Most industry experts agree that Scotland's St. Andrews is a top Bucket List golf travel … [+] destination. But where else can you go to play great courses and have a fantastic vacation? New information helps you choose wisely.
Golf enjoyed a big resurgence in popularity during the coronavirus pandemic, with many courses having record years, and at top resorts, the trend shows no signs of slowing. At Pinehurst, the nation’s largest golf resort with nine 18-hole courses, demand for the marquee Number Two course by resort guests got so extreme that they had to limit tee times for members. At Big Cedar Lodge, Missouri’s largest golf resort with five courses, including the nation’s only public 18-hole design by Tiger Woods, 2020 was record year and 2021 bookings have been so strong that spring tee times are virtually sold out, months in advance.
As Covid-19 vaccination rates continue to increase and travel rebounds, golf’s newfound popularity is expected to remain strong, and many people will be planning golf vacations in 2021 and beyond. Fortunately, a bevy of just released information can help any would-be golfer planning a trip, including one important, informed and all-new ranking of the world’s best golf travel destinations.
Wisconsin's new Sand Valley Resort burst onto the global golf travel scene with much fanfare and two … [+] new courses both ranked in the Top 30 in the nation, including Mammoth Dunes, a David McLay Kidd design.
Jason Scott Deegan/GolfPass
The traditional “big three” of golf course ratings, Golf Digest, Golf Magazine and Golfweek, all just issued new Top 100 lists for 2021-2022. Since these are traditionally bi-annual, the info gets slightly stale at the end of each cycle, omitting high quality new courses that might otherwise be off golf travelers’ radar. For instance, Wisconsin’s Sand Valley is an extremely notable new resort from the development team behind ultra-acclaimed Bandon Dunes and Cabot Links. It is set among sand dunes evocative of the British Isles in the central part of the state, and both its courses, by design legends David McLay Kidd (of Bandon Dunes fame) and the duo of Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw, debuted in the Top 30 public courses in the entire country on Golf Magazine’s new list, making this a true destination resort many golfers have never even heard of. Likewise, Big Cedar has been on an expansion tear in recent years, and its 2019 Coore/Crenshaw design, Ozarks National, leapt onto the list at 56. Notably, Golf Magazine expanded its U.S. list to North America, including Canada and Mexico for the first time.
The new Golfweek Top 100 Public Course list also includes these new courses, and both courses at Sand Valley were ranked even higher, in America’s Top 16, reinforcing the arrival of a brand new, world class golf resort in the middle of the country. Another little-known Wisconsin newcomer was University Ridge in Madison, which debuted at 84, while at Missouri’s Big Cedar, “America’s Premier Wilderness Resort,” Ozarks National was ranked Top 50, and a second course at the resort, Tom Fazio’s Buffalo Ridge, also made the top 100. The brand-new Tiger Woods design, Payne’s Valley, was too new for either of these lists but is in all likelihood the resort’s best (read my detailed review here), putting yet another massive full-service golf, sporting and fishing resort that will pleasantly surprise many readers onto the national golf travel scene.
Another world-class golf resort suddenly in the public eye is Missouri's Big Cedar Lodge, home to … [+] five courses – including two Top 100 layouts and America's first public course by Tiger Woods.
Big Cedar Lodge
But there are still shortcomings in the new releases. Golf Digest’s recent Top 100 is all courses, not public, which means it heavily slants towards private – often extremely private – layouts that the vast majority of golf travelers will never be able to play. Its currently released public ranking is still two-plus years old. In addition, all three lists tend to be run by avidly traditional golf course architecture buffs, who typically eschew modern designs, especially desert golf, preferring classic styles. As a result, wildly popular golf destinations like Scottsdale and Las Vegas get almost completely overlooked – Golf Magazine’s list includes only two courses in all of Arizona, both ranked in the bottom 50, and Golfweek has three, all in the bottom quarter. Both have only a single course in Nevada, Shadow Creek, undeniably great and unquestionably not a desert style course. In addition, all three publications have traditionally relied on history as well as quality, and while the rich lore of golf at places like Pebble Beach and Pinehurst, or the ability to play a handful of public access Major venues like Whistling Straits, Erin Hills, or Torrey Pines is a big deal, for the vast majority of golf travelers the “distinction” of having hosted a run of the mill PGA Tour event makes the vacation experience no better.
That’s why the notable addition to the 2020 crop is the newest of all the important rankings, from GolfPass. It’s a bit confusing, but GolfPass is the recent combination of the digital instructional and travel/ratings content (formerly GolfAdvisor) arms of GolfChannel, in turn the golf arm of NBC Universal. I think of it as the online GolfChannel, and while GolfPass has its own subscription packages for enhanced instruction and some information sits behind paywalls, the majority of the course rankings and travel info is available free and includes all the many years of detailed travel features and course reviews previously under GolfAdvisor.
With more Golf Digest Top 100 public courses than states like Texas, Florida, Arizona and North or … [+] South Carolina, Wisconsin is a booming golf vacation choice. Even Rory McIlroy visited, for the PGA Championship at Whistling Straits – one of four Top 100 courses at the Destination Kohler resort – and the current Ryder Cup venue (AP Photo/Jae Hong)
Since this is an all-new ranking that has been in the works for a while and will be updated regularly like the others, GolfPass put a lot of effort into trying to make its list different and more user friendly, and the result is a ranking not of golf courses, but of golf destinations, specifically aimed at the traveler – the “World Top 100 Golf Destinations.” GolfPass Senior Staff writer and longtime course reviewer Jason Deegan said, “Put together by the experienced, well-traveled editorial staff of GolfPass, we think this new ranking is the most relevant of all the ‘World Top 100’ golf lists because it tells golfers where to go to find not only the best courses, but the best combination of experiences any great golf vacation requires – spectacular golf, dining, attractions, resorts, culture and more.”
“We wanted to identify the world’s best ‘pockets’ for golf,” Deegan told me. “Everyone knows that Destination Kohler, WI is a top golf resort [with four Top 100 courses, one in the Top 10], but the great thing about going to a place like Kohler is that Erin Hills, one of just six publicly accessible U.S. Open venues and another Top 100 course, is just an hour away. There’s also Brown Deer Park, which hosted a PGA Tour event for years, and many consider The Bog one of the best Arnold Palmer designs. Kohler is the headliner, but the area is a great pocket of golf.”
Arizona is a gorgeous place to play golf, with lots of great courses but until the new GolfPass … [+] World Top 100 Golf Destinations rankings, it was largely ignored by golf raters.
Likewise, Deegan explained, everybody knowns about Pinehurst Resort, the largest golf resort in the Western Hemisphere, and home to the Top 5 ranked Pinehurst Number Two, the only US Open, PGA Championship, TOUR Championship and Ryder Cup venue. “So, if you’ve been to the Pinehurst Resort, you might feel like you don’t need to go back, but there’s a lot of other courses and resorts right there, plus all the golf culture, dining, it’s the whole vacation package.” The twin towns of Pinehurst/Southern Pines access more than 30 top courses in all, including three classic Donald Ross gems (more Top 100 and Women’s U.S. Open venues) at the Mid Pines & Pine Needles resort, while nearby Tobacco Road is an awesome insider’s secret that also makes the Top 100 lists.
The idea of doing destinations rather than courses makes a ton of sense for those planning golf trips, since what you usually want is one or two “must-play” pilgrimage courses and the best of whatever else is in the area, as well as great choices for lodging and dining. A perfect example is Scottsdale, a world-class golf vacation choice that gets no love in the other ratings but shows up as the world’s 7th best golf destination on this list, which notes the appeals of standout courses Troon North, both exceptional courses at Top 100 We-Ko-Pa, and the TPC Scottsdale, home to the most attended golf tournament in the world, “The Greatest Show on Grass,” as well as a bevy of 5-star resorts, spas and endless sunshine. “Scottsdale doesn’t get ranked by the other lists, driven by golf architecture nerds. But when you want to go someplace nice and play a lot of great golf, it’s hard to beat.” Another example is value golf powerhouse Myrtle Beach, whose golf is largely ignored in the other lists, but offers almost 120 courses, great prices and as the rankings note, “A deep bench, vast lodging options and ever-improving food scene makes this an ideal choose-your-own-adventure destination for all budgets.”
GolfPass course reviewer Jason Deegan is a huge fan of golf in New Zealand, like the stunning Kauri … [+] Cliffs.
Jason Scott Deegan/GolfPass
The list covers the globe, so it mixes non-surprises such as Scotland’s St. Andrews, fittingly ranked the World’s Number One golf destination, with top shelf options that get a lot less press, like South Africa, which pairs superlative courses with the world’s finest safari lodges; Australia’s Sandbelt, the best array of great publicly accessible golf courses in an urban setting (Melbourne) pretty much anywhere; Las Vegas, whose prolific choices are almost entirely ignored by the other lists, and offers all the other entertainment, dining and spectacle appeals that make it one of the world’s most beloved vacation spots for non-golfers; and Central Wisconsin, as in the part that is not Kohler, but is home to numerous Top 100 public courses, including the 36 at Sand Valley, the Links at Lawsonia, SentryWorld and University Ridge in Madison. This list is also the first major such ranking to single out the incredibly gorgeous Missouri Ozarks as a legitimate golf vacation hotspot, thanks to the five courses at Big Cedar (two Top 100s) and several other options around the Lake of the Ozarks.
In short, while the internet can be a black hole of travel misinformation and uninformed – or paid for – “influencer” opinions, right now there is a lot of recently updated credible golf travel data for you out there, and thanks to the new addition of GolfPass and its World Top 100 to the mix, planning a golf vacation just got easier and more fun than ever. You can also drill down from the list to the thousands of travel and course ranking articles that populate the site for more details on the courses, resorts and regions listed.