June 7, 2024 8:00am

Golf Destinations

Golf participation is soaring and course architecture is enjoying a new golden age that has shown little sign of subsiding.

Photo of Scott Michaux
By Scott Michaux
Golf Correspondent

Golf participation is soaring and course architecture is enjoying a new golden age that has shown little sign of subsiding. Tee sheets and lodging at destination golf resorts are often booked out years in advance. The popularity of North American resorts nearer to home hasn’t diminished the wanderlust of golfers making international pilgrimages to play golf in places both old and new in Scotland, Ireland, Australia and New Zealand.

“We’re in the midst of the golden era of golf destination travel kick-started by the pandemic. #ironic,” said publicist Dan Shepherd.

For this month’s Golf Power Poll, we simply asked our panelists to tout their favorite golf destinations, whether it’s places they’ve already played or places they most want to experience on their bucket list.

“There are few complaints in life that a good golf trip can’t soothe,” said veteran golf writer Joe Logan, co-founder of MyPhillyGolf.com.

J. Roger Graves, senior writer/editor for PGA Magazine, has a complaint: “From air fares, to green fees, to lodging and dining, the new epidemic worldwide is overpriced golf and golf destinations!”

To speak to the diversity of thought on a subject that’s impossible to pin down, all but one of the destinations listed (including “Other”) received at least one vote, but the majority like the classics – old and new. Scotland and Ireland still lead the way for international pilgrimages, while the more diverse American options lean slightly in this polling toward the coastal states of North Carolina and California.

As for the resort destinations, the overwhelming favorites are the 25-year-old Bandon Dunes and the more than a century old Pinehurst and Pebble Beach. But the expanding variety of options leaves no shortage of diverse preferences to suit any golfer’s appetite (if not always their budget).

“The golf experience one keeps in the heart is not how well you played on a trip, but did you come away with a particular memory that lingers and makes you smile,” said Bob Denney, historian emeritus for the PGA of America. “From the piano playing during breakfast in the Carolina Hotel in Pinehurst, to the coastline bordering Bandon Dunes, to the walk across the Swilcan Bridge at St. Andrews – they were markers on the golfing soul. I will cherish them forever and yearn to see those sites again like one longs for reunion with a long departed friend.”

Freelance writer Mike Bailey sort of summed up the impossibility of choosing “favorites” in such a rich environment of options.

“Whether it’s favorite golf resort or favorite course, that’s always a very difficult question to answer for me. It all depends on what you’re in the mood for, what type of golf you love, and

what kind of trip it is,” Bailey said. “For buddies trips, nothing beats Bandon Dunes or Streamsong in the U.S., and Scotland or Ireland overseas. If it's just you and your significant other, there might not be a better destination than pretty much anything in Hawaii (Mauna Kea Beach Resort on the Big Island is my sentimental favorite). Hawaii has pretty much perfect weather and incredible beauty. But for the history and traditions of the American game, Pebble Beach, Pinehurst and the Greenbrier top my resort list. Every avid golfer should play Pebble Beach Golf Links and Pinehurst No. 2 at some point in their lives.”

Here’s a look at the Power Poll results and some of the polling feedback:

North Carolina (with its coast, sandhills and mountains) and California (throw in desert instead of sandhills) gobbled up nearly a third (combined) of the polling, but there is a lot of support from coast to coast and in between. And it’s not all about Pinehurst and Pebble.

“There is nothing better than a golf junket no matter where you go,” said Robert S. Hartman, turf director of Central Turf & Irrigation Supply. “The Outer Banks of N.C. is tremendous for the quality of courses and seafood.”

Said Billy Satterfield, writer and photographer for Golf Course Gurus: “If private golf courses are being accounted for, then Long Island, New York suddenly becomes the place to be.”

Steve Habel, owner/publisher of GolfDaily.com, prefers spots off the beaten path.

“As far as American destinations, it’s great to look outside the uber-popular and head to places off the beaten path like Albuquerque/Santa Fe (New Mexico); Western and Southern Colorado; St. George (Utah); San Antonio (Texas); Gulf Shores (Alabama); or the Nebraska Sandhills,” said Habel.

The biggest objection was excluding Hawaii from list of favored state choices.

“Hawaii has some top-class golf courses now and should be considered more seriously,” said freelance writer Susanne Kemper.

Scotland (40) and Ireland (39) – with often distinctly different styles of links golf available at each – share the podium for favored international golf destinations.

“Love Bandon Dunes and Sand Valley on this side of the pond, but Scotland is Golf Heaven for me,” said veteran scribe Herb Gould. “In my experience, not as daunting for my modest game as Ireland. Scotland is a low-ball, short-game wonder. The ball rolls and rolls. And when it rolls off the fairway, you can often still hit it.”

“The USA has certainly upped its game when it comes to golf resorts and the Keiser family seems to have an intuitive grasp on what makes for a great golf course,” said GWAA member James Davis. “But, for a hickory golfer like myself, few courses and destinations can top what the British Isles have to offer. On the seaside links is where all this madness took its first steps and those courses still hold a fascination for me. As much as I wish to play at Bandon, I’d return to Scotland in a heartbeat.”

Said Dave Perkins, retired Toronto Star golf writer: “Pretty much anywhere I have been in Scotland, after a round the locals in the pub don’t ask, ‘What did you score?’ They ask, ‘Did you enjoy the course?’ Golf is a treasured way of life there.”

“For an American, nothing beats the experience of links golf in the British Isles,” said former New York Daily News golf writer Hank Gola. “I never had a bad day on one of those courses.”

“There is only one St Andrews and links golf is a delight that can’t be replicated,” said Peter Georgiady, executive director of The Golf Heritage Society. “I have a lot of favorite courses but the mix in Fife is unbeatable. The people, the weather, the history and the whisky make it the ultimate golf experience.”

Said Satterfield: “Internationally it is so difficult to pick between Scotland, Ireland and Australia/New Zealand for me. Those three destinations are off the charts good and each offer their own flare on golf design.”

Like the popularity of LIV Golf, the Middle East was the only destination in this Power Poll that received zero votes. Both Habel and Kemper think South Africa got short shrift being excluded and relegated to “other.”

“One of the world’s great golf destinations is South Africa, which is not listed here,” said GolfDaily.com’s Habel. “Durban Country Club is one of the finest courses I’ve ever played and I’ve played 1,600-plus around the world.”

“South Africa has an excellent selection of links and parkland courses plus great hospitality and other discoveries away from the links,” said Kemper. “For me it’s a top golf destination like Australia, Asia etc. … not just top players but many top layouts.”

Writer/photographer Satterfield speaks for the majority about Bandon Dunes, which redefined the lengths travelers would go to for a destination golf trip when it opened 25 years ago.

“When it comes to public golf, Bandon Dunes Resort is the most spectacular and architecturally impressive golf resort in the world, let alone the United States,” he said.

The variety of new golf resorts across the U.S. presents something for any golfing taste.

“Much like the world of fine art, a great golf destination is largely ranked by the ‘eye of the beholder,’” said Bill Hobson, host of Michigan Golf Live. “For some, it’s a tropical paradise, while for others it’s a week at Big Cedar Lodge (my favorite outside Michigan). And others don’t even consider it a golf trip unless a passport is required.

“Here in ‘Pure Michigan,’ our resorts are packed with guests coming in from all over the world, bringing a full menu of accents, expectations and introductions to golfers exploring new places.”

Several Power Poll voters lamented the cost of visiting high-end destination resorts – new or old.

“Golf travel is like many other things having to do with our game. In addition to having the desire to experience new or even exotic layouts the even bigger factors are time and money,” said Ed Travis, contributing editor, Front Page Golf. “This means personal finances plus the overall economy have to be taken into account in addition to whether your (spouse) will let you go.”

Guy Cipriano, editor-in-chief of GIE Media, Inc., thinks are resort appetite will change in due time from what’s hip today.

“It all comes down to marketing. The resorts listed as options on here – by no coincidence – are among the most heavily marketed in the United States,” Cipriano said. “Is the golf and experience at those resorts better than their competitors? Or do they just know how to position themselves better? …

“We’ll likely reach a point in a few decades where the course styles and vibes at some of today’s popular resorts fall out of favor with the next generation of golf-travel consumers. Then what? Also, we’re going to see places not on anybody’s radar such as South Dakota, Utah and Tennessee become golf travel hot spots. Those states boast fabulous land, growing populations and pro-business policies. Developers are taking notice.”

Pinehurst and Pebble Beach – two fabled high-end public resorts that regularly host championships – are the top bucket-list picks. But so many well-established resorts across the country have loyal fans and each one listed here got a vote.

People attending the 124th U.S. Open at Pinehurst No. 2 may agree with Winston-Salem Journal sports writer John Dell.

“There’s nothing like the feel, the smell and the quaintness of Pinehurst,” Dell said. “It just oozes golf.”

GWAA member Howie Smith says Pebble Beach Golf Links shares the pedestal with Augusta National as his top courses anywhere: “I hope to play Pebble Beach one more time in September.”

The A Position golf writer Tom Harack explained his own personal bias. “My dual US-Canada citizenship tilted a couple of my responses to destinations up north,” he said. “Like many other panelists, I'm sure, could easily have chosen any number of others.”

As for Golf Travel Wire’s Dove Jones, all this conversation about favorite destinations misses the whole point of golf travel – the journey itself.

“Sometimes it’s the golf course itself, sometimes it’s the scenery, sometimes it’s the destination around the golf, but at the end of the day it should be about the people you play with and meet along the way,” Jones said. “Don’t get so caught up in chasing ‘The Top Whatever’ lists – take time to enjoy the journey. More often than not it’s those experiences off the beaten path that stay with you long after the round is finished. If I hear one more time ‘I’m not going to Scotland if I can’t get a guaranteed time on the Old Course,’ … breaks my heart. But then again, those people really don’t get traveling for golf.”

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About Power Poll: Power Poll asks questions of significant key players in American sports today. It's member list draws on people from media, team management, and league management. It is not a scientific survey, but the results afford a fascinating glimpse into the thoughts, opinions, and beliefs of those who know most about the sport.

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