Watch full coverage of the NCAA golf championships on Golf Channel May 21-30.
College rivalries run the gamut.
It doesn't matter if its' football or quiz bowl, society demands debating who's the best in almost everything related to university life. Academics (Harvard or Yale?) Football (Alabama vs. Ohio State). Best college bars (My memory is a bit fuzzy). It's all fair game.
I'm giving it the old college try to rank the best college towns for a buddies golf trip. Combining the best of academia - night life, culture, sports and the endless energy on campus - with some great courses makes perfect sense. In fact, it might be the better golf trip for your foursome than some cookie-cutter golf resort with mediocre courses and no pulse after 7 p.m.
In honor of the upcoming NCAA Championships in men's and women's golf, broadcast live from May 21-30 on Golf Channel, we offer 10 of our favorite college towns for buddies trips. You may not hit the ball like a top college player, but you can live like one visiting these cool hangouts. To be fair, we spread the selections among the five power conferences.
A piece of advice coming from somebody who's run into the law for having too much fun in one of these college towns - remember that your glory days are long gone. Take it somewhat easy after dark. You've got a tee time in the morning. Another tip: Don't bother trying to mix golf with a football weekend. Fans will fill up the courses and hotels, driving up prices.
I've experienced a buddies trip to Madison, sans golf. My four college roommates and I crashed the University of Wisconsin to watch our football team, Eastern Michigan University, get slobber-knocked by the Badgers. One of our guys got lost in the post-game revelry and was escorted to my sister's house by the cops at 4 a.m. This was before cell phones, people. Point being? This is a fun town.
Madison sits between two lakes, Mendota and Monona. State Street, which links UW with the state capital, is lined with bars, boutiques and restaurants. The rolling prairielands surrounding downtown are ideal for golf. The University Ridge Golf Course in Verona, host of a PGA Tour Champions event, is one of the best college courses in the country. Nearby Hawks Landing Golf Club gets its share of five-star reviews on Golf Advisor. On the east side is The Oaks Golf Course in Cottage Grove, home to a unique routing of six par 3s and five par 5s. North is the Meadows of Six Mile Creek in Waunakee. If you're adventurous, head an hour north to the Wisconsin Dells for Wild Rock and the 27-hole Trappers Turn.
Chapel Hill-Durham-Raleigh, North Carolina
UNC Finley Golf Course
The "Research Triangle" involves three heated Atlantic Coast Conference rivals - the University of North Carolina (Chapel Hill), Duke University (Durham) and North Carolina State University (Raleigh) - and significant ground to cover.
All three university courses, the UNC Finley Golf Course, Duke University Golf Course and N.C. State's Lonnie Poole Golf Course, are really good. As for restaurant recommendations, the iconic Angus Barn is near the airport and centrally located to all three campuses.
As for a home base, it's hard not to fall for Chapel Hill's Georgian architecture and 700 acres of parks. The Carolina Inn (dating to 1924) features a complimentary shuttle to the UNC Finley course. The Top of the Hill Restaurant, Brewery and Distillery – or TOPO - is the social crossroads of town. The Washington Duke Inn might be too luxurious for some group's tastes, but it's the convenient choice next to the Robert Trent Jones Jr.-redesigned course that hosted the 2001 men's NCAA Championships.
Dining and drinking at the 'PR' - the Players' Retreat - is a Raleigh tradition since 1951. Amedeo’s Italian Restaurant was founded by Wolfpack grad Dick Amedeo.
The days of Dave Matthews and his band mates playing at University of Virginia fraternity parties are long past, but there’s still plenty of reasons for making a road trip to this historic college town in Central Virginia. Thomas Jefferson founded the university, and his designs for the Rotunda, Lawn and Pavilions are architectural marvels. Off campus, you can tour umpteen wineries as well as the houses of three U.S. presidents — Jefferson, Madison and Monroe — before returning to The Corner or The Downtown Mall for shopping, dining and bar hopping.
UVA’s golf course, Birdwood Golf Course at Boar's Head Resort is closing in October for at least a year for a redesign by Davis Love III. Meadowcreek Golf Club, Charlottesville's muni, is a good value option (twilight walking rate: $10), and Old Trail Golf Club in Crozet is recommended unanimously by Golf Advisor reviewers. The real jewel, however, is Spring Creek Golf Club, which has become a fixture on Top 100 Public Course lists. Pete Dye’s outstanding Full Cry Golf Course at Keswick Hall Resort is normally reserved for members and resort guests, but the hotel is closed until 2019 for renovations and in the interim unaccompanied non-member tee times are being accepted. If you want to go from the Blue Ridge foothills to the mountains, try Wintergreen Resort, where Rees Jones designed 27 holes at Stoney Creek at the base of the mountain. The resort’s scenic highlight is Devil's Knob at the summit, where temperatures are typically 12-18 degrees cooler than Stoney Creek. Same-day golf and skiing is sometimes possible at Wintergreen.
Karsten Golf Course
Arizona State University ranks right up there every year for best party schools. That fact alone makes Tempe ripe for a buddies trip. Tempe isn't as glamorous as Scottsdale in the Phoenix's East Valley. Mill Avenue is the heart of the campus party scene, but Scottsdale has more upscale restaurants, bars and golf for all ages and tastes. I've done almost every top-10, bucket-list item Scottsdale has to offer golfers.
If you are to believe Golf Advisor users, the rumors of the closure of the ASU Karsten Course seem imminent. The ASU men's and women's golf teams are preparing a move to the Papago Golf Course, a former LPGA Tour venue in Phoenix that is building a new clubhouse and practice facilities for the arrival of the Sun Devils. There's an embarrassment of riches for anybody willing to drive an extra 15-20 miles to find We-Ko-Pa Golf Club, TPC Scottsdale, the JW Marriott Scottsdale Camelback Inn Resort & Spa, Gainey Ranch Golf Club, The Phoenician Golf Club (a rerouted 18 holes opens this fall) and others.
Yeah, it's probably not fair to connect the two, but Seattle - home of the Washington Huskies - and Tacoma - home to five smaller universities - each bring something unique to the equation. They're connected by light rail, so you can conceivably move between the two while avoiding Seattle's bone-crushing traffic problems, and the U-W's home course, Washington National Golf Club in Auburn, is almost equidistant between the two. U-W's campus provides the best of both worlds, a college scene within minutes of a downtown metropolis.
Tacoma provides a smaller version of Seattle, a walkable city very much into its arts (blowing glass), microbreweries and coffee shops, with the added bonus of one of America's public accessible U.S. Open courses, Chambers Bay, on the Puget Sound.
University of Georgia Golf Course
Athens, the home of the University of Georgia, rocks the arts as good as its sports teams. Big names such as Danger Mouse, Widespread Panic and R.E.M. have cut their teeth in its live music scene.
Its courses work in harmony as well. The University of Georgia Golf Course has a history of tournament golf as a six-time host of the NCAA Women's Championship as well as a Web.com Tour event, but it's still quite a joy for any handicap. Fifteen miles outside of Athens are the Lane Creek Golf Club in Bishop and the 27-hole Georgia Club in Stratham. Both get strong reviews from Golf Advisor users.
The last time I was in Athens, I made the 45-mile drive south to play at Reynolds Lake Oconee. Only the original course, The Landing, is open for public play. All others are for resort guests. The Creek Club at Reynolds, the Jennings Mill Country Club in Bogart and the Athens Country Club are all private.
Arguably the best site on the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail sits near Auburn's campus. Grand National has it all - two really tough and beautiful courses, maybe the best par-3 short course on the trail and the Auburn Marriott Opelika Hotel & Conference Center. The Lake course, sporting 12 holes hugging the shore of Lake Saugahatchee, hosted the Barbasol Championship from 2015-17, the first golf tournament to bring PGA Tour players to Alabama since the 1990 PGA Championship. Beyond a few country clubs, the Indian Pines Golf Course, a 6,213-yard muni, is the only other game in town unless you count the Auburn Links at Mill Creek, which has shrunk to just nine holes.
Like all the towns on this list, there's a variety of restaurants and bars for all budgets, from starving students to alumni who donate big bucks to keep the Tigers competitive with the Crimson Tide.
Ann Arbor, Michigan
The University of Michigan Golf Course
I launched my writing career downtown at the Ann Arbor News, so I know well the hotspots of South Main Street (yep, the inspiration behind Bob Seger's hit song). The bar scene hits all the genres with Scorekeepers (sports bar), The Blind Pig (local bands), Ashley's (sit-down food), Rick's American Cafe (dancing) and more. Zingerman's Deli in historic Kerrytown leads the charge in the best dining scene in southeast Michigan. Although there is plenty to do year round, football Saturdays are the big draw, attracting more than 100,000 people to tailgate and cram into the Big House. Ann Arbor Art Fairs are a close second for hoopla and crowds.
One of the greatest package deals in golf, the "MacKenzie-Dye Experience", allows golfers unaffiliated with the university to play the University of Michigan Golf Course, an awesome Alister MacKenzie gem across the street from the stadium, and Radrick Farms Golf Club, a private club that is among Pete Dye's first solo designs. The cost of $215 weekdays and $260 weekends is well worth it. Just don't plan your visit around football because the U-M golf course closes for game-day parking. A great muni, the Leslie Park Golf Course, and two solid semiprivate courses, Stonebridge Golf Club and Lake Forest Golf Club, add more affordability if that is your top priority. You also can't go wrong at the Eagle Crest Golf Club, where I learned the game at EMU in nearby Ypsilanti.
Sleeper pick: Lubbock, Texas
Rawls course at Texas Tech
As for the Big 12, the obvious choice would be Texas' Capital City of Austin. But what about something off the beaten path? Austin resident and avid golfer Dude Spellings has a curious choice for one of his favorite golf trips:
"Lubbock isn't the sleepy little ranch town it was a decade ago," said Spellings. "The city is upping its game on multiple fronts, and golf is just one of them."
The Rawls Course at Texas Tech is one of the most enjoyable public courses in Texas in the $50-$70 price range. The only Tom Doak design in Texas was designed with the wind in mind, featuring several holes with classic links template holes such as The Alps Hole, aka the blind 17th at the Old course at Prestwick Golf Club.
The Shadow Hills Golf Course ($17-$39) is extremely affordable. For some practice, a lighted driving range called The Range stays open until midnight.
Food-wise, Las Brisas is the best steakhouse, and there are countless BBQ joints worth trying on the outskirts of town. Austin-based Alamo Drafthouse recently opened a location in Lubbock, too. As long as you don't visit during a home football weekend, you should easily be able to find a room for less than $100 per night.
St. Andrews, Scotland
The Old Course at St. Andrews
For a prime example as to why college towns can make a great golf destination, look no further than St. Andrews. The student influx at this prestigious U.K. university ("If you don't get into Cambridge or Oxford, you go here," explained one local) benefits golf travelers in many ways. It's noticed first in the town's vibe: far younger and energetic than your normal sleepy coastal Scottish town.
But the students' presence into the winter months enables more bars and restaurants to stay viable, so your after-golf options run deep, from curry houses to Italian joints (Little Italy is a standout), gastropubs, fish takeaways and craft breweries.
The students certainly make use of their local discount to play the seven Links Trust courses, including the Old Course, so you'll be jostling for tee times with them. But seeing so many young people enjoying the seven links leaves golfers with a glowingly optimistic view of the future of the game. One other benefit for golf travelers is that when the students go home for the summer, it opens up unused student housing to tourists, which allows St. Andrews to offer a "value" opportunity, even in the coveted peak months.