Close your eyes and imagine a golf trip in ... 1899.
You're rich, because the early version of golf in America was for the social elite. You're traveling to a mountain or coastal escape, likely by train and/or horse and buggy. There are only a few choices to find a game - The Homestead (now an Omni in Virginia), Pinehurst, Palm Beach - not the hundreds of golf resorts available today.
No direct commercial flight or ShipSticks to make the trip convenient. No air conditioning when you arrive. The Davenport Hotel in Spokane, Wash., was the first to have it, in 1914.
Today's golf traveler has it so easy. No matter where you live in the United States, you can be teeing it up at Pebble Beach or Pinehurst within hours.
I don't know about you, but I don't take for granted that I'm living in the era of bucket-list travel. My parents and grandparents - and I'm guessing yours, too - didn't have the means to travel like we do today. Grand golf resorts have been built from coast to coast, and I've made it my life's pursuit to experience as many as I can. It's why my GolfPass colleagues and I spent the past year researching and creating the GolfPass U.S. Resort Guide, the most comprehensive listing of American golf resorts on the web. We want to make planning your next great golf adventures as convenient as ever.
By our count, there are roughly 800 golf resorts in America today. They come in all shapes and sizes, from 10 courses and hundreds of rooms at Pinehurst Resort to 8 holes and a handful of suites and cottages at Glenlaurel Scottish Inn and Cottages in Ohio. You can choose resorts that are a century old like the Omni Bedford Springs or ultra-modern (and almost futuristic) like Streamsong.
Gathering data about hundreds of resorts helped us gain a better understanding of how U.S. golf resorts have evolved over the past 130 years. Trends have come and gone. Out are large Olympic pools. In are elaborate water parks, slides and splash pads for kids. Traditional dark-lit, oak-lined rooms for fine dining - complete with jacket-and-tie dress code - have given away to brighter, more casual restaurants. Within the past decade, building short courses and expansive putting greens has become much more important than adding another championship test.
To get a better grasp of this evolution, let's look back at the history of resort golf in America. To accomplish this task, we broke the timeline down into 20- to 25-year periods, starting in the 1890s when golf first came to America. Most of the dates listed in the story indicate when any given resort had both golf and accommodations for the first time. For example, The American Club in Wisconsin dates to the turn of the 20th century, but Pete Dye didn't bring golf to Destination Kohler until the late 1980s. That's when it become a true golf resort. By looking back, maybe we can gain a better understanding of where resort golf might be heading in the future. To learn more about the individual resorts featured in this story, click on their links to visit their resort pages, where we showcase all of their amenities and courses.
The game of golf migrated to America from the British Isles over the span of two-plus decades around the turn of the 20th century. A number of America's elite private clubs were established at this time, but pockets of "resort" golf started to emerge in vacation destinations for those affluent enough to travel ... southeast Florida, the Sandhills of North Carolina, the mountains of Virginia. Note all of them are along the East Coast.
Notable resorts: Omni Homestead Resort (1892), Omni Bedford Springs (1895), The Breakers Palm Beach (1896), Pinehurst Resort (1898).
As America moved west, so did its love of golf. The Broadmoor, the vision of Spencer Penrose, emerged at the southern base of Colorado's Rocky Mountains. It, French Lick's West Baden Springs Hotel and The Greenbrier are three of the most historic buildings in America. Their elaborate, ornate and unique architecture is perhaps even more inspiring than the classical architecture of their courses. The outbreak of World War I (1914-1918) likely halted or delayed construction of other properties.
Notable resorts: French Lick Resort (1907), Otesaga Resort Hotel (1909), Shawnee Inn (1911), The Greenbrier (1914), The Broadmoor (1918).
Considering this era involved recovery periods following World War I and The Great Depression (1929-33), it's impressive that iconic properties like Pebble Beach and Sea Island were actually able to be built and sustained during such tumultuous times. This era of resorts is in the early stages of celebrating the century mark. Pebble Beach hosted a U.S. Open in 2019 to commemorate its 100th anniversary, a golf party impossible to top. Restoration and renovation projects probably feel like they're never-ending for their owners and operators, but there's no doubt it's money well spent to preserve such special places.
Notable resorts: Pebble Beach Resorts (1919), Mid Pines (1921) and Pine Needles (1927), Ojai Valley Inn (1923), Omni Grove Park Inn (1926), Biltmore Hotel Miami Coral Gables (1926), The Cloister at Sea Island (1928), Madden's On Gull Lake (1929), Sun Valley (1937).
Not many notable golf resorts were built during this period. World War II from 1939-1945 left the country in recovery mode until 1950. That's when the longest, most prosperous economy in American history took root. Silverado Resort & Spa added its first course in 1955, but was a private mansion that didn't transition into a resort until the 1960s. Dozens of resorts now associated with golf were founded as ski or leisure getaways during this period, but didn't add courses until much later. The many examples include Vermont's Spruce Peak (1949) and Killington (1958); Michigan's Boyne Highlands (1955), Boyne Mountain (1947), Treetops (1955), Crystal Mountain (1953) and Garland Lodge (1956); Virginia's Tides Inn (1947) and Williamsburg Lodge (1939); Colorado's Garden of the Gods (1951); Maryland's Wisp Resort (1955) and others.
Notable resorts: Cronin's Golf Resort (1945), Callaway Resort & Gardens (1952), Falconhead Resort & Country Club (1958), Tubac Golf Resort & Spa (1959).
With the economy humming like never before, commercial air travel became more affordable for the masses. The Hawaiian islands began their rise as America's dream island getaway. Lush tropical resorts with golf courses rose above the beaches on every island ... Mauna Kea on Hawaii (Big) Island, Turtle Bay on Oahu and Kapalua on Maui. Mauna Kea had the star power with Laurance S. Rockefeller as its developer and the Big Three - Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player and Arnold Palmer - opening the course with an exhibition match. Other popular vacation hotspots like Hilton Head, Myrtle Beach and Puerto Rico were also gaining momentum as future World Top 100 Golf Destinations. Many of the resorts of this era have recently been renovated to improve aging facilities. Donald Trump spent millions to reinvigorate Doral from 2012-14.
Notable resorts: Bay Hill Club & Lodge (1961), Sea Pines Resort (1962), Trump National Doral Miami (1962), Shanty Creek (1963), Mauna Kea Beach Hotel (1964), Sunriver Resort (1969), Turtle Bay Resort (1972), Innisbrook, A Salamander Golf and Spa Resort (1972), Samoset (1974), Eagle Ridge (1977), Kapalua (1978).
Spearheaded by the National Golf Foundation's proclamation that more courses would be needed to keep up with Baby Boomers as they retired, the course boom of the 1980s and 1990s created new golf resorts everywhere and prompted existing golf resorts to build additional courses. In Northern Michigan alone, the Inn at Bay Harbor (1998) highlighted a massive growth spurt that saw resorts like Grand Traverse (1980), Drummond Island (1987) and Manistee National (1994) emerge, while Shanty Creek grew from 2 to 4 courses. This nationwide expansion also included Alabama's Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail, a series of Marriott hotels adjacent to large golf complexes of 36 or more holes. Its success would spur a bunch of copycat "trails" in neighboring states in the coming years.
Notable resorts: Sugarloaf (1986), Fairmont Scottsdale Princess (1987), Sawgrass Marriott (1987), The American Club (1988), Four Seasons Resort Lanai (1993), Big Cedar Lodge (1996).
The 1999 emergence of Bandon Dunes, a remote outpost on the Oregon coast founded by Mike Keiser, changed the game for modern U.S. resorts. Walking-only courses - and hiring caddies - became en vogue again. Fun-forward short courses and putting courses, often free to use, have become popular attractions for buddies trips. The success of Bandon has emboldened developers that if you build a golf course good enough, golfers will find it no matter how remote the location. This is also the era when casinos invested in lavish courses from Connecticut (Lake of Isles) to Mississippi (Fallen Oak) and Indiana (Belterra). Out west, Las Vegas set the standard for expensive rounds with Cascata and Wynn trying to follow the trail blazed by Shadow Creek in 1990. Even California joined the gambling-and-golf blitz at Barona Creek, Cache Creek's Yocha Dehe and the Journey at Pechanga. As the pursuit of bucket-list golf became more popular, green fees skyrocketed, a war still being waged coast to coast today.
Notable resorts: Bandon Dunes (1999), Four Seasons Resort Scottsdale at Troon North (1999), Ritz-Carlton Half Moon Bay (2001), Reynolds Lake Oconee (2002), The Resort at Pelican Hill (2008), Sand Hollow (2008), The Prairie Club (2010), Arcadia Bluffs (2010), JW Marriott San Antonio Hill Country Resort & Spa (2010), Streamsong (2014), Sand Valley (2017).
The future beyond 2022
New course construction in America slowed to a crawl for several years, but key projects here and there are proving to be noteworthy. The PGA of America's massive move into the Dallas area to relocate its headquarters is building two new courses that will host major golf tournaments and house a large resort hotel at the Omni PGA Frisco. Although a few new mega-golf resorts might pop up over the next decade, the next phase of resort golf in America will likely go one of two ways: either building a boutique hotel to complement an existing course, like the one that debuted this year at SentryWorld in Wisconsin, or adding cottages/cabins/condos at a public course. Spirit Hollow in Iowa and Island Hills in Michigan are two good examples that have wisely added cabin lodging in recent years to become more intimate, stay-and-play getaways. The new Landmand Golf Club in Nebraska is following the same model, adding a few cabins to attract golfers to such a unique, out-of-the-way destination. The focus of modern course architecture has shifted toward creating fun, playable courses like Landmand over trying to build them tough enough to attract major tournaments. Tom Doak is currently building the 6,000-yard par-67 Sedge Valley at Sand Valley. Out west, Skamania Lodge near the Washington-Oregon border has ditched its 18 hole course, redesigning the land into a nine-hole short course and 18-hole putting course. These types of projects bode well for a sustainable future of the game. America probably doesn't need many more golf resorts. It needs more golfers, especially among minorities and women. By investing in all these beginner-friendly facilities and courses, golf resorts will play an important part in growing the game for the next generation.
Notable U.S. golf resorts to open in 2022: Montage Big Sky, SentryWorld, Landmand Golf Club.
Notable U.S. resorts in development: Omni PGA Frisco, Cabot Citrus Farms.