The Golf House Club, Elie, Scotland
The Elie Golf Course is a place I’d never heard of until No Laying Up featured it in their Tourist Sauce video, and apparently I’m not the only one as they’ve dramatically increased their visits from tourists ever since. We took a buddies trip to Scotland and while we used a tour company for most of the courses, we had one day left open – which we decided to fill ourselves with Elie. It was one of the most fun rounds we had. Elie is built on a small piece of land, and they use every inch of it. Some tee boxes hit directly over fairways of other holes, and you criss-cross in a way that is delightful and unlike anything you’ve seen. The first hole is a blind shot over a hill, and you need to use a periscope in the golf hut to determine when it’s safe to hit.
At a close drive from St. Andrews, Elie is a great course to play when you have an afternoon open. If the course is fairly open, apparently there is a pub off of the 3rd or 4th hole where folks take a break for a pint! Be forewarned that while shorts are acceptable, they’re only okay if you then wear (available for purchase!) socks that will cover your knees entirely. (We wore pants.) Elie is a great course and a place to post a good score if that’s something you care about. I had so much fun out there, it’s an easy selection for my top 15.
14. Indian Wells (Celebrity), Palm Springs, CA
There’s not much of a different type of course from the links of Elie than a fully manicured course in the desert of Palm Springs. While one could argue a course like Elie was discovered, Indian Wells was built in a place that didn’t have grass, let alone golf holes. And yet, the Celebrity Course at Indian Wells is so much fun and a great challenge, it was a no-brainer for this list.
It’s flat out gorgeous, and unlike the flat out meanness of a PGA West Stadium course, it’s a good challenge for golfers of all stripes.
Even playing with a howling desert wind we all had fun, with handicaps ranging from the single digits to the “what’s a handicap?” It wasn’t all rosy – here’s one of my favorite pictures of AC, disgusted with his tee shot:
Indian Wells is clearly a resort course, and as such it should be fun for all golfers. It absolutely is, and it’s gorgeous to boot.
13. Half Moon Bay (Ocean Course), Half Moon Bay, CA
The Ritz-Carlton in Half Moon Bay is home to two top flight courses, the Ocean and the Old Course. Reviews are mixed on the Old Course (though its finishing hole is as gorgeous as any in the area), but the consensus on the Ocean Course is pretty consistent – it’s awesome. It’s called the Ocean course because much of it runs along cliffs atop the Pacific Ocean, though plenty of the course goes inland.
So many of the holes are incredibly dramatic, and there’s danger where you don’t expect it (I managed to turn a short par-3 into an epic poem of misery) but it’s in such good shape and every hole meets that criteria. While I don’t believe it’s a true links course, my memory of it feels similar to the way it felt to hit the ground in Scotland.
And man, those views.
12. Bandon Dunes, Bandon, OR
We’ve arrived at the first Bandon Dunes course on my list – it won’t be the last. And while the namesake course has perhaps the most scenic hole on the property in #16, it’s not my favorite of the courses there. Perhaps it’s because we played it first and I was so hyped to play it that the first six or seven holes are a blur in my memory. (My caddie literally asked me on the second hole if this was my first round at Bandon. After I said that it was, he nodded and said, “Yep. Understood. You’ll calm down around the sixth or seventh hole.” Wise man.)
But there’s nothing like Bandon Dunes. It’s my happy place. And the way the land is used here – putting holes on the water instead of a clubhouse, using the natural land as shown below on the 16th hole.
If you want a links experience and can’t make the trip to Ireland or Scotland, Bandon Dunes is as close as you’ll get and you won’t be disappointed. Make sure to stay on property and play more than one course. Play all of them. And then make plans to come back, again and again.
11. Castle Stuart Golf Links, Inverness, Scotland
When we took our trip to Scotland, my man AC and I went over earlier than our buddies (who played Elie with us on the day of their arrival.). AC and I instead went up to Inverness for a few rounds of golf we couldn’t resist, and the first course we played was Castle Stuart, a relatively new course designed in 2009 by Gil Hanse and Mark Parsinen. To set the stage, I had flown across the U.S. to make a connection in Newark Airport – the three hour gap I’d put in between evaporated due to a delay in SFO, a rerouting due to weather – and I literally just made the overnight connection. If you’ve ever heard an airline paging YOUR name as the flight doors are closing, you know what true panic is.
Somehow, I made the flight (and my clubs did too!) and we landed in Edinburgh in the morning, prepared to drive up to Inverness and go launch ’em. After a three-hour drive (!) interrupted halfway by some breakfast (Scottish food might not be truly elite, but the sausage roll is straight from heaven) we pulled into a parking lot wondering what was waiting for us. And first, it was this:
The first hole is behind the clubhouse to the left, and sits aside the Firth of Moray. While I pulled my drive into the rough on the left side of the hole, it was the beginning of me falling in love with links golf. I scrapped out and it hit the ground earlier than I’d hoped … but because the fairway was fast and firm, the ball rolled almost to the fringe of the green. It was a wakeup call and a reminder that these courses play differently than American courses.
Then, on the short par-3 4th hole, we walked up to see this:
It’s not every day you hit a tee shot directly at a friggin’ castle. A guy we were paired up went into the left greenside bunker and putted out of it onto the green for a tap-in par. It was another reminder that golf in the kingdom is just different from the game we’ve amended here in the states.
Side note: This has nothing to do with the golf course, but the guy we were playing with who putted from the bunker was a doctor from New York. His wife and daughter had gone on a trip to her home of Tokyo. She had NO idea he was even in Scotland, as she frowned upon that sort of thing, and I believe he had already been in the country for a full week playing solo golf. AC and I were both horrified and delighted at this story. Nice guy, too. Not sure how healthy that marriage is, but let’s get back to Castle Stuart.
I loved Castle Stuart. Some holes are incredibly challenging, and yet the whole course feels accessible. It has hosted the Scottish Open four times since opening (that’s four times in the 10 years it’s been open!) and there’s some chatter about it as a Ryder Cup stop or certainly returning the Scottish Open there sooner than later. It’s a championship course, for sure.
I’d love to play it again when I’m not broken and jet-lagged (the first nine holes felt like there were 27 of them). Though the travel is a bit rough, it’s also a nice introduction to links golf, as everything is top-notch, the views are astonishing and it’s a very healthy walk. Not enough folks make it up to Inverness on their Scottish golf trip, but if you do, Castle Stuart is absolutely worth a stop.