Golf’s Hottest Trend At The Best Resorts
There is no bigger trend in golf right now than the explosion of putting courses, and while the original debuted more than 150 years ago, it has taken that century and a half for the concept to become popular. Now top resorts are falling over themselves to add this feature.
How hot are putting courses? This year sees the opening of new ones at two of the most Bucket List-worthy golf resorts in this country, Pebble Beach and Destination Kohler (aka The American Club). These were beat to the punch in the last couple of years by new additions at Pinehurst, Bandon Dunes, Sea Island and Streamsong. Name a Top 10 multiple course destination golf resort and they likely have embraced putting courses.
Putting courses are essentially mini golf on real grass without the windmills or volcanoes. They are like a practice putting green, with speed and grain similar to the greens on the golf courses, but unlike a practice green, there is a series of 9 or 18 holes laid out in order, each with starting position (tees) and a par of 2 or 3 for each hole, so you play the round and score, but only with a putter. The ease of access, low time commitment, low cost and the fact that anyone can play, as even non-golfing first timers can figure out how to putt quickly, makes them a sort of non-golf attraction for golf resorts, as well as a way to potentially grow a new audience.
But avid golfers love them too, because as the old adage goes, when it comes to scoring on the course, you drive for show and putt for dough, and there is no better way to prepare for your round than by going through a putting course, which takes little time. This is especially relevant since so many of these can precede once in a lifetime type rounds such as Pebble Beach Golf Links or Pinehurst Number Two or The Straits at Whistling Straits, when the emotional stakes and financial investment make the outcome and scoring more important than normal.
Ironically, the history of golf putting courses began as sexist and has veered 180-degrees towards an inclusive approach, welcoming all to the game – at little or no cost. Because women were barred from playing the Old Course, the layout where the game was born in St. Andrews, a putting course was built for them adjacent to the Old in 1867 and is still officially named the St. Andrews Ladies’ Putting Club despite being open to everyone (outside of pandemic times). But the facility is better known worldwide as “The Himalayas,” due to its extremely undulating nature, and consists of 27-holes. A 9-hole layout is for beginners, and they take it so seriously that the “championship” 18 is laid out in a new routing every Wednesday. The cost? Just £3 for adults, and £1 for children and seniors. It’s the most entertainment bang for the buck you can get in St. Andrews, including draught pints.
Here are some places closer to home that have embraced the concept:
Pinehurst, NC: The “Cradle of Golf in America,” the Pinehurst Resort is the closest thing we have to St. Andrews. Pinehurst was literally the first golf resort in the country and has a far richer tournament history than other, greatly overshadowing even luminaries like Pebble Beach and Augusta National. It is the only public course that has ever hosted two different majors (U.S. Open, PGA Championship) and the Ryder Cup, plus just about every other important event that moves, from all of the Amateurs to Senior and Women’s U.S. Opens to the TOUR Championship and dozens more. The USGA just relocated some operations here, forging a partnership that will make Pinehurst Number Two the “Anchor Site” and first ever recurring site on the U.S. Open rota, similar to the status of the Old Course in St. Andrews for the Open Championship. This long tradition extends to putting: More than a century ago, steamship tycoon James Barber built what he called an 18-hole “Lilliputian” golf course on the grounds of his Pinehurst home in 1916 – this was the first miniature golf course in America.
Pinehurst is by far the largest golf resort in the Western Hemisphere with nine 18-hole courses – nearly double the closest contender. The superstar is Number Two, rated one of the very best courses you can play in North America by every major critic (Golf Magazine 2nd; Golfweek 3rd; Golf Digest 6th), while recently restored Number Four and Number Eight are also in the Top 100 rankings. The resort has re-invested many millions in recent improvements, including lodging, dining and the additions of a new short pitch and putt style course, the Cradle, alongside the Thistle Dhu putting course, a large and undulating 18-holer immediately outside the main clubhouse, rolling in the same style as the one it is modelled on, Scotland’s Himalayas. But it’s an even better value than its counterpart across the pond – free, including putter “rental.”
Pine Needles/Mid-Pines. NC: Pinehurst is the biggest golf resort in the Southern Pines/Pinehurst/Aberdeen tri-town region, rightly known as the “Home of American Golf,” but it is hardly the only one, as the area is among the nation’s best concentrated golf destinations and home to about three dozen courses. The other top option here is the twin Pine Needles and Mid-Pines resorts, adjacent, under shared ownership, and operating as a single property, each with diverse lodging options. Pine Needles and Mid-Pines are both Top 100 Courses, both classic gems by famed architect Donald Ross, and Major venues, with Pine Needles once again getting ready to host the 2022 U.S. Women’s Open. Both courses underwent recent historically accurate restorations by course architect and Ross expert Kyle Franz, and most recently, the resort acquired the Southern Pines Golf Club, another Ross gem that has been private for much of the past century. Franz is currently resorting this to its full glory, with a planned September unveiling as the most anticipated “new” course of the year. This will make Pine Needles/Mid-Pines the only resort on earth with three Donald Ross designs still in their original routings, and Franz is also adding a putting course adjacent to the first tee.
Destination Kohler, WI: If you consider the quality of lodging, food, spa and other amenities and activities an integral part of what makes a great golf resort, along with great golf, you could easily argue that Destination Kohler is America’s best golf resort. It is one of very few with Forbes 5-Star lodging, The American Club, plus less pricey alternatives. It has a great array of dining options, one of the best spas in the nation, arguably the best fitness facility at any resort anywhere, and a host of unrivalled extras, from shooting, hiking and fishing to a kitchen and bath design center with free expert consultations. Given that the resort is the passion project of Kohler Plumbing chief and multi-billionaire Herb Kohler, it also has the best bathrooms of any resort in the country, from hotel rooms to clubhouses.
But then there is the golf, four 18-hole courses, all by superstar architect Pete Dye, who has two of the Top 5 ranked public courses in the country and four of the Top 15, both more than anyone else. These include the international Bucket List magnet, the Straits Course at Whistling Straits, Number Three in the U.S., and home to this year’s Ryder Cup and three Majors (so far), the PGA Championship. All four layouts are exceptional, and the golf is split into two 36-hole facilities, the other of which (Blackwolf Run) hosted the Women’s U.S. Open. Golf Digest likened the Straits to Ireland’s legendary Ballybunion, while the River Course is Top 15 and the Irish Top 50. In fact, all four courses easily make the coveted and elusive Top 100, with the lowest ranked Meadows Valley at a very impressive 57th – ahead of many famous names such as Doral’s Blue Monster, Bay Harbor, and Hualalai.
The latest addition to the ever-improving resort is the “The Baths of Blackwolf Run,” a 27-acre complex opening in early June. The facility includes a 10-hole par-3 course, a two-acre putting course, and four “baths,” or swimming holes, each with beach and sandy bottom. It’s fair to say there is nothing like this in golf anywhere else, and it is also extremely flexible, with multiple tees so that from the back these are ten real world-class par-3s, not a pitch and putt short course, yet as an alternative, all ten holes can be tackled with nothing but a putter. That is in addition to the main oversized putting course, which can be played as 18 or 27 holes.
Big Cedar Lodge, MO: Having quietly snuck into the pantheon of the country’s largest and best golf resorts, this hidden gem and Ozarks paradise truly has something for everyone, golfer or not. Johnny Morris, sometimes called the “Walt Disney of Retail” for his theatrical design flair, is the king of outdoor gear as the founder and owner of Bass Pro Shops and Cabela’s retail chains. He also owns a fast-growing hospitality division, of which Big Cedar Lodge is the flagship. The winner of several major travel industry awards, the sprawling complex is a fantasy for the outdoors, and known as “America’s Premier Wilderness Resort.” In addition to world class fishing – with arguably the best freshwater options of any resort, including two state of the art (he does own Bass Pro Shops!) marinas – it has extensive shooting facilities and every imaginable pursuit from hiking to equestrian to all manner of watersports.
Ironically, its prominence among outdoor enthusiasts has kept its stellar golf offerings a bit off the radar, at least until last fall when they debuted Payne’s Valley, the only public eighteen in the U.S. designed by Tiger Woods. I’ve played it, the course is exceptional, and will likely be rated the best at a resort that already has the Number One and Number Two public courses in Missouri (Coore/Crenshaw and Tom Fazio respectively). These three eighteens anchor a superb assortment that also includes a 13-hole short course by Gary Player many consider the best of its kind in the world, and a 9-hole par-3 course by Jack Nicklaus so good it is the only one ever used in one of the PGA Tour’s professional events. Morris’s signature has been partnering with the very best big names, and his five course designers are a Who’s Who of the best, but he did not want to leave out Golf Hall of Famer – and Missouri-native – Tom Watson, so the legend laid out the namesake Tom Watson Putting Course. It occupies one of the highest and most stunning spots in the visually stunning property, overlooking huge Table Rock Lake from atop the dramatic limestone formations of the Mountain Top golf complex and clubhouse. The nine challenging holes wrap around exposed rock outcroppings and cover more than an acre, all of which can be enjoyed while strolling with an adult beverage from the adjacent clubhouse.
Bandon Dunes, OR: From a purely golf perspective it doesn’t get any better than this, which is why golf pilgrims from all over the world make the Bucket List trek to this remote section of the rugged Oregon coast. Bandon Dunes has five eighteens, including the second ranked public course in the nation, Pacific Dunes, the seventh, Bandon Dunes, the twelfth, Old MacDonald, and the fourteenth, Bandon Trails. It’s the only resort with two Top 10s and the only resort with Four Top 15s. There is also a par-3 course. Abandon has unapologetically never had a lot to offer non-golfing guests, but the newest addition is the Punchbowl, a stunning, 2.3-acre free putting course by Pacific Dunes and Old MacDonald architect Tom Doak. It sprawls across a series of natural holes with plenty of undulation and the eighteen hole routing is new daily.
Sea Island, GA: You can’t beat Sea Island when it comes to luxury, as the most Forbes-star laden golf resort in the nation and one of only two U.S. resorts of any kind with multiple 5-Star hotels. It also has stunning food (5-Stars), spa (5-Stars), an incredible array of outdoor activities (shooting, fishing, biking, paddling, sunset cruises, beaches, etc.) and three stunning golf courses, including the Top 100 Seaside, an annual PGA Tour venue. Both other courses are great as well, and both were recently extensively renovated. This latest round of re-investment also added a state of the art of teaching and practice center, luxe new golf cottages, and the Speedway Putting Course, with 18-holes designed by Hall of Famer Davis Love III and his brother and design partner Mark Love. It’s location outside The Lodge makes it a perfect evening activity to enjoy with family or friends before the nightly sunset bagpiper serenade, with beverage service available.
Pebble Beach, CA: It’s the nation’s most famous golf resort, and atop many Bucket Lists, with four eighteens, three of them famously stunning, including the Pebble Beach Golf Links, Links at Spanish Bay, and Spyglass Hill. But despite a long and storied history, Pebble Beach recently made big news when it hired Tiger Woods and his firm, TGR Design, to replace the old Peter Hay short course with a stunning new 9-hole par-3 course. The new Hay notably incudes a replica of the peninsula seventh at Pebble Beach Golf links, among the very best-known par-3s on earth, but the more surprising addition is the resort’s first-ever putting course, 20,000 square feet of natural grass by Woods, the world’s most famous golfer. Unlike anything else at Pebble, it’s free to anyone who wants to take it for a spin. The course occupies a rough oval 100 yards long, has 18 holes, and can be set up in variety of layouts (opening April 16).
Forest Dunes, MI: More than any other state, Michigan seems to be in love with the putting course concept, and they can be found all around the state, from Mackinac Island to Treetops to an elaborate island course, set on the equivalent of an island green a la TPC Sawgrass, complete with a pedestrian bridge at Bucks Run. There’s even a standalone, golf architect-designed putting course in the backyard of the Journeyman craft distillery.
But the biggest name is Michigan resort golf is Forest Dunes, which has very quickly become one of the country’s premier golf experiences. Set on 1,300 acres of heavily wooded land within the Huron National Forest, the first course, by Tom Weiskopf, is in the nation’s Top 30. The big addition was the Loop, a completely reversible eighteen where every hole can be played in two directions, and the resort switches this up. Designed by superstar Tom Doak, both distinctly different routings have been separately rated in the nation’s Top 50, the only such occurrence in golf history. The mathematically improbable result is 36-holes that earn three separate Top 50 course rankings. These are joined by a brand new 10-hole short course, the Bootlegger, and the free Hilltop Putting Course, with 18-holes on two-acres. Lake AuSable Lodge has 14-rooms, along with new golf villas and cottages. As the resort’s website so aptly puts it, “Anyone can enjoy the HillTop, you do not need to be golfing or staying on site. If you are just coming out for dinner or drinks, why not have a friendly putting contest afterward.”
Diamante, Los Cabos, Mexico: Mexico has a lot of great golf, and by far the biggest concentration is here on the southern Baja peninsula, but Diamante has quickly become one of the premier golf destinations in the entire country. There are currently two eighteens, a highly rated stunner by Davis Love III many critics consider the best in Cabo, and Tiger Woods’ very first public course on earth. Woods is currently building a third eighteen here, and there is also a 15-hole natural grass putting course by architect Paul Cowley designed in a loop. The neat trick here is that the 3-acre property is sloped and each hole is designed to be played in both directions with multiple tees, uphill and downhill, creating two very different 15 hole experiences, the East and West putting courses. It’s more challenging than most with three Par-2s and twelve par-3s – this is the first time it’s just fine to three putt – which stretch to a whopping 64 yards (192 feet). Diamante also has a 12-hole par-3 short course designed by Woods that is equally flexible and can alternatively be laid out as a three-hole loop with a par 3, 4 and 5.
Streamsong, FL: With real links-style golf and all three eighteens ranked in the nation’s Top 35 courses, Streamsong is the Sunshine State’s answer to Bandon Dunes, a mostly pure golf proposition – except with really nice hotel lodging and a focus on finer dining. The Gauntlet is an 18-hole putting course by acclaimed architect Gil Hanse (who won the international competition to design the Rio Olympics course) and Jim Wagner, on 1.2 acres. The Gauntlet is set up for play each day with specially designed tee markers to hold drinks (brilliant!) and point you to the hole location, while testing your skill with the flatstick over undulations, peaks and valleys. The Glove Bar at the Gauntlet, new in January 2021, serves putters cocktails and specialty beers.
Silvies Valley Ranch, OR: One of the newest major golf destinations in the country, Silvies is a 140,000-acre working ranch has a lot of activities, including two eighteen-hole golf courses, a 9-hole par-3 layout – with water on every hole – and a seven hole fun course mixed with par-3 and par-4 holes. There’s a new 18-hole reversible putting course scheduled to open in June called Claire’s Course, by architect Dan Hixson. Free to all resort guests and daily fee golfers, it is a long narrow crescent wrapping around a pond.
Angel Park Golf Club, Las Vegas: The top daily fee facility – and one of the very few courses period – near the Las Vegas Strip, Angel Park has an enviable location and two eighteens, a par-3 short course, and the offbeat “Devine 9,” which claims to be the world’s first 9-hole real grass putting course that is lighted for play after dark. It’s all very Vegas, down to the readily available cocktails, and sort of a hybrid putting course meets mini-golf, and while there are no windmills, there are dogleg “fairways” flanked by rough, and traps and water hazards, all of which have to be negotiated. Five bucks gives you rental gear and two loops for eighteen holes, one of the best entertainment values in Sin City.
Among putting courses, these are some at the biggest premier golf destinations, but this just scratches the surface of a growing trend that incudes resorts in Oregon, Texas, Palm Springs, Washington, Florida, and elsewhere.