Course Rater Confidential: Takeaways and surprises from the Top 100 Value list
GOLF’s Top 100 course panelists are among the most respected and well-traveled course evaluators in the game. They’re also keen to share their opinions. In this GOLF.com series, we’ll unlock their unvarnished views on all questions course-related. Check out GOLF’s latest Top 100 Courses in the U.S., Top 100 Courses in the World, Top 100 Courses You Can Play, Best Municipal Courses in the U.S., and 100 Best Short Courses. Meet all of our Top 100 panelists here.
1. Bargain hunters had plenty to discuss this week as GOLF.com dropped its first-ever ranking of Top 100 Best Value Courses in the U.S. What, if anything, stood out to you about the rankings? Any interesting trends? Any courses that caught you by surprise?
Steve Lapper, panelist since 2009, has played 84 of the World Top 100: What struck me was the quality of architecture and geographical diversity from top to bottom. There were courses in every tenth that I’d be excited to play and are unique, charming and fun. Quite a few offer great aesthetics, to boot. The list does a very good job of identifying courses that deliver exceptional experiences for real value. Where else can you find four hours of fun for less than 40 bucks per hour?
I was pleasantly surprised to see a good number from my past: Bethpage Black, Rutland, Presidio, Shennecossett, Harborside International (Port) and Architects GC — all marking different decades of a golfing life.
Thomas Brown, panelist since 2015, has played 95 of the World Top 100: The green fee for major championship golf exceeds the $150 value limit. Bethpage Black is the only major championship golf course on the list. Recent venues Pebble Beach, Torrey Pines, Harding Park, Chambers Bay, Whistling Straits and Erin Hills are all priced far outside of the value filter.
There are far too many good golf courses missing that I thought would make the list, but on a positive note, locally here, in Southern California, is No. 68 La Purisima in Lompoc. Adjacent to the golf course is an 18th century Spanish mission that now serves as a California state park. The course has long been a favorite stop for junior golf tournaments and U.S. Open qualifying. It seems like every aspiring competitive golfer here has a story of what hole their round was blown away and lost. It’s an exceptional natural setting in what is now known as Central Coast Vineyard Wine Country.
Noel Freeman, panelist since 2010, has played 84 of the World Top 100: I was very impressed by the quality and cost of a lot of municipal public courses that are scattered around the country. One of my favorites, which I play monthly, is still undervalued at No. 35. Corica Park (South) is as close an experience of Australian Sandbelt golf as one can get in the United States. It does not hurt that the course was capped with sand dredged from the San Francisco Bay and plays firm and fast. This facility will also be adding 18 holes in 2022 with the redesign of the North Course opening. I’d also add how happy I am to see Common Ground GC, which is the best value anyone can get playing a Tom Doak course (since Aetna Springs is no longer existing) and is among my favorite places to play in Colorado. Doak’s redesign is cunning and fun, and the course has a great set of greens.
Pete Phipps, panelist since 2021, has played 65 of the World Top 100: I love knowing some of the classic public courses in the major metropolitan cities are still standing strong by offering affordable golf to city dwellers (i.e., George Wright, Presidio, Manakiki, Sleepy Hollow, etc.). Now imagine what other cities could have if they followed Houston’s lead with the success of Memorial Park, or what Oakland has done with Corica Park. I would love to see San Francisco bring new life to Sharp Park, or Providence knock out a restoration at Triggs Memorial. It might be wishful thinking due to how municipalities and urban governments prefer to spend tax dollars, but it’s hard to argue against what a full tee sheet can do for a city, on numerous levels.
2. Lawsonia Links in Wisconsin came in at No. 2 in our rankings, second only to Bethpage Black. It was quite a showing for the Langford-Moreau design that, while something of a darling among architecture buffs, has never really had a prominent national profile. At least, nothing close to Bethpage Black’s. If you had to predict, what’s the next bargain course that you can envision surging onto our radars?
Steve Lapper: I may be a few years off, but I’d expect to see Cobbs Creek in Philadelphia, and at least one of the National Links Trust courses in Washington, D.C. The former is an all-out, multi-year renovation led by Jim Wagner, Gil Hanse’s design and construction partner, that promises to restore the course to its former luster. The latter is a three-course project with a stellar cast of contributing architects: Hanse, Tom Doak and Beau Welling. Lastly, the restoration of MacKenzie’s Sharp Park in Pacifica, Calif., might well become a must-play. All of these courses should rock their respective metro areas.
Thomas Brown: Not far from Lawsonia is the Madison, Wis., municipal project at Glenway Golf Park. Nine holes are reopening next year. Michael and Jocelyn Keiser have provided funding with a broader vision for design team Craig Haltom, Brian Schneider and Sara Mess to provide a community introduction for non-golfers through open space for movies in the park and other outdoor activities.
On the much anticipated golf construction front, let’s see where the green fee comes in for Landmand Golf Course in Homer, Neb. The new golf course will be opening fully for the 2022 season. Golf architects Rob King and Tad Collins are not shy to talk about swinging for the fences on the 18-hole sequel to their Sweetens Cove success.
Noel Freeman: While I’ve never been there, I’ve heard great things about Indian Canyon in Spokane, Wash. (green fees $49 and under). The course was designed by H. Chandler Egan, of Pebble Beach fame, and features large elevation changes among undulating fairways and tall pines. It looks in need of a sympathetic restoration, but the bones are there for a top value muni. With nearby Coeur D’Alene among the fastest growing areas in the country, perhaps attention will be paid to Indian Canyon.
Pete Phipps: Southern Pines Golf Club is already ranked No. 24 on this list, and that’s before the major renovations that are currently taking place! Once Kyle Franz and his crew are done, I suspect this Donald Ross gem will work its way up the rankings quickly. Franz did a superb job at nearby Pine Needles and Mid Pines (in addition to Pinehurst No. 2 when working alongside Coore-Crenshaw), so Southern Pines GC is in great hands. The bones have always been there on this beautiful piece of land in the Sandhills, and with Franz taking down trees, bringing back the original Ross greens, creating large sand waste areas and improving all the greenside bunkers to match the Golden Age look, I predict Southern Pines GC will be one of the East Coast darlings under $150 once it reopens next month.
3. A corollary to the question above: is there any course we missed that you hope to see on our next Value list?
Steve Lapper: I was shocked to see the omission of Atlantic City CC. This semi-private gem is open to the public year-round and rich in history. It’s the birthplace of the term “birdie,” as well as an old-time haunt for all sorts of characters, from famous mobsters to movie stars. It’s a private club experience for well under $150.
How did the visually stunning Pacific Grove, at $54 to $62, miss this list? I’d also add that Alister MacKenzie’s course at the University of Michigan was noticeable by its absence.
Thomas Brown: There are narrow misses because of the dollar ceiling we’ve set, so I’ll push for the super twilight rate Top 100. My bags are packed for Walla Walla, Wash., to play Wine Valley Golf Club after 3 p.m.
Disobeying the geographic limits of this U.S. list, recently renovated Sandy Golf Links in Melbourne, Australia, offers sandbelt golf across the street from Royal Melbourne at under $50. The New and Jubilee courses in St. Andrews, Scotland, are both well under $150 during the high summer season.
Noel Freeman: Pacific Grove has a crafty front nine, and six of the holes on the back nine are as close as you can get to playing a Scottish-style town course in the world. I am very surprised that it did not make the list given it has a reputation (and well-deserved) as a poor man’s Pebble Beach. One can stand on the 11th and 16th tees, with breakers of Monterey Bay in the distance, and regale in the fact that you are saving (green fee $54) about $525 for the same views and quality of golf that is at nearby Pebble Beach.
Pete Phipps: Soule Park Golf Course in Ojai, Calif., deserves a serious look for a spot on this list next year. Located just 30 minutes inland from the surfer community of Ventura, with the Topa Topa Mountains as the backdrop, this public option has been around since 1962. Originally designed by William F. Bell, Soule Park got its real momentum in 2005 when it hired a much lesser-known duo of Gil Hanse and Jim Wagner to renovate the course after a massive flood. Good on Soule Park for being so ahead of the power curve and helping launch the careers of Hanse and Wagner. We’ve all benefited from that decision! As for greens fees, the most they’re going to charge you on a weekday is $34, and weekends are only $44!
4. While our ranking focused on courses you can play for $150 or less, “value” is a relative term. It can mean a lot of things to a lot of people. Tell us a bit about the best bang for your buck you’ve ever gotten from a golf experience, no matter the price.
Steve Lapper: It’s hard to look past the top five on this list as they all are reasonably competitive for our U.S. Top 100 list. No golfer fails to get excited at the prospect of playing a special site for a very reasonable fee. My domestic favorite has to be Wild Horse in Gothenburg, Neb. Eighteen holes of sheer wind-swept, firm-and-fast prairie joy, along with a perfect burger, for $60 is my idea of supreme value. If it isn’t booked out, a repeat round can be had for a fraction of that price. A day of golf here is an absolute bargain.
Thomas Brown: My father and I happened upon Elie in Fife, Scotland in 1990. Elie was a last-minute addition based on a word-of-mouth recommendation from our post-round drinks at Ladybank earlier that day. Arriving in the early evening, we could tee off in the early morning and just leave our green fee in the honor box next to the 1st tee, one of the staff members told us. We were first off that morning, with the historic submarine periscope overlooking our start. I am unable to recall the green-fee rate that day for us, but I am confident in saying the value, with the combination of golf and village culture in Scotland, to be me and my father’s favorite.
Noel Freeman: Sand Hollow is the best value (and it shows in the rankings) for me on this list. For $60, you get a ride through a red rock escarpment, and holes that hang on cliffs for dear life, imbuing the golfer with heroic choices. The back nine is an all-world setting and full of great strategic golf. The front is a links-land-style desert sampler and warms the golfer for the swashbuckling ride to come. At this price, run to Hurricane before the secret (and it has been there over a decade) truly gets out.
Pete Phipps: The quick-and-easy answer for me will always be Rustic Canyon, as the combination of design, location, walk-ability and price is extremely hard to beat. After taking advantage of the replay rate and getting 36 holes in, simply dividing the amount I paid by the amount I played proves it was the best “bang-for-your-buck” course I may ever experience.
For those on the East Coast, in July I snuck down to Streamsong Resort to take advantage of their summer rates when most wouldn’t find a golf trip to Florida very appealing. With the green fees lowered due to the summer heat (under $150!), you can get a great-bang-for-your-buck experience by playing the Red, Blue and Black Courses. I found Gil Hanse’s Black Course the most fun and interesting. As long as you have a bucket hat, sunscreen and extra gloves, consider Streamsong in the summer for a great deal!
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