No carts allowed: Many of America's best public golf courses are walking only

When the powered golf cart is not an option, it's usually a sign that you're playing a great golf course. Think about it for a minute: some of our country's best walking-only courses -- like Bethpage Black in New York and the Straits Course at Whistling Straits in Wisconsin -- are also major championship venues.

But what makes them so good? What is it about walking-only courses that avid golfers like?

First off, there's a certain rhythm to the game you get from walking that you don't get from using a golf cart. There are no singles in golf carts trying to fly though the front nine. And let's face it, a golf course just looks better without golf carts, both in terms of less damage to the course and no carts junking up the landscape.
Walking allows you to enjoy golf in its purest form. You walk directly to your ball, not back to the cart and to a cart path. It gives you time to think about your next shot and enjoy the walk, despite Mark Twain's assertion that golf is a good walk spoiled.

Take a caddie, and you've really enhanced your experience. And our best walking-only courses all have great caddie programs.

It also means no cart path, which means no rotten bounces from shots that barely miss the fairway. How many times would you have been better off had your wayward shot been a little more wayward and missed the cart path, instead of taking the big bounce out of bounds?

And finally, if you want golf to be a fitness sport, on foot is the way you want to go. On a championship golf course, you're looking at a minimum of six miles, or more like eight if you hit it all over the place.

So with that in mind, here's a list of the five best walking-only venues in the United States.

Bandon Dunes Resort

Located on the rugged coast of southwest Oregon, this is first walking-only modern golf destination in the United States. Since its opening in 1999 with the original Bandon Dunes Course, it's been "hoof it or don't play" (unless you have a medical exemption). And that's really the best way to enjoy this experience. The views never stop, and they're best enjoyed on foot. Plus, the courses at Bandon Dunes might be the closest thing we have to Irish links, and that, of course, includes the walking experience.

Scotsman David McLay Kidd, who also crafted the recently opened Gamble Sands, another good walking course located in central Washington, designed the original Bandon Course. Pacific Dunes, which opened in 2001, was designed by Tom Doak and is often ranked among the top two or three public golf courses in America.

Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw put together Bandon Trails (2005), which works its way into the coastal forest before finishing on the sand dunes.

And Doak and Jim Urbina designed Old Macdonald, which pays homage to golf course architect Charles Blair Macdonald.

Coore/Crenshaw also designs the fifth course at Bandon Dunes, Bandon Preserve. It's one of the best par 3s in America with ocean views on all 13 holes.

Erin Hills

At Erin Hills in Erin, Wis., which will play host to the 2017 U.S. Open (and hosted the 2011 U.S. Amateur), you have to walk and you have to take a caddie with very few exceptions. Requiring a caddie is probably wise, because this is one long golf course to walk, which explains the routine five-hour rounds, even if you're playing well and not waiting on groups in front of you. No matter how long you're out there, though, it's unlikely you'll get bored with this Michael Hurdzan/Dana Fry/Ron Whitten masterpiece, which is sort of a hybrid between links golf and super-challenging target golf in an incredible setting. With naturally rolling terrain and dramatic tees and greens perched above the horizon, the views are mesmerizing. And the golf course is difficult, to say the least, especially if it's windy. It'll be interesting to see what the best players in the world do there, especially on the difficult par-3 ninth and par-5 18th, where it seems any score is possible.

Black Course at Bethpage State Park

You can walk all five courses at Bethpage State Park on Long Island in Farmingdale, N.Y., but on the difficult two-time U.S. Open venue, the Black Course, walking is your only option. You'll have to be in shape to traverse the A.W. Tillinghast-designed Black, especially in the heat of the summer, which is why a caddie is highly recommended. Even if you play the forward tees, you still have to cover a minimum of six and a half miles, because the course can be stretched to nearly 8,000 yards. Plus, there's plenty of elevation change, both on the greens and the tees, and steep grades that golfers must climb throughout the course. Couple that with plenty of deep bunkers, looking for golf balls in the tall fescue and the course's difficulty and you've got one long walk. A pull cart, though available for $5, doesn't work too well either, so having somebody carry is well worth the caddie fee and tip.

Straits Course at Whistling Straits

There are four Pete Dye-designed courses at The American Club in Kohler, Wis., and all are excellent, but the most memorable in so many ways is the Straits Course, site of two PGA Championships and the 2020 Ryder Cup. Set on Lake Michigan in an extravagant links-like setting, it's all walking and caddies are required before twilight. Tens of thousands of truckloads of sand were imported to not only create the rolling landscape around the lake, but also to create around 900 bunkers -- about half of which are in play. Surprisingly, with the help of your caddie, it's possible to get through a round without losing a ball because the grass is generally wispy and wayward shots have a pretty good chance of finding one of these bunkers. Some folks may think the Straits Course is a bit contrived, but most golfers view it as a bucket-list experience. The views are incredible, the golf is difficult and the experience is most unforgettable.

Chambers Bay

Other than Bandon Dunes, Chambers Bay may be America's best example of links golf. Located near Seattle on Puget Sound, this Robert Trent Jones Jr. creation really does rise out of the sea, built on the emerging dunes where the sand is literally 100 feet deep or more in its highest spots. Site of the 2015 U.S. Open, Chambers Bay has undergone significant changes since it hosted the 2010 U.S. Amateur, and the USGA will do some unprecedented things in course setup, including alternating the first and 18th from par 5s to par 4s on different days (they both play as par 5s for the general public). Like Bethpage, Chambers Bay is a municipal course, but unlike the other courses on this list, there is no clubhouse, simply a starter/snack shop and a shuttle ride from the restaurant above that serves the course and visitors. It's a course that runs firm and fast, like Bandon Dunes, but also one of the most difficult walking courses on the list. Like Erin Hills and Bethpage Black, for example, it too can play 8,000 yards, and with its elevation change, it's hard on the feet, but well worth it.

Mike Bailey is a former Golf Advisor 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. He has also been 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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Commented on

Walking if great - if you are able. Walking only required eliminates players with medical issues and a significant percentage of players over a certain age. All courses should allow carts for Seniors and people with medical issues. Many or most of the very best courses allow carts and they don't damage the course or hamper play. The walking only policy is a perception issue and not fair to a substantial group of golfers.

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I wish to know to whom I should address a request for a walking exemption at Chambers Bay. Though I play about 150-200 rounds per year, with 4 titanium knee and hip replacements, walking a course is no longer a luxury I can manage.
Please advise at the earliest opportunity as I am scheduled to play Chambers Bay in about 10 days.
Thank you.

Commented on

(which probably shouldn't surprise me)   And based on the little research I've done, it appears common for the courses that encourage walking to have much higher green fees.  Perhaps that's part of how they make their business model work.   Less expensive courses try to make up the difference with having players move through at a faster rate on carts. 

Commented on

Actually walkers play the game much faster than cart ballers. The notion that walking slows the game is patently false.

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Depends on course layout

Commented on

Mike, any tips for local golfers on finding courses that encourage walking?   I'm in western North Carolina, and several courses nearby seem outright hostile to it.  lol  

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No carts allowed: Many of America's best public golf courses are walking only