Golf Courses & Resorts

The Best Places To Live And Play Municipal Golf Courses

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Here’s a big question for you: where is the best place for an avid golfer to live?

The answer, it depends greatly.

If your answer depends on determining the regions with the strongest concentrations of mostly private golf courses, period, then you’ll want to live in or around America’s biggest cities. Look on any Top-100 or Top-200 list and you’ll see New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, Los Angeles and San Francisco clubs very heavily represented.

But private courses represent about one-eighth of all golf courses in the U.S. If your rounds happen mostly on public-accessible courses, the answer of where you’d want to live changes pretty dramatically.

That’s especially true if you’re a muni golfer.

As I’ve said in the past, municipal golf courses have a major role (perhaps the major role) to play in the game’s future. And in recent years, there’s been something of a municipal golf renaissance (for social media purposes, a #munaissance) across the United States, whereby towns, cities and counties have invested millions of dollars in ensuring their courses provide maximum enjoyment and recreational value for taxpayers.

One prime example: the nine-hole Winter Park Country Club in suburban Orlando. What was a tired, somewhat rundown track is now an awesome community amenity that locals can enjoy in about 90 minutes and for less than $20.

These inexpensive courses are getting better every year, and since they tend to serve as nurseries for new golfers, it’s easy to conclude that a better municipal golf product is great for the game, because a) existing golfers will be inspired to play more often, and b) More engaging and fun golf courses will hook new golfers sooner and more deeply.

It’s a massive long-term win for golf.

Interestingly, as it turns out, the current best areas for municipal golf don’t line up well with the best areas for private golf.

So if you love the game, but you’re not a private golfer, here’s where you’d want to live:

Northeast

Keney Park underwent a near-miraculous transformation and is now one of America's top municipal courses.

Keney Park underwent a near-miraculous transformation and is now one of America’s top municipal courses.

Hartford County, Connecticut

I grew up in this county, where the last dozen years have seen its municipal golf scene go from forgettable to fantastic. The area’s own #munaissance began in 2005, with the opening of Wintonbury Hills Golf Course in the town of Bloomfield, when town resident and Golfweek architecture guru Brad Klein convinced legendary architect Pete Dye to reduce his design fee to $1 to craft a brand-new course that has been an unqualified success since day one. More recently, Klein worked with former Greg Norman associate Matt Dusenberry to restore and renovate the City of Hartford’s Keney Park Golf Course to its Golden Age glory. The results have been phenomenal; Keney Park is now one of the best courses in the state, and one of the best munis in the country.

Nassau County (Long Island), New York

If you’re concerned of tiring of the same one or two muni courses, Nassau County is the cure. Every golfer knows Bethpage Black, the championship-quality super-muni that has hosted two U.S. Opens and has a PGA and a Ryder Cup in its future. But the Black is one of five courses on property, and locals prefer the A.W. Tillinghast-designed Bethpage Red overwhelmingly to the back-breaking Black. The Blue, Green and Yellow layouts are also solid. A little further east, Eisenhower Park has three more courses, the BlueWhite and Red layouts, the latter of which hosted the 1926 PGA Championship. That puts eight well-maintained, varied courses practically in your backyard, somewhat dampening the blow of the area’s high taxes.

Monmouth County, New Jersey

Central Jersey super-muni Hominy Hill Golf Course, originally a private course designed by Robert Trent Jones, has long been mentioned in the same breath as the likes of Bethpage Black and Torrey Pines, but it is just one of Monmouth County’s golf offerings. Charleston Springs has two Mark Mungeam layouts, plus a huge short game practice area. The County also includes the executive-length Bel-Aire Golf Course and Pine Brook Golf Course as well as other longer layouts at Howell Park and Shark River.

Mid-Atlantic

Laurel Hill Golf Club (Fairfax County Government)

Laurel Hill Golf Club (Fairfax County, VA)

Fairfax County, Virginia

Most of Northern Virginia’s top courses are private, but one key exception is Laurel Hill Golf Club in Lorton, which hosted the penultimate U.S. Amateur Public Links Championship in 2013. The Bill Love design has big fairways and greens, but also some imposing bunkering to catch errant shots. Seven other facilities round out the county’s golf holdings, including an 18-hole par-3 course at Burke Lake Golf Course.

Newark, Delaware

Municipal courses are usually town- or county owned, but in the case of Deerfield Golf & Tennis Club, the course is part of the state park system. Deerfield has an interesting history, having started as a private club built for DuPont Corporation employees but now owned by the State of Delaware. As a result, the course and surrounding land is free of further development and gives the public a private golf course feel.

Southeast

Wilmington Municipal Golf Course (Wilmington, NC)

Wilmington Municipal Golf Course (Wilmington, NC)

Wilmington, North Carolina

Wilmington shows up constantly on general “best places to live” lists, and for good reason: easy beach access, a booming arts scene (including a major TV and film production studio) and all the energy that being a college town (UNC-Wilmington) brings. Add to that a terrific municipal golf course in Wilmington Municipal, a Donald Ross original that John Fought restored in 2014 and whose sandy off-fairway and tricky greens invoke another Ross Tar Heel State gem: Pinehurst No. 2. For those looking for variety, Wilmington has some other solid public courses, and the Myrtle Beach area is less than 90 minutes away.

Savannah, Georgia

Another Southern belle of a city, another recently restored Donald Ross-designed muni. Savannah’s Bacon Park received a much-needed facelift, also in 2014 and this time courtesy of Pinehurst-based architect Richard Mandell, a Ross expert. Bacon Park also has a nine-hole Legends loop, which offers a more modern look. And just a few minutes away, across the Wilmington River, sits the Wilmington Island Club, another Ross course that is privately owned but is open to the public.

Ocala, Florida

Due in large part to the massive number of golf courses available (more than a thousand) a number of municipal courses in the Sunshine State fly under the radar. This is particularly true at Ocala Golf Club, a pleasant, walkable layout in the heart of one of Central Florida’s most golf-mad towns.  Other public-accessible layouts like Ocala National and Candler Hills help round out the area’s offerings.

West Palm Beach Golf Club is inexpensive, nicely-kept and a lot of fun.

West Palm Beach Golf Club is inexpensive, nicely-kept and a lot of fun.

Palm Beach County, Florida

It’s no wonder that one of the golf-richest (and just-plain-richest) counties in the U.S., in Florida, has plenty to offer muni golfers as well. The cheap-and-cheerful West Palm Beach Golf Course is an incredible value, with a fun course design that’s always in good shape, usually for less than $30. The more upscale, Jack Nicklaus-redesigned North Palm Beach Country Club is worthwhile, too. So are Sandhill Crane Golf Course, the Palm Beach Gardens muni; and Park Ridge Golf Course in Lake Worth, built on a reclaimed landfill site. Then there’s the scenic and charming Palm Beach Par 3, owned by the Town of Palm Beach.

Midwest

Bowes Creek Country Club (Toll Brothers)

Bowes Creek Country Club (Toll Brothers)

Milwaukee County, Wisconsin

Not only is Wisconsin home to some of the best summer-vacation golf in the United States, but residents of its largest city benefit from a broad menu of courses thanks to the Milwaukee County Parks Department. The headliner of these courses is Brown Deer Park, the former PGA Tour stop where Tiger Woods made his pro debut in 1996. But there’s more: a total of 15 golf facilities comprise the system, from “big course” layouts like Currie Park to the nine-hole par-3 Zablocki Golf Course.

Kane County, Illinois

The greater Chicago area is great for private golf and very solid on the municipal front as well with Kane County on the western side of the city home to two of the better munis in the Midwest. The Highlands of Elgin, designed by Keith Foster and Art Schaupeter, earns high marks for its open-style layout, and how can anyone dislike a golf course whose pub is called the Grumpy Goat Tavern? Just a few miles west, the Rick Jacobson-designed Bowes Creek is another solid option for local golfers.

Ramsey County, Minnesota

Minnesota has more golfers per capita than any other state, and as a result, the golf season, though shorter than in some places, is a busy one. Ramsey County’s complement of courses is headlined by the historic, recently renovated (by Richard Mandell) Keller Golf Course, host of the 1932 and 1954 PGA Championships. Nearby Manitou Ridge Golf CourseGoodrich Golf Course and the nine-hole Ponds at Battle Creek enrich the area muni golf scene, as does Phalen Park Golf Course, owned and run by the City of St. Paul.

Southwest

(Butterfield Trail Golf Club)

(Butterfield Trail Golf Club)

El Paso, Texas

West Texas is usually depicted as a harsh, unfriendly place in television and film, but for golfers, El Paso is a haven. Butterfield Trail Golf Course, designed by Tom Fazio, could definitely be considered a “super-muni,” as its desert scenery and excellent design add up to a top-three ranking on Golfweek‘s “Best Municipal Courses” list. Rates top out at $80 for outsiders, but city residents pay as little as $45 to play a course that is superior to many that charge three times that rack rate.

Hobbs, New Mexico

Hobbs is not on most people’s list of most recognizable towns and cities in the state, but architect Andy Staples helped put Hobbs on the golf map with the complete reinvention of Rockwind Community Links on the northwest side of town. Rockwind is a perfect example of what municipal golf can be: affordable ($31, maximum, for residents), fun and welcoming to all ages and levels of golfer. In addition to the 18-hole course, Staples crafted a nine-hole par-3 course called Li’l Rock. A parent can bring up to three kids to play Li’l Rock, and the kids’ green fees are free.

Phoenix, Arizona

The Phoenix/Scottsdale area is one of the hotbeds of vacation golf in the U.S. But in a region where $200 peak-season green fees abound, the William F. Bell-designed Papago Golf Course is a beacon of affordability, with city residents paying less than $40 to play one of the top munis west of the Mississippi. In 2008, it received a much-needed renovation costing nearly $6 million. Just down the road in Tempe, the executive-length Rolling Hills Golf Course gets its fair share of play as well. A few miles west, the Gary Panks-designed and City of Phoenix-owned Aguila Golf Club treats players to views of the Phoenix skyline.

West Coast and Pacific Northwest

Torrey Pines Golf Course (South) is a former U.S. Open venue and annual PGA Tour Stop. Here's how to play it for less than half of its regular rates. (Flickr/J. Telljohann)

Torrey Pines Golf Course (Flickr/J. Telljohann)

San Diego, California

One of America’s most famous municipal golf facilities, Torrey Pines Golf Course continues to get better and better, especially for residents, who pay $78 and $52 to pay the South and North Courses, respectively, while out-of-towners pay up to $240 and $131 (although we’ve got some advice on how to cut that rate substantially). The North Course, long considered a second-fiddle layout, was recently renovated by Tom Weiskopf and now challenges the still-bigger South Course for supremacy on the property. Often overshadowed by Torrey Pines but a lovely option in its own right, Balboa Park Golf Course is another great amenity for San Diegans.

Oakland/Alameda, California

As San Francisco’s wild real estate market continues to price people out, folks are flocking to the East Bay. The golfers among them are pleased to have access to the Chuck Corica Golf Complex‘s two courses (plus a new nine-hole par-3 course), one of which Rees Jones’ team are currently transforming into a new course inspired by the Melbourne, Australia’s Sandbelt layouts. A few miles east, Lake Chabot Golf Course is another beloved area muni, with a dramatic and unique par-6 finishing hole that cascades downhill.

Portland, Oregon

As if the food, culture and business boom weren’t enough, add golf to the list of reasons to move to Portland. The 36-hole, Robert Trent Jones-designed facility at Heron Lakes is a winner on the north side of the city, and Rose City Golf CourseRedTail Golf Center and Eastmoreland Golf Course provide great value for Portland golfers as well.

Spokane, Washington

H. Chandler Egan is not a very recognizable golf course architect, even to well-read and well-traveled golfers, but his work throughout the Pacific Northwest is noteworthy. His best course may be Indian Canyon Golf Course, now a Spokane muni, which hosted the U.S. Amateur Public Links in 1941 and again in 1984. Tree-lined fairways and well-guarded greens help make the 6,300-yard course play tougher than many expect, and with green fees under $40, it’s a stunning value. Spokane’s other three courses – EsmereldaDownriver and The Creek at Qualchan – are no slouches, either, giving Spokane Residents a fantastic quartet of options.

I can’t close out this piece without giving my current home Indian River County, Florida, a big shout-out for its exemplary municipal facility, Sandridge Golf Club. Its two Ron Garl-designed courses are some of the best-maintained public or municipal layouts I’ve seen anywhere (there are private clubs that would envy the greens here), and with rates maxing out at $50 in prime winter time, it’s one of the best values anywhere. Management is critical at courses like this, and it’s no wonder that the place is so successful. The staff at Sandridge are some of the nicest and most professional I’ve encountered.

Is your hometown, city or county a hotbed of municipal golf? Did we leave one of your favorite places off the list? We’d love for you to let us know in the comments below!

21 Comments

  1. Mark

    August 29, 2017 at 9:56 am

    In the Pacific Northwest we really enjoy Lake Padden. Wonderful course and only a few minutes south of the border for us Canadian folk.

  2. Craig Andreas

    August 29, 2017 at 10:08 am

    Columbus,Ohio – a multitude of public links both challenging and well manicured. One of my top golf spots anywhere in the country and I live in southern California.

  3. Ted Hamilton

    August 29, 2017 at 10:09 am

    U obviously ignored Columbus Ohio and Franklin County and surrounding counties with a very large array of top and different courses and their layouts. I can’t imagine any local area that would have a greater amount and varied types of courses.

  4. What about South West?

    August 29, 2017 at 10:10 am

    Los Angeles County golf?

  5. Mike Dietz

    August 29, 2017 at 10:21 am

    You need to visit Northern Michigan

  6. John DeJoia

    August 29, 2017 at 10:37 am

    A great area for public golf courses is the Idaho Fall, ID area. Beautiful courses at reasonable rates.

  7. David N.

    August 29, 2017 at 10:49 am

    Dallas, TX. You can play all year round on at least 5 munis. Stevens Park, Tenison Highlands and Tenison Glen, Luna Vista, Cedar Crest and Grover C. Keeton. Plus many other public courses like Bear Creek, Texas Star and Cowboys. Way too many to name here.

  8. Mike Iket

    August 29, 2017 at 10:50 am

    Utah – both northern around Salt Lake City and southern around St. George – have well-designed, well-maintained city or county courses. Rates are usually around $50 for walkers. Unlike places like the Bay Area in N. CA, where private clubs dominate, public golf is equally good in Utah and obviously much more accessible.

  9. Dan D

    August 29, 2017 at 11:10 am

    Have you totally forgotten Michigan? Wow…not just the number of public courses in the northern lower peninsula, but so many around the Detroit Metro Area-and Grand Rapids area–yes, public golf courses and municipal courses that are damn good!

    Very, very disappointing article…although there are great mentions of well known classic golf courses, many recognizable nationwide, I believe the article mentioned growing the game through municipal and public golf courses…?

  10. R. Thornton Lurie

    August 29, 2017 at 11:34 am

    Jacksonville, Florida has a number of great public courses from Donald Ross in the Edgewood area to public courses at the beaches to the courses at TPC Sawgrass. A great golf area that is often overlooked.

  11. Bob Lindstedt

    August 29, 2017 at 11:47 am

    And you fail to mention Glacier Woods in Iola, Wisconsin, one of the 50 highest rated munis in the US a couple of years ago and top rated in Wisconsin? Within a 50 minute drive of Stevens Point or Wisconsin Rapids, you have a dozen premier courses, including Lawsonia, SentryWorld, Sand Valley and The Castle Course at Northern Bay (a true replica course), to name just a few. Easy to pick a metropolitan area…. But that’s okay – I never have a problem getting tee times anywhere in the area.

  12. Tim Gavrich

    August 29, 2017 at 2:34 pm

    Dan–
    Apologies for disappointing you; we didn’t mean for this list to be exhaustive, otherwise it would have had to be novel-length. Appreciate your passion for your home munis in Michigan. Would love to learn more about what makes them special in particular.
    Best,
    –Tim

  13. Tim Gavrich

    August 29, 2017 at 2:36 pm

    Bob–
    Thanks for highlighting Glacier Woods; it looks terrific. I hope to play it on a future visit to Wisconsin. You’re absolutely right about all the courses you listed; we were merely going for mainly the munis in this piece. There are so many golf courses that deserve more attention, and we look forward to giving them all their due in the future!
    –Tim

  14. Tim Gavrich

    August 29, 2017 at 2:38 pm

    John–
    Thanks for the recommendation. What courses would you consider the stand-outs in Idaho Falls? Judging purely from Google Maps, Sage Lakes looks particularly interesting.
    –Tim

  15. walter De Martis

    August 29, 2017 at 4:48 pm

    I LOVE to play Golf, here in Peru is there ONLY one Public Course and is not finished yet.

  16. Temecula Golf Trail

    August 29, 2017 at 5:03 pm

    Temecula, CA. 8 great affordable courses, and Pechanga Resort & Casino. 50 miles North of San Diego, 1 hour from Orange County and 1 1/2 hours from LA. A lot cheaper the Palm Springs.

  17. Oiki

    August 29, 2017 at 11:43 pm

    What about Tucson, AZ. City courses have hoisted LPGA. What about Kauai & Hilo??

  18. Ken Leivonen

    August 30, 2017 at 3:51 am

    What about Somerset County, in New Jersey? We have 5 great courses here led by the award winning Neshanic Valley Complex with 3 great 9’s and the Academy course. I love that I can play every weekend and not play the same course twice.

  19. John DeJoia

    August 30, 2017 at 10:30 am

    Tim, all three munis are really great. Each has a different character. Sage Lakes is a favorite of mine, but to miss Pincrest would be a mistake. Of course you can’t miss Sand Creek either. Really hard to pick one. Don’t overlook the other courses within a half hour drive of town. When you look at the population of the area, you realize just what a great golf area this is.

  20. Tim Gavrich

    August 30, 2017 at 11:43 am

    That’s awesome; I appreciate the response, John. I hope to get up to Idaho Falls sometime to play your home courses.
    –Tim

  21. Tom

    August 30, 2017 at 4:46 pm

    Cape Cod, MA has some of the best Muni’s I’ve seen. Bass River and Bayberry in Yarmouth; Hyannis and Olde Barnstable in Hyannis; Pines and Highlands in Dennis; Captains in Brewster; Cranberry Valley in Harwich. Great golf courses at unbelievable value.

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