By Larry Olmsted
America has by far the largest number of golf courses in the world and about half the planet’s total. But many of these are low quality, overpriced, private and thus inaccessible, or otherwise not worth considering for vacation. Fortunately, there are many great golf destinations in the U.S. that are rich in both quantity and quality of golf, often exceptional, affordable, or both. These are 10 of the very best vacation golf destinations in the nation.
Myrtle Beach, South Carolina
No one spot in the country offers as many public courses as Myrtle Beach, with many of them lined up next to each other along the “Grand Strand,” a user-friendly smorgasbord of more than 100 mostly high-quality, low-priced courses. It’s hard to go wrong but standouts including the four courses at Barefoot Landing, Legends’ Tiger’s Eye and Man O’ War and Wizard.
Hilton Head, South Carolina
As the first master planned resort community in the country, Hilton Head is just 12 by 5 miles. Yet, it’s home to two dozen quality golf courses, including famed PGA Tour venue Harbour Town Golf Links, which was recently renovated and ranked in the nation’s Top 10, according to Golf Magazine. The best of the less pricey options are the Robert Trent Jones, Jr., courses at Palmetto Dunes and Oyster Reef.
Gulf Shores, Alabama
Best known for its beaches, Gulf Shores is a hidden golf gem of the Gulf Coast with eight courses by top designers such as Arnold Palmer and Jerry Pate, including the Golf Digest number one ranked course in the entire state, Kiva Dunes. It’s a must-play, but other top choices include the twin Palmer courses at Craft Farms, along with Lost Key and Rock Creek.
With so much golf on the Atlantic coast, Delaware remains one of the few hidden golf spots, and a bargain for its quality in the often-pricey Mid-Atlantic region. Bear Trap Dunes outside Bethany Beach was rated fourth best in the state by Golfweek and incorporates stunning natural sand dunes. The Jack Nicklaus-designed Bayside near Fenwick Island is an acclaimed championship design, while beautifully manicured Baywood Greens has been called “The Augusta of the North.”
Kiawah Island, South Carolina
There are only a handful of Major Championship venues open to the public, and even in this exalted crowd, Kiawah’s Ocean Course stands out. It’s the best coastal course on the Eastern Seaboard and currently ranked fifth in the U.S. by Golf Magazine. In addition to the 2012 PGA Championship, it’s one of the rare public courses that hosted the Ryder Cup. An epic must-play, it’s in good company with four other—and more affordable—public courses on the island by top-tier designers Tom Fazio, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player.
Because it has such easy access, great golf and good weather, countless PGA Tour pros call Orlando home. For both value and quality, the standout public facility is the 36-hole Orange County National with two excellent courses. Pricier but high-quality options include Bay Hill, the site of a venerable PGA Tour event, the Disney World courses, ChampionsGate Golf Club (36 holes) and Reunion Resort, with its trio of standout courses by Jack Nicklaus, Tom Watson and Arnold Palmer.
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The entertainment center of Pigeon Forge and its Dollywood theme park are the main tourism draws here, but don’t forget your clubs. The Gatlinburg Golf Club, adjacent to Dollywood, is one of the best courses in Tennessee and rated the state’s number one municipal venue. It features nonstop Smoky Mountain vistas and dramatic elevation changes. In Gatlinburg proper is Bent Creek, by South African legend Gary Player, with nine holes through a gorgeous valley and nine in the mountains above.
South Walton, Florida
While much of Florida is flat and featureless from a golf design perspective, the best terrain is in the Panhandle along some of America’s finest beaches. There is a great slate of affordable, high-quality golf in this area, and the Sandestin community alone has four standout courses by Rees Jones and Robert Trent Jones, Jr. Nearby, the Golf Digest four-star Windswept Dunes plays along natural coastal dunes, and at the high end is the exquisite Tom Fazio-designed Camp Creek—one of the finest courses in the entire Sunshine State.
Outer Banks, North Carolina
There are more than a dozen courses strung out along the rugged and beautiful natural coastline of the Outer Banks. The most acclaimed is the Kilmarlic Golf Club, which hosted the North Carolina Open twice and is ranked among the best in the golf-mad state. Other top options include the 7,000-yard Carolina Club, Nags Head Golf Links and the windswept Sea Scape Golf Club in Kitty Hawk, set amidst the dunes where flight was born.
Palm Springs, California
One of the world’s most popular golf destinations, the Palms Springs region is home to dozens of world-class courses by top designers with great year-round weather. The most famous—or infamous—is the incredibly challenging PGA West Stadium course by Pete Dye. The La Quinta, Mission Hills and Indian Wells resorts each offer two renowned public courses; the acclaimed Shadow Ridge was Nick Faldo’s first West Coast design and bargain seekers cannot do much better than stunner Desert Willow.
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Larry Olmsted has been covering golf travel for more than 20 years. He is the author of Golf Travel By Design, founder of the golf travel newsletter, “The Golf Insider” and covers golf for Forbes.com.