Salt Lake City: Where affordable, spectacular mountain golf reigns

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah — The Northern region of Utah is typically known for its world-class ski resorts, the 2002 Winter Olympics, the NBA's Utah Jazz and the Sundance Film Festival.

Salt Lake City, Utah's state capital and largest metro area, is not so well known for is its golf courses. At least not yet.

With a collection of surprisingly good municipal options, a handful of solid, higher-end daily fees and epic private tracks, the golf here deserves more recognition.  While service and amenities at the municipal facilities may not be top priority, the course settings, quality of the turf, design and green fees are very nice. Local golfers know they have it better than most.

As a Utah native, and growing up in the Salt Lake City area, I have been playing golf in the region since I was 8 years old. I was 11 or 12 years old when the beauty of the Utah courses captivated my mind, and I fell in love with photography and the design of golf holes.  Ultimately, this passion sparked a now very successful career as a professional golf course photographer.

Nearly 40 years later, I’ve traveled far and wide to play and photograph some of the best golf courses in the world. My travels have taken me to the smallest and cheapest munis you can imagine, to the fanciest of elite private clubs, and even to some of the most storied courses in golf. Over four decades, it’s safe to say I’ve played and photographed a few courses, and I must admit, Utah is home to some really beautiful ones. Here are some of my favorites around Salt Lake City. The best part? They can all be played for less than $100, and many of them for less than $50.

Bonneville Golf Course

Famed golf architect William P. Bell completed the full 18 holes of this classic, tree-lined layout in 1929. It could be one of the courses that inspired his son, William F. Bell, to design the famous U.S. Open venue in San Diego, Torrey Pines. Perhaps you’ve heard of it?

Bonneville is Salt Lake City’s Torrey Pines, with familiar look and feel to the hole shapes, bunkers and views. The course is located high on the benches of the city (kind of like the lofty Torrey setting minus the ocean). The layout provides epic long views of the great Salt Lake and the Salt Lake Valley.

The facility has an old-school vibe, is typically in nice shape and often features lightning-fast greens. A bit of advice though, Bonneville is typically a busy track, (because it’s pretty darn good for a muni) so definitely book a tee time in advance. (Green Fees $40-$56)

Bonneville Golf Course originally culminated a dramatic closing stretch with this beautiful par 3 as the 18th, but the routing today actually flows a bit better with this hole as #9.

The Lake & Canyon Courses at Mountain Dell

This secluded 36-hole muni gem is located about 20 minutes out of the Salt Lake Valley in Parleys Canyon on the way to Park City and sits at nearly 6,000 feet above sea level. This is one of those places that you just can’t believe it's only $56 with cart (better yet, only $40 walking!). These two William Howard Neff-designed courses have zero homes, zero distractions and present a cooler mountain escape from the city just minutes away.

Pick either course and you are in for a treat. Both layouts showcase the beautiful outdoors with secluded holes and beautiful mountain scenery. Deer are abundant, especially in the morning and evenings, but, if you’re lucky, you may see the famous Mountain Dell Moose. (Green Fees $40-$56)

Mountain Dell offers high flying tee shots at 6000 feet. Expect to pick up about 5-10% on your distance!

Bountiful Ridge Golf Club

This one fully captured me as a kid. With the evening light in pure golden goodness, Bountiful Ridge shined like Augusta National to me at the time. I had zero knowledge of municipal golf or private clubs growing up. All I knew was that this one had some really interesting hole designs that captivated my golf imagination. I dreamt about playing it.

William H. Neff created this lovely, classically styled layout within the oak-brush-covered hills just north of downtown SLC by about 20 minutes in 1975. This secret muni continues to impress even the most discerning golfers 46 years later.

Fall is a particularly amazing time to play Bountiful Ridge. The scrub oak and aspens turn bright red and yellow. While the leaves can be a pain, the golf course is spectacular. For you video game nerds out there, this course was the first course to be featured on Access Software’s popular Championship Links PC computer game in 1992. (Green Fees $36-$46)

September is an epic time to play Bountiful Ridge. The colors and light are pure awesomeness.

The Ridge Golf Club

Originally designed by William H. Neff as well, the first iteration of this muni course was called Westridge, and was considered “way out west” distance-wise, and seemed like a trek to get to.  As the Salt Lake area grew quickly, the location considered to be “way out west” soon became more and more “in town” and faced possible destruction when a freeway was slated to be routed right through the middle of the golf course.

Enter Gene Bates Golf Design.

In 2012, a massive undertaking created an entirely new 18-hole golf course and routed a major road through the property. Bates had built numerous other excellent courses in Utah (Soldier Hollow, Old Mill, Riverbend, Stonebridge) and had the experience of building on severe land and big projects with massive scale and complex challenges.

The final product is excellent. Bates created wonderfully interesting holes with cool bunkering and made it all work quite well with the new road and infrastructure demands. Anyone who has played a Bates design knows they’re in for a solid round of golf. (Green Fees $36-$52)

Bates moved a ton of dirt at The Ridge to create tunnels and space needed for a new golf course and a new major road.

South Mountain Golf Course

Gary Panks and Graham Marsh were handed a remarkable piece of land to create a high-end private, mountain-style golf course with epic views of the Wasatch Mountains and the Salt Lake Valley. Now owned and operated by Salt Lake County, South Mountain is one of the more visually spectacular layouts in the valley.

Quietly tucked into the rolling foothills of the south end of the valley, the design offers eye-candy architecture with big features, tons of elevation change and a tasty mix of holes. The golf stays remarkably interesting the entire round, as no hole setting is the same here, and while there is cohesive architecture, each playing corridor feels completely unique.

As one of the more visually stunning courses in the Salt Lake area, it’s also a challenging play with demanding shots, and perhaps could be considered a design geared more towards better players. However, even with the tougher look, it is a beautiful location and a lovely place to play or ride along. (Green Fees $36 -$55)

Spectacular views and captivating hole designs are challenging and make South Mountain one of the more interesting layouts in the valley.

River Oaks Golf Course

Avid golfers are always thankful for a conveniently located, above average muni, and River Oaks offers just that in the heart of the city in the central valley. The course, another William H. Neff design, ticks some decent boxes for most players with interesting hole designs, a walkable layout, typically in good shape and varied levels of challenge depending on tee boxes played, all with an affordable rate.

However, with the design routed along the Jordan River, this one is best suited for a 15 handicap or better player. There are many forced carries and water or marshland on most holes. The design demands accurate tee shots and is usually enjoyed more by an avid player. (Green Fees $34-$52)

River Oaks is one of the more conveniently located courses in the valley and offers avid players a good, walkable course with plenty of challenge and interest from hole to hole.

Thanksgiving Point Golf Club

The “build it and they will come” idea took nearly 20 years to fully develop the entire master plan at Thanksgiving Point, but the golf course was always the main center piece. Today, the course is just one of the attractions of this massive development that has become a technology hub in Salt Lake City. Big name tech companies like Adobe and Vivint are among the residents of this vast commercial, retail, residential and entertainment complex. Thanksgiving Point is now much more than just a golf course. It's an unofficial city about 30 minutes south of Salt Lake City.

At the time the golf course was built, it was considered to be 'out in the sticks' in the south end of the valley and was a bit of an oddity for Northern Utah golf since igh-end daily fee courses didn’t exist at the time in the area. Even more odd, when it first opened, the course was not open on Sundays and did not sell beer. Needless to say, that plan did not last long.

Today, the 7,700-yard Johnny Miller-designed course is a high-end daily fee managed by Troon, which gives the course a solid level of service, quality and consistency golfers will appreciate.

Thanksgiving Point is a pro-level layout with demanding architecture, nice conditions and visually impressive holes. Tony Finau lives near the golf course and hosts an annual charity event here. Additionally the course has hosted the Champions Challenge with legends in the game, including Jack Nicklaus, Johnny Miller, Annika Sorenstam, Sergio Garcia, Hale Irwin and Gary Player. (Green Fees $65 -$99)

Johnny Miller didn’t hold back on this one, a challenging golf course and a beautiful adventure. In the end, a lovely way to spend a few hours.

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Brian Oar is well known as one of the top golf course photographers in the world. Since 2002 he has been traveling the globe shooting and writing about interesting golf destinations, and has photographed some of the top courses in the world. He also was an 11-year veteran of the GolfWeek's Best panel of course raters and helped create the annual top 100 courses and best-of-state lists for GolfWeek Magazine. In 2014, Brian won the prestigious "Golf Photographer of The Year" award from the International Network of Golf -- the golf industry's media awards -- for his exceptional imagery in industry publications like Golf Digest, The Golfers Journal, Golf Magazine and many others.  You can find Brian online on his website, on Instagram @BrianOar and Twitter @BrianOarGolf.
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Salt Lake City: Where affordable, spectacular mountain golf reigns