Golf has been called a nice walk ruined, and the vistas enjoyed from the fairway — or the rough, as it may be — certainly contribute to the playing experience.
Chances are that the views at your local course don't quite compare to what you'll find at El Camaleon at Mayakoba in Playa del Carmen, Mexico. The Yucatan Peninsula has become a favorite escape for winter sun-seekers, and it's rapidly becoming a golf hot spot. This is in part thanks to El Cameleon, a Greg Norman design that's home to the Mayakoba Golf Classic (the only PGA event in Mexico).
Encompassing three distinct landscapes — tropical jungle, mangrove swamps and seaside beaches — the course is further distinguished by the limestone canals that punctuate the layout. The diminutive 125-yard par-3 seventh lets you fly one of the canals; fly too far, you'll find the Caribbean!
Another great course? Bandon Trails in Bandon, Ore. The course is an epic journey through dunes, rambling meadows, forests of Douglas firs and spruce, with a dramatic conclusion back in the dunes. Despite the absence of crashing surf found at its sister courses (Bandon Dunes and Pacific Dunes), the scenery on Bandon Trails is every bit as inspired — the contrast of architects Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw's gaping waste bunkers with towering conifers on this rolling terrain is both startling and exciting. The par-3 17th is a microcosm of Trails' visual delights.
Both courses come from a list in my upcoming book, “Fifty More Places To Play Golf Before You Die,” to be published next month by Stewart, Tabori & Chang. The book assembles some of the game's most memorable courses and experiences, as shared by 50 individuals closely connected with the golf world — seasoned touring professionals, golf journalists and photographers, golf course architects and other industry influentials. Some are names whispered reverently in every locker room; others are barely known; one, Askernish, was literally lost for almost 70 years until journalist John Garrity helped unearth it on the island of South Uist.
Most golfers have a wish list — written down or imagined — of some places they'd like to play. Some of the dream courses are venues that they have seen the pros play on television. Others have appeared in published round-ups. Other fantasies have been inspired by the glimpse of a photo of a rolling fairway or thickly bunkered green, an image that beckons the viewer to place him/herself in the thick of the scene. However the “must-plays” have made it on the list, these courses are objects of desire that are often contemplated, and with patience, planning, and a bit of good luck, perhaps sometimes played.
The passionate duffer who splurges $500 on a round at Old Head in Ireland will likely treasure the memory well into their next lifetime. Some courses exact a greater expense. To play the courses included on the Danube River Golf Cruise, you'll have to get to Budapest, Hungary, board a luxury riverboat, and sail across Hungary, Austria and Germany (prices begin at $7,985 per person, based on double occupancy.) Likewise, the course at Nirwana is not an easy stop on the average linkster's pilgrimage to Scotland; situated on the Indonesian island of Bali, it's approximately 10,163 miles from JFK ... another 7,000 miles beyond St. Andrews!
When it comes to golf travel, many Americans overlook Canada. In truth, Canada has higher per capita golf participation than the U.S., and many first-rate courses.
For Bob Weeks, editor of Score (Canada's leading golf magazine), Alberta's Jasper Park Golf Club is near the top of the list. Situated in a valley in the Canadian Rockies, Jasper combines staggering mountain vistas with an ingenious design by the legendary architect Stanley Thompson.
“When I first played Jasper, I had the overwhelming feeling that it might just be the perfect golf experience,” says Weeks. “The sun was shining, the scenery was incredible, the layout of the course was great. I recall thinking that if a golf nirvana existed, this was it; it was as close to perfection as I'd experienced. And I don't even remember how I played!”
Links style golf has been successfully imported from the coastlines of Scotland and Ireland to points as far afield as Lake Michigan (Whistling Straits) and the Oregon coast (Bandon Dunes). Perhaps its most unlikely export — and certainly one of its most successful — has been to the isolated coast of northern Tasmania, in the shape of Barnbougle Dunes, co-designed by Australian and European Tour winner Michael Clayton and Tom Doak (perhaps best known for Pacific Dunes). With its rolling dunes, marram grass and breathtaking ocean vistas, Barnbougle could be easily mistaken for Ballybunion on Ireland's west coast — with wider fairways, different accents and the possibility of an off-course encounter with the Tasmanian Devil (a carnivorous marsupial the size of a smallish dog that really exists).
“One of the things I love about Barnbougle is the relaxed atmosphere of the place,” Clayton says. “There are none of the restrictions or stratifications that are so much a part of the Australian private club scene — it's very friendly, and guests feel none of the intimidation that public golfers experience when visiting a private club.”
Moving north — and to a far higher elevation — we reach Jade Dragon Snow Mountain Golf Club, in the northwestern corner of the Yunnan province. At 8,548 yards, Jade Dragon is the world's longest golf course.
“One can only hope that no one feels compelled to build a course that's any longer,” golf writer Jeff Wallach says. “And God help anyone who is manic enough to play the thing from the back tees!”
The course rests at the base of a glacier at the base of the Himalayas — which is to say, at an altitude of 10,000 feet.
“When Jade Dragon's length comes up in conversation, people are always quick to point out that given the altitude, the ball goes 20 percent farther,” Wallach adds. “This is certainly true. But what people don't consider is that bad shots also go 20 percent further astray!”