The PGA Championship has taken its prized event to municipal courses two years in a row. Last year, Brooks Koepka took down Bethpage Black for his title defense. This year, he'll try to make it three PGAs in a row at TPC Harding Park, a beloved and historic San Francisco muni that dates back to 1925 in the otherwise high-rent district of Lake Merced.
Great munis worth playing don't have to host majors, or even have tipped out Tiger Tees capable of hosting a pro or elite amateur event of any kind. Just look at boutique, popular courses like Keney Park (Hartford), Stevens Park (Dallas) or Pacific Grove (Calif.).
But hosting majors on munis makes the tournament more of a "People's Event" and the best part is that after you've watched the pros have their mix of pain and triumph (mostly pain) you can try and recreate the golf shots from the same spot. Rory McIlroy put it eloquently in his PGA Championship news conference: "It's very refreshing that we do come to places like here, Bethpage, Torrey Pines," he said. "It is important to let the public see us on golf courses that they've played before, that are accessible for them, that aren't too expensive to get on."
The U.S. has four municipal golf courses presently in the U.S. Open or PGA Championship rotation: Bethpage Black, TPC Harding Park, Chambers Bay and Torrey Pines South. Each offers bargain rates for their city or county residents, while non-residents will pay a green fee more in line with a premium resort experience. But the chance to play a major muni is a relatively new thing, and golfers across the world eat up the chance. Bethpage's 2002 U.S. Open brought munis back to the major rota, followed by Torrey in 2008, then Chambers in 2015 and now TPC Harding Park in 2020.
Non-resident green fees at the 'Major Munis'
Bethpage Black: $130 weekday, $150 weekend
TPC Harding Park: $180 weekday, $200 weekend (dynamic pricing)
Torrey Pines South: $202, $252 weekend (plus $45 advanced booking fee 4-90 days in advance)
Chambers Bay: $275
So which course offers the best experience for the daily-fee player? Let's go to the Golf Advisor community to find out how they've rated the four courses since we began taking reviews in late-2012.
Bethpage Black is the clear winner overall with the only weak spot being pace of play. It's also the cheapest to play of the four as a non-resident at just $150 on weekends, which explains why tee times can be tough to come by.
As for PGA-host TPC Harding Park, it has the most consistent ratings of the foursome and a strong Course Layout score. Of all these courses, Harding is also probably the most local-friendly experience. It's convenient to the city and an easy walk. It also won't beat you up too badly if you play the right tee box, which reflects its relatively low difficulty score.
2021 U.S. Open host Torrey Pines South in San Diego's ratings have been maligned by 2019 reviews after they instituted the head-scratching policy of closing two holes at a time while they extensively renovated for next year's event. The daily experience was cart-path only (no walking allowed) with regular temporary greens and construction traffic galore. Despite all these detriments to the experience, management only took $20 off the green fee. No wonder Torrey's North Course is rated much higher by Golf Advisor reviewers.
As for Chambers Bay in Washington state, its ratings are trending upwards according to our community. After a 2015 U.S. Open that was never dull, they made the transition from fescue to poa annua greens. All Golf Advisor reviews since late-July of 2019 have been exemplary. The course delivered a thrilling event with an incredible leaderboard despite causing some pros to melt down. Will the USGA decide to give Chambers Bay another shot in the major spotlight?
Getting to play a major championship venue is pretty special. I've played three of these four major munis, the holdout being Bethpage Black. I'd love to hear about your experience at any of these courses and if it was worth the trip. Tell us in the comments below!