The 14th tee shot on "Cape Fear" is one of the most intimidating moments at Chambers Bay.

America's most extreme golf courses

From the largest elevation drop to the wildest greens and deepest bunker, all these U.S. courses take the game to the edge.

Golf was not meant to be played in the extreme.

Too much wind, too much rain, too much undulation, too much roll - these are just a few of the things that can make a round unplayable, or worse, no fun.

But golf architects and owners are always looking to push boundaries to stand out from the crowd. This is where you find America's most extreme courses. All of them boast at least one feature that flirts with going over the edge, whether it's too long, too wide, too many bunkers, too much elevation change and so on.

Some of these courses are wildly famous and enjoyable. I've played 13 of them, and lived to tell about the experiences. I'd even consider a few to be among my personal favorites. That's what's unique about the artistry of golf course architecture. What is one golfer's dream could be another's nightmare.

Have you played any of America's most extreme golf courses? Let us know about the experience in the comments below.

Most Bunkers: Straits Course at Whistling Straits

There are roughly 967 bunkers to navigate on the famed Straits Course at Whistling Straits in Wisconsin.

Prior to the 2010 PGA Championship, Golf Digest's Ron Whitten had the envious task of counting every bunker Pete Dye dug on the Straits Course at Whistling Straits. It came out to 967, many of which players, no matter their skills, will never see or experience. There are a few famous ones, though - the Dustin Johnson bunker on No. 18 that cost him a major, the deep pit on No. 11 pictured above and the tiny hole of despair on No. 6, the shortest par 4 on the course called Gremlin's Ear. Read More | Courses with the most bunkers in the world

Most Bunkers In Play On One Hole: King's North at Myrtle Beach National

More than 40 bunkers line the 18th hole of King's North at Myrtle Beach National.

Arnold Palmer and his design team littered the 464-yard 18th at King's North at Myrtle Beach National with 41 bunkers. That's almost as many as the 57 bunkers the prior 17 holes combined! Most of them are up the left side, as water comes into play on the right near the green. Pine Valley's second hole has roughly 48 bunkers by our count via Google Earth, but since nobody can play it, we're sticking with King's North as our choice.

Deepest Bunker: Stadium Course at PGA West

Pete Dye dug the deepest bunker in America left of the par-5 16th green on the Stadium Course at PGA West in La Quinta, Calif. This 19-foot-deep monster has been dubbed "San Andreas Fault". As you can see from the Tweet above, PGA Tour pros can handle it, but amateurs who find themselves here are in deep ... literally.

Courses with No Bunkers

Courses with no bunkers are more common than you think. There are probably a dozen or more in the United States, but it's more common overseas. Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw made the new Sheep Ranch at Bandon Dunes in Oregon the most famous bunkerless course in America to keep the sand from whipping out of the traps on a windy, clifftop site. Read More | Playing the game without sand

Most Extreme Collection of Greens: Tetherow

I consider myself a decent to solid putter, so when I tallied up the six three-putts after a recent round at Tetherow, I wanted to fling my flat stick into the Deschutes River that flows through downtown Bend, Oregon. I'm not the only golfer who has been humiliated and humbled by David McLay Kidd's severe greens here. They're large and they're rolling like ocean waves. If you're on the wrong tier, you're in trouble. They can be fun, though, too. On the 18th hole, I crushed a putt up a slope behind the hole, so it could snuggle up to the flag on the way back down. Thankfully, it worked. A 7th three jack might have sent me over the edge. Old Macdonald at Bandon Dunes comes in a close second.

Most Extreme Single Green: Harbor Shores

While this selection is certainly up for debate, it's hard not to call the four-tiered, 10,500-square-foot, 10th green at Harbor Shores the most "extreme" single green in America. It's so wild and undulating that during the 2010 grand opening, Johnny Miller wanted to chip from a lower tier to the flag before designer Jack Nicklaus intervened, dropping a ball and making an improbable 100-foot bomb. Harbor Shores in Benton Harbor, Mich., has become a regular biannual host of the Senior PGA Championship.

Smallest Greens: Pebble Beach Golf Links

Pebble Beach will host its first U.S. Women's Open in 2023.

Although there's no way to verify if Pebble's Beach's greens are the smallest in size, collectively, in the world, they are touted as the smallest in major championship golf and the PGA Tour by Pebblebeach.com. The average Pebble Beach green is just 3,500 square feet with an average depth of 26 paces. Nearly four Pebble Beach greens would fit into the average green on the Old Course at St. Andrews (which average roughly 13,600 square feet). Pebble's greens are hard to hit and even harder to putt. It's especially difficult to read the lines when you're staring off into the Pacific Ocean.

Widest Fairways: Gamble Sands

View of the 1st tee on the left and the 18th green and clubhouse on the right side at Gamble Sands Golf Club.

The design philosophy of Kidd pivoted after Tetherow and the Castle Course at St. Andrews to a kinder, more fun version of golf. Gamble Sands embodies this shift with perhaps the widest fairways in golf. According to General Manager Blake Froling, the widest fairway is 130 yards wide and the average width is 80 yards. Wailing away is perfectly acceptable, but good players know that Kidd still wants golfers to execute shots on proper angles to score.

Largest Elevation Drop On a Hole: Glen Ivy

Watching the ball drop off the dramatic 18th tee is the signature moment at Glen Ivy Golf Club in Corona, California.

The 434-yard final hole proves quite the crescendo at Glen Ivy, a semi-private club east of Los Angeles. It seems you can see all of SoCal's Inland Empire from the elevated tee box. Glen Ivy markets the tee shot as the largest drop shot in the United States, but there are plenty of others. It plummets 200 feet to the landing area and 228 feet to green.

Highest Elevation: The Lodge Golf Course

The Lodge Resort & Spa is a historic property in Cloudcroft, N.M., located at 9,000 feet above sea level where its nine-hole Lodge Golf Course sits at the highest elevation for golf in North America. Imagine what kind of drives you could hit with such thin air! Alas, the par-34 course doesn't let you air it out much. There's just one par 4 longer than 320 yards, the 390-yard second, and one par 5, the 478-yard 7th.

Lowest Elevation: Furnace Creek

Shadows fall on the Furnace Creek Golf Course in Death Valley.

The day I played Furnace Creek during a grand reopening of the Oasis at Death Valley, a wicked wind brought the threat of a sand storm, forcing us to hurry to finish. The course is only 6,215 yards, but with such low elevation at 214 feet below sea level, the ball goes nowhere. It plays more like 6,600 yards.

Longest Course: Ross Bridge at the Renaissance Birmingham Ross Bridge Golf Resort & Spa

Known for being an 8,000-plus yard golf course, RTJ's Ross Bridge is fun and scenic from the right tees.

The former home of a PGA Tour Champions event (The Regions Charity Classic from 2006-10), Ross Bridge is not only one of the longest golf courses in the world at 8,191 yards, but also a favorite on the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail. Ten holes play along the banks of two man-made lakes connected by a waterfall dropping 80 feet between the ninth and 18th greens. The course can be played as short as 5,300 yards, but it moved up to No. 1 in total yardage in America when The International - an 8,325-yard par 73 in Bolton, Mass. - closed for a bankruptcy and then an ongoing redesign by Coore & Crenshaw.

Longest Hole: Meadows Farms

The longest hole in the United States is at Meadows Farms in Locust Grove, Va., and it's 841 yards.

The concept of a par 6 made news last year when a Californian made a condor - a 2 for four-under on a par 6 - at Lake Chabot in Oakland. Nobody's making a condor on the longest hole in America, an 841-yard par 6 at Meadows Farms in Virginia.

Longest par 5: Reserve at Moonlight Basin

The Match 2021 made a mockery of the longest par 5 in America - the 777-yard, downhill par-5 17th - as Bryson DeChambeau let it fly 480 yards on the longest hole at the private Reserve at Moonlight Basin in Big Sky, Montana. Even QB Aaron Rodgers was able to rip it 438 yards. Thin air indeed.

Longest par 4: Norman Course at Red Sky Ranch

The ninth hole on the Norman golf course at Red Sky drops to a ledge, leaving a tough approach.

Although the 551-yard 15th at The Club at Pasadera in Monterey, Calif., is the longest par 4 in America by a couple yards, we'll give the nod to the 549-yard 9th on the Norman Course at Red Sky Ranch in Wolcott, Colorado, because you can actually play it with a stay at an affiliated lodging property in nearby Vail or Beaver Creek Resort. Thankfully, it also falls downhill in thin air, but the second shot over a gully is no picnic.

Longest par 3: Pete Dye Course at French Lick Resort

Long with no room to bail out, the 16th hole on the Dye Course at French Lick is a monster.

The longest - and perhaps nastiest - par 3 in resort/public golf is the 301-yard 16th on the Pete Dye Course at French Lick Resort in southern Indiana. Water, bunkers, mounding: It's all there to swallow your ball. I don't know about you, but I would need some wind and a bit of cart path love to reach this green in one.

Highest Slope: Pine Valley and PLAYERS Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass

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Round Trip Feature: TPC Sawgrass

The notoriety of having the highest slope the USGA would allow (156) used to belong to Ko'olau, but it closed in 2020, handing the honor to two famously hard courses with a slope of 155, Pine Valley and the PLAYERS Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass. For those who need a refresher, slope is the number that measures a course's difficulty. I still consider Sawgrass one of the hardest courses I've ever played, and I'm not sure my 9-handicap is in a hurry to take on Pine Valley, either.

Most Expensive Tee Time: Shadow Creek

Shadow Creek hosts its first PGA Tour event, the CJ Cup.

Fresh off hosting its first LPGA Tour and PGA Tour events, Shadow Creek in North Las Vegas doesn't have the mystique it used to, but its most recent price boost from $750 per round to $1,000 will maintain its exclusivity.

Toughest Walk: Chambers Bay

So much elevation change, like the "Free Fall" at No. 5, makes Chambers Bay a tough walk.

Although this category is up for debate among the courses that require you to walk - with Erin Hills and the private Mayacama also heavily in the discussion - I think my struggle to score well at Chambers Bay has more to do with the tough hike up the hills than the wild bounces and difficult greens. Trudging up that first hill at the par-5 4th seems to suck out my oxygen for the rest of the round. This Washington Post article prior to the 2015 U.S. Open notes that it's a roughly 10-mile walk that covers more than 600 feet in elevation change. I can't wait for the day when this pseudo links along the Puget Sound hosts a second U.S. Open.

Most Extreme Golf Course in America by its Most Extreme Architect?

Tobacco Road is a Mike Strantz original in North Carolina.

We hesitate to call the late Mike Strantz the most "extreme" architect and his modern masterpiece, Tobacco Road, the most "extreme" golf course ever built in America, but both certainly deserve a mention here. Maverick Golf Design, founded by Strantz, painted golf outside the lines with wild and controversial courses like Tobacco Road and Tot Hill Farm in North Carolina, plus Royal New Kent in Virginia.

What other extreme features have you discovered at a course near you? Let us know in the comments below.

Roundups
Jason Scott Deegan has reviewed more than 1,000 courses and golf destinations 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 @jasondeegangolfadvisor and Twitter at @WorldGolfer.
2 Comments
Commented on

With all due respect, the highest elevation course (North America) is in Colorado.

Mt Massive in Leadville CO, is the highest 9 hole regulation at 9,950 ft! 4 club difference than sea level, very fun! The highest championship 18 hole course is a Pete Dye course called Copper Mountain in Frisco, CO. Measuring just under 9,800 ft. Not sure how these courses got overlooked?

Commented on

Tobacco Road is a great course from the first tee to the last. No gimme's but a lot of fun to play if you don't worry about your score. Tot Hill not quite as extreme but just as challenging. You learn a lot about your golf game on these courses. They inspire you to improve.

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America's most extreme golf courses