(The following article first appeared in the September 2012 edition of Golf Canada Magazine)
Every golfer has had the daydream at least once. You pack your bags and clubs and you head to the airport with no return ticket for the vacation of a lifetime, finally off to explore all the most beautiful, historic, and fantastic golf courses the world has to offer. But which must-do courses should you check off your bucket list? When it comes to golf travel, there is always more to a great trip than just a ranking. A well-rounded stop considers a place's culture, atmosphere, and heritage on the green, along with family-friendly activity and adventure off the course. We explore the best of the best the world has to offer us.
The Old Course at St. Andrews Links - Scotland
Any course located in the birthplace of the sport may be saddled with the principal challenge of living up to the expectations of players can any one course embody all the majesty and history of six centuries without becoming a museum? The Old Course at St Andrews Links manages to go beyond preconceptions to provide a riveting, world-class golf experience and aptly dubs itself the home of golf. A public course managed, along with its six sister courses, through a charitable trust set up by the government, the Old Course is a popular tourist destination.
Playing a round on the famous Links is a one of a kind experience seemingly torn from the pages of history. Tee times are up for grabs the first Wednesday in September the year before you expect to play, so the wise golfer would do well to plan far in advance before setting up a trip to this destination. If you find yourself in Scotland without a tee time you aren¹t completely out of luck as half of the tee times are set aside and reserved in the ballot, a lottery-style draw the results of which are posted 48 hours before the day in question. The ballot is the most popular way to get a tee-time, however single golfers can also turn up on the morning they wish to play and join in with another group providing there is space. While this process may require a bit more thought than booking a tee-time on a regular course, this is the home of golf. And it goes without saying that no golf traveller's checklist will be complete until they have played a round on this ancient green. Quick Facts... The Old Course is closed to golfers every Sunday however, the walking paths that wind throughout it are open for anyone interested in a scenic stroll. ...The Old Course sees about 45,000 rounds pllayed every year. ...The town of St. Andrews was so named after the saint's relics were brought to this place in Scotland in the 8th century. ...Golf has been played here since at least the 1,400s. ...Although the course has evolved over centuries, it was course custodian Tom Morris and his assistant David Honeyman who are credited with giving the Old Course its current look in the late 1,800s.
The Links at Fancourt - George, Western Cape
On the opposite side of the globe from the birthplace of golf is a place that proudly carries in offering a traditional Scottish experience. The lush rolling greens of The Links at Fancourt are the best on the continent. The 1,500 acres spread across a South African countryside provide what golfer Johan Moolman simply describes as "golfing heaven." Visitors can marvel at designer Gary Player's keen vision when recreating golf on the moors as the rolling hills of the green beneath your feet were in fact constructed on what was once a flattened airport, and he has referred to The Links as "perhaps my greatest achievement as a golf course designer." While the club is private, they do offer some times to those staying at the resort to experience the tip-top in African golf. Quick Facts... The Links at Fancourt is nestled in an area known as the Garden Route, or Tuinroete, remarkable for its picturesque plant life, scenery and wildly diverse ecosystem of animals to admire. ...The warm climate of the Garden Route is noted for being the second mildest in the world, after Hawaii. ...Those with nerves of steel can jump from the record high bungee bridge and the nearby Bloukrans Bridge.
The Lake Course at Spring City - Yunnan Province, China
Despite strict rules governing the construction of golf courses in China, the sport continues to flourish as more and more people pick up clubs. Neighbouring Japan is surprisingly home to over 2,300 golf courses, proving that golf 's popularity in Asia is truly a phenomenon. With the boom of hundreds of new courses cropping up throughout China in the last ten years, it might seem like the countless courses share characteristics with flimsy made-in-China mass produced goods, but the appreciation for great golfing experiences is at the heart of the construction and can especially be seen in the beautiful craftsmanship of Spring City's Lake Course and sister Mountain Course. Designed by Robert Trent Jones, Jr. in 1998, the Lake Course has amassed an impressive roster of accolades in its short history, including being listed as the best course in China, among the best of Asia, and among the best non-US courses.
Aamby Valley - India
As a developing nation, expectations for the jetsetter (or jet-fantasizer) tend to hang lower for India. One might assume that golf courses here may be less stately and more utilitarian in a country that can more easily be pictured as Slumdog Millionaire than Bagger Vance. As always though, assumptions have a great way of being proven wrong, as evidenced by Aamby Valley's outstanding posture in the world of Asian and international golf. Designed by David Hemstock as the centrepiece for India's first planned community, Aamby's 250 acres 2,700 feet above sea level provide a gold standard for golf in the region, having won multiple awards for its maintenance and design – a design that has character and isn't always an easy play. On the selection of Aamby Valley as one of the top golf destinations in the world, CEO Vivek Kumar told the Times of India simply that "it is a very satisfying feeling when one puts immense efforts to create the best and receives recognition for the same."
The Royal Melbourne Golf Club, West Course - Australia
The Royal Melbourne's West course represents an impressive amount of history. From the Club's founding in 1891, it has striven for greatness in the sport, overcoming the obstacles of relocating early in its history. The famous West Course, a critical darling that has landed on all of the best-of lists, wasn't completed for play until the club was entering its fifth decade. The course was designed by Britain's Alister MacKenzie, whose masterful use of camouflage makes for a delightfully difficult game. Drawing inspiration from the Old Course at St Andrew's, the course tests the wits of the player by providing multiple options by which to move forward, but none that won't beguile. While Royal Melbourne is a private club, they do accept visitors who belong to a selection of other clubs from overseas, so be sure to plan ahead by speaking to an appropriate representative both in Canada and Australia.
Sao Fernando Golf Club - Brazil
Our first stop jumps right outside what many of us might consider golf 's comfort zone in the English-speaking world. Brazil has done a great job embracing the expansion of the sport over the last few decades. A perfect example of Brazil's ability to balance both the trappings of modern developed life with wild expanses of nature, Sao Fernando rests at the edge of Sao Paulo's sprawling skyscraper jungle facing out into the undeveloped countryside. With its impeccably groomed greens and ten lakes that dot the diverse course a golfer can ease into the relaxed Brazilian atmosphere while enjoying outstanding links that have seen many of South America's biggest golf stars pass through. It's no wonder Sao Fernando just finished hosting the Brazil Open for the second consecutive year. Access is restricted to members and their guests, so befriending a local golfer ahead of time may be your only way to play through this course – but that's part of the fun, isn't it? Quick Facts... Brazil, a nation who's upper and middle classes have long enjoyed country club life, has been home to South America's growing love for the sport. Along with Argentina, Brazil has produced many of its own national golf superstars and Brazil has held a national open since 1945. ...The tropical nation's love for the sport makes it a fitting stage for golf's return to the Olympic program. After over a century of absence golf's professionals will become Olympians in contention for the gold when the world descends on Rio de Janeiro for the 2016 games.
Hacienda Pinilla - Costa Rica
One might not think that the lush tropical atmosphere and sprawling beaches of Central America would be a prime location for a golf vacation, but the vision of American course designer Mike Young has proven that anything is possible. By incorporating the natural contours of the land into play with the creation of the course (just one of the many ways Hacienda recognizes and respects the lush environment in which it sprawls), Young created a picturesque sporting experience not replicated anywhere else in the world. "Deer, coyotes, jaguars, howler monkeys, iguanas and crab are just some of the many wildlife experiences you can have here," says general manager Jason Bauer, and while the likelihood of having a three-toed sloth fall asleep on your ball or a monkey steal your tee is slim, the wildlife in and around the course is indeed a part of the scenic spectacle and one of the many reasons Hacienda Pinilla is an essential international golf destination. Quick Facts... Costa Rica's Pacific shore is a surfer's paradise. With countless surfing schools along the beautiful beaches you'll have an easy time leaving the clubs behind for a morning and getting your cowabunga on. ...Costa Rica is home to the two- and three-toed sloths. Like teddy bears come to life, the lazy tree dwellers are extremely friendly and can frequently be found giving hugs to lampposts and table legs. A visit to a sanctuary is a must-do.
Pine Valley Golf Club - New Jersey
The United States is a nation of a great many variables. From snow-capped mountains and dusty deserts throughout its core to the marshy swamps of the Southeast and the misty forests of the Northwest, it seems that no two golf courses across the land could be more different from one another. Yet, in what one can only assume is yet another feat of American perseverance, the United States is home to many of the best ranked golf courses in the world with the top links sprinkled fairly evenly amongst the country's fifty states. Pine Valley in New Jersey has earned its place in our fantasies due to the timeless elegance of the private links. The only golf course designed by George Arthur Crump, it was considered to be the hardest in the world upon its opening in 1914. Tradition holds strong here with male-only membership (a list of less than one thousand whose names are a closely guarded secret) that is notoriously hard to gain access to, although members are allowed to bring guests and women are allowed to play the course on Sunday afternoons. Golf tourists can get their fill, however, by planning their trip around the final day of the Crump Cup in September, the only day on which members of the public are allowed access to wander the secluded course.
St. George's Golf & Country Club - Toronto
Canada's contribution to the dream list may be a familiar name to many of our readers. St. George's is a private, members-only club, which has frequently found itself on the top of Canadian and North American best-of lists. Located near Toronto, the long history of the club has truly been a Canadian golf success story. Designed by Stanley Thompson in 1929 as the golfing facilities for downtown Royal York hotel and rebranded as St George's shortly after World War II when it severed ties with the hotel, the club has long been a fixture of the Canadian golf circuit, having served as a host to the Canadian Open and the LPGA Classic. "The more Top-100 courses I play around the world," says Steven Smith, a member for over 20 years, "the more I am convinced that St. George's stands up to the best of them." Quick Facts... Most recently played host to the Canadian Open in 2010 when Carl Pettersson won. ...In true Canadian fashion, the club also runs a curling program during the winter months. ...The club's land was first purchases in 1909, giving the club an impressive century-long history.