We spotlight great value golf courses regularly at Golf Advisor, and your ratings and reviews help us find them. We've uncovered top golf courses to play under $50 and the best value golf destinations. Matt Ginella most recently shared his Value Ladder concept, which showcased bargain tee times ranging from a $10 honor box to a $150 U.S. Open venue.
The thing about golf courses with a seemingly too-good-to-be-true green fee is the tee time is usually a steal for a reason. It could be due to mediocre conditioning, cramped tee sheets, marginal location or spartan off-course facilities.
Value is a personal thing, and the real key to uncovering a hidden gem at a great price is to consider which elements of the experience aren't the most important to you, and seek out the courses whose shortcomings align with those, while delivering on what you love most about golf.
For example, I can look past a mediocre course design if the scenery is awesome (Elk Ridge in the Columbia River Gorge). Off-course amenities don't have to dazzle me if the pace of play is great.
So to paraphrase an old proverb:
Tell a golfer about a value course, and they'll have a great round.
But teach them how to find a value course, and they'll play great golf for life.
With this in mind, next time you are planning an itinerary, look for courses that fit one of these ten categories, and chances are great value awaits.
10 ways to find a value golf course
Ignore "championship" courses
A lot of golf courses market themselves by promoting top-flight tournaments they've hosted (even if it's an amateur or sectional qualifying event). In many ways, that should raise a yellow or red flag for value. Ownership must pay for enough acreage to accommodate 7,000-plus yards, and their maintenance budget, clubhouse and practice facilities are likely in the high-end of the destination.
If you're a mid-handicapper or senior who doesn't play the tips anyways, seek out courses with a back-tee yardage in the 6,000-6,500 range. A few I've enjoyed are The Resort at the Mountain, EagleSticks and Leatherstocking.
Collegiate golf courses
In 2017, two college courses, University of Wisconsin's University Ridge and University of Georgia, made our Top 50 Overall list based on your reviews. There are universities large and small throughout the U.S. that have excellent courses the public can play for a bargain. Campus courses can be funded with the aid of private donations, and top architects will often lend their services for a discount or nothing (like Pete Dye at Purdue). Perhaps the most affordable public Coore-Crenshaw design in the U.S. is Notre Dame's Warren Golf Course. A golf buddy of mine in Texas claims that Tom Doak's Rawls Course at Texas Tech is the best value buddies trip you can take.
Course is just a little too far from a metro area
A few of the courses that have done exceptionally well on Golf Advisor over the years are those located just beyond the reaches of a popular destination or metropolitan center. Several that have benefitted from Golf Advisor reviews include Rams Hill, Yocha Dehe, Scotch Hall Preserve and El Cameleon at Mission Inn. In each case, they're a bit off the beaten path compared to their peers, but nevertheless deliver unique experiences for the money.
In my neck of the woods in Central Texas, that golf course is Delaware Springs. If the course is well off the interstate with little population nearby, chances are the green fee is a steal. Get some good friends and an updated road-trip playlist and the journey to great value will fly by.
Who cares about the architect?
I've felt for awhile now that architects may be the "lead singer" of a course, but the "rhythm section" is the management and especially the superintendent. The big and sexy design names, particularly when they are building a golf course for a resort or residential community, command a big fee that gets funneled down to the golfer. Often times, those architects have stipulations that if the course isn't maintained to a certain degree, their name must be removed from being associated with the facility.
Alabama's Gunter's Landing, with a design credit by Jimmy Kennemer (???) earns rave reviews. Staff at many older courses aren't even sure who the original architect was. Who cares? Courses evolve over time and if management is committed to the property and invests in the right way, practically any course can become a market's must-play round.
Military golf courses
There are over 150 golf courses operated by the U.S. Department of Defense. Many of these courses are traditionally and affordably designed for military members and their families. Perhaps the best example of military value can be found in America's most expensive destination, Pebble Beach. Short and sweet Monterey Pines is affordable to the public and has a 99% recommend rate on Golf Advisor. Only six of the over 500 reviews are 1- 2 stars.
In Hawaii, Oahu is chock full of great military options like Kaneohe Clipper, which has oceanfront holes. Military golf courses are managed using funds from the Department of Defense's Morale, Welfare and Recreation fund. The military wants you to play the vast majority of these courses, and doing so helps keep them open.
Municipal golf courses
If you don't mind leaving conditions and pace of play to chance in favor of convenience and value near a city, your best bet is usually a muni. Most have the benefit of a homes-free and walker-friendly routing. Some cities will charge non-residents more than local taxpayers to play them. But in cities like Portland, Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex and San Antonio, there are many worthy options that are welcoming to visitors. Spokane is known to have legendary muni value. Near Seattle, the City of Bremerton's Gold Mountain Olympic course made our Top 50 in 2017.
State and park Metropark golf
If you love wildlife and the peaceful environs they seek, look for a course in a state or metropark. Although there are exceptions, like Tennessee's four Jack Nicklaus-designed courses, these courses are often designed by lesser-known architects. They might not have the best conditions (though courses like Richard B. Russell at Arrowhead Pointe buck this notion). Kentucky has a notable State Park golf system, while Cleveland's Metropark system features Donald Ross and Stanley Thompson designs.
Native American reservation golf courses
Las Vegas Paiute
Can you imagine what a destination like Phoenix-Scottsdale would look like without Native American influence into the golf and resort scene? Golf courses on tribal lands have different economics than a privately owned, for-profit facility. They are almost always high-end rounds but can be played for a discount compared to its competition. They tend to have beneficial water rights, non-taxable land and an adjacent casino and resort that helps deliver guests and revenue.
54-hole Las Vegas Paiute is a clear example of a tribal facility that is thriving on different economics. While many Las Vegas courses struggle to squeeze residences and golf onto valuable land parcels, all while continually reducing turf and water use, Paiute sprawls across a quiet, homes-free terrain with Rye turf year round and even two separate practice facilities. It explains why Paiute's courses earn some of the highest value marks by our raters in the southwest despite a green fee that can creep to $199.
A course on the upswing
Value is in many cases a moving target, because once a gem has been discovered, management might grow too busy and the conditions or pace of play suffers. Or, the course realizes they can raise the rates. Some of the best bargains are those courses who suffered some management or ownership uncertainty, and as they turn things around, offer specials to spread word of mouth.
To find these types of courses, click on our "Most Improved" tab in our "Courses Near Me" section on the homepage to see which courses are trending in the right direction.
Preview play at private clubs
It's no secret that private golf clubs in many markets have spots to fill in their membership. Many will offer promotional play or even social commerce deals on Deal Caddy or Groupon. I recently played Onion Creek Country Club in Austin for the price of a muni. If you spot a similar deal, just check the fine print. Weekend tee times can be limited.
So what are some of your tricks when looking for value in a new destination? Tell us in the comments below.