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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

If you love golf, you are going to travel to play it. The two pursuits are hopelessly intertwined, and with some 30,000-odd courses around the globe, from the Monterrey Peninsula to the rugged shoreline of Hawaii, from the towering sand dunes of Ireland and Scotland to hot, emerging golf locales in far-flung places like New Zealand, South Africa and China, sooner or later the siren call of one of them will find you. You'll find yourself on the way to the airport with your clubs in tow. So where should you go? That is the golfer's eternal dilemma, and if you were face-to-face with one of the world's leading experts on golf and golf travel, that's the question you'd probably ask. That is just what we did: rather than rely on an unscientific poll of readers whose knowledge and claims cannot be qualified, as many magazines do, we went straight to the horse's mouth, assembling a dream team of the world's leading golf journalists, top golf course architects, and executives from some of the most prominent resort chains and golf course management companies, including people who have played on the PGA Tour or LPGA Tour (none of the experts were allowed to vote for their own interests). We asked the panel members the question on every golfer's mind: what is your favorite course?

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.

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."

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