Golf Getaways: The best island escapes in winter

Island golf is the best kind of golf to play in the winter.

When you leave the mainland, it's like leaving your worries and cares behind.

The palm trees are swaying. The sun is shining. The golf selfies you post on Instagram are making family and friends painfully jealous. Island golf has a way of soothing the soul.

Looking for a golf escape this winter?

Weather plays as big of a part as the courses in my latest Deegan's Dozen: A collection of 12 of the best island getaways in winter. We're in search of islands that are in their peak season when temperatures are at their highest.

For example, clearly Kiawah Island and Hilton Head Island, both off the coast of South Carolina, rank among America's best golf islands, but the wintertime isn't the best season to go due to unreliable winter warmth. Kiawah does offer major value for the Ocean Course in packages, where you can stay and play for about half of what a round alone costs in the peak season.

Similar discounts could be had to play the famed Harbour Town Golf Links, Atlantic Dunes and Heron Point at Sea Pines Resort on Hilton Head. Amelia Island, another strong candidate off the coast of Florida, might have made it if not for the surprise closure of the Ocean Links at the Omni Amelia Island Plantation Resort in November 2017 (although it may reopen someday).

Distance was also a factor. As much as all of us would love to hit Australia, New Zealand and Tasmania - all islands - for a dreamy winter escape, it's just not likely for North Americans without a second mortgage.

Here's a look at my favorite islands for a warm-weather golf getaway:

12. St. Simons Island, Ga.

The par 4 at no. 13 delivers the signature moment on the Seaside Course at Sea Island Resort.

Best courses: King and Prince; Plantation, Seaside and Retreat courses at Sea Island.

Comment: Winter weather can be iffy for golf, otherwise this home base for more than a dozen PGA TOUR pros would rank higher. The three courses at Sea Island are only open to resort guests. Both the Seaside (required caddies) and Plantation courses team up to host the TOUR's RSM Classic every fall. The King and Prince is more affordable and player friendly at 6,462 yards.

11. New Providence Island, Bahamas

Royal Blue Golf Club, a Jack Nicklaus Signature design, is the featured course for the Baha Mar Getaways experience, July 4-7.

Best courses: Ocean Club, Royal Blue at Baha Mar. Great Exuma Island: Sandals Emerald Reef. Abaco: The Abaco Club.

Comment: The Bahamas are a coveted winter getaway, but there are logistic issues for golf. To see the best courses, golfers have to island hop from resort to resort. Your best bet is a trip to Nassau, where the new Royal Blue course by Jack Nicklaus is impressing golfers. Just a short drive away is Atlantis and The Ocean Club on Paradise Island, the annual host of the LPGA Tour's season-opening event every January/February. If you do want to explore other islands, Sandals Emerald Reef on Great Exuma will wow you. Trying to hit Greg Norman's narrow, hazard-laden fairways in the wind can be a nightmare, though.

10. St. Kitts & Nevis

The 17th at Royal St. Kitts Golf Club is a scenic challenge.

Best courses: Royal St. Kitts, Four Seasons Nevis.

Comment: Although St. Kitts and Nevis are two separate islands, they operate as the same country under one government. Whereas traveling between the Bohemian islands can be difficult, it's only a 20-minute water taxi from St. Kitts to Nevis. Both courses have their merits - the dramatic closing stretch on the Caribbean Sea at St. Kitts compared to the hilly terrain and panoramic ocean vistas of the Robert Trent Jones Jr. course at the Four Seasons. If several new golf course developments on St. Kitts ever move forward, this is a destination with loads of potential, as I witnessed on a trip in 2017.

9. Oahu

A bird's-eye view from a helicopter on Turtle Bay's Arnold Palmer Course.

Best courses: Ko Olina, Palmer course at Turtle Bay Resort, Ewa Beach, Hawaii Prince.

Comment: Oahu gets a bad rap as Hawaii's most touristy island. It's still got an interesting and diverse golf scene with more than 20 courses. Ko Olina hosts the LPGA Tour. Surfers flock to the wild waves of the North Shore, while golfers navigate the undulating greens of Turtle Bay's Arnold Palmer course, a past host of the Champions Tour and LPGA Tour. Sadly, the pandemic has claimed Ko'olau, permanently closing what might have been the hardest course in America. The 27-hole Hawaii Prince and Ewa Beach courses are essentially neighbors, sharing a dry corner of the island near Honolulu.

FROM $257 (USD)
OAHU | Enjoy 4 nights' accommodations at Turtle Bay Resort and 2 rounds of golf at Turtle Bay Resort’s Palmer & Fazio Courses.

8. Bermuda

The fifth -- known as the "Cape" -- is perhaps the most famous hole at the Mid Ocean Club in Bermuda.

Best courses: Mid Ocean Club, Port Royal, Tucker's Point, Turtle Hill.

Comment: Bermuda's stunningly beautiful one-two punch of Mid Ocean and Port Royal, former hosts of the PGA Grand Slam of Golf, can stand with any on this list. The caveat is its location off the coast of North Carolina brings cooler, wetter weather than the Caribbean. Turtle Hill, a scenic executive course at the Fairmont Southampton, annually attracts golfers from Europe and America for the World Par 3 Championship.

7. Barbados

General view of the 7th hole taken during a photo shoot of Sandy Lane Golf Course held in April, 1997 in St James, Barbados.

Best courses: Royal Westmoreland; Apes Hill; Green Monkey and the Country Club at Sandy Lane Resort.

Comment: High prices attract a high-end crowd to Barbados. Golf is quite expensive and highly rewarding. Tiger Woods got married at the exclusive Sandy Lane, where two Tom Fazio courses dazzle. Fazio carved the Green Monkey from a rock quarry.

6. Puerto Rico

A view over the water from East Course at TPC Dorado Beach

Best courses: Bahia Beach, Royal Isabela, El Conquistador, TPC Dorado Beach East. Coco Beach.

Comment: Puerto Rico has made strides recovering from Hurricane Irma, which destroyed much of the island's infrastructure in 2017. After multi-million-dollar renovations, most of its top golf resorts - such as the Dorado Beach, Ritz-Carlton Reserve; St. Regis Bahia Beach and El Conquistador - are back, too.

5. Jamaica

No. 17 is the signature shot at White Witch Golf Course.

Best courses: White Witch, Cinnamon Hill, Tryall Club, Half Moon.

Comment: Flying into Montego Bay unveils the fab foursome of courses listed above. All are unique. Tryall, recently renovated, had a good run hosting top pros in the Johnny Walker Classic. The White Witch starts with one of the scariest opening holes in golf, but unfortunately has been closed since the pandemic started in 2020 and hopes to reopen in 2022. Cinnamon Hill takes golfers right to the shore on the front nine, while the back nine explores the jungle on higher ground, finishing with back-to-back par 5s. No. 17 features a green framed by the ruins of an aqueduct built in 1761. Half Moon, an RTJ Sr. course updated by his associate Roger Rulewich in 2005, packs a punch, despite being the least scenic.

4. Maui

The Plantation Course at Kapalua roams up and down the hills of Maui.

Best courses: Emerald and Gold courses at Wailea, Plantation Course at Kapalua, Royal and Kai courses at Ka'anapali.

Comment: The Plantation course at Kapalua - one of the world's rare par-73 courses - steals the show on Maui and was recently renovated in 2019. The annual PGA Tour event broadcasts the beauty of the ocean blue surrounding the Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw design every January when much of America is feeling the winter blues. The Emerald and Gold courses are almost interchangeable at Wailea. A handful of lesser known, fun tracks sit at higher elevations away from the resorts near the shore. You could easily argue Maui deserves to move up on this list.

FROM $557 (USD)
MAUI | Enjoy 4 nights' accommodations at Napili Kai Beach Resort and 3 rounds of golf at Kapalua Resort Plantation Course, Kapalua Resort Bay Course & King Kamehameha Golf Club.

3. Kauai

The scenery of the 16th hole at Poipu Bay Golf Course can't be beat.

Best courses: Poipu Bay, Puakea, Princeville Makai, Ocean Course at Hokuala.

Comment: Although the Garden Isle can be wetter than other Hawaiian islands, don't let an afternoon shower deter you from experiencing its natural wonders. Seven ocean holes make the Princeville Makai a must-see. Jack Nicklaus blessed Hokuala with one of the longest running stretches of ocean holes in the world. Tiger Woods dominated the Grand Slam of Golf at Poipu Bay, but Phil Mickelson did get a jab in, shooting 59 to win once. Puakea has been closed since the pandemic started in 2020, leaving some uncertainty about its future.

FROM $397 (USD)
KAUAI | Enjoy 4 nights' accommodations at The Westin Princeville Ocean Resort Villas and 2 rounds of golf at Princeville Makai Golf Club & The Ocean Course at Hokuala.

2. Hawaii Island

It's all ocean carry from the 272-yard tips of the third hole at Mauna Kea Golf Course on the Big Island of Hawaii.

Best courses: Mauna Kea, Hapuna, North and South courses at Mauna Lani Resort. Nicklaus course at Hualalai.

Comment: The dry Kohala coastline - shaped by volcanic rock centuries ago - wins out as Hawaii's premier golf destination. It all started at Mauna Kea, a RTJ Sr. course that opened in 1964 with a match between Nicklaus, Palmer and Gary Player. Golfers face a tough decision at Mauna Lani: Should you play the ocean holes of the South course or tackle the more challenging and strategic North course? Hualalai hosts the PGA Tour Champions every winter on its Nicklaus course. Great private clubs are more prevalent on this island than any other. If you get an invitation to play the Tom Weiskopf course at Hualalai, Nanea, Hokulia, Kukio or Kohanaiki, don't miss any of them.

1. Hispaniola

Best courses: Teeth of the Dog, Links and Dye Fore at Casa de Campo; Corales and La Cana at Punta Cana Resort & Club; Playa Grande; Punta Espada at Cap Cana.

Comment: The Dominican Republic rules the Caribbean with more seaside golf than any other island. It also edges out Hawaii because it's slightly more affordable and the weather sparkles once fall hurricane season runs its course. A relatively new highway has connected Casa de Campo with the international airport near the Punta Cana Resort & Club, allowing golfers easy access to Pete Dye's iconic Teeth of the Dog, Fazio's Corales and Punta Espanda by Nicklaus. Somewhat overshadowed by Puerto Rico despite a better golf product, the Dominican Republic regularly hosts the Corales Puntacana Resort & Club Championship every March. If you're not interesting in who's playing, tune in for the views.

HONORABLE MENTION: Hilton Head Island, S.C.; Kiawah Island, S.C.; Fripp Island, S.C.; New Zealand; Lanai, Hawaii; Providenciales, Turks & Caicos; Anguilla; Canouan Island, St. Vincent and The Grenadines; St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands; St. Lucia; Martinique; Cuba; Cozumel, Mexico; Grand Cayman, Cayman Islands; Curacao; Jekyll Island, Ga.; Daufuskie Island, S.C.; Tasmania; Australia; King Island.

FROM $257 (USD)
DOMINICAN REPUBLIC | Enjoy 4 nights' accommodations at Casa de Campo Resort & Villas and 3 rounds of golf at Teeth of The Dog, Dye Fore & The Links.

What's your favorite island for a winter golf getaway? Let us know in the comments below.


Updated 11/18/19, 04:31 PM: Updated to reflect the comeback in Puerto Rico from Hurricane Maria in 2017 and the effects of Hurricane Dorian in 2019 on the Bahamas.
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
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Commented on

How could he not mention Hilton Head Island?

Commented on

Understanding that the "islands" off the east coast are indeed islands in the true sense of the word, but I'm not sure I can agree that is possible to compare them with the like of the Caribbean etc... anyhow I have to agree in all cases on your selections having been to nearly all on your list Jeremy Hall - Merit Golf Vacations jhall@merittravel.com

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