Five-star status: The best courses I played in 2015

I must be a softie in my old age.

Either that, or 2015 was a banner year for five-star golf. I rated 19 courses five stars on Golf Advisor this year, seven more than 2014.

That ballooning number is probably a product of where I played. I stayed at two five-star joints, the Kiawah Island Golf Resort in South Carolina and Sea Island Resort in Georgia, snuck onto several exclusive private clubs and walked some of the best links golf courses in Scotland and Ireland.

If I wasn't such a tough critic, a number of other highly ranked, four-star courses would have earned that coveted final star. Plenty of golfers would consider a round on the El Cardonal Course at Diamante in Mexico, Sandals Emerald Reef in the Bahamas, Trump International Golf Links Ireland and Trump International Golf Links Scotland once-in-a-lifetime experiences. They all just missed the mark. These clubs didn't:

The Links at Spanish Bay, Pebble Beach, Calif.

The Links at Spanish Bay has its naysayers. It's not as linksy as advertised, and I would have loved to see what Tom Doak or the team of Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw would have done differently (especially around its wetlands). All nitpicking aside, it's still a top-60 public course in the U.S.

Cassique Course at Kiawah Island Club, Kiawah Island, S.C.

Tom Watson's first solo design, the second private course at one of South Carolina's premier clubs, is exquisite. Holes 4-6 on the Cassique Course at Kiawah Island Club can be played in three different configurations, depending on the day, to give members infinite variety. The wildly sloping ninth green is both cruel and awesome.

Ocean Course at Kiawah Island Golf Resort, Kiawah Island, S.C.

Pete Dye's iconic course along the Atlantic Ocean -- host of the 2012 PGA Championship and the 1991 Ryder Cup dubbed the "War by the Shore" -- pummels golfers. Most love the Ocean Course at Kiawah Island Golf Resort anyway.

Meadow Club, Fairfax, Calif.

One of my favorite rounds of the year, it was such a treat walking Dr. Alister MacKenzie's first design in North America. This is how golf was meant to be played. If I had the money to join a private club, I would have signed up at the Meadow Club on the spot.

Yocha Dehe Golf Club at Cache Creek Casino Resort, Brooks, Calif.

Yocha Dehe Golf Club, a hidden oasis in the Capay Valley west of Sacramento, delivers top service, facilities, course conditions, scenery and a fine layout. Troon Golf manages the course for the Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation. Severe elevation changes -- downhill off the first and 11th tees and back up again to the ninth and 10th greens -- highlight the idyllic surroundings.

Quivira Golf Club, Cabo San Lucas, Mexico

Quivira Golf Club, designed by Jack Nicklaus, is the "Old Head of Mexico." Its stunning cliff-top setting will blow you away. Unfortunately, so will the seaside winds. Some of the quirkier, unforgiving holes probably need some tweaking for Quivira to reach its full potential.

The Links at Fancourt, George, South Africa

The Links at Fancourt -- a private club and the site of the 2003 Presidents Cup -- is every bit as good as advertised. It's worth flying halfway around the world to see the inland links designed by Gary Player.

Carne Golf Links, County Mayo, Ireland

Making the remote trek to Carne Golf Links isn't easy. The nearest course is two-and-a-half hours away. The reward is 27 holes of pure links golf. The original 18 holes by Ireland's Eddie Hackett are good, but the new Kilmore nine roam through even more grandiose dunes.

Portmarnock Golf Club, County Dublin, Ireland

Any American golfer landing at the Dublin airport who doesn't play Portmarnock Golf Club is a fool. This old-school links has hosted more Irish Opens than anyone.

Sandy Hills Links at Rosapenna Hotel & Golf Resort, County Donegal, Ireland

I finally caught good weather at Rosapenna, and the beauty of the links came to light. The effort to make the Sandy Hills Links more playable has created a more enjoyable round of golf.

Enniscrone Golf Club, County Sligo, Ireland

Returning to Enniscrone Golf Club for the first time in a decade reminded me how underappreciated this wild links is. In my book, it stands on equal footing with Lahinch and Ballybunion.

Championship Course at Royal Dornoch Golf Club, Dornoch, Scotland

The beauty of the Championship Course at Royal Dornoch Golf Club is indescribable. The challenge of so many plateau greens is unrelenting. Melded together, these traits make Royal Dornoch one of a kind.

Kingsbarns Golf Links, St. Andrews, Scotland

Kingsbarns Golf Links, a bold and beautiful "Americanized" links on the outskirts of St. Andrews, has quickly become a can't-miss experience in the "Home of Golf."

Castle Stuart, Inverness, Scotland

The site of Phil Mickelson's 2013 Scottish Open win follows the Moray Firth in dramatic fashion. Some holes at Castle Stuart kiss the shore, while others hang on high ground above. All are memorable.

Ocean Course at Cabo del Sol, Cabo San Lucas, Mexico

The Ocean Course at Cabo del Sol rates among my favorite Nicklaus designs. The strategy is just as good as the views of the beach and ocean.

[Related: Jason Scott Deegan's top golf photos of 2015]

Seaside at Sea Island Resort, Sea Island, Ga.

My first attempt playing Seaside at Sea Island Resort was rained out, so I came back the next day to complete the round. A new love affair with a PGA Tour venue that weaves through the coastal marshes was born.

Lake Course at The Olympic Club, San Francisco

It's always a treat tackling the Lake Course at The Olympic Club, one of America's great theaters for major championship golf. Too bad my game will never be worthy.

The Kingsley Club, Kingsley, Mich.

The Kingsley Club, one of the Midwest's best-kept secrets, is located blissfully off the beaten path 45 minutes south of Traverse City in northern Michigan. A call from your head pro can secure you one of Michigan's most unique tee times.

Brora Golf Club, Brora, Scotland

Brora Golf Club never ends up on "best of" lists. That's so wrong. This relatively short links in the Scottish Highlands has more soul than many "top 100" courses combined.

#ShaneBacon follows the flock over the burn to the 11th green at the awesomely understated #BroraGC #VisitScotland2015 #gaBestPhoto

A photo posted by Jason Scott Deegan (@jasondeegangolfadvisor) on

Jason Scott Deegan has reviewed more than 700 courses and golf destinations for some of the industry's biggest publications. His work has been honored by the Golf Writer's Association of America and the Michigan Press Association. Follow him on Twitter at @WorldGolfer.
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