Water has been an essential element of golf ever since the game’s birth in Scotland more than six centuries ago. The first courses were laid out on so-called “links land,” rugged ground of limited agriculture value that linked fertile farmland to the sea. Those sites lent beauty and drama to the nascent sport, especially when early designers fashioned tees on the wind-whipped dunes overlooking expansive firths and bays and built greens at the water’s edge. Those tracks also compelled players to be canny and creative with their shot making, and to work with whatever the land — and the weather — presented them on a given day.
All these years later, golfers continue to be drawn to coastal courses. The vistas are part of the allure, and so are the exhilarating walks they provide and the ways they allow players to enjoy the game in its purest and most traditional form.
Having had the pleasure of playing on many fine seaside courses over the years, I am pleased to offer a list of what I consider the top 15 in the world, in no particular order.
The ocean views of this Tom Doak design are awe-inspiring, as is the sheer beauty of the southern Oregon coastline, with its groves of shore pines and dunes rising as high as 60 feet. But it is the routing that makes Pacific Dunes so good, and the quality of the land the architect found here. The par-71 course features a brilliant sequencing of holes, and the back nine is especially interesting — and fun — with four par 3s, three par 5s and only a pair of par 4s.
This nearly century-old golf course on the Monterey Peninsula boasts what may well be the best stretch of golf in America, if not the world. Beginning with the fourth and ending with No. 10, Pebble Beach gives golfers the opportunity to hit one heart-thumping shot after another while in frequent sight of the Pacific. Perhaps the best of them is the tee shot on the short, downhill seventh, a joyful nerve-racker to a well-bunkered green behind which waves crash into jagged rocks, sending water high into the air. The course heads inland after No. 10 and does not return to the water until the 18th. But the wait is worth it, for that dogleg left hugs the ocean the entire length of the hole.
The big water here is not an ocean or sea but rather a lake, as in Lake Michigan. And it gives this modern course, which was conceived by golf impresario Herb Kohler and laid out by Pete Dye in 1998, the air of a classic British Isles links, with heaving fairways, scads of bunkers and several holes hanging on 40-foot-high bluffs. The Straits Course opener plays down to the lake, and the next three run alongside it to the south. There might not be a better start in golf.
Water, in the form of the Pacific Ocean, is a constant presence during a round on this Jack Nicklaus gem, situated on the largely undeveloped island of Lanai, most of which is owned by Oracle co-founder and one-time chief executive officer Larry Ellison. And three of the holes — Nos. 12, 13 and 17 — on the Manele Golf Course are built on actual cliffs (with the 12th tee box being where Bill and Melinda Gates married in 1994). During the winter months, players can also catch glimpses of whales swimming by, and rainbows regularly appear after afternoon showers.
Old Head is not the best course on the Emerald Isle, but it is certainly the most breathtaking. Situated on a promontory that juts some two miles from the mainland into the Atlantic, it boasts tees so high that I have watched seabirds soaring below me as I hit drives from the edges of cliffs. Water comes into sight on almost every hole, and a lighthouse on the southernmost tip of the property only enhances the sense of being ocean side.
Architects Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw put 10 holes on this track directly on the water. They also produced a unique and very intriguing configuration of six par 3s, six par 4s and six par 5s, ensuring that golfers employ every club in their bags during a game at Cabot Cliffs. The finishers are quite strong, especially the par-3 16th, where players must hit a hybrid or long iron over a fearsome abyss to a green guarded by a quartet of bunkers and backed by the Gulf of St. Lawrence, and No. 18, a 5-par that starts with a drive over a gaping ravine.
Fabled golf course architect Donald Ross grew up in this sleepy hamlet of 1,200, and industrialist Andrew Carnegie, who lived in nearby Skibo Castle, played much of his golf at Royal Dornoch, even serving as club vice president for a spell. But the place is best known for being home to an Old Tom Morris golf course that is ranked among the best in the world. Constructed on two levels of linksland, it features testy holes both short and long that wind in and around scrubby dunes. Its many elevated tees make driving a real pleasure on this track. But the daunting green complexes with their plethora of pot bunkers will try a player’s soul.
Charles Blair Macdonald built golf courses that featured stylish renditions of the great golf holes of the British Isles. And the one he created at Mid Ocean on the northernmost portion of this fish-hook-shaped collection of islands is among his most inspired. The third, which is modeled after the 11th on the Old Course of St. Andrews and has a harrowing green perched on a coral crag, is a gem, as is No. 17, a magnificent Redan named after a hole on the West Links of North Berwick in East Lothian, Scotland.
With Cape Kidnappers, a Tom Doak course on the North Island of New Zealand, American financier Julian Robertson gives golfers a truly spectacular place to tee it up, with several holes laid out on a series of ridges that run to the edge of cliffs. The views of the South Pacific Ocean are omnipresent, and I especially like the way the water serves as backdrop to a number of greens. In addition to being visually appealing, they make it delightfully difficult to discern actual distances on approach shots.
The Lost Farm layout that Bill Coore constructed on the northern coast of the Australian state of Tasmania is a masterpiece. The terrain was so good for golf that Coore, who has partnered on several highly rated layouts with two-time Masters champion Ben Crenshaw, actually created 20 holes. And each one is a joy to play, with wide, undulating fairways that run firm and fast, and towering sand hills. Just as fun is the nature that a golfer encounters during a round, and it is common to come upon pot-bellied wallabies as well as blue-tongued lizards and pink-tinted cockatoos called galahs.
This Caribbean retreat features 81 holes of golf, but the 18 that make up the Teeth of the Dog course rise above all the rest. Laid out by designer Pete Dye, who kept a home on the layout for many years, it provides players with seven seaside holes as well as striking panoramas of aquamarine waters as well as colorful sweeps of bougainvillea, hibiscus and groves of coconut palms. Named for the way local workers described how the rock coral along the edges of the course resembled diente del perro, or teeth of the dog, it favors the golfer who can play in the trade winds.
The Kingdom of Morocco may seem a most unlikely golf destination to some, but this hospitable North African land boasts 35 courses, most of which are 18-hole tracks capable of testing the game’s best players. One of the latest additions to that portfolio is also one of its loveliest, the links-style Gary Player layout at Mazagan Golf Club in the coastal town of El Jadida, about an hour’s drive southwest of the Casablanca airport. The thing that sets it apart from others in Morocco is the fact that a number of its holes are routed in sand dunes and along the Atlantic Ocean. It is traditional golf in a most exotic — and yet temperate — locale.
Routed among the dunes, cliffs and cacti of the Baja Peninsula, Quivira has a way of dazzling players. Not so much for the routing Jack Nicklaus produced here but for the way some of the holes make exceptional use of the scenic and rugged land. It seems as if the Pacific is in sight the whole round through, and the Golden Bear gives golfers several different ways to admire the turquoise waters. The most jaw-dropping holes are Nos. 5 and 6, both of which are cut on rocky outcroppings whose sides seem to drop straight down to the sea.
The David McLay Kidd golf course on this 3,500-acre South Pacific isle is as private as they come. In fact, only a few golfers can be found on the Laucala fairways on any given day, and that is largely a result of a policy that limits the total number of resort guests to 80. Needless to say, no one is ever waiting for a tee time. Understanding that the layout would never host a tournament of note and only be enjoyed by recreational players, Kidd made sure to make it fun. That’s why there are lots of downhill tee shots and a pleasing mix of long and short holes. He also gave golfers plenty of glimpses of the azure waters of the Pacific during a round, and of the sugar sand beaches that ring much of the island.
In 1951, this stunning links became the first club in Northern Ireland to host a British Open. In 2019, it will be the venue for that championship again, after a 68-year wait. That is far too long a gap, for the Dunluce Course at this esteemed club is undeniably great. Harry S. Colt laid it out, and he made remarkable use of the soaring dunes and subtle valleys. The par-4 fifth hole, dubbed White Rocks, is a thriller, requiring a solid drive over dunes to a fairway that bends hard to the right and heads to the North Atlantic. And there is a reason why the longish par-3 at 14 is named Calamity; anything short and right of the green disappears disastrously into a deep chasm of marram grass.
Read about the Best Golf Resorts of 2016, as chosen by our readers.