PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. -- Playing any U.S. Open venue is a special day. Whether you're shanking at Shinnecock Hills or making bogeys at Baltusrol, you're going to brag about and cherish playing a course spectacular enough to host our national championship.
I've been lucky enough to tee it up at all six public U.S. Open courses. They're all cool in their own way. Some provide better experiences than others. Let's be honest: Would you rather play the South Course at Torrey Pines than Pebble Beach Golf Links? Yeah, I didn't think so.
I've ranked them from worst to first for this story simply based on my experiences at each club. It's not a coincidence that I've played the top three courses multiple times. Once I got a taste, I wanted to visit again and again.
6. South Course at Torrey Pines, La Jolla, Calif.
U.S. Open host: 2008 (Tiger Woods) and 2021.
This ranking comes with a caveat. Just about everything went against me the day I played Torrey Pines South in the late 1990s, several years before Rees Jones redid the course, much to Phil Mickelson's chagrin. It was scruffy back then, like a $50 muni. The check-in process was chaotic. The golf professional who was supposed to set up my tee time forgot, forcing the staff to squeeze me in as a walk-up single. All day, my foursome battled a grey overcast marine layer. There were no views of the coastal cliffs TV viewers enjoy so much. Hopefully when I return, Torrey Pines can win me over with a little more sun, better service and improved playing conditions.
5. Erin Hills Golf Course, Erin, Wis.
U.S. Open host: 2017.
This is where picking favorites gets really tough. If Erin Hills Golf Course -- located 30 miles northwest of Milwaukee -- had already hosted a successful Open, I might consider moving it up a notch. I arrived late in the day, joining a twosome that included Alex Miceli of Golfweek. We played about seven holes before the mosquitoes became unbearable at dusk. We were the only ones in the bar afterward, enjoying some great steaks and beer -- two Wisconsin specialties. I stayed in the small but charming dormie rooms in the lodge that night. Walking the glacier-cut hills the next day proved to be a more difficult walk than I expected. It was a backbreaker, literally. The following day, my back gave out during a round in the Wisconsin Dells, an injury that forced me to hang up the clubs for several weeks that summer. As for the golf course, it's just as tough. The fescue lining the fairway and difficult greens will test the pros, no doubt.
4. Bethpage Black, Farmingdale, N.Y.
U.S. Open host: 2002 (Woods), 2009 (Lucas Glover).
Getting a tee time at Bethpage Black is the sole reason this experience isn't rated higher. They even make it tough on freeloading media types. My tee time request wasn't confirmed on this historic A.W. Tillinghast municipal course until days before I was scheduled to visit. The check-in is amazingly awkward for first-timers. Golfers walk into the clubhouse and have no clue as to which line to get in. The comparison to a Department of Motor Vehicles by my colleague Mike Bailey is spot on. Luckily, my line was relatively short compared to the horror stories I've heard. Word to the wise: Don't lose your receipt for the starter. I did, and had to go back through the line again. It took almost 15 minutes to print a new receipt and cancel out the old one. Government bureaucracy at its finest! The warning sign at the first tee sets the tone for the day. There's just no way to shoot to your handicap. The rough is juicy. Almost all the greens are elevated with multiple tiers in them. The bunkers look intimidating. It's rare I want to go back to a course where I couldn't break 90. Bethpage Black is one of them. Getting tortured is part of the fun.
3. Chambers Bay, Tacoma, Wash.
U.S. Open host: 2015.
I'm a big fan of Chambers Bay, the Pierce County muni managed by Kemper Sports and conceived by Robert Trent Jones Jr. and Jay Blasi. I've played it three times, watching it evolve as the United States Golf Association continuously tinkered with every last detail. I've never played it without a temporary green. I didn't mind, although many paying customers did. The day starts with a shuttle ride from the small clubhouse set on a ridge into the bowels of the old rock quarry. The wild dunes and shaping within this bowl tend to blow away anybody who's never been to Scotland or Ireland. It's so different from anything they've seen. Some golfers consider the runners and cyclists using the park's trails and the train running along the shore to be a nuisance during the round. To me, those encounters authenticate Chambers Bay's ties to links golf. I know the pros are already fretting about the wild bounces around the greens. Let 'em gripe. As far as unique golf experiences go, Chambers Bay rates among the best in America. The one minor complaint is it's a monster walk. If my dad and best buddy -- two very mediocre golfers -- can do it, so can everybody else.
2. Pinehurst No. 2, Pinehurst, N.C.
U.S. Open host: 1999 (Payne Stewart), 2005 (Michael Campbell), 2014 (Martin Kaymer).
Whenever anybody used to ask me about overrated courses, Pinehurst No. 2 always came up. I didn't fall in love with the Donald Ross design the first time I played it in 1999 prior to the first U.S. Open in the Sandhills. It felt like a five-hour calculus test. There was no charm, as far as I was concerned, only rough and impossibly tough greens. My opinion flip-flopped after seeing the 2011 redesign by Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw in the fall of 2013. Pinehurst has been revived, not only strategically but also visually. The "sandscapes" filled with wiregrass that line the fairways make the entire setting come to life. The greens are still a menace. I putted off two of them: Once into a deep bunker that tragically ended in a BIP, Ball in Pocket. The chance to stay at the Carolina Hotel, followed by a drink and chipping into the fireplace at the Pine Crest Inn in the village, is a big part of Pinehurst's allure.
1. Pebble Beach Golf Links, Monterey Peninsula, Calif.
U.S. Open host: 1972 (Jack Nicklaus), 1982 (Tom Watson), 1992 (Tom Kite), 2000 (Woods), 2010 (Graeme McDowell), 2019.
I've played Pebble Beach Golf Links twice -- in 2003 and 2009 -- both rounds bathed in exquisite sunshine. There are few words to describe the majesty of playing along Stillwater Cove. I remember feeling anxious each time. You start thinking long before the round about the holes and shots you've seen on TV a hundred times. Critics might be able to argue that the $495 green fee is overpriced. What they can't call Pebble Beach is overrated. Not all of the inland holes are great, but they're all different. The new driving range is a big step up from the days I played it. The green of the par-3 17th hole is being redone this spring, just in time for the 2018 U.S. Amateur and 2019 U.S. Open. The hype for that Open -- the 100th anniversary of Pebble Beach -- will be off the charts. It can't get here soon enough.