The Best Golf Resorts
The top 35 golf destinations in the United States, the Caribbean and Mexico
From the Print Edition:
Liev Schreiber, November/December 2013
Bandon Dunes. Pinehurst. Pebble Beach. Kiawah Island. Casa de Campo. For golfers, those names, some new, some old, aren’t just places, but the links versions of Mecca. They are destinations in the United States, Mexico and the Caribbean that epitomize what today can only be dubbed a “New Golden Age” for golf, one that combines golf resorts and travel.
While very few new golf resort projects have been undertaken recently—there have actually been more golf course closings than openings in recent years—those few have tended to be excellent, as only the best can draw enough golfers to make economic sense today. At the same time, amidst stiff competition, many existing and classic golf resorts have expanded, adding courses, or making dramatic improvements—sometimes, spending millions, even hundreds of millions of dollars. In a very real sense, there has never been a better time for a golf vacation. The big question is where to go?
We’ve answered that by polling a panel of experts, who have rated the 25 Best Golf Resorts in the United States and the 10 Best in the Caribbean and Mexico. They’ve also tackled quandaries such as which resort has the best spa, cuisine, luxury accommodations, is best for families, and so on. For over a decade, our uniquely critical travel surveys have taken a much different tact than the travel magazines’ standard reader polls, which can be easily influenced by the hotels and resorts themselves, along with advertisers, while relying primarily on unvetted participants who may or may not have actually been to the places they vote for. In sharp contrast, we have assembled a dream team of bona fide experts in the field, featuring some of the world’s best luxury travel agents, golf tour companies, golf journalists and editors, avid golf travelers and industry insiders.
That we are living in a Golden Age of golf travel is evidenced by the fact that an entirely new resort, Florida’s Streamsong, opened just last December, cracked the list as the eleventh best in the nation. Likewise, the ultra-luxury Ritz-Carlton Reserve at Dorado Beach, Puerto Rico, the first of Ritz’ top-tier Reserve brand in North America, which also opened last year, made the Caribbean top 10, while Puerto Rica’s Royal Isabela, also new last year, barely missed the cut—and only because not enough people have seen it yet.
The top-rated resort in the United States, Bandon Dunes opened in 1999, but its two newest courses debuted last year and in 2010, making it a true weeklong destination resort. Second-place winner Pinehurst undertook an exhaustive and critically acclaimed renovation of its marquee Number Two course, designed originally by Donald Ross, last year that immediately catapulted its ranking, while sixth-place finisher Sea Island has built two entirely new hotels in the past decade, both rated the highest possible Forbes Five-Stars (formerly Mobil). It seems in the world of upscale golf travel that if a resort is not moving forward it is losing ground. Several panelists specifically cited the recent overhaul of both hotel and golf at Hawaii’s Princeville as the reason they ranked it as high as they did. Perhaps the biggest stunner of all was Southern California’s amazing Grand Del Mar. Only six years old, the resort is a triple Forbes 5-Star winner for lodging, dining and spa, and it crushed the competition, winning for Best Single Course Golf Resort and Best Dining at a Golf Resort, while also making the podium in the spa and luxury lodging categories.
For purposes of this poll, we defined a golf resort as those that had lodging, hotel services and golf under one roof, nixing hotels that have some sort of access to an off-site course or courses with associated lodging someplace else, which eliminated places like Las Vegas’ excellent Shadow Creek, a longtime favorite of our panelists. Not surprisingly, resorts with multiple courses fared best, since they are best suited for longer destination golf trips, and seven of the 10 Caribbean and Mexico winners have more than 18 holes, while the top five U.S. finishers each have at least four courses. Notably, these five also all feature caddies and walking to varying degrees, something our voters noted over and over as a big plus. But quantity does not mean quality, as all five of these also have at least one marquee course widely rated in the nation’s top 10, while several notable resorts with three, four or even five courses failed to make our cut. Many such resorts with multiple mediocre courses were beaten by properties with a single top-flight 18-hole course. If there was one trend we saw clearly in the voting, it is that the boutique golf resort, with as little as one course and a dozen luxury rooms (or villas!), plus white-glove service and excellent cuisine, is on the rise. This was evidenced by the wins of places like the Grand Del Mar, Mauna Kea Beach Resort, Mayakoba, the Abaco Club, Wynn Las Vegas and strong showings by CordeValle, the Four Seasons Nevis, Virginia’s Primland, and Caribbean newcomers Royal Isabela and CuisinArt Golf Resort & Spa.
Our panelists cast votes far and wide, from Nebraska to Nicaragua, but they reached near consensus on a couple of things. Oregon’s Bandon Dunes was not just the No. 1 resort, it received nothing worse than a second-place vote, while second- and third-place finishers Pinehurst and Pebble Beach each had almost exclusively top three rankings on the ballots cast. Likewise, Casa de Campo ran away with the top spot in the Caribbean and Mexico by a wide margin.
If reading this makes you want to take a golf vacation, our panel of experts knows just where you should go.
Top 25 Golf Resorts in the United States1. Bandon Dunes, Oregon
Not exactly a surprise, this larger-than-life links golf throwback on the Oregon coast has three of the Top 10 public courses in the United States on Golf Magazine’s current list—including No. 1, Pacific Dunes. Its “worst” eighteen and fourth full-sized layout is ranked 15th in the nation, and it also has a fantastic par-3 course. However, Bandon Dunes is not for everyone—all the courses are walking only, no carts, the weather can be raw, and the focus is firmly on golf, not luxury lodging, amenities or cuisine, though the simple approach to dining is still delicious. For the golf purist it is impossible to beat, but those seeking Michelin-starred meals, swank suites or a slate of activities for non-golfing companions might look elsewhere.
“For my clients who are golf purists, it doesn’t get any better,” says high-powered luxury travel agent and avid golfer Chad Clark. “Mike Keiser (developer) has created the absolute best golf resort in the US, and the quality of the courses is simply unmatched anywhere in this country,” says Todd Warnock, architecture junkie, global golf connoisseur and owner of Links House, a new luxury boutique hotel at Scotland’s famed Royal Dornoch. Longtime golf writer and founder of the TheAPosition.com golf travel web consortium, Jeff Wallach, puts it best: “If you measure a golf resort by the pure quality of the golf there is no better single destination on the planet.”
2. Pinehurst, North Carolina
A bit of a surprise to edge out famed Pebble Beach, Pinehurst actually had more ballots cast for it than any resort. Many experts cited the dramatic post-renovation improvements to legendary course No. 2—already a consensus U.S. top 10. The only public course to ever host two different Major tournaments and the Ryder Cup, it is among the nation’s most historical venues, America’s answer to St Andrews Old Course. But No. 2 is just one of eight 18-hole layouts comprising America’s largest—and first—golf resort. This history swayed many of our voters, but so did the Southern hospitality and countless amenities, from a huge spa to world class tennis and croquet facilities.
“There is no purer golf resort in America,” states Michael Patrick Shiels, longtime golf writer, broadcaster and author of numerous books including Secrets of the Great Golf Course Architects. “No place connects better with the genteel, yet all-consuming, nature of the game and its history. Pinehurst is a living museum all about golf—it permeates the air. If you want to feel like you’ve had a golf experience, and never run out of holes to play or the desire to play them, this is the place.”
3. Pebble Beach, California
Steeped in history and long ranked the top resort in America, Pebble has gotten pushed around in the rankings lately but it is still a fantasy escape and home to the course most golfers would pick without hesitation for a dream outing, Pebble Beach Golf Links. The other two on-campus courses (the resort has a nearby fourth, Del Monte), The Links at Spanish Bay and Spyglass Hill, are so good that fans endlessly debate them, ranking the trio in every possible permutation. Pebble Beach is a huge full-service resort, with three hotels, more than a dozen eateries, tennis club, beach club and much more. “This is just the ultimate in romantic settings with the best golf course anywhere,” says Stacy Small owner of Elite Travel International and one of the nation’s most exclusive travel agents. “It is stunningly beautiful, has great restaurants and the setting between Carmel and Pacific Grove is to die for.” Another golf-centric star travel agent, Chad Clark, believes Pebble is “The finest all around golf resort experience we have in the USA.” However, some voters were put off by the difficulty of booking tee times, very high prices and sometimes mass-production feel. Mike Hiller, who has played over a thousand courses worldwide and is travel editor of AvidGolfer Magazine, put it this way: “The arrogance is almost as thick as the marine layer that rolls in every morning, but a round here is a must-do. Once.”
4. The American Club, Kohler, Wisconsin
With a widely applauded renovation of Blackwolf Run, a Women’s U.S. Open venue, The American Club is better than ever. But the must-play course remains the stunning Straits course at Whistling Straits, a two-time PGA Championship venue. The resort has four excellent Pete Dye layouts, but that is just the tip of the iceberg in this town cum resort owned by plumbing giant Kohler Co. “If you judge a resort in its entirety on the excellence of golf, lodging, food, spa, service, and other amenities, it is virtually impossible to argue against The American Club,” writes Cigar Aficionado contributing editor Larry Olmsted. The American Club hotel is a Forbes Five-Star winner and the best in the state, the Kohler Waters Spa is one of the best on earth, and won in this survey as the best at any U.S. golf resort, and there are a litany of restaurants, lodging options, and amenities, including a world-class fitness center, hunting preserve and more. “The American Club is a strong contender for best overall golf resort,” agreed David Baum, longtime panelist and publisher of hyper-critical golf travel newsletter Golf Odyssey. “The all-star lineup comprises four worthy Pete Dye designs that you’ll never get tired of playing—plus a jaw-dropping spa and beautifully updated hotel rooms.”
5. Kiawah Island Golf Resort, South Carolina
The highest ranked course ever designed by legend Pete Dye, The Ocean Course is a PGA Championship and Ryder Cup venue that anchors five courses by the likes of Nicklaus, Fazio and Player. This expansive resort occupies so much of the beautiful Low Country island that each course has its own clubhouse, but the resort centerpiece is the Forbes Five-Star Sanctuary hotel, consistently rated among the best in all of golf. “The Five-Star, Five-Diamond Sanctuary sits on 10 miles of private beach, with Southern food and Southern hospitality that will get you to whichever of the five courses you want to play. This is my favorite East Coast golf resort,” says Anne Scully, a superstar travel agent routinely ranked one of the 10 best in the business. “The Ocean Course is a clinic in golf course design because it plays so dramatically differently from every set of tees —it can be great fun or the toughest round you’ll ever face,” says Olmsted.
6. Sea Island, Georgia
The only resort on earth with four Forbes Five-Star awards, including two Five-Star hotels, The Cloister and the Lodge at Sea Island, its deluxe spa and fine dining at the Georgian Room. This classic has a longstanding reputation for excellence but has never rested on its laurels, constantly reinvesting and improving. There are three courses, seven eateries, two hotels, tennis, squash, boating, fishing, shooting, riding—the list goes on and on. “After a $500 million refresh, The Cloister is in top form. I really like the massive, luxurious rooms,” says top travel agent Chad Clark. Golf writer Michal Patrick Shiels loves the “Golf-focused, old-fashioned Southern hospitality and the most amazing, complete men’s locker room in golf. Sea Island’s formula for success is simple: play and play some more, then enjoy a wonderful gourmet dinner in jacket and tie, then sleep well—and play again.”
7. The Boulders, Carefree, Arizona
With so many dazzling new resorts opening in recent years, it is easy to forget that this star of the Phoenix/Scottsdale areas was once widely considered one of the nation’s top luxury resorts—and it still is. Two gorgeous desert courses, lodging in individual deluxe casitas, great food, great spa and an entire resort village with restaurants, shops and even a museum, make the Boulders a great choice for golfers and romantics. “Fifteen years ago, anyone with good taste and the money to spend wanted to go to the Boulders,” saya Cigar Aficionado contributing editor Larry Olmsted. “It’s fallen off the radar a bit, but guess what—it’s still that same great place you want to go.” TheAPositon.com’s Jeff Wallach notes that, “The Boulders excels by having its magnificent casita rooms arranged in small clusters that emphasize privacy and luxury—and the mesquite-burning fireplace in each doesn’t hurt.”
8. Reynolds Plantation, Georgia
If there was one word used over and over in the ballots to describe Reynolds Plantation, it was “underrated.” Golf Odyssey’s Baum calls it, “America’s least-known top-10 golf resort. This prime golf mecca and mega-resort somehow flies under the radar with five worthy 18s, two rated top 100.” Reynolds is huge resort built around an impossibly gorgeous lake, and all five public courses (there’s a sixth that is private), by Nicklaus, Rees Jones, Fazio and Bob Cupp have coastal exposure. It also has a fantastic Ritz-Carlton Lodge boutique hotel and a slew of rental luxury homes, condos, a quaint Inn, and a laundry list of indoor and outdoor activities and amenities. Its golf academy and flagship TaylorMade “Kingdom” tour fitting center tied for first in our golf school category. TheAPosition.com’s Wallach says, “The keyword is variety. If you can’t find something to love at Reynolds Plantation you are not trying hard enough. The great variety of waterfront golf is only exceeded by the number of types of places you can stay, from homes to condos to a Ritz-Carlton tucked into a bay with its own private beach.” Michael Patrick Shiels adds an interesting trivia fact: “Augusta National caddies work the Oconee Course during their off season, and along with the other excellent masterful courses, hotel and gorgeous setting in the Georgia pines, guests can’t help but love it.”
9. Four Season Hualalai, Hawaii
This was the highest rated single-course resort in the nation, and what a course it is—visitors just cannot get enough of the dramatic Jack Nicklaus Signature Course carved from oceanfront fields of black lava. The resort has the entire package, with suites featuring outdoor showers of the same lava rock, half a dozen different and elaborate swimming pools, an incredible beach, indoor/outdoor spa, and a one of a kind Hawaiian cultural center. Where else can you pay golf and learn to play ukulele in the same day? GolfClubAtlas.com’s Ben Cowan-Dewar, developer of Canada’s widely acclaimed new Cabot Links, has played almost all of the Top 100 courses worldwide, and called Hualalai, “the best planned resort” he has seen. Veteran golf writer Michael Patrick Shiels agrees, and notes, “The golf course, though steps away, does not dominate the resort. The ocean, beach and pools here are front and center while the low-rise villas are stylish inside and out. The unique spa, featuring a stone walking stream, invites one to linger, but the golf course, playable, fun and visually stimulating, has a strong siren call.”
10. Kapalua, Hawaii
The Plantation Course has long been the season opener for the PGA Tour, and was among the first breakthroughs for the now ultra-desirable design duo of Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw. The 22,000-acre resort also includes the Arnold Palmer designed Bay Course, a venerable Ritz-Carlton hotel, a wide assortment of villas and condos, shopping, dining, spas, beaches and activities from zip lines to hiking trails. “Kapalua’s Plantation and Bay courses offer two very different experiences with distinct character, challenges and incredible views,” says travel agent to the stars Anne Scully. “The Bay Course has been enhanced over the past three years with a multimillion-dollar renovation and has ocean views from 16 of 18 holes.”
The Rest of the Best
11. Streamsong, Florida
12. The Broadmoor, Coloardo
13. La Quinta, California
14. Four Seasons Lanai, Hawaii (Manele Bay and Lodge at Koele)
15. Marriott Kauai Lagoons, Hawaii
16. Resort at Pelican Hill, California
17. Mauna Lani, Hawaii
18. (tie) Lodge at Torrey Pines, California/The Greenbrier, West Virginia
20. Mauna Kea Beach Hotel, Hawaii
21. Wynn Las Vegas, Nevada
22. Princeville, Hawaii
23. Fairmont Scottsdale Princess, Arizona
24. Sea Pines Resort, South Carolina
25. Treetops, Michigan
The Top 10 Golf Resorts in Mexico and The Caribbean1. Casa de Campo, La Romana, Dominican Republic
This powerhouse also won our 2012 Best of the Caribbean Poll as top golf resort, and its famous Teeth of the Dog is the only course in the entire region ranked in the World’s Top 100 by Golf Magazine. But some fans think the newer 27-hole Dye Fore layout is even better. Like our U.S. No. 4 resort, The American Club, Pete Dye has a monopoly here on the three public and one private layouts. Casa de Campo is far more than golf however, with myriad hotel and villa options, huge marina, incredible shooting facility, sportfishing, equestrian center, even donkey polo. It has its own pseudo Italianate town complete with an amphitheater that hosts live performances. The resort, and the newer Marina area, offers more restaurant and bar options than visitors could try in a weeklong stay. “With 90 holes of Pete Dye-designed golf and a huge resort that allows for plenty of fun off the course, this property is at the head of the class for me. As good as Teeth of the Dog is—and it’s very, very good—I truly believe that the Chavon nine on the Dye Fore course here ranks among the best nine holes anywhere,” says Steve Habel, a columnist for Cybergolf.com who has probably played more courses than anyone on the panel, often more than 150 different layouts per year. Pat Gallagher, a global business travel road warrior, avid golfer and longtime panelist pays the resort the ultimate compliment: “I chose to throw my 40th birthday party here because it has the complete package for golfers and non-golfers—staffed, spacious rental villas, incredible activities and beaches, plenty of food and drink, and great golf.”
2. Punta Mita, Mexico
“When your choice of lodging is between the St. Regis and the Four Seasons you know you’ve arrived somewhere great,” says TheAPosition.com’s Jeff Wallach. “Add two Nicklaus golf courses and a remote and secluded tropical location, and Punta Mita rises high in the Caribbean rota.” It is also home to the world’s only natural island green, an offshore atoll that Nicklaus could not resist and turned into a par-3 from the beach, “The Tail of the Whale.” Depending on tide, you can walk out on a sandbar or be shuttled in an amphibious cart to putt out—it is one of the most memorable and dramatic holes on earth. “Loved by families and couples alike, Punta Mita is a perennial Golf Odyssey subscriber favorite,” says Baum who explains why.
“Sealed-off from the outside world, Punta Mita is a sun-lover’s paradise. You will be hard-pressed to find a better combination of golf, lodging, weather and full-service resorts. The original Pacifico course offers endless eye candy, an authentic island green and the ultimate resort game, while the newer Bahia 18, with its undulating fairways and heaving greens, tests every golfer.”
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