Top 12 Scenic Public Courses in America

Get the camera ready—it’s photo safari time. The following list of courses is ranked according to eye candy and accessibility. This roster is limited to public-access courses in the United States that may or may not have hosted major championships or boast superior design, but which definitely overwhelm the senses with scenic beauty and visual drama.

Here are the top 12 scenic public courses in America.

12. Arcadia Bluffs (Bluffs)—Arcadia, Mich.

Top teacher Rick Smith and design associate Warren Henderson teamed in 1998 to craft this headlands course that peers down at Lake Michigan early and often, inevitably in spectacular fashion. With breezes off the lake, tawny fescues, and tall sand dunes, the Bluffs course professes a linksy feel without being quite as bouncy as a true links, but at least the wide fairways and large greens make for extra playability in the wind.

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Arcadia Bluffs (Bluffs)

11. Manele Golf Course—Lanai, Hawaii

Jack Nicklaus’s 31-year-old layout is best known for its incomparable 202-yard par-three 12th, its green and tees separated by vertical cliff faces and the crashing surf of Hulopo’e Bay 150 feet below. Yet, the rest of the course isn’t far behind, with holes twisting among black lava outcroppings above the Pacific Ocean. Blind shots, archeological sites, and kiawe trees further spice the play.

10. Reynolds Lake Oconee (Great Waters)—Greensboro, Ga.

Few courses so successfully fuse beauty, challenge, and playability as this 1992 Jack Nicklaus creation that hugs the shoreline of Lake Oconee for nearly the entire back nine. Tall pines frame most of the holes, but the essence of the course centers on superior risk/reward tests such as the 414-yard par-four 9th, the 351-yard par-four 11th, and the 543-yard par-five 18th, each which challenges the mind and delights the eye with lakeside peril. Following a successful refurbishment in 2019 by Nicklaus and his associate Chad Goetz, Great Waters is greater than ever.

Great Waters (photo by Evan Schiller)

9. Boulders Resort (South)—Scottsdale, Ariz.

Situated in the farthest reaches of north Scottsdale, next to the aptly named town of Carefree, the Boulders rocks with 36 holes that blend into the desert landscape, highlighted by giant saguaro cacti and the prehistoric rocks that gives the resort its name. The cart ride alone on the front nine of the South course is worth the price of admission. Take the time to climb up to the back tees at the 6th, 7th, and 8th holes—this is Flintstones golf in Bedrock stuff. The South also serves up the par-four 1st and the par-five 5th, both with greens at the base of six-story-high boulders.

8. Edgewood Tahoe—Stateline, Nev.

Designed by George Fazio in 1968, with help from his nephew Tom, Edgewood Tahoe is Lake Tahoe’s only championship course that edges the lake. Home to the celebrity-studded American Century Championship since 1990, and venue for the U.S. Senior Open in 1985, the 7,529-yard layout plays shorter thanks to the 6,200-foot elevation. It also maximizes scenery, with mountain meadows, Ponderosa pine forests, and closing holes right on the beach. The par-three 17th and par-five 18th are justly famous, with Lake Tahoe in play for slicers, but don’t overlook the par-four 9th, which plays straight at the lake with the snow-capped Sierras looming majestically beyond.

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Edgewood Tahoe (photo credit Brian Walker Photography)

7. Princeville Makai—Kauai, Hawaii

More than five decades ago, golf on the Garden Isle met ocean encounters and the result was Princeville Makai, which made Kauai a must-visit for golfers. Long overshadowed by its brawnier neighbor—the Prince, which is now private—Makai reopened in January 2010 as an 18-hole layout comprised of the old Lake and Ocean nines, with the Woods nine a separate entity—and now closed, unfortunately. (Here’s a plea to bring back the Woods, which was lovely in its own right.) Dating to 1971, the Robert Trent Jones Jr.-designed Makai sports risk/reward options, lush landscaping, and Bali Hai and Hanalei Bay vistas, highlighted by the drop-shot par-three 3rd over a lake with jungle and ocean backdrops, and by the clifftop Pacific panoramas afforded at the par-three 7th.

scenic courses
Princeville Makai

6. Coeur d’Alene Resort—Coeur d’Alene, Idaho

Island greens had been around for decades, but invariably they were connected to terra firma by some strip of land. In 1991, that all changed with Coeur d’Alene Resort’s par-three 14th hole. Golfers hit to a genuine floating island, one that’s capable of moving up or back on any given day, thanks to a system of cables and winches affixed to the bottom of Lake Coeur d’Alene. Scores of red geraniums, a pair of gleaming white traps, and a smattering of evergreens add beauty to the green complex. To be fair, the Coeur d’Alene Resort course is far from a one-hole wonder. Five other holes look at, play next to, or jump over a body of water that National Geographic called, “one of the five most beautiful lakes in the world.” The holes away from the lake comprise a gentle park-like stroll through handsome, mature pines.

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Coeur d’Alene (photo courtesy Coeur d’Alene Resort)

5. Shadow Creek—North Las Vegas, Nev.

MGM/Mirage’s hangout for high rollers remains the ultimate Hollywood set come to life, an oasis of pine trees, rolling hills, flowers, and waterfalls hewn from a poker table-flat, lifeless plot of desert by Tom Fazio and Steve Wynn in 1990. Situated 35 minutes north of the Las Vegas Strip, Shadow Creek also sports a network of creeks and lakes. If the mountains didn’t ring the backdrops, you’d have no clue you were in the southwest desert.

Shadow Creek (photo by PJKoenig Golf Photography)

4. Ocean Course at Kiawah Island Golf Resort—Kiawah Island, S.C.

Pete Dye softened his windswept, oceanside masterpiece several times over the years since its 1991 debut, but players still look at tidal marsh carries, scrub-topped dunes, Atlantic vistas, and fiercely guarded, wildly undulating greens every time they tee it up. Located about 30 miles south of Charleston, S.C., Kiawah’s Ocean features 10 holes along the Atlantic Ocean, with the other eight slightly inland, but those sport ocean views as well thanks to their elevated (and thus breeze-addled) fairways.

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The Ocean Course (photo courtesy Kiawah Island Golf Resort)

3. Whistling Straits (Straits)—Sheboygan, Wis.

Boasting eight holes overlooking Lake Michigan—or what the caddies call the “Sea of Wisconsin”—the Straits course at Whistling Straits is second to none for lakeside excellence. Home to three PGA Championships and the 2021 Ryder Cup, this 1998 Pete Dye design boasts 70-foot, fescue-cloaked sandhills, more than 1,000 bunkers, and a course rating and slope so high they could produce nosebleeds. However, the architecture is compelling, without a weak link. And the views are stunning, notably on the par threes, each of which peers over the lake from high above.

Whistling Straits (Straits) (photo courtesy Destination Kohler)

2. Pacific Dunes at Bandon Dunes Golf Resort—Bandon, Ore.

I could feature any of the Bandon Dunes layouts on this list and I’d have a valid argument—and that includes the resort’s par-3 courses. If I’m confining myself to one pick, however, it’s Pacific Dunes by a whisker over Bandon Dunes. This 2001 Tom Doak creation fits so majestically into its billowing terrain, it looks like it’s been there 100 years. Scattered blow-out bunkers, gigantic natural dunes, smartly contoured greens, and Pacific panoramas are headliners.

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Pacific Dunes (photo courtesy Bandon Dunes Golf Resort)

1. Pebble Beach Golf Links—Pebble Beach, Calif.

Host to six U.S. Opens, more than 70 PGA Tour events, and countless photos of the Pacific Ocean, Pebble is oft changed since its 1919 debut, yet even today, no more thrilling, spectacular stretch of holes exists anywhere than holes 4 through 10. And is there anything in golf that can compare with that final stroll up the par-five 18th as it curves to the left around Carmel Bay?

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Pebble Beach Golf Links (photo by Evan Schiller)

What other scenic courses should be on this list? Let us know in the comment section.