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Course Reviews

Don't pass up an invite to any of these "second-best" courses

April 27, 2024
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courtesy of Sea Island

Kiawah Island, located south of Charleston on the Atlantic Ocean, is one of the country’s great golf resorts with a menu of five different courses that each reveal aspects of the distinctive environment that makes golf in the Lowcountry so unique. But Kiawah Island wouldn’t be among the game’s most desirable destinations without its marquee attraction, The Ocean Course, ranked No. 24 on America’s 100 Greatest Courses and host venue of two PGA Championships and a Ryder Cup.

As fun and interesting as Kiawah Island’s other four courses are, everyone who visits wants to play The Ocean Course—if you went there and didn’t get a round in, you’d know you missed out on a rare experience.

Resorts like Bandon Dunes and Streamsong don’t have second and third courses—they are all 1A, 1B, 1C and so on (the five Bandon courses and three Streamsong layouts are all members of the America’s 100 Greatest and Second 100 Greatest Courses). Most resorts, however, have a main attraction that pulls golfers in, with one or more character actors around it playing supporting roles.

The same is true for some private clubs. Places like Baltusrol and Winged Foot each have 36 holes ranked among the 100 Greatest, but others like Medinah in Chicago, Los Angeles Country Club and Olympic Club in San Francisco built their reputations on singular architectural expressions that have historically overshadowed their secondary courses (Note: Medinah’s famed #3 course reopens this year after a major transformation by the Australian firm of Ogilvy, Cocking and Mead, and Olympic Club will soon embark on a reimagining of its Ocean Course by Jim Urbina).

Not all clubs and resorts suffer from lead/understudy syndrome. Some 1s and 2s are closer in quality and architectural intrigue than others. Though they rarely get the same level of publicity or ranking respect as their counterparts, these are our 10 favorite “little brothers” at multicourse public and resort properties, plus two bonus private clubs with underrated second options. If you skipped any of these off-Broadway productions, you’d be missing a show worth seeing.

Scroll through my selection of best "second courses," and be sure to click through to each individual course page for bonus photography and reviews from our course panelists. We also encourage you to leave your own ratings on the courses you’ve played … so you can make your case for why each course deserves, or doesn't deserve, more notoriety.

Arcadia Bluffs South Course
Public
Arcadia Bluffs South Course
Arcadia, MI
The challenge at Arcadia Bluffs for architects Dana Fry and Jason Straka was to create a course that guests would want to play as often as they do the original course. But how can golf built on non-descript farmland compete with a course set on dramatic bluffs overlooking Lake Michigan? The answer? Do something entirely different. Channeling another famous but rather indifferent site, the designers turned to Chicago Golf Club and the architecture of C.B. Macdonald and Seth Raynor for inspiration. The South Course is a throwback in time, a jigsaw puzzle of intersecting bunkers, centerline hazards, alternate routes of play and geometric shaping. It interprets the strategic spirit of Raynor and Chicago Golf Club without replicating any specific holes. Where the Bluffs Course is a feast for the eye, the South Course is a treat for the intellect.
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Atlanta Athletic Club: Riverside
Private
Atlanta Athletic Club: Riverside
Johns Creek, GA
4.1
76 Panelists
Robert Trent Jones built 27 holes for the Atlanta Athletic Club when it moved from East Lake in Atlanta to the northern suburb of Duluth (now called Johns Creek) in the late 1960s. When Joe Finger added a fourth nine on a high section of the property in the early 70s, the holes were broken into two 18-hole courses, the Highlands Course, host of the 1976 U.S. Open and 2001 and 2011 PGA Championships, and the Riverside Course. Riverside was always viewed as the more friendly, non-championship course, though it hosted it's share of prestigious tournaments as well. Rees Jones performed major work on both courses through the years and the style of each came to resemble more his architeture than his father's, or Finger's. In 2022, Tripp Davis remodeled Riverside, rebuilding and reshaping each hole, each green site and the bunkers to tie them better into the landforms, creating new looks and several new holes in the process. Davis divided the par-5 third into a short par 3 and a dogleg left par 4 with the new green pushed back against the Chattahoochee River, then combined the old fourth and fifth into a riverside par 5 that bends gradually right. The twelfth green was pushed back 80 yards to turn it into a par 5, the par-3 17th green was rebuilt with modifeid punchbowl shaping and water hazards near the greens at 14 and 18 were removed. Riverside finished second for the 2023 Best Transformation award, and there are some (including us) who would divide a 10-round split between Highlands and Riverside 5-5, or even 6-4 in favor or the latter.
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Omni Barton Creek Resort: Crenshaw Cliffside
3.8
20 Panelists
Crenshaw Cliffside, completed in 1991, was just the second course Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw completed and represents the last project they'd work on in relative obscurity: soon after they began piecing together Sand Hills, no. 8 on America's 100 Greatest Courses, creating a wave of minimalism and big natural courses that has yet to abate. Though not on property particularly suited to good golf, Crenshaw Cliffside has all the hallmarks of what has made the architects' courses at once revolutionary and nuanced: large, heavily contoured greens that feel subtle; bunkers that have some of the most detailed edging in the game; a sense of elegance and restraint in the construction; and the discipline to take what the land gives, yeilding unconventional sequences like huge back-to-back par 5s along the edge of a river ravine followed by a pitch-shot par 3 into a shallow thumbnail green. Golfers tend to think more highly of Omni Barton Creek's two Tom Fazio-designed courses, Fazio Canyons and Fazio Foothills, and gravitate toward the flash and aesthetics of those designs. Each are listed among the top 40 in Texas's Best in State ranking, while Crenshaw Cliffside is not. Those who enjoy the work of Coore and Crenshaw, on the other hand, appreciate that the architecture takes the opportunities that were presented and works with them, creating a tight, connected layout that's different than it's peers but rhythmic and riveting in its own way.
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Bethpage State Park: Red
Public
Bethpage State Park: Red
Farmingdale, NY
A.W. Tillinghast’s Red course opened in 1935—a year before the famed Black—and is considered by many, including us, to be Bethpage’s second-best layout. The challenge of the Red starts on the first tee, where the typical crowd gathered by the starter’s booth watches as golfers try to find the narrow fairway guarded by thick rough. Though the opening and closing stretch of holes are tree-lined, the routing shakes free at the par-4 eighth and breaks into a vast plain littered with fescue and bunkers. Here it emulates the same kind of rugged muscularity and wasp-waist bunkering the Black is known for, though with slightly more room to play off the tee and less dire consequence for missing shots. But in the Red you get the whiff of a major championship design and something far more profound than any run-of-the-mill "second best" golf course.
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The Broadmoor Golf Club West Course
Private
The Broadmoor Golf Club West Course
Colorado Springs, CO
3.6
64 Panelists
While the East course has hosted the majority of USGA championships played at Broadmoor (indcluding Jack Nicklaus' 1959 U.S. Amateur victory and the 1995 Women's U.S. Open, Annika Sorenstam's first major), the West course got its chance too when it hosted the 1967 U.S. Amateur, won by Robert Dickson over heralded lifelong amateur Vinny Giles. Compared to its sibling East course, the West plays tighter off the tee with more doglegs and sloped greens that become increasingly frightening as the holes climb higher onto Cheyenne Mountain's steeper topography. It also follows the same format as the East, combining original holes built by Donald Ross near the hotel in 1918 with Robert Trent Jones' 1964 upland hole additions. The Broadmoor's best course would likely be a reunification of the Ross holes (nine holes from the East and nine from the West) were if ever played, but as it stands the West Course offers most of what the East Course does, with slightly more scenic views up on the mountain.
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French Lick Resort: Donald Ross Course
3.6
141 Panelists
If the 2009 Pete Dye course at this historic resort in southern Indiana (ranked no. 118 on America's Second 100 Greatest Courses) is an acrobat swinging trapezes through circles of flame along the site's elevated bluffs, the 1917 Donald Ross course is more of a street-level tilt-a-whirl with holes that rise, fall and roll repeatedly over a gorgous meadow property. Each nine crests over ridges and ride into hollows, rising toward well-bunkered greens that flank slightly crowned putting surfaces. This is an Old World/New World contrast, with both the Dye and Ross courses achieving what they set out to do architecturally, but in rather different ways. Depending on their mood and appreciation for allowing land movements rather than bulldozers to dictate design and direction, golfer's at French Lick often prefer the nuance and nature of the Ross course.
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Oak Hill Country Club (West)
Private
Oak Hill Country Club (West)
Rochester, NY
4.3
75 Panelists
At a certain point in their past, specifically the early 1950s, the roads of Oak Hill’s two courses began to diverge. The East, in anticipation of the 1956 U.S. Open, underwent a major remodel by Robert Trent Jones that put it on the “championship course” track, a freeway it continues to travel today in which all decisions about the design are considered in the context of important national tournaments. The West—though it too has been modified over the years—was never rebuilt with the intention of challenging the game’s best players and has remained the more casual walk in the park. Fundamentally, both designs have much in common, no surprise since Donald Ross designed them to play as one, anticipating Oak Hill members would utilize different combinations of holes, crossing from one course to the other in various loops. Despite their different architectural journeys, the West has, in design jargon, great bones, and from the motocross rolls of the par 5 sixth to the stop-and-drop fairway at the par 4 ninth to the Himalayas up and over of the par 4 13th it possesses some of the property’s most interesting topography. What’s missing is the same kind of investment that the East has always received. Though the routing is just as strong (if not stronger), the West has typically seemed under-developed and ill-defined, though the latent energy the holes possess is tangible. A touch up by Andrew Green, who revamped the East prior to the 2019 Senior PGA and 2023 PGA Championships, or some other historically minded architect, could put the West on a new road that would make the only difference between the two the rich tournament history that’s always elevated one over the other.
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PGA National Resort: Match Course
Private
PGA National Resort: Match Course
Palm Beach Gardens, FL
Built over the top of the resort’s former Squire Course, Andy Staples designed The Match exclusively for, you guessed it, match play, with no tee markers, gambling half-par holes and assertive putting surfaces that reference famous Raynor/Macdonald templates like the Knoll, Biarritz, Redan and Punchbowl, among others. Everyone who comes here wants to play The Champion, the Jack Nicklaus-designed host of the Honda Classic, to see if they can run through the Bear Trap at 15, 16 and 17 without losing a dozen balls. They should see that course: it's prototypical Florida golf imbued with more muscles than Thor. But after fighting a superhero for five hours, the more human-scaled holes of the Match Course begin to look mighty inviting, and the prospect of making pars and birdies using wit and short-game finesse rather than bogeys and doubles with power drives and long-irons over lakes is likely to inspire greater repeat desire.
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PGA West: Pete Dye Mountain
Public
PGA West: Pete Dye Mountain
La Quinta, CA
3.6
195 Panelists
When Pete Dye was building the Mountain Course at La Quinta in 1980, he knew that even if the layout wasn't ideal working through resort corridors, the holes would make up for it with the views, shelved against the base of the Santa Rosa Mountains, their stony facades towering above. Holes like four, five, six, 14 and 15 play so tight to the mountains that the walls of rock are in play and care must be taken not to hit them. The design is premium 1980s Dye, desert version, with long stips of sand paralleling fairways and plateau putting surfaces set above moat bunkers. The downhill par-3 16th, playing from a platform tee in the foothills over a field of boulders to a drop-shot green surrounded in sand and rock, is one of the most memorable in California but nearly every holes requires high, precision approach shots into the elevated greens. The Mountain Course is part of the vast PGA West conglomorate of courses that now numbers nine. The headliner is the Stadium Course, the evil West Coast twin of TPC Sawgrass and home course of the PGA Tour's The American Express as well as several must-see TV Skins Games in the late 1980s. The Stadium Course should be on anyone's list who visits the Palm Springs/La Quinta area if for no other reason than to experience what was intended to be the hardest golf course in the country, as interpreted in the mid-80s by Dye and the Landmark Land Company developers (this was the mandate given to Dye at the time). Spoiler: it remains frightening in roughly the same proportion as most 80s slasher films still do. But if you could only play one course at PGA West and it was the Mountain Course and not the Stadium or any of the others, you'd still leave feeling you got a taste of the best resort golf the Coachella Valley offers.
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Pinehurst Resort: #3
Public
Pinehurst Resort: #3
Pinehurst, NC
Don’t overlook little No. 3, which is easy to do at a first glance at the scorecard with a maximum yardage of less than 5,200 yards. You’d never know it. This is serious golf, pound for pound the toughest course on property and a scaled-down version of No. 2. The greens are dazzling with the same crowned edges as big brother, with the bunkers and perimeter barrens revived by Kye Goalby (designer of The Tree Farm with Zac Blair) that match. It’s also the resort’s best walk. Will you come away thinking No. 3 is in the same league at No. 2? No. But you will get a full serving of what makes Pinehurst so mesmerizing and a lesson in not judging a course by its cover, or its length.
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Sea Island: Plantation
Private
Sea Island: Plantation
Saint Simons Island, GA
3.7
108 Panelists
Sea Island’s golf courses have a long and rather convoluted history covering nearly 100 years of expansion, reconfiguration and renovations. Through it all, the historic Seaside has been the one that people schedule their visits around, full of holes that skirt Saint Simons Sound, the intracoastal marshes and sandy dunes refurbished by Tom Fazio in the late 1990s. The Plantation course, which started as a combination of one nine designed by Walter Travis in the 1920s and another from Dick Wilson in 1960, and synthesized together by Rees Jones in the 1990s, has typically played second fiddle. Not so much now. Keying on the original forms and concepts laid out by Travis, the Sea Island-based team of Mark and Davis Love III, along with lead architect Scot Sherman, stripped Plantation in 2019 and rebuilt it as a homage to early Golden Age design with deep coffin bunkers and squared-off plateau greens. The staggered bunkers eat into the broad fairways at intervals to set up zig-zag angles and others have been introduced as dastardly centerline hazards, like the Principals Nose feature on the short, drivable 10th that replaces a long bending par 4 in order to make room for a massive putting course near the resort clubhouse. Other holes were broken up and recombined to better fit the property’s small footprint and create more sporting half-par holes. There’s even a touch of Pete Dye in the design in the use of bulkheading, small pot bunkers and S-shaped tee-to-green strategies. Guests will still instinctively gravitate toward Seaside and the long water views, but if they skip over Plantation they’ll miss a course jazzing it up on the opposite side of the architectural spectrum, and one of the more interesting designs in the southeast.
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Torrey Pines Golf Course: North
Public
Torrey Pines Golf Course: North
La Jolla, CA
3.6
131 Panelists
Redesigned by Tom Weiskopf in 2018, Torrey Pines' North course became friendlier for the average golfer. The number of bunkers were reduced from 60 to 42 and made easier to play out of. And the average green size was increased from 4,500 square feet to 6,000. Lastly, Weiskopf added one of his signatures: a short, drivable par 4 (the seventh)—making the companion course to the championship South course a little more fun. This may sound like a dumbing down of the architecture but it isn't. Within the simplification is a wide variety of green configurations and contours, with slopes rising and falling, some set high and others low, and many with more internal contour than is found on most greens on the South course, including the surfaces of the cross-ravine par-3 12th and par-3 15th. The North course also boasts ocean and canyon views on par with the South, particularly the par-4 16th rising along the Pacific Ocean cliffs and brining the player in the most direct contact with the stunning panorama. Perhaps because we feel there's a better couse hidden somewhere beneath the current South course, playing the North doesn't feel like a step down, just a step across to the other side of one the best public golf sites in the U.S.
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