There are many ways to dissect the merits of a golf course.
I give near equal weight to aesthetics and architecture. What good is a great hole if it runs adjacent to a freeway? What good is a boring hole right on the ocean? Get my drift? Aesthetics and course architecture live in a symbiotic relationship. Both are equally important. Service, course conditions, the comforts of the clubhouse, tournament history and the perception of value factor in as well.
Taking everything into consideration, it's hard for a course to score a five-star rating from me at GolfAdvisor. Just about everything has to look and feel (and play) right to win my highest affections.
I almost feel guilty ranking some places "only" four stars because I'm so critical about every detail. Punta Mita's Bahia Course in Mexico, Mauna Kea on the Big Island of Hawaii and Royal Isabela in Puerto Rico all come to mind. They're right on the cusp of five stars but didn't quite get there for one reason or another.
Check out the 12 courses I played that did:
Kohanaiki in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii
Staying and playing at this exclusive club sporting a back nine that runs along the beach remains one of my greatest memories of 2014. The service and comfort stations rank among the best in golf. The routing by Rees Jones is equal parts fair and fun. A 62,000-square-foot clubhouse scheduled to open in December of 2015 will complete the experience.
Pacifico, Punta Mita, Riviera Nayarit, Mexico
Craving some ocean eye candy? Jack Nicklaus's first course at Punta Mita remains one of the world's inspirational coastal treasures, highlighted by the best 19th hole in the world -- hole "3b" -- home to the only natural island green in the ocean.
Great Waters Course at Reynolds Plantation, Greensboro Ga.
This Jack Nicklaus gem on Lake Oconee was one of the first courses I reviewed in my early days as a golf writer prior to Y2K. It was good to see it's still as good as I remember.
Litibu Golf Course, Litibu, Riviera Nayarit, Mexico
I might have been a little too generous in giving Litibu five stars, considering there's virtually no clubhouse and the rental clubs were beyond laughable. Where this Greg Norman course deserves high praise is its fantastic mix of jungle and ocean holes, shot values and surprise factor.
Waterville Golf Links, Waterville, Ireland
Playing Waterville on my first trip to Ireland in 2003 was somewhat uninspiring. Having finally seen the changes made in 2006 by Tom Fazio, I'm all aboard the Waterville train. Wide fairways and some beautiful moments create a round as fun as links golf gets.
Old Course at Ballybunion Golf Club, Ballybunion, Ireland
I was probably a little too harsh when I wrote at GolfAdvisor that Ballybunion's Old Course is "not even my favorite links in southwest Ireland, let alone the world." It's a five-star day all the way from the cemetery off the first tee to the drinks on the patio overlooking the 18th green.
Old Head Golf Links, Kinsale, Ireland
I'm tired of architecture junkies tearing down Old Head. This is an elite golf destination set upon mesmerizing oceanfront cliffs. The spectacular moments overwhelm any average holes. Case closed.
Bethpage Black, Farmingdale, N.Y.
I think it's the sign at the first tee -- not hosting two U.S. Opens -- that makes Bethpage Black so revered. Every golfer thinks they've got the game to take the Black into red numbers. Yeah, right. It's fun trying, though.
Teeth of the Dog at Casa de Campo, La Romana, Dominican Republic
The last time I visited Casa de Campo about 10 years ago, the Teeth of the Dog was torn up for irrigation work. I finally got to play it in September. Pete Dye didn't disappoint. His seven holes along the Caribbean Sea -- four going out and three coming home -- rival any of the world's best ocean holes.
Shadow Creek Golf Club, North Las Vegas, Nev.
Shadow Creek -- the limo ride to the golf course, the exclusive vibe, the over-the-top service, not a blade of grass out of place -- embodies the five-star experience. The shot making demands of Tom Fazio really shine as well.
Cascata, Boulder City, Nev.
Cascata rose up from four stars to five simply because I knew where to hit the ball the second time around, maybe because my caddie during my round in November was one of the best I've ever had. Seeing the bighorn sheep grazing on the range set the tone for the rewarding day at the office.
Southern Highlands Golf Club, Las Vegas
Five-star clubs need differentiators that set them apart. This private club owned by Pacific Links had several: a most impressive clubhouse, the imposing manmade waterfall that plays as a hazard on no. 9 and the best views of the Las Vegas Strip from any golf course. The difficult 18th hole might be a bit over-designed but it's still an interesting hole.
Note: Quivira, the new Jack Nicklaus course I played in December in Los Cabos, Mexico, will get five stars once its review page is online.