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Great public courses and the best bourbon distilleries make Kentucky an underrated golf trip destination

Kentucky is famous for a few things: bourbon and horse racing. Golf in Kentucky takes a front seat this week with the PGA Championship being held at Valhalla Golf Club, the top-ranked course in the Bluegrass State, but other than this week, it’s likely you haven’t thought of Kentucky as a hub of golf.

We’re here to change that. Though it’s not necessarily a state with great golf, you might be surprised at the depth of really good golf courses—and the best part is that many are open to the public. Sure, Kentucky has its share of fine private golf, too, but there’s some quality courses available to play at a strong value.

They're made even better by their proximity to the state’s legendary bourbon facilities. We can’t stress enough how pairing a bourbon tour with some golf is one of the best trips to take. Most importantly, in the fall, you can also add in a football game at either the University of Kentucky or University of Louisville (one of our authors is a big Wildcats fan, so you have a right and wrong choice there), and time it out with the races at Keeneland. It’s tough to imagine a better trip.

For more insights on bourbon in Louisville, check out our latest "Golf Digest Getaways" video on Louisville: 

Here are our favorite distilleries and the courses we’d play if you’re visiting them. We've listed out the distilleries in order from Louisville out east to Lexington (about an hour drive), then others coming back on the way to Louisville--with golf in between.

Angel’s Envy Distillery
500 E. Main Street, Louisville

Cherokee Golf Course
Public
Cherokee Golf Course
Louisville, KY
Though it’s only nine holes, history buffs will love Cherokee Golf Course, which is one of the oldest municipal courses in the United States (1895). It’s part of a very historic city development, sitting within Cherokee Park, designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, the preeminent landscape architect in the world, who boasts Manhattan’s Central Park and many other famous jobs to his credit. Being only nine holes, it’s the perfect add-on to an afternoon itinerary after a few bourbon stops.
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Bulleit Distilling Co.
3464 Benson Pike, Shelbyville, KY

Nevel Meade Golf Course
Public
Nevel Meade Golf Course
Prospect, KY
A rare links-inspired layout in a state of mostly parkland courses, Nevel Meade was built atop highlands in the greater Louisville metropolitan area. This is one of the earliest courses in the portfolio of Steve Smyers, an accomplished architect who was a former associate under Ron Garl. Some of Smyers’ other notable designs include Tampa’s Old Memorial, Maridoe Golf Club outside Dallas, LochenHeath in Traverse City, Mich and the now-defunct Wolf Run in Zionville, Ind., a former member of our America's Second 100 Greatest courses.
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Heaven’s Door Distillery
12606 Castle Hwy, Pleasureville, KY

Houston Oaks Golf Course
Public
Houston Oaks Golf Course
Paris, KY
This is a favorite among our Golf Digest panelists, who say Houston Oaks is perhaps the best public option in the state, when considering the value (tee times are $60 with a cart on the weekend), the always-solid conditioning and the beautiful scenery. Built on an old horse farm in beautiful Paris, Ky., Houston Oaks was designed by a lesser-known architect, Jack Ridge, but you should put it on your radar.
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Buffalo Trace Distillery (Buffalo Trace, Eagle Rare, Blanton’s, E.H. Taylor, Jr., Pappy Van Winkle and more)
113 Great Buffalo Trce, Frankfort, KY

Gibson Bay Golf Course
Public
Gibson Bay Golf Course
Richmond, KY
Gibson Bay is a scenic central Kentucky layout designed by Dr. Michael Hurdzan that plays around Lake Reba, which comes into play throughout the course. Though the course is fairly wide off the tee, lone pines can prevent a shot to the green, and significant mounding in the rough can create awkward sidehill lies. Given the exposed layout, wind can play a strong factor. In addition to the 18-hole course that can tip out over 7,000 yards, there is a nine-hole walking-only short course with holes ranging from 55 to 140 yards, making it a perfect option for juniors looking to get into the game. Less than 40 minutes from the University of Kentucky, Gibson Bay is a great option for fans attending a game.
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James E. Pepper Distillery
1228 Manchester St., Lexington, KY

Griffin Gate Golf Club
Public
Griffin Gate Golf Club
Lexington, KY
For a great stay-and-play option right in Lexington, the Marriott Griffin Gate Golf Resort and Spa is a great hub to set up your trip. The resort recently completed a $30-million renovation, and a few years ago Rees Jones returned to oversee a major bunker renovation project. The course has hosted a senior tour event in the past when Arnold Palmer competed here. Though a round here is probably among the most expensive in the state, the convenience of being right next to downtown is tough to beat.
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Woodford Reserve Distillery
7785 McCracken Pike, Versailles, KY

University Club of Kentucky: Big Blue
Big Blue is one of two public courses at the University Club of Kentucky, about 10 miles from campus. The eighth hole is an island green reminiscent of Pete Dye’s original at TPC Sawgrass, though Big Blue’s lacks a bunker and plays to small, exposed green, making it one of the most intimidating shots on the course. Weekday rates are around $50 and weekends just $60, making the course a great option for fans in town for a Kentucky game.
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Four Roses Distillery
1224 Bonds Mill Rd., Lawrenceburg, KY

Kearney Hill Golf Links
Public
Kearney Hill Golf Links
Lexington, KY
3.9
25 Panelists
The father-son duo of Pete and PB Dye designed Kearney Hill Golf Links, which plays true to its name as a Scottish links-style course. South African (and future Players champion) Tim Clark won the 1997 U.S. Amateur Public Links at Kearney Hill. Ten years later in 2007, future U.S. Solheim Cup team member Mina Harigae took home the U.S. Women’s Amateur Public Links title at this Lexington muny. With weekday rates under $30, it’s an affordable way to play a Dye-designed championship course.
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Maker’s Mark Distillery
3350 Burks Spring Rd., Loretto, KY

Willett Distillery (Willett, Old Bardstown, Noah’s Mill, Rowan’s Creek and more)
1869 Loretto Rd., Bardstown, KY

Lincoln Homestead State Park Golf Course
The Lincoln Homestead State Park is another famous park in Kentucky that boasts a historic golf course, this one remodeled in 1953 by Press Maxwell and his father, Perry, who built historic Southern Hills and Prairie Dunes and did much of the immediate work at Augusta National after Alister MacKenzie’s death. Part of the Kentucky state parks system, the Lincoln Homestead course includes historic and reproduced homes of Abraham Lincoln, who was born here in central Kentucky.
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Heaven Hill Distillery (Heaven Hill, Elijah Craig, Larceny, Evan Williams and more)
1311 Gilkey Run Rd., Bardstown, KY

James B. Beam Distillery (Jim Beam, Knob Creek, Booker’s, Basil Hayden and more)
568 Happy Hollow Rd., Clermont, KY

Heritage Hill Golf Club
Public
Heritage Hill Golf Club
Shepherdsville, KY
3.8
13 Panelists
This is perhaps the best public course in the Louisville area—any golfer headed to Kentucky for a bourbon tour needs to plan around Heritage Hill. Doug Beach, a former associate of Jack Nicklaus, utilized former farmland amongst the beautiful rolling terrain of Kentucky’s Knobs Region in creating this design, which earned a Best New Public designation from Golf Digest in 2008. The varied landscape includes towering trees as well as wide open prairies, and the golfer experiences them in waves throughout the round. Extensive elevation change creates scenic vistas, such as the dropshot par-3 11th hole. The undulating terrain also means you’ll need a cart—more than seven miles of cart path were used to traverse this layout, including a 200-plus-yard uphill climb to the 18th hole. An extensive bunker renovation for all greenside hazards was finished last fall, and the remaining bunkers will be updated in Fall 2024.
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Stitzel-Weller Distillery (Blade & Bow, I.W. Harper and Orphan Barrel)
3860 Fitzgerald Rd., Shivley, KY

Michter’s Distillery (Michter’s, Bomberger’s Declaration and Shenk’s Homestead)
801 W. Main Street, Louisville, KY