Home » Feature Story

America's 20 toughest golf courses you can play

Brandon TuckerBy Brandon Tucker,
Managing Editor
Ocean Course at Kiawah Island Golf Resort
View large image
| More photos
The East Coast's great ocean test: Pete Dye's Ocean Course at Kiawah Island Golf Resort in South Carolina. (Courtesy of kiawahresort.com)

We could all use a little pain sometimes, whether you're a scratch player ready to test your mettle against the toughest designs or a weekend warrior intent on exposing the flaws in your game.

Our list of the most challenging U.S. golf courses open for public play features everything from classic designs of the golden era to facilities on the scene for just a couple years. It proves that tough never goes out of style.

1. The Ocean Course at Kiawah Island (S.C.) Golf Resort

If the wind's blowing its usual 20 to 30 mph, tabletop greens and waste areas galore make Pete Dye's Ocean Course at Kiawah Island one of toughest golf courses you'll ever play. Brutal conditions knocked 1991 Ryder Cup golfers to their knees, and the 2012 PGA Championship marks the resort's first major.

2. Straits Golf Course at Whistling Straits in Sheboygan, Wis.

Another Dye design, the Straits course at Whistling Straits is often described as a new-era Ballybunion, only this nightmare on the shores of Lake Michigan is longer, scarier and downright vicious when you miss a shot, thanks to an uncountable number of bunkers. Some are so deep -- like on the left of the par-3 17th -– that you may never make it out. With the Ryder Cup set to visit in 2020, consider match play in your foursome to keep the scorecard from ruins.

3. PGA West's Stadium Course in La Quinta, Calif.

Even tour pros dubbed Dye's follow-up to TPC Sawgrass as too difficult when they voted PGA West's Stadium Course out of the Bob Hope Classic rotation after just one time as host. Bunkers galore, long water carries and tough greens equal a slope/rating of 76.1/150.

4. Ko'olau Golf Club in Kanoehe, Hawaii

Dick Nugent's Ko'olau Golf Club features a 152 slope from the championship tees and 145 from up one box, while winding through the jungle with loads of elevation change. The dramatic mountain-range backdrop on Oahu's eastern side helps add to the severe atmosphere.

5. TPC San Antonio's AT&T Oaks in San Antonio, Texas

The newest addition to the Tournament Players Clubs stable, Greg Norman's TPC San Antonio AT&T Oaks course is so tough it actually upstages the TPC Dye design next door on the more undulating AT&T Canyons course. But the Oaks, long and tight, includes rugged, deep bunkering and tough, sloping greens to expose every element of your game.

6. Prince Golf Course at Princeville (Hawaii) at Hanelei Bay

Most come to Kauai for relaxation. The daring take on the Robert Trent Jones Jr.-designed Prince Course, a golfing expedition through dense jungle and exposed high ground. The Hawaiian tradewinds amplify the need for length and accuracy, with steep drop-offs, thick jungle and water galore to swallow missed shots.

7. TPC Blue Monster at Doral Golf Resort & Spa in Miami

Especially tough when the Bermuda rough grows tall, this classic PGA Tour venue continues to baffle today's pros with a mix of risk-reward danger and south Florida breezes. Its reputation has been sustained long enough that TPC recently decided to add the Dick Wilson-designed Blue Monster to its stable.

8. The Dye Course at French Lick (Ind.) Resort

Even Pete Dye admits the 8,100-yard tees on the Dye Course at French Lick Resort do more for marketing than actual daily play. But the 7,200- and 6,700-yard sets remain mighty tough, as the golf course sits on some of Indiana's highest mountaintop ground. The fairways are slim, and the drop-offs are steep.

9. Ritz Carlton Golf Club at Dove Mountain in Marana, Ariz.

The tour pros at the WGC Accenture Match Play Championships say Jack Nicklaus' Saguaro and Tortolita combination, which can stretch to 8,000 yards, features greens too severe and sloped for stroke play.

10. Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla.

Initially, Dye's Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass was considered "Mickey Mouse," a gimmicky golf course. Now it's a blueprint for target-style position golf that, to this day, cannot be overpowered. The 18th hole serves as the climax of a brutal finishing stretch. Oh, and there's the island green on No. 17 that turns even the pros' arms into spaghetti.

11. Wolf Creek Golf Club in Mesquite, Nev.

No desert golf course equals this must-see-to-believe experience. Wolf Creek Golf Club's many elevated tees mean easy swinging. And despite 100-foot elevation changes from tee to fairway, this Dennis and John Rider design requires precision, making a good swing even harder with your jaw dropped.

12. Bethpage Black State Park Golf Course in Farmingdale, N.Y.

Infamous for the black diamond warning label at the first tee, A.W. Tillinghast's Bethpage Black course has forced U.S. Open golfers to their knees. Even without the New York hecklers, heavy rough, elevated greens and deep traps make for a long day on Long Island.

13. Crosswater at Sunriver (Ore.) Resort

Some of Bob Cupp's work rates among the nation's most difficult, including the long, treacherous Crosswater course at Sunriver Resort. The Champions Tour hosts a major here, the JELD-WEN Tradition. But even that setup fails to unleash the golf course's max, which can stretch to 7,683 yards. The course includes a 687-yard par 5, aptly named "Endless."

14. No. 2 at Pinehurst (N.C.) Resort

A breeze off the tee compared to Kiawah and Whistling Straits, Pinehurst No. 2 presents a different kind of challenge. Placement means everything to give yourself a chance on the approach shots to Donald Ross' famous crowned greens. Short game flaws are exposed early and often. Take your caddie's advice and keep your chip shots low to the ground.

15. The Champion at PGA National Resort and Spa in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla.

A former Ryder Cup host, the Champion course at PGA National now attracts one of the spring's best fields on the PGA Tour -- thanks to a respected Nicklaus design capped by the three-hole, water-heavy "Bear Trap" and ever-present coastal breezes.

16. Luana Hills Golf and Country Club in Kailua, Hawaii

A Japanese group commissioned Dye to build a difficult golf course on Oahu, and Dye did just that. Now public, Luana Hills Golf and Country Club maxes out at just 6,600 yards, but Dye's menacing style and the Hawaiian tradewinds create a devilish mix. Don't use the brand new Pro-V1s here, because even the pros lose ammo on these fairways.

17. Bayonet Golf Course at Bayonet and Blackhorse in Seaside, Calif.

Once a military golf course, this 2008 renovation shines brighter than ever. The Gene Bates design was softened a bit, but the greens remain firm and the fairways are narrow. The Bayonet course ranks as one of Monterey's toughest tests, worthy of U.S. Open qualifiers when Pebble Beach Golf Links is the host.

18. Bear's Best Golf Club in Las Vegas

With the exception of Dye, Nicklaus designs arguably reign supreme in difficulty. So it makes sense that his collection of holes at Bear's Best Golf Club, coupled with desert surroundings and lightning-fast bentgrass greens, create one of the top tests in the West.

19. Arcadia Bluffs Golf Course in Arcadia, Mich.

A links-style course with tall fescue and towering dunes, Rick Smith's Arcadia Bluffs Golf Course is a modified version of Whistling Straits on the eastern shores of Lake Michigan.

20. Dye Course at Barefoot Resort in North Myrtle Beach, S.C.

With more than 100 golf courses, Myrtle Beach figures to include some of America's most difficult. The Dye Course at Barefoot Resort boasts hundreds of bunkers and hazards in addition to difficult greens.

More photos


«
TPC San Antonio's AT&T Oaks course - hole 15Whistling Straits - Straits golf course - No. 14Pinehurst No. 2 golf course - Fifth hole
»

Brandon Tucker is the Managing Editor for Golf Advisor. To date, his golf travels have taken him to over two dozen countries and over 500 golf courses worldwide. While he's played some of the most prestigious courses in the world, Tucker's favorite way to play the game is on a great muni in under three hours. Follow Brandon on Twitter at @BrandonTucker.

 
Reader Comments / Reviews Leave a comment
  • Bethpage Black

    chris wrote on: Jun 10, 2012

    I have played PGA National...TPC Sawgrass...Barefoot Landing...and Wolf Creek...BETHPAGE BLACK is much harder than any of them...better bump it up the list!!

    Reply