In my opinion there are 11 Great International Golf Destinations for Group Trips. Would I realistically take a group to England over South Africa? Yes. But South Africa is so much more of a golf EXPERIENCE than England (no offense to the Queen), and I’d like to elaborate on that in this article, so England gets the shaft and – SPOILER – South Africa steals my last spot.
I’m not going to write 500 words on each international destination. I’m just going to write a brief note and list my 8-10 public-access must-plays in each destination, then let you decide how you would build a trip from them. (Again, if I leave a place YOU love out, I either haven’t played it yet or didn’t like it. See: Ballybunion Old Course.)
10. South Africa
Nine Must-Plays: Links at Fancourt, Fancourt Montagu, Pinnacle Point, Leopard Creek, Durban Country Club, Legends Golf Safari, Arabella, Oubaai (NEW), Gary Player
Fancourt is South Africa’s best golf resort with three courses, but Legends Golf Safari Resort has lodging surrounded by the “Big Five” Safari animals and a 19th hole called “Extreme 19” that requires a helicopter ride to get to the tee box (one of the greatest golf experience of my life). Durban Country Club affords you the opportunity to stay at my favorite South African hotel,The Oyster Box. Arabella gets you close to the famous Robben Island and the best milkshakes in the world at Royale Eatery (in Cape Town) and you can get another surreal safari experience at Kruger National Park with a round at Leopard Creek. Fly into Johannesburg or Cape Town.
9. Ontario, Canada
Ten Must-Plays: Muskoka Bay, Cobble Beach, Rocky Crest, Taboo, Bigwin Island, Deerhurst Highlands, Eagles Nest, The Ridge at Manitou, Grand Niagara and Osprey Valley-Hoot.
Ontario beats South Africa as a golf destination because it is closer to the United States and cheaper. That’s not saying the golf isn’t great here, because it is, but if money were not an element of the equation South Africa would be a LOT higher up the list. (It’s also cold in Canada.) My good friend Jason Deegan calls the Muskoka Region of Ontario “one of the most dramatic places I’ve ever played.” In one of his articles he claims to have lost at least a dozen golf balls at each course while up there, and Deegan is a pretty good golfer. It’s also worth noting that Ontario has Niagara Falls (the pretty side) and a golf scene dominated by architects Stanley Thompson, Doug Carrick and Tom McBroom. I think Drake is from here too, if that matters to you. Fly into Toronto.
8. East Canada (Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Newfoundland & Prince Edward Island)
Eight Must-Plays: Cabot Cliffs, Cabot Links, Cape Breton Highland Links, Humber Valley, Links at Crowbush Cove, Dundarave, The Links at Brunello and Fox Creek.
You’d have to own a boat, a small plane, have plenty of money or be really good at swimming with golf clubs to be able to manage an itinerary with all of these, but Cabot Links (and Cliffs) is already considered Canada’s Best Golf Resort and is as Bucket List item as Canada courses get, and even the abbreviated season can’t keep golfers away. I would contend Cabot needs another two courses to move Nova Scotia into the top 5 international golf destinations, but the fact that ONE resort can make all these other courses so relevant is pretty amazing. Bandon Dunes, Barnbougle Dunes, Sand Valley, Cabot Links and (coming soon to Scotland) Coul Links. That’s a pretty incredible set of credentials for the Keiser family. “King Makers” as David McLay Kidd calls them.
7. Baja, Mexico
Seven-and-a-Half Must-Plays: Quivira, Cabo del Sol-Ocean, Diamante Dunes, Danzante Bay, Palmilla, Puerto Los Cabos, Cabo del Sol-Desert and Cabo Real (I guess)
The two reasons Cabo ranks higher than East Canada as a group golf destination are: 1. Weather. 2. Course clustering. It’s just easier to get to all the great places in Cabo. Danzante Bay is really the only outlier, and if you haven’t seen the photos of No. 17 or Matt Ginella’s 360 Tour there, you’re missing out. (Check out my article on Danzante Bay on this website!) Quivira is KING of Baja—an epic round you’ll never forget, and the Cabo del Sol Ocean course is something special. Who knows what is going on with Diamante Dunes, but stay at any of the Pueblo Bonito Resorts (or the NEW Hard Rock Hotel) and enjoy the surf, sun and superb golf.
6. British Columbia, Canada
Eight Must-Plays: Greywolf, Tobiano, Predator Ridge-Predator, Predator Ridge-Predator, Fairmont Chateau Whistler, Bear Mountain-Mountain, Bear Mountain-Valley and Tower Ranch
I don’t have to defend BC’s place on the list. It defends itself quite well. Greywolf is the geographic outlier among my must-plays, but WELL WORTH the trip. The Tobiano experience is going to be love-hate for you. Love for photographers and great golfers. A little less love from people who take bad pictures and golf shots. I’ve heard it called “The Wolf Creek of Canada.” That’s a great thing to me. Might not be to you. The Fairmont Chateau Whistler is amazing and gives you access to one great and two really good courses. The Westin Bear Mountain on Vancouver Island is worth the stay-and-play, and Predator Ridge Resort lets you combine it’s 36 holes with another 18 at Tower Ranch. British Columbia may seem huge, but it is stunning and packed with great Rocky Mountain golf. PERK: You can get seven of the eight courses I listed by staying at just three resorts.
Ten Must-Plays: Barnbougle Dunes and Lost Farm, Kingston Heath, Royal Melbourne West and East, New South Wales, Ellerston, Cape Wickham Links, The National and Victoria Golf Club.
I’m not going to give you a detailed geography lesson here. Suffice it to say, Australia is a lot bigger than you would think, and it’s pretty unrealistic to think you can get to all eight of these in one typical golf trip…BUT…if you’re like 89 percent of the world, you’ll be lucky to get to Australia even once, so maybe it’s worth stretching a bit to try to get as many of these in as possible. This list of must plays is a mix of classics and stars. Barnbougle Dunes and Lost Farm is another Keiser family project, so you know it’s epic. Kingston Heath and New South Wales, Ellerston and Cape Wickham Links…you’ve got to play those. Look at the other ones and see where you’re at on your map. They’re worth playing, if you’re there already.
4. Alberta, Canada
Eight Must-Plays: Banff Springs, Jasper Park, Stewart Creek, Silvertip, Wolf Creek Old and New and the two newly rebuilt (after the 2013 flood) Kananaskis courses: Mt. Kidd and Mt. Lorette
Up here, it’s all about the great views that complement the greater golf. You are surrounded by the Canadian Rockies in their most epic splendor. You can have a fantastic round with a terrible score. You can make your primary base in Canmore/Banff and play five of the eight courses from there, then drive up the Glacier Highway to Jasper Park for an otherworldly round and venture over to find Rod Whitman’s duo at Wolf Creek to complete the Figure 8. Let me be clear…it is Banff Springs (out of the incredible Fairmont Banff Springs) and Jasper Park (out of the equally stunning Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge) that make Alberta the draw it is. I might be Alberta’s greatest advocate south of their border, but if it weren’t for that Royal Duo, I’d never have discovered the rest of the provincial power and neither would you!
3. Ireland and Northern Ireland
Ten Must-Plays: Tralee, Old Head, Lahinch, Trump Doonbeg, The Island, Royal County Down, Royal Portrush, Ardglass, Carne and Hogs Head
In an all-out brawl between Ireland and Scotland golf clubs, I really didn’t want to choose. In the end, I took my two favorite courses from each and compared them, and The Old Course and Castle Stuart won out over Tralee and The Island. That said, there are no less than 20 must-plays in each respective country. I’ve played 15 of my 20 Bucket List courses in Ireland/Northern Ireland so far (they could be two different lists) and hope to finish off the rest later this summer or next year. Links golf is not for everyone. I have Ireland and Scotland high on my list because I love to walk, love working on my ground game, love putting from 60-plus yards off the green at times, and am not affected by strong winds or occasional heavy rain. I DO hate driving on the wrong side of the road, especially when I come head-to-head with another American who is on the right-wrong side of the road…but I wouldn’t trade my Ireland experiences for anything and wish every American would give it a shot. Seriously, if you’d love to go to Ireland but don’t know where to begin, plan a trip with five of the ten above and supplement it with places like Dooks, Waterville, the European Club, Portstewart and Ballyliffin and you’ll be thrilled. I’m not a fan of Ballybunion Old or Portmarnock, but you might be. Like I said, this place is LOADED.
Ten Must-Plays: The Old Course at St. Andrews, Castle Stuart, Trump Aberdeen, Trump Turnberry-Ailsa, The Nairn, Kingsbarns, North Berwick-West, Carnoustie, The Castle Course at St. Andrews and, the “best kept secret”, Newburgh on the Ythan
Is Scotland better as a golf destination than Ireland? I don’t know. If I had to choose between the two, I would narrowly pick Scotland, but only because I’d love another shot at The Old Course at St. Andrews (this time with my son). My son (at 15) is a better golfer than I’ll ever be, and he would eat these courses up (in both Ireland and Scotland), and it’s my strong desire to take him to both that makes me think you (whoever you are) would love the experience too. Scotland is huge (small roads, wrong-side-drivers-again) as it is, so you’d have to break the courses up again into separate trips, but with another Keiser family project looming at Coul Links (up north) next year might be the perfect time for you to get over there and try it out. The golf and weather are typically good from late April through late October, so you have a pretty big window. Just do yourself a favor and apply to play The Old Course at St. Andrews. There really is nothing else like it on Earth. It isn’t for everyone (somehow), but it’s everything great about golf to me! Plus, anyone who has heard of Kohler, Wisc., who knows anything about Whistling Straits and the American Club at all, The Old Course Hotel in St. Andrews is a Kohler facility (connected to The Duke’s Course) and overlooks The Old Course next to the famous Jigger Inn and just down the street from the great Sticky Toffee Pudding at the Dunvegan Hotel’s Claret Jug Restaurant. Get your group together and go pay your respects to Old Tom Morris.
1. New Zealand
Eight Must-Plays: Tara Iti, Cape Kidnappers, Kauri Cliffs, Jack’s Point, Kinloch Club, Paraparaumu Beach, Wainui and shoot…I’ll play pretty much anything there!
Why is New Zealand my No. 1? How can you love a place so much that you’ve never been to? Easy. New Zealand has been No. 1 on my Golf Bucket List for 20 years now (including all 11 of my journalism years). I don’t know that it’s the greatest golf destination on earth. (Arguably the hardest to get to! Shoots my formula in the foot.) It just seems to be the greatest place on earth in my mind. If there is one place I’d love to go (and take my wife)... I’d LOVE to show and tell you all the great things about it, as I can with all the other listed destinations (other than Australia), but I just can’t -- yet. So, I’ve listed the EIGHT MUST PLAYS on my own New Zealand list. For the record: I’m packed and ready to go!