Ben Hogan, Sam Snead and Byron Nelson had Hall of Fame Careers, but none of them ever played a US Open on a public course.
You can (the course that is, not the US Open itself ).
There are nearly 50 golf tournaments on the PGA Tour’s annual schedule – and that doesn’t count their so called “challenge” events (Grand Slam, People vs. Pros, etc), or the various USGA Amateurs, the European PGA Tour, the Ryder and Presidents Cups, or the entire LPGA and Senior (excuse me, Champions) Tour Schedules.
Unlike football or baseball, the golf season never ends. It is simply too much golf, not just for fans, but for the world’s best players, especially the world’s best player, Tiger Woods, who skips a lot more PGA Tour events than he plays in.
In fact, Tiger has made it clear that there are only four events a year that really matter to him, The Majors. You already know them, but to refresh your memory, they are the US Open, Masters, PGA Championship and the Open Championship, or what we Yanks call the British Open.
The four Majors are by far the top golf events of the year, the ones you are most likely to watch. They are also the ones avid golfers want to recreate by playing in the footsteps of the pros. Unfortunately, this is a lot harder than it sounds.
Let’s put aside the British Open for another blog. It is by far the most accessible, since every course that has ever held the Open Championship is available for some degree of public play – but you have to go to the British Isles to do it.
The choices in this country are much slimmer. One Major, the Masters, is always held at a course the public cannot play, so forget that one. The other two have a horrible track record of choosing public venues, It took the USGA 77 years to hold the Open at a public course for the first time, and well over a century before it put the tournament on a municipal course in 2002 (Bethpage Black). It’s no surprise this event instantly became know as the “People’s Open.” Previous US Opens could collectively be called the “Stuffy Private Snob” Opens.
The PGA Championship has not done much better. In 2004, when it was held at a public facility, Wisconsin’s Whistling Straits, it was the first time in nearly 30 years.
Good news for you and me: the situation has improved dramatically in the last few years and will get even better in the next few. Several new public venues have been or are about to be added to the game’s history, and for the first time, there is a decent choice of public Major venues you can play at various price points all across the country.
Since it debuted in 1895, the US Open has only been played on four public courses, and three of those were new additions in the past decade, with a fifth, Washington’s Chambers Bay, coming in 2015. Next year the PGA Championship returns to Whistling Straits, and the following year, 2012, to another new public venue, the Ocean Course at Kiawah Island, SC.
The great thing about golf is that you can sometimes actually play where the pros play, unlike batting at Wrigley Field or shooting foul shots in Madison Square Garden. You can tee it up at Torrey Pines, Pinehurst Number Two, or Pebble Beach Golf Links, and join a Who’s Who of golf greats, including Tiger Woods, Sam Snead, and Jack Nicklaus (the first public course Open winner in history).
By 2015 there will be an even dozen Major venues you can actually play. Of course, by 2015 Majors will have been held in the United States nearly 300 times, and the vast, vast majority of these venues still require a member’s invitation. But of the dozen publics, all but two are really worth playing, and this list includes some of the most historic and highly rated golf courses on earth, many of them much better than most private Major venues. To add to the golf lore and cache, three of them are also past venues for the Ryder Cup, golf’s answer to the Olympics.
The People’s Dozen
Pebble Beach Golf Links, Monterrey, CA: Currently ranked the nation’s second best public, Pebble is the most famous US course and hosted the US Open four times (2000, 1992, 1982, 1972) and the PGA Championship once (1977). Very expensive, but nonetheless a must for the golf lover. Rating: A LINK
Pinehurst Number Two, NC: America’s oldest public Major venue and most historic course period. Ranked the fifth best public, it hosted the 1936 PGA Championship, and the 1951 Ryder Cup, and two US Opens (1999, 2005). It has also held the TOUR Championship, every important amateur tournament, and more special moments than you can imagine. Since its head to toe renovation and reopening in April 2011, the course is better than it has been in 50 years, and truly takes it s place among the greats. For more detail on the new look of Number Two, check out my review. Pricey but totally worth it. Rating: A LINK
Straits Course, Whistling Straits, Kohler, WI: One of the best links-style homages to British Isles golf, ranked the third best US public course. It held the 2004 PGA Championship and will again in 2010. Pricey but worth it. Rating: A LINK
Ocean Course, Kiawah Island Golf Resort, SC: The best public East of the Mississippi and ranked fourth in the nation, the Ocean Course will host the 2012 PGA Championship. The course is so difficult from the back that the 1991 Ryder Cup here was dubbed “The War by the Shore.” Rating: A LINK
Bethpage Black, Farmingdale, NY: The best buy of all Major venues, but impossibly hard to get on for non-locals, and the most difficult to play for mere mortals as well. Ranked seventh best public in US , it was the first muni ever to host a US Open (2002) and the event just returned in 2009. Rating: A LINK
Chambers Bay, Tacoma, WA: The fastest course ever to land the US Open, it debuted in 2007 and was given the 2010 US Amateur and 2015 US Open. County owned, it is the third municipal Open venue, and the best combination of value, quality and ease of access. Rating: A LINK
Donald Ross Course at French Lick, IN: The renovation of this hidden gem was part of the half-billion dollar re-launch of the defunct French Lick grand resort, including two lavish luxury hotels. The place reopened in 2007, including the Donald Ross Course, host of the 1924 PGA Championship won by Walter Hagen. It is a great value as well: as I write this, they get $85, and offer two round packages with packages with lodging for $249. Rating: B+ LINK
Bay Course, Seaview Resort, Atlantic City, NJ: Another Donald Ross classic, the third on this list, but one of his very few on the water anywhere. It held the 1942 PGA Championship, won by Slammin’ Sammy Snead. Rating: B LINK
South Course, Torrey Pines, San Diego, CA: Owned by San Diego, it was the second municipal US Open venue (2008). You can get on, but it is not cheap. Rating: B LINK
Champion Course, PGA National, Palm Beach Gardens, FL: This Nicklaus design hosted the PGA Championship twice (1987, 1971), plus the 1983 Ryder Cup. The most expensive relative to quality on this list, and thus the worst value. Rating: B LINK
West Course, Hershey Country Club, Hershey, PA: This vast resort is better known for chocolate than golf, but has four courses. The West, an offbeat par-73 layout, held the 1940 PGA Championship. Rating: B LINK
Pecan Valley, San Antonio, TX: The most unpretentious – and forgettable – Major venue is one very few golfers have even heard of. Good news is it costs less than $50 and is easy to get on. Bad news is it is still probably overpriced. Julian Boros beat Arnold Palmer by one stroke on eighteen to win the 50th PGA Championship here in 1968. Rating: C LINK