We have now entered the star chamber – the top-10 courses I’ve played. As a reminder, these are the most enjoyable/favorite courses, independent of any Top 100 course list (which I gobble up like an addict, naturally).
So far, the list looks like this:
- Sharp Park Golf Course, Pacifica, CA
- The Boulders, Carefree, AZ
- Torrey Pines (South), La Jolla, CA
- Grand Cypress (The New Course), Orlando, FL
- St. Michaels Golf Club, New South Wales, Australia
- Corica South, Alameda, CA
- Streamsong Red, Bowling Green, FL
- Poppy Hills Golf Course, Pebble Beach, CA
- Rustic Canyon Golf Course, Moorpark, CA
- Pacific Grove Golf Links, Monterey, CA
- The Golf House Club, Elie, Scotland
- Indian Wells (Celebrity), Palm Springs, CA
- Half Moon Bay (Ocean Course), Half Moon Bay, CA
- Bandon Dunes, Bandon, OR
- Castle Stuart Golf Links, Inverness, Scotland
- Now, we get started below…
10. Bandon Trails Golf Course, Bandon, OR
Time to peel back the window of honesty here – I’m somewhat regretting putting Bandon Dunes at 12 and having Trails here at 10. It feels a bit of a hipster move, because most people who play all four rate Trails as the lowest. There’s a reason for this – while the other three (and soon to be four, with Sheep Ranch opening in 2020 – presumably…COVID-19 changes everything…) all run along the coast, Bandon Trails is almost entirely an inland course. A Coore-Crenshaw design, it is absolutely the outlier on property, but at the same time … it’s really amazing.
Here’s what I’ll stress – if Bandon Trails was anywhere else, as a stand-alone course, it would be related higher and considered a true masterpiece. It suffers because of the courses it’s adjacent to. (Hipster enough for you?)
The course actually does start (and finish) on the dunes of the beach, and it’s just above the best par-3 course in the world, Bandon Preserve. (Which didn’t make this list, but deserves a mention.) But then, it turns inland and suddenly one realizes how few trees they’ve seen all week at Bandon Dunes (assuming you, like me, played this last on your trip.) The second hole is a massive downhill par-3, followed by an uphill par-5 on the third. Every one of them is memorable, and it’s one of the best starting three holes I can think of.
Like many courses, there are strategic bunkers everywhere, and they’ll punish the crap out of you if you find them. I think if you ask most golfers, they’ll agree that Trails is the most “gettable” course on property, and I certainly played better here than any other course.
On the par-4 11th hole, you’ll realize that the first (and only true) water hazard you’ve seen all week is to the right of the green. It’s so impressive that four world class courses don’t rely on lakes and streams to challenge the hell out of you, and there are zero faux waterfalls here, to the likely dismay of Mr. Jack Nicklaus and The Faz.
The most famous hole is the par-4 14th hole. The view from the tee box is where Mike Keiser stared at the entire uncleared property of Bandon Dunes proper and realized what it could be. And the hole itself…my word. If you’re a big hitter, it’s a drivable green, but be forewarned that the green is the shape and size of an ironing board. If you miss right, you could be 100 yards away by the time it finishes rolling out. It’s a double-bogey waiting to happen, and the best “miss” is to the left – but not too far, because watch out for the trees. I think about this hole more often than I’m comfortable admitting.
Bandon Trails is a true gem, and one of my absolute favorite courses on earth.
9. The Old Course, St. Andrews, Scotland
It almost feels like a crime to not include this in my top-5 if not higher. And I’ll use the excuse that I’ve “only” been lucky enough to play it once. Many say that you don’t really understand the course until you’ve played it a few times. Sure. I’ll buy that. But either way, it’s a magical place. I was lucky enough to play it with my three buddies on our Scotland trip, hitting the daily lottery on the last possible day.
Many folks before me have noted that there is no way a course like this could get built today, with some holes being preposterously short, and shared greens on most of the holes (with the holes always adding up to 18!). The history plays a HUGE role in what makes this so great, as if you’re a golf dork like me — and the fact that you’re reading this fairly well makes that true – you’ve seen numerous Opens and other tournaments here and know many of the holes already.
What you can’t realize until you get there is the scale of some things. You’ve heard of Hell Bunker (which I somehow missed but it’s the stuff of nightmares) but have you really heard of Shell Bunker? This is me spending Spring Break in there:
It shouldn’t have to be said, but you should ABSOLUTELY get a caddie here (despite AC’s distaste for caddies, post forthcoming) — without one, I can’t imagine the number of hidden pot bunkers I would have hit, let alone driving to the wrong green/flag. Plus, it makes it so much more enjoyable to hear the stories (that the caddies have likely told hundreds of time but keep it fresh). It’s a special experience that every golf lover should have. Why isn’t it higher on the list? There are a lot of holes I can’t remember and are at first play not that distinctive. I’m quite sure if/when I play it again, I’ll reassess and this may well move up. I look forward to that time, desperately.
8. Royal Troon Golf Course, Troon, Scotland
Troon was added to our list when we prepared for Scotland, and we were excited about it – just a few years prior, Henrik Stenson had outlasted Phil Mickelson in a great Open Championship, and of course it’s been host to several of these. But in truth, we didn’t really know what to expect.
One thing we got was a LOT of wind, about 30-35 mph off the water, which for most of the front nine was absolutely brutal and awesome. Some of the holes had truly amazing bunkers and, like most links courses, if you could keep it in the fairway, you could scrape together some decent scores. If you instead found the thigh-high rough, you were essentially doomed.
The par-3 8th hole is known as The Postage Stamp for the tiny size of the green. To the left of the green is the Coffin Bunker, called this both for its shape and your fate if you land there. Fortunately, the wind was blowing so hard left-to-right that I’m not sure I could have found that bunker even if I’d tried.
I think in addition to the Postage Stamp, my favorite hole is The Railway, the par-4 11th hole that runs alongside the train tracks. It’s where Thomas Pieters famously snapped his iron over his knee after getting stuck in the gorse on the left-hand side, and where Jack Nicklaus somehow posted a 10 here in 1962. I usually don’t love the hardest hole on a course, but it’s both a straightforward hole (just hit it straight!) and yet there’s SO much trouble.
I posted a bogey here and practically skipped to the next tee. I’ll add that on 18, the four of us smashed four great drives, all hit the green in two and walked away with a net score on the hole of -2. We decided, without verification, that no foursome had posted a better score on that hole all day.
Royal Troon is truly a Championship course, and belongs on anyone’s bucket list.
7. Carnoustie Golf Links, Carnoustie, Scotland
When we began booking our trip to Scotland, I will admit that I tried not to include Carnoustie. I’d heard it described as the hardest golf course on Earth, and we knew we’d be visiting just a few weeks after The Open was held there. I was talked out of this nonsense, and despite playing it in 30 mph wind and rain, it was one of the best golfing experiences of my life.
Yes, “Car-Nasty” is a fun nickname, and it’s not out of place. This course is legitimately hard, especially the finishing holes which are likely the hardest two holes to finish a round I can think of. But every single hole is thoughtful and special. The third hole shouldn’t be that tough – it’s a shorter par-4, but there are bunkers everywhere that gobble up drives. If you don’t believe me, here’s a picture from our round:
The sixth hole, a par-5 named Hogan’s Alley to reflect how Ben Hogan won his Open by keeping his drives down the left side. I knew this fact, and yet when you get there and realize how skinny that left side is, it makes you gasp at the ball control the Wee Old Mun had.
As with The Old Course, caddies are essential here (especially in massive downpours like we had, though the photos hardly reflect this). We also had the grandstands still up on 17 and 18 and I gained a lot of respect for Jean Van de Velde after seeing just how hard the 18th is. My word. (I also learned a very good lesson that “water resistant” is not enough. I purchased better rain gear the next morning.)
Car-nasty may beat you up, but I suspect you’ll be glad you paid for the privilege. It’s truly one of a kind, and I hope one day to get back there on a sunnier afternoon to test it once again.
6. Kingsbarns Golf Links, Fife, Scotland
Have you noticed a trend on this article? Yeah, that trip to Scotland was pretty special. And it shocked me to realize that Kingsbarns, a course that opened just 20 years ago in 2000, would beat out the other courses on this list thus far. But, I just couldn’t get the memories of the course out of my head. The course was absolutely sculpted and a lot of earth was moved … but it looks as if it has always been there this way. That’s a tremendous achievement.
Almost every hole is a postcard, and we had the benefit of sunshine on most of them. The par-3’s are particularly memorable but the one standout hole is the par-5 12th hole. You want to drive it right but you’ll be safe if you go left … you’ll just make your second shot a layup for sure, and bring the coastal out of bounds into play.
But like any good golf hole, you can play this well without having to bomb a 300-yard drive. I stayed up the right side, got on in four and two-putted for a bogey that seemed impossible from the tee box.
The par-3 8th hole is also SO tricky. If you squint, you can see a white flag ahead. What you can’t see is how the hole slopes so hard from right to left that there’s only a few places to try and land your shot.
Kingsbarns hosts the Dunhill Cup each year (which is also played on The Old Course and Carnoustie, making this list a very Dunhill-Cuppy kind of a jam), and has also hosted The Ricoh Women’s British Open. While I don’t think it would make the men’s rota for The Open, I suspect it could host The Scottish Open before long, too. It’s a special place.
Coming up next … the top-five!