El Camaleón at Mayakoba - Mexico
Play Where the Pros Play
Eight courses where golfers of all ability levels can walk in the footsteps of the game’s greatest players.
by Shaun Tolson and Larry Olmsted
Amateur baseball players will most likely never hit a ball off the Green Monster at Fenway Park. Likewise, rec-league basketball players will never know what it’s like to take a step-back three-pointer on Madison Square Garden’s parquet floor. But amateur and recreational golfers can stand on the Stadium Course’s 17th tee box at TPC Sawgrass and attempt one of the most intimidating shots in golf—a tee shot that they’ve watched the world’s best players hit every year during The Players Championship. Golf is one of the few sports that blurs the line between amateurs and the pros, and avid fans can hit shots and sink putts on the same courses that host PGA Tour events and major championships.
TPC SAWGRASS
Florida
For more than 40 years, the world’s greatest players have competed at TPC Sawgrass’ Stadium Course—vying to win The Players Championship. The televised tournament coverage has catapulted those 18 masterfully designed golf holes to a pedestal of almost unparalleled reverence. Simply put, the host venue of The Players Championship is one of the world’s most famous courses. And since its grand opening in 1982, the heralded layout remains accessible to the general public.

“What I love about the Stadium Course is that it feels like I’m challenging history throughout a round,” says Tom Alter, vice president of communications for the PGA Tour. “If I remember certain players having a similar shot during The Players Championship in the past, I can compare how I did against some of the greatest players in the world.”

Alter is quick to add that the course demands quality shots. Often, he says, an okay shot just won’t be good enough. Echoing the sentiment, Montrele Wells, a seasoned caddie who has worked at the course for several years, says, “You could not lose a ball on the Stadium Course and still shoot 100. That’s just the reality of it.”

Those who tee up at Sawgrass’ championship venue would be wise to take a caddie—and to heed that caddie’s advice—but they can also learn from past winners of The Players Championship, like Rory McIlroy, who claimed victory there in 2019. According to McIlroy, the course doesn’t favor any particular playing style, but it does pay to be conservative. “Don’t try to take on too much,” he says. “I missed my first three cuts there [because] I wanted to hit driver everywhere. I wanted to be aggressive, and the course doesn’t let you do that.”

Alter offers one more key—though perhaps obvious—piece of advice. Do your best to settle your nerves when you reach the iconic 17th hole. The tee shot that you’ll hit to the par-3’s island green will be the most important one of your round regardless of how you’ve played up to that point. “When people hear that you played the Stadium Course,” he says, “the first question that everyone asks is, ‘How did you do on 17?’”  tpc.com/sawgrass  —S.T.
KAPALUA
Hawaii
Even the world’s best professional golfers aspire to play Kapalua’s Plantation Course because only those who won a PGA Tour tournament during the previous season can enter the field for the Sentry Tournament of Champions, which is held at the Hawaiian resort each January. In that way, average amateur golfers who stay at the resort can walk in the footsteps of golf’s most successful, contemporary players. Plus, the real appeal of the course is its jaw-dropping beauty and playability.

Designed by Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw in 1992—before they became the most sought-after architecture duo in golf—the Plantation Course was renovated by the duo in 2019 and is annually ranked by many of the sport’s leading publications as Hawaii’s best public course. The Coore & Crenshaw layout is famous for the way it climbs and dips over rolling terrain and ridges, while also offering stunning panoramic views that stretch all the way across the channels to the islands of Lanai and Molokai. Golfers have reported catching sight of breaching whales during their rounds.

Amateur players may be distracted by the views, but the course requires their full attention. White-sand bunkers force players to strategically plan each shot, but unlike many PGA Tour venues that are inherently difficult, Kapalua’s Plantation Course is fun for golfers of all ability levels—so long as they play from the appropriate tees. Tackle the course from the tips, at almost 7,600 yards in length, and you’ll see why the trade winds here can bring the world’s most accomplished players to their knees. kapalua.com  —L.O.
ARNOLD PALMER'S BAY HILL CLUB & LODGE
Florida
The Challenger/Champion course at Bay Hill Club & Lodge, home to the Arnold Palmer Invitational at the late golfing legend’s eponymous club, is so famously associated with The King that most golfers assume it’s one of Palmer’s original course designs. It isn’t, though Palmer, who purchased the club in 1975, did make modifications to the original Dick Wilson layout more than a decade ago. Wilson’s pedigree as a course architect is well-established, as he’s also responsible for other famous courses such as Doral’s Blue Monster, Cog Hill’s Dubsdread, and Carlsbad’s La Costa.

Bay Hill Club & Lodge is a mostly private affair, though the golf course is playable for non-members, so long as they’re overnight guests at the lodge. Because the Challenger/Champion course has hosted the Arnold Palmer Invitational for more than four decades, those 18 holes are now considered by many golf fans to be a must-play. At more than 7,400 yards from the back tees, which are affectionately—and appropriately—known as the Palmer tees—this course isn’t for the faint of heart. Fortunately, four other tee boxes exist to accommodate golfers of all ability levels, though the big danger at this course is water, which rears its head again and again. (It’s in play on two-thirds of the holes.) In fact, several fairways wrap around the lakes, the most famous of which is the course’s signature sixth hole, a long par-5 that forms a nearly perfect backward C in its routing and brings water into play on every shot that players hit as they make their way to the green. bayhill.com  
—L.O.
TPC SCOTTSDALE
Arizona
The Stadium Course at TPC Scottsdale is home to the Waste Management Phoenix Open, better known as “The Greatest Show on Grass.” It’s the single most-attended golf tournament on earth, essentially the PGA Tour’s version of the Kentucky Derby or Indy 500. Every year, the event teems with pomp and circumstance, plus local fan enthusiasm that by staid golf standards borders on complete craziness. Fortunately, the Tom Weiskopf and Jay Morrish–designed course is accessible for public play 51 weeks out of the year.

Those who tee it up will revel in the locales that have been made famous on television, such as the plaque that marks the one-time location of a boulder that spectators came together to move in 1999 once it was ruled a “loose impediment” in Tiger Woods’ way. They’ll also gleefully hit tee shots at the par-3 16th, the first hole on the PGA Tour to be completely encircled by grandstand seating.

TPC Stadium Courses, like the one in Scottsdale, are purpose-built for hosting tournaments and facilitating spectators, thanks to amphitheater-like vantage points that are built into the significant mounding that line many of the holes. These layouts are unique, and the Scottsdale example, carved out of the Sonoran Desert, ranks second only to TPC Sawgrass as the most famous example that everyday golfers can play. tpc.com/scottsdale  —L.O.
TORREY PINES GOLF COURSE
California
When San Diego’s Torrey Pines hosts the Farmers Insurance Open, a long-running, annual PGA Tour event, the 36-hole municipal golf facility utilizes both of its championship-length courses: the North and the South. Of the two layouts, the South Course is the bigger deal, as it has hosted two US Opens. Previously, when Torrey Pines hosted its first major championship in 2008, Tiger Woods bested the field to claim his third US Open title and, at the time, his 14th major championship.

During the Monday playoff round of Woods’ aforementioned US Open victory on the South Course, he used his length as an advantage, reaching the par-5 18th hole in only two shots. In some ways that tells the story of the South Course—the longer of the two at Torrey Pines, which stretches to 7,800 yards from the championship tees. Big hitters have an advantage.

Set on cliffs overlooking the Pacific, the course all but guarantees that players will experience it in pleasing weather. Those who have plans to play the course after watching this year’s US Open should heed the advice of its architect Rees Jones, who drastically redesigned the course back in 2001 and more recently tweaked certain aspects ahead of the championship in June. “Golf is all about choices; you don’t always have to go for the pin,” he says. “Because the entrances to many of the greens are open, average players can play their ground game or knock-down game and have a degree of success even if they’re hitting their third shots into holes. The pros don’t do that.”  torreypinesgolfcourse.com  —L.O.
WHISTLING STRAITS
Wisconsin
The Ryder Cup is one of golf’s most prestigious affairs, though across the team event’s 94-year history, the cup has rarely been contested at public courses in the United States. But in September, the American and European teams will clash at Whistling Straits, marking only the fifth time (and the first since 1991) that a US resort has played host to the Ryder Cup.

When Herb Kohler, the resort’s owner and developer, commissioned Pete Dye to design and build The Straits course during the late 1990s, he issued only a single directive: “Make it look like Ballybunion,” Kohler told Dye. In no uncertain terms, that was a monumental task. The parcel of land, which previously supported a military airstrip, had few naturally defining characteristics of its own. It certainly didn’t resemble the rugged and windswept links of southwestern Ireland.

“I just let him go,” Kohler recalls. “I wouldn’t interfere with him. And his execution was unbelievable, particularly because we started with no sand. So, he had to find a sandpit, and he brought in over 10,000 truckloads.”

In many respects, sand provides the primary defense on The Straits course, even though the 7,790-yard-long layout, which hugs the coast of Lake Michigan, is often bludgeoned by strong winds coming off the water. If you need proof, consider this: The River course (the second of four golf courses that Dye built for the luxury resort in Kohler, Wisconsin) is punctuated by about five dozen bunkers across its 18 holes. On The Straits course, there are that many bunkers on the par-5 11th hole alone. “The Straits course is all about making you visually uncomfortable. At times there’s nothing to focus on that gives you any definition of how or where you should play a shot,” explains Dirk Willis, vice president of golf, landscape, and retail at Destination Kohler. “That’s why caddies are so valuable. You have to trust your sightlines and trust the line that you’re given.” destinationkohler.com  —S.T.
HARBOUR TOWN GOLF LINKS
South Carolina
The headline-grabbing course at The Sea Pines Resort, Harbour Town Golf Links, is a Pete Dye masterpiece that has hosted a PGA Tour event every spring since 1969. The 7,099-yard layout emphasizes shot-making to such a degree that players who hit good drives might still find themselves out of position if their tee shots don’t come to rest in the correct portion of the fairway. “This course forces you to play like the pros play,” says John Farrell, the resort’s director of sports operations. “Not just where the pros play, but like the pros play. You’ll be challenged in ways that you’re not always challenged, and you’ll hit with every club in your bag.”

The course, as Farrell acknowledges, will do more than simply challenge you in uncustomary ways. It will also expose any weaknesses in your game. For that reason, several veteran professionals—including competitors on the Champions Tour—have previously visited the resort for extended periods of time to fine-tune their own games. “They would say, ‘If you want to teach someone how to play golf, have them go play Harbour Town every day,’” Farrell says. “You’ll have to hit it high, hit it low; you’ll have to cut it and hook it; and you’ll have to pitch it and bump-and-run it. You will learn how to play golf.”

The tour-like experience doesn’t conclude when average players walk off the 18th hole. When you play a round at Harbour Town, you have access to the 4,000-square-foot professionals’ locker room located on the second floor of the stately clubhouse. There, guests can enjoy a bite to eat and a beverage, they can relax in the steam room, or have their shoes cleaned. “You’re a PGA Tour player for the day,” Farrell says, “and that doesn’t happen everywhere.” seapines.com  —S.T.
El Camaleón at Mayakoba
Mexico
At most of the aforementioned properties, golf leads the way as the primary amenity and the reason why most guests visit. At Mayakoba, a gated resort community within Mexico’s Riviera Maya, golf only takes the center stage one week out of the year, when the PGA Tour travels south of the border for the annual Mayakoba Golf Classic. The four resorts inside the gated property offer all of the leisure pursuits that one would expect from an idyllic Mexican beach destination, so a trip to Mayakoba is ideal for golf enthusiasts who want to balance plenty of R&R with a handful of rounds played on a prestigious course.

Analyzing the Mayakoba Golf Classic’s 14-year history, the tournament’s winner has averaged 17.55 shots under par over four days of competition, but those low scores don’t tell the course’s full story. Designed by Greg Norman in 2006, the 7,024-yard-long layout is essentially carved through a dense jungle of mangroves, which means that errant shots hit too far offline will be out of play. Matt Kuchar earned a one-shot victory there in 2018, but the affable tour pro spoke about the difficulty of the course one year later, even in the wake of his 22-under-par winning performance. “If you’re driving it well, then you have a chance to perform well from there, but the wind typically will pick up in the afternoons, and when the wind picks up, you had better be hitting the ball solid,” he said. “If you’re missing fairways, it means you’re in the mangroves, you’re in the hazard, you’re taking penalty drops, you’re really in trouble.” Simply put, El Camaleón is far from your typical resort course. You’ve been warned. mayakoba.com  —S.T.
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