Water world: 12 of the best lakeside courses in America

For as long as I can remember, I’ve loved the lake life.

I grew up in a tiny Michigan town on the Canadian border called Port Huron, where playing beach volleyball, tubing and boating on Lake Huron and beach bonfires at night were summer rituals.

Living on the Great Lakes probably explains why I appreciate golf courses on the water so much more than those in the mountains, desert or forest. I especially love lakeside courses that give you that “big water” feel, like you’re staring out into the ocean. You can’t see the other shore, only the blue sky shaking hands with the water on the horizon.

On that note, I give you a Deegan’s Dozen of America’s best lakeside public courses. Granted, you can see the opposite shore from most of these courses, but they’re so intertwined with their respective lakes, it almost feels like they’re inseparable. One can’t live without the other.

Have you fallen in love with any of these courses? Do you have your own favorite lakeside course? Let us know in the comments below.

Great Waters at Reynolds Lake Oconee features an abundance of lakeside holes.

Courtesy of Reynolds Lake Oconee

No other course in America uses its lake better than Great Waters, a superior effort by Jack Nicklaus two hours east of Atlanta on Lake Oconee, a reservoir formed in 1979 when Georgia Power built the Wallace Dam on the Oconee River. Nine of the final 10 holes touch the lake in some way, often forcing players to take on inlets and coves along the shoreline. A total restoration has closed the course until fall of 2019. Good thing several of the resort’s other courses offer lake holes of their own. The closing stretches on The Landing by Bob Cupp and The Oconee by Rees Jones both end with multiple lakeside stunners. The Cove nine of The National by Tom Fazio also skirts the lake.

Hole 8 on the Quarry nine at Bay Harbor.

Jason Scott Deegan/Golf Advisor

The 27 holes by Arthur Hills in Petoskey is the crown jewel of eight courses owned and operated by Boyne Resorts in northern Michigan. Seven holes play adjacent to Lake Michigan near the mouth of Little Traverse Bay with a handful of others affording lake views. The Links nine starts out along the water with the first hole as a teaser to bigger things to come – a par 4 (no. 3), a par 3 (no. 4) and a par 5 (the famous seventh) right on the water. The tougher Quarry nine climaxes with the par-3 eighth hole, where the downhill tee shot must fight the teeth of the wind to find a peninsula green set in the lake. The waterfront par-4 ninth hole sits below the clubhouse. Even the less heralded Preserve nine touches the water with the finishing par 4 running parallel to the shoreline.

The par-4 16th hole at Arcadia Bluffs Golf Club heads downhill toward Lake Michigan.

Brandon Tucker/GolfPass

More than 100 miles south of Bay Harbor is Arcadia Bluffs, another trendy top 100 pick in northern Michigan on Lake Michigan. Arcadia Bluffs delivers a links-style experience on the water with towering dunes and sod-walled bunkers. Every summer day ends with a kilted bagpiper playing at sundown. The third tee is the highest point on the property, 225 feet above the bluff, offering panoramic views of the entire resort and the lake. Two other par 5s, the fifth and 11th, also fall toward the lakeside bluffs. Players have been known to launch a tee ball into the lake on no. 12 – on purpose, just for kicks. Take your pick: Either no. 13 or no. 17 provides the signature, waterfront par 3 every lakeside course requires. The sunsets and dining from the clubhouse are so good that they attract non-golfers, so make reservations in advance.

A view of the 15th green surrounded by water at the Grand National Lakes Course.

Grand National GC

Several stops along Alabama’s Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail feature beautiful lakeside settings, but none can match Grand National in Auburn/Opelika near the Georgia border. Built on 600-acre Lake Saugahatchee, 32 of the club’s 54 holes are draped along its shores. The aptly named Lake course, a former host of the PGA Tour’s Barbasol Championship from 2015-17, sports 12 holes on the water, compared with at least eight on the Links course. The 18-hole Short course is one of the best par-3 courses I’ve ever played with more than half the holes mixing it up with the lake.

The Straits Course at Whistling Straits in Wisconsin has hosted three PGA Championships and the 2021 Ryder Cup is on tap.

Jason Scott Deegan/GolfPass

As the crow flies, the famous Straits course – host of the 2004, 2010 and 2015 PGA Championships, the 2007 U.S. Senior Open, and, in two years, the 2020 Ryder Cup. – is less than 80 miles across Lake Michigan from Arcadia Bluffs. Critics love to rail on its bunkering (more than 1,000!) and its price tag as one of America’s most expensive courses, but to me, it’s one of the best walks in golf. The caddies steer you clear of the most treacherous of Pete Dye’s traps and help you judge the wind off the water. Like Arcadia Bluffs, it’s a manufactured, man-made links, but a genius figure-eight routing makes the most of the lakeshore with seven waterfront holes going in either direction. All four par 3s grace the lake. How cool is that?

The golf course at Coeur D’Alene Resort is famously known for its floating par-3 green.

Courtesy of Coeur D’Alene Resort

Lake Coeur d’Alene greets golfers from the get-go at this posh resort palace in Idaho, the most unlikeliest of places. Guests of the resort travel to the course by a custom-built mahogany lake shuttle. To warm up, players hit balls into the lake at an aqua driving range. It’s hard to keep your head down and stay focused when it’s so much fun watching balls splash into the waves.

The setting is incredibly pristine. The on-course bathrooms and bunker rakes are located underground and out of sight. The lake is visible from almost every hole. What’s wildly unique are the three par 3s you’ll encounter in the first six holes, all with stunning views of the water. The third is right on the shore with the fifth and sixth tees elevated high above the water. The par-4 13th hole again runs along the lake to heighten the senses for one of golf’s most amazing holes – the famous floating green at no. 14. As you probably know by now, the 15,000-quare-foot green can be moved by remote control, playing to different lengths depending upon the day. I recall shaking with anticipation the day I played it more than a decade ago. Thankfully, the target is so large I was able to hit dry land and still avoid the two bunkers. The “Putter” boat, an electric-powered shuttle, ferries golfers to and from the island. Everybody – no matter how many balls end up in the water – gets a personalized Certificate of Achievement for playing the hole.

Edgewood Tahoe, home of the American Century Championship, is a George Fazio design set on pristine Lake Tahoe.

Courtesy of Rod Hanna Photography

Normally when a course makes room for redevelopment, the cost is steep for golfers. They usually lose an oceanfront or lakeside hole. Thankfully not at Edgewood Tahoe on the shores of Lake Tahoe in Stateline, Nev., just steps from the California border. The construction of the magnificent Lodge at Edgewood, which debuted in 2017, forced several holes to be redesigned, the end result being the ninth hole pushed closer to the shore, a sweeping dogleg right that finishes between the lodge and the beach. It’s a serious upgrade, and one that whets the appetite for the grand finale to end the back nine. The 16th green, the end of a reachable par 5, reintroduces the clear blue waters of the lake and the snow-capped Sierras on the other side.

The beachfront par-3 17th hole is where spectators party with celebrities playing in the American Century Championship. Golden State Warrior-turned-offseason-golfer Steph Curry has raised the profile of the two-day event, which is televised by NBC every July. The 2018 version, won by former Cowboys QB Tony Romo, attracted its largest crowd ever: 57,000-plus people. Curry made his biggest splash on the risk-reward par-5 18th, jumping in the lake after losing a bet with his dad, Dell. Curry swam to a nearby yacht, grabbed a beer and jumped off the roof – just like any true “Splash Brother” would. The rest of us typically end our rounds on the patio at Brooks, a special 19th hole overlooking the water where the food is almost as good as the views.

Lake Como is the backdrop of the par-3 16th hole on the Arnold Palmer Course at Geneva National.

Jason Scott Deegan/Golf Advisor

Lake Geneva is Chicago’s playground, where three large lakes – Geneva, Como and Delavan – create a recreational oasis for boating, fishing and golf in southern Wisconsin. Geneva National, home to 54 holes designed by Gary Player, Lee Trevino and Arnold Palmer, is the largest facility in the region. Although I favor thePlayer course, the Palmer hugs the shores of Lake Como more often. The downhill par-3 16th hole introduces a dreamy watery backdrop, while the par-5 17th winds along the shore. Any hook gets rinsed. If you’re looking for more lakeside golf, Majestic Oaks at the Lake Lawn Resort cozies up to Lake Delavan.

The par-4 16th hole at Leatherstocking Golf Club plays downhill toward Lake Otsego.

Courtesy of New York Golf Trail

Leatherstocking, owned by the adjacent Otesaga Resort Hotel, is just a pair of Dustin Johnson drivers from the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y. Designed in 1909 by Devereux Emmet, this classic track rides upon the hilly natural terrain above Lake Otsego, offering gorgeous views from varying elevations. No. 18 remains one of the most unique finishing holes in golf, a par 5 starting with an island tee that requires a carry over water to a winding fairway following the shoreline.

The Walker Course at Clemson University in South Carolina is known for its Tiger Paw par-3 17th.

Courtesy of Clemson University

If you want to tee it up where the Clemson Tigers play, break out your A game. Or a ball retriever. The last five holes run along the shores of Hartwell Lake. Most of the male Tigers – who won the national championship in 2003 – can reach the 528-yard 14th hole in two. Tee shots too far left on the 361-yard 15th hole find a steep drop-off down to the lake. The three back tees on the 539-yard 16th hole require a carry over a finger of the lake. Anything left the entire way is drowning or lost in the woods. The lake takes center stage at no. 17, the Tiger’s Paw. Notice how the four back bunkers, coupled with the green, look like a cat’s paw. The 400-yard finishing hole is just as dramatic with the lake up the left and a pond swallowing anything lost right. Did we mention bringing enough balls to finish?

A view from tee #16 from Arrowhead Pointe At Lake Richard B. Russell.

Arrowhead Pointe At Lake Richard B. Russell

Lake Oconee isn’t the only golf/lake hotbed two hours east of Atlanta. This 6,800-yard course is situated on a peninsula within a Georgia state park. That means uninterrupted views of Lake Richard B. Russell with no crowds, no houses and no noise. Ten of the 18 holes skirt the lake so well that Bob Walker’s design has been compared to the courses at Lake Oconee but at a significant discount. Five star reviews on Golf Advisor are the norm. Golfers can even stay in a rustic cabin on a golf package for a truly unique experience.

A view of the 4th green with water in background at Bluff Point Golf Club & Resort

Bluff Point GC

This 6,309-yard course on Lake Champlain in upstate New York touts itself as America’s third-oldest golf course, dating to 1890 with the current routing credited to A.W. Tillinghast (1916). There’s lots of history here – major champions Walter Hagen and Gene Sarazen have teed it up, as has Babe Ruth and U.S. Presidents William McKinley and William Howard Taft. The course backdrop extends to the Green Mountains of Vermont and the Adirondack Mountains of New York. The par-5 fourth hole leads golfers to the shore, where the par-3 fifth hole runs along the water. The lake is so close that golfers can actually be dropped off by boat and load up onto golf carts left by the staff near the docks.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Apologies to the Eagle Crest Golf Club, a great course on Ford Lake where I learned the game in Michigan, and the Land of 10,000 Lakes where I was born. Deacon’s Lodge, the Wilderness at Fortune Bay and Superior National at Lutsen are among the dozens of Minnesota courses near or on lakes. Other good choices include Reflection Bay on Lake Las Vegas and Lanier Islands Legacy course in Georgia.