With the PGA Championship on tap this week at city-owned TPC Harding Park in San Francisco, we’ve got munis on our mind. Specifically, we’re pondering our favorite municipal courses in the United States. The list below is not meant to stand as a definitive ranking but as a compilation of 14 must-play tax payer-funded tracks. They are courses that stand out for their quality, their history, their affordability or their good old-fashioned muni quirks. Or some combination of all of the above.
Kahuku Golf Course, Oahu, Hawaii
“Keep the country, country!” So goes the protectionist slogan on the North Shore of Oahu, where Kahuku is as country as any course you’ll see. A rustic nine-holer with nary a dress code and no merchandise for sale in its tumble-down pro shop, it sits along a swatch of coastal land, flanked by undeveloped stretches that NBC golf broadcaster and Hawaii resident Mark Rolfing calls “the greatest remaining golf property in the United States.” Greens fees for locals are $9, and under $30 for out-of-towners. Not a bad price for a walk in paradise and zillion-dollar Pacific Ocean views.
Sharp Park Golf Course, Pacifica, Calif.
Opened in 1932, this is the only seaside muni in this country designed by the Golden Age giant Alister MacKenzie. And though some aspects of the layout have changed throughout the decades, there’s no mistaking MacKenzie’s imprint on coastal land just south of San Francisco. People often call Sharp Park “the poor man’s Pebble.” It’s more like the public-access Cypress Point.
Lions Municipal Golf Course, Austin, Texas
Affectionately known as “Muny,” this quirky design is a sentimental favorite, and not just because it lives under existential threat from the University of Texas, which owns the land and has long expressed an interest in putting the site to other uses. Over its long history, which dates to 1924, Lions has hosted the likes of Byron Nelson and Ben Hogan. Tom Kite and Ben Crenshaw cut their teeth here, and remain supporters of the course today. No wonder the fierce loyalty among locals, who founded the Muny Conservancy to help defend the place. It’s a layout no one wants to lose.
Bethpage Black, Farmingdale, N.Y.
Big, bad Bethpage Black. So much is made of its difficulty that its majesty at times gets overlooked. A.W. Tillinghast’s Long Island brute is also a beauty by any measure, a host of multiple major championships and, after the Old Course in St. Andrews, the highest-ranked muni on GOLF Magazine’s list of Top 100 Courses in the World.
Winter Park Golf Course, Winter Park, Fla.
The opening hole measures 241 yards, but have no fear, it plays as a par-4, not a par-3. It’s a sweet way to ease into your round at this charming nine-hole layout, located in the heart of well-heeled Winter Park. The course itself is old — 1914 was its original vintage — but a loving 2017 renovation has brought it up to contemporary snuff without diminishing its throwback appeal. Retro applies to the pricing, too. You can play Winter Park for less than $20.
Chambers Bay Golf Course, University Place, Wash.
Bumpy greens and a glitchy TV broadcast brought heaps of criticism onto Chambers Bay when the course hosted the 2015 U.S. Open. That was unfair. But the course itself isn’t. It’s a firm, fast rollicking test, ripe with creative shot-making demands that nod to golf as played across the pond. And the Puget Sound setting is hard to beat.
George Wright Golf Course, Hyde Park, Mass.
Funded in the 1930s by the Works Progress Administration, this Donald Ross design, blasted through a rocky landscape, required the heavy lifting of more than 1,000 men. It was a feat of engineering that endures today as a work of art, bucking and rolling through a landscape marked by granite outcrops, with a handful of blind shots and cool green complexes all around.
Triggs Memorial Golf Course, Providence, R.I.
You can hardly swing a 9-iron around our smallest state without knocking up against a great Donald Ross design. Like many munis, Triggs has endured maintenance up and downs throughout the decades, but its bones have always been top-notch, with small, deftly bunkered greens and nuanced doglegs on holes set seamlessly into the contours of the land.
Griffith Park, Wilson and Harding Courses, Los Angeles
George C. Thomas, the architect behind such storied private redoubts as Riviera, Bel-Air and Los Angeles Country Club, also had a hand in the two 18-hole courses in Griffith Park, an expansive Los Angeles greenbelt that ranks as one of the largest urban parks in the United States. How much of Thomas’s original work remains on both layouts is a subject of some debate on architectural forums. But this much is undisputed: the 36 holes here represent the greatest concentration of top-notch muni golf almost anywhere outside of Bethpage State Park.
Pinon Hills, Farmington, N.M.
The desert landscape off the fairways can be unforgiving. But the course itself is friendly and affordable, and the layout, which gives way to boundless vistas, is as fine a design as any muni in the southwest.
Desert Willow Golf Resort, Palm Desert, Calif.
In a world overrun with scruffy munis, here’s a change of pace: a pair of impeccably conditioned courses, spread through an idyllic desert setting, brightened by wildflowers and waterfalls. The Mountain View course lives up to billing with the panorama it provides, while the Firecliff is the longer, stouter challenge, with more than 100 bunkers and waste areas to navigate.
Wintonberry Hills Golf, Bloomfield, Conn.
Pete Dye didn’t build a lot of munis. Wintonbury, which opened in 2005, came relatively late in the great architect’s career but boasts of being Dye’s first championship layout in New England. The routing moves through varied terrain, open here, tree-lined there, with just enough punishment and devilish deception to remind you who designed the place.
Harborside International, Chicago, Ill.
The raw-looking, lilting fairways are suggestive of Scotland, but the skyline in the distance says it clearly: Windy City. On both 18-holers here, the Port and Starboard courses, the breeze makes for a steady companion and brings the waters of Lake Calumet into play.
Torrey Pines South Course, La Jolla, Calif.
Native son Phil Mickelson has not always sounded pleased about the lengthening and tightening of his hometown muni, which he has said makes things too tough for the average player. Then again, tough is the point of a U.S. Open, which the South Course hosted in 2008 and will again in 2021.