75 Best Golf Resorts In North America

There's a new No. 1 atop our latest ranking

October 2009

Nobody could fault The Greenbrier's employees for expecting the worst. Summoned to the resort's 750-seat Colonial Hall on May 7 without explanation, many had to assume they were being fired. Everyone knew The Greenbrier was in deep financial trouble. Battered by the economy, owner CSX Corp. had recently furloughed several hundred workers and placed the resort in Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.

But management had a different sort of surprise for employees that morning. "Ladies and gentlemen," said Greenbrier President Michael Gordon from the stage, "I'd like for you to meet the new owner of The Greenbrier, Jim Justice."

The announcement was so unexpected, it seemed like a miracle.

The room erupted. Employees jumped to their feet and cheered, hugging each other and high-fiving, many of them in tears.

"It was a great day to be Jim Justice," the new owner recalls with a smile.

James C. Justice II, a West Virginia native who made his fortune in coal mining and agribusiness, has big plans for the 6,500-acre resort. He has rehired all furloughed employees and, during the next 18 months, intends to spend $125 million on new amenities, including a casino, 1,500-seat theater, teen center and new dining options. Justice also has lined up a PGA Tour event.

It's hard to know whether all of this is what The Greenbrier really needs. Yet it's obvious that waiting out the recession isn't part of the Justice m.o. This is a trait he shares with many owners of Golf Digest's 75 Best Golf Resorts in North America.

At Oregon's Bandon Dunes Golf Resort, owner Mike Keiser recently added an inn and a new restaurant at the Pacific Dunes course, and next year he'll unveil his fourth course, the much-anticipated Old Macdonald. Boca Raton Resort in Florida is fresh off a $220 million investment that produced three new pools and a fitness center, among other improvements. Indiana's French Lick Resort spent more than $500 million renovating two hotels and building a Pete Dye course, a casino and a spa.

Consultant Henry DeLozier of Toronto's Global Golf Advisors is not surprised. "Patrons of these kinds of resorts have high standards," he says, "and they're not willing to compromise those standards" just because the economy is in the dumps.

We created our list of top golf resorts with the help of Golf Digest's 900-plus course-rating panelists, who also produce our biennial ranking of America's 100 Greatest Courses. They rated hundreds of U.S., Canadian, Mexican and Caribbean golf resorts on a scale of 1 ("awful") to 10 ("perfect"). We averaged their ratings and multiplied the result by 10 to come up with a score for each.

Pebble Beach regains the No. 1 ranking, a position held by Sea Island in our previous resort survey (December 2006). Rounding out 2009's top five are Sea Island, Bandon Dunes, Four Seasons Resort Hualalai and Fairmont Banff Springs.

Like these five, all the resorts on our list deliver a fine combination of golf, lodging, food and service. Yet as a consumer, it's worth remembering that each offers a unique mix of those elements -- and thus, a resort's precise place on the ranking is less important than the fact it is on the list.

Consider our Nos. 8, 9 and 10: The Greenbrier, the Homestead and Pinehurst, all separated by no more than four-tenths of a point. The first two are more family-oriented destinations, with a rich supply of nongolf diversions including hunting, fishing, mountain biking, even falconry. Pinehurst has a spa, yes, but the real draw is its eight golf courses, one of which is a regular U.S. Open site. The "serious golfer" looking for 36 holes a day is likely to gravitate there.

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