When I was in my 20’s, I hated golf. Didn’t play and as a big fan of Mark Twain and George Carlin I thought that the grand ole game was both a good walk spoiled and the biggest waste of real estate in the world. Then, in my early 30’s, I decided I had to take up the sport for business purposes. After buying a cheap set of clubs at K-Mart (true story), I set out to teach myself how to use them. After the first time I blasted a straight drive over 200 yards, I was hooked for life. It wasn’t love at first site, but it was love nonetheless. Now, I play whenever I can, I see golf in my dreams, and I’m driven by a compulsion to play as many new courses as I can. My fiancée thinks about traveling the world to see all of its romantic sites, and I long to play all of the romantic courses. I’d love to do nothing more than play all of the world’s great courses. To that end, here’s a top 10 list of golf courses every golf nut must play before he or she dies – a golf bucket list, if you will. Courses have been chosen for their beauty, their importance to the game, their level of difficulty, and in some cases their sheer uniqueness. In order to build suspense, we’re counting down to No. 1.
10. El Camaleón at the Mayakoba Resort, Playa del Carmen, Mexico
What? Golf in Mexico? That’s right. Designed by Greg Norman, this picturesque course in the Mayan Riviera that’s a 45-minute drive from Cancun has quickly developed a reputation for some of the best par threes in the world after being opened in 2006. Built with limestone canals spider-webbing throughout the course, golfers can step out of their rooms and into a boat which will take them to the first tee. The course winds through jungle and mangrove swamps, intermittently emerging onto the beautiful beach. Both No. 7 and No. 15 are short par threes with the Caribbean Sea in the background, and both holes are made more challenging by shifting winds that can force golfers to fluctuate club strength significantly from one day to another.
9. Nirwana Bali Golf Club, Indonesia – He might choke in big tournaments, but the Shark can design courses with the best of them. He’s also responsible for Nirwana Bali – a beautiful seaside course that winds through tiered rice paddies, jungle, and beautiful beaches. Only a 30-minute drive from Kuta, Nirwana welcomes visitors; even though, it is a private club. As the name suggests, Nirwana is a highly spiritual course – signature hole No. 7, a 214-yard par 3 from one cliff-top to another over the Indian Ocean, even provides a view of the sacred seaside Hindu temple, Tanah Lot. This is not a course for chauvinists, however, as all of the caddies are women recruited from nearby villages.
8. Torrey Pines, San Diego, CA – One of the best reasons to live in San Diego, Torrey Pines is possibly the best municipal golf course in the United States. Locals with proof of residence can enjoy playing the more heralded South Course for only $61, $37 during twilight hours, and the North Course for only $40, $24 during twilight. That bargain offers one of the most beautiful and challenging courses in the world for cheaper than you can play a weekday round on a goat track elsewhere. Outsiders can still enjoy a round for as low as $110 during twilight on the South Course and $60 on the North. Whatever the prices, it’s worth it. Torrey Pines was made famous by the battle between Tiger Woods and Rocco Mediate at the 2008 U.S. Open, but it’s long been one of the most beautiful golf spots in the world, situated in the rolling hills and ravines astride the roaring cliffs of the Pacific Ocean.
7. Pebble Beach Golf Links, Pebble Beach, CA – The reason why Torrey Pines is only perhaps the best public golf course in the United States, Pebble Beach also lays claim to that title. Host to five U.S. Open tournaments, Pebble Beach also sits astride the Pacific Ocean, giving it one of the most dramatic environments in which anyone could ever dream of playing golf. It’s the back stretch that really takes the breath away at Pebble Beach, particularly the par-3 17th with the ocean sitting menacingly just beyond the green and the wind greatly affecting club choice, as well as, the lefty’s nightmare of a par-5 18th with the rocky beach curling up the entire length of the 543-yard hole. Not quite the bargain of Torrey Pines, Pebble Beach costs $495 to play.
6. Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, Liajiang Golf Club, China – Many people don’t realize that China is the fastest growing hot spot for golf in the world right now, with courses going up all over the country as fast as they can build them. Located in the Yunnan Province, Jade Dragon Snow Mountain Golf Club is the jewel of the lot. Believed to be the longest course in the world at 8,548 yards, Jade Dragon might also be the highest with beautiful snow-capped mountains like the one for which it is named encircling the course and giving it an elevation ranging from 3,100 feet when you tee off to 10,000 feet at the base of the big mountain. The area is so named because an ancient observer believed it looked like a green dragon reclining in the clouds. If you love the long ball, this is the place for you, as the high elevation makes 300-yard drives attainable for even modest hitters. And say what you want about communism, but it keeps the prices of green fees down, as the price ranges from $70 to $117. Just make sure you pack the oxygen tank in your golf bag.
5. Mauna Kea Golf Course, Hawaii – Located on the big island, Mauna Kea Golf Course is considered the standard for island golf throughout the world. Walk onto Mauna Kea, and you’ll start looking around for Tatu and Mr. Roarke because it looks like Fantasy Island. Robert Trent Jones, Sr. remarked upon seeing the area that if he was allowed to build a course on the site that it would be the most beautiful in the world – then he did it. On the cliffs above the Pacific Ocean, the greatest treachery on this course comes from the water, most famously on the par-3, No. 3. One of the most photographed holes in golf, No. 3 offers a beautiful shot over an inlet from tee to green. This is another course where wind plays a huge factor with the Kona wind coming off the ocean significantly changing the way each hole is played depending upon which way the wind is blowing.
4. Old Head Golf Links, Kinsale Ireland – The jewel of the Emerald Isle, Old Head doesn’t even look real, but something that J. R. R. Tolkein may have dreamed up minus the monsters. Old Head was placed literally at the end of Ireland, on a 220-acre diamond of land jutting out into the Atlantic Ocean. Every hole on the course comes with an ocean view where the brilliant blue of the sea meets the dazzling green of the course, but it’s the nine holes that run along the cliffs that place this course so high on the bucket list. Be prepared to walk because Old Head is old school, where golfers walk the course with a caddie chosen from the field of 160 well-seasoned caddies who work the course during the season that runs from April through the end of October.
3. Legends Golf & Safari Club, Entabeni Safari Conservancy, South Africa – Ignore for a second that each hole on this course has been designed by a different PGA Tour pro, including Vijay Singh, Retief Goosen, Paddy Harrington and Colin Montgomerie. Ignore the fact that the course lies smack dab in the middle of a nature conservancy where Africa’s big five roam free, and lions might be seen lounging just on the other side of the course’s safety fence. The reason every golfer must hit this course before he dies is the 19th hole – and no, I’m not talking about the bar. Legends has quickly become famous after opening just three years ago due to its bonus hole – the tallest and longest par-3 in the world. A helicopter lifts players 14,000-feet up the side of Hanglip Mountain to the tee box, where the enormous Africa-shaped green looks like a mere speck 630 yards away. Once the ball has been struck, it takes 30 seconds to fall to the green; although, most shots end up well wide of their mark. However, this is best place in the world to hit a hole-in-one, because it’s worth $1 million if you do! That’s a lot of greens fees.
2. Augusta National, Augusta, GA – Conceived by the greatest golfer the world has ever known, Bobby Jones (you heard me Tiger and Jack), and designed in conjunction with Dr. Alister McKenzie, Augusta perfect blends beauty and elegance with challenging difficulty. Jones created the course to be a test for both the greatest golfers in the world and casual duffers, and he succeeded beyond his wildest dreams. Annually hosting the world’s toughest tournament, The Masters, Augusta can break even the greatest. Many a fate has been changed at Amen Corner, Holes 11, 12, and 13, as seeming champions have been turned into goats and vice versa. The opposite of Torrey Pines and Pebble Beach, this is a member’s only course where you’ve got to have serious connections to get a tee time. Moreover, while minorities have been permitted recently as members, women remain barred from membership.
1. Old Course at St. Andrew’s, St. Andrew’s Scotland – In the world, there are many beautiful mosques but none of them are as sacred to devout Muslims as Mecca, and the Old Course is a golfer’s Mecca. Sure, it might look like a pasture in comparison with more modern oceanfront beauties, but as the place where the sport began 600 years ago, the Old Course simply must top any list of courses golfers must play before they die. As Jack Nicklaus has observed, “there’s no course that is even close.” Though its burns and pot bunkers can be trouble, the Old Course is still as playable for the casual golfer today as it was 600 years ago. In addition, tee times are surprisingly available year-round and at greens fees can be had for as low as $102 if you don’t mind freezing in the winter.