How it all started: The evolution of 10 of America's best modern golf destinations

Be thankful you are a golfer today.

You've got so many choices on where to take your sticks for a golf vacation.

Think back a generation or two. Where would your father, or grandfather, go for a golf getaway? Many of today's hot golf destinations didn't exist. Streamsong Resort hadn't yet been carved out of the dunes of central Florida. The Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail in Alabama was just a figment of Dr. David Bronner's imagination. Mike Keiser was manufacturing greeting cards not developing major resorts like Oregon's Bandon Dunes and Wisconsin's Sand Valley. Herb Kohler was just the kitchen guy (or the toilet guy), not a golf maven who unleashed Pete Dye on the shores of Lake Michigan, building four courses for guests of The American Club.

Traveling to play golf is also a relatively modern pursuit. Sure, rich and talented players have been seeking out warm weather and good courses for more than a century, but the commercialization of the airline industry is what really opened it up to the masses. Once airfare became more affordable and convenient, traveling golfers began pursuit of "bucket-list" courses. Developers jumped on the craze, building courses anywhere and everywhere, creating new, modern destinations that rivaled classic destinations like California's Monterey Peninsula and the North Carolina Sandhills (ala Pinehurst).

By modern, I mean destinations that gained fame sometime in the late 1960s/early 1970s. The PGA Tour will shine a light on one this week: The RBC Heritage at Harbour Town Golf Links celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. The course's opening in 1969 and Arnold Palmer's victory at the first Heritage Classic later that year essentially put Hilton Head Island, S.C., on the map for golfers.

Every modern golf destination featured in this story had a catalyst like Harbour Town, that one course that sparked a golf revolution in the region. In this piece, I dive into the history behind 10 of America's best modern golf destinations to find out how they developed over time. If you're more interested in the evolution of more historic golf destinations like Pinehurst , N.C., and Myrtle Beach, S.C., check out this story.


Hilton Head Island, South Carolina

Harbour Town Golf Links' par-3 17th hole plays straight out towards the Calibogue Sound.

Harbour Town

Oldest public golf course: Barony course at Port Royal Golf Club (1963).
Catalyst that spurred future growth: Harbour Town Golf Links at Sea Pines Resort (1969).
Timeline of key public/resort courses built in the region: Heron Point (2007 redesign of a 1961 design called Sea Marsh) and Atlantic Dunes (2016 redesign of the 1962 design called the Ocean course) at Sea Pines Resort. Robber’s Row (1967) and Planter’s Row (1983) at Port Royal Golf Club. Shipyard Golf Club (1970). The Preserve Golf Club (1970). George Fazio (1974) and Arthur Hills (1988) courses at Palmetto Dunes Oceanfront Resort. Oyster Reef Golf Club (1982). Hilton Head National Golf Club (1989 with a major redesign in 1998 due to road construction). Old South Golf Links (1991). Arthur Hills (1991) and Robert Cupp (1993) courses at Plantation Hall Plantation. May River Golf Club at Palmetto Bluff (2004).
Comment: It's not a stretch to write that Harbour Town is one of the most influential courses in the history of American golf. Not only did it launch the careers of two legendary designers, Pete Dye and Jack Nicklaus, but it essentially transformed the island into one giant golf course, spurring frenetic growth in courses and golf resorts, so much so, that development spilled off the island into Bluffton, home to more than a dozen prime private clubs and public courses.

Jacksonville/St. Augustine/Amelia Island

Golfers have the 17th hole in the back of their mind the entire round on the Stadium Course.

The island green at TPC Sawgrass

Oldest: Ocean course at Ponte Vedra Inn & Club (1928).
Catalyst: PLAYERS Stadium course at TPC Sawgrass (1981).
Timeline: Lagoon course at Ponte Vedra Inn & Club (front nine in 1961 and back nine in 1977). Oak Marsh at Omni Amelia Island Plantation (1972). Sawgrass Country Club (1974). Valley course at TPC Sawgrass (1987). The Golf Club of Amelia Island at Summer Beach (1987). Slammer & Squire at the World Golf Village (1998). King and Bear at the World Golf Village (2000). St. Johns Golf & Country Club (2001).
Comment: Northwest Florida sports a few classic courses, but most of them were private clubs until the Stadium course at TPC Sawgrass came along. Playing the swamp-turned-stadium continues to be the driving force for the destination, all because of one hole, the island green 17th. What some golfers don't realize is staying at the Sawgrass Marriott Golf Resort & Spa can sometimes unlock tee times at Sawgrass Country Club, the course that hosted the Players Championship the first five years before it moved to Dye's masterpiece. The World Golf Village showcases golf's history, except when you step on its two modern courses by Nicklaus/Arnold Palmer and Sam Snead/Gene Sarazen. A twist of irony, no?

Gulf Coast of Florida, Alabama, Mississippi

No. 4: Kiva Dunes in the Gulf Shores area ranks as one of the best golf courses in Alabama.

Kiva Dunes

Oldest: Great Southern Golf Club (1908) in Mississippi.
Catalyst: Kiva Dunes Golf Club (1995) in Alabama.
Timeline: ALABAMA: Cotton Creek (1987) and Cypress Bend (1993) courses at Craft Farms Golf Club. Peninsula Golf & Racquet Club (1995). FLORIDA: Links (1971), Baytowne (1986), Burnt Pine (1994) and The Raven (2000) courses at Sandestin Golf & Beach Resort. Meadows (1973) and Nicklaus (1986) courses at Bay Point Resort. Kelly Plantation Golf Club (1998). Camp Creek Golf Club (2001). Shark’s Tooth Golf Club (2002). MISSISSIPPI: The Oaks Golf Club (1998). Grand Bear Golf Club (1999). Shell Landing Golf Club (2000). Fallen Oak Golf Club (2006). The Preserve Golf Club (2006). The Bridges Golf Club at Hollywood Casino (2006).
Comment: The Gulf Coast, stretching from Florida's Panhandle to Louisiana, changed forever when Kiva Dunes opened in the mid-1990s. The Jerry Pate design was the first Gulf coast course with real "Top 100" potential. More followed - notably Tom Fazio's Fallen Oak and Camp Creek and Greg Norman's Shark Tooth.

Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail, Alabama

Valley course at Oxmoor Valley

Oldest: Dogwood and Azalea courses (both 1947) at Marriott's Grand Hotel & Lakewood Golf Club.
Catalyst: Ridge and Valley courses (both 1992) at Oxmoor Valley Golf Club.
Timeline: Falls and Crossings courses (both 1992) at Magnolia Grove Golf Club. Lake (1992) and Links (1993) courses at Grand National Golf Club. Highlands (1992) and River (1993) courses at Hampton Cove. Highland Oaks Golf Club (1993). Silver Lakes Golf Club (1993). Cambrian Ridge Golf Club (1993). Legislator (1999), Senator (1999) and Judge (2000) courses at Capitol Hill. Fighting Joe (2004) and Schoolmaster (2005) courses at The Shoals Golf Club. Ross Bridge (2005).
Comment: Dr. David Bronner's amazing vision celebrated its 25th anniversary last year. Bronner, the CEO of the Retirement Systems of Alabama, followed the mantra of the movie "Field of Dreams" - If you build it, they will come - to spearhead the largest golf project ever, the building of 432 golf holes across the state. Oxmoor Valley, outside of Birmingham, was the first of eight sites across the state to open in 1992-93. After the 36-hole resort in Point Clear was acquired in 1999, two other sites, Ross Bridge and the Shoals, were completed in 2005. Stylish Marriott hotels at many of the 11 trail stops make this one of America's most affordable golf getaways.


Northern Michigan

The Heather at Boyne Highlands is one of two Robert Trent Jones Sr. golf courses in northern Michigan.

The Heather

Oldest: Belvedere Golf Club (1925).
Catalyst: The Heather at Boyne Highlands Resort (1966).
Timeline: The Bear at Grand Traverse Resort & Spa (1985). The Legend at Shanty Creek (1986). Donald Ross Memorial (1989) and Arthur Hills (1995) at Boyne Highlands Resort. Jones Masterpiece (1987), Fazio Premier (1992) and The Signature (1993) at Treetops Resort. Bay Harbor Golf Club (1997). Arcadia Bluffs (1999). Cedar River at Shanty Creek (1999). Black Lake Golf Club (2000). Forest Dunes Golf Club (2002). The Loop at Forest Dunes (2016).
Comment: Golf in northern Michigan dates back to pre-20th century when a pair of private clubs opened in Harbor Springs, the Wequetonsing Golf Club (1895) and Harbor Point Golf Club (1896). Although The Bear kicked off the region’s most significant golf boom on the public/resort side of things in 1985, it was Boyne USA Resort's visionary founder Everett Kircher who brought the first big-name architect to northern Michigan in the 1960s with the opening of The Heather by Robert Trent Jones Sr. He blazed the trail for Nicklaus (The Bear), Palmer (Shanty Creek), Tom Weiskopf (Shanty Creek and Forest Dunes), Fazio at Treetops, Rees Jones (Black Lake), Tom Doak (The Loop) and others. Today, course for course, northern Michigan compares favorably to any golf destination in America.

Milwaukee/Kohler, Wisconsin

Meadow Valleys

Oldest: Brown Deer Park (1925).
Catalyst: Meadows Valley at Blackwolf Run (1988).
Timeline: River at Blackwolf Run (1990). The Bull at Pinehurst Farms (1993). The Bog (1995). The Straits (1998) and Irish (2000) courses at Whistling Straits. Erin Hills Golf Course (2006).
Comment: Milwaukee's reputation as a blue-collar beer town took a hit when Kohler fell in love with golf and hired Dye to build four courses at The American Club an hour north of the city. The golf resort is all about the five-star luxuries of a spa and fine dining. Nicklaus (The Bull), Palmer (The Bog) and Dr. Michael Hurdzan/Dana Fry (Erin Hills) later added more star power to this unlikely golf destination. Erin Hills might never host a U.S. Open again after 2017, but the Straits course is firming entrenched with the PGA of America for the foreseeable future with the 2020 Ryder Cup and more PGA Championships likely on the way.

Central Wisconsin

SentryWorld's famous 16th hole, the "flower" hole, was mostly left intact during the redesign.


Oldest: Tuscumbia Golf Course (opened in 1898 as a five-hole loop. Expanded to 18 in 1918).
Catalyst: SentryWorld (1982).
Timeline: Lawsonia Links (1930). Woodlands at Lawsonia (1983). University Ridge Golf Club (1991). Trappers Turn Golf Club (2000). Wild Rock (2008). Sand Valley Golf Course (2017). Mammoth Dunes (2018).
Comment: SentryWorld brought "destination golf" to the badger state. Robert Trent Jones Jr. was the first "name" architect to build a course in Wisconsin. SentryWorld also features one of golf's first "destination par 3s." The beautiful 16th hole is surrounded by 33,000 flowers replanted into distinct colorful patterns every year. Architecture buffs will love the variety of the region, from the awkward berms and classic look of Lawsonia Links to the quarry holes at Wild Rock and the walking-only, sand-laced magic of the new Sand Valley Golf Resort.


Phoenix/Scottsdale, Arizona

Water surrounds the back of the green on the par-3 12th at the TPC Scottsdale Stadium Course.

Stadium course at TPC Scottsdale

Oldest: Crowne Plaza San Marcos Golf Resort and Adobe course at the Arizona Biltmore Golf Club (both 1928).
Catalyst: Stadium course at TPC Scottsdale (1986).
Timeline: South (1983) and North (1985) courses at the Boulders Golf Club & Resort. Monument (1990) and Pinnacle (1995) courses at Troon North Golf Club. Talon (1994) and Raptor (1995) courses at Grayhawk Golf Club. Cholla (2001) and Saguaro (2006) courses at We-Ko-Pa Golf Club.
Comment: Golfers were playing on sand greens in the Sonoran desert at the private nine-hole Phoenix Country Club (1898) long before Arizona became a state in 1912. Although the Valley of the Sun has always been a winter refuge, it was Jay Morrish and Weiskopf that opened the floodgates in 1986 with their ground-breaking Stadium course at TPC Scottsdale, long-time host of the Waste Management Phoenix Open. No other destination in America can match Scottsdale's collection of 36-hole facilities, major resorts, restaurants and sports calendar (baseball spring training, annual college football bowl games, 2017 NCAA Final Four in men's basketball and NFL Super Bowls in 2008 and 2015). Explosive growth continues today. The Wickenburg Ranch Golf & Social Club and its Lil Wick par-3 course in Wickenburg and the Victory at Verrado (2016) in Buckeye are less than three years old, proving there's always room for more development if it's done right.

Las Vegas, Nevada

If you're a guest at an MGM Mirage property -- and have $500 to drop on a round -- you can play Shadow Creek.

Shadow Creek

Oldest: Las Vegas National Golf Club (1961).
Catalyst: Shadow Creek Golf Club (1989).
Timeline: Palm (1989) and Mountain (1990) courses at Angel Park Golf Club. TPC Las Vegas (1996). Desert Pines Golf Club (1997). Rio Secco Golf Club (1997). Royal Links Golf Club (1998). Reflection Bay Golf Club (1998). Bali Hai Golf Club (2000). Wolf Creek Golf Club (2000). Cascata (2000). Bears Best Las Vegas (2001). Wolf at Paiute Golf Club (2001).
Comment: Turns out the land along the Strip is just too valuable to be a golf course. The real grandfather of Vegas desert golf has been plowed over twice – the Desert Inn Golf Club, opening in 1952 before the hotel and course were imploded in 2001 to make way for the Wynn towers and the Wynn Golf Club. The Wynn course suffered a similar fate, closing for good last December to make room for a future outdoor entertainment complex centered around a "lake" and more casino/hotel development. Vegas was mostly a collection of old-school, country-club-style courses until Shadow Creek came along in 1989. The Fazio design turned the local golf scene on its head with its $500 green fee and exclusive vibe. Shadow Creek's influence and cache led to a 1990s explosion of exotic projects with big green fees and top designers. The Wynn and Cascata also charged $500 a round in their heydays. Bear's Best, TPC Las Vegas, Reflection Bay, Wolf Creek, Bali Hai and Royal Links all followed suit with $200-plus green fees and plush amenities like caddies and impressive clubhouses. Vegas has suffered a rash of closures recently, but the 2017 opening of the ultra-private Discovery Land project, The Summit, proves that money will always talk in Sin City.


Bend, Oregon

The par-5 12th is a great example of Crosswater's beauty and brawn.

Crosswater at Sunriver

Oldest: Meadows at Sunriver Resort (1969).
Catalyst: Crosswater at Sunriver Resort (1995).
Timeline: Big Meadow (1970) and Glaze Meadow (1980) courses at Black Butte Ranch. Woodlands at Sunriver Resort (1982). River's Edge Golf Course (1988). Widgi Creek Golf Club (1991). Meadow Lakes Golf Course (1993). Resort (1986) and Ridge (1992) courses at Eagle Crest Resort. The Greens at Redmond (1995). Lost Tracks Golf Club (1996). Nicklaus course at Pronghorn Resort (2004). Juniper Golf Club (2005). Brasada Canyons Golf Course (2007). Tetherow Golf Club (2008).
Comment: You could argue that any of Sunriver's courses served as the catalyst. Sunriver continues to be the region's driving force. The headliner of its three courses, Crosswater hosted the 50th PGA Professional National Championship in 2017. Bend's scrub pines and rugged terrain make it a paradise for outdoor pursuits - biking, hiking, white-water rafting and golf. More Top 100 competitors emerged after the turn of the century, notably David McLay Kidd's Tetherow and the Nicklaus course at Pronghorn, elevating Bend into one of the premier golf destinations in the West not named Bandon Dunes and Pebble Beach.

EDITOR'S NOTE: For the record, golf destinations centered around one major modern resort - great spots like Bandon Dunes in Oregon and Kiawah Island in South Carolina - weren't included.

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.
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maybe I missed it but what about the Ocean Course built for the Royal Poinciana Hotel (now the Breakers) in Palm Beach, in 1897 ?

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It is too bad that your writer found it acceptable to ignore the historic courses of the West Coast that date to the start of the Twentieth Century .

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Hi Robert, California's top destinations are covered in the separate story on the evolution of "historic" destinations.

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Good list, but you are missing Palm Springs!

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Hi Greg, Palm Springs is covered in the separate story on the evolution of "historic" destinations.

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In terms of history one would think that the Donald Ross story apropos Pinehurst should merit a mention. I believe it was the first such destination to become a golf resort although initially the game there was secondary to other attractions.

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Hi Barry, Pinehurst is covered in the separate story on the evolution of "historic" destinations.

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How it all started: The evolution of 10 of America's best modern golf destinations