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Playing a round or three of golf on your vacation is great for a number of reasons. One, you’ll get some fresh air in an environment that’s designed to reward the eye. Two, you’ll get a bit of exercise. (Depending on your game and how far out of bounds you hit the ball, you might get a LOT of exercise.)
I’ve been lucky enough to play golf at courses around the world. Here are some of my favorites. Not necessarily the best courses, but some of the most memorable moments.
MAUI MUNICIPAL COURSE, WAIEHU, MAUI
This isn’t Kapalua, home of the season-opening tournament on the PGA Tour Schedule, it isn’t Wailea, with its deep green, perfect fairways and golden-sand bunkers and Ritz Carlton-worthy clubhouse. But it’s a remarkable deal, and it’s a great place to “talk story” with the locals.
There are also three holes directly fronting the Pacific Ocean, which is more than you can say for just about any golf course on Maui. Sure, it’s a bit rough in spots, but the views of the coastline are terrific, and you can’t beat the price; $55 USD weekdays for non-residents and $67 on weekends.
One of my favourite stories about the course is from back when I was around 17 or 18 years old. My Dad and I and a buddy pulled in and went to the clubhouse to pay. My Dad said, “Three adults, please.” The guy behind the counter shook his head. “No, sir. You mean one adults and two youths.” “No, they’re adults.” my Dad replied. “No,” the clubhouse guy responded with a firm tone. “They’re youths. They pay the youth rate.”
You gotta love a course like that.
CABOT LINKS AND CABOT CLIFFS
Cabot Links set the standard a few years ago, opening as Canada’s first true links course in the village of Inverness on Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia.
It’s a gobsmackingly gorgeous layout that runs along the Gulf of St. Lawrence, with pot bunkers and rolling hills and nasty rough and fairways that let you run the ball for miles.
The course is immaculate, but the weather is delightfully unpredictable. You might fire a five-iron at the flag one day, and then switch to a pitching wedge the next, depending on conditions.
Cabot Cliffs sits on a bluff overlooking the gulf and is even more dramatic. It’s been rated one of the top ten golf courses in the world.
They also have a par-three, 10-hole course called The Nest, which is perfect for beginners or kids. Or those of us with handicaps we’d rather not talk about.
They’re building a Cabot course on the rugged north coast of Saint Lucia in the Caribbean, which looks incredible, as well as a layout in Revelstoke that’s slated to open in 2024.
PEBBLE BEACH, CALIFORNIA
I was fortunate to take some of my golf friends for a round at Pebble Beach a few years ago. When we got back, one of my grateful buddies sent me an email.
“Thanks for the trip to paradise.”
You can feel the ghosts as you walk through the pro shop, checking the cardigan sweaters and high-priced souvenirs with the Pebble Beach Golf Links logos. There are a couple of holes that aren’t so dramatic, but it’s mostly magnificent, with dreamy views of the California coastline and immaculate conditions.
This is a place of golfing legends and movie stars and history, the place where Tiger Woods put on one of his dominating performances of all time and where Tom Watson reached for the stars on No. 17 with one of the greatest pressure shots of all time.
Playing the sixth hole, it’s almost impossible not to be impressed about Tiger’s shot from the thick grass next to the fairway bunker in his record-setting U.S. Open win in 2000, a ridiculous iron shot that carried up the massive hill and nestled some 10 feet from the pin. This is the same hole where rock star Glenn Frey of the Eagles told me to stick a video camera up my nether regions when I trained my lens on him too long during a pro-am practice round. But that’s another story.
MISSION HILLS, CHINA
This is a complex that you have to see to believe. And you still don’t believe it.
It currently has 11 championship courses and an 18-hole par three course. Each was designed by a different golf architect or player, including top names such as Pete Dye and Greg Norman.
The owners of the 12-course complex, located about a half hour from Hong Kong in mainland China, proudly bill Mission Hills as the largest golf centre in the world.
There are 3,000 young women who serve as caddies on the courses every day. The three clubhouse staging areas where they all get ready to roll in the morning look like the cab stand outside YVR; a veritable sea of pale golf carts filled with chattering young caddies in their bright red and yellow uniforms and beekeeper-style helmets.
When we stepped onto the first tee of one of the courses and I sliced a ball in the general direction of a palatial, fairway-side home. I asked my caddy what she thought. She rubbed her chin and replied, “Dangerous.”
WATERTON LAKES, ALBERTA
Jasper and Banff, not to mention Canmore, get a fair bit of ink in Alberta golf stories. But I loved Waterton Lakes when I played there a few summers ago.
You can’t beat the setting, with wide skies, glittering lakes, and towering, jagged mountains all around.
It wasn’t in the best condition when I played it, but a Canadian golf group called Lobb + Partners has been hired to make renovations. The course dates back to 1922 when the original nine holes were opened. They expanded to 18 holes in 1935. Legendary golf architect Stanley Thompson helped with improvements later on, so you know the layout is first rate.
It’s fairly cheap ($59) and super-casual. When I stopped in I was told the only rules about clothing were no muscle shirts and “no visible butt cracks.”
Waterton Lakes National Park is a gem that’s roughly two and-a-half hours south of Calgary.
TPC SAWGRASS, FLORIDA
Just about every golf fan worth his weight in niblicks knows about the island green at the 17th hole at TPC Sawgrass in northeast Florida. It’s a brilliant hole, with a small green surrounded by water on roughly 347.14 degrees. For the pros, it’s nerve-wracking. For an amateur, it’s outright terror.
I played maybe ten years ago with my dad. I somehow hit my ball high in the air and onto the green, where it trickled into the rough and stayed dry. I bogeyed the hole after chipping on and two-putting on treacherous greens that looked like they’d been given a bikini wax, as Gary McCord once said about a particularly tricky green at Augusta National.
My dad wasn’t so lucky. His first ball skidded into the water, short and left of the green. He teed up another. Same thing. Then a third. Maybe a fourth. All in the same patch of water. As he walked to the next hole he looked at me and said, “The definition of stupidity is hitting the same shot four times in a row and expecting a different result.”
The 17th hole hogs the headlines, but the rest of the course is equally impressive. And just as difficult.
GREEN MONKEY, BARBADOS
The Green Monkey is a fabulous golf course that’s associated with the posh Sandy Lane resort, one of the best on the island. This is where Tiger Woods got married to Elin Nordegren. It didn’t end well, but the wedding was spectacular.
The course sits on a gentle slope on the west coast of the island, north of the capital of Bridgetown, and is carved out of an old limestone quarry. There are great elevation changes for an island that’s not very mountainous, as well as tough greens.
If you don’t see real green monkeys frolicking in the trees, you’ll at least find one in the fairway trap on the par-three 16th hole; a giant grass monkey resting in the sand. Every hole on the course, designed by Tom Fazio, offers lovely views of the Caribbean.
KIRRIE GLEN, MUSKOKA, ONTARIO
There are fancier courses in the Muskoka region of Ontario, including Muskoka Woods, Taboo and Rocky Crest. But few offer the value of Kirrie Glen, a lovingly kept nine-hole affair with nice elevation changes and beautiful landscaping.
Folks with cottages on Lake Muskoka can dock their boat across the street from the clubhouse and traipse across the road with their clubs.
There are a few challenging holes, but this is really a place to take the kids or to have a blast with your golf buddies.
There’s a nice patio with good food and friendly servers.
The cost? Just $41 plus HST for nine holes, $65 plus HST for 18 holes. It’s tough to beat that kind of value in this part of Ontario.
KAURI CLIFFS, NEW ZEALAND
This is a golf course that doesn’t whack you over the head. There are no fancy gates with guards out front, and you’re miles from any big cities. When I was there, the only marker I saw was a plain wooden gate that looked like it was stolen from a small farm in Ireland, or perhaps the movie set of Hobbiton from Lord of the Rings. But then you drive out and see the course in all its glory.
Kauri Cliffs sits high on a bluff overlooking the deep blue waters of Matauri Bay. The course is in stupendous shape, and the views are beautiful, with a wide bay dotted with a series of pretty islands and distant, chalky cliffs.
Designer David Harman treated the natural terrain with respect, folding his course over hills and through valleys instead of ramrodding a few acres of earth like some “I know best” design types might feel obliged to do. A top-notch course in one heckuva beautiful country.
PACIFIC GROVE GOLF LINKS, CALIFORNIA
This course, just a few minutes west of downtown Monterey, is an even better value than the Maui Municipal course.
The course sits at a corner of the fabled Monterey Peninsula, just a few minutes west of Cannery Row and downtown Monterey’s shops and hotels.
The first nine holes are inland. They’re fine, and fairly challenging. But you only get glimpses of the ocean. The back nine offers views of the crashing, brilliant waves of the Pacific Ocean at every turn. Built like a traditional links course, you’ll definitely feel as if you’re hugging the coast of Scotland or Ireland as you navigate the final holes, with views of the Point Pinos lighthouse and the waves crashing against the craggy rocks.
It’s just $59 USD Monday to Thursday and $75 Friday to Sunday.