RBC Heritage

Harbour Town Golf Links



By The Numbers

Our definitive ranking of the best states for public golf

February 17, 2024

Last year when we published our latest America’s 100 Greatest and Second 100 Greatest Courses rankings, we tallied up the states with the most courses on the lists to determine which state has the best golf in the United States. This offered a definitive look at the states with the greatest architecture, but since the list was dominated by private clubs, it neglected the experience of the everyday golfer.

Now, with the data from our latest America’s 100 Greatest Public ranking, we’re applying the same method to determine which state has the greatest public golf. What is so interesting when you compare the leading states in these two lists is that they are quite different. California, New York and Florida, for example, are The Big 3 in our ranking of the best overall golf states, but only California cracks the top five in our public ranking.

Other states, like Wisconsin—named here as the best state for public golf—prioritize excellent public-access courses but lack as many elite private clubs of many other states. In taking these two rankings together, California comes out as the state with the best combination of private and public golf, ranking near the top on both lists.

Scroll on for the complete ranking of the best states for public golf, 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 a course should be higher or lower on our rankings.

Editor's Note: The ranking listed next to each course is its position on our latest America's 100 Greatest Public Courses ranking.

1. Wisconsin (10)

4. Whistling Straits: Straits Course
Pete Dye transformed a dead flat abandoned army air base along a two-mile stretch of Lake Michigan into an imitation Ballybunion at Whistling Straits, peppering his rugged fairways and windswept greens with 1,012 (at last count) bunkers. There are no rakes at Whistling Straits, in keeping with the notion that this is a transplanted Irish links. It has too much rub-of-the-green for the comfort levels of many tour pros, which is what makes it a stern test for top events, such as three PGA Championships, the 2007 U.S. Senior Open and 2021 Ryder Cup.
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10. Erin Hills Golf Course
Public
10. Erin Hills Golf Course
Hartford, WI
Despite the rumor, Erin Hills wasn’t designed specifically to host a U.S. Open. Its original concept was to be a simple, affordable, lay-of-the-land layout, to prove Mother Nature is indeed the best golf architect. The concept changed—some greens moved, one blind par 3 eliminated—as the quest for a U.S. Open grew. That dream came true: after trial runs hosting the 2008 U.S. Women’s Public Links and the 2011 U.S. Amateur, Erin Hills hosted the U.S. Open in 2017, the first time the event had ever been in Wisconsin. Brooks Koepka won with a 72-hole score of 16-under, leading some to conclude Erin Hills was too wide and defenseless. In truth, what it lacked that week was the usual gusty winds that would have effectively narrowed the slanted, canted fairways. Had the par been adjusted to 70 instead of 72 as is usual for most Opens, the score would likely have been closer to 8-under.
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17. Sand Valley Golf Resort: Sand Valley
Sand Valley is the fifth course that the firm of Coore and Crenshaw has designed for resort maven Mike Keiser, and the first not located close to an ocean. No matter. It’s still on a thousand acres of rolling sand hills in Central Wisconsin, and Coore and Crenshaw were given carte blanche to route their course. (Rumor has it Coore routed a hole outside the property line and Keiser reluctantly bought that additional parcel.) Given the name, many conclude Sand Valley is a combination of Nebraska’s Sand Hills Golf Club and New Jersey’s Pine Valley. But Sand Valley has its own personality, with some dual fairways, gigantic sand spits, enormous greens and even a hidden putting surface. Sand Valley was Golf Digest’s Best New Course of 2017.
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T-2. California (9)

1. Pebble Beach Golf Links
Public
1. Pebble Beach Golf Links
Pebble Beach, CA
Not just the greatest meeting of land and sea in American golf, but the most extensive one, too, with nine holes perched immediately above the crashing Pacific surf—the fourth through 10th plus the 17th and 18th. Pebble’s sixth through eighth are golf’s real Amen Corner, with a few Hail Marys thrown in over an ocean cove on the eighth from atop a 75-foot-high bluff. Pebble hosted a successful U.S. Amateur in 2018 and a sixth U.S. Open in 2019. Recent improvements include the redesign of the once-treacherous 14th green, and reshaping of the par-3 17th green, both planned by Arnold Palmer’s Design Company a few years back—and the current changes to the iconic eighth hole. Pebble Beach hosted the Women's U.S. Open for the first time in 2023.
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12. Spyglass Hill Golf Course
Public
12. Spyglass Hill Golf Course
Pebble Beach, CA
Given the task of designing a course just up the 17 Mile Drive from Pebble Beach and Cypress Point, Robert Trent Jones responded with a combination of Pine Valley and Augusta National. The five opening holes, in Pine Valley-like sand dunes, are an all-too-brief encounter with the Pacific seacoast. The remaining holes are a stern hike through hills covered with majestic Monterey pines (which, sad to say, may someday disappear to pitch canker, but are being replaced in some areas with cypress trees). Add several water hazards that hearken back to the 16th at Augusta (a hole which Trent Jones designed, by the way) and you have what some panelists consider to be Trent’s finest work. Others say it’s the best course never to have hosted a major event. After all, even Pine Valley and Cypress Point have hosted Walker Cups.
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15. Pasatiempo Golf Club
Public
15. Pasatiempo Golf Club
Santa Cruz, CA
Pasatiempo is arguably Alister Mackenzie's favorite design. He lived along its sixth fairway during his last years. With its elaborate greens and spectacular bunkering fully restored by Tom Doak and now by Jim Urbina, it’s a prime example of Mackenzie's art. The five par 3s are daunting yet delightful, culminating with the 181-yard over-a-canyon 18th. The back nine is chock full of other great holes: 10, 11, 12 and 16 all play over barrancas. The storied course has hosted two USGA championships: the 1986 U.S. Women's Amateur and the 2004 U.S. Senior Women's Amateur. In 2014, Pasatiempo received a Golf Digest Green Star environmental award for its measures in dealing with drought. Today, water worries are in the past, in part because of a new storage tank that allows the club to capture and store recycled water.
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T-2. Michigan (9)

14. Arcadia Bluffs Golf Club (Bluffs)
Can a 100 Greatest course be a sleeper? The Bluffs Course at Arcadia Bluffs has been overshadowed by No. 21 Pacific Dunes ever since it finished second to it in the Best New Upscale Public Course race of 2001. And likewise it’s been second-fiddle to No. 14 Crystal Downs, a northern Michigan neighbor that every visitor wants to play, even though it’s private and Arcadia is public. And even by No. 26 Whistling Straits, the imitation links on the opposite side of Lake Michigan that Arcadia Bluffs resembles, although the sand dunes at Arcadia are natural, not manmade. More recently, the Bluffs faces competition from within, the newly-opened sister layout, the South Course at Arcadia Bluffs, designed by Dana Fry in the style of C.B. Macdonald and Seth Raynor.
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32. Forest Dunes Golf Club
Public
32. Forest Dunes Golf Club
Roscommon, MI
4.4
155 Panelists

From Golf Digest Architecture Editor emeritus Ron Whitten: The Tom Weiskopf-designed Forest Dunes in Michigan is a terrific layout on a terrific piece of property, with sand dunes deposited by the nearby Au Sable River and covered with mature pines. But it's not a unique piece of property. When I first played it, I was struck by how much Forest Dunes resembles a Texas course designed by Weiskopf's former partner, Jay Morrish. That course, Pine Dunes in Frankston, Texas, is built on much the same terrain, sand dunes covered in pines.

 

Though they were working at the same time on their respective projects (Forest Dunes was completed in 2000 but didn't open until 2002; Pine Dunes opened in 2001), I don't think Weiskopf or Morrish had any idea that they were working on such similar courses, and I don't think they stole each other's ideas. But it's uncanny how they created kissing-cousin courses. Or maybe not. The two worked together for over a decade before splitting up in 1996, and they shared a common philosophy of course design.

 

Check out our architecture editor's complete review.

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53. Arcadia Bluffs South Course
Public
53. 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 McDonald/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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4. Oregon (8)

2. Pacific Dunes
Public
2. Pacific Dunes
Bandon, OR
This was the second course constructed at Bandon Dunes Resort and the highest ranked among the resort’s five 18s. To best utilize ocean frontage, Tom Doak came up an unorthodox routing that includes four par 3s on the back nine. Holes seem to emerge from the landscape rather than being superimposed onto it with rolling greens and rumpled fairways framed by rugged sand dunes and marvelously grotesque bunkers. The secret is Doak moved a lot of earth in some places to make it look like he moved very little, but the result is a course with sensual movements, like a tango that steps toward the coast and back again, dipping in and out of different playing arenas from the secluded sand blowouts to the exposed bluffs and all variations in between.
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8. Bandon Dunes
Public
8. Bandon Dunes
Bandon, OR
Chicago recycled-products mogul Mike Keiser took a gamble when he chose then-tenderfoot architect David McLay Kidd to design a destination daily fee on the remote southwestern coastline of Oregon. But the design Kidd produced, faithful to the links-golf tenets of his native Scotland, proved so popular that today Keiser has a multiple-course resort at Bandon Dunes that rivals Pinehurst and the Monterey Peninsula—or perhaps exceeds them given that all fve Bandon courses are ranked on our 200 Greatest, four in the top 100. None of that would have happened if McLay Kidd hadn’t produced a great first design that drew golfers into its orbit.
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11. Bandon Trails
Public
11. Bandon Trails
Bandon, OR
The only one of Bandon Dunes' five 18-hole courses that isn't immediately adjacent to the Pacific coastline, Trails scores points other ways, taking players on a fantastic journey through three distinct ecosytems. The course starts in serious sand dunes then turns inward toward meadows and dense Oregon rainforest, climbing toward an upper section at holes nine through 13. Fourteen is a love-it or-hate-it par 4 to a thumb of a green personally fashioned by Crenshaw that can be driven with an unerring drive off a high bluff, dropping the holes back to the meadows and ultimately to the dunes at 17 and 18. Bump-and-run is the name of the game but the structure of each hole requires thoughtful bumps and targeted runs.
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5. North Carolina (7)

6. Pinehurst No. 2
Public
6. Pinehurst No. 2
Pinehurst, NC
In 2010, a team lead by Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw killed and ripped out all the Bermudagrass rough on Pinehurst No. 2 that had been foolishly planted in the 1970s. Between fairways and tree lines, they established vast bands of native hardpan sand dotted with clumps of wiregrass and scattered pine needles. They reduced the irrigation to mere single rows in fairways to prevent grass from ever returning to the new sandy wastelands. Playing firm and fast, it was wildly successful as the site of the 2014 Men’s and Women’s U.S. Opens, played on consecutive weeks. Because of its water reduction, the course was named a Green Star environmental award-winner by Golf Digest that year. In 2019, Pinehurst No. 2 and No. 4 hosted another U.S. Amateur Championship, and the USGA announced Pinehurst No. 2—in addition to hosting the 2024 U.S. Open—will also have the 2029, 2035, 2041 and 2047 U.S. Opens.
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28. Pinehurst No. 4
Public
28. Pinehurst No. 4
Pinehurst, NC
Like a football team searching for the right coach, the resort could never settle on the right identity for the No. 4 course despite a series of major alterations by different architects. It found its match when it hired Gil Hanse and Jim Wagner to carry out a full-scale blow-up and rebuild in 2018 that brought back the sweeping sand-and-pine character we identify with Pinehurst, while initiating a style of shaping in the greens and bunkers that’s confident and distinctly its own.
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45. Tobacco Road Golf Club
Public
45. Tobacco Road Golf Club
Sanford, NC
Tobacco Road took every idea that Strantz had been developing to that point in time (1999) and put it all in one place, specifically an old mining site of sand and pine 25 miles north of Pinehurst. The property is the secret star—yes, there are Strantzian trademarks like boomerang-shaped par 5s, greens and fairways notched blindly behind dunes, dramatic risk/reward shots played over deep chasms and putting surfaces stretched into stringy silly putty shapes. But without the elevation changes, depressions and contrasting textures of the rugged sand barrens, this would be True Blue 2.0. It’s much more than that: a master class in decision-making and composition that sits among the top 50 on the Golf Digest America’s 100 Greatest Public Courses ranking, a placement that’s at least 20 spots too low, at least in the mind of this editor.
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T-6. Florida (5)

9. TPC Sawgrass: Stadium
Public
9. TPC Sawgrass: Stadium
Ponte Vedra Beach, FL
TPC’s stadium concept was the idea of then-PGA Tour commissioner Deane Beman. The 1980 design was pure Pete Dye, who set out to test the world’s best golfers by mixing demands of distance with target golf. Most greens are ringed by random lumps, bumps and hollows, what Dye calls his "grenade attack architecture." His ultimate target hole is the heart-pounding sink-or-swim island green 17th, which offers no bailout, perhaps unfairly in windy Atlantic coast conditions. The 17th has spawned over a hundred imitation island greens in the past 40 years. To make the layout even more exciting during tournament play, Steve Wenzloff of PGA Tour Design Services recently remodeled several holes, most significantly the 12th, which is now a drivable par 4.
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21. Streamsong Resort: Red
Public
21. Streamsong Resort: Red
Bowling Green, FL
Coore and Crenshaw’s Red Course is part of a resort triple-header that gives golfers a rare opportunity to compare and contrast the differences in styles and philosophies of arguably the three of top design firms in America, including Streamsong Blue, a Tom Doak design, and Streamsong Black, from Gil Hanse and Jim Wagner. The Red, like the Blue, was built from sand spoils created by a massive phosphate strip mine, with some piles forming dunes reaching 75 feet into the air. But there was only room for 31 holes, so Coore and Crenshaw had to take a section of less desirable, stripped-down land and create five holes that looked like the rest of the site, Red's holes one through five. The course has a wonderful mix of bump-and-run links holes and target-like water holes. Some greens are perched like those at Pinehurst, others are massive with multi-levels like those at St. Andrews. The turf is firm and bouncy, and while the routing is sprawling, it’s easily walkable. The Red has consistently comes out on top in this survey, but the Blue and Black are within just about a point.
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24. Streamsong Resort: Blue
Public
24. Streamsong Resort: Blue
Bowling Green, FL
Although congenial rivals, Tom Doak and Bill Coore actually collaborated on Streamsong’s original 36-hole routing, walking the site and mentally weaving holes around stunning mounds, lagoons, sand spits, savannahs and swamp, all elements left after a strip-mining operation. Coore then gave Doak first choice on which 18 he wanted to build, so Doak’s Blue Course includes a few holes routed by Coore. (Coore and Crenshaw’s Red, ranked No. 127, contains some holes originally envisioned by Doak.) The Blue starts a bit more dramatically, with the back tee on hole one atop a 75-foot sand dune. It has more water carries off the tee, and it’s also a bit more compact, since it sits in the center with the Red Course looping around its outside edges. The Blue definitely has the bolder set of greens, some with massive shelves and dips. The new addition of No. 178 Streamsong (Black) by Gil Hanse only adds to the spirited competition among designers. The theme song at Streamsong seems to be: “Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better.”
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T-6. Nevada (5)

5. Shadow Creek
Public
5. Shadow Creek
North Las Vegas, NV
The Match between Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods may have fizzled as a pay-per-view spectacle, but the venue was certainly a showcase during the Black Friday, 2018 broadcast. Shadow Creek has the reputation of being one of the most expensive courses built in America, a reported $47 million at the time. Designer Tom Fazio said that budget was necessary at Shadow Creek to perform what he now calls “total site manipulation,” creating an environment where none existed, by carving rolling hills and canyons from the flat desert floor north of Las Vegas and pumping in plenty of water. Alas, this once-in-a-lifetime dream design has been too successful, triggering many equally expensive, but inferior, imitations.
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47. Wolf Creek Golf Club
Public
47. Wolf Creek Golf Club
Mesquite, NV
Wolf Creek is a fantasy calendar come to life, with holes clinging to stark canyon hillsides and plunging down narrow ravines. A genuine amateur architect design (although Jim Engh provided an early routing), Wolf Creek finished third in Golf Digest's survey of America's Best New Upscale Public Courses of 2001, behind Pacific Dunes and Arcadia Bluffs (Bluffs). All three are now ranked among America's 100 Greatest Public Courses.
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61. Cascata
Public
61. Cascata
Boulder City, NV
One of the great engineering feats in golf thus far in this century, Cascata climbs up and down a steep, rocky mountain hillside southeast of Las Vegas. It's authentically Nevada on the edges, the barren areas akin to Wolf Creek in Mesquite, but its turfed areas, planted with date palms, ironwoods and willows, and crossed by endless babbling brooks, is something of a salute to nearby Shadow Creek. Cascata plays mostly uphill on the front (the ninth tee is 600 feet above the clubhouse), downhill on the longer back nine.
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