America the bountiful: Seek out the country's top 10 hidden gem golf courses



In golf, hidden Gems can be found near-and-far, from metropolitan Orlando to the far outreaches of northern Minnesota and even in Hawaii. Matt Ginella has been all over the U.S. and files his Top 10 favorite plays that aren't household names but are certainly worthy of any golfer's bucket list. Chances are, one of Ginella's favorite lesser-knowns is near you.

It's fun to apply the term "hidden gem" to a golf course considering most standard routings are on more than 100 acres, which make them hard to hide. That being said -- and if you've ever been there you know -- everything in Brainerd, Minn., qualifies as hidden, including The Classic at Madden's on Gull Lake.

And the same can be said for everything on the eastern tip of the United States. Probably not true of what is in the middle of central Florida, but for the purpose of this list, I think Winter Park Country Club is both hidden and a gem. And out there on the North Shore of Oahu, Kahuku checks both boxes of the criteria for the following list of My Top 10 Hidden Gems in America:

Video: Ginella talks top hidden gems on Morning Drive

No. 10: Pilgrim's Run Golf Club in Michigan

While looking for a course to fill out an itinerary that included Tullymore Golf Club, I found this hidden gem in Pierson, Mich. From the middle of the first fairway, and having paid $55 in peak season, I knew it was going to be a good day.

The Kris Schumacker and Mike DeVries design uses more than 400 acres as the routing rolls through the woods with just enough undulation to make you think twice about club selection on certain approach shots. Be sure and ask about the "Four for the Price of Three" special that they offer in May and the first two weeks of September.

No. 9: Aspen Lakes Golf Course in Oregon

One common theme to my travels is that family owned golf courses -- especially when they're managed by the family -- is a great experience. You always get service with a smile, the food usually consists of some famous family recipe, there's great attention to detail throughout the property, and there's the general hospitality you might get when you're visiting someone's house. That was all true at Aspen Lakes in Sisters, Ore., which is owned and operated by the Cyrus family.

The course was built by William Overdorf, and among the memorable features are the views of the surrounding mountains and the red sand in the bunkers, which they got by crushing red cinders that naturally exist on the 1,084-acre piece of land that is adjacent to the family farm. Green fees range from $20 to $75, depending on what time of day you play.

No. 8: Winter Park Country Club in Florida

Having moved from Brooklyn to Orlando, I rented for a year in Winter Park. And as I toured my new surroundings, I found this hidden gem, which happens to be routed through the middle of town. Narrow off most tees, you're big misses might hit any number of residential obstacles, such as residents or roads, pets or cars, houses or a graveyard. (A playing partner, Damon Hack, once hit three of the above with one tee shot.)

The current routing of the nine-hole par 35 dates back to the 1930s, and green fees range from $5 to $15. The often spotty conditions of certain greens are never enough to dilute the charms of a course that's accessible, affordable and walkable for any age, shape or swing.

No. 7: Kahuku Golf Course in Hawaii

A golfer who travels to Oahu's North Shore usually stops at Turtle Bay, which is a resort that features two 18-hole courses, cabanas, beaches, baby back ribs and horseback rides. But if you're willing to drive a little deeper into "the country," and you're willing to leave any attitude and pretentiousness in your rental trunk -- where the clubhouse looks a lot like a biggie-sized broom closet, there are more flip-flops than FootJoys, and a green fee is less than a poke bowl -- then you're in for a treat.

For nine holes at Kahuku, tourists pay $27.50. (Locals pay $11 on weekdays, $13 on weekends.) You'll enjoy several holes along the rugged coastline. And if the prevailing tradewinds are at your back, be prepared to break personal bests in driving distance and land speeds of pull carts.

No. 6: Legend at Giants Ridge in Minnesota

As I've navigated the nooks and crannies of a country full of great golf, there are a few times I've been "off the grid." Which is to say, the GPS system I'm using is simply showing an avatar of my car and nothing but open space. It's often dark out, and I'm sure my next turn is into a lake. But as I twisted and trusted my way to Biwabik, in a northeastern corner of Minnesota, there were two golden fruits of my "labor."

Most people rave and review the Quarry Course better than the Legend at Giants Ridge. I disagree. I actually prefer Legend, because there's a better continuity to the two nines, and the Quarry's topography can feel a little over the top. But both definitely define the term "hidden gem," and both are usually ranked on any list of the 100 greatest public courses in the country. In peak season (June through September), you'll pay $82 during the week, $89 on weekends.

No. 5: Wailua Golf Course in Hawaii

If you make your way to Kauai, amid the visual splendor that is the North Shore of this remote destination, stop in to play Wailua Golf Course. Host of multiple USGA Amateur Public Links Championships, it's not only a hidden gem, it's also one of the best value offerings in the country.

It's Kahuku on a performance-enhancing routing, conditioning and overall golf. Considering you're on Kauai, and just up the road you pay more than $200 to play the Prince Course, one of the island's finest, or 18 holes at Wailua for $48 during the week, $60 on weekends -- it's all a steal. (Locals pay $15 during the week, $20 on weekends.) You'll take pictures from the 17th tee, but you'll remember the back-firing gas carts, a swift pace of play and an infectious pride of the locals who wield outdated equipment with home-grown swings and bet-winning short games.

No. 4: Coronado Golf Course in California

I've written and talked about Coronado so much that San Diegans who line up and pay $35 to play along the bay have sent me threatening messages on all forms of digital communication: "Cease and desist or die!"

They're joking. I hope. Because this really is one of my favorite little public courses in the country. It's short, flat, fun and inexpensive, which is why they get more than 100,000 rounds per year. There's a somewhat dramatic build to a four-hole finish along the water, and the 19th hole delivers on good food and cold drinks.

In San Diego on a quick business trip? Coronado is perfect as a single and a lot less expensive than Torrey Pines South. You might play with a Navy Seal, a casual surfer or a super senior, but they're all going to tell you to keep Coronado a secret.

No.3: Brackenridge Park in Texas

North of downtown San Antonio, you'll wind your way through some bumpy little roads to get to the "Old Brack" clubhouse, which doubles as the Texas Golf Hall of Fame. The A.W. Tillinghast original was restored in 2008, bringing back some edges to the slightly elevated and square greens.

The scorecard says 6,243 yards, but par is defended by plenty of bunkers, tree-lined fairways and par 3s that test your long irons and hybrids. It's not the best thing about Brackenridge, but the price is certainly a bonus: $50 during the week, $60 on weekends.

No. 2: Montauk Downs State Park Golf Course in New York

Maybe it's not hidden, but to get to the eastern tip of Long Island, N.Y., it's a haul. And just short of the Lighthouse that warns boaters of the unforgiving edges of the Northeast, you'll find a Robert Trent Jones Sr. original, that was built in 1927. Bethpage Black is the pride of the New York State Parks Department, but Montauk Downs is no slouch; it's more forgiving, and it's less expensive. Non-residents pay $86 during the week, $96 on weekends. (State residents pay $43 and $48.) You'll hit every club in your bag as you play through trees, around creeks and try to get your ball to stay on the greens, which are well protected by deep bunkers. I see the Hamptons as a smoke screen, and the crisp winds of the eastern shore can make for tough playing conditions, but no one who tees it at "The Downs" will say it's overrated.

No. 1: The Classic at Madden's on Gull Lake in Minnesota

Ever since I "found" The Classic, a homegrown course built by the superintendent, it set the bar for anything I consider a hidden gem. Scott Hoffman barely moved a rock but peeled back a few towering oaks to unveil one of the best in the Midwest.

Always ranked on Golf Digest's list of America's 100 Greatest Public, you can play it for $85 during the week, $99 on weekends. And as you play it for the first time, and especially if you walk it, there's a fun sense of discovery over the rolling terrain throughout the round. Water is a factor, and so is the distracting scenery, especially if you play it in the fall, when the leaves have started to change colors and the cool breeze shortens your swing. The 19th hole, with the fire pit on the deck and the elevated view of the ninth and 18th greens, is a birdie on everyone's scorecard, which is the perfect way to end the day.

Feb 12, 2014



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Matt Ginella

Special Contributor

Matt Ginella is Golf Channel's resident travel insider. He writes for GolfChannel.com and appears weekly on "Morning Drive." Before Golf Channel, Ginella was senior travel editor for Golf Digest and Golf World from 2007-2012 and covered courses, resorts and the avid amateur golfer's annual buddies trips to over 60 destinations around the country. Ginella graduated from St. Mary's College (Calif.) in 1995 and earned a masters degree in journalism from Columbia University in 2003. Follow Matt on Twitter at @mattginellagc and on Instagram at @Matt_Ginella.