The 10 most controversial courses in golf

Chambers Bay to TPC Sawgrass: 10 of golf's most polarizing courses

The 2015 U.S. Open at Chambers Bay near Seattle was certainly entertaining. Part of it, of course, had to do with the drama on the last few holes, but much of it had to do with the United States Golf Association going way out on a limb to stage the national championship on a course that wasn't just different, but radically different than any other U.S. Open sites before it.

Chambers Bay made many of us forget about the controversy surrounding the redesign and setup of the new Pinehurst No. 2 from 2014. From Gary Player's rant to Billy Horschel's mockery of the greens conditions, Chambers Bay may have been the most scrutinized major venue in the last 50 years.

Still, the golf course had its defenders, from the architect, Robert Trent Jones II, of course, to Greg Norman, who was doing commentary for Fox Sports. Undoubtedly, some of the players probably even liked it (despite reports otherwise) and if you check out our reviews on Golf Advisor, there are plenty of others who have enjoyed playing this unusual links design.

All this got us to thinking: Chambers Bay certainly is polarizing. Golfers seem to hate it or love it, but the list doesn't end with Chambers Bay. Here's a look at 10 courses that have gotten their share of accolades and scorn.

1. Chambers Bay, University Place, Washington

Let's start with the positives. Chambers Bay is on a spectacular site. The view from the restaurant and upper tees is unmatched with the Puget Sound, trains running along the finishing stretch and ruins from the old mining site. If you like playing the ball on the ground, this is your course, with myriad angles, tee options and creative shot opportunities. Its critics cite the fact that it's a long walk (near 8,000 yards with lots of difficult climbs) and you can't take a cart. Green fees are a little on the pricey side, especially for a municipal with no real clubhouse ($299). Something more in line with Bethpage Black, another U.S. Open venue ($165 for out-of-state), would be more palatable. Fescue greens with poa encroachment have struggled almost since Day 1.

2. Stadium Course at PGA West, La Quinta, California

It's been called the hardest course in the world, and not surprisingly, it's not the only Pete Dye course on our list. With its forced carries, scores of pot bunkers, forced carries over water and difficult greenside chips and pitches, this is a grind for PGA Tour players and recreational players alike. Many regulars at PGA West (which has nine courses), only play the Stadium occasionally because it can be too taxing. Visitors, however, love to take it on, and many don't care what they shoot. In truth, there are several Dye courses that are more difficult. Pound Ridge and French Lick (no. 6) on this list, come to mind. And the course has actually been softened in recent years with the removal of gorse-like brush that used to swallow up golf balls with regularity.

The course returns to the PGA Tour in 2016 with the Career Builder Classic. It's been 19 years since it's first and only time hosting the pros, so we'll see if the modern game finds the test any easier.

3. Trump National Los Angeles, Rancho Palos Verdes, California

If you're talking about polarizing golf courses, then you have to include one of the most polarizing owners, Donald Trump. The best example of a course that solicits a wide range of opinions would be Trump National L.A., originally designed by Pete Dye. It not only has ocean views throughout, but also cascading million-dollar waterfalls, thanks to an extensive redesign following Trump's purchase of in 2002. At a total cost of $264 million (much of this price tag incurred after the 18th hole fell into the ocean right before it was scheduled to open as Ocean Trails Golf Club), this is perhaps the most expensive golf course ever built. It's also expensive to play, up to $280 for the regular daily green fee. Yes, it's over the top, perhaps somewhat pretentious and fairly difficult, but like many on the list, ordinary golfers seem to love the experience.

4. Dove Mountain Golf Club, Marana, Arizona

Almost immediately when the former Ritz Carlton Golf Club at Dove Mountain near Tucson opened in 2009, it drew PGA Tour players' ire. Competitors in the WGC-Match Play said the greens (on the Saguaro/Tortolita combo) were too severe, especially for the length of the course, with two-putts nearly impossible from certain spots on greens. Nicklaus listened and softened some of the greens, and moved a couple of bunkers after the first year of the event. In his defense, he designed the course for match play, which gave shorter hitters with superior wedge games a fighting chance on the par 5s that their opponents could hit in two.

The newest course in the St. Andrews Trust is beautiful, challenging and certainly a worthwhile experience for anyone who makes their way to St. Andrews, Scotland. Designed by David McLay Kidd of Bandon Dunes fame, the Castle Course, (some six centuries after the Old Course), is a scenic golf experience right on St. Andrews Bay, but out of town and away from the other six courses in the Trust. The charge was that the greens may have been a bit overbearing, there are plenty of opportunities for lost balls, and it's just too darn difficult, especially the 17th, a long par 3 over the sea and onto a difficult green (which has since been softened). Still, it seems most visitors love the experience, but there were quite a few on our boards who said, "don't bother: spend your time on the courses at St. Andrews."

6. Pete Dye Course at French Lick (Indiana) Resort

Out in the middle of nowhere, the Pete Dye Course at French Lick (Ind.) Resort is one of the most beautiful and difficult courses you will ever play. Perhaps it's too difficult, no matter what tees you play. You not only have to hit fairways but you really have to work the ball into the slopes of the fairways or they will run out into thick rough. Couple that with the fact that there's hardly a level lie on the course, missing greens by a couple of yards often brings big numbers into play and the hefty green fee ($400-plus), and you can understand why the course has its critics.

Designed by Greg Norman with Sergio Garcia, the AT&T Oaks Course is one of the most difficult courses on the PGA Tour. Its difficult bunkering (there's a par 3 with a bunker in the middle of it, ala Riviera) and tight fairways (where you could lose a ball that rolled just off the cart path) frustrate resort guests and tour players alike. The course may be gaining favor, however, in the last couple of years, with superb conditioning and perhaps a turning of the tide of PGA Tour players' opinions. They seem to like some modifications that have been made on the course in recent years and are beginning to respect the course as a different, but difficult test. Oddly enough, there are two courses at TPC San Antonio, and the other one, the AT&T Canyons Course designed by Dye, is far easier.

8. PLAYERS Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass, Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida

Some view this Pete and Alice Dye course, home of the perhaps the most recognizable par 3 in the world, as an American classic. Many golfers love to play it because they know all the holes, including, of course, the island green 17th. It's been tweaked often and gets better with age. Critics say, however, that many of the holes aren't anything special and the green fee -- at up to $450 -- is out of whack. Since the Players Championship moved back to May, it's also no longer overseeded, so if you play it during the winter, conditioning can be suspect. Additionally, it's always cart path only, which doesn't sit well with those paying the high green fees.

9. Dubsdread (No. 4) at Cog Hill, Lemont, Illinois

It's called Dubsdread because bad golfers dread playing this difficult course. It is, however, easy on the eyes. Some PGA Tour players, most notably Phil Mickelson, however, were extremely critical of Rees Jones' recent renovation of this 1964 Joe Lee/Dick Wilson design near Chicago, saying entry to the greens was blocked by Jones' excessive bunkering, forcing players to hit high, soft shots to get on the greens. For the average golfer, it can be nearly impossible. Some of the greens, however, do have entries that aren't guarded by deep bunkers, and Cog Hill has three other courses that are considerably easier. Dubsdread was meant to be difficult, and it is.

10. Straits Course at Whistling Straits, Sheboygan, Wisconsin

If you talk to recreational golfers who have played Pete Dye's Straits Course at Whistling Straits, there's no doubt in their minds it should be a top 50 course in the United States. Walking out to the first tee, the course opens up to a spectacular links-looking landscape on Lake Michigan. And though it looks extremely difficult, most golfers are surprised to find out that with the help of caddies, it's actually difficult to lose a ball. Critics, however, point out that the course is unnatural, that more than a million cubic yards of dirt were moved at this former flat military base. And there are way too many bunkers –- around 1,000 of them –- and some are hard to identify. Just ask Dustin Johnson, who didn't realize he was in one during the 2010 PGA Championship and was penalized for grounding his club, ultimately missing out for a chance to join a playoff.

What do you think about these courses? Are some too hard or not worth the money? Let us know in the comments below.

Mike Bailey is a senior staff writer based in Houston. Focusing primarily on golf in the United States, Canada, the Caribbean and Latin America with an occasional trip to Europe and beyond, he contributes course reviews, travel stories and features as well as the occasional equipment review. An award-winning writer and past president of Texas Golf Writers Association, he has more than 25 years in the golf industry. Before accepting his current position in 2008, he was on staff at PGA Magazine, The Golfweek Group and AvidGolfer Magazine. Follow Mike on Twitter at @MikeBaileyGA and Instagram at @MikeStefanBailey.
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I think Wynn and Shadow Creek are awfully polarizing.  Both have 500 dollar fees and mandatory caddie tips igniting "Is it really worth it" and "I would never pay that much for a round of golf" comments with equally valid "Do it at least once" or "Yes it's that amazing/exclusive/posh" responses.

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Same with Pebble Beach ! $500.00

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Several years ago I finished playing PGA West swearing I would never do so again. Simply stated, I like golf too much to get this mad by it.  I don't mind difficult, but the Stadium Course is stupid hard-unnecessarily penal for missing a fairway or a green, with few level lies even in the middle of the fairway

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Just got through playing Whistling Straits and I agree with your comment that a good caddy helps tremendously.  We had a great one and he was spot on with direction and spots to putt at to get a par [or a BIRDIE...once].  A truly enjoyable experience from the proper tees.

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Chambers Bay to TPC Sawgrass: 10 of golf's most polarizing courses