How to play the top 100 public courses

Playing the top 100 public golf courses: Here's how you can knock them off your list in bunches

Playing the golf courses in a top 100 list is sort of like taking a major league ballpark tour. Being able to knock them all off -- or at least most of them -- would be quite an accomplishment in a golfer's or baseball fan's life, respectively.

But how do you get started if you haven't played any of them or just a few? Where can you get the most bang for your buck? How many could you knock off in a year?

(For the record, I've played exactly half the courses on the list -- 50. I'd like to knock off at least 10 more this year. Fortunately, it's my job.)

For the purpose of this discussion, we're going to limit ourselves to something that's more achievable -- the top 100 courses you can play. In other words, no private courses. And to simplify things, we'll just use one list -- the recently published "America's 100 Greatest Public Courses" for 2015-16. The list starts with Pebble Beach Golf Links and ends with the Gold Course at Wailea Golf Club on Maui in Hawaii. I didn't add up all the mileage, but you'd be looking at tens of thousands of miles in flights and driving from Hawaii to the course farthest east on the list, Belgrade Lakes Golf Club (87) in Maine.

For the most, go west

Again, keep in mind that this is the public list, which means the concentration of top 100 courses is not in the Northeast like it is in the overall list, which is dominated by private clubs. New York, led by Bethpage Black at no. 9, leads the Northeast with three, and states like Connecticut, Vermont and even Massachusetts are not represented. So there's no need to start in the Northeast if you're going to make a big dent on the list. You can knock those out later.

Instead, head west. That's where all the great public courses are. California leads with 12, followed by Oregon and Hawaii with eight each.

So where to start? If money is no object, try Pebble Beach. Besides Pebble Beach Golf Links, Spyglass Hill Golf Course (11) and The Links at Spanish Bay (49) next door are also on the list. It's a pretty short drive to no. 44, CordeValle in San Martin, and Pasatiempo Golf Club (21), a classic Alister MacKenzie layout redone by Tom Doak, is just up the road in Santa Cruz. Figure to pay around $1,500 in green fees alone, but hey, we're talking a dream week of golf here.

So there's five right there. Head south to the Los Angeles/San Diego area and you can knock off a half dozen more in San Diego's Torrey Pines South (39), Ocean South at Pelican Hill Golf Club (61) and Ocean North at Pelican Hill Golf Club (89) in Newport Beach, Trump National Golf Club L.A. (90), Maderas Golf Club near San Diego (92) and Sandpiper Golf Club (93) in Santa Barbara.

Or you could simply go to Bandon Dunes off the coast of Oregon and check off four from one resort. That's right, Bandon comes in with Doak's Pacific Dunes (2), the Bandon Dunes Course (7), Old Macdonald (12) and Bandon Trails (T-14).

A trip to paradise would also be a great way to check them off the list, but you'll have to do some island hopping because they're spread throughout. On Maui, Kapalua Resort's Plantation Course heads the list at no. 20, followed by the Prince Course on Kauai at no. 22. The Prince Course, however, is turning private, so that'll be a tough one. Instead, a couple of miles down the road at the same Princeville Resort, take on The Makai (65), which I believe is ranked too low.

Wisconsin, Michigan and the Carolinas are also hotbeds

Okay, say you live in the Midwest or eastern part of the country, and you're not interested in a flight, renting a car or a long drive. There's good news. There are a couple of golf hotbeds near you.

If you're in the Chicago area, for example, and you haven't played Cog Hill's No. 4 Dubsdread Course (53), take on that one. And while that's the only Illinois course on the list, your neighboring states, Wisconsin and Michigan, landed seven and five courses, respectively. Like Bandon, you can knock out four by just visiting one resort -- The American Club in Kohler, Wis., where you can play this year's PGA Championship host, the Straits Course at Whistling Straits (4), the Irish Course at Whistling Straits (47) and the River Course (16) and Meadow Valleys Course at Blackwolf Run (72). Oh, and while you're at it, head a few miles south near Milwaukee and take on difficult Erin Hills Golf Course (8), host of the 2017 U.S. Open.

In Michigan, you'll pretty much want to head to the northern part of the state, led by Arcadia Bluffs Golf Course (13), Forest Dunes Golf Club (23) and Tullymore Golf Club (48).

For everyone on the East Coast looking for a shorter drive, just head to the Carolinas. Not surprisingly, North Carolina leads with seven courses, three of them from the same resort, Pinehurst. The No. 2 Course is no. 5 on the top 100 list. South Carolina, led by the Ocean Course at Kiawah Island (3) and Harbour Town Golf Links (19), has five on the list, including two from the Myrtle Beach area.

A few surprises, perhaps

You can head to Florida, of course, to play a few top 100 courses. There are five listed in the Sunshine State, led by the TPC Sawgrass Players Stadium Course (10).

More surprising, perhaps, is that Arizona doesn't have any on the list because clearly raters have a bias against desert courses. It's unfortunate because Arizona has some outstanding resort tracks in particular.

Texas has just two courses -- topped by the AT&T Oaks Course at TPC San Antonio (68) -- the same as Idaho and Indiana. Virginia, led by the Omni Homestead Resort Cascades Course (30), has four, followed by Georgia, Minnesota, Nevada, Nebraska and Mississippi with three each. In all, 30 states were represented in the rankings.

Affordable Top 100 courses

Of course, even though all the courses are technically public, most of the green fees are cost prohibitive for the average golfer. Many also require resort stays to play them, but some are more affordable than others.

For example, in Mississippi the Azaleas Course at Dancing Rabbit Golf Club (91), a wonderful Tom Fazio-Jerry Pate design that does a pretty good Augusta imitation, can be played for as little as $60 offseason. Wild Horse Golf Club (77) in Nebraska is an even better deal. Somewhat reminiscent of the higher rated courses at Nebraska's Prairie Dunes, you can play this course for $45 during the week. And three-time U.S. Open course Bethpage Black (9) on Long Island in New York is just $165 for out-of-state players and less than half of that for New Yorkers. You won't get the red carpet treatment there, but you'll be playing one of the best golf courses in the world, bar none, for about a third of the price of other courses in the category.

Mike Bailey is a 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. Before accepting his current position in 2008, he was 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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Playing the top 100 public golf courses: Here's how you can knock them off your list in bunches