My Bucket List Courses: USA

Back a month or two ago (time is really getting hard to keep track of in a COVID-19 world) I published a series of posts about the favorite courses I’ve played. It begged the question – BEGGED, I tell you – of what courses are still on my list to play. A bucket list, perhaps.

Before I get into that, can we talk about the expression “bucket list?” As far as I can tell, it all stems from the 2007 movie called The Bucket List, starring Jack Nicklaus and Morgan Freeman.

I didn’t see the movie but I’m assume Morgan and Jack are debating whether they want to play Pebble Beach or Cypress Point first. Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Entertainment

This is a movie with a 42/100 rating on Metacritic and a 41% on Rotten Tomatoes — in case math isn’t your strong suit, these are not good scores. Yet, we’ve adopted the term Bucket List wholesale. It’s used all the time. It’s mean to be shorthand for “what do you want to do so you don’t regret not doing it?” And it’s a great idea. But … feels like we deserve better source material. And yet, I digress.

Of course, when I started putting this list together, I suddenly realized that there was no way in hell I was going to whittle this down to a manageable list. So instead, I’ve created four separate lists. One for courses in the United States, one in Scotland, one in Ireland and another of private courses around the world that I can probably only dream of.

With that last one, please note that all the courses on this list are public. Let’s keep those dreams in check. And while these are the top ten on my list, there are plenty of others. If you want to invite me to play a course not on this list, I’m almost certain to give it a thumbs-up.

Sheep Ranch, Bandon Dunes, OR

I’m starting out on a technicality because this course isn’t actually open as I write this, but if you read my favorite courses stories, you know every Bandon Dunes course made an appearance, and Sheep Ranch (due to open next month, June 2020) looks like it has a strong chance to be the best of the lot. It’s mostly on the coast, has no bunkers (sand bunkers, at least) and just looks like a dream:

Sheep Ranch. Truly the stuff of dreams.

The only downside to this – and it’s NOT a downside – is that any trip to Bandon Dunes now is going to have to be at least four or five days on property. You have to play all five 18-hole courses at least once, plus The Preserve 13-hole par-3 course. I can live with this.

Pebble Beach, Monterey, CA

I don’t know how much needs to be said about Pebble Beach – aside from Augusta, I’m not sure there’s a more famous course in the United States. I live maybe 2-3 hours away, have walked the course a few times during tournaments … and I’ve never played it. Now, part of that is if you want to book in advance, it will cost about $2,500 – that’s two nights stay at one of their properties, a $550 greens fee plus a caddie tip of maybe $100. I have yet to convince myself (let alone my wife) that this is a smart life choice. But … it’s coming. It has to.

The 7th hole, from a slightly different view than normal. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia.

Sand Hills, Nebraska

I don’t know when I’m getting back to Nebraska (I’ve driven through it once on my way to Chicago) but I will get there, and the entire reason will be to play Sand Hills. A Coore-Crenshaw design, it’s one of the few courses that’s been built recently that honestly can say it was more discovered than built. They barely moved earth and yet the course looks like it’s an old Scottish course or something that’s lived there forever. Rated #9 on the most recent Golf Digest Top 100 Courses, the reviews sound almost mystical and religious from those who play it. I can’t wait.

Edited: It’s been pointed out to me that Sand Hills is private. Not sure why I thought it wasn’t, but don’t worry, it’s not the only mistake here!

Nebraska? OK, I’m in.

Kapalua Plantation, Honolulu, HI

If you take Coore and Crenshaw as the course designers here (they redid it a few years back), that’s three of four courses thus far by (obviously) one of my favorite design teams. They just make courses tough but accessible, and I want nothing more. For Kapalua, it’s just the fact that it’s done in this setting, on a course we see every year as one of the first of the PGA season.

Yeah, that works.

A lot of the courses the PGA plays on don’t look like any fun to me. Standing on the tee at the 17th at Sawgrass seems terrifying (though I’d happily give it a shot). But Kapalua would be so much fun (and not just because it means you’d be in Hawaii!)

Pinehurst (#2), North Carolina

This one stings, as I was scheduled to be in Pinehurst earlier this month which would have included a round on this classic Donald Ross course. (And at least one more on this list, below.) This is a course that routinely beats up the player but NOT because it’s forced carries over lakes, narrow tree lined fairways, or anything else that makes me the average golfer retreat into misery. It’s the greens, the turtlebacked greens that bedevil even the best golfers. Any course where folks say you’ll shoot a big score and likely not lose a ball? Sign me up for that challenge.

Next year, in what we can all only hope and pray is a post-COVID world, I can’t wait to go to Pinehurst to get my teeth kicked in by #2.

Ballyneal Golf Club, Colorado

One thing that’s been made clear to me as I write this is that I might just be a Golf Course Architecture (GCA) nerd, because these courses are very designer driven. And while I love Coore Crenshaw, Tom Doak is right up there too. What shocked me in looking into this was this description from Golf Digest of the course: “Tom Doak’s northeast Colorado answer to Nebraska’s Sand Hills.” Welp, Sand Hills is already on this list so it makes sense that I’d want to also play Ballyneal! And the reason is very similar – it’ just looks so natural, open and accessible:

If you told me this was on the West Coast of Ireland I wouldn’t blink. Doak nailed this. Photo Courtesy of Ballyneal Golf.

I would love to make it out to Colorado and play Ballyneal, and get in a few rounds at places like Common Grounds and other courses. (OH SNAP – I just Google Mapped this and it’s even closer to … Sand Hills! I smell a road trip! Just need to wait for that to not be a massive health risk…sigh.)

Edited: It’s been pointed out to me that Ballyneal is ALSO private. I regret the error, and I regret being so dumb as to make this mistake in the first place. If you’re going to do that Sand Hills / Ballyneal trip, better make sure you have some friends in high places.

Chambers Bay, Washington

I know a lot of people think of Chambers Bay and only think of the cabbage-like greens from the U.S. Open there and how punitive the fairways were cut, leading to incredibly frustrated professional golfers and some real bad closeups on national TV.

There’s “rustic” and “natural” and then there’s this nightmare. But this is all in the past, folks. Stay current.

But…in life, I’m always advocating that people should be able to admit a mistake and move on, and the same is true for organizations – even golf courses. And they have! They’ve rebuilt the greens, and what’s left is a wonderful golf course open to the public. I know plenty of people who have played it, and they rave about it. Again, we’re talking about wide open fairways, almost no trees (just the one!) and a great walk. I’m into it.

Tobacco Road, North Carolina

Tobacco Road is a fever dream of a golf course, and is also on the slate for me to play NEXT year (postponed from 2020). A Mike Stranz design, it’s a complete mindf*ck of a course that deceives you from the tee box and looks way more challenging than it has to be. I’ve used this picture as my Zoom background for awhile and honestly I almost want to get stuck in this nightmare of a bunker:

The stuff of nightmares. And yet, color me intrigued.

I’d been excited about playing this course, and then after watching No Laying Up’s experience there I literally can’t wait to get out there. While it will be at least a year, Tobacco Road remains firmly in my dreams.

Wolf Creek Golf Resort, Nevada

Located an hour or so outside of Las Vegas, there’s no pretending that a course like Wolf Creek was “discovered” – there are no long patches of grass lying around in the desert like this. But the pictures of this course are just jaw-dropping.

Showing up on a ton of “Best of” lists, it’s just fascinated me in a way that courses like this don’t always grab me. The juxtaposition of the green grass and the red rocks is pretty hard to beat. Back when we were allowed to travel, I ended up making a trip to Vegas every year or so. Next time, I’m bringing the clubs and planning a day in Mesquite so I can attack this bad boy.

Mid Pines, North Carolina

Sensing a theme here? A trip to the Pinehurst region that got tanked this year by the “invisible enemy” of the coronavirus? Yeah. Listen, I get that on the list of problems created by COVID-19, this doesn’t actually make the list. I’m not quite that selfish. But it sucks. And one of the things that is always fun to me when planning a golf trip is discovering the courses you weren’t heading out there to play but just might be the hidden gems. For those who know it, Mid Pines is far from hidden, but it doesn’t have the national recognition of Tobacco Road, let alone Pinehurst. And yet, many of folks who know it rate it as one of their favorites.

It looks natural, it’s open enough you’re unlikely to lose too many balls, but it’s not easy.

If I was going to be super sneaky, I’d pair Mid Pines with Pine Needles, as they are neighbor courses and owned and operated together. But what they both have is just that clear North Carolina pines, waste areas and layout. They’re eminently playable for both top golfers and mid-handicappers like myself. Mid Pines was designed by Donald Ross and then restored by Kyle Frantz to get it back to the original Ross design.

Mid Pines feels like the kind of course you could play all the time and still find new things out about the course and how to play it. That sort of defines a perfect course to me. I’m ready to try.

So, that’s the first installment of my Bucket List courses, focusing on courses here in the USA. I can already think of about 20 courses not on this list, but these would be the first ten I’d play if given a blank check to cross ten off.

What U.S. courses are on your bucket list?


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