Best public golf course

Whistling vs. Pebble vs. Pacific: What’s the Best Public Course in America?

With the Ryder Cup this past week at Whistling Straits, the golfing public got a great look at one of the very best public courses in the country.

But it begs the question, is it the best.

For years there’s been a constant debate among golfers and the various golf publications about which course is the best public golf course in the country, and it always comes back to a battle between three stalwarts: 

What I love about this, is the fact that these three courses are about as different from one another as can be.

Aside from the fact that they’re all waterfront, beautiful courses – they each look and play very differently from one another.

So I decided it would be fun to put it to the test and figure out once and for all what is the best public course in America.

The Battle for Public Golf Supremacy: How This Works

Let’s get one thing clear out of the gate, this is a subjective ranking system.

When I say Pebble Beach has the best views, you may swear up and down that Pacific is the most beautiful course you’ve ever played.

The 9th green at Pebble Beach.

The 9th green at Pebble Beach.


That’s the great thing about golf, we’re all entitled to our opinions.

So don’t take this as anything more than a fun exercise and comparison of three world-class golf courses.

That said, if you have an opinion on the matter. Please feel free to drop a (respectful) comment. I’d love to hear what you think.

I’ve broken this down into 14 categories:

  • History
  • Conditioning
  • Occasion
  • Value
  • Par 3s
  • Par 4s
  • Par 5s
  • Greens
  • Routing
  • Views
  • Hole Variety
  • Resort:
  • Other Courses
  • Overall Experience

While yes, I realize that some of these aren’t directly related to the golf course design, I feel that they’re directly relevant for most golfers.

All of these things factor into how you experience the course, your decision of which course to visit, and so on. 

As such, I felt it appropriate to work things like “Resort” and “Value” into the rankings.

Whistling Straits Hole 9-Approach

The approach on 9 at Whistling Straits

I’ll award 3 points for the best course in each category, 2 points for second, and 1 point for third. Then we’ll tally them all up at the end to decide once and for all who reigns supreme between Pebble Beach, Whistling Straits, and Pacific Dunes.

Best Public Courses: Which Has the Most History

For many golfers, the history of a course is the single most important reason to play. 

Sure the views are nice…

But to be able to stand in the exact same spot as greats like Hogan, Palmer, Nicklaus, and Woods – that can make an experience more memorable than standing next to the ocean.

Of all the rankings in this list, this one is arguably the most straightforward.

Pebble Beach is…Pebble Beach.

I knew about this course before I even played golf. I knew about the history and just how special it is to be able to play a round there.

There are very few courses in the world with the historical significance of Pebble: 

Six US Opens, a PGA Championship, countless PGA Pro Ams – some of the most famous moments in golf have happened on this course.

But…if we’re talking history in the last 20 years? Whistling gives it a run for it’s money with 3 PGA Championships and a Ryder Cup.

Each makes for a memorable experience where you can hit the same shots as all the pros.

Pacific was built for a very different reason, and its history is much more about the land and how it came to be than it’s tournament pedigree.

  • Pebble Beach: 3
  • Whistling Straits: 2
  • Pacific Dunes: 1

Course Conditioning

When you’re paying hundreds of dollars for a round of golf, you expect to play a well-maintained course. And that’s exactly what you’ll get at any of these.

But each takes a slightly different approach to how the course is maintained.

Pacific is wild. It feels like an Irish links course, and that the holes were found as opposed to manufactured – in large part, because they were.

The 5th hole at Pacific Dunes.

The 5th hole at Pacific Dunes.

But the entire course is fescue, which can feel less manicured than other courses.

Whistling Straits also features fescue grass, but everything feels a little more put together, or for lack of a better term, manufactured.

Whistling Straits Hole 11

On the 11th tee at Whistling Straits. That’s a lot of bunkers.

Whistling Straits looks like a links course that’s been there for centuries, but it doesn’t necessarily play like one, and well, it hasn’t even been there for 25 years.

In my experiences, Whistling has been a cut above Pacific in terms of conditioning as you would traditionally think about it.

Pebble, being the most familiar to typical American golfers with bent grass rather than fescue, is one of the most well-maintained courses you’ll ever play.

Every blade of grass is perfectly situated, and it’s the type of experience you wish you could have at your home course day in and day out.

  • Pebble Beach: 3
  • Whistling Straits: 2
  • Pacific Dunes: 1

Sense of Occasion: Which Course Gives You the Most Butterflies?

Some courses you get excited about playing.

Others, you get so excited for you’ll travel to go see them.

And then there’s a handful of those bucket list courses that are in a league of their own. Where the sense of occasion is unparalleled not just in terms of your golfing life, but your life as a whole.

To be honest, I’ve never felt a greater sense of occasion than when I’ve played Pebble Beach.

Pebble Beach Hole 8

The approach shot on 8 at Pebble is one of those shots you dream your whole life about being able to hit. (I have yet to hit this green.)

I’ve played it three times now, and every single time I get nervous, excited, and feel like it’s a legitimately momentous occasion to stand on each tee box.

I oddly, don’t get that same sense of occasion with Pacific Dunes – despite it regularly being considered among the top 25 golf courses in the world.

There’s a certain momentousness that comes with visiting Bandon Dunes Resort for the first time, but when you’re down there, playing Pacific doesn’t necessarily feel any more special than playing any of their other 4 courses.

Bandon Preserve Sunset

Sunset at Bandon Preserve.

This isn’t a slight to Pacific, but rather a compliment to just how good the other courses at Bandon are.

Whistling is somewhere in between. Unlike Bandon where you can interchange all 5 courses for the “best” depending on who you are, most people will consider Whistling Straits the one you have to play when visiting Kohler. Throw in the tournament pedigree, and high price tag, and you’ll certainly get some butterflies walking up to the first tee on the Straits Course.


  • Pebble Beach:3
  • Whistling Straits: 2
  • Pacific Dunes: 1

Best Value:

Right now, it costs $595 to play Pebble Beach. Plus in order to make a tee time, you have to have a reservation at one of their resort hotels. The cheapest room is $870/night.

A standard room at Inn at Spanish Bay.

It costs $410 to play Whistling Straits, but you’ll pay at least $100 more than that to cover the mandatory caddie and gratuity.

You can play Pacific Dunes for $70 with no required caddie and no resort stay.

This might be the very best value in golf.

To get this rate, you need to play in December and play one of the other Bandon courses first.

It’s a challenge to get 36 holes in during December in Oregon, but with some planning, you can do it.

How much is the first round? $135.

Stay at the resort? You’re looking at $100 for the first, and $50 for the second.

Two top 100 in the world courses for $150. You won’t find that anywhere else.

Even in peak season, it’s less than $300 to play Pacific Dunes, and the replay is always half off, which can be done on any of the courses at Bandon.

Chrome Lake Room at Bandon Dunes.

Chrome Lake Room at Bandon Dunes.

You can occasionally find some stay-and-play deals at Kohler, but honestly, with the other two resorts there’s not much value about them.

  • Pebble Beach: 1
  • Whistling Straits: 2
  • Pacific Dunes: 3

Best Par 3s

Ok, this is where we start getting into the actual course itself. 

The par 3s. 

Each of these courses has an unbelievably memorable set of par 3s. Insane views, great strategy, and nice variety.

But which course has the best? 

Pebble arguably has both the best par 3(hole #7) and the worst (hole #12).

Pebble Beach Hole 7 Drone

Pebble Beach Hole 7 Drone

Pacific has a leg up in that it features five par 3s, including four alone on the back 9 (find another course that does that).

But Whistling Straits I’d argue has the best collection as a whole.

The knock you could make on them is a lack of variety. They all hug the edge of a cliff overlooking Lake Michigan. 

Whistling Straits Hole 7

The 7th at Whistling Straits.

But every single one feels like a bucket list hole. None carry the weight of the 7th at Pebble, but very few holes do. 

However, I think when looking at them all combined, Whistling has the collection of par 3 holes I’d be most excited about playing.

Pacific Dunes has the most variety. Uphill shots, downhill shots, oceanfront shots, holes in nearly every direction – plus you get a bonus short hole!

All of the par 3s at Pacific are good, if not great. 

  • Pebble Beach: 1
  • Whistling Straits: 3
  • Pacific Dunes: 2

Best Par 4s

I’d argue that holes 3-10 at Pebble Beach is the best stretch of golf I’ve ever played.

Not only are the views insane, but you get to play golf holes that you will never see anywhere else.

And most of the holes in that stretch are par 4s.

There’s fantastic variety across all of them: a dogleg, a drivable par 4, a long par 4, a cliff carry, canted fairways, and more.

Pebble Beach hole 4

The 4th at Pebble Beach

I could play that stretch of holes every day of my life and not get bored.

But the others are no slouch either.

Pacific might have even more variety, and the cliff-hugging 4th and 13th are among the best par 4s you’ll ever play.

Pacific Dunes Hole 13

Pacific Dunes Hole 13

The infinity green 13th at Whistling and terrifying greenside pot bunker on 6 at Whistling makes for some very memorable moments, but as whole they don’t have quite the same excitement as at the other two courses.

  • Pebble Beach: 3
  • Whistling Straits: 1
  • Pacific Dunes: 2

Best Par 5s

Of all the on-course sections for this head-t0-head to-head comparison, deciding on the par 5s may have been the most difficult.


Because I don’t generally think the par 5s are the strengths of any of these courses.

Sure they all have some fabulous bright spots: 18 at Pebble, 2 at Whistling Straits, 3 at Pacific Dunes.

But they also each have some less than memorable holes as well (2 at Pebble, 5 at Whistling Straits, and 18 at Pacific.)

The 18th green at Pacific Dunes.

The 18th green at Pacific Dunes.

That being said, the more I’ve thought about it, the more clearly I see that Pebble has to get the nod here.

18 is one of the best par 5s in the world. 

6 is one of the coolest par 5s you’ll ever play.

The 6th at Pebble Beach.

The 6th at Pebble Beach.

14 might have the most unique (and difficult) green on the course.

And I can’t even knock 2 that much, as I love a good “par 4 and a half” that begs you to go for it in 2. 

Pacific despite having 5 par 3s only features 3 par 5s.

And when you do that? They all better be really good.

And. they’re good. But not nearly as memorable as anything at Pebble. And 18 feels a little bit anti-climactic when compared to the rest of the journey around the course.

  • Pebble Beach: 3
  • Whistling Straits: 2
  • Pacific Dunes: 1

Best Green Design

All it takes is one visit to the Punchbowl off the first tee at Pacific Dunes to get a sense of the thought process behind the greens on the course.

The Punchbowl at Bandon Dunes

The Punchbowl at Bandon Dunes

Sure, none are as over the top as that putting course, but the undulations and interest of the greens is unparalleled.

Pebble Beach has some very good greens, but many are also on the flat side and a bit benign.

I love the work they did on the par 3 17th, and I think the par 5 14th where the green slopes away from you is fantastic.

The par 3 12th at Whistling has one of my favorite pin positions in golf with the little island to the far right of the hole. You could argue it’s too challenging, but it certainly makes for a knee-knocking shot.

Whistling Straits Hole 12

You’d better pray the pin isn’t upper right on 12 at Whistling Straits!

  • Pebble Beach: 2
  • Whistling Straits: 1
  • Pacific Dunes: 3

Views on Views on Views

Ranking the views of these courses is kind of like comparing supermodels – they’re all absolutely gorgeous.

In many ways, it could be easy to say Whistling Straits wins. It gives off some Sheep Ranch vibes in the sense that you’ve got water views from most holes on the course.

Whistling Straits Hole 13 - Approach

A fun (and beautiful) approach to 13 on the Straits Course.

Pacific holds its cards closer to the vest. The routing weaves you in and out of dunes, making for more dramatic moments when you do get those ocean views.

For instance, the experience of walking to 4 tee is rivaled only by the reveal on the 4th hole of it’s sister Bandon Dunes.

This hurts Pacific in the “Views” category, but helps it in the next one. 

What I love about the views at Pebble though, is the way the course is carved into the community. Whistling and Pacific feel like remote stretches of coastline, whereas Pebble is right in the thick of it in a way that just amplifies the spectacular views that much more. 

And finishing your round with waves crashing into the bank and splashing up to the fairway? It’s a pretty spectacular experience.

Pebble Beach Golf Hole 18

The waves crashing against 18 at Pebble Beach is one of the coolest sights in golf.

  • Pebble Beach: 3
  • Whistling Straits: 2
  • Pacific Dunes: 1


All three of these courses have fantastic routings that make for special moments, and each have their own strengths.

The oceanfront stretch from 4-10 at Pebble is world-class. But the most common knock you’ll hear about the course is that the inland holes don’t stack up to the others.

Whistling Straits manages to fit 8 holes atop the cliffs overlooking the Lake, but you could argue some of the holes aren’t as interesting as on the other two courses, or that the overwhelming number of bunkers detract from the experience.

Whistling Straits Hole 6 Approach

Pacific Dunes is all about the drama, and moments. It doesn’t have constant views of the ocean like the others, but when you do get them, the moments are spectacular. 

Climbing to the teebox on 3, gives you a peek of what’s to come, before you hit your teeshot down to the fairway below. Only to hit you in the face with a cliff-front par 4 upon walking off the 3rd green.

Pacific Dunes at Bandon Dunes Resort is the #3 Top 100 Public Course in the US

The 3rd at Pacific

You get similar moments heading up to 10 tee, which builds as you finish the hole and get over to the cliffside 11th teebox.

It may be short, but the 11th at Pacific is also one of the most scenic par 3s in golf!

I personally like that drama. It keeps you excited about the round, and Doak did a masterful job of utilizing this, but more importantly, creating inland holes that are just as interesting as the waterfront ones.

  • Pebble Beach: 1
  • Whistling Straits: 2
  • Pacific Dunes: 3

Hole Variety: Does Each Hole Feel Unique and Interesting?

There’s nothing worse than playing a course where you just feel like you’re playing the same hole over and over again. And let’s face it, there are a lot of courses like that out there.

Fortunately, as you’d expect from the best public golf courses in America, this isn’t the case here. 

In part because of the routing we talked about above, the hole variety at Pacific Dunes is world-class. Not only are there unique holes, but there’s very good variety amongst them. 

Like the dual greens on 9. 

Or the upper and lower tee boxes on 10. 

Both Pebble and Whistling make tremendous use of the coastline. I personally love how even after such a fantastic stretch of holes, the course still comes back to the water to finish on 17 and 18.

Approach on 18 at Pebble.

Approach on 18 at Pebble.

  • Pebble Beach: 2
  • Whistling Straits: 1
  • Pacific Dunes: 3

Resort: Which Has the Best Activities and Amenities?

What about the resorts as a whole? This is where things get real subjective based on what you’re looking for.

For flat-out golf? There’s no better golf resort in the world than Bandon Dunes.

The 6th on Bandon Dunes

The 6th on Bandon Dunes

5 world class 18s, the best par 3 course in the world (arguably), insane practice facility – the list goes on.

But what if golf is only part of the experience you’re looking for? What if you want fine dining, a spa, 5-star accommodations, or any number of other activities a resort can provide?

Pebble Beach and Whistling Straits are a far better bet. 

And both of those are great in this regard. Whether you stay at the American Club in Kohler or the Lodge/Spanish Bay at Pebble Beach – you’ll be treated to one of the great resort experiences in golf.

You’ll pay for it, but it will be luxurious, fun, and memorable.

With this ranking, let’s look at just these solely from the resort standpoint, and take the golf out of it.

  • Pebble Beach: 3
  • Whistling Straits: 2
  • Pacific Dunes: 1

Other Resort Golf Courses:

If you’re playing any one of these courses, there’s a good chance you’ll probably play another round or two at the resort as well.

If that’s the case, then you’d probably like the rest of the golf to be just as high quality as the primary course right?

All three of these have you covered.

Whistling Straits arguably gives you the most variety, in the sense that the River and Meadow Valleys courses are SO different than Whistling Straits, that you kind of get two golf trips in one.

5th hole on the River Course at Blackwolf Run

One of the most fun tee shots in all of golf: the 5th on the River Course at Blackwolf Run

Spyglass Hill features one of the 5 best opening stretches in golf, but then falls off a little bit through the rest of the round.

And Pacific? Well, I’ve mentioned it before, the golf at Bandon is so good, that you’ll be just as excited to play Sheep Ranch, Bandon Trails, or even Old Macdonald as you are to play the more notable Pacific Dunes and Bandon Dunes courses.

  • Pebble Beach: 2
  • Whistling Straits: 1
  • Pacific Dunes: 3

Overall Experience:

Finally, we have overall experience. 

We’ve hopefully made it clear that each of these courses and resorts are among the best golf experiences you’ll have.

So take this for what it’s worth, as your interests may vary depending on what you’re most interested in.

But considering this is a golf blog, and we primarily focus on the golf courses themselves, Pacific has to get the nod for overall experience.

Whether it’s the fact you never have to leave the property once you arrive, the seamless ability to play multiple world-class courses in a single day, or the numerous opportunities for other golf activities while on property – Bandon is a golf Mecca.

Bandon Trails Hole 14

The plaque which marks where Mike Keiser decided to build the resort, is located near the 14th tee on trails along one of the hiking trails.

When it comes to a luxurious, high-end bucket list golf trip? Pebble wins hands down.

Kohler finds itself somewhere in the middle. You’ll need to make a little drive from your hotel to either Blackwolf or Whistling.

The golf is fantastic, but it’s not Bandon fantastic.

And the resort experience? Fantastic. But not Pebble fantastic.

So it falls to third in this category.

  • Pebble Beach: 2
  • Whistling Straits: 1
  • Pacific Dunes: 3

And the Winner Is?

With 32 points, the winner for best public course in America is? Pebble Beach.

This is followed up by Pacific Dunes in 2nd with 28, and Whistling Straits in third with 24.

Personally, Pebble Beach is my favorite golf course in the world. 

The experience of playing it is second to none (even if you have a six-hour round), and quite frankly, it’s as famous as it is for a reason.

Pacific would be my personal number 2. However, I think Bandon Dunes is the best golf resort anywhere, and it’s supporting courses are by far the best of these three resorts.

I have Whistling in third personally, for all of the reasons mentioned throughout this review.

It’s also the course that I have played the least of the three, so with another couple rounds there, my opinion may change.

All that to say, regardless of which of these three golf courses your next round is on? It’s safe to say, that at that given moment, you can consider yourself one of the luckiest people in the world.

PS: Think Rodeo Dunes is going to make this list when it opens? Time will tell…

There are 6 comments

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  1. Robert Allen

    I have played all 3 of your top public courses and agree that Pebble is the best public course in America. I respectfully disagree that Pacific Dunes is the 2nd best. Although a great golf course, after I played it, I did not have a compelling reason to play it again. After playing Pebble and Whistling Straits, I wanted to play both again and again. Both had more memorable holes, in my opinion, than Pacific Dunes and I personally found both to be a bigger golfing challenge than Pacific Dunes.

  2. T J Lambert

    Can agree with you on Pebble and Pacific (haven’t played Kohler). But calling them “public” golf is like calling a Mercedes a Chevy. I’m blessed to have the means ($) to play them and many other high end “public” courses…but for the average public course golfer it’s pretty much out of reach.

  3. Matt

    Played all 3 within the last few years. If you could only take one trip, I highly recommend Pebble. If you could only take 2 trips, it’s Pebble then Bandon Dunes. Kohler didn’t even come close to the excitement, amazement, and exceeding the expectations of the other two. But if you can swing it, a great experience to knock it off the bucket list. Now that I’ve played and visited all 3, my next 5 trips (if only including these resorts) would be Bandon, Bandon, Bandon, Bandon, Pebble.

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