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The World's Best Public Courses

Cigar Aficionado expert panel picks the best places you can play, plus names the top private clubs on the planet
Larry Olmsted
From the Print Edition:
Kurt Russell, May/June 2006

(continued from page 7)

We also asked them a whole lot more, because when we travel to play golf, most of us end up at golf resorts. But what is a golf resort? Simple question, complicated answer. Today, there are many variations on the theme. The big Hawaiian golf communities, for instance, typically boast multiple courses shared by several hotels, none of which own the golf. So is Wailea a golf resort with several hotels, or is a particular property within it, like the Four Seasons, a golf resort, even though other hotels have equal claim to its courses? Many of our experts felt the town of St Andrews itself qualified as a resort, though neither the fabled Old Course, our runaway winner for Best Golf Course Abroad, nor Kingsbarns, another Top 10 honoree, has any associated lodging. Is Las Vegas's ultra-private Shadow Creek a resort? Most of our panelists said yes, because to play it you have to stay at one of its associated hotels, part of the MGM Mirage group. In this sense, you could argue that Shadow Creek is the grandest golf resort on earth: its hotels boast tens of thousands of rooms, numerous spas and dozens of restaurants with internationally renowned chefs.

Shadow Creek clouds the issue, but at the most basic level, a place like Bandon Dunes is clearly a golf resort: the golf, simple lodging and dining facilities are all under one roof and one owner, and the three courses are so fantastic that by an almost three-to-one margin over runner-up Pebble Beach, our experts loudly declared that Bandon Dunes has simply the best golf of any resort in the nation, if not the world. Yet for many golf travelers there is more to a golf resort than just golf, as evidenced by the fact that Pebble handily edged Bandon for Best Overall U.S. Golf Resort. A lot of golfers also want fancy hotels, great service, spas, myriad dining choices and a range of activities from shooting to off-road driving, which is why the resorts that combine great golf with a huge array of amenities did so well, from Casa de Campo to Gleneagles to Kauri Cliffs. In fact, Scotland played out just like the Bandon-Pebble rivalry: Turnberry ran away with the Best Golf title, but rival Gleneagles trumped it on facilities.

Our experts came from all over the nation and the globe, and brought a unique geographic perspective, citing courses from North Korea to the Canary Islands, but never glossing over the classic links of the British Isles or U.S. Open venues. The group had strong opinions, and more than one expert declared this course or that clearly the finest on earth, often emphasizing their comments with phrases indicating "enough said." It was hard to get them to agree on anything, but some golf courses and resorts rose so far above the pack that they did achieve consensus: for Best U.S. Golf Resort Northwest, not one voter picked anything but Bandon Dunes. Newcomer Kauri Cliffs, which also did well in our recent Best Hotels survey (December 2005), completely shut out all other Australian and New Zealand competitors, despite the rich golf traditions Down Under. The fantastic American Club resort, now awkwardly renamed Destination Kohler to encompass all its myriad attractions, was but a single vote away from Midwestern dominance, and not surprisingly, Pebble Beach pitched a near shutout for the West, despite numerous large resort competitors.

There were also some surprises: fast growing newcomer Turning Stone, which one expert described as the "Pinehurst of the Northeast," won in the crowded northeastern corridor. China's little known but huge Mission Hills resort leapt onto the world scene, and a couple of unique, single-course boutique properties like the Inn at Palmetto Bluff and CordeValle and England's The Grove impressed our panelists.

We had to ask a lot of questions, because there is no "best" golf course or resort,but there is the best one for you and your needs, whether it is 36 holes a day, pub grub and a pillow, or leisurely golf on an almost empty course, Frette linens, a deep wine list and helicopter rides. We list the panel's top choices, several of which won in multiple categories. We also threw in an extra question about their favorite private courses, places that you can play only if you know a member or happen upon some incredible stroke of luck.

BEST RESORTS OVERALL
Includes golf, lodging, dining and facilities

Multiple-Course Resort, U.S.
Pebble Beach, CA
It has our highest-ranked course, our eighth highest and a third course, the Links at Spanish Bay, which made several panelists' Top 10. But what boosted Pebble was its drop-dead location on the Monterrey Peninsula, three very different hotels, an array of dining and activity options, and its rich history of golf greatness, including multiple U.S. Opens.

As David Baum, publisher and editor in chief of Golf Odyssey, a critical monthly newsletter devoted to golf travel, put it: "When the rangers at the entrance to Seventeen Mile Drive say, 'Welcome to the greatest resort in America,' take them at their word. Pebble Beach remains the ultimate destination for golf travelers."

Honorable Mention: While Pinehurst and Bandon Dunes both got votes in this category, the runner-up to Pebble was Destination Kohler, also known as the American Club. Kohler offers four great courses, has hosted the PGA Championship and Women's U.S. Open (on separate courses), is literally a city of facilities unto itself and has perhaps the finest golf hotel in the nation. As golf journalist Hal Phillips pointed out, "Judge a resort by its weakest course, and this place surpasses them all."

Multiple-Course Resort, Abroad
Turnberry, Scotland
One of Scotland's two 800-pound gorillas when it comes to true, full-service resorts, Turnberry wins on the strength of its phenomenal Ailsa course, which our experts picked as the second best international layout and the finest stop on the British Open rota other than St Andrews. The fabled links meets the sea on a cliff top at the third tee, kicking off perhaps the grandest 10-hole stretch in golf, entirely along the coast, through dunes, with the ruins of a castle thrown in for good measure. The hotel is perched on a hill overlooking its two grand links courses and the ocean beyond, and when you are not distracted by the view, you can explore the resort, which has a modern spa, several fine restaurants and a recently added activities center for shooting, fishing and off-road driving.

As Robert Pedrero, former publisher of The Golf Insider travel newsletter, said, "This is as good as it gets: if you reach the 12th hole at Turnberry and are not completely moved by the experience, you should give up golf." Arthur Hills, a designer who has built more than 300 courses around the world and is a former president of the American Society of Golf Course Architects, was blown away: "Wow, what a stunning setting. Truly a remarkable destination."

Honorable Mention: Gleneagles, Scotland's other powerhouse golf resort, came in second in the voting, not surprising since it lacks the seaside setting and British Open links course of its rival. What was surprising were the votes cast away from the British Isles, something that would have been unheard of just a few years ago. China's Mission Hills, the world's largest resort with ten 18-hole courses; South Africa's Fancourt, which hosted the Presidents Cup in 2003; and Sandy Lane in Barbados, home to the incomparable Green Monkey course, all had supporters.

Single-Course Resort, U.S.
Shadow Creek, NV
The only course to crack our Top 10 that is not part of a multicourse complex, Shadow Creek is unique in many ways. It commands the nation's highest greens fees at $500, and guests cannot even play on weekends. Yet many of our experts had undertaken the sometimes difficult process of getting on the course and found it more than worth the trouble. Not only is it unlike anything else in Nevada, an engineering marvel and highlight of superstar designer Tom Fazio's career, but the greens fees also include round-trip limo transport from one of its hotels, including such swank options as Skylofts, The Mansion at MGM or THEhotel at Mandalay Bay.

Pedrero noted, "It combines all the excitement and glamour of the best of Las Vegas with world-class golf, and the tee times are so spacious you feel like it is your own private course." Journalist Jeff Wallach got to the heart of the matter: "Las Vegas. Has it all and none of it's illegal."

Honorable Mention: Many of our voters chose under-the-radar luxury boutique hotels that have a great course connected to them. CordeValle, in California's Silicon Valley, and the Inn at Palmetto Bluff, in Bluffton, South Carolina, are both private courses with access just for overnight guests of over-the-top accommodations run by Rosewood Hotels and Napa Valley's renowned Auberge Resorts, respectively, and both got multiple votes in this category. Equally popular was Palm Coast, Florida's Ocean Hammock, which combines an oceanfront Nicklaus design with upscale, old-school lodging right in the clubhouse for an escapist golf experience like few others.

Single-Course Resort, Abroad
Kauri Cliffs, New Zealand
There are roughly 15,000 golf courses outside the United States, on every continent except Antarctica, but this newcomer crushed the competition in three categories (it also was named the Best Non-Golf Facility: Single-Course Resort, Abroad, and Best Single-Course, Resort Golf, Abroad). Just the fact that so many panelists had made the long trip is noteworthy, but once you get to Kauri Cliffs you understand why. The perennially empty golf course vies mainly with its sibling, the even newer Cape Kidnappers, for the most dramatic setting in golf. The lodgings are pure luxury in a Relais & Chateaux property with impeccable cuisine and service, and the non-golf facilities at this 6,000-acre estate rival those of Gleneagles and the Greenbrier in West Virginia —for just 22 guest rooms. How many other resorts offer on-site boar hunting alongside tennis?

Cigar Aficionado golf columnist Jeff Williams described Kauri Cliffs as "a majestic seaside course coupled with some of the best hotel rooms ever conceived." Bill Hogan, an extensive golf traveler and president of acclaimed tour operator Wide World of Golf, went further: "Kauri Cliffs is the finest small lodge hotel and golf course combination in the world. The setting, service and overall quality are simply unmatched."

Honorable Mention: Kauri Cliffs may have stolen the international spotlight from the British Isles, but runner-up The Grove makes an argument for England. Just three years old, The Grove is a funky, fashionable luxury hotel half an hour outside London, making it very accessible from all corners of the globe, with a golf course by Kyle Phillips of Kingsbarns fame. It is the site of this year's World Golf Championships —American Express Championship, where Tiger Woods will defend his title.

BEST GOLF
Quality of golf only

Multiple-Course Resort, U.S.
Bandon Dunes, Bandon, OR
Pacific Dunes is the highest-ranked public course in the world built since 1947, according to Golf Magazine. The course and its predecessor, Bandon Dunes, quite simply shocked the golf world when they opened, because they are that good. Last June, the powerhouse design duo of Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw opened the third layout, Bandon Trails, which is too young to be ranked but still made the Top 10 lists of some panelists. Our experts fell over one another to vote for this resort, and nothing else in the nation comes close to Pacific and Bandon Dunes for British Isles —style links golf, carved through epic sand dunes along the coast. Owner Mike Keiser is a purist and steadfastly refuses to build a spa, luxury accommodations or allow carts, insisting the resort is for true golf fanatics only.

Golf Odyssey's Baum is one convert: "Bandon Trails cements Bandon Dunes' position as the single best place to play golf in the world. Nowhere else on the planet can you drop your bags and have so many extraordinary golf holes at hand." It is worth noting that our two highly respected architect panelists, Arthur Hills and John Fought, both voted for Bandon in this category. Fought, a two-time winner on the PGA Tour, said, "I love links golf and Bandon is the best links place in the U.S.," while Hills cooed, "Does it get any better then this, three world-class courses? My hat is off to Mike Keiser for building his dream."

Honorable Mention: Pebble Beach and Pinehurst came in second and third, respectively, rounding out the new pecking order in American golf.

Multiple-Course Resort, Abroad
Mission Hills, China
China? Twenty years ago, not a single golf course could be found in the entire country, and today 10 exist under one roof. In 2004, Mission Hills entered the Guinness Book of World Records as the world's largest golf facility. But quantity and quality co-exist at Mission Hills, where the courses were designed by an array of international player/designers, including Jack Nicklaus, Greg Norman, Nick Faldo, Ernie Els, Vijay Singh and even Annika Sorenstam —her sole design. The resort has two hotels, including a new boutique offering, several spas, and every other facility you could think of, all less than a 40- to 45-minute drive from Hong Kong.

Wide World of Golf's Hogan said, "There is really no comparison. Mission Hills has 10 excellent golf courses by 10 different famous golf course architects —and more are planned! For the price, the resort amenities, rooms and service are off the charts." Having just returned from a visit, I could tell you that if you moved any of the resort's best courses —the Faldo, the Nicklaus or the Olazabal —over here, people would clamor to play them. Mission Hills was just named Golf Resort of the Year by the International Association of Golf Tour Operators.

Honorable Mention: Scotland's Turnberry took second place on the strength of its Ailsa course. Golf tour operator Sam Baker of Haversham & Baker could not decide between this and Mission Hills, explaining, "Mission Hills has 10 good golf courses and Turnberry has only two —but Turnberry has Ailsa."

Single-Course Resort, U.S.
Shadow Creek
See write-up on page 80.
Honorable Mention: The Four Seasons Resort Lanai at Manele Bay, Hawaii, came in a very close second to Shadow Creek. Four Seasons just took over the hotel's management, and the Nicklaus-designed Challenge, with the most ocean exposure of any course in Hawaii, elicited strong support. "Views to die for —it's the real Hawaii you dream about," said Evan Rothman, former executive editor of Golf Magazine.

Single-Course Resort, Abroad
Kauri Cliffs
See write-up on page 80.
Honorable Mention: Waterville, Ireland. Talk about a hidden gem: Waterville House, the luxury mansion associated with this stunning links, is such a well-kept secret that many golf experts do not even know about it, and those that did quickly voted for Waterville as a resort. The first time I played Waterville, I came in for a Guinness after my first 18 and said, "I could play that course every single day." As I sat at the bar, another foursome came in and I overheard them say the same thing, then another. That is the effect Waterville has: it is a great links, but a fun one, not punishing like some, and you really do want to play it every day.

BEST NON-GOLF FACILITIES
Lodging, dining and activities

Multiple-Course Resort, U.S.
Destination Kohler, WI
A tight race showed how many great golf resorts in this nation live up to the term "full service." Kohler has all the spa treatments, shooting, horseback riding, fishing and other activities, but edged the competition with what may be the best golf resort hotel in the country, the American Club, where each bathroom is a unique work of art showcasing Kohler Plumbing's best fixtures and whirlpool baths. The hotel is home to the fantastic Immigrant Room restaurant and Kohler has something no other golf resort does: a huge interior design center, open to the public.

Honorable Mention: Pebble Beach and the Greenbrier both made very strong showings and both have multiple lodging options, plenty of restaurants and a laundry list of activities. The Greenbrier even has a professional culinary academy on site.

Multiple-Course Resort, Abroad
Gleneagles
The other big Scottish resort finally got back at rival Turnberry, solidly thumping it and everybody else in a voting landslide. Gleneagles has what may well be the most complete array of non-golf activities on earth. Its off-road driving school, falconry program, shooting academy and equestrian center are all world-class, run by some of the top competitors in each sport with lavish, dedicated facilities and the best equipment, be it Land Rover Defender 110s or Beretta over/under shotguns. Throw in a Michelin-starred restaurant and a fancy new spa and you can understand why the leaders of the world chose this for the recent G8 summit.

Wide World of Golf's Hogan underscored the importance of non-golf activities here: "Gleneagles has so much to do that the three golf courses are almost a distraction."

Honorable Mention: Turnberry came in a distant second, with many of the same facilities as Gleneagles, but all on a small scale. Journalist, broadcaster and writer Michael Patrick Shiels was one of several Turnberry enthusiasts: "Time well spent in every way: a historical, luxurious, old-fashioned, quaint hotel with panoramic views, a world-class cozy bar and a variety of restaurants. A sweet, full-service spa, shooting range, off-road driving and two thoroughly enjoyable golf courses."

Single-Course Resort, U.S.
CordeValle, CA
A private club with limited on-site lodging for nonmembers, CordeValle is a hidden gem that offers first-rate golf and more than first-rate accommodations, which were taken over in January by Rosewood, the chain behind such stunners as Las Ventanas al Paraiso, one of the world's greatest resorts. CordeValle spans 1,700 acres and has 45 luxury cottages and villas, a lavish spa, hiking trails and even a full-blown winery, Clos La Chance. The men's locker room, complete with multiple hot tubs, steam room, vichy showers, sauna, flat-screen TVs, billiards and full bar, is a contender for the best of its kind anywhere.

Bill Hogan described the golf course as "the best between The Olympic Club and Cypress Point," and the facilities as "five-star plus." Robert Pedrero, who lives nearby, said, "At CordeValle you revel in the best of both worlds: the finest in private club ambiance, with all the service and facilities of a first-class boutique resort."


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