Appeared in Fall 2010 LINKS
Guilty as charged.
That is our plea to the jury of 20 million American golfers. We know that for most of them, the American golf experience is not Pebble Beach and Augusta National and TPC Sawgrass. Yet we all aspire to play these top courses, and we help you fuel those dreams by featuring golf’s glitziest, most private and most expensive destinations.
At the same time, we understand that these palaces make up just a fraction of courses in the United States. In reality, the heart of American golf lies in accessible, affordable layouts—more so than ever, as environmental and economic factors call for more facilities to heed the principles outlined in “A Simpler Game,” our campaign to promote sustainable conditions for golf courses. (Go to LINKSMagazine.com/asimplergame for more information.)
So we have highlighted 10 public courses around the country that fit this model. These layouts prove that it is possible to offer natural, engaging and fun golf at reasonable rates. In fact, depending on when you go, you can play all these layouts for less than the cost of a single round at Pebble Beach.
But don’t be fooled by price; these courses will satisfy even the most discerning golfers. LINKS’ mission always has been about featuring the best of golf, and we are happy to recommend the following 10 courses, at which everyone can enjoy “A Simpler Game.”
Pacific Grove Golf Links Pacific Grove, Calif.
Architects: H. Chandler Egan, Jack Neville Year opened: 1932 Contact: pggolflinks.com
It would be unfair to suggest Pacific Grove’s cult-like status as a timeless golf values lies in its location, making it a low-cost alternative to the elite courses of the Monterey Peninsula. While the green fees are less than $50 ($30 for local cardholders), there is so much more to love at this oceanfront muni than mere economics. Every community needs a gathering spot like Pacific Grove.
Nothing is conventional about the municipally owned course that was set in motion in 1931 when Pebble Beach Company founder Samuel F.B. Morse agreed to sell the property to the City of Pacific Grove for a $10 gold coin—under just one condition. The city had to maintain and irrigate the property as a golf course, then a nine-holer, for a minimum of five years.
Nearly 80 years, later the city not only has upheld its pledge to Morse, but in 1960 added nine holes at one of the world’s most dramatic settings for golf.
The original inland front nine features no par 4s over 400 yards and opens with back-to-back one-shotters. It has lost some features since H. Chandler Egan designed it not long he reworked Pebble Beach, but the first nine remains full of character and is the perfect appetizer to the Jack Neville-designed back nine, which meanders among towering dunes and plays around Point Lobos Lighthouse. The setting is one that elicits emotional responses from golfers who have adored many of Scotland’s lesser-known links.
With a minimalist approach to fertilization and pesticide use, coupled with a dunes restoration program designed to eradicate ice plant, Pacific Grove is extraordinarily friendly to wildlife. A round at Pacific Grove isn’t complete without multiple deer and rare bird sightings.
This green approach also keeps prices down—not that cost is the reason to play Pacific Grove. A round here shouldn’t be an either/or affair. Quick rounds and fun golf that approximated the modest Scottish model Pacific Grove an essential component of any visit to 17-Mile.
— Geoff Shackelford
Rustic Canyon Golf Course Moorpark, Calif. Architect: Gil Hanse Year opened: 2002 Contact: rusticcanyongolfcourse.com
It would be easy to say that Gil Hanse, Jim Wagner and I spent years grinding away at complex architectural details in order for Rustic Canyon to reflect the values of “A Simpler Game.”
The truth is, we had the opportunity to build a course on sandy soil with lovely contours already ingrained onto the property. Unless you are trying to run up a huge construction tab or hoping to prove some sort of superiority to Mother Nature, the only ingredient necessary to creating something fun, functional and cost effective is made up of those crusty little particles.
Expensive drainage? Who needs it when you have sandy soil and subsurface contours that move water where it naturally wants and needs to go. By embracing the sand and nature-made drainage system, we saved millions that can be passed along to golfers in the form of reasonable green fees.
Even better, the course looks like it belongs there, a key attribute for providing golfers a taste of authentic, natural golf. A bump, mound or green contour has to look real, as golfers will reject any form of quirk as the work of an architect trying too hard to bring attention to himself.
Like children, golfers often see through a designer’s bag of tricks. That X-ray design vision explains why a majority of longtime golfers inevitably gravitate toward the links courses or nature-driven designs like those found at Bandon Dunes.
Seven years after opening, Rustic Canyon is as busy as ever and unfortunately, takes too long to play on weekends because of its popularity. However, all the golfers who noted after their first time around that it was “a fun little course” now realize the game isn’t all about leaving you feeling depressed and broke.
It’s about having a few laughs and a little battle with Mother Nature’s best features. Especially if using what nature made saves a few bucks.
— Geoff Shackelford
Piñon Hills Golf Course Farmington, N.M. Architect: Ken Dye Year opened: 1988 Contact: pinonhillsgolf.com
Picture a cinder-block municipal-park-and-recreation building anywhere in America. Add a vaguely adobe sensibility. You’ve fairly well pegged the look and feel of Piñon Hills. Yet my playing partners all had driven at least an hour from three different states, Utah, Colorado and New Mexico, to play. Farmington lies in the Four Corners region, but still.
Positioned on either end of the arid Colorado Plateau, Farmington and Scottsdale, Arizona, share a similar climate, and the Piñon Hills layout would not look out of place amid the latter’s $200-per-round resort flourishes. Making expert use of a cloverleaf-shaped canyon at the center of the property, architect Ken Dye designed holes that teasingly skirt its edges and play across its narrow gaps before plunging right down onto the canyon floor.
Even the holes that don’t dance along the canyon rim rollick over or through the dry riverbed. It’s pretty thrilling stuff, and although the comparison might not be obvious, the 18 holes at Piñon reflect the basics of the game, the ones meted out in the Old World.
In addition to being a public playground that is a point of community pride and involvement, Piñon Hills, which was built in 1988 for $1.7 million, showcases the land, which is ultimately what makes any course great.
Dye, who is not related to Pete, didn’t miss many opportunities amid the steep rocky hillsides and sandy scrub. We tend to associate desert golf with the upscale tracks of Palm Springs or Scottsdale. So it’s a shock to see this tableau done so well in a municipal context. And that’s a basic worth revisiting.
— Hal Phillips
CommonGround Golf Course Aurora, Colo. Architect: Tom Doak Year opened: 2009 Contact: commongroundgc.com
For too long, public golfers in major cities have endured second-class (or worse) status. I know the land is important, but is it really so difficult to build an interesting, engaging golf course that doesn’t require a long drive to the first tee?
The answer may lie with CommonGround, which offers an excellent model for cities everywhere and proves that urban golf can be urbane golf. Working for a significantly reduced fee, Tom Doak turned the former Mira Vista, a forgettably tight, tree-lined layout on the Denver border, into a dynamic course with challenging holes and views of both downtown and the surrounding mountains.
Owned and operated by the Colorado Golf Association and Colorado Women’s Golf Association, CommonGround does not have the magnetic pull of Doak’s far-flung destination layouts in Oregon or Australia. But it does possess a nobler purpose, hosting numerous programs, especially for junior golfers, that promote the game locally and throughout the state.
Reflecting the accessibility of in-town courses that Doak observed during his year in Scotland, CommonGround is a community center where golfers of all ages and abilities can enjoy the game in a friendly, encouraging environment, whether they are taking part in a clinic, hitting balls on the practice tee, playing the par-3 Kid’s course or tackling Doak’s strategic layout.
Despite its length of 7,198 yards, CommonGround is no slog, thanks to the mile-high elevation and the design, which highlights angles off the tee and open-in-front greens. The layout has fostered a loyal following, evidenced during a passing weather front, which brought rain and flagstick-bending wind that would have chased away most golfers. But play never abated during the 20-minute storm; afterward, the course remained just as full despite threatening skies.
For CommonGround’s regulars, a chance to play one of Doak’s top courses like Pacific Dunes or Cape Kidnapper is a singular experience to be cherished. But in the long run, they will accrue a lifetime of rewards from the everyday pleasures of an affordable, fun layout just minutes from home.
Wild Horse Golf Club Gothenburg, Neb. Architects: Dave Axland/Dan Proctor Year opened: 1999 Contact: playwildhorse.com
Only the snootiest of golf snobs (and some have accused me of being one) would pass up a chance to play Wild Horse. They may cite the fly-over location, the preponderance of jeans and T-shirts on the course, the $40 green fee or the lack of name recognition of its two designers, Dave Axland and Dan Proctor.
But then, they would be missing out on some seriously good golf, featuring wide fairways with wavy edges bordered by fescue that sways in the wind, rugged-edge bunkers that steer the lines of play, and large greens with subtle slopes that match the rolling landscape beyond.
The design of Wild Horse is perfectly suited to its location, at the edge of the vast Nebraska Sand Hills, where the sandy soil promotes firm, fast conditions. The ground game is very much an asset here, especially considering the wind that can whip across the plain.
A small town along I-80 may be the last place you’d expect to find a top-caliber links-style course, but this type of throwback golf is the specialty of Axland and Proctor, who honed their design philosophies building courses for Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw. In fact, Axland and Proctor are as familiar with the Nebraska Sand Hills as anyone; they helped shape the private Sand Hills Golf Club, 100 miles to the northwest.
Despite the obvious links between the two, it would be incredibly unfair to judge Wild Horse against its fabled predecessor, arguably the best course built since World War II. By that lofty standard, few courses anywhere would measure up. Instead, let’s recognize Wild Horse for what it is: one of the best values in American golf.
— Hunki Yun
Golf Courses of Lawsonia (Links) Green Lake, Wis. Architects: William Langford/Theodore Moreau Year opened: 1930 Contact: lawsonia.com
In the early 1970s, my friends and I played most of our golf on Milwaukee’s municipal courses, which offered the comforting familiarity of tree-lined fairways and saucer-shaped greens. But like most teenagers, we wanted something different. So we piled into my ’66 Ford Fairlane and headed west, for a course with an unusual name: Lawsonia.
We pitched tents in a cornfield near Green Lake in central Wisconsin, awoke the next morning to glorious sunshine and the promise of 36 holes, and drove through the gates of the Northern Baptist Assembly grounds. A one-mile wooded road led to a golf course unlike any we had ever seen.
The greens were massive and multi-tiered, flanked by fearsome steep-faced bunkers. There were blind shots and cross bunkers, jaw-dropping views from elevated tees and, legend had it, a boxcar buried under the green on the vertigo-inducing par-3 7th.
It was our first exposure to an inland links. But we had no way of knowing that the classic Scottish links were the inspiration behind the design elements of this course that William Langford and Theodore Moreau built in 1930.
We just thought it must be the wildest golf course in the world.
Nearly 40 years later, it remains an unpretentious, affordable public facility. (There are now two courses at the Golf Courses of Lawsonia: the original Links and the newer Woodlands, which was added in 1983 and is nice enough but is your typically wooded resort fare).
The Links remains true to its roots. By mid-summer, its fairways are baked firm and fast, surrounded by seas of golden fescue. The rugged, exposed terrain—more than 150 trees were removed under the direction of Ron Forse in 1990—leaves golfers exposed to the elements.
Langford believed that par should be protected near the green. Accordingly, the fairways are generous but the putting surfaces are perched on shelves with severe drop-offs on one or more sides. This philosophy works best under firm, fast conditions, and an imaginative short game—using the ground as much as the air—is a huge part of playing well on the Links course.
I still enjoy playing Lawsonia on annual summer visits. There are plenty of motels and B&Bs in the area, so you won’t have to pitch a tent in a cornfield. Unless, of course, you want to.
— Gary D’Amato
Lakewood Shores Resort (Gailes) Oscoda, Mich. Architect: Kevin Aldridge Year opened: 1993 Contact: lakewoodshores.com
During my first golf trip to Northern Michigan, I didn’t want to miss a single course. Starting at Arcadia Bluffs on the west coast, I worked my way to Grand Traverse, Shanty Creek, Boyne Highlands, Bay Harbor and Treetops.
I even made a detour to the Upper Peninsula, which I wanted to visit because the name sounded remotely exotic, like the Northwest Territories. (As it turned out, all I had to do was cross a bridge and pay the toll.)
My last stop was Lakewood Shores, one of the few golf resorts on the east coast, the Sunrise side of Michigan. It was late afternoon when I pulled into the parking lot. I was exhausted after a long drive and a week of non-stop golf, and would have preferred a nap to another round.
But waiting for me was head pro Craig Peters, who handed me a scorecard and pointed me to the empty 1st tee of the Gailes course. By the time I reached the green, I felt rejuvenated, as if I had discovered golf’s Fountain of Youth.
After a steady diet of American-style layouts, albeit in setting ranging from clifftop to mountain, I was thrilled to discover an upper Midwest version of the kind of fast, firm golf that I only had found previously on a handful of courses, mostly overseas.
A course like the Gailes, which seeks to mimic a Scottish links, can easily be dismissed as gimmick. But first-time architect Kevin Aldridge made the concept work, drawing on his own experiences in the British Isles the way many top architects did before him.
To me, it’s very telling that Aldrige and his father, Stan, the owner of Lakewood Shores, chose to name the course after Scotland’s Western Gailes, itself a hidden gem. Like its namesake across the Atlantic, the Gailes relies on substance, not hype.
The wide, rumpled and natural-looking fairways invited me to swing away off every tee. Playing in the wind blowing off Lake Huron, a mile to the east, there were no stock shots, just a series of fun, stimulating shotmaking opportunities that I couldn’t wait to face. The fatigue long behind me, I kept playing until I could no longer see the ball, the way I used to do as a teenager.
— Hunki Yun
Southern Pines Golf Club Southern Pines, N.C. Architect: Donald Ross Year opened: 1906 Contact: southernpinesgc.com
When I moved back to the Pinehurst area from Australia in 2000, I needed to find somewhere to play, a place where the sport was still simple. Fortunately, Southern Pines Country Club was just such a club, where Donald Ross built a charming 18-hole course that plays essentially at the same length (6,268 yards) as it did a century ago.
There is little written word from Ross on this course and no drawings exist. Why? Because his home was only seven miles away, in Pinehurst. He didn’t need to communicate his design intentions or thoughts to the construction crew—he was here!
Alas, don’t come here looking for Ross’ finishing touches, as his bunkers and greens have been altered. However, his fabulous routing over the best rolling topography in the greater Pinehurst area is still intact, and golfers are free to marvel at how the fairways hit the landforms in all sorts of different manners.
Well-played tee shots enjoy big kicks downhill on certain holes and can make both par 5s on the front side reachable in two. Other times, the golfer needs to shape his tee ball—left to right to find the hogsback fairway at the 8th, right to left to hold the sloping fairway at the 10th. The challenge is old fashioned; shaping the ball gains the golfer greater advantages than brute length does.
As the father of two young children, I place a lot of value on free time, and I can pull into the parking lot, quickly throw on golf shoes and be walking down the 1st fairway within minutes. In today’s golf culture, being able to scoot around Southern Pines in under three hours while carrying your bag is magical.
This is the sort of unpretentious golf offered all across the United Kingdom and yet is so rare in the United States. Pity.
— Ran Morrissett
Tallgrass Golf Club Shoreham, N.Y. Architect: Gil Hanse Year opened: 2000 Contact: tallgrassgc.com
Long Island’s starting lineup of golf, consisting of courses like Shinnecock Hills, Bethpage Black, National Golf Links, Garden City and Maidstone, doesn’t shrink from comparisons to any water-surrounded landmass—even those like Great Britain, Ireland and Australia.
But a hidden strength of Long Island is its deep bench. While a course like Tallgrass might not make any best-of lists, local residents—as well as the occasional savvy visitor making a detour on the way to the Hamptons—are grateful for the fun, bouncy layout that Gil Hanse fashioned from a turf farm.
I had heard about Tallgrass from people whose opinions of firm, fast golf agreed with my own, but when I pulled into the parking lot, I thought I had made a wrong turn somewhere. The treeless site (actually, there are two on the property) looked to be depressingly flat, usually a harbinger for boring golf in my experience.
But surprisingly, the holes revealed well-crafted undulations in the fairways and around the greens. Hanse perfected the art of using slopes to contain or repel shots at Castle Stuart in Scotland, but Tallgrass, completed nine years prior, shows off his early skill in creating landforms that pair well with low, running shots.
Unfortunately, I didn’t get a chance to test the slopes around the greens on the day of my visit because the fairways were shaggy—the superintendent was waiting on a new mower. Others who played Tallgrass around the same period—late July—also noted that overall conditions were unusually green, but that may have been because the summer had been hot, humid and wet.
Whatever the explanation, I am willing to give Tallgrass another chance because its design elements and reputation have earned the course a measure of credibility. The true litmus test is a return round in the fall, when there will be no excuse for depriving us of firm, fast golf.
— Hunki Yun
Highland Links Golf Course North Truro, Mass. Architects: Willard Small, J. Henry McKinley, Henry Conklin Year opened: 1892 Contact: 508-487-9201
There are only a select number of courses in the United States on which you can play atop a cliff overlooking the ocean. Along the Pacific Ocean, Torrey Pines, Pebble Beach and Bandon Dunes come to mind. On the other side of the country, I can think of just one: Highland Links.
Located near the tip of Cape Cod, this nine-holer, which sits 120 feet above the Atlantic Ocean, is as close to a true links as golf gets on the East Coast. The color of the course is determined by nature, and in the summer, the patches of brown on the fairways, bordered by tall native grasses, only add to the charm of this quaint layout that sits in the shadow of the oldest lighthouse on Cape Cod.
On a warm, humid summer day, I had to fight plenty of vacation traffic along Route 6, Cape Cod’s main thoroughfare, to get to Highland Links. At one point, four lanes turn to two, backing up cars for miles. So I stopped at one of the ubiquitous roadside food stands for lunch, ordering a lobster roll that I ate while sitting on a wooden picnic table next to the parking lot.
Highland Links is similarly low key, offering a links golf experience that everybody can enjoy at a leisurely pace. Although carts were available in a gravel lot, I didn’t see a single one in use on the course.
Moving up and down as they follow the terrain in three counterclockwise loops, the holes are simple but not simplistic. No hole skirts the cliff, but the ocean is visible from several spots during the round. And although no single hole stands out as the postcard-perfect representation of the course in either design or scenery, the overall effect makes for an enduring memory.