If you're looking for golf trips on a budget, this list isn't for you.
This is a list of The Best. Even in Myrtle Beach, S.C. (no. 9), which is well known for value and packages, my favorite courses have peak-season green fees north of $200. But they warrant that because they deliver on a memorable experience for your group.
Admittedly, most of the courses, resorts and destinations on this Top 10 list are favorites for buddies-trip anniversaries, such as five, 10, or 25 years. But don't ignore the idea of shoulder-season specials or calling and asking if they offer deals to groups of eight or more. Most of them do.
All 10 of these ultimate buddies trip destinations are special for a wide variety of reasons, and for each one, I've suggested a "buddies-trip must," which is a place to go, something to see or somewhere to eat/drink while you're in town.
1. Bandon Dunes, Oregon
Ask four people the same question: What's your favorite of the four courses at Bandon Dunes? Chances are, you'll get four different answers. And that -- more than the intuition and sensibility of owner, Mike Keiser, and more than the buy-in and service of the staff, and more than the fire pits or Bunker Bar, and more than the par-3 or putting courses, and more than the breakfast buffet or the meatloaf, and more than the caddies and no carts -- is the reason why Bandon Dunes is the best pure golf destination in America.
In the end, it's about the golf. And Bandon Dunes has no weak link in the chain of what is mostly links golf. The property is full of memorable holes and views, serene pockets of tranquility, with a mix of tests and treachery.
But most of all, it's all fun, built to be shared by avid amateurs with as many of their best golf buddies who they can assemble. And if you're in search of a special place to reflect on who you're with, or what the trip means to you, find the Labyrinth. One of Keiser's many tributes to his partner, Howard McKee, you and your group wont regret the short walk back into the tall trees.
Buddies-trip must: After 36 holes, or 18 and a round at Bandon Preserve, the 13-hole short course, head to Pacific Dunes and enjoy the Punchbowl putting course. The 18-hole course is set up every day at 2 p.m. Drinks are served to the green by smiling staff, and there are drink holders at every "tee box."
2. Pinehurst, North Carolina
If Bandon is the "apples" of buddy trips, then Pinehurst is the "oranges."
Pinehurst is more formal with a richer history, that includes major championships. It has more amenities and even a better breakfast buffet. There are nine courses at Pinehurst, with plans for a 10th. There's a putting course, their logo is Putter Boy and, at the Pine Crest Inn, it's tradition to chip into the fireplace.
But I love Pinehurst for buddy trips because it's also all about the golf. With the thoughtful restoration of Pinehurst No. 2, the crown jewel of Donald Ross's prolific portfolio, the best of this bunch is back to the way it was originally designed. You haven't lived until you've tried to hold a bowled green from a ball perched in wispy grass. And any buddies-trip itinerary to Pinehurst should include No. 4, No. 6 and No. 8.
Alpha planners of ultimate buddies trips are often interested in exploring other courses in the area. I always send them to Pine Needles, Mid Pines, the Dormie Club or Tobacco Road. Regardless of where you stay or where you play in the "Cradle of American Golf," as you walk down the squeaky hallway of the main clubhouse, stopping to admire the walls that are decorated with tributes to distinguished champions, you'll leave with the sense that you've been somewhere special. And it's hard to put a price tag on prestige and history.
Buddies-trip must: The breakfast buffet at the Carolina Hotel is the best in America. That being said, take one morning and go to the Pinehurst Track Restaurant (only a mile from the resort) and don't short yourself on the blueberry pancakes.
3. Pebble Beach, California
The best public course in the country is expensive and exclusive, but if you're planning a budget-less buddies trip around an anniversary or milestone with a few of your closest friends or family, and the special occasion or spiritual situation calls for the ultimate routing in American golf, then Pebble Beach is the place to be.
Spyglass Hill is certainly no slouch, and with the recent renovation of Poppy Hills, Bayonet and Black Horse, even if it's all just a once-in-a-lifetime trek to the Monterey Peninsula, you'll be satisfied to know that you've treated yourself and your group to some of the best golf moments known to picture frames and screensavers. Don't deprive yourselves of the Peter Hay short course, right across the street from Pebble Beach. I'm in the camp that thinks Spanish Bay, although beautiful, especially at sunset, is okay to skip during a buddies trip. It's tight, with a few too many mid-hole twists into small and undulating greens. There are mixed reviews on Pacific Grove, but no one can argue, that for a $62 green fee, given the zip code and the coastline, it's good value.
Buddies-trip must: The Tap Room, set above Pebble Beach Golf Links' 18th green, lives up to hype and expectations, especially the steaks and the prime-rib chili.
4. Sea Island, Georgia
A lot of people think of Sea Island as the annual destination for almost a century of Southern families wearing sundresses or khakis, white button downs, jackets and loafers, sans the socks. And there's certainly some of that, which has its own place in the world of golf getaways. But there has been five years of change to Sea Island's ownership, leadership, strategy and clientele. In the Lodge, there's a masculinity to the walls and halls of the rooms, bar, steak house and back porch. There's a place to hang, drink, smoke cigars and celebrate the kind of camaraderie that defines the best of buddies trips.
There's also a new Inn at Sea Island, which offers buddies trips another 85 rooms with more affordable price points than the Cloister or Lodge. Like Pebble or Pinehurst, Sea Island might be better for groups no bigger than 20, but the service continues to set the gold standard and the golf is underrated for the needs of a wide variety of handicaps. The Plantation Course is a nice complement to the degree of difficulty of the Seaside Course, which hosts the RSM Classic, a tour event held each fall. The Retreat, a few miles from the resort, is also a popular option if you're looking for a third course. Buddies in search of fishing or target shooting also appreciate Sea Island.
Buddies-trip must: There aren't many 360-degree driving ranges with an ocean view. The "dream team" of instructors available to you might be busy working with the multiple PGA Tour players, such as Davis Love, Matt Kuchar, Zach Johnson, Harris English, Brandt Snedeker or Brian Harman, who all live locally. After a round, or working on your game, hit the men's locker room at the Lodge for lunch and drinks.
5. Kohler, Wisconsin
Leading up to the 2015 PGA Championship, I spent a lot of time at Destination Kohler, and I left with the sense that there's a renewed interest in hosting buddies trips. In fact, David Kohler, son of Herb Kohler, who was elected President and CEO in April, specifically told me he has made groups of eight to 28 his focus going forward.
That will only mean good things for alpha planners trying to ensure a successful trek to the Midwest. All four courses are Pete Dye designs, which is to say, they're tough and you better be packing a lot of golf balls, but the Meadow Valleys Course can be playable for high handicappers, and catch the Straits Course on a calm day, and play it from the right set of tees, and you too can feel like Jason Day as you test yourself on one of the best lakeside courses in the country.
American Club, and all that is Kohler, has a similar set of service standards as Sea Island, with a variety of lodging and food options. Hit up the Horse and Plow for local beers and cheese curds.
Blackwolf Run is good for a sweet lodge-like setting overlooking the 18th of the River Course, which is almost as popular as Straits. There are also plenty of popular off-course buddies trip activities at Destination Kohler, such as shooting, hunting and fishing.
Buddies-trip must: Take an afternoon off of golf and set up another form of competition at River Wildlife's 5-stand shooting complex.
6. Kiawah Island Resort, South Carolina
Yes, the Ocean Course at Kiawah Island is one of the toughest courses in the country. It starts hard and only gets harder. There's very little room for error off of intimidating tee boxes, well protected fairways and greens, and there tends to be elements of weather, most notably the wind. All of the above is also why course experts consider it the best match play venue in America. And knowing more than half of all buddies trips play a variation of a Ryder Cup format explains why Kiawah is on this list.
But they also go for the 19th hole, which might be better than Pebble's Tap Room or the fire pit at Pacific Dunes. There are four other courses at Kiawah Island. Osprey Point, by Tom Fazio, gets my vote for second best.
Besides the Sanctuary, a spectacular golf hotel overlooking the ocean, lodging options include golf villas.
Buddies-trip must: Everything tastes better at Kiawah's Ryder Cup Bar, the greatest 19th hole in golf, but I'm especially fond of the Lowcountry Grilled Cheese, which is pimento cheese, country ham, fried green tomato and jalapeno cornbread.
7. Scottsdale, Arizona
TPC Scottsdale's Stadium Course, host of the Waste Management Open (which is a buddies trip in and of itself), is a great course for buddies trips, especially for that four-hole finish in which you get a risk-reward par 5, a short par 3, a reachable par 4 and a finishing hole with a tee shot over water.
Yes, include it on your buddies-trip itinerary, but try staying and playing at Talking Stick. There's a nice hotel with a casino, two courses by Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw (I prefer Talking Stick North), and there's a new TopGolf between the hotel and the freeway.
Evenings in Old Town will also be popular for food, drinks and, well, scenery.
Buddies-trip must: About a half mile from Old Town Scottsdale is the W hotel, which is undefeated for post-dinner drinks and shenanigans.
8. Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail, Alabama
There are 11 multiple-course destinations on the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail in Alabama, and each ranges in cost and quality. My favorite is Grand National because the Lake Course and Links Course are equally as good, and the Short Course is a blast. The Auburn Marriott Opelika Hotel is the suggested lodging option, and from there, it's relatively easy to get in and out of town.
Be sure to go during college football season to maximize the atmosphere and energy of the locals. Of the 10 other options on the RTJ Trail, I like Ross Bridge for a course and an experience you won't find anywhere else in the country. Everything about it is massive. There are tee boxes that tip out at over 8,000 yards. Don't use them, but find a few and laugh at the idea that they exist.
Buddies-trip must: Back to Auburn-Opelika, fuel-up with the crab cake and avocado sandwich at the Amsterdam Cafe. Stop by Hamilton's for a drink -- make that drinks.
9. Myrtle Beach, South Carolina
Having written countless stories on buddies trips, there are a lot of alpha planners who would put Myrtle Beach no. 1 on this list. I respect and appreciate the value play to The Grand Strand, and so does most of their assembled group. Yes, there are added benefits of the nightlife, but the reason Myrtle Beach is on my list is for courses such as Caledonia, True Blue, Dunes Club and TPC Myrtle Beach.
I also like all four courses at Barefoot Resort, and there's no sweeter deal than the "3 Fore 4" special at Legends Golf & Resort, where you pay for three nights and three days of golf and get a fourth night and a fourth day of golf for free.
Buddies-trip must: As groups finish their rounds at Caledonia, eat and drink up on the back porch and wager on whether or not groups behind you can hit the green with their approach shots.
10. Austin, Texas
Barton Creek, like Bandon Dunes, has four courses. (I prefer the two Fazio courses over the Crenshaw Course and Palmer Course.) And like most destinations on this list, Barton Creek embraces the buddies trip. There are several lodging options and simple but sensible menus throughout the property, but as much as I like the golf, service, atmosphere and setting in the Texas Hill Country, Austin is on this list because of Austin, one of the best little cities in America.
I'd suggest timing a buddies trip around a University of Texas football game or one of two major music festivals that come to Austin every year, Austin City Limits and SXSW. Golf by day, Austin City Limits by evening was one of my more memorable buddies trips.
There's also a new Topgolf in Austin, which never disappoints.
Buddies-trip must: ACL Fest runs for two weekends in October.
More ultimate U.S. buddies trip destinations receiving votes
Northern Michigan (see "Summer golf in northern Michigan: Breaking down the 10 best golf resorts")
Greenbrier Resort (see "From the Kennedys to the Mint Julep, 10 things that might surprise you about The Greenbrier resort")
Big Cedar Lodge (see "Ozarks' Top of the Rock, Big Cedar Lodge, on pace to become one of golf's most complete resorts")