It's snowing outside my window here in Maine. I haven't touched a club since late October and if I'm lucky, my course will open a week or two before May. But I can dream about golf and I have a big dream.
I've driven across the United States four times and I recommend it as something everyone should do at least once. America is indeed beautiful and spacious. The Great Smokey Mountains, the Grand Canyon, Mt. Rushmore and Niagara Falls...I've gotten a speeding ticket in Texas and food poisoning in South Carolina. I've discovered that walking a breakwater to a lighthouse on Lake Michigan can be dangerous and that you don't want to lock yourself out of your car in the Everglades.
What I haven't done is golf my way across the country. Oh, I've played some great courses from revered classics like Aronimink and Kittansett to more recently canonized creations like Muirfield Vilage and Old Macdonald. But great golf today is almost everywhere you go, and so I've made up a marathon—a two-week "Ultimate Golf Road Trip across America."
From Bar Harbor, ME on the Atlantic Ocean to Santa Cruz, CA at the Pacific—3,799 miles according to Mapquest, and about $6,000 worth of greens fees, motels, meals and gas, by my estimate. Fourteen courses in 14 states in 14 days!
I've picked courses which have been highly placed in golf course rankings by Golf Week and Golf Digest and designed by notable golf course architects from A.W. Tillinghast and Donald Ross to Pete Dye and Tom Fazio.
All of these courses allow the public to play them and none charge an exorbitant price, which is why this trip doesn't end with Pebble Beach. In fact Alister Mackenzie's less expensive finale (see the slide above) on this journey may just top Pebble anyway.
So come on along and celebrate America's amazing golf history, its glorious growth and its vast variety. From the mountains to the prairies to the oceans, it's all here!
The view from atop Cadillac Mountain on Mount Desert Island is not just one of the best in Maine, but one of the most beautiful in the entire country.
The vistas, the ocean and the ideal summer weather made this area popular with America's wealthiest families. The Rockefellers, Carnegies, Vanderbilts and Astors all came here. And their presence explains why Kebo Valley is the eighth-oldest golf course in America and a terrific place to start our journey.
Kebo is old school and has not been revamped much since it was completed over a century ago. Its signature feature is a mammoth sand trap built into the hillside below the 17th green. It stands 35 feet high and is 50 yards wide and has intimidated both the rich and famous as well as average golfers like me.
William Howard Taft was the first U.S. President to take up the game and in 1911, his encounter with Kebo's mini-desert on the 17th turned into one of those golf legends that have forever attached a name to a place. After scarring the sand so repeatedly that his caddy could have asked the President to have the site declared a disaster area on the spot, Taft holed out for a 27 and hence, the Taft Bunker got its name.
But others came and fared better. Walter Hagen played two rounds at Kebo Valley in 1922. On his first, he carded a par 70, and then set out again and established the course record with a 67, a mark that stood for 50 years.
Much of Kebo's layout is actually inside of Acadia National Park, although the course predates the park's establishment. Golfers share this place with whitetail deer, red fox and bald eagles. It's a great walk unspoiled.
Location: Bar Harbor, ME
Course: Kebo Valley Golf Club
Opened: 1891 - eighth-oldest golf course in America
Architect: Herbert Leeds
Par: 70 Length: Blue Tees - 6,131 yards / 69.5 rating / 124 slope
Golf Week: Fourth-best course you can play in Maine
Now drive 229 miles—about four hours, 17 minutes—south to Greenland, NH.
The average size of an 18-hole golf course is about 150 acres. Hunting may be golf's only rival when it comes to the amount of land necessary to pursue a sport.
Because golf courses take up so much real estate, which is often beautiful and desirable, sometimes there are problems. Most notably, it's often the conflict between golf courses and the government's right to exercise its power of eminent domain to take private land for public use.
Take the Portsmouth Country Club for instance, which was established in 1901. For over 50 years, the club's course was in Portsmouth, but in 1955, the Defense Department wanted more room for a bomber base and the Army Corps of Engineers took over the club's land.
Portsmouth C.C. became the property of the U.S. government—more specifically, the golf course for Pease Air Force Base.
But don't cry for the members. I don't think they did. For $40,000, they actually got a better piece of property and within a year had hired Robert Trent Jones, Sr. to design a new layout. By 1957, they were back on their new course which, as you can see in the slide above, handsomely hugs the ocean. Like many formerly private clubs, Portsmouth now is open to daily fee play.
Location: Greenland, NH
Course: Portsmouth Country Club
Architect: Robert Trent Jones, Sr.
Par: 72 Length: Blue Tees - 7,133 yards / 73.6 rating / 123 Slope
Golf Week: Second best course you can play in New Hampshire
Now drive: 165 miles—about three hours, 30 minutes—west to Williamstown, MA.
If college golf courses were ranked like football teams by the BCS, then Williams College's Taconic Golf Club would be playing for the national championship. Their opponent would probably be The Course at Yale. Both are truly great golf courses.
Taconic, like many layouts in the Northeast, was built on farmland. It was started quite humbly by three men in 1896 who sought permission to place some tomato cans on a college athletic field so they could play golf. It wasn't until 1927 that a Williams alumnus secured additional land and hired an architect to build an 18-hole course.
Wayne Stiles of the golf course design firm Stiles & Van Kleek was the man commissioned to design and construct the new course. Stiles and Van Kleek may not have the cachet of Yale course architects C.B. Macdonald and Seth Raynor, but what Stiles created in Williamstown may have been his masterpiece.
Many of Taconic's greens are elevated and although the course is generally not tight from the tees, the real challenge is found in hitting to the greens. With significant slope from back to front, you're usually better off playing short of the hole.
In 1956, a teenager named Jack Nicklaus made a hole-in-one at Taconic in the U.S. Junior Amateur.
In 2008, Gi Hanse was hired to do a multimillion dollar renovation of the course.
This is a classic you may not have heard of but will make sure others do after you play it.
Location: Williamstown, MA
Course: Taconic Golf club
Architects: Wayne Stiles / renovation by Gil Hanse in 2008
Par: 71 Length: Black Tees - 6,808 yards / 73.5 rating / 136 slope
Golf Week: 83rd-best classic course in the U.S.
Now drive 108 miles—about two hours, 25 minutes—west to Cooperstown, NY.
The Leatherstocking Golf Course is, understandably, not the top reason people come to Cooperstown. The Baseball Hall of Fame is simply one of the best museums in America, even if you're not a fan of the game. Cooperstown has other nice things, too, like a world-renown opera house. There's plenty to do in this small town.
So golf is never going to be the main attraction, and it's fitting that Leatherstocking is a bit under the radar because its architect has also been overshadowed by designers of greater stature. Devereux Emmet is never mentioned in the same breath as Ross, Mackenzie and Tillinghast, but his body of work includes both the original courses at Congressional.
Like Taconic and Kebo Valley, Leatherstocking is another old-school classic that has weathered the test of time terrifically well. Last of the Mohicans author James Fennimore Cooper wrote about the lake that adjoins it, and Emmet provided wonderful views from elevated tees as well as challenging doglegs and undulating greens.
Baseball may always be the home run for Cooperstown, but give golf an extra base hit.
Leatherstocking is the resort course of the Otesaga Hotel but is open to the public.
Location: Cooperstown, NY
Course: Leatherstocking Golf Course
Architect: Devereux Emmet
Par: 72 Length: Back Tees - 6,416 yards / 70.8 rating / 135 slope
Golf Week: Fourth-best course you can play in New York
Now drive 359 miles—about six hours, eight minutes—southwest to Bedford, PA.
You remember Bedford Falls. It's the town in It's a Wonderful Life, where Jimmy Stewart's character makes all the difference, keeping things quaint and solvent when they would have become corrupt and destitute if he hadn't been around.
Of course, his guardian angel had to remind him of that when things got really tough.
The Old Course at Bedford Springs almost died a decade ago. It had always been a resort course catering to the steel magnates of Pittsburgh, but had fallen into disrepair. It got its guardian angel in a nick of time when a local group bought it, and then sold it to a new owner willing to make the multimillion dollar investment necessary to restore it.
The Old Course had already been touched by golf deities. Both A.W. Tillinghast and Donald Ross took separate turns at revising the original layout in the early part of the last century. Then five years ago, Ron Forse retained the best from both their redesigns while bringing the Old Course back from the dead.
Jimmy Stewart, by the way, grew up not so far away.
Location: Bedford, PA
Architects: Spencer Oldham / redesigned by A.W. Tillinghast in 1912 / redesigned by Donald Ross in 1923 / restoration by Ron Forse in 2007
Par: 72 Length: Back Tees - 6,785 yards / 73.4 rating / 140 slope
Golf Week: Number one course you can play in Pennsylvania
Now drive: 229 miles—about four hours, two minutes—west to Nashport, OH.
Dave Longaberger never got to play the course he had built. He died from cancer just before the Longaberger Golf Club opened in 1999.
But Longaberger's legacy isn't golf anyway. It's handmade wooden baskets, and if you've ever seen his company's headquarters, you know what I'm talking about. It's a seven-story building shaped like a giant woven basket, including two handles that reach into the sky 100-feet high.
The unique building and a factory tour that showcased the basket-making process attracted so many women visitors that a golf course seemed the logical thing to have for the men who'd been dragged along.
Ohioan Arthur Hills was hired to be the architect and the course he came up with was an instant hit, which has made Longaberger Golf Club one of the Midwest's most popular public courses.
Location: Nashport, OH
Course: Longaberger Golf Club
Architect: Arthur Hills
Par: 72 Length: Black Tees - 7,243 yards / 75 rating / 140 slope
Golf Week: Number one course you can play in Ohio
Golf Digest: 56th of America's 100 greatest public golf courses
Now drive 225 miles—about three hours, 48 minutes—west to Indianapolis, IN.
In the 1960s, a PGA Tour event was held in Indianapolis during the week of the Indy 500. Billy Casper was a three-time champion. The tournament was played on the Speedway Golf Course—nine holes inside the racetrack infield and nine outside—and was the first to have a $50,000 purse. Yes, that's $50,000 not $500,000.
Twenty years ago, the old course was demolished and Pete Dye designed the new one called Brickyard Crossing. Only four of its holes are in the infield, but they have room for golf's largest gallery. The Indianapolis Motor Speedway has a seating capacity of over a quarter million.
Dye considers it one of golf's special venues. "My wife paid Brickyard Crossing the ultimate compliment," he said. "She said it has an aura about it that no other golf course in the world has."
Can't argue with that...Gentlemen, get out your drivers!
For a few years after it opened in 1993, Brickyard Crossing hosted a Champions Tour event.
Location: Indianapolis, IN
Course: Brickyard Crossing Golf Course
Architect: Pete Dye
Par: 72 Length: Gold Tees - 6,994 yards / 74 rating / 143 slope
Golf Week: Seventh-best course you can play in Indiana
Now drive 214 miles—about three hours, 30 minutes—west to Peoria, IL.
Peoria had such legendary status as a test market for consumer products that at one time it could have been called Mainstream, USA. Now apparently, it shares the distinction with several other cities, but its Hurdzan/Fry designed WeaverRidge Golf Club is a fine test of golf and why I want to play in Peoria.
Since it opened in 1997, WeaverRidge has been rated one of the top public courses in Illinois.
The team of Hurdzan and Fry, along with golf writer Ron Whitten, have since designed Erin Hills in Wisconsin, which has already hosted a U.S. Amateur and been awarded the 2017 U.S. Open.
Location: Peoria, IL
Course: WeaverRidge Golf Club
Architects: Michael Hurdzan and Dana Fry
Par: 72 Length: Back Tees - 6,416 yard / 70.8 rating / 135 slope
Golf Week: Third-best course you can play in Illinois
Now drive 265 miles—about four hours, 15 minutes—northwest to Rhodes, IA.
Iowa is known a lot more for corn than for golf. So, admittedly, the Harvester Golf Club doesn't have a lot of competition. It has been rated Iowa's best golf course basically since the minute it opened, but the fact is that in a great many other states, Harvester would have also soared to the top of the heap in a hurry.
Keith Foster, its architect, has an impressive portfolio, especially of renovations and restorations that include the likes of Colonial and Southern Hills.
Location: Rhodes, IA
Course: The Harvester Golf Club
Architect: Keith Foster
Par: 72 Length: Black Tees - 7,365 yards / 76 rating / 140 slope
Golf Week: Number one course you can play in Iowa
Golf Digest: 39th of America's 100 greatest public golf courses
Now drive 414 miles—about six hours, 13 minutes—southwest to Gothenberg, NE.
The Sand Hills region of Nebraska is larger than the states of Connecticut, Delaware, New Jersey and Rhode Island all put together. Golfers—and almost everyone else—didn't know about it until 1995. That's when a course designed by Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw called Sand Hills opened and was instantly heralded as one of the best in America.
The exposed dunes and shifting winds make this area seem like you're playing links style golf despite being 1,500 miles from the ocean. Sand Hills put Nebraska on the golfing map and Wild Horse Golf Club, which opened in 1998, is another course that will keep it there.
Dave Axland and Dan Proctor are the two men who designed Wild Horse after working as construction and shaping specialists for Coore and Crenshaw projects, including Sand Hills. They were approached by a group of local golfers who wanted to build a new course to replace theirs, which frequently flooded.
Like at Sand Hills, the layout at Wild Horse fits the natural landscape as it is, and very little earth was moved during construction. Local volunteers even did a lot of the work to hold down costs.
The nearby town of Gothensburg now has a nationally recognized gem of a golf course where greens fees are less than $50 and an annual membership is less than $500.
Location: Gothenburg NE
Course: Wild Horse Golf Club
Architects: Dave Axland and Dan Proctor
Par: 70 Length: Green Tees - 6,525 yards / 71.4 rating / 136 slope
Golf Week: 52nd-best modern course in the U.S.
Now drive 462 miles—about six hours, 56 minutes—southwest to New Castle, CO.
The pro at Lakota Canyon sums up his course this way: "No one will walk up to a tee box and say, 'I've played a hole like this before.'"
So golf traditionalists beware. Lots of sloping fairways, bowl-shaped landing areas, dramatic greens and deep bunkers are what are in store for you. What golfers agree on is that Lakota Canyon is a fun course with fantastic views, and it's as high up as we get on our trip at 5,500 feet.
Location: New Castle, CO
Course: Lakota Canyon Golf Course
Architect: Jim Engh
Par: 72 Length: Back Tees - 7,111 yards / 72.5 rating / 147 slope
Golf Week: Third-best course you can play in Colorado
Now drive 452 miles—about six hours, 31 minutes—southwest to Hurricane, UT.
You may not remember John Fought (rhymes with boat). He won the U.S. Amateur in 1977 and had back-to-back wins on the PGA Tour in 1979. After injuries forced him to retire from playing competitively, he went into golf course design and has had a successful second career.
The Championship Course at the Sand Hollow Resort is only four years old but is already considered one of the best in Utah. The course has orange-colored sand in its bunkers that, along with the surrounding red rock outcroppings and sage brush, make this a beautiful blend of golf and its surroundings.
A stretch of holes on the back nine are what everybody marvels at. All play along a canyon rim.
Location: Hurricane UT
Course: Sand Hollow Resort—The Championship Course
Architect: John Fought
Par: 72 Length: Black Tees - 7,315 yards / 73.7 rating / 137 slope
Golf Week: Number one course you can play in Utah
Now drive 179 miles—about two hours, 46 minutes—southwest to Primm, NV.
Las Vegas has always had golf courses, but it wasn't until casino visionary Steve Wynn opened Shadow Creek in 1989 that it had a great one.
The course was designed by Tom Fazio and reportedly cost $60 million to build. Tee times used to be an hour apart and the course was so exclusive and expensive that only a few dozen golfers played it most days.
But Wynn's bet paid off, enticing others to create other outstanding courses that have turned Las Vegas into a gambling and golfing destination. As part of that boom, Fazio was hired to design two more courses in Primm on the Nevada-California state line.
Both the Lakes and the Desert courses at Primm Valley Golf Club may not be among his masterpieces like Shadow Creek, but they are considered worthy layouts at a fraction of the price.
Location: Primm, NV
Course: Primm Valley Golf Club—Lakes Course
Architect: Tom Fazio
Par: 71 Length: Black Tees - 6,945 yard / 73.3 rating / 135 slope
Now drive 491 miles—about seven hours, 51 minutes—northwest to Santa Cruz, CA.
This is the last stop and a real reward for making it to the end of the trip. After the great Scot, Alister MacKenzie, had completed work on Cypress Point, he was hired to design a course in the hills above Santa Cruz.
When Pasatiempo opened in 1929, Bobby Jones played in its inaugural match, and it was after this experience that Jones invited MacKenzie to design his course in Augusta, Georgia.
Pasatiempo means hobby or pastime in Spanish but as golf courses go, it's a genuine challenge. Both outstanding and difficult, it deserves to be in any conversation about the best courses in America that are open to the public. I've played it and the greens and bunkering are daunting, so when you make a good shot where you're supposed to, it's exhilarating.
The green (pictured in the slide above) on the 387-yard par 4 16th hole is truly amazing. It's built into the side of a hill and has three tiers. You'll first hit a blind tee shot before you see it and then when you do, it blows you away. It's a spectacular hole.
In addition to Cypress Point and Augusta National, MacKenzie also designed Royal Melbourne and Kingston Heath in Australia and Crystal Downs in Michigan. He lived at the end of his life in a house off the 6th fairway of Pasatiempo.
Location: Santa Cruz, CA
Course: Pasatiempo Golf Club
Archietect: Alister MacKenzie
Par: 70 Length: Back Tees - 6,500 yards / 72.4 rating / 143 slope
Golf Week: 29th best classic course you can play in the U.S.
Golf Digest: 30th of America's 100 greatest public golf courses
Now buy a six-pack, or better yet, a bottle of single highland malt and drive to the Pacific Ocean...
"The best exercise for golfers is golfing." —Bobby Jones
So, when do you want to leave?