10 U.S. public golf courses with the best vibe

Whether it's music on the range or a friendly staff, these public and resort courses set the mood just right for a special round of golf.
The new Cradle Crossing takes the "vibe" at The Cradle up a level at Pinehurst.

Sometimes you can just feel it.

I've often found the vibe you get at a golf course is almost as important as the course itself. Generating good feelings and an emotional connection can be the difference between just another round and getting that person to return again and again.

There are many things that affect a golf club's vibe. Does it feel welcoming or is there an air of pretentiousness? What's the first impression when you pull into the driveway or set foot in the clubhouse? How good are the staff at showing they care? What amenities stand out?

Every golf course's vibe is different. In my travels, I've found a few that stuck with me. This list certainly isn't exhaustive, but it's a sampling of those that made an impression. I tried to avoid choosing too many ultra-expensive courses. Obviously, Pebble Beach Golf Links and Shadow Creek in Las Vegas are special in their own right, mainly because they just don't sell tee times - they deliver an "experience."

But it takes more than money or a great course to create the perfect vibe. Fire pits and music certainly help. These courses have it mastered.

What courses have you found to have cool or unique vibes? Let us know in the comments below.

  1. The Cradle at Pinehurst, Pinehurst, N.C.
    A view from The Cradle at Pinehurst Resort & Country Club

    The Cradle, a par-3 wonderland designed by Gil Hanse in 2017, lands on top for completely changing the vibe around Pinehurst's main clubhouse and five-course campus. It also started the trend that music and short courses should forever live in perfect harmony. The Pinecone drink cart became so popular that the resort has since built a permanent bar/hangout called the Cradle Crossing. Whether playing a big course or small, every golfer should find time to grab a transfusion, snuggle up to a firepit and raise a toast to Pinehurst for embracing the wave of change. That commitment to a friendlier, more welcoming atmosphere at such a traditional resort should lead to a brighter future for the game we all love.

  2. Bandon Dunes, Bandon, Ore.
    The 14th hole of Bandon Dunes at Bandon Dunes Golf Resort doglegs right into a green set in dunes.

    It really doesn't matter what course you're playing at Bandon Dunes. Every inch of the property exudes that "vibe" golfers crave. Think of a world where everyone loves golf, speaks its language and respects its traditions. That's Bandon Dunes. Everything at the resort has been created with the golfer in mind, from the layout of the courses to the walking-only policy and the legion of caddies. It's the only place in America that truly feels like you're playing golf in Scotland or Ireland.

  3. Winter Park Golf Course, Winter Park, Fla.
    Even a nine-holer like Winter Park Golf Course can have a great vibe.

    The 2016 redesign of the "WP9" should be the blueprint for every aging muni looking for a second chance. The rehabilitation by architects Riley Johns and Keith Rhebb created the perfect balance between welcoming high handicaps, while still challenging and engaging better players. The small footprint of 2,480 yards makes it faster and more affordable to play. A centralized location perpetuates its community spirit. The par 35 is surrounded by city streets, homes, two churches, a cemetery, train tracks and is just steps from the restaurants and shops of a charming downtown.

  4. Papago Golf Course, Phoenix, Ariz.
    The addition of the Lou Grubb Clubhouse and Evie’s Pavilion in 2018 has changed the dynamic at Papago, creating a cool new place for people to gather.

    The construction of the Lou Grubb Clubhouse and Evie’s Pavilion in 2018 changed the whole dynamic of playing at Papago, traditionally one of the country's busiest munis. The building features garage doors that open up to an outside patio. Music piping from Lou's Bar & Grill can be heard from the nearby greens and tees. Weekly live entertainment makes for a great hang. The clubhouse was part of an improvement project that also added a private new practice facility for the Arizona State University golf teams. Our Tim Gavrich got a taste of Papago's legendary skins game last fall. It seems every type of player - from hackers like me to gamers like Tim - find Papago to their liking. 

  5. Caledonia Golf & Fish Club, Pawleys Island, S.C.
    A ring of rocking chairs in the Caledonia clubhouse overlooks the 18th hole.

    Caledonia impresses immediately. Stately oaks dripping with Spanish Moss line the access road that personifies a public version of Augusta's Magnolia Lane. Once inside, it feels like one of the South's most esteemed private clubs. The Mike Strantz design is, like the man himself, one of a kind. It's gorgeously one with nature (there are no homes) and decorated with little touches like brick staircases leading to sunken greens. If you want a true taste of the slow-paced Lowcountry lifestyle, sit on a rocking chair on the porch of the quaint clubhouse with a spiked sweet tea in hand. It's relaxing and comforting to watch other golfers drop balls into the marshy hazard just like you.

  6. The Hay, Pebble Beach, Calif.
    The ninth hole of The Hay is just steps from Hay's Place.

    Pebble Beach joined golf's modern movement of being more inclusive and fun with the 2021 debut of The Hay, the par-3 course redesigned by Tiger Woods' TGR Design. Music keeps the mood lively on the free putting course next to Hay's Place, which has quickly become my favorite hang at the resort. Resort guests and community members come for its long views of the Monterey Bay and menu of cocktails and tasty Mexican fare.

  7. Bay Hill Club & Lodge, Orlando, Fla.
    Three bunkers guard the fifth green at Arnold Palmer's Bay Hill Club & Lodge, which hosts the Arnold Palmer Invitational.

    A home fit for The King. That's the best way to describe Bay Hill, the long-time Florida home of Arnold Palmer before he passed away in 2016. The legacy of Palmer lives on, from the memorabilia and photos in the clubhouse and hallways of the Lodge to his favorite spot on the range. The course, a Dick Wilson classic tweaked by Palmer over the years, brutalizes first-timers who don't know the best angles to take on its water holes and doglegs. Nevertheless, it's always cool to play holes you've seen on TV so many times.

    Arnold Palmer will always have a place at the driving range at the Bay Hill Resort & Club.

  8. Edgewood Tahoe, Stateline, Nev.
    Edgewood Tahoe hosts the American Century Celebrity Golf Championship every year on the shores of Lake Tahoe.

    The home of the American Century Championship, the premier celebrity golf tournament televised by NBC every July, rolls out the red carpet from the moment golfers enter the property to the last sip at one of golf's most spectacular 19th holes. The valet service sets the tone. Next stop is the range, which offers the first glimpse of Lake Tahoe's stunning south shore. It's just a taste of what's to come - four holes right on the water, including the risk-reward 5-3-5 finishing stretch that sets up so many highlights and heartbreaks. Afterward, celebrate the round with food and drinks at Brooks Bar & Deck to enjoy the backdrop of the water and mountains one last time.

  9. Grayhawk Golf Club, Scottsdale, Ariz.
    Speakers that look like rocks bring music to the range at Grayhawk Golf Club.

    One of my earliest golf trips decades ago introduced the first public course to go all-in creating a "vibe". Grayhawk was the first course to pump music onto the range when it opened in 1994. Between the huge margaritas served at Phil's Grill (which pays homage to Arizona State legend Phil Mickelson) and a long-running commitment to tournament golf, Grayhawk continues to be a trend setter. It will host the 2022 Division I men's and women's NCAA Championships, which will be televised on Golf Channel from May 20-June 1.

  10. Bali Hai Golf Club, Las Vegas, Nev.
    View from the 15th fairway at Bali Hai Golf Club.

    I think we can all agree that Vegas has a "vibe" all its own. That extends to its two golf courses on the Strip, the Wynn and Bali Hai. While the Wynn is great, Bali Hai has more of that Vegas "let's have fun" attitude.

    Every now and then, a staffer will greet your foursome on the course with some free jello shots to keep that string of doubles from dragging you down. The tropical-themed layout is "gettable" for a good score, and it's cool to aim shots at skyline landmarks like Mandalay Bay and the new Allegiant Stadium. If you want to take things next-level, female caddies called Parmates are popular for bachelor parties and groups. A new Tiki Bar & Grille opened in December, providing a more casual hangout than the Cili Restaurant. It's sure to be popular with tailgaters on game days.

    The Tiki Bar and Grille recently opened at Bali Hai, which is right across the street from Allegiant Stadium, the new home of the Las Vegas Raiders.

Jason Scott Deegan has reviewed and photographed more than 1,000 courses and written about golf destinations in 20 countries for some of the industry's biggest publications. His work has been honored by the Golf Writer's Association of America and the Michigan Press Association. Follow him on Instagram at @jasondeegangolfpass and Twitter at @WorldGolfer.
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10 U.S. public golf courses with the best vibe