America's best river courses you can play

Linking golf courses and waterways can be volatile mix. Here's where it's been done best.
The River Course at Kingsmill Golf Club & Resort is a Pete Dye gem along the historic James River.
No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it's not the same river and he's not the same man.
Heraclitus, a Greek philosopher

Rivers rise and fall with the rain, and so do the fortunes of their nearby golf courses.

Hundreds of golf courses have been designed to intertwine gracefully with a river, many considered among the best in the country. A few of them even host major professional events. All of them are special because building a golf course that shares an ecosystem with a river is as delicate a dance as there is between Mother Nature and man.

A river setting tends to both bless and curse a golf course. Rounds of golf don't get more aesthetically pleasing than when a river runs through it. Hitting a successful golf shot over a river can provide a jolt of excitement and thrill.

How to use that river bank, however, can't be taken lightly by the course architect. Not only must this person route the holes properly, but he/she must also consider keeping the holes safe from flooding and the river free from the chemical discharge of potential pesticides and fertilizers. Some river courses are more prone to flooding than others. Eventually, for all of them, the banks will overflow.

Flooding issues plague certain sites

Flooding from the Red River overwhelms a golf course March 22, 2010, in Moorhead, Minn.

Heavy rains in February caused the Russian River to encroach upon the Northwood Golf Club near Napa Valley in northern California, closing the three holes closest to the river for cleanup. Northwood General Manager Gaylord Schaapp said the nine-hole course designed by Dr. Alister Mackenzie has flooded a handful of times over the past several decades.

Flooding in 2009 was so severe at Blue Top Ridge in Riverside, Iowa, that Rees Jones returned to completely reroute holes 2-6 away from the Iowa River, so the course could reopen in 2011. The Shawnee Golf Course in Louisville, Ky., spent last spring under 30 feet of water from the Ohio River, according to the GCM Magazine.

Constant flooding of the Des Plaines River forced Crane's Landing at the Lincolnshire Marriott Resort in Lincolnshire, Ill., to convert the par-4 eighth hole into a par 3 last year. A press release indicates that 50 acres of new turf planted in 2017 might help the 6,290-yard course with six river holes turn around its fortunes, which includes some tough reviews in 2018. Local Golf Advisor btweed1683 handed out two stars after playing Crane's Landing last September indicating: "Unfortunately, the nearby river has ravaged this course and it is constantly under water and under repair", adding that "George Fazio didn't do them any favors with the design." Certain holes can feel too narrow at times and can be negatively impacted by river overflow too often.

Using the river right

On the opposite end of the spectrum, Michigan architect W. Bruce Matthews III purposely designed the Hidden River Golf & Casting Club in Brutus, Mich., away from the Maple River, according to Head Professional Jerry Roman, to preserve the river's natural habitat. Only the ninth hole, a 159-yard par 3 that drops 70 feet from tee to green, comes into contact with the river. It runs along the left side. The patio of clubhouse's popular restaurant, the Rainbow Room, overlooks the river and hole as well. A trout-shaped, greenside bunker was the idea of the original owner. The club allows limited access to fly fish the river, only four people per day from an hour before sunrise to one hour after sunset.

Ron Jaworski's Riverwinds Golf & Tennis Club in New Jersey is another course that uses the river extremely well. The 14th hole introduces a stretch of the five holes along the Delaware River, including an island-like green jutting into the water on the 156-yard 17th.

Courses on America's longest rivers

What I found interesting in researching America's collection of river courses is a number of the country's longest rivers haven't been integrated into any notable designs. Two of the five longest rivers in the United States - the Missouri and Yukon - don't offer any courses along their banks. Neither does the Red River, one of the 10 longest rivers in America at 1,360 miles long.

Three of the five longest U.S. rivers are witnessing at least one of their courses struggle:

* The Colorado River, where the Pine Forest Golf Course in Bastrop, Texas, allowed golfers to "name their price" for green fees earlier this spring, according to a story by CBS Austin.

* The Mississippi River, home to Arsenal Island Golf Course, a military course in Illinois built on an island in the middle of the river, is currently closed with an uncertain future. This website does list a handful of other courses near the Mississippi River, but none are really intimate with the river itself.

* The Rio Grande River in Texas, where the River Bend Resort & Country Club in Brownsville could be in jeopardy if President Trump constructs a border wall. The Rio Grande also borders two highly acclaimed courses - the popular Max A Mandel Golf Course in Laredo and the stunning Black Jack's Crossing at the Lajitas Golf Resort. Black Jack's Crossing finishes dramatically with four holes, nos. 15-18, along the water.

The other four major U.S. rivers top 10 in length not referenced yet do offer solid golf on their riverbanks - the Arkansas River (Rebsamen Championship Golf Course in Little Rock, Ark.), Snake River (Snake River Sporting Club in Jackson Hole, Wy.), Columbia River (Columbia Park Golf Links, a par-3 course in Kennewick, Wash.) and Ohio River (the aforementioned Shawnee).

International river courses

For those of you interested in Canada, check out the 36-hole Kananaskis Country Golf Course (Kananaskis River), the iconic Fairmont Banff Springs (Bow River) or the two courses along the Brudenell River on Prince Edward Island: Brudenell River and Dundarave.

Europe has its fine river courses as well. My mind always wanders back to one, Ireland's Adare Manor, on the River Maigue - where Richard Finch went swimming with the fishes while winning the 2008 Irish Open.

Best River Courses in the U.S. you can play

Staying on this side of the pond, the River course at Kingsmill Resort in Williamsburg, Va. takes center stage this week, hosting the LPGA Tour's Silk Championship May 23-26. It is certainly one of the highlights among my latest Deegan's Dozen of America's best public courses built on a river.

Courses with only river views - like Gamble Sands in Brewster, Wash. - generally weren't considered. I'm featuring U.S. public courses that use their rivers wisely, giving golfers demanding but gorgeous holes that play directly along or over the hazard. With apologies to Finch, let's dive into the list:

Do you love a river course not on our list? What are its best river holes? Let us know in the comments below.

  1. River course at Blackwolf Run, Sheboygan, Wis.

    The Sheboygan River twists and meanders through the River Course at Blackwolf Run, almost as if Pete Dye dug the riverbank and poured the water in himself.

    That's how intimately -- and wonderfully -- the river interacts with a golf course last renovated prior to the 2012 U.S. Women's Open, adding 400 additional yards in length, refurbishing bunkers and resurfacing the greens and fairways with slick, hardy creeping bentgrass.

    The first tee introduces the river up the left side. The river's winding bank defines many of the best holes including an extended stretch from no. 5 through no. 13 (except hole 7). The fifth hole -- named "Made in Heaven" -- kick-starts a round that never lets up in its ferocity. The tee shot falls from an elevated tee to a fairway protected by a deep bunker and the river up the entire right side. The approach climbs to an elevated green. The par-3 13th is one of Dye's more controversial holes, a "dogleg" par 3 where players must shape the tee shot around towering trees. The par-5 16th might be the River's most difficult test with a tree guarding any approach to the green. Misses left at any point during the hole end up swimming in the river current.

    Golf Advisor user dahlryan sang the River's praises in his review, writing: "The River is fantastic. Definitely deserving of one of the top 20 courses in the country. With so many holes cut along the Sheboygan river, it makes for great sites on 3/4th of the holes."

  2. Crosswater at Sunriver Resort, Bend, Oregon
    View of a green at Crosswater at Sunriver Resort

    The aptly named Crosswater at Sun River by the late Bob Cupp actually crosses two rivers, the Big Deschutes and Little Deschutes.

    Water hazards are a big reason Crosswater remains one of the West Coast's most respected tournament course. It has hosted the PGA Professional National Championship four times, the PGA Tour Champions' JELD-WEN Tradition from 2007-10 and the 2006 NCAA men's Division I Championship.

    The Little Deschutes zigzags through five different holes, demanding shots over the water off the tee on nos. 5, 6 and 9 and the second shot on nos. 8 and 18. The Big Deschutes runs along the right side of hole 14.

    Golf Advisor user NWBirdieBoy shares this advice in a 2018 review: "There are several forced carries over the Little Deschutes River, so highly recommend you play the "right" tees. Design of the course is great, allowing for some bump and run shots, with large green complexes. a MUST play!!"

  3. The River course at Kingsmill Resort, Williamsburg, Va.
    Kingsmill Resort in Williamsburg, Va., offers an amenity-laden golf experience that few resorts can match.

    The River Course actually interacts with its river fewer times than most courses on this list. Where it rates highly is its well-conditioned Dye design, historic location and long run hosting the LPGA Tour. The final three holes deliver beautiful views of the James River. The par-3 17th hole nearest the river might be the most historic 177 yards in golf. It is where the Jamestown settlers actually first landed in 1607. In 1765, the Americans took defensive positions against the British in the American Revolution. A century later, the site was involved in the war among the states over slavery. A Civil War cannon and American flag near the tee celebrate this history.

    User Joshpedersen80 added this perspective in his review: "I’ve played a lot of courses on the East Coast and (holes) 15-18 is my favorite four-hole stretch period."

  4. Pete Dye River Course, Radford, Va.
    A view from Pete Dye River Course of Virginia Tech

    The New River - where I went white-water rafting in West Virginia in the 1990s - is the star of the Pete Dye River Course, home to the Virginia Tech and Radford golf teams. The river interacts with at least a half dozen holes, including both par 3s on the back nine. The clubhouse rests on a rock cliff 70 feet above, affording spectacular views of the water.

    Golf Advisor's local Virginia advisor Back9Ben compares the River favorably to other recent Dye layouts he's played, such as the Players Stadium course at TPC Sawgrass, writing: "It’s worth it for the unique layout, great conditions, and a fantastic riverfront setting. I highly recommend even for those wary of Pete Dye. This one is a true gem."

  5. Sugarloaf Golf Club & Resort, Kingfield, Maine
    No. 11 at Sugarloaf drops more than 120 feet to a green on the opposite side of the Carrabassett River.

    The stretch of holes 10-15 along the Carrabassett River are so dramatic that course architect Robert Trent Jones Jr. gave them the nickname: "String of Pearls". Golf Digest has ranked Sugarloaf the top course in Maine 29 times since 1985.

    With all this beauty comes a beast. I consider Sugarloaf among the five toughest courses I've played. There are no flat lines on hilly terrain, only numerous uphill approaches. Golfers who hit it offline will lose their share of balls in the dense forest.

    The 10th hole, a 334-yard drivable par 4, is aptly named "First Pearl". The 216-yard 11th hole, called "Precipice", drops 120 feet to a green beyond the river. Not surprisingly, only one ace has landed since the course opened. The 401-yard 13th hole ("Shimmering Birches") bends slightly left following the river. The 401-yard 14th hole was named "Hurricane Bob" after the green was washed out by the river in 1992. It's a tough hole with a sharp dogleg over the river to reach the green. Two different angles at no. 15 make "Cobbled Stone" play anywhere from 178 yards (blue tees) to 132 yards (white tees) over the river.

    Golf Advisor user Par3Chaser72 wrote this review after a five-star round in 2018: "Despite losing more golf balls than I ever had, our group had an amazing time playing Sugarloaf. From the staff to the course conditions, the round couldn't have been any better. We heard about the "String of Pearls" before coming up but it's definitely better in person. The views on 10 and 11 are some of the best holes I have ever played."

  6. River Islands Golf Club, Knoxville, Tenn.
    View of the 3rd hole at River Islands Golf Club.

    Arthur Hills used the river as creatively as any architect on this list at River Islands, designing five holes on an island within the French Broad River, plus four additional holes along the river's edge. The tee shot of the par-3 third hole takes golfers into the river, kickstarting a fun 3-5-3-5 stretch of pars interacting with the water. Another 5-3-5-3 run of river holes starts at No. 14 along the mainland. The par-3 15th and par-5 16th occupy the land in the river before the final two holes run along the opposite bank. Golf Advisor user nwalker enjoyed his round last December, writing: "This course is very scenic with the river views. It is in great condition and play is challenging. From the forward tees, it is an enjoyable day of golf."

  7. Shawnee Inn and Golf Resort, Shawnee on Delaware, Pa.
    This bridge leads to the holes of Shawnee Inn & Golf Resort on the island in the middle of the Delaware River.

    George Washington and his army crossed the Delaware River three times during the Revolutionary War in 1776. Can you do it twice with two confident golf swings on the same day?

    The historic golf course at the Shawnee Inn & Golf Resort crosses the Delaware with its two best par 3s - the second on the Red nine and the seventh on the Blue nine. Twenty-four of the resort's 27 holes reside on an island in the middle of the Delaware River. This peaceful setting on the edge of the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area remains perfect for a tree-lined parkland course. A.W. Tillinghast designed the original layout in 1911, which was good enough to host the 1938 PGA Championship won by Paul Runyan over Sam Snead. William Diddle added another nine holes, spread throughout the original layout, in 1963. Four years later, a young up-and-comer named Hale Irwin won the 1967 NCAA Championship there.

    No river course has suffered more natural disasters than Shawnee, which has made comebacks from major flooding in 2004, 2005 and 2006. The river threatened again twice in 2011.

    Golf Advisor user GeauxIrish2018 handed out four stars in a 2017 review, writing: "Overall the Course is beautifully and majestically nestled among the Delaware River Valley."

  8. Rivers Edge, Shallotte, N.C.
    Rivers Edge is one of the best courses in North Carolina.

    A third of the holes at Rivers Edge - six of the 18 - sit directly on the Shallote River. Since River Edge is located on the northern edge of the Lowcountry, much of the river looks more like marshland than river. Golf Advisor users have ranked the Arnold Palmer design among the top courses in North Carolina in 2016 and 2017. The finishing stretches of each nine (holes 8-9 and 15-18) are where the fun with the river lurks. The ninth hole is nicknamed "Arnie's Revenge". General Manager Jason Monahan calls it one of the hardest holes on the East Coast. "The green sits well out into the Shallotte River," he noted in an e-mail. "We have many locations (where) balls can be lost, especially on the six river holes. There are limited bail out areas, if any!"

    Last year's wet weather didn't do the course any favors. Golf Advisor user mikemckerlie handed out four stars after his October round last fall, writing: "Coming off 2 hurricanes and previous day's rain, the course was very wet but still playable. Sand traps have been devastated and need to be refilled with sand. Course layout is challenging but fair with some spectacular views over the marshes and river."

  9. The River at Queenstown Harbor, Queenstown, Md.

    Several holes of the River course at Queenstown Harbor, an original Lindsay Ervin design (1991), were moved closer to the Chester River during a renovation completed in 2011. The three most prominent river holes are nos. 2, 5 and 14. Each runs along or up to the mighty Chester River just before it reaches the Chesapeake Bay. No. 2 is a short par 3 with a well-protected green near stay-and-play cottages near the river. The long par-5 fifth heads straight out with a green positioned overlooking the river, the northern tip of nearby Kent Island and the Chesapeake Bay Bridge in the distance. The 14th hole, following the river, features a prominent spot for pictures looking up the bay into Baltimore. At this spot sits a sign celebrating the inspiration behind the Star Spangled Banner. Golf Advisor user rabshire called the course "A delight. Each hole a different challenge. Great views."

  10. The River Course at Sevierville Golf Club, Sevierville, Tenn.
    Water lurks everywhere on the first 12 holes of the River course at Sevierville Golf Club.

    The River Course at Sevierville, a 7,120-yard municipal course built in 2008, was rated No. 1 in the state and No. 28 nationally by Golf Advisor users in 2018, ranking higher than its sister Highlands course. There's so much water it's hard for golfers to tell if they've hit into a water hazard or the Little Pigeon River that winds along the first, second and seventh hole on the mainland and three others, holes 3-5, on islands of land in the river. Golf Advisor user Albert8041332 gave his experience four stars, writing: "The lower 12 holes of the course along the river are very windy a lot of the time since there are few trees or hills to block the wind. ... I play this course a few times each year and enjoy the challenge. When you cross the road there are 4 holes that are in the hills and trees, which gives you a substantial change up."

  11. Crescent Pointe Golf Club, Bluffton, S.C.
    The 17th hole at Crescent Pointe Golf Club runs along the Colleton River.

    The Colleton River might have more golf holes on it than any river in America. A series of private clubs share the Colleton's riverbanks with Crescent Pointe - the East course at Belfair Golf Club and the Jack Nicklaus course and Pete Dye course at the Colleton River Club. Crescent Pointe, a 6,773-yard Arnold Palmer course dating to 2000, finishes the day with three holes running parallel to the river. Roughly 16 total holes require a forced carry of some kind, so bring a few balls. The ninth green might be the most dramatic moment, rising from the marsh as an island par 3. Golf Advisor user StevieJay33 praised new management in a review from 2018, adding: "Good test of golf from the correct tee markers, and some very beautiful views (9 and 17 come to mind.) Great value for the price."

  12. Harbor Shores, Benton Harbor, Mich.

    It's hard to call Harbor Shores a 'river' course because the Jack Nicklaus design traverses through multiple ecosystems - dunes on the shores of Lake Michigan, hardwood forests and finally, a watershed featuring the Paw Paw River, Ox Creek and wetlands. The river comes into play on three dramatic holes near the end of the round, playing a major part in who wins the KitchenAid Senior PGA Championship (held every other year starting in 2012 and under contract through 2024). I haven't been to any of the senior majors, but the Champions for Change grand opening at Harbor Shores, featuring Nicklaus, Tom Watson, Arnold Palmer and Johnny Miller, was one of the coolest golf events I've attended. Check out some photos of the Paw Paw River holes in the gallery above. The river runs along the right side of three holes: The 450-yard 14th hole, the longest par 4 on the course; the 549-yard, par-5 15th, where it crosses the front of the green as well, and the 420-yard 18th hole.

    Golf Advisor user mriemer01 treats himself to a round at Harbor Shores once a year, writing in a 2017 review: "It is spectacular! Built on reclaimed land that used to be swamp & heavy industrial; it's pristine now. Right on Lake Michigan. It's got everything: water, sand, elevation changes, woods, grasses & length! Bring your A game!"

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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America's best river courses you can play