14. Orlando (Florida) Streamsong (Red, Blue, Black), Bay Hill, Reunion Resort (Palmer, Watson), Grand Cypress (New)
Best Kept Secret: Disney World is here
Sometimes I write things just to see if people are paying attention. You obviously know that Disney World is in Orlando, but did you know that Orlando is also packed with MAJOR golf resorts. Reunion Resort is my favorite golf group resort in Orlando with its 54 holes of golf designed by Nicklaus, Palmer and Watson, a ton of lodging options and water parks scattered all over the place. Speaking of water parks, the Marriott World Center has great pools and great golf with an even greater view from many of the rooms. Streamsong is the best resort in the area, with its three otherworldly (especially for Florida) courses: Red (Coore and Crenshaw), Blue (Tom Doak) and Black (Gil Hanse) and impeccable service/lodging -- though it's about 90 minutes from Orlando and closer to Tampa. Grand Cypress has great group lodging options, with stellar golf courses (plural), and then there’s the Four Seasons Resort with Tranquilo Golf Club and the Home of Arnold Palmer at Bay Hill Club and Lodge. I tell you, spending a night at Bay Hill and eating at the table in the dining room Palmer always ate at, then walking the course the PGA Tour plays (and the other awesome nine-hole course) is an experience every true golf fan should have at least once. My son spent about six hours on the putting green there that Palmer always practiced on, pretending he was The King making putts to win The Masters. You can do the same!
13. Hilton Head Island (South Carolina)
Courses: Kiawah Island (Ocean), Sea Island (Seaside), Sea Pines (Harbour Town), Club at Savannah Harbor, May River
Best Kept Secret: Southern Soul BBQ on St. Simons Island
Full disclosure: I’ve covered the U.S. golf landscape thoroughly, except for Maui, Colorado, New Mexico, Idaho, North Carolina and the northern half of South Carolina (Kiawah/Myrtle Beach). I’ll be visiting some of Colorado’s best resorts in June but didn’t have any way to get to North or South Carolina before this article -- two destinations I likely would rank A LOT higher with a little first-person knowledge. I say that to make it clear I mean no disrespect to either destination in terms of their “Group Golf Worthiness.” As a family resort writer for a couple of publications, Kiawah Island has been on my bucket list for a decade. As a golfer, Pete Dye’s Ocean Course at Kiawah Island Resort has held its own place on a similar golf bucket list. And even without experiencing it, I can assure you that it should be on your list too. (It’s the host course for the 2021 PGA Championship.) I’ve played all the courses at Sea Pines on Hilton Head Island and at Sea Island, and many would contend Harbour Town is another “Bucket Lister.” For this getaway, I tend to tell people to fly into Savannah and branch out from there. Spend two nights at Sea Island Resort (eat at Southern Soul BBQ at least 11 times), then spend two nights at Kiawah Island Resort, then your last 2-3 nights on Hilton Head Island where a number of great resorts will satisfy all your golf needs. (And One Hot Mama’s has you covered for food!) If you can get onto May River Golf Club, do it. Don’t want to travel around, just stay on Hilton Head Island and play the Sea Pines and Palmetto Dunes courses. Finally, before you fly out, spend a night at the Westin Savannah Harbor and play Sam Snead’s excellent course, The Golf Club at Savannah Harbor.
12. Raleigh-Durham (North Carolina)
Courses: Tobacco Road, Pinehurst Resort (#2, #8), Pine Needles, Mid Pines
Best Kept Secret: Tot Hill Farm
I’ve been “pining” to do a feature on all the Pinehurst courses for years now, to properly experience and cover the diversity of their collection. Can’t tell you how many people have asked me about the courses beyond Pinehurst #2, and unfortunately I don’t know what to tell them! Journalistic disclaimer aside, Pinehurst Resort is absolutely a destination in and of itself. With nine championship courses, including the famous #2 (a legendary Donald Ross design renovated by Coore and Crenshaw), a putting course and the new Gil Hanse short course, The Cradle, you could literally stay at Pinehurst for 10 days and never have to leave. There’s a lot of appeal in that, except for the fact you’d be missing what many claim is North Carolina’s best course (certainly its most underrated). Tobacco Road Golf Club is 25 miles from Pinehurst Resort and offers an otherworldly Mike Strantz course -- “The Wolf Creek of the East,” except for the fact it doesn’t have a single bad hole (like No. 3 at Wolf Creek). If you like Tobacco Road, then the “Best Kept Secret” will be right up your alley. Tot Hill Farm is 50 miles from Tobacco Road and is a slightly wilder, slightly too extreme Mike Strantz design. If you don’t like Tobacco Road, stick to the Pinehurst area and play the classics like Pine Needles and Mid Pines. Fly into Raleigh-Durham International Airport and stay at Pinehurst Resort or in an area motel. (Don’t overlook the UNC Finley and Mill Creek Courses on a visit.) What’s keeping Charlotte from being a Top 10 Golf Group Destination? I just don’t personally know enough about it.
INSERT PHOTO: Of Cascata Golf Club
11. Las Vegas (Nevada)
Courses: Shadow Creek, Cascata, Paiute Resort (Sun Mountain, Snow Mountain and Wolf), Royal Links
Best Kept Secret: The Cinnamon Rolls at Chef Flemmings in Henderson
I waffled a bit on Las Vegas, on whether or not it should be here or behind the Carolina options. Ultimately, what makes it such a bonafide jackpot of a golf destination is that it’s close to Laughlin, Palm Springs AND Mesquite/St. George, so if you absolutely have to have a TON more golf, you can easily branch out from here and kill two destinations with one flight. (Or four.) Add to that their Topgolf facility that seemingly every celebrity on Earth wants to be photographed at, and day and night (check out the Cloud Nine at Angel Park), this place is HOT! Fly into McCarran International Airport and pick from any of a thousand hotels. I recommend Suncoast for its value and proximity to Angel Park and Paiute, but it’s not on The Strip. If you have to stay on The Strip for the action, I’d go Bellagio, but you can’t go wrong with 10 to 12 others (Hard Rock is awesome, too). To play at Shadow Creek you have to be a guest of an MGM Resorts property and have to be financially well off. Cascata used to be like that (in both limited access and price) but now it’s easy to get on, more affordable and all around incredible. If you can get onto SouthShore Golf Club out at Lake Las Vegas you should, and the three courses at Paiute Resort are a tournament/event coordinator’s dream -- three stellar Pete Dye routings in one, always-green place (built right on a reservoir). As I said, you can extend the value of Vegas as a golf destination by branching out. Look at the twin gems at Primm Valley, and read about Mesquite/St. George (No. 18 on this list). Play Laughlin Ranch, Mojave and Boulder Creek. Have a plateful of cinnamon rolls at Chef Flemmings, chicken and waffles at Hash House A Go Go, and go play Royal Links. Vegas is too much to sum up in a page. Heck, it may even deserve a higher ranking.