The other day we unveiled our latest Top 100 Courses You Can Play ranking, always a favorite among our readers. Our Top 100 in the World list is the creme de la creme of golf courses but includes many designs that aren’t publicly accessible. Ditto our Top 100 in the U.S. ranking. But the Top 100 Courses You Can Play ranking is, well — you can play every one of them. Anyone can.
Me, you, your neighbor Judy, Bob in accounting. All you need to do is pick up the phone or open your laptop and book a tee time.
Yes, some courses in our newest Top 100 are more expensive than others, but for every Pebble Beach or Whistling Straits, there’s a George Wright, a Black Mesa or a Wild Horse — dynamite courses that won’t whack your wallet.
Tee times come in all shapes and sizes with walking rates, stay-and-play deals and twilight offerings, so for the purposes of this list, we included only the Top 100 courses at which the most you will pay is $100 — i.e., the fees stated below are the max peak-season rate for each course. It’s a good time to be a golfer!
(Course descriptions below by Hayes Jackson, Tom Mackin, Ran Morrissett and Josh Sens.)
Lawsonia (Links), Green Lake, Wis. (ranked 23rd; $95)
Golden Age masters Langford & Moreau spent nearly $4 million in 2020 dollars to build this literally ground-breaking Wisconsin layout. Steam shovels shaped its most spectacular features, including some of the boldest putting complexes on the planet. Rumor has it a boxcar was buried under the 7th green to create the dramatic 20-foot drop-off. The result of all this mechanical wizardry? Possibly the most underrated course in America and its greatest golfing value. We almost feel guilty finally sharing the secret.
Rustic Canyon, Moorpark, Calif. (ranked 47th; $69)
George Thomas, who worked magic in a canyon when building Riviera, is a hero to Rustic Canyon’s designers. Here, about an hour’s drive (traffic dependent!) north of Riviera, Gil Hanse, Jim Wagner, and Geoff Shackelford conjured a design that would have impressed even Thomas. The imaginative use of washes throughout and the horseshoe 13th green are but a few of the challenges. Aerial views highlight how peacefully the holes occupy the valley floor, and the course enjoys a legion of fans who prefer minimalism. Hard to find a better bang for the buck west of the Rockies.
Wild Horse, Gothenburg, Neb. (ranked 49th; $62)
The Sand Hills of Nebraska are best known to golf buffs for a high-ranked private club of the same name. This is the Everyman’s equivalent. For less than what a caddie costs at its exclusive counterpart, Wild Horse offers a kindred golf experience, with firm, fast fairways and rough-lipped bunkers gouged out of the rolling terrain. While the big skies and open spaces are pure prairie, the bouncy conditions and wind-whipped native grasses create the look and feel of a course across the pond. Think links golf, minus the sea.
George Wright, Boston, Mass. (ranked 59th; $57)
A WPA project in the late 1930s, this course thankfully came deep in Ross’s career, because it is hard to fathom that he would have had the ability to design so many outstanding holes on this rocky site if he had just arrived from Scotland where all he knew was sandy soil. Fast-forward 35-plus years, though, and Ross and his team, led by Walter Hatch, had developed the skill set to employ dynamite to render holes that make the site look as if it was always meant for golf. Standout stretches of par-4s include 5 though 7, as well as 10 through 12. With no weak links, this municipal course is better than most of the private courses in golf-rich Massachusetts.
Bethpage (Red), Farmingdale, N.Y. (ranked 66th; $96)
The Black Course casts such a long, daunting shadow, it’s amazing any grass can grow on its four sibling courses at Bethpage State Park. But it does, especially on the Red Course, which more than holds its own, albeit with much less fanfare than its fellow A.W. Tillinghast design. There’s no warning sign at the 1st tee like at the Black, the rough is friendlier and the bunkers less dramatic (except for the fistful that split the fairway on the par-4 13th). But locals know none of that makes the Red a pushover. You’ll get the message right away with the uphill approach on the opener, followed by a series of doglegs, both sharp and soft, that will force you to hit every club — and shot — in your bag.
Warren Course at Notre Dame, Notre Dame, Ind. (ranked 70th; $70)
Notre Dame didn’t always have a golf course that represented the institution’s lofty ideals. It does now after William Warren paved the way for Coore & Crenshaw to build this new course in 1999. Two superlative examples of flat land architecture are found at the 9th and 13th holes. At the 185-yard 9th, a bunker 20 yards short of green fools players into coming up short. Another great bunkering scheme is on the 433-yard 13th, where the fairway breaks sharply left around a pair of bunkers 60 yards shy of the green. The finishing holes descend into more wooded, tumbling land, including the picturesque 16th where you hit over Juday Creek. The course’s many merits were on display at the 2019 U.S. Senior Open.
RTJ Golf Trail at Grand National (Links), Opelika, Ala. (ranked 78th; $65)
A nitpicker might point out that “links” is a misnomer, and they’d be right. It’s the wrong term for a course that features sylvan fairways and carries over marshes to soft, receptive greens. But never mind the monikers. The conditioning is pure, the vistas are sublime and the course, the strongest layout on the Robert Trent Jones Trail, is a delightful, varied test. If you time the visit right, you can follow up your round with another top-notch form of outdoor entertainment: the Auburn football stadium is nearby.
Pfau Course Indiana University, Bloomington, Ind. (ranked 85th; $95)
A bright spot for Midwest golfers last year came in the form of this course opening on IU’s Bloomington campus. Rave reviews quickly followed for a design that features tree-lined fairways on the more secluded front side and a wide-open feel on the back. Named for a major donor to the project, the course can extend to a meaty 7,908 yards (leave that for the college team!), but every green, save the 18th , accepts run-up shots. There are nearly 150 bunkers — the sharp dogleg-right 14th, the shortest par-4 on the course, has 10 alone on the right side of fairway — but architect Steve Smyers gives you a respite on the sand-free par-4 5th and 6th.
Stoatin Brae, Augusta, Mich. (ranked 96th; $99)
Heathland is a broad, open expanse of heath. Replace heath with native grasses and you have Stoatin Brae in south central Michigan. The uphill drive off the highway to the clubhouse gives nothing away about what you’re about to experience. Much of the front nine traverses a plain, and then, starting at 10, the land goes crazy — a topsy-turvy six-hole stretch that you won’t soon forget. It is one of the best stretches on this entire list, even though a lot of people don’t know about it. Other standout holes include the short par-4 8th and the one-shot 17th to a knob green. The green fee of well under $100 belies what is a first-rate design and playing experience.
Black Mesa, Espanola, N.M. (ranked 99th; $60)
New Mexico has one course in the Top 100 but four courses in the Top 125, making it a must-visit destination for every golfer. Situated on the Santa Clara Pueblo 30 minutes north of Santa Fe, this burly design boasts numerous classic design features: blind tee shots, false fronts, central hazards, greens that run from front to back. Architect Baxter Spann incorporated them all into this heaving desert landscape. The par-5 16th through a narrow canyon is a love-it-or-hate-it hole, depending on how well you fare!
Hawktree, Bismarck, N.D. (ranked 100th; $85)
Award-winning architect Jim Engh is best-known as a maximalist, but Hawktree’s main lines of defense are all natural. This Midwestern marvel rambles through glacier-carved land near the Missouri River, forcing players to contend with high plains winds and water that’s in play on 11 holes. When you arrive at Hawktree, the first thing you notice are the sweeping prairie vistas — 14 holes are visible from the clubhouse. The next thing you notice are the trademark bunkers, filled with black coal slag instead of white sand. By the end of the round, you’ll be thinking, “I need to play more golf in North Dakota.”
Two courses that just missed this list…
Talking Stick (O’odham North), Scottsdale, Ariz. (ranked 82nd; $105)
Subtle and thoughtful designs are the hallmark of Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw, and the North Course at Talking Stick Golf Club in Scottsdale is no exception. The duo took a flat parcel of desert landscape and built a grassland-fringed layout where the fairways are wide and taking the proper angles is rewarded. This is the antithesis of desert-style target golf. Greens are slightly elevated; miss those and your short game will be tested. Two of the strongest par-4s come early at the 3rd and 4th holes, while the 12th and its fun, split fairway set the tone for the back nine. Best of all is the par-5 2nd with out-of-bounds snug down the left side — it makes golfers do strange things!
Giant’s Ridge (Quarry), Biwabik, Minn. (ranked 68th; $109)
Add a pinch of Pine Valley vibe with a splash of Irish links magic on top of a former sand, gravel and iron ore mining site and you get The Quarry at Giant’s Ridge. Tucked away in northern Minnesota (three hours north of Minneapolis), the Jeff Breuer design offers a beguiling mix of par-4s, including the 13th, where you can go for the elevated green (anywhere from 239 yards to 323 yards away) or lay back for a wedge approach. Then there’s the 9th, framed by a chute of tall dunes off the tee followed by an uphill shot to the green. Invest in a yardage book both for the numbers — and for details on former mining operations in the area.
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