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World's best golf destinations

By Thomas Dunne
Late afternoon tea in the lobby of The Carolina in Pinehurst is a fitting end to a day of golfing.
Late afternoon tea in the lobby of The Carolina in Pinehurst is a fitting end to a day of golfing.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Wind makes the Ocean Course at Kiawah Island a true challenge
  • Afternoon tea the The Carolina in Pinehurst is not to be missed
  • The Netherlands offers unexpected pockets of excellent golfing terrain

(Departures) -- Each year around this time, golf clubs are summoned from cold garages and basements into living rooms while their owners begin plotting a new season in the sun.

Much wool has likely been gathered over the winter: calendars parsed, brownie points calculated, travel budgets massaged upward. To help in this process, we came up with a list of 17 of the best experiences the game has to offer.

Admittedly, it's an idiosyncratic mix, with standard picks like top caddies and quaint country retreats alongside more unexpected ones (the farthest-off-the-radar golf nation and a favorite midday feast among them).

Some of these highlights can be found at new courses or clubs; others are as old as golf itself. All should someday make the leap from being a golfer's idle daydream to well-loved memory. Why not this year?

Golf.com: The 2011 Masters

Royal County Down: Newcastle, Northern Ireland

Many courses offer spectacular views, but few cast as powerful a spell as Royal County Down. It's set within an otherworldly stretch of dunes along the Irish Sea, offering panoramas of Newcastle and its beach, the Victorian redbrick spire of the Slieve Donard Resort and Spa (rooms, from $165; hastingshotels.com) and the massive Mourne Mountains.

Closer in, the course is marked by the delightful color and texture of gorse and other native flora, while fairways unfurl around marram-fringed bunkers. The journey is one of constant surprise: A disorienting blind shot over a dune wall is followed by a moment of startling beauty as the fairway -- and all that lies beyond -- is revealed. Greens fees start at $120; royalcountydown.org.

Departures: 10 English countryside getaways

The Ocean Course: Kiawah Island Golf Resort, South Carolina

Pete Dye is the designer of choice for those who like their golf served with a side of humble pie. While not his toughest course by the blunt measurements of slope and course rating, the home of the 2012 PGA Championship is the sternest taskmaster in his portfolio, due to one factor -- wind.

The Ocean Course features plenty of Dye's signatures: forced carries over broad sweeps of sandy wasteland, water hazards barging right up against greens. It's a handful on a calm day, but when the Atlantic breezes tear through, the golfer is mercilessly exposed. Fortunately guests will find an elegant place to recoup in the resort's aptly named Sanctuary Hotel. Rooms start at $270; greens fee, $250; kiawahresort.com.

Departures: World's best designed spas

St. Andrews: Fife, Scotland

St. Andrews, the saying goes, is every golfer's second hometown, a truth that can be proven by taking a simple stroll around the ancient cathedral town. In the churchyard pilgrims pay their respects at the graves of Old and Young Tom Morris. Three-generation families play over the seascape contours of the Himalayas Putting Course ($30; 44-1334/475-196).

Golfers of all nationalities celebrate their linksland glories over drams in the bar of the Dunvegan Hotel (rooms, from $155; dunvegan-hotel.com). Whether staying at a humble B&B -- Aslar House is a gem (rooms, from $145; aslar.com) -- or the grand Old Course Hotel (rooms, from $300; oldcoursehotel.co.uk), everyone is there for one reason: to stand on the first tee of the Old Course (greens fee, $100; standrews.org.uk) and begin the walk with ghosts.

Departures: Best spas for 2011

New Zealand

Non-golfers won't mind stopping in at the North Island's unforgettable clifftop courses at Kauri Cliffs (greens fee, $210; kauricliffs.com) and Cape Kidnappers (greens fee, $210; capekidnappers.com) when along the way they can experience the geothermal spas at Rotorua and Lake Taupo's Huka Lodge (rooms, from $600; hukalodge.co.nz). On the South Island, where the five-star Millbrook Resort (rooms, from $210; millbrook.co.nz) recently added a third nine, Wellington is a good base for exploring the many wineries of the Marlborough region, where Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir flourish.

Kohler Waters Spa: The American Club, Kohler, Wisconsin

Golf at the American Club needs little introduction: Four Pete Dye courses, including Whistling Straits, the site of last year's PGA Championship, continue to attract players from around the world. At the club's resort, the Kohler Waters Spa recently unveiled three renovated water treatment rooms -- the RiverBath, the Harmony Room and the Acoustic Room -- all of which are experienced in concert with the spa's range of massages and exfoliating treatments. Guests can even stay in the spa's 55-room extension, the Carriage House, located next door to the main American Club hotel. Rooms start at $260; greens fee, $180; americanclubresort.com.

Departures: Favorite golf accessories

Leopard Creek Country Club: Kruger National Park, South Africa

Designed by golf legend Gary Player, Leopard Creek is frequently rated the number one layout in South Africa, but what makes it worth visiting is the surreal opportunity to combine golf with wildlife. The course is located at the edge of Kruger National Park, and the full complement of bushveld fauna -- hippos and giraffes, river crocs and the eponymous leopards -- competes to distract golfers from their next shot.

As an exclusive private club, Leopard Creek gets very little play, but it does open its gates to guests from a number of local safari bases, including the comfortable Jock Safari Lodge (rooms, from $610; jocksafarilodge.com), just minutes away. Greens fees start at $275; leopardcreek.co.za.

Cabot Trail: Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia

The Cabot Trail winds over and around bald mountains, passes through dense forests of balsam fir, clings to cliffsides as whales breach in the waters below. Near the trail's southern gateway, the Bell Bay Golf Club (greens fee, $65; bellbaygolfclub.com) overlooks the inland sea of the Bras d'Or Lake.

Further west, Cabot Links (greens fee, $80; cabotlinks.com), a hotly anticipated new project from Bandon Dunes developer Mike Keiser, will have preview holes open this summer. But the main attraction is Highland Links (greens fee, $75; highlandslinksgolf.com), near the island's northeastern tip. A singular blend of mountain and oceanside golf, it is widely considered to be the best course in Canada.

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Afternoon Tea: The Carolina, Pinehurst, North Carolina

After a morning puzzling over Donald Ross's devious greens at Pinehurst No. 2, drifting through the lobby of The Carolina in the late afternoon to find a spread of simple orange pekoe tea (hot or cold, depending on the season) and plates of freshly baked shortbread and sugar cookies always comes as something of a pleasant surprise, even for Pinehurst regulars. Though the custom dates back more than a hundred years, it's a tradition of Southern hospitality that still works beautifully today. Rooms start at $130; greens fee, $350; pinehurst.com.

Waterville House: County Kerry, Ireland

Tucked away in the southwestern section of the Ring of Kerry, Waterville Golf Links is one of Ireland's great remote courses. It's affiliated with the 12-bedroom Waterville House, a handsome manor from the 18th century set on 40 mostly open acres near the Atlantic. Though its snug, tastefully decorated rooms encourage the lie-in, Waterville is a place that lures visitors outdoors: The writer J. M. Synge described the air here as "like wine in one's teeth."

Just outside the front door is Butlers Pool, a swift-running branch of the Finglas River that's one of Ireland's top spots for fly-fishing. Golfing guests can also hone their short games at the hotel's extensive practice facility. And each day starts with Waterville House's superb Irish breakfasts. Rooms start at $355; greens fee, $75; watervillegolfclub.ie.

Bovey Castle: Dartmoor National Park, England

Set on the edge of the vast Dartmoor National Park in England's West Country, Bovey Castle's sweeping lawns and opulent salons call to mind the romance of the Edwardian age. The manor house was acquired in the early 2000s by developer Peter de Savary and given a thorough makeover. The result is effortless luxury.

With everything from horseback riding to falconry, golf is only part of the picture at Bovey, but the course has a first-rate pedigree. Designed by the renowned J. F. Abercromby and touched up by Donald Steel as part of de Savary's renovation, it's a stylish parkland ramble that's playable for holiday golfers of all skill levels. Rooms start at $295; greens fee, $75; boveycastle.com.

Carvery Lunch: Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers, Muirfield, Scotland

Golf at Muirfield is a rare treat -- the club's handful of visitor tee times are so hard to come by that many spring for a day pass in order to play the legendary links twice. But for some the main event is the clubhouse's carvery lunch. A jacket-and-tie affair that unfolds at a long, communal table, it features a colossal spread -- joints of roast beef, haddock-and-potato soup, salads, casseroles and, for dessert, sinful custards and toffee puddings.

Liquid fortification comes in the form of abundant helpings of kümmel, a caraway-flavored digestif served ice-cold. Bellies warmed, golfers head back out with their partners for what promises to be a spirited (and eventful) afternoon of alternate-shot match play. Greens fees start at $300; carvery lunch, $30; muirfield.org.uk.

The Outpost Club: United States

For many avid golfers, the pressures of modern life have challenged the country-club calculus of steep initiation fees and annual dues. If 50 rounds a year at the local club is out of the question, why not make every round count by instead playing a host of architecturally notable private courses around the country?

This is the thinking behind The Outpost Club. As with a British golfing society, members do not have unfettered access to partner courses but rather pay guest fees and schedule rounds within the various parameters established by the clubs. The heart of Outpost will be a 12-bedroom lodge scheduled to open this spring on the grounds of the Chechessee Creek Club, near Hilton Head. outpostclub.com.

Kapalua Bay Beach: Kapalua Resort, Maui, Hawaii

Since opening in 1991, Kapalua Resort's Plantation Course has established itself as one of the PGA Tour's finest layouts. Designed by Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw, it's a thrilling ramble across the broad, windswept slopes of a former pineapple plantation. And minutes away there's Kapalua Bay Beach: swaying palms, sand like light-brown sugar and turquoise waters perfect for a splash or a snorkel. Greens fees start at $270; kapalua.com.

The Netherlands

Most think of the Dutch landscape as little more than densely populated cities and pancake-flat polder, but it has pockets of excellent golfing terrain. In the 1920s the great English architect H. S. Colt crossed the North Sea and designed half a dozen courses.

His heathland layouts at the Eindhovensche Golf Club (greens fee, $120; eindhovenschegolf.nl) and Utrechtse de Pan (greens fee, $135; ugc-depan.nl) are reminiscent of the best of Surrey, and a pair of seaside links -- Kennemer (greens fee, $160; kennemergolf.nl) and Royal Hague (greens fee, $135; khgcc.nl) -- are two of the best in continental Europe. The country is compact enough that travelers can easily fold a little golf into a stay in Amsterdam, heading out of the city either by car or, for a day trip, by commuter train and taxi.

The Links at Terranea: Terranea Resort, Palos Verdes, California

This brand-new oceanfront resort brings laid-back California style to its golf offerings. The nine-hole, par-three Links at Terranea is no pushover for low-handicap adults, but the flexibility of its design makes it a fun challenge for kids. Forward tees offer benign angles into the well-bunkered greens, for example. On weekends the kids' club even sets up a mini-course on the practice putting green. Greens fees start at $35; terranea.com.

Bandon Dunes Golf Resort: Bandon, Oregon

On links courses like Bandon's, where firm turf, windy conditions and complex architecture make thoughtful shot selection as important as skillful execution, a good caddie is worth his or her weight in gold. Fortunately the best loopers in the world are drawn by Bandon's enthusiastic clientele (and unlimited playing privileges). Players and caddies generally stick together for the duration, joining forces to get the most out of the player's game. Greens fees start at $100; bandondunesgolf.com.

The Tap Room: Pebble Beach, California

The tap room in the Lodge at Pebble Beach is basically the blueprint for the ideal après-golf watering hole. After four-plus hours battling the course in sun, rain and wind, low light cools everyone off. There are tasty brioche-bun burgers and cold beer, as well as an excellent wine list and a full dinner menu. The walls are covered with vintage "golfiana" -- mementos from Nicklaus and Palmer, sure, but also from Hope and Crosby -- from the resort's long history as the preeminent social hub of American golf. Rooms start at $695; greens fee, $495; pebblebeach.com.

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