Note: This article originally appeared in the spring issue of Elite Traveler prior to the Covid-19 outbreak. Please note that many of the golf courses featured will be closed at this time.
The rate at which new golf courses are being built has slowed, but exceptional new layouts are still debuting year after year. What’s more, some courses that first opened for play a year or two ago are truly coming into their own now, as their turf has firmed up and their greens have softened and settled into place. With that in mind, what follows is not a front nine or a back nine, but the best nine courses that have opened at luxury hotels and resorts in recent years. Consider this Elite Traveler’s ultimate stay-and-play package.
Costa Palmas, Baja California Sur, Mexico
Set on the East Cape of the Baja Peninsula about 67 miles northeast of Cabo San Lucas, the private, 1,000-acre community of Costa Palmas (pictured above) is home to a Four Seasons resort, as well as a new 18-hole championship golf course designed by Robert Trent Jones II. Built to offer an enjoyable round without the necessity of golf carts — though carts are available — the course is, in the words of its esteemed architect, “a golf symphony composed of three movements and two transitions.” The first movement brings golfers up to and alongside idyllic, windswept dunes and the Sea of Cortez; the second movement ventures higher into the hills, offering dramatic views of the Sierra de la Laguna Mountains; and the third movement returns to the water, providing glimpses of many of the area’s coves and harbors.
In addition to their unique locales, those three distinct sections of the course provide their own challenges — the ‘upland’ holes, for example, are punctuated by more strategically placed bunkers than the lower holes that play through the dunes — which means players will need to be creative, hitting a variety of different shots throughout their rounds. “The most interesting golf courses are the ones that you want to go back to challenge again and again and again,” says Jones. “I think here at Costa Palmas we’ve achieved that, but we’ll let the players decide.”
Links at Perry Cabin, St Michaels, Maryland, USA
For much of Pete Dye’s career, the esteemed golf architect designed courses that were equally striking for their beauty and infuriating for their difficulty. A shot that lands in the fairway at Harbour Town Golf Links (built in the late 1960s), for example, might still present golfers with an obstructed view of the green. Dye’s wife, Alice — an accomplished competitive golfer — often tweaked Dye’s designs in discreet ways, making them more playable for the average amateur. Only a short time before Alice’s death in February 2019, the Links at Perry Cabin — the last course that Pete and Alice designed together — opened on Chesapeake Bay’s Eastern Shore in St Michaels, Maryland.
A bit softer than Dye’s infamously challenging layouts, the 18 holes that make up Perry Cabin’s links still exhibit design features that have become characteristic — if not signature — components of the architect’s work. Extensive mounding and sloped contours will challenge players with uneven lies, especially for those who miss the fairway. Railroad ties make appearances here and there. The course even includes a par-3 with an island green: The 17th hole is all but a mirror image of the 17th at TPC Sawgrass in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida; the only difference being that the green’s shape and the placement of the singular pot bunker are inverted (and the green is generously wider…by all of two feet).
The course may still infuriate those who always reach for their drivers on the tee box, but players who can identify holes’ prudent options — and play them accordingly — will find that this Dye design is a bit less severe than some of the architect’s more infamous creations.
TPC Danzante Bay, Baja California Sur, Mexico
On the Baja Peninsula’s East Coast, TPC Danzante Bay offers intrepid golf travelers a destination that is more remote, and a golf course set on terrain that is even more dramatic. The course was conceived by Rees Jones, a course architect who is best known for his efforts in restoring and tweaking historic courses to prepare them for upcoming major championships. On the topic of Jones’s original course designs, though, TPC Danzante Bay is his pièce de résistance. “I don’t know that there’s a better site in Mexico that has been protected by the owners,” the 78-year-old architect says. “They don’t want to see the houses take it over. Every time we turn around they’re eliminating a lot to preserve the golf course.”
The 7,237-yard course plays over, around and between the rocky, scrub-covered buttes of the Sierra de la Giganta mountain range, spilling out toward the Sea of Cortez halfway through the back nine before climbing up the hills to its signature hole — the par-3 17th, which thrills golfers with a peninsula green perched on a clifftop 250 feet above surging waves that crash into the cove below. Despite the 17th hole’s inherent drama, TPC Danzante Bay’s spectacular canyon holes are the course’s crowning achievement. “We were lucky with this site,” Jones says. “We didn’t need to create any new features. You don’t often get mountainous areas like this to work with, where you can find holes through the canyons.”
Not all accommodations at the Villa del Palmar Beach Resort & Spa measure up to the quality of the golf course; however, the presidential penthouse will not disappoint. “People travel places to create new experiences,” says Jones, “and that’s what they’ll find here.”
Image: Joann Dost
Reynolds Lake Oconee, Greensboro, Georgia, USA
Spectacular. That was the word Jack Nicklaus found himself saying again and again back in October when he toured his renovated and redesigned Great Waters Course at Reynolds Lake Oconee. Originally built by Nicklaus in 1992, Great Waters — as it exists today — shines for many of the same reasons that made the course compelling more than 25 years ago; mostly, it’s the layout’s location along the shores of Lake Oconee. “It’s one of the really great pieces of property with which I have ever had the experience to work,” Nicklaus says. “The first time I went to Reynolds, I knew we had the potential to have a great golf course. I think we found it then and, now, more than a quarter of a century later, a wonderful golf experience remained, but was in need of a little updating.”
Overall, the course was both lengthened and shortened with the addition of two new tee boxes; trees were cleared to widen fairways and improve turf quality; bunker shapes were simplified to reflect classic aesthetics; and green complexes were completely rebuilt.
Additionally — and perhaps most significantly — a handful of fairway slopes and hillsides were lowered by as much as 10 feet to enhance or create views of the water from most vantage points on those holes. “They gave us probably more water than I would’ve ever asked for,” Nicklaus says, reflecting on the parcel of land he was given to create the course decades ago. “You might say that I’ve tried to keep the water at bay,” he adds, pausing to chuckle. Despite that statement, Great Waters most definitely brings Lake Oconee into play. The course’s recent enhancements make that abundantly clear to first time visitors, while the enhanced views are certain to thrill those who have played the course before.
Image: Evan Schiller Photography
Wynn Golf Club, Las Vegas
You wouldn’t know it if you were standing on the Las Vegas Strip, but through Wynn Resort’s opulent lobby and casino, beyond its rear doors, a well-hidden jewel is waiting to be discovered. That sparkling gem, a 6,722-yard golf course designed by Tom Fazio, is like the Central Park of Sin City — minus the easy public access. Skillfully routed across 129 acres, the Wynn Golf Club impresses as much for its manicured fairways and greens as it does for the 7,000 mature trees and 100,000 shrubs that provide a framework for the alleys and corridors that players must navigate on each hole.
Built on the site of the former Desert Inn Golf Club, the new Wynn Golf Club is a redesigned layout of the original Wynn Golf Club that opened in 2005 (also a Tom Fazio design) but closed in late 2017 without a clear or certain future. To accommodate a new convention center, the course was trimmed — down two strokes to par 70 — and eight of the holes are entirely new designs (the remaining 10 have all been significantly revamped).
Most impressively, more than 400,000 cubic yards of earth were moved and shaped to create eye-catching ridges and valleys, which help to isolate each individual hole — not an easy task considering the course’s small footprint. “The idea was to incorporate some excitement in the terrain,” Fazio says.
Given its location, the course is surrounded by excitement, as many of the towers along the Vegas Strip are boldly in view from tee boxes and some of the fairways. Not to be outdone, Wynn Golf Club finishes with a long, dramatic par-3 hit to a green framed by a 35-ft-tall and 100-ft-wide waterfall. As Fazio explains matter-of-factly, “the golf course had to measure up.”
Image: Brian Oar
Sea Island Resort, Sea Island, Georgia, USA
Following a yearlong redesign and renovation conducted by Love Golf Design, Sea Island Resort’s Plantation Course recently reopened with the same name; however, those familiar with the course’s previous iteration will discover that not much of that remains, save for its general layout. In fact, those who have played other courses conceived by brothers Mark and Davis Love III likely will struggle to identify many similarities between those layouts and this one. As Davis acknowledges, that has always been his goal. “I don’t want people to walk out and say, ‘Well, that’s a Davis Love course,’” he says.
Given the original course’s revered history — it began as a nine-hole layout designed in 1928 by Walter Travis, but had lost much of that identity following redesign efforts over the years — the Love brothers decided to incorporate several of their favorite Golden Age design elements, creating a contemporary course that felt strongly rooted in the resort’s long history. “I’ve never been as excited,” Davis said during the middle of the redesign efforts, “being able to take this property, which has been here for so long, and to create a golf course that could have been a Golden Age course.”
In addition to the inclusion of railroad ties, sharply angled bunkers and greens, and recognizable classic design features like the Principal’s Nose bunker — a famous characteristic of the 16th hole at the Old Course at St Andrews — the Love brothers’ work drastically lowered many of the holes, which opened up views of the Atlantic Ocean and St Simons Sound.
Image: Sea Island
Pinehurst Resort, Pinehurst, North Carolina, USA
Set in North Carolina’s Sandhills, Pinehurst Resort is most famous for its No 2 course — a masterpiece designed by Donald Ross in 1907, fittingly restored by Coore & Crenshaw a decade ago. The resort’s No 4 course, however, is also quite popular thanks to a comprehensive redesign by Gil Hanse completed in fall 2018. “No 4 is a companion in the landscape, but it is not a tribute to No 2 in the features,” Hanse says. “The greens are different, the approaches are different, and we wanted to take advantage of the landforms, which are much more dramatic than those on No 2.”
As Hanse explains, the project began with a focus to restore the site’s original landscape, after which the architect and his team surveyed the rolling topography for optimal locations for fairways, green complexes and other course features. Speaking of those greens, Hanse purposefully lowered No 4’s putting surfaces to fit the landscape and accented them with unique bunker designs. Elsewhere, the course benefits from exposed sandy areas, native wire grasses and vast cross bunkers; while natural ridge lines provide dramatic vistas, but also present golfers with a variety of strategic choices that must be made. According to Hanse: “Golfers are going to appreciate how No 4 fits into the Pinehurst lineup and elevates the [resort’s] entire golf experience.”
Image: Pinehurst Resort
Adare Manor, Limerick, Ireland
In six years, Adare Manor Golf Club will take center stage when the resort hosts the Ryder Cup; however, the course is ready now. In fact, the lush parkland layout — and the entire resort — recently benefited from a multi-year, multimillion-dollar renovation, which convinced the selection committee that Adare Manor was an ideal destination for the Ryder Cup. That transformation began with the hiring of course architect Tom Fazio, who swept in and extensively redesigned every hole, creating a painstakingly manicured inland course that boldly swims against the current of Ireland’s acclaimed golf destinations, most of which are coastal links layouts that remain pleasingly rough around the edges.
With artfully shaped bunkers, low-cut turf even off the fairways, and plenty of babbling brooks, creeks and small water hazards scattered across its 170 acres, Adare Manor draws a number of parallels to Augusta National, which is not an outlandish connection, since Fazio has tinkered with the famous Georgia course in recent years. Like it is at Augusta National, precise shotmaking is a prerequisite for those who hope to post low scores at Adare Manor. The 7,509-yard course also features a significant number of tightly mown run-off areas around the greens — visitors will want to make sure they pack their short games — but the course’s wide fairways will inject amateur players with added confidence off the tee.
Big Cedar Lodge, Ridgedale, Missouri, USA
This spring, Payne’s Valley — the first public golf course designed by Tiger Woods — will open at Big Cedar Lodge in southern Missouri. Ignoring the fact that Woods’ first two completed courses to date (El Cardonal at Diamante in Los Cabos, Mexico and Bluejack National in Texas) are both private, the open-to-the-public aspect of Payne’s Valley is noteworthy for another important reason. “I grew up on public golf courses,” Woods says. “That’s where I learned how to play, so to be able to design a public golf course is near and dear to my heart.”
Like Woods’ two other courses, Payne’s Valley is designed to play firm and fast; it will feature minimal rough and well-kempt wooded areas (to minimize the risk of players losing golf balls); and it will almost never force players to hit shots over water hazards or wetlands. “My favorite golf in the world is links golf, to be able to play it on the ground,” Woods explains. “That’s been taken out of the game at so many of the different golf courses that I play around the world. Everyone is forcing people to play the ball in the air.
“I want the ball running, I want it traveling, I want it moving on the ground, and this golf course allows us to do that,” he says. “We have some amazing elevation changes, some amazing slopes, and I think that we can create some interesting options for a lot of players.”
Image credits: Evan Schiller Photography, Lambrecht