There’s nothing like playing a course for the first time and being truly wowed. And when that course just so happens to be publicly accessible, cue the trumpets! Once you’ve found a gem like that, you blessedly don’t have to wait for an invitation or special connection to play it again — you can go back as many times as your budget and schedule will allow.
Below are the eight most impressive public courses that our staffers played for the first time in 2019, and if you start feeling a little jealous of their rounds, remember that you, too, are only a tee time away from the same experience.
In my first visit to the property, we had a slight breeze and 50 degrees on Halloween day. It was perfect. The course has a really great set of tee boxes (who ever says that?) that can test some of the best players in the world and also drop down and offer some birdies for the rest of us. Also, they’ve fixed their greens issues from the 2015 U.S. Open. It’s again a must-visit. —Sean Zak
Carlton Oaks is a Perry Dye design just east of San Diego that plays a lot like the best of Pete Dye. It’s inland, in an unglamorous location. But the bones of the course are, in my opinion, the best of any public course in the San Diego area. They used to host all kinds of qualifiers there, but conditioning became an issue so it lost some of its luster. You can still get some bare patches and some scruffy bunkers. But the course plays firm and fast and there’s really not a bad hole. Ok. Maybe one; the slightly goofy par-4 8th. Greens fees are just over $40 on weekdays, making it a steal in an area where better-known layouts are not as good and do not come cheap. —Josh Sens
Homer Golf Course is a nine-hole par-3 course on the southern tip of the Kenai Peninsula in Alaska. I got the privilege of trekking to the 49th state for a mini-doc and a magazine feature this summer and I was wowed by this little slice of heaven. It’s owned and operated by a young couple, Scott and Esa Woodland, as a labor of love. I played the course in mid-May, right after it opened, and even in the early season it was light enough to play past 11 p.m. I arrived at 8:15 p.m. and played 18 holes looking out at sunset on the Kachemak Bay with glaciers spilling into the distance. It’s on the short list of places I’m dying to get back to. —Dylan Dethier
Just as the Masters doesn’t start until the back nine on Sunday, the majesty of Pacific Grove Golf Links doesn’t start until the back nine on a clear, still evening in mid-June. Or at least that’s when I experienced it with a few colleagues during U.S. Open week — and, oh, what fun it was. That stretch of holes, which crisscrosses a rambling parcel just up the coast from Pebble Beach, is the (worst-kept) best secret on the Monterey Peninsula. For as little as $39, you can be transported to southeast Scotland — the land is that linksy. There’s also an inland front nine that serves as a respectable, if unmemorable, opening act, but if you’re strapped for time or daylight’s fading on you (as it was for us), try to weasel your way to the 10th tee. That’s where the real magic begins. (You can read more about our round here.) —Alan Bastable
After hearing rave reviews about it for the better part of a year, I recently played Sweetens Cove, a 9-hole course near Chattanooga, Tennessee. The place exceeded my already-high expectations. The entrance is nothing more than a single-lane dirt road and a battered wooden sign that says “Sweetens Cove Golf Club,” and the entire vibe at Sweetens is minimal, low-key and welcoming. The first thing you see when you pull in is a huge practice putting green with dramatic mounds and a shack that serves as the pro shop. This pro shop is decked out with products from a wide variety of my favorite brands — Jones, Seamus and Imperial, just to name a few. A Sweetens tradition says that all first-timers must take a shot of whiskey, and that whiskey is often supplied by return visitors. After taking a swig we walked out to the first tee, which plays directly over the ninth green. The 3,300-yard track packs a punch with fescue-lined fairways, gorgeous trees and dramatic green complexes. Sweetens charges visitors $100 for unlimited golf all day, and since each green has two hole locations we had no interest in stopping after nine. A new deck that overlooks the course is the perfect spot for a post-round meal. But remember, since Sweetens offers only the essentials — great golf, a welcoming atmosphere and shots of whiskey — you’ll have to order your food from a local restaurant when you get to the sixth tee box if you want it waiting for you when you’re done. We called a nearby Domino’s, and after a day of hoofing, that pizza never tasted better. —Ashley Mayo
I only played one public course this year that I had not played before, Ballyreagh Golf Course, down the road and the beach from Portrush. As it happens, it was the most enjoyable round of golf I had all year, if nine holes, all short par-3s, played nearly at night in 45 minutes with borrowed clubs can be considered a “round.” The Ballyreagh greens are tiny and slow, and the course has no bunkers that I can recall. The ground is spectacular, a green field gently sloping to a cliff. You’re hitting your ball through sea air. The grass has some life in it. You have the Atlantic on one side of the course and dinner on the other. Plus, good company, three others in the typing trade. Good times. —Michael Bamberger
I finally played Rush Creek in the northwest suburbs of Minneapolis, and it was every bit as good as advertised. It’s a public course with a private feel — minus all the stuffiness. It’s beautifully manicured and makes you hit all of the shots, although some aren’t that easy to pull off. And when you’re not dealing with narrow driving windows, slopey greens with tight run-off areas or the several holes with water staring you in the face, you’re often trying to manage the tricky wind situation. But it’s an amazing experience and comes at a pretty good price (anywhere between $59-119) for golfers looking to play 18 different and enjoyable golf holes. Better yet, it also has a short course, The Mac Nine, which is still less than 10 years old. —Josh Berhow
Cape Wickham, King Island, Australia. Not only the best public course I played this year, but maybe the best course I’ve ever played, public or private. Absolutely epic, and it now stands as one of the game’s ultimate pilgrimages.
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