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The world’s most extreme golf courses

For travelers keen to combine an active vacation with an exotic locale, few sports compare to golf when it comes to transporting oneself—both in the physical and mental sense of the word. And in the world of golf travel, perfectly sculpted greens with postcard views and predictably luxurious clubhouses certainly have a way of whisking one away.
Hans Merensky Golf Course; South Africa
An exotic par-72 challenge situated in the small mining town of Ba-Phalaborwa in South Africa, the Hans Merensky Golf Course shares a common boundary with Kruger National Park. Free movement of wildlife between the two areas means it's not unlikely to encounter elephants, impalas, waterbuck or giraffes in your line of play.Hans Merensky Golf Course
/ Source: Forbes Traveler.com

For travelers keen to combine an active vacation with an exotic locale, few sports compare to golf when it comes to transporting oneself—both in the physical and mental sense of the word. And in the world of golf travel, perfectly sculpted greens with postcard views and predictably luxurious clubhouses certainly have a way of whisking one away.

But every once in a while, the intrepid golfer needs to push the envelope with a true gonzo golf escape in order to spice up his or her drive.

As is the case with travel itself, the challenges of teeing off in unfamiliar terrain are rewarded with the opportunity to navigate and discover a new destination outside of your comfort zone. The wide and wacky world, as it turns out, happens to be full of oddball golf experiences. Bob Fikac, Director of Golf at Lowes Island Club in Potomac Falls, Va., recommends traveling to different countries to play because it humbles you as a player.

Says Fikac, “every course is different when it comes to geography and weather elements… You can go to Australia and play cross country with kangaroos, or travel to Hawaii and play in the shadow of a volcano.”

Indeed—the land Down Under abounds with unusual greens, including a few that are more akin to arid deserts than the usual verdant driving terrain. In the far reaches of South Australia’s outback country, Coober Pedy Opal Fields Golf Club is a sandy course with nary a blade of grass in sight. The greens, in fact, consist of sand slicked with oil that prevents the bunkers and fairways from getting blown out of shape.

Soon enough, the world’s longest golf course will also find its home in Australia. The Nullarbor Links course is scheduled to open in late 2008, and will offer 18 holes played over a whopping 800 miles along the desolate Eyre Highway. With an average of about 50 miles between holes, the course will be a welcome diversion for travelers making the long drive through one of Australia’s most remote regions, with stop-offs in roadhouse stations to tee off along the way.

At the opposite end of the climate spectrum, there’s ice golfing. The annual World Ice Golf Championship is held each March atop moving ice floes on an island in Northern Greenland. Participants play with red balls that are more visible against the calving glaciers.

If these environments sound more daunting than inspiring, think of them as learning experiences. After all, even golfing at unfamiliar locales in your home country has a way of broadening your mind—as well as honing your adaptive skills with the sport itself.

“Wherever I’ve gone in the world and played golf, it opens these doors and breaks through all these social conventions,” says John Barton, editor-in-chief of Golf Digest International. “You get to the other side of the world, meet people from an entirely different culture and background, and find they’re golf nuts anyway.” Barton has golfed in such unusual locales as North Korea and Bhutan.

So even if you don’t speak a word of Afrikaans, rest assured that you can get away with golf lingo and the slang of the swing at the unusual Hans Merensky Golf Course in South Africa. The course shares a boundary with the legendary Kruger National Park, and wildlife sightings as you cruise the fairways might include giraffes, elephants and herding waterbuck. Plus, the four-star hotel on the golf estate is ideal for passing a night or two; thatched chalets overlooking the holes offer a private retreat in the already remote locale.

Make your way to the small mining town of Coober Pedy in South Australia, where there's not a blade of grass or a stitch of greenery in sight at the Coober Pedy Opal Fields Golf Club. Opal mining is the chief business here, and most residents live in a subterranean world of tunnels and caves to escape the Outback's searing temperatures. The golf course itself is basically one enormous sand trap that must be oiled with grease lest it blow away in the dry desert winds, and golfers tote swatches of faux grass from hole to hole to ease teeing off.South Australia Tourism Comiss

Then there’s Mission Hills Golf Club in Shenzen, China — the world's largest golf complex. “I’ve been playing around the world,” says member Billy Tse, “and I think Mission Hills is pretty much the best.” He drives roughly an hour from his home in Hong Kong several times a week to play golf with friends and enjoy the clubhouse.

For a real wild time stateside, head to the northernmost golf club in the United States. At North Star Golf Club in Fairbanks, Alaska, the course scorecard actually includes a checklist for wildlife sightings, which may include moose, snowshoe hares, coyotes, sandhill cranes and marmots. During the summer, when the sun shines nearly round-the-clock, North Star is open 20 hours per day. They close between 2 a.m. and 6 a.m. — and then, just for maintenance.

The U.S. is also home to the world’s only trans-national golf course at Lajitas, The Ultimate Hideout in Western Texas, where a bonus hole consists of an irretrievable drive across the Rio Grande River into Mexico. An old Wild West military town, Lajitas was once General Pershing’s center of operations for tracking down Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa. These days, the dusty outpost has been transformed with fine dining (featuring wild Texas game), suites and private haciendas. There’s something undeniably Disney-esque about Lajitas, but golfing on American soil has rarely felt so far flung.

Longing for more over-the-top golf experiences to heighten your game and satisfy your wanderlust at the same time? We're proud to present some of the planet’s most surreal golf experiences.