These days, when a golf course developer gets a piece of seriously spectacular terrain, it's safe to say they are going to try and get the most of their investment by building a championship-caliber layout with a name-brand architect in order to get the highest green fee or membership dues possible.
Yet over the years, there have been some modestly crafted courses all over that are in settings that far exceed their layouts (and green fees). These courses may be munis or operated by trusts, park systems or other non-profit organizations.
Or they may just be several decades overdue for a facelift.
While it's tough to argue against fabulous, high-dollar resort courses like Pebble Beach Golf Links or Edgewood Tahoe, sometimes it's actually nice to play a humbler layout in a dramatic setting because it gives you a chance to grind less over every shot and instead enjoy the walk. You may even card a pretty good score - something tough to do when you play a course with a lot of visual distraction for the first time (See: Whistling Straits).There's also less pressure involved when you're taking less out of your wallet for the experience.
With that in mind I've compiled a collection of my favorite scenic courses you can play for far less than you'd expect given their superlative settings. They are set along the coastline or in mountains or forest, that won't break the bank but will fill up your phone's camera roll. (Editor's Note: Over the years, I've noticed some of my favorite hidden gems enjoy great success and up their fees. You used to be able to play Ardglass in Northern Ireland for closer to 50 quid but now it's double. The Dragon at Nakoma was once under $50 as it went through an ownership change but now crests $100 as well. It's a similar story at Dunmaglas in Northern Michigan which now peaks out around $100 to play).
Perhaps the single-greatest example of a value course in an incredible setting I can think of is Nefyn & District in Wales. It has a clifftop, promontory location that rivals Pebble Beach or Old Head. But it's in a remote part of the country that receives relatively few tourists. The design of the course itself has some basic and weirdly-routed holes that jostle with public trails, a sink hole and car park. But you get a world-class setting, complete with shots played along cliffs and dazzling vistas for a green fee of about $50 USD.
There are many other courses I have yet to visit but have my eye on, like Highland Links in Massachusetts or the many hidden gems around northern Michigan like Crystal Lake Golf Club or Manistee on Lake Michigan. Then there are Tennessee's many gems like Sewanee or Sweetens Cove. There are also lesser-known stalwarts of our Golf Advisor Best-of Lists like Scotch Hall Preserve in the N.C. Outer Banks, or Gunter's Landing in Alabama.
Military courses also have the potential for one-of-a-kind settings that can be played for cheap. Some intriguing picks include South Carolina's Legend at Parris Island, Monterey Pines near Pebble Beach, Coronado's Sea and Air, and Eisenhower Blue in Colorado Springs, not to mention some of their wild Alaskan courses.
12 more scenic courses you can play for cheap
Elk Ridge Golf Course, Washington
One of the most jaw-dropping drives you can take in this country is heading east of Portland along the Columbia River Gorge. Lo and behold, there are some excellent golf courses too, including one that I played shortly after it reopened following an ownership change, Elk Ridge at Carson Hot Springs. Not only are the gorge views incredible at every turn, but its lofty perch lends it to being one of the driest courses in the Pacific Northwest.
Pennard Golf Club, Wales
Wales is full of quirky golf courses and perhaps the most raw and rugged - to go along with sublime views - is Pennard. The "Links in the Sky" rumbles along on clifftop ground mostly high above the sea. Minimally maintained, the golf ball bounds unexpectedly in all directions. Cattle and horses roaming the fairways accentuate the sensory experience here. As captivating as the ground is, it's the views that are among the U.K.'s finest and can be played by visitors for £65-75.
Northwood Golf Course, California
One of the most affordable courses in the world with Alister Mackenzie influence is along the Russian River at the Northwood Golf Club in Sonoma. It's a casual nine-hole course set beneath towering redwoods. It's simply one of the most awe-inspiring settings you can hit a golf ball in and can be played for less than $30 walking.
Coronado Golf Course, California
Admittedly I've only been to the parking lot and toured parts of this course set on the idyllic Coronado island minutes from downtown San Diego. The traditional and flat course is a nice respite once you've played the tougher and hillier courses up at Torrey Pines or La Costa. The $42 on the weekends walking for non-residents personifies "bargain."
Pacific Grove Golf Course, California
One of the most well-known examples of value golf is the "Poor Man's Pebble," Pacific Grove. The back nine of this municipal course around the corner from Pebble Beach is an open, links-like routing played through dunes with Pacific Ocean views. Dynamically priced, non-residents can tee it up here for about $48-75.
Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, Canada
Niagara-on-the-Lake is the oldest continually operated course in North America and to this day remains a lot of fun to play. The nine holes are wedged between the resort town and Lake Ontario and is full of charm, not to mention an excellent 19th hole. You can walk 18 here for less than $50 in primetime. Be warned, this semi-private course gets busy.
Kukuiolono Golf Course, Kauai, Hawaii
Hawaii is well known for its excellent resort golf, but there are little local gems all over as well if you know where to look. I've yet to play Kauai's Wailua, regarded by many as essential muni golf. But I enjoyed the laid-back experience at Kukuio'lono immensely. Tourists and ka'amaina alike pay the same $9 fee. It's not on the ocean but high into the hills, set in a Japanese garden with views of the south shore.
The Resort at the Mountain, Oregon
I played The Resort at the Mountain shortly after Elk Ridge and loved the one-two punch for value. This 27-hole course that winds along a valley floor beside a river feels a bit like a poor man's Banff Springs. The classic layout was updated in recent years by the late-John Harbottle III.
Gray Plantation, Louisiana
Not far from the big casinos in Lake Charles is a bayou bargain at Gray Plantation. With gorgeous scenery and a tournament-caliber design, it would warrant discussion among Hilton Head/Bluffton's A-list in South Carolina, but in this lesser-trafficked spot can be played for less than $50.
North Course at Torrey Pines
Not only is the North Course at Torrey Pines among the more affordable full-length courses on the Pacific Ocean, it's also one of the most affordable PGA Tour venues. But this layout, recently renovated by Tom Weiskopf, is far easier to the average player than its demanding neighbor.
At about $100-$130 to non-residents, the North Course is half the cost as the South Course, which is about half the cost of Pebble Beach, but is about double the fee of Coronado. So you can decide if that price point is "value" to you.
Green Gables Golf Club, PEI, Canada
Prince Edward Island features a deep roster of courses that collectively hang their hat on two things: quaintness and value.
Playing the national parks courses of Canada is one of the ultimate bucket-list things you can do in golf travel, and one of the best chances to do so is at Green Gables National Park. The rate at Green Gables peaks out at $100, but this is a destination that is a lot like Myrtle Beach in that most folks book stay-and-play packages that bring the daily room and board down to that range. It's a lot less expensive compared to Jasper Park Lodge and Banff Springs and also about 30% cheaper than neighboring Highlands Links on Cape Breton Island.
Montrose Golf Club, Scotland
Discovering Montrose this summer while covering The Open at the infamously un-aesthetic Carnoustie was an epiphany. Just about an hour's drive northeast along the coast, Montrose delivers player-friendly links with a dazzling opeing stretch along a dunes formation referred to as "The Bents." At just £50, if Montrose was closer to St. Andrews it'd likely cost double to play.