20 Bucket List Golf Courses (That Exceeded Expectations)
Bucket list golf courses come in various forms. As a kid, Pronghorn golf club was my bucket list golf course. It seemed like one of those places that would be impossible to ever play, as someone who didn’t grow up around golf.
10 years ago, I finally played it, and doing so was the impetus for pretty much everything you see here on Breaking Eighty.
It’s what inspired me to want to learn more about golf architecture and to pursue playing more of the best golf courses in the world.
For some of us, our bucket list course may be something close by. Perhaps a private club in our hometown. For others, it could be a resort or club halfway across the world.
Having been traveling for golf for the better part of 10 years now, I’ve been unbelievably fortunate to play a number of truly “bucket list” golf courses.
Occasionally, there’s a course that fails to live up to expectations (I’m looking at you Royal Troon…).
But the best experiences are often when you’re excited for a round of golf, and they exceed your expectations in ways you didn’t expect.
This post is devoted to those experiences for me.
The places that I knew would be good, but ended up being brilliant.
Or perhaps in some cases, were courses I wasn’t expecting to like that much, that ended up blowing me away.
So here you go, this is my list of 20 bucket list golf courses that exceeded my expectations.
1) Muirfield Village Golf Club – Columbus, OH
Jack’s Place, home of the Memorial Tournament, and what I lovingly refer to as Little Augusta – I was shocked by how much I enjoyed Muirfield Village.
I was coming off a bout of food poisoning, but fortunately, the course is so enjoyable I was able to power through after 24 hours in bed.
Nicklaus doesn’t always get a ton of credit for his design work, but I found Muirfield Village to be excellent, and their facilities and conditioning truly did give it an Augusta-like vibe.
My only regret is I didn’t get a milkshake.
2) TPC Sawgrass – Ponte Vedra Beach, FL
This one falls into the camp of a course I didn’t expect to like. Tons of water, lots of sand, and a brutal Pete Dye layout – it just didn’t necessarily scream “fun” golf to me.
But the course is so much more than that, and truly deserves the moniker of “bucket list course.”
The water isn’t nearly as in play as I expected it to be, and in many cases is only there to punish the most errant of shots. You know, the ones where you deserve to be punished.
The $600 green fee is getting a little steep, but to give yourself a shot at a hole-in-one on the iconic 17th? It’s worth it to play at least once.
3) Loch Lomond Golf Club – Glasgow, Scotland
Loch Lomond is the exact opposite of everything you expect when thinking of Scotland golf.
It’s not a links course, it hasn’t been around for centuries, and they’re not exactly accommodating to public play.
But if you are fortunate enough to play Loch Lomond, you’re treated to one of the most spectacular destination private clubs in the world. I thought the Weiskopf routing was fantastic, despite not featuring the lake as much as I expected.
The 14th-century castle of a clubhouse is almost even more impressive than the course itself.
4) Merion Golf Club – Ardmore, PA
I expected to like Merion, I did not expect it to become one of my all-time favorite courses.
It’s only got 2 par 5s, and sits on less than 160 acres – but boy does it make good use of the land it’s got.
I’m a sucker for a good short par 4, and Merion has plenty of them. Throw in the history, a unique routing, and a great balance of brutally challenging holes, along with more fun chances to score – and you’ve got a course that continues to be in my top 3 favorites of all time.
5) North Berwick Golf Club – North Berwick, Scotland
One of my top 5 golf memories of all time was arriving in North Berwick just before sunset, checking into our hotel, grabbing a beer, and walking out to the 15th hole: the original redan.
If I were to sum up North Berwick in one word it would be: quirky.
And I mean this in the best way possible. It has a green tucked behind a stone wall (14), the most unique green I’ve ever seen (16), and a finish in town that’s very reminiscent of The Old Course.
If you don’t like North Berwick, you don’t like golf.
And my hot take? I personally preferred NB to its more historic and well-known neighbor in St. Andrews.
6) Royal Dornoch Golf Club – Dornoch, Scotland
It was a very dicey 4.5 hour drive from North Berwick to Royal Dornoch, and one I almost didn’t take. But I’m incredibly glad I did, as one of the only two courses I liked more than North Berwick in Scotland? Royal Dornoch.
Again, I don’t know why I expected flat, bland holes before coming here – Royal Dornoch is anything but. There’s a reason it’s consistently ranked among the top 10 golf courses in the world. But in similar fashion to the next course on this list, it’s hard to understand exactly why until you play it for yourself.
7) Riviera Country Club – Pacific Palisades, CA
Before playing Riviera, I didn’t fully understand what all the fuss was about with it.
After playing it, there isn’t any one thing I can point to for why it’s so highly regarded among golf course aficionados.
But this is a course that’s greater than the sum of its parts.
I loved it, and similar to Dornoch, it’s hard to explain why until you play it.
Sure there’s the wonderful short par 4, 10th, and imposing views of the clubhouse above.
There’s the bunker in the middle of the 6th green, and an opening tee shot that’s mere feet from the clubhouse.
Those are all cool features, but it’s how all of these things (and more) flow together to create a strategic and memorable round of golf.
8) National Golf Links of America – Southampton, NY
If you talk to a lot of golf history geeks, there’s a good chance they’ll tell you their biggest bucket list course is NGLA. Its C.B. Macdonald design is kind of like the American St. Andrews as far as history goes – you know, if St. Andrews was extremely private and in the Hamptons.
Playing NGLA was one of my very best golf days of all time.
Within one hole, I knew it would exceed my expectations. The first green is unlike anything I’d ever seen. And moments like that would continue throughout the round. What’s the saying? “Often replicated, never duplicated.” Never has been that more true.
9) The Golf Club at Black Rock – Coeur d’Alene, ID
Black Rock was the very first top 100 level course I ever played.
I’d never seen elevation change like this. I’d never experienced a waterfall on a golf course. Hell, I’d never even played a private club before this!
Is it over-the-top? Yes.
A little gimmicky at times? Sure.
But it’s just so much fun, that every time I’m fortunate enough to play it, I find myself feeling like a kid the night before going to Disneyland.
10) Quivira Golf Club – Cabo San Lucas, Mexico
With Quivira, you generally only hear about the cliff-side 5th and 6th holes.
Don’t get me wrong, those holes are great!
But what you don’t hear people talk about as much is the rest of the course.
I was blown away by how good the other holes on the course were.
I remember thinking after the first 4 holes “Man, I love this course, and I haven’t even gotten to the best parts yet.”
11) Bandon Trails – Bandon, OR
But the unsung hero of Bandon Dunes Resort?
The inland Bandon Trails. It’s my favorite course on property, and in my top 5 courses in the world.
I can’t say I was expecting that the first time I arrived at Bandon.
Or perhaps more surprising is that each year when I play it again, it just confirms my love for the course.
12) Peachtree Golf Club – Atlanta, GA
Peachtree Golf Club in Atlanta is incredibly exclusive. But just because it’s a tough tee time, does not mean it’s a good course.
No, it’s a good course for a myriad of other reasons. The use of the land, the strategy, and the historic character of the clubhouse are all reasons an experience at Peachtree is second only to its more famous sibling about 3 hours east.
13) Kings Course at Gleneagles – Gleneagles, Scotland
Playing the Kings Course was a last-minute decision. I was driving from Campbeltown up to Inverness and had an extra day.
We literally said: “what’s on the way, and where can we get a tee time?”
Two hours later, I was standing on the first tee of the Kings Course looking at one of the most unique opening holes I’d ever seen.
Every step of the way, we kept saying “whoa, this is cool!”
A lot of people only play links courses when in Scotland. Here’s a hot tip: you’re missing out if you don’t go play this course. The Gleneagles hotel is a sight to behold as well.
14) Winged Foot Golf Club (East) – Mamaroneck, NY
The West Course at Winged Foot was exactly as I expected it would be: long, brutally tough, and perfectly manicured.
But it was the East course that truly won me over. It’s often overshadowed by the history of the West, but if you’re not a scratch golfer? I’m willing to bet you’ll have more fun on the East.
It’s got more character, and with a few par 3s carved into rocky outcroppings, there’s plenty to enjoy visually as well.
15) Castle Stuart Golf Club – Inverness, Scotland
On my first trip to Scotland, I remember driving by the sign to Castle Stuart on our way from Dornoch to Cruden Bay.
“Why didn’t I try and schedule this in?”
It wasn’t until I played it two years later that I realized just how big of a mistake that was.
Castle Stuart is often overshadowed by more famous courses in Scotland, but it’s one of my all-time favorites.
It has some of the most fun, dramatic, and beautiful golf holes anywhere in the world.
16) Gozzer Ranch Golf & Lake Club – Coeur d’Alene, ID
I honestly feel like I’ve talked to more people that have played Cypress Point than Gozzer Ranch. In part, because Coeur d’Alene is not the easiest place to get to for most people.
You’re rarely just passing through, northern Idaho.
But also, because that’s how they like to keep it: private.
But if you are fortunate enough to score a tee time, you’ll be treated to one of Tom Fazio’s best.
Not only is it a visual masterpiece full of fun golf holes, but the vibe is the exact opposite of everything you expect from a club with an initiation that costs as much as a house.
Casual, laid back, and everything you want in a lakeside vacation retreat.
17) Punta Espada Golf Club – Cap Cana, Dominican Republic
How this course doesn’t get talked about more is beyond me. It’s like the “Dominican Pebble Beach.”
It has a fantastic routing that takes you right up against the sea, inland, and back out to the water again no less than 4 times.
It’s dramatic, fun, and well worth the time to get there.
Throw in an all-inclusive like Secrets Cap Cana, and you’ve got yourself a vacation that’s pretty tough to beat.
18) Hudson National Golf Club – Croton-on-Hudson, NY
Hudson National was the first of the NYC privates I played, and it was one of the first Fazio courses I played as well.
At this point in my list, you may have noticed what I prioritize in a round of golf: fun.
Some diehard historians of the game might cringe at some of the courses I’ve included, but honestly?
I just don’t see how you can play a course like Hudson and not have a smile on your face the whole time.
It’s got views, risk-reward opportunities, and I even enjoy the quirkier holes like the downhill 5th.
19) Somerset Hills Country Club – Bernardsville, NJ
Somerset is unlike any Tillinghast course I’ve played to date.
It’s more playable than a course like Bethpage Black, but all you have to do is take a look at its very severe rendition of the redan hole, to see that it still has some teeth.
The front 9 is open, playing through an old racetrack, while the back weaves through the forest. It’s a wonderful walk, and is still a place I talk about when the topic of underrated, or rather under-the-radar, courses comes up.
20) Pasatiempo Golf Club – Santa Cruz, CA
Speaking of underrated, Pasatiempo is one of the top 3 most underrated courses in the country as far as I’m concerned.
The public has very few opportunities to play a true Mackenzie design, and Pasatiempo is one of the best out there. The bunkers are visually intimidating, the greens are wild, and it’s one of those rare courses that ends with a par 3.
There are very few courses, public or private, that are as good as Pasa.
What Bucket List Golf Courses Would You Add?
So there you go, there’s my list of 20 bucket list golf courses that not just met, but exceeded my expectations after playing them.
We’re fortunate to live in a time where we’re spoiled for choice. There’s so much good golf to be played out there, and I’m still just scratching the surface.
What about you? What’s a bucket list golf course that exceeded your expectations after playing it?
Thinking of creating a bucket list of your own? Here are some bucket list ideas for how I’d go about creating one.