There’s a small but significant roster of courses that is part of a special breed. You’ve watched these courses on television, seen the photos, and noted the rankings—but you thought that getting to play them was out of the question (unless you had connections).
Not so fast: Some of the courses on this list are actually accessible. Several are private courses that offer outside play if you stay on property; others are fully private clubs that allow the public to play on certain days or at certain times of year. Just this week, Yale University Golf Course opened its doors to outside play for 2022. Scoring that coveted tee time might not be easy, but it’s doable with a bit of effort.
Here are seven great courses you didn’t know you could play.
Perennially ranked among the Top 10 courses in the world, Muirfield is a 16-time Open Championship venue, none more memorable than 2013, when Phil Mickelson rode his 3-wood to victory. Its current course is a 1925 H.S. Colt creation that so impressed Jack Nicklaus in his 1966 win that he named his own major-worthy course in Ohio after it. Unquestionably formal (jacket and tie are required inside the clubhouse), the home to the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers does permit visitor play on Tuesdays and Thursdays in fourballs from 10:50 a.m. to 12:00 p.m. and in foursomes after noon. Fees are approximately $428.00 USD, but unfortunately, all 2023 tee times recently sold out—two hours after they were made available. For 2024, you must book a foursome—with all names provided—and must pay in full in advance, so plan accordingly.
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Tara Iti—Mangawhai, New Zealand
Barely seven years old, Tara Iti is ranked by many as among the top 10 courses in the world. It certainly is the most remote elite layout for Americans to access, as it’s situated 60 miles north of downtown Auckland on New Zealand’s North Island. It is also extremely exclusive, with a small, international membership—essentially the Cypress Point of the Southern Hemisphere. Yet, the club, in its benevolence, will grant a one-time visit privilege to the traveling golfer. To play Tara Iti, contact the club well in advance, requesting a tee time. It’s advisable to include an endorsement from your home club. A stay in an on-site cottage is required, and caddies are mandatory. You’re not limited to one round or one night—just one visit. The cost and effort to play Tara Iti are not insubstantial, but for the opportunity to play a Tom Doak masterpiece, it’s within reach—if you’re willing to splurge.
Firestone Country Club—Akron, Ohio
Long considered one of the toughest tracks on the PGA Tour, Firestone’s South course epitomized the “hard par, easy bogey” design mantra of its architect, Robert Trent Jones Sr., who substantially reworked the 1920s layout in 1959. The routing features many parallel fairways that inevitably finish in elevated greens fortified by sand or water, yet its utter fairness and parkland beauty appeal to the very best, including Jack Nicklaus, who captured the 1975 PGA Championship here and Tiger Woods, who claimed seven PGA Tour titles at Firestone. A private corporate club and retreat since inception, it opened its doors to limited public play in 2020 when it created a stay-and-play package. Guests who book in one of the 61 on-site, villa-style suite rooms or in one of the 30 dormitory-style clubhouse rooms have full access to dining at the club, as well as to golf on the RTJ Sr.-designed South and North courses or on the Tom Fazio-designed West course.
Black Diamond Ranch—Lecanto, Fla.
A reliable Top 100 entry through the years, few courses in Florida are as distinctive as Tom Fazio’s Quarry at Black Diamond Ranch. Holes 13 through 17 play around, over, and into a yawning, 100-foot chasm lined with white limestone rock. Adding to the ambience are rustic backdrops of rolling horse pastures and citrus orchards that depict anything except the typical development course. Fazio’s Ranch course is nearly the equal to the Quarry for solid, strategic holes, if not drama, and the 9-hole Highlands course is an ideal capper. Black Diamond Ranch’s “Stay & Play” packages let visitors sample this private community course via cottage-style homes with all the amenities necessary for a perfect trip. It’s off the beaten path in west-central Florida, but well worth the effort.
Diamante—Cabo San Lucas, Mexico
Mexico’s top-ranked layout, and also ranked among the Top 100 courses in the world, is the Dunes course at Diamante, a 2010 Davis Love III design. Highlights include massive dune ridges that bracket many holes and Pacific Ocean vistas throughout. Equally popular with members is the Dunes’s companion course, El Cardonal, which climbs higher into the desert. El Cardonal is Tiger Woods’s first completed design and it’s laced with risk/reward options. Members tune up their short games on Tiger’s 12-hole Oasis short course. Diamante is luxurious and exclusive with guard gates and massive estate lots overlooking the ocean but tucked unobtrusively on the home page of the development’s website is a small box that says, “Visit Diamante.” Although Diamante is unquestionably a private enclave, the club does make privately-owned units available for rental stays with golf privileges, with most stays requiring a three-night minimum.
Old Waverly—West Point, Miss.
Voted among the top three new private courses of the year in 1989, this Bob Cupp/Jerry Pate collaboration played host to the 1999 U.S. Women’s Open, where Juli Inkster set a new scoring mark of 272 (-16) in her win. It also played host to the 2006 U.S. Women’s Mid-Amateur and to the 2019 U.S. Women’s Amateur. The atmosphere is pure southern charm, a tranquil retreat in the northeast portion of Mississippi not far from the Alabama border, and the golf course glides gracefully through mature hardwoods and alongside multiple lakes. A little more than a decade ago, the club unlocked its gates via a stay-and-play program. You can snag a tee time at Old Waverly, but only by staying on-property overnight, in one of six categories of cottages and condos. It isn’t tough duty, especially when a purely public Gil Hanse design—Mossy Oak—awaits next door, which is owned and operated by the same Bryan family that created Old Waverly.
Haig Point—Daufuskie Island, S.C.
Accessible only by ferry off Hilton Head Island and other neighboring communities, Haig Point has been a much-honored but extremely low-key retreat since the 1980s. One of Rees Jones’s finest original designs is drenched in Lowcountry beauty and features 29 holes—which includes the championship Signature course, a third nine called Osprey, and two alternate greens on the main course to ease the challenge for less accomplished players. Marsh carries, fairways framed by pines and hardwoods, bold bunkering, and stunning sea views combine for a demanding, gorgeous test, one that was frequently ranked in the world’s Top 100. Haig Point has also been a fixture on lists of the Top 50 private golf communities, but these days, it welcomes limited outside play, with or without an overnight stay. Valet service will arrange for transport of your bags, making for a ferry ride where you can feel your life’s stresses melting away.
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What other great courses should make this list? Let us know in the comment section.