LIfe is complicated and things slip our minds. Important things, like where to take that first (or maybe only) golf vacation of the impending summer season. Not that we’ve completely forgotten to make a plan and set it in motion, but we’re just so up in the air in so many ways these days. There are the money and time budget bugaboos to deal with: Gas prices seem to have no ceiling and calendars get crammed with work obligations and family activities. Sometimes we simply forget to come up for air or look more than a couple days down the road.
With that in mind, we’d like to lob you one word:
Relax. Take a deep breath, turn the page and start dialing in your summer golf dreams because we’ve got you covered in ways that won’t break your bank, send your head spinning or make you feel hot under the collar.
How? By scouring the nation’s incredible wealth of golf-travel treasure to come up with a rundown of nine destinations that are at once first-class in course quality and creature comforts, but also light on the wallet. We know that not every itinerary can include Pebble Beach or Bandon or Pinehurst, so we’ve assembled a solid lineup of affordable points on the map, from the Florida Panhandle to California’s northern Sierra, from Arizona to Virginia, from Michigan to Myrtle Beach.
And while only a couple of the choices you’ll find on the following pages qualify as “cool-down” spots, all will take the heat off your budget and let you focus on what’s really important: Maxing out your downtime with long days of good golf and great company. So chill, and play on.
Call it the Emerald Coast, “Lower Alabama” (the playfully self-mocking moniker many locals say with a smile), maybe the Other Side of Florida. Whatever you want to call it. But you can call us believers in this piece of the Panhandle as prime last-minute getaway choice, no matter where the mercury resides.
Stretching 24 miles from Fort Walton Beach along Okaloosa Island to the bustling burg of Destin, this corner of the Sunshine State is loaded with top-tier courses sporting bunkers of blinding white sand harvested from the nearby beaches that attract snowbirds by winter and value-minded outdoor lovers by summer.
Accommodations range from basic motels to luxury-steeped condo rentals (the Silver Shells Resort is a great choice). You’ll find all the right restaurants, from familiar chains to seafood lovin’ locals joints like A.J.’s Oyster Bar & Grill on the redeveloped waterfront, where you can also grab a fishing charter or blow a couple hours on a booze cruise.
Eight courses fill out the golfer’s dance card along the Emerald Coast, but if you stay in Destin, make sure to play Regatta Bay, Emerald Bay and Kelly Plantation — the latter laid out with Southern charm and scorecard-testing flair by Fred Couples and FG-favorite Gene Bates on a former working farm. All three courses come in close contact with Choctawhatchee Bay at several spots and share a few design traits, including large greens, forced carries over wetlands and water and both tee shots and approaches framed perfectly by slender, stately loblolly pines. All carry a certain laconic, serious Southern rhythm from hole to hole and shot to shot, throw some tasty bay views into the mix and end on rousing notes.
At Kelly Plantation, neither Couples nor Bates skimp on bunkering, large and rangy green complexes or broad driving lanes. And they don’t mind putting some water into play on every single hole, either, with the trio of 7-8-9 pretty much forming the layout’s strategic heart. Regatta Bay is similar, but Emerald Bay is a different deal altogether, starting with its tiny greens, a departure for designer Bob Cupp. The feeling is decidedly old-school. You almost expect to see Bobby Jones sidle up onto the tee box and whale away with his brassie, then ask what the dickens that flashing screen inside the cart is for. And by the way, what’s the cart for?
If Bobby doesn’t show up, you’ll make plenty of friends nonetheless. In fact, the whole darned town of Destin feels like a friend, ready to welcome you back this summer.
Gulf Shores, Alabama
OK, so it’s early summer in the Upper Midwest or Ohio Valley or some other locale and right about now you’re slap bang in the middle of a serious swelter. Even your 9-iron is sweating. When you finally fall asleep, the first feverish dreams that come are of cool beach breezes, colder beer and, of course, a few rounds of vacation golf.
So where to go to make those dreams reality? How about Alabama’s Gulf Shores? We’re kidding, right? Talk about humidity — only winter getaway fans need apply that deep in the south. Not exactly your idea of cooling off … but bear with us for a moment, will ya?
Turns out this stretch of sand about 45 minutes southwest of Pensacola, Fla., is hopping during the summer months, with its pristine white sands packed with sunbathers who have the Gulf of Mexico for instant heat relief (the water is a balmy 80 degrees) or the comfort of air-conditioned homes, high-rise condos, time shares and hotels just a few steps away along Beach Boulevard. Combine that setup with a handful of excellent golf courses (especially the links-style Jerry Pate-designed Kiva Dunes, ranked tops in the state) that are just waiting for you to line up a week’s worth of cool early morning rounds at rates that’ll offset that tank of gas nicely, and you’re good to go.
“Ninety percent of our business is drive-in traffic,” says Duncan Millar of Golf Gulf Shores, a consortium of nine public and resort courses stretching from Interstate 10 to the north to Kiva Dunes (pictured), Peninsula Golf Club, Craft Farms and Gulf Shores Golf Club just minutes from the beach. “And we get those Gulf breezes to provide some relief.”
So gas it up, crank the air conditioning and drive it Gulfward.
Plumas County, California
This mountainous stretch of Northern California, a little more than an hour’s drive from Reno, offers everything the outdoorsman golfer could want, ranging from Frank Lloyd Wright-styled accommodations at the resurgent Nakoma Resort & Spa (home of the Dragon golf course) to more rustic retreats like Fairways + Greens favorite Camp Layman, a throwback to an earlier, simpler time along the famed fishing waters of the Feather River. Because summertime in Plumas County is about more than golf — it’s about small-town hospitality and great people and packing your creel with as many trout as the law will allow. Of course, you don’t necessarily need to fish and forage for everything you eat — be sure to sample the steaks and other high-end chow at the Grizzly Grill in Blairsden or the pizza and pasta a few doors down at Gumba’s. As for golf, this area of the Golden State is rich in green — all within a half-hour drive of Camp Layman. Bob Cupp’s brilliant design in the Grizzly Ranch development is a must-play, as is Dick Bailey’s layout at Whitehawk Ranch. Both courses take full advantage of the Sierra Nevada scenery while offering an enjoyable test of golf that, like Plumas County itself, is not soon forgotten.
Yeah, we’ve already come out with our “trails” issue for this year, but that doesn’t mean we — and you — can’t cut an east-to-west swath through the northern third of Lower Michigan this summer, starting in the tourist town of Oscoda along Lake Huron to beautiful Traverse City on Lake Michigan. In fact, there’s so much famous and should-be-famous golf to be found among the deep forests and low hills that it’ll take several trips to get it all in.
Start with The Gailes, which pretty much defines the “inland links” genre, if there is such a thing. Huron is probably a half mile away, but there’s enough water and wetlands on site — along with deep pot bunkers, massive greens and tumbling fairways — to give you plenty of Scotland flashbacks.
The nearby Blackshire Course is worth a play, too.
A couple hours west is Forest Dunes, an unforgettable Tom Weiskopf tour de force that has the goods to host a U.S. Open and, with new ownership, will soon gain a four-star hotel.
Then it’s on to sprawling Garland Resort, a family-friendly choice with four courses, flyfishing waters and the biggest log cabin east of the Mississippi, and to Midwest America’s most golf-rich small town, Gaylord, where the five-course Treetops Resort — with designs by Rick Smith, Tom Fazio and Robert Trent Jones II — is in the midst of a much-deserved, 25th anniversary renaissance.
Finally, swing through the northwest corner’s collection of courses — 11 of them operated by Midwest resort giant Boyne, including the stellar 27-hole Bay Harbor collection — and a stop at all-season, four-course Shanty Creek Resort.
Better block out a month and play them all.
Georgia’s Barrier Islands
Looking for island golf to escape the heat? How about giving Georgia a try? That’s right, Georgia. Midway between Savannah and Jacksonville, Fla., the historic city of Brunswick plays gatekeeper to four beautiful barrier islands: St. Simons, Sea Island, Little St. Simons and Jekyll Island. The Golden Isles, as they’ve been known since Spanish explorers seeking gold descended upon the territory more than 400 years ago, have a lot to offer the visitors of today, including beaches, biking, birding and boating. What’s more, this friendly area has a summer packed with quirky-cool events, plus sailing, kayaking, water parks and all sorts of family fun.
And then there’s golf — 198 holes of golf to be exact, including Sea Island, where the Seaside Course is home to the PGA Tour’s McGladrey Classic (Oct. 20-23). Sea Island is also home to The Cloister, one of the country’s best hotels, but Golden Isles lodging runs the gamut from beachside bungalows to woodsy campsites. Other golf not to be missed includes Jekyll Island, where the game dates to 1898, when Jekyll Island Club members designed and built the island’s first course.
Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia
They say “Virginia is for Lovers” but we prefer to think Virginia is for history buffs because so much of our country’s foundation was formed by men — most significantly, founding father Thomas Jefferson — who called Richmond and the surrounding areas their home. And for the golf traveler, Jefferson is synonymous with not only the sights and sounds of Virginia but also with luxury.
In Richmond proper, the Jefferson Hotel is a picture of elegance steeped in historic style. The guestrooms are spacious and comfortable (ask for a multi-nozzle shower for an additional level of pampering, great for cooling down after a warm day of golf) and the architecture reminds guests of those who have called the Jefferson their home away from home since 1895.
Out in the more rural lands, closer to Jefferson’s Monticello home (take the guided tour for a behind-the-scenes look at the man himself), Keswick Hall provides pure charm and friendly service. The 48-room hotel, formerly known as the Villa Crawford, was an original manor house of the estate built in 1912 and has been restored as a romantic hideaway that is also perfect for small groups.
The Keswick Club golf course — originally built in 1948 by Scottish immigrant Fred Findlay and later redesigned by the Arnold Palmer company — is a track full of fun quirks and challenges.
But the true gem at Keswick Hall is Fossett’s Restaurant, named for Edith Fossett, Jefferson’s chief cook at Monticello. In her spirit, Fossett’s offers diners an experience that brings regional cuisine and history together to tell a mouthwatering story.
Ventura County, California
Everybody knows about San Diego, Orange County, Los Angeles and San Francisco. Unfortunately, they tend to overshadow other amazing parts of the California coast.
Not anymore, at least in our minds. A few years back, Fairways + Greens found an affordable stay-play near the beach in a one-two punch of the wide-open Olivas Links (pictured) and tree-lined Buenaventura courses in Ventura, Calif. We stayed at a comfy Holiday Inn Express overlooking the boats in the harbor, and enjoyed fun golf and friendly people as long as the daylight would allow.
The great thing about Ventura is that it’s in the middle of everything we love about Southern California — beaches, restaurants, this area has it all — without the chaos that makes up the big cities. Plus, if you want to expand your golfing horizons into a weeklong trip with Ventura as your base camp, you can add Sandpiper and Rancho San Marcos near Santa Barbara to the itinerary or head inland to the 27-hole Moorpark Country Club. All in all, this stretch of the California coast begs to be explored, so next time you’re thinking about that beach getaway, think Ventura.
Myrtle Beach, South Carolina
We already know you can play golf nearly 24/7/365 in South Carolina, especially when you’re talking about Myrtle Beach. There area so many great courses, from Caledonia to The Witch, just to name a few. But the real trick is hitting those tracks with enough time left over to enjoy the Grand Strand, a summertime wonderland of sunbathing, people-watching, body-surfing and general frivolity. Thankfully, Oceana Resorts makes our path to the beach simple. With six properties in Myrtle Beach, Oceana’s hotels run the affordability range, topping out with the luxurious Anderson Ocean Club, the premium Camelot by the Sea and the newly renovated Patricia Grand. All are only steps from the sand, plus Oceana Resorts offers welcome parties for golfers among the many amenities. And when it comes to finding deals, Myrtle Beach might be the most cost-effective oceanside stay-play option anywhere in the United States. It’s why every time we visit the South Carolina coast, our first step is a call to Oceana Resorts. And our next step is straight onto the beach.
Rancho Mañana, Arizona
Out past where urban Scottsdale and Phoenix finally have given up their inexorable race to reach the Grand Canyon, you’ll find the still funky, not-yet-angsty-or-artsy outpost of Cave Creek, and one of those too-bad-you-didn’t-know-about-it golf spots, Rancho Mañana Golf Club. Now you know.
Wedded to a gorgeous Sonoran landscape of desert-riparian and boulder-strewn ridge, Rancho Mañana is a play of brains over brawn. Fairways corridors are tight, the margins so well hewn in frames of cottonwood, mesquite and saguaro that there’s a sense the entire project was done by hand crew as opposed to the industrial might of Caterpillar. Barely clearing the 6,000-yard mark, the course calls out for fairway woods, hybrids and long-irons for those of us who still carry one (but no more, of course). An unfair or arbitrary architectural constraint? Just the opposite. Modern golf has gone so far toward requiring driver that there is little choice come 14 of 18 tees. We say it is liberating to be asked to think, execute and then pull off an approach and two putts on quadrant-specific greens with how-did-that-happen? Breaks.
Post-round linger at Tonto Bar & Grill, which is to Scottsdale’s vibrant culinary scene what the course is to area golf — a stunning sleeper. Housed in a period abode, Tonto runs the gamut of typical inputs from fin through fowl with a long stop on the range, done in regional tones of wood smoke or perhaps chile showcased with seasonal, indigenous ingredients from the property or sourced through a Native American collaboration.
A handful of on-site villas run by Diamond Resorts allow stay with your play-and-plate in southwestern-styled casitas.
This is the quaint, quiet side of Valley of the Sun golf, a valued addition to what is arguably the desert West’s deepest golf resort market. Don’t wait until tomorrow to find that out for yourself.