For a golf resort to get good marks, the golf experience has to be above average, of course. But the other experiences -- the dining, accommodations and other activities -- are all part of the evaluation process, too.
Even at a resort like Bandon Dunes on the coast of Oregon -- where the golf is so vast and exceptional that a litany of other activities would simply be distracting -- the dining and accommodations hold their own.
In 2015, I had the opportunity to visit more than 25 resorts, and there really wasn't a dud among them. Of those, though, 10 stood out. Eight of those were first-time experiences for me. Here are my favorites.
Streamsong Resort, central Florida
It's already been dubbed the "Bandon Dunes of the East" with its two terrific links-style courses (the Red Course designed by Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw, and the Blue Course designed by Tom Doak), caddie/walking-only policy, no homes and stunning landscapes. And with a third golf course being designed by Gil Hanse on the way, Streamsong only promises to get better. But beyond the golf, you'll love the ultra-modern, ergonomic accommodations, terrific dining, unusual spa and other activities like bass fishing and trap shooting.
TPC Dorado Beach, Puerto Rico
Anytime you can stay at the Ritz-Carlton, you know you're in for a special experience, and this was no exception. The Robert Trent Jones-designed golf facility joined the TPC Network a year ago. And while the golf isn't super spectacular, it's super solid, especially the championship East Course. Besides the beach and ocean, there are miles of hiking and biking trails, terrific restaurants and a wonderful spa.
Fairmont Grand Del Mar, San Diego
The Fairmont Grand Del Mar excels in so many things -- the Tom Fazio golf course, the rooms, the exceptional cuisine and the spa, for example. But one thing that set it apart for me was the instruction at the golf academy. If you're really serious about your game, lead golf instructor Derek Uyeda and director of golf Shawn Cox, who both work with tour players and some of the best juniors and amateurs in the country, can really help you. I got a putting lessons from Uyeda that changed my approach so much that I've gone back to a blade-style putter. And as a bonus, the legendary Phil Rodgers also teaches there, so you know the folks at The Grand Golf Club are serious about helping people play better.
Grand Geneva Resort & Spa, Lake Geneva, Wis.
There are so many things I love about this Chicago-Milwaukee area resort beyond the golf, and the golf is pretty special in its own right. Grand Geneva's Brute Course is a beautiful, yet tough Robert Bruce Harris design that can play more than 7,300 yards. The Highlands Course, originally designed by Jack Nicklaus and Pete Dye, got a complete makeover in 1996 by Bob Cupp and rates as one of the area's best. The resort also has a great history. It started as one Hugh Hefner's Playboy Resorts, but it has evolved since and continues to get better. The dining includes a top-notch steakhouse as well as an outstanding Italian eatery. There's a nightclub, great spa and even indoor tennis courts that were recently redone.
Fancourt Resort, Blanco George, South Africa
Owned by Hasso Plattner, the German billionaire and co-founder of SAP who also owns the San Jose Sharks of the NHL and Cordevalle Resort in California, Fancourt Resort features the Gary Player-designed Links of Fancourt, where the 2003 Presidents Cup was contested to a draw. Walking and taking a caddie completed the experience, but there are two other golf courses, including Fancourt's Montagu Course, an outstanding parkland course originally designed by Player and later redone by David McLay Kidd of Bandon Dunes fame. Fancourt was one of several resorts I got to sample on my trip to South Africa, but hardly the only one worth a mention. A little earlier in the trip, we stopped off at Arabella Hotel & Spa, which is out along the Kogelberg Biosphere Reserve, the Bot River Lagoon and Kogelberg Mountains. The views from the Arabella golf course were special, and the hotel was no less impressive, offering large suites, spa, excellent dining and outstanding service.
Telluride (Colorado) Resort
As part of my annual epic summer road trip -- this one went through the Rocky Mountain states of Colorado, New Mexico and Utah -- Telluride certainly stood out for a number of reasons. Not the least of which was that I wound up in the club's annual member-guest, which my terrific partner Lars Carlson and I actually won. Known more for skiing, of course, than golf, Telluride Golf Club exceeded my expectations in every department. Throw in the luxurious accommodations and private hot tub on the roof of the Inn at Lost Creek, the views of Mountain Village and the town of Telluride, and you've got a magical experience.
Bandon (Oregon) Dunes
My third trip to Bandon Dunes was a special one since I got to spend it with my grown son. It was also the first time I had been there in more than a decade so I got to play Old Macdonald, Bandon Trails, Bandon Preserve and The Punchbowl for the first time. All of those experiences just enhanced what I still believe to be the best resort in America for serious golfers. Bandon Preserve, with its ocean views on all 13 holes, vaulted to the top on my list of the world's best par-3 courses, and you won't find a better putting course than the imaginative 36-hole Punchbowl. Simply put, Bandon Dunes should be the near the top of any avid golfer's bucket list.
The Sea Pines Resort, Hilton Head Island, S.C.
The highlight, of course, was playing the recently renovated Harbour Town Golf Links, a longtime favorite among PGA Tour players for its outstanding design and beauty. But everything about staying at The Sea Pines Resort is special, including luxuriously comfortable rooms at the Inn at Harbour Town, dining at Links, An American Grill at the 55,000-square-foot clubhouse (which just got a vastly upgraded 4,000-square-foot locker room), playing Heron Point by Pete Dye (which was renovated by Dye himself) as well as the famed Smith-Stearns Tennis Academy. In fact, I got to have lunch with the legendary Stan Smith, who's a pretty good golfer, too, having shot a 66 not too long ago at Colleton River Plantation Club in nearby Bluffton, S.C.
The Resort at Longboat Key (Florida) Club
The Resort at Longboat Key Club really surprised me, not only with the golf, but also with the quality of the accommodations, dining, spa and other activities. The golf improved dramatically after summer renovations that included installing paspalum throughout (including greens) on 36 of the 45 holes. But if you add in the terrific ocean views, world-class Tennis Garden and outstanding restaurants, you've got an exceptional experience. I also need to mention that I stayed at Longboat Key's sister property, the newly remodeled Lido Beach Resort, which has even better ocean views set against a pristine white sand beach right in the heart of Sarasota, which is one of the top retirement spots in the country.
The Wigwam, Litchfield Park, Ariz.
If you're looking for desert golf, this isn't your resort. But if you want a change a pace, the three parkland courses at The Wigwam, including the recently renovated Gold Course, provide a tantalizing option. Celebrating its 50th year, the Robert Trent Jones-designed Gold is simply a solid test of golf, sans excessive bunkering or tricky holes. The resort's owners, JDM Partners, have put more than $25 million into the property since buying The Wigwam out of bankruptcy. And with its connection to nearby Luke Air Force Base and the Patriot All-American, you're not likely to find a more patriotic golf destination in the country, either. The Wigwam also offers outstanding tennis, dining and a dynamic sports bar.