In the past decade, Golf News Net Ratings Editor and award-winning travel journalist Eric N. Hart (aka The Mobile Golfer) has played 368 courses in 39 states and another 42 courses internationally. With that broad experience and an extensive background in golf architecture, he has compiled his list of the 50 Best Public-Access Golf Courses in the United States.
20. Old Course at Omni Bedford Springs (Bedford, Penn.): As “courses-you-could-play-every-day-go,” this one ranks among my elite. I played it less than two weeks after playing The Old Course at St. Andrews, and the barebones similarities were quite surprising and pretty cool. Bedford is a little more topographically diverse than St. Andrews, but both rounds are beautiful, straightforward golf with great little towns built around them and incredible amounts of fun packed into each hole. Bedford plays inside wooden fences, with mounds scattered around the fairways and some river-guarded corridors, compared to Scotland’s windy, seaside, more historic but “hit-it-anywhere” arrangement. Bedford has a much lower cost to play going for it. Scotland doesn’t have Pennsylvania’s annoying toll roads. Scotland wins, but not by as much as you would think. Kudos to Spencer Oldham, Donald Ross and A.W. Tillinghast for this Old Course. (Website)
19. Forest Dunes – Original (Roscommon, Mich.): When a trusted course rater friend from another national magazine told me Forest Dunes was the best public course in Michigan, I wasn’t sure if he was being serious. I just couldn’t see it — honestly couldn’t imagine it. How does a forest beat lake views? How could it possibly be better than Arcadia Bluffs? “Trust me,” he said. Well, I couldn’t. But, channeling my inner Smashmouth, “now I’ve seen the place … and I’m a believer.” The only thing keeping it from being my No. 1 Michigan course is that they did something crazy like build another amazing golf course right across the road — The Loop. That said, this Tom Weiskopf design is so good … no … amazing actually … that you really do have to see it for yourself to believe it. (Website)
18. The Loop at Forest Dunes – Red (Roscommon, Mich.): The Loop is considered America’s first legitimate reversible championship course, the exceptional brainchild of Michigan resident Tom Doak. You can play it clockwise on what is called The Black (No. 28 on my list) or counter-clockwise on The Red. The loops are par-70 twins, both identical and fraternal — conjoined you might even say — and the best way to appreciate Doak’s unique architectural work is to stand in the middle of each fairway and look at the greens in both directions. It sounds confounding, but it’s more dumbfounding. And unforgettable. (Website)
17. Wolf Creek (Mesquite, Nev.): “Fun” is extremely undervalued in course ratings these days. I’ve always believed that, and here, at Golf News Network we plan to address that disparity when we release our course ratings in mid-2017. I get that many people think Wolf Creek isn’t “technically real golf” — that it’s more like golfing on the Moon or maybe even Mars — but I really don’t give a grip-and-rip what those people think (although frankly I’m enamored with the idea of golfing in space). My first round at Wolf Creek was as much “real” fun as I’ve ever had on a golf course (although part of that, admittedly, was my wife smoking the two guys we played with who complained about “having to play with a girl”). Dennis Ryder (potentially with a little help from Bud Chapman) built this rugged beauty that stole the show in Tiger Woods’s EA Sports video game. It is the definition of “wow factor” in golf, and I love that. Yes, the driving range sucks, the third hole needs to be blown up, and the buildings towering over the No. 1 and No. 18 holes are gaudy as heck, but this is as “can’t miss” as unique golf experiences get. (Website)
16. Deacon’s Lodge (Nisswa, Minn.): Out of every course on my list, this is the one I have played the most (11 times so far). I guess you could say it continues to grow on me because I love it a little more each round. Five years ago I was convinced this was Arnold Palmer’s best design. Having played a dozen of his highest-profile designs since, I must concede that Deacon’s Lodge is probably only second best — behind Ireland’s Tralee, which I played this summer (but put Deacon’s Lodge on the ocean and that would flip again). I tell everyone this is the second-best course in all of Minnesota (and the No. 1 stay-and-play value when paired with Breezy Point Resort). Such opinions are obviously open to debate, but I’m happy to put it up against your 16th-best course anytime. (Website)
15. Hammock Beach – Conservatory (Palm Coast, Fla.): Florida’s most underrated course in my opinion, also happens to be ranked the longest and hardest course in the state. Dramatic elevation changes and wildly wavy greens make this track around 76 acres of lakes and waterfalls pretty darn remarkable. Highlighted even more by bridges, stone walls, bunkers and an island green, Tom Watson isn’t getting nearly enough respect for this work. Even getting hit into four times in one round couldn’t dampen my enthusiasm for this course (neither did rolling two of those intruding balls down next to a couple of alligators). (Website)
14. Streamsong – Red (Bowling Green, Fla.): Streamsong Blue doesn’t make my Top 50 (it’s No. 52 incidentally). That separation of 38 places between the two courses (interwoven across the same piece of land) represents exactly how much more I think Coore and Crenshaw got out of their holes (highlighted by the par-3 No. 6 and No. 16). Streamsong’s first two courses were somewhat unique in their development, in that Bill and Ben supposedly worked pretty closely with Doak in the 36-hole design, which I think resulted in the strengths of all involved being amplified. I love Tom Doak, his style and his work, especially at The Loop and Pacific Dunes, but the Red at Streamsong is my favorite Coore and Crenshaw project anywhere. (Website)
13. Cascata (Henderson, Nev.): I experienced Rees Jones’ Cascata before I’d ever played Wolf Creek, back when it was $400 a round. And when I walked off the course, I was sure it would rank as the wildest course I’d ever play. That turned out not to be the case, but it was spectacularly wild nonetheless. I played Cascata with a heavy heart that day because of a family tragedy earlier in the week and really didn’t want to be there. But I had made a commitment, and I always try to honor my word. I shed a lot of tears that day. I remember hating golf before I teed off — and loving it again after 18 holes. Cascata kept me in the game. I took what felt like a thousand pictures of the massive waterfalls, rock formations and crazy-cool desert contrasts, and to this day those photos remind me of so many things — both good and bad. Still, someday I hope to play Cascata once again — this time with my family along for the wild ride. (Website)
12. Buffalo Ridge – Creek (Branson, Mizz.): Branson is often coined the “Las Vegas of the Midwest.” Other than the Blue Man Group and the fountains at the Bellagio, Vegas isn’t my scene, so I didn’t think Branson would be either. Turns out, the “Buckets N Boards” family-friendly comedy show makes for a pretty good Blue Man substitution and Bass Pro Shops owner Johnny Morris makes everything else spectacular. It’s impressive what all he’s done at Big Cedar Lodge (30 miles from Branson) with Top of the Rock and KemperSports-managed Buffalo Ridge (with more projects still in development). It’s also true that few inland views beat the panoramic spectacle of Table Rock Lake from Top of the Rock, and few rounds in the Midwest are as hole-by-hole memorable as Tom Fazio’s Creek Course at Buffalo Ridge. Travel Tip: When in Branson, be sure to stop at Cakes & Creams Fifties Dinner — you’ll thank me later. (Website)
11. Tetherow (Bend, Ore.): My Tetherow and Bandon Dunes experiences are what make me absolutely giddy about David McLay Kidd’s work at Wisconsin’s Sand Valley (opening up for preview play in 2017, only a few hours from my house). Bend, Ore., is one of my five favorite cities in America (Estes Park, Colo. is No. 1 if you’re wondering), and Tetherow doesn’t waste any of the surrounding stadium of scenery. Snow-capped mountains mixed with blue skies, water and so many earthly colors masterfully enhance a brilliant artist’s architectural canvas. I’d be remiss not to point out that Bandon and Bend make for the ideal one-week golf trip. If you’ve never been to either, next time do them both for a Bandonista Bender. (Website)
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