Generally speaking, if you go to Arizona, Southern California, Hawaii or South Florida in the wintertime, that's peak season, which means premium green fees. But if you go off the beaten path a little, you can actually find some winter destinations that can be quite reasonable.
One area of the U.S. where you can find some great values is the Gulf Coast, all the way from Tampa, Fla., to South Padre Island, Texas. Sure you can get some cold days, but generally speaking, the highs are in the mid 60s and above in middle of winter, and it's not uncommon to get days that approach 80 degrees in January and February. You can fly into Tampa, New Orleans, Houston or Brownsville, Texas, and rent a car. These make for great buddy trip destinations, too.
Here are some examples of winter golf that will save you 50 percent or more off the more publicized destinations:
World Woods, Brooksville, Fla.
While peak season in most of Florida is certainly wintertime when green fees are generally double or more what they are in the summer, there are pockets where it can be quite reasonable. One is the Brooksville area just west of Tampa, where you will find the 36-hole combination of two splendid Tom Fazio layouts at World Woods.
On both courses, it's just nature, no homes, and the club has outstanding practice facilities and a par-3 course. During peak season January through March, green fees are $99 during the week and $119 on the weekend. Even better is to play both courses at $178. And while there are no accommodations there, you can find a hotel in the area and plan a fairly reasonable golf vacation.
As a bonus, I'll add in Lake Jovita, a terrific 36-hole layout just minutes away in Dade City. If you've got a group, the semi-private club offers some fairly reasonable stay-and-play packages at two- or three-bedroom condos or homes, but the green fees may be among the best of any course in central to south Florida, peaking at around $60.
The 220-acre South Course at Lake Jovita, which opened in 1999, is the original layout. Designed by Tom Lehman and golf course architect Kurt Sandness, the course takes advantage of the unique hilly terrain. The North Course is a 7,226-yard par 72 created by Sandness in 2002 and is a little more contemporary in style and features more elevation changes. Both are outstanding.
Also, worth mentioning is that Black Diamond Ranch in Lecanto is also nearby. The famed Tom Fazio-designed Quarry Course, which has a stretch of holes on the back nine as spectacular as anything in Florida, is part of the package. You have to stay there to play there, and it's going to cost more than World Woods or Lake Jovita but definitely worth looking into, especially if you have several days.
It would also be prudent to check the Emerald Coast, which is farther north than the Tampa area. Like many areas on the northern Gulf Coast, winter isn't prime season (the weather tends to be a little colder), so you can find some good deals at places such as Sandestin Golf & Beach Resort near Destin and courses designed by some of the best in the business such as Camp Creek Golf Club (Tom Fazio), Burnt Pine (Rees Jones), The Raven (Robert Trent Jones Jr.), Emerald Bay Golf Club (Bob Cupp) and Bay Point (Jack Nicklaus).
Gulf Shores, Alabama, and the Mississippi coast
Between Biloxi, Miss., and Pensacola, Fla., not too far from New Orleans, there's a wealth of excellent value courses. Some, like Kiva Dunes, can be a little pricey at $87 on the weekend, but that's at the high end. And Kiva Dunes, perhaps one of Jerry Pate's best designs, is a special golf course, a beautiful linksy sort of layout located just a few hundred yards from the beach.
In fact, I'd say rent a motor home or stay in a series of hotels and take in this whole 100-mile or so stretch of coast if you've got the time. Starting in Mississippi, there's a handful of excellent courses, all less than $100 and some as little as $40 or so. You can get online tee times at Grand Bear (Jack Nicklaus) or The Bridges Golf Club (Arnold Palmer), for example, for less than $55. Or check out the excellent Davis Love III-designed Shell Landing, located in Gautier, and one of the best public golf courses in Mississippi.
Many consider Jerry Pate-designed Kiva Dunes the best course in Alabama.
The Gulf Shores/Pensacola area offers even more choices. While Kiva Dunes tops the list, family-owned Craft Farms Resort in Gulf Shores would be a good place to start. There are two 18-hole Arnold Palmer-designed championship layouts -- Cotton Creek and the Cypress Bend Course -- plus Craft Farms Resort also offers first-rate and affordable accommodations and convenient shopping.
Set along Mobile Bay, 27-hole Peninsula Golf and Racquet Club is also near the top of the must-play list when visiting Gulf Shores. Designed by Earl Stone, the championship layout of Peninsula's Cypress/Marsh course offers great scenery along the Bon Secour Wildlife Preserve, making its way throughout live oaks, cypress and other natural habitat. Lost Key Golf Club, located on the Barrier Island of Perdido Key, Fla., is a par-71 Palmer signature design that features paspalum tee and is certified as an Audubon International Silver Signature Sanctuary.
Twenty-seven-hole Timber Creek Golf Course, located in Daphne, Ala., again designed by Stone, is the antithesis of coastal golf, with hills and elevated tee shots. Located on the eastern shore of Mobile Bay, it makes its way through wetland preserves and a forest of dogwoods, magnolias and pines. And another Stone design, Rock Creek Golf Club in Fairhope, Ala., has plenty of elevation change with a signature hole that drops 70 feet from the tee to the fairway.
All of these courses can generally be played in the $50 range, plus the area is littered with great seafood and famous FloraBama lounge (on the border of Alabama and Florida), where you can party on the beach and take in some great music.
Lake Charles, Louisiana
Louisiana isn't exactly known for its winter tourism, but a couple of decades ago, casinos started going up in this area, which was (and still is) oil refinery country. The golf courses aren't there to make money necessarily, but rather to drive gamblers to the tables and slots.
At L'auberge du Lac Casino Resort, you'll find Contraband Bayou, a very reasonably priced Tom Fazio-designed championship layout. This par-71 layout that can play almost 7,100 yards has Fazio's signature bunkers, interesting greens complexes and terrific conditions. It peaks at $49 this time of year, or you can check out packages with the 1,000-room, 26-story hotel. (Peak season in Lake Charles is actually spring and fall.)
My recommendation would be to stay at L'auberge du Lac or perhaps the Golden Nugget, which also has a championship course at its resort. The Todd Eckenrode-designed Country Club at the Golden Nuggets, however, is a little pricier at $159 for daily fee play. Hotel guests, though, do get a discount of $30 at the Country Club at the Golden Nugget, which opened in 2015.
Either way, there are some other good options in the area, so if you base at one of the casinos, you can put together a nice budget golf vacation. Among my favorites are Gray Plantation and National Golf Club of Louisiana. Gray Plantation is part of the Louisiana's Audubon Trail and costs less than $50 to play. And National, which also has outstanding practice facilities, is a well-conditioned Dave Bennett design that opened in 2009.
And as a side note, Houston is less than 200 miles west of Lake Charles. And Houston does nothing to promote its golf tourism. Yet there are more than 200 golf courses in the area, and none of the green fees there are jacked up for the winter. If you don't mind off-color Bermuda (it usually doesn't go fully dormant), because most courses don't overseed; you can find some great values in H-Town.
South Padre Island, Texas
About 400 miles southwest of Houston, South Padre Island, Texas, is largely known as a spring break destination. But it makes for a pretty good winter golf value as well.
Consider this: It's about the same latitude as Miami, so chances are good that if you hit in January or February, the weather will be pretty warm, plus you'll find great seafood, reasonable accommodations and miles of beaches for far less than you would in South Florida.
My favorite course in the area is South Padre Island Golf Club, which is actually in Laguna Vista, overlooking Laguna Madre, one of only six hypersaline (i.e. saltier than the ocean) lagoons in the world. When Chris Cole and Stephen Caplinger designed the course, they had the prevailing wind in mind, and you can usually count on that sea breeze to be at a couple of clubs. The signature hole is the risk-reward, 334-yard, par-4 fifth. With a beach down the right side of the hole and the wind usually blowing left to right, driver is a reasonable play to try to drive the green.
Another strong option is Tierra Santa Golf Club, which is a little more inland in Weslaco. Tierra Santa features plenty of mounding, water hazards and even a waterfall. Designed by Jeff Brauer with input from former PGA Tour player Steve Elkington, the course is around $50 to play with a cart on the weekend.
If you're looking for a place to stay, South Padre does offer some accommodations or you could find a real value at Rancho Viejo Resort & Country Club, which offers accommodations and golf for as little as $139 per night or $199 per night with unlimited golf. The resort has two regulation golf courses, and while they're not outstanding, they're certainly enjoyable, especially for the money.
Though not spectacular, other affordable golf options in the area include Fort Brown Municipal Golf Course, River Bend Resort & Country Club or semiprivate Valley International Country Club in Brownsville.