How to land the toughest tee times in public golf

Every golfer knows about the toughest tee times in the game -- getting on Augusta National, Pine Valley and Cypress Point, the three most celebrated, uber-private clubs.

Sometimes, getting on a coveted public courses or private club that allows limited access can seem almost as difficult. Many top public/resort golf facilities want to maintain some sort of exclusivity by giving their guests, members or local golfers priority. They make the general public jump through hoops to play - either with tee-time limitations, extremely high prices or staying-to-play requirements. A few famous municipal courses are so swamped with residents playing that traveling golfers must work harder to secure a tee time.

As a golf writer, I've been fortunate to play many of the courses profiled in this story, but even I had a tough time getting on a few. The best advice I can offer? Book early to solve most issues of getting on these tracks. Here's a look:

10. Private clubs with unique public policies

Private clubs can make any rules they want. Hence, a few have dreamed up some interesting ways to allow the general public but limit access.

Perhaps the most unique policy is held by the private Leopard Creek Country Club, host of the European Tour's Alfred Dunhill Championship since 2011. Leopard Creek, located on the edge of the Kruger National Park in South Africa, requires a stay at one of 15 affiliated safari lodges in the park to gain access. Between the animals seen on safaris and the immaculate playing conditions on the course, golfers will have a wild time.

A leopard statue -- like this one on the fifth tee -- accompanies every hole at Leopard Creek Country Club in South Africa.

The Kingsley Club, a private club featuring a wonderfully interesting Mike DeVries design in northern Michigan, has another interesting policy. Anybody can play, as long as the head pro from a reputable home club calls and books the tee time. I guess that's The Kingsley Club's way of verifying you're not some sort of hack off the street.

The Dunes Golf & Beach Club in Myrtle Beach, S.C., offers a similar policy, but since local golf packagers and hotels are also given tee times, it's more gettable. The Kohainaki Golf & Ocean Club, a private residential community on Hawaii Island, is only public on Mondays for those with a Hawaiian driver's license. Good luck with that, mainlander, and the locals aren't likely to pony up the $275 fee. The King Kamehameha Golf Club, a private club managed by Troon Golf on Maui, has a "Guest for a Day" opportunity, currently for $225, with only one tee time per hour after 11 a.m. It is supposed to be for prospective members, but I'm guessing a tourist or two has talked their way on.

In southwest Florida, TPC Treviso Bay is one of many other private clubs that work the policy in reverse. They essentially become private during high season from December-January through April. When the snowbirds leave, they allow public play again.

9. Any exclusive resort where you must stay to play

Tiger Woods hits his third shot at the boomerang par-5 sixth hole at Bay Hill in Orlando, Fla.

I have written extensively about posh resorts that require a stay and play to get a tee time. A handful of them are current and former PGA Tour venues -- CordeValle in California, Sea Island in Georgia; the Four Seasons Resort and Club Dallas at Las Colinas in Texas; and the Bay Hill Club & Lodge, Innisbrook and PGA National Resort & Spa in Florida.

The par-5 11th hole on Manele Golf Course has a downhill fairway that kicks shots left onto the green.

The Four Seasons Lanai and Four Seasons Hualalai are in a class all their own. First, there's the plane ticket to the Hawaiian islands. Then there is the cost associated with staying at a Four Seasons just to book an expensive tee time, although you can book a round on the Manele course on Lanai without staying. Throw in the high price of everything else associated with a Hawaiian vacation (food, fun, tips, etc.) and you've got a budget buster. To be fair, they're pretty awesome rounds right on the ocean. The Nicklaus course at Hualalai hosts the Mitsubishi Electronic Championship for winners on the PGA Tour Champions circuit. The cliff-top Manele, to me, is the most enjoyable round in Hawaii.

8. Any golf course near Augusta, Ga., during the week of The Masters

Looking for a tee time during Masters week? You might have better luck finding a ticket. Most golf courses within 30 miles of Augusta, Ga., try to cash in during tournament week. Even jacked-up prices don't stop the tee sheets from booking up in a hurry.

Even with six courses, staying or playing at Reynolds Lake Oconee isn't an option without an advanced booking of at least 6-8 months.

The Club at Jones Creek and The River Golf Club charge between $500 to $1,000 per foursome, a big jump from their normal rates. The Forest Hills Golf Club and the Goshen Plantation Golf Club in town are a little more forgiving on the wallet.

Even some of the area's private clubs open their doors once a year for a healthy profit, most notably Sage Valley Golf Club, Palmetto Golf Club, Augusta Country Club and Champions Retreat Golf Club.

7. Any bucket-list links in the British Isles in summer

Many of the trophy links in Scotland and Ireland need to be booked at least a year in advance, says Marty Carr, the owner and founder of Carr Golf, an international tour operator based in Ireland. Visitor tee times at these member clubs are limited, and their popularity with American golfers fuel a supply crunch. He indicated in an email that Royal Troon and Carnoustie Golf Links in Scotland and the Old courses at Ballybunion and Portmarnock Golf Club in Ireland and Royal Portrush in Northern Ireland are all but sold out for 2017. Northern Ireland's Royal County Down has become even more difficult to access after being anointed the No. 1 course in the world by Golf Digest last year. The Renaissance Club, a private club adjacent to Muirfield in East Lothian, Scotland, offers a "One Time Experience Programme," where non-members can play the links, although each request is considered on an individual basis, according to the website

Northern Ireland has one Open Championship host: Royal Portrush Golf Club's Dunluce Links.

As for non-links, Ireland's magical Old Head of Kinsale -- primarily an International members club these days -- has also become very tight in availability. It only opens from May to September with 15-minute intervals for tee times. The Carnegie Club at Skibo Castle in Scotland allows two public four-balls per day at £300 (including lunch) Monday through Friday from May to September. Scotland's Loch Lomond remains virtually impenetrable as a private club, a rarity overseas.

Conversely, the opposite is true in winter in America. Tee times can be scarce during peak season (January thru April) on the best public courses in warm-weather hotbeds such as Naples, Fla.; Scottsdale, Ariz.; California's Coachella Valley and other popular winter escapes for snowbirds.

6. Pebble Beach Golf Links

The legendary seaside wonder (click here for a hole-by-hole tour) in California's beautiful Monterey Peninsula keeps its tee sheets exclusive by only allowing guests who book golf packages at the Lodge at Pebble Beach or the Inn at Spanish Bay to guarantee tee times. The cost for an overnight ($750-plus) and green fee ($525 plus if you want a caddie) scares off most golfers. Pebble Beach does allow non-resort guests to book a tee time within 24 hours or try to walk on the day of, but I've never met anybody who has tried either avenue. If you have, I'd love to hear about that experience.

5. Shadow Creek Golf Club

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

In the early days, Shadow Creek was golf's unicorn, a beautiful, mythical creature everybody talked about but nobody had seen. It didn't have a website. Playing Tom Fazio's ode to the Carolinas just a short limo ride from the Las Vegas Strip, paid for by casino mogul Steve Wynn, was virtually impossible unless you were some combination of rich, famous or connected. Shadow Creek held the dubious honor of being golf's most expensive tee time ($500) for many years before Pebble Beach bumped its rates up last fall. Canadian prime ministers and U.S. presidents have been told they couldn't play since they weren't staying at an MGM property, a prerequisite for nabbing a tee time.

The club has come out of the shadows somewhat in recent years, creating a website and opening its gates for fans attending the Michael Jordan Celebrity Invitational from 2011-14. It still only allows a couple groups a day, however, and sometimes will close unexpectedly if a VIP shows up. Pray that M.J. or Matt Damon or George Clooney is playing Cascata the day your group is scheduled for Shadow Creek.

4. South course at Torrey Pines

The famous par-3 3rd hole at Torrey Pines South has an infinity backdrop.

Brandon Tucker's recent visit to Torrey Pines got the scoop for those looking for a tee time at this famous cliff-side muni, host of the 2008 U.S. Open (The U.S. Open returns again in 2021). There are essentially three ways to get on for non-residents:

* Call the reservation system direct. In order to book an advanced tee time 8-90 days out, it's another $45 (non-refundable) per golfer due up front in addition to the green fees of $192 weekday and $240 holidays and weekends.
* Book a stay-and-play package with two partner properties, the Lodge at Torrey Pines or the Hilton Torrey Pines. Course officials told Tucker the Hilton -- a fine hotel overlooking the South Course -- doesn't always use their allocated rounds, so check in with them first.
* Use with the walk-up times reserved each morning (the first 30-60 minutes) on a first-come, first-serve basis.

Getting on the North course isn't as tough, but that may change with the recent upgrades and changes made by Tom Weiskopf.

3. Bethpage Black

On an island full of exemplary private courses, Bethpage Black is among the country's most storied munis.

It's still amazes me that golfers are such gluttons for punishment. Playing Bethpage Black, the muni on Long Island, N.Y., that hosted the U.S. Open in 2002 and 2009, can feel like a root canal if you're not playing well. Getting a tee time can be even more painful, although at $150 on weekends for non-residents, it is easily the most affordable U.S. Open venue to play.

When I visited in 2014, I was told the days of sleeping in your car are over, but it still happens. Getting there early remains the best way to guarantee a tee time. Early morning walkups are eligible for the first hour of tee times (six foursomes) and one walk-up foursome per hour.

Using the phone reservation system (reachable at 516-249-0707) can be a crap shoot at best. New York state residents can make tee times seven days in advance. Non-residents can only make reservations two days in advance, opening up at 7 p.m. and closing at 11:59 p.m. the night before. (See the complete rules here).

A Michigan buddy of mine who wanted to play the course last October used an all-hands-on-deck strategy. All four guys created user accounts and started calling as soon as the system would allow. One golfer got through within five minutes of trying, but the earliest tee time available was 1:50 p.m. on their day of choice, which wasn't ideal given the limited daylight in late fall. They got to the course around 10 a.m. that day and secured a standby tee time at 12:30 p.m. and cancelled their later round. They followed a similar strategy the next day, showing up at 7:30 a.m. for a 2 p.m. tee time. They played nine holes on the Yellow course to kill some time and were bumped up to another 12:30 p.m. standby tee time.

"All in all, it was pretty easy for us, but it was very late in the season, so there were no lines," he wrote in an email. "The only problem turned out that I got a $20 fine in the mail last week because apparently we didn't cancel one of our placeholder tee times. I can't reserve another tee time until I pay it."

I should note that big-city munis, in general, can be tough to crack for out-of-towners. Memorial Park in Houston, TPC Harding Park in San Francisco, Coronado Golf Course in San Diego and others can be difficult to get on at different times of the year.

2. Muirfield

Getting inside the gates to play Muirfield isn't easy. Visible is the flag at No. 18.

Carr says Muirfield in East Lothian, Scotland, "is by far the most challenging course in the UK to get on … unless you book a year out." Guest play is only permitted Tuesday and Thursday and is foursomes in the morning only.

There are more scenic links, but Muirfield is without peer when it comes to delivering an "experience." Established in 1891, the club -- home to the The Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers, the oldest golf club in the world dating to 1744 -- hosted its 16th Open Championship in 2013 and is eligible to host again with the recent vote opening the all-male club to women members.

Muirfield holds tight to its traditions. Jackets and ties are required just to enter the historic clubhouse, home to a treasure trove of golf artifacts and a lunch buffet that's required dining. Staying at the adjacent Greywalls Hotel, where at least six Muirfield Open winners have stayed, is another way to secure a coveted tee time.

1. Old Course at St. Andrews

The Old Course hosted the 2015 Open Championship, won by Zach Johnson.

The Links Trust -- the group that manages all seven courses for the town of St. Andrews, Scotland -- is revamping its tee times rules for the Old Course in 2018. The changes could make it easier, but until then, the current system remains murky to navigate for first-timers:

• Contact the Links Trust at its website,, in the fall requesting a date and tee time for your group the following season. Be aware that busy dates often get rejected.

• Enter the daily ballot on the website, drawn two days prior to the day you want to play. Results are posted at 4:30 p.m. every day, so that leaves golfers time to cancel existing tee times if they get on or book another course if they don't.

* Buy a guaranteed-tee-time golf package controlled exclusively by the Old Course Experience, which can either sell direct to customers or to other golf package companies. This method has led to a huge markup in the Old Course tee times and often forces leisure groups to either skip the Old or take their chances in the daily ballot.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Since the Sheep Ranch is an unofficial course at Bandon Dunes Golf Resort in Oregon with 13 greens and a handful of tees and fairways, we didn't include it in the story. The reality is it ranks right up there among the toughest tee times in golf to get. You have to know the right person to call to provide directions and unlock the gate for your group. It's the only way to book the course for half a day (costing $100 a player) until the site is turned over to Gil Hanse to design the resort's fifth 18-hole course. Good luck solving Bandon's 'open' secret.

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.
Commented on

I went to Pebble for my 50th birthday in December 2015 and had actually made a tee time a week or so in advance as a single. When I discovered the day(the Sunday before my birthday) I planned on playing was going to be a wash out, I called the reservations line two days before my tee time and explained my situation. An absolutely incredibly nice lady  was able to change my tee time to the day of my birthday and the weather, not to mention the course, was spectacular!And to top all that off, as I was walking off the 18th green, the lady that I had spoke to (Leesa) was waiting for me and told me I had made her day on the phone that day and gifted me with a personalized Pebble Beach bag tag with my name and my birthday(Dec 15 2015) engraved on it!I am not the least ashamed to admit her incredible thoughtfulness and kindness brought a tear to my eye. I will forever be grateful to her.I think it mostly has to do with the time of year you go and how many people you are trying to get a tee time for.Just remember to be nice and respectful and you'll be amazed at what can happen. I sure was!

Commented on

Jason, I'm not sure if you were referring to 2 or more non-resort guests walking on the day of at Pebble, but I was able to get on as a single by calling 24 hours before the day I intended to play. I called immediately when that window opened and had no trouble.

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How to land the toughest tee times in public golf