LANAI CITY, Lanai - I had no idea what to expect from the Cavendish Golf Course.
It's hard to wrap your head around the concept that a course that is "free" to play can be any good. As golfers, we're trained that the higher the greens fee the better the whole experience. The courses that dominate rankings and bucket lists all cost a chunk of change. Pebble Beach. Pinehurst No. 2. Kiawah Island's Ocean course. Whistling Straits. TPC Sawgrass. Shadow Creek. Wynn. They all charge more than $400 to play.
Playing Cavendish, I found myself not fussing over the worm burrows bulging from the greens, the bare spots in the fairways, the scraggly-looking bunkers. I just enjoyed the walk, the setting and the solitude. Golf without pretense. It didn't hurt that without a staff or a pro shop, there was also no scorecard at Cavendish. Hitting shots without writing down numbers was simply liberating.
The best part? Free golf isn't some fantasy only found in Hawaii. It exists elsewhere. You just have to work hard to find it, and appreciate what that means when you do. Free golf isn't about caddies and carts and tournament conditions. It's about a love of the game.
Cavendish has evolved over the years. The 3,028-yard course dates to 1947, named for Edwin B. Cavendish, who built it as an escape for pineapple workers. Automatic irrigation on the greens and tees keeps it playable year-round, although conditions change dramatically from the rainy to the dry seasons. Thanks to billionaire Larry Ellison, who owns 98 percent of the island, the course continues to be a source of pride and recreation for residents.
Two sets of tees on each hole create an 18-hole routing. The blue tee markers are for the front nine and the white tee markers for the back. Towering Cook Island pines and hilly terrain provide an ideal setting for the game. The round, as the golden hour took hold, felt almost spiritual.
Our Tim Gavrich felt a similar aura playing the Bruntsfield Links Short Hole Golf Club, a free 36-hole pitch-and-putt in the center of Edinburgh during a trip to Scotland last fall. His five-star review shows just how much he enjoyed the day. Talk about nostalgia. The land has been used for golf since the 15th century.
"Its firm, bouncy turf and austere conditioning makes it both authentic and enjoyable. Oh, and it's free to play," Gavrich notes in his review. "You only need a wedge (I selected my 52) and a putter here to have one of the best golf experiences in the world. Surrounded by center-city Edinburgh, you lob and bump shots on holes from 45 to 90 yards onto shaggy but puttable greens. On every hole, you need to use the natural rumpled contours to get your ball close to the hole. It is the same sort of cerebral test that the best "big" courses offer, but in miniature. When you're done, you can have a pint in The Golf Tavern, which started in 1472."
Matthew Wharton, the superintendent at the Carolina Golf Club, said his round at Lynch Links in southwest Virginia felt like he, too, was "transported back in time".
Lynch Links is a free nine-holer on the campus of Emory & Henry College, a private liberal arts school in Emory, Va. Although it's believed to date to the 1970s, the 1,730-yard course, home to six par 3s and three short par 4s, was first dedicated in 1989 to honor Charles Vernon Lynch Sr. "whose vision, design, and generosity made this unique on-campus recreational resource possible," reads a plaque on the grounds. The school's golf teams practice there once or twice a week, as do several local high school teams, according to William Mannino, the school's men's and women's golf coach.
"Our greens keeper Ronnie takes a lot of pride in taking care of what he calls his baby," Mannino wrote in an email. "We are so lucky to have Lynch Links on campus."
Wharton and his stepson, Thad Finney, had such a good time that they played 30 holes one day last December. Things not tolerated on a golf course they would pay to play - pins cut inches from the edges of odd-shaped greens, quirky holes and a potpourri of grasses - weren't an annoyance at all. "It is by far the most spartan set of holes I've ever played. We had a blast," Wharton said.
Wharton played with hickory clubs but kept his score on his phone since no scorecard was available. Like most people who work in the golf industry, he couldn't help but feel a little disappointed that the facility isn't utilized more.
"He (Finney) will go up there in the evenings and says there's hardly anybody ever around," Wharton said. "He has been over there with a lawn chair, cooler and music. ... As fun as it was to be there all alone, it is a shame not more people take advantage of this. It is unfortunate that every community doesn't have nine holes that is accessible like this."
Golfers in the rural Hermitage, Pa., do. The free nine-hole Buhl Park Golf Course was established in 1914 when millionaire industrialist Frank Buhl built a large recreational park to share his riches with his community, located near the Ohio/Pennsylvania border. The Buhl Farm Park also offers tennis courts, an outdoor pool, dog park, disc golf, biking trail, fitness trail, playground and kayaking, all free to use.
According to this 2018 article at PGA.com, locals have long believed Buhl Park to be "the only free golf course in the world." That's clearly not true, but we'll forgive the writer and the park staff, who were probably too busy playing golf to do the research.
The course locals call "Dum Dum" has no bunkers or water hazards. It starts and ends on a par 3 with seven short par 4s sandwiched in between. One caveat for penny-pinchers: Donations are encouraged and buckets at the range cost $5-$8. That's still pretty affordable for a game most of us consider priceless.
Have you played at any of these places or discovered a free golf course in your travels? Let us know in the comments below.