Golf resorts come in all shapes and sizes.
The smallest might offer just a few cottages or a boutique hotel and a single golf course. The biggest are mega-properties like PGA National Golf Resort & Spa in south Florida that come equipped with a handful of courses, restaurants and pools and hundreds of rooms.
So what makes a "complete" golf resort? Size does matter, especially for golfers who love unlimited golf stay-and-play packages where they can play a different course every day and never run out of choices. But it's not the defining quality.
Even America's largest golf resort once had a glaring weakness. For more than a century, Pinehurst Resort in North Carolina offered no casual short course where juniors or beginners could learn the game, or buddies could head for an afternoon quickie. Architect Gil Hanse addressed that issue during his ongoing redesign of Pinehurst No. 4 by adding the par-3 course "The Cradle" near the main clubhouse. Top of the Rock/Big Cedar Lodge in Missouri has similar visions of becoming a more versatile resort by adding multiple courses that cater to different audiences.
Complete golf resorts are just as dedicated to life off the course as they are on it. Bandon Dunes Golf Resort in Oregon busted the old stereotype that a premier property needs an elaborate spa and pool to be successful, but to certain travelers, those elements are still important.
The staff at Golf Advisor has visited almost every golf resort in America over the years. We've come up with a blueprint of categories that every golf resort should follow to keep golfers and their traveling companions happy, whether those groups be friends, family, children or a spouse. After revealing the criteria, the most "complete" golf resorts in America are listed below. Drum roll, please.
1. Multiple golf courses, including a headliner
Golfers don't want to play the same course again. Resorts with at least 72 holes are impressive operations. Resorts that have at least four courses accessible from a single clubhouse -- Garland Resort and Boyne Highlands Resort in northern Michigan and Pinehurst Resort in North Carolina -- deserve kudos for being super convenient.
Let's not forget one key fact: One of these courses must be a headliner, a layout so good that it is the attraction. A resort featuring such star power -- i.e. the Ocean Course at Kiawah Island Golf Resort -- draws golfers from a wider geographical range than a resort with good but not great collection of tracks.
2. Variety of restaurants and bars
Dining at the same restaurant gets old just as playing the same course does. The more options, the fewer times golfers will leave the property to find food. A mix of casual hangouts and fine dining is essential. The better the food and atmosphere at the pub, the more likely golf groups will keep coming back year after year. The JW Marriott San Antonio Hill Country Resort & Spa in Texas comes to mind with its High Velocity Sports Bar for post-golf shenanigans and the 18 Oaks for a great celebratory steak at the end of a good trip.
3. Good practice facilities/golf school/golf instruction
Good practice facilities serve so many purposes. Golfers on vacation need a place to warm up. Chances are they haven't played much, especially snowbirds coming south for winter. The best resorts include free range balls with a booked tee time, or better yet, allow package golfers to use the range whenever they want.
Without great practice facilities or instructors, golf resorts aren't really grooming future customers, either. Resort instructors need to be knowledgeable folks who are patient with beginners and engaging with juniors. Top 100 teachers (like those at the Sea Island Golf Performance Center in Georgia) or those who work with a proven system (like the David Leadbetter Academy at ChampionsGate in Orlando) are not essential to a good lesson.
Some of our favorite resorts -- like Treetops in northern Michigan and Pine Needles in North Carolina -- have installed lighted putting greens near accommodations, which are perfect sports for golfers to hang out before/after dinner for practice or competitive games.
4. A casual short course for beginners or relaxed play
Horse course at The Prairie Club
Casual short courses are where many golf resorts fall short, even famous destinations like Trump National Doral Miami. They require extra land and effort to maintain. I under why they're missing at certain places -- beginners don't go to the American Club, home to four difficult Pete Dye designs, to play golf -- but I also think that having one is a huge advantage.
Many stops on the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail in Alabama have outstanding 18-hole, par-3 courses. Treetops, Bandon Dunes, Lansdowne Resort in Virginia and Pebble Beach Resorts all have excellent short courses. The Horse Course at The Prairie Club in Nebraska is a unique spot with 10 greens (one is a double green) and no tees. Golfers simply drop a ball wherever they want and pick a target.
This category is probably the most debatable. Plenty of golf resorts do just fine without caddies or a walkable golf course, but having these two pieces of the puzzle are great differentiators. Anybody who regularly walks understands how much more enjoyable the round is -- with a caddie even more so.
I can't imagine playing Pinehurst No. 2 or the Ocean Course at Kiawah Island without a caddie. They're two demanding major championship venues where resort players need all the help they can get to shoot a respectable score. Caddies programs are making a comeback throughout the country. The Madden's on Gull Lake in Minnesota, Boyne Highlands and Mossy Oak Golf Club, a new Gil Hanse design in Mississippi, and four Troon Golf courses in Arizona (the Boulders Resort & Spa, The Phoenician Golf Club, The Westin Kierland Golf Club and Troon North Golf Club) have added them in recent years.
6. Modern fitness/spa/pool facilities
Grand Cascades Lodge at Crystal Springs Golf Resort
These facilities are more for the spouse or the children than the golfers but they're an essential ingredient for the "resort" feel. Kids growing up in this "waterpark" generation need more than just a good pool or hot tub to stay interested. A lazy river and splash zone like the one at Omni Rancho Las Palmas Resort & Spa in Palm Springs, Calif. are ideal. The JW Marriott San Antonio (the outdoor River Bluff Water Experience) and Boyne Mountain Resort (the indoor Avalanche Bay) take the pool concept a notch higher, featuring their own waterparks.
Spas are a big part of the allure attracting the "luxury" travel market, especially for couples. The spas at Sea Island in Georgia, the Kohler Waters Spa and The Broadmoor in Colorado are a trio of the most remarkable I've seen. Sea Island has a cryotherapy machine near its men's locker room for a fast and freezing fix for aches and pains.
7. Non-golf recreational programs
Golf is just part of the package, one recreational pursuit among many, at the best resorts. The most versatile destination resorts sell excursions for all ages and interests. Hiking and biking trails replace the fitness center for many travelers looking to work up a sweat. A number of golf resorts in warmer climates are just as famous for their tennis programs -- namely the Palmetto Dunes Oceanfront Resort in South Carolina and Saddlebrook Resort in Florida.
The Boulders takes advantage of its desert landscape with hot-air balloon rides, a Grand Canyon air tour, a desert hummer adventure and more. Crystal Mountain Resort & Spa in Michigan has a "mountain coaster" that's similar to a bobsled racing down a track on a ski hill. How about standup paddleboard yoga on the lake at Couer d'Alene Resort in Idaho?
Boyne Mountain Resort in Michigan, Lajitas Golf Resort in remote Texas and the Omni Mount Washington Resort in New Hampshire have jumped on the zip-lining craze of late.
8. A sense of place
The most magical resorts bask in the best locations -- dreamy, movie-worthy settings in the mountains, the desert or on the ocean. Beautiful scenery takes the golf experience to the next level and feeds the notion that you've truly escaped reality. Often, the drive to the property sets the mood just right. Every time I pass the sand dunes of the Monterey Peninsula heading toward Pebble Beach Resorts, my heart skips a beat.
Pink sunsets and the stark desert landscapes decorate Arizona's Fairmont Scottsdale Princess and the Four Seasons Resort Scottsdale at Troon North. The mountain views at Keystone Resort and Beavercreek Resort in Colorado can stretch for miles. The two resorts on Amelia Island -- an Omni and a Ritz-Carlton -- enjoy perhaps the most natural coastal settings in all of Florida. These places soothe the soul, providing a breath of fresh air from the stresses of daily life.
9. Group-friendly accommodations
The Kinlochen Lodge at Crystal Mountain in northern Michigan
In today's Airbnb world, a generic hotel room doesn't always cut it for discerning travelers, especially for couples or buddies trips. They want space and privacy. Condos and villas with full kitchens keep the group together and make the trip more affordable. Eating out every day adds up in a hurry.
Condo- or villa-style accommodations are a big reason why Myrtle Beach, S.C. is so popular for groups. The Barefoot Resort & Golf offers only villas, ranging from two to four bedrooms. Each villa at the Legends Golf Resort has at least two bedrooms with two full baths, kitchen, washer and dryer, large living/dining room and dishwasher. Accommodations of all price points and sizes are found throughout the golf world. In the Florida panhandle, Sandestin Golf & Beach Resort has a whopping 1,250 vacation rentals from studios to four-bedroom units, condos, homes, villas and penthouses.
10. Staff that go the extra mile
The staff at Beaver Creek hands out cookies daily
Employees who understand that they're working in a special place tend to deliver the best customer service. That collective positive energy gets passed down to the guest and becomes infectious. Not every employee will make every guest happy 100 percent of the time, but the percentages go up with the proper training and a can-do attitude. Staff at Beaver Creek Resort in Colorado pass out free cookies every day to guests.
Golf's most complete resorts
Turning Stone is a 'complete' resort
By our estimates, most golf resorts fall short of "complete" status because of the lack of a casual short course or a headliner course. For example, Kiawah Island Golf Resort and Sea Pines Resort in South Carolina are incredible properties with everything a golfer could want except a short/casual course. Only the lack of a pool and maybe one more bar/restaurant option holds the Prairie Club in Nebraska back. A handful of resorts are on their way to being eligible. Once Top of the Rock will soon unveil it's Gary Player-designed 12-hole family course, as well as Bill Coore & Ben Crenshaw's new championship course, it will have an extraordinarily unique golf offering. Keiser's Sand Valley already will have two courses ready to play in 2018, plus a new short course.
These resorts are the most complete:
Pebble Beach Golf Resorts
Bandon Dunes Resort
French Lick Resort
Crystal Springs Resort
Turning Stone Resort
Reynolds Lake Oconee*
Think we're missing a "complete" resort or one of the "10 key categories"? Let us know in the comments below.
* We counted the new "Quick Six" loop on the Plantation Course as a casual short course.