When I think of great municipal golf courses, the three I think of, quite naturally, are the ones that have staged the U.S. Open. No. 1 on my list would be Bethpage Black, followed by Chambers Bay (yes, I realize there are many who didn't hold the 2015 host in high regard) and Torrey Pines South. Obviously, these are in a class by themselves, but they are hardly the only great munis.
Fortunately, I've had the opportunity to play munis all across the country. What follows are my top 10 not named Bethpage, Chambers Bay or Torrey. I also didn't include a couple TPC courses that are technically municipals -- TPC Harding Park and TPC Scottsdale (which I really like) -- just because they're priced like, well, TPC courses. Most of the following are fairly affordable if not downright bargains.
1. Pacific Grove (Calif.) Golf Links
The front nine at Pacific Grove Golf Links is unremarkable, but the back nine is pure gold. Designed by Jack Neville of Pebble Beach fame, it's eminently walkable and memorable. And while it isn't as cheap as it used to be -- the secret is out -- it's still a pretty good deal. You can play it for a rack rate of between $60 and $70 and sometimes much cheaper. Once you get to the back nine, it's the Pacific Ocean almost the entire way and it's actually more links-like than Pebble Beach Golf Links. In fact, it's often called the "Poor Man's Pebble Beach," although its proximity to the ocean is the only similarity. The ocean holes at Pacific Grove aren't along cliffs as they are at Pebble. Instead, it's set in the dunes, which is still very special.
2. Butterfield Trail Golf Club, El Paso, Texas
It's hard to say what might bring a person to El Paso, but if you happen to be there, you have to check out Butterfield Trail Golf Club, a big Tom Fazio design that belies the $45 green fee. Despite its desert surroundings, this is a big links-like golf course with lots of cool holes and great scenery. Owned by the El Paso International Airport, they'll come pick up after your flight and you can stay at hotel near the airport. While you're there, eat at Carlos & Mickey's, my favorite Mexican restaurant of all time.
3. Piñon Hills Golf Course, Farmington, N.M.
There was a time when you could play this wonderful Ken Dye design for around $15. It's gone up a little since then, but even at a little more than double at $36 in the afternoon for nonresidents, this might be the best deal in the country. Conditioning, design of holes and mountain scenery rate Piñon Hills Golf Course on the level of many courses that charge $200. And this is a championship layout that can be stretched to more than 7,200 yards. It's not easy to get to in the northwest corner of New Mexico, but if you're within 100 miles or so, it's a must-play.
4. Fossil Trace Golf Club, Golden, Colo.
Located just outside of Denver adjacent to the foothills of the Rocky Mountain Front Range, Fossil Trace Golf Club has a storied history, well before it opened in 2003. It got its name from the dinosaur fossils discovered there, but it's also an old quarry site as well as a boys school years ago. This excellent Jim Engh design is one of the best public golf courses in Colorado. At 6,831 yards, it's very challenging, but very playable with some very interesting rock formations on holes 11-15, where you can still view the dinosaur fossils.
5. The Celebrity Course at Indian Wells (Calif.)
Indian Wells has two courses, and neither one of them look or seem like munis. Really, I could probably go with either of them for this slot, but I'm giving the flashier Celebrity Course, a Clive Clark design, a slight edge over Indian Wells' Gary Player Course. With numerous water features and only two par 5s and two par 3s, the Celebrity still adds up to a par 72 over 7,050 yards. Built in 1986, the golf course was overhauled in 2006 along with the Players. It hosted the LG Skins Game in 2007 and 2008.
6. Memorial Park, Houston
While Butterfield Trail is the best municipal in Texas, you could argue several golf courses in Dallas, San Antonio, Laredo and Houston for second best. Among the candidates are Tierra Verde in Arlington, Texas Star in Euless, Max A. Mandel in Laredo and Tenison Park and Stevens Park in Dallas. To me, though, the top two candidates are Brackenridge Park, a wonderful old A.W. Tillinghast design in San Antonio, and Memorial Park in Houston. But because the 1923 John Bredemus-designed Memorial, home of the Greater Houston City Amateur, is more of a championship layout at 7,305 yards and cheaper to play ($37 or less to walk), I've giving the nod to Memorial. Plus, Beck's Prime restaurant in the clubhouse might have the best burgers in the state.
7. Haymaker Golf Course, Steamboat Springs, Colo.
Another terrific Colorado muni is Haymaker Golf Course, designed by Keith Foster, who never disappoints in his designs. It features a links-like front nine and more traditional back nine. Tipping out at 7,308 yards, this par 72 has five sets of tees, including a family option that plays just 2,724 yards. The golf course has a great variety of holes, including a couple of drivable par 4s and a good mix of short and long par 3s and par 5s.
8. Rockwind Community Links, Hobbs, N.M.
When playing the new Rockwind Community Links this summer, I just kept thinking how good the golfers in Hobbs have it. They can play the course for $15, but it's only $30 for out-of-staters, which makes it a must-play if you're anywhere near the area. The 18-hole championship course is a completely new design by Scottsdale, Ariz. architect Andy Staples. And there's also a new nine-hole, par-3 course, extensive practice facilities that include a double-sided driving range and short-game area, and a new clubhouse, all of which now stand where the city's old Ocotillo Park Golf Course used to be. There are very few forced carries on the course, and from the forward tees, which also includes an "Express" set of tees at 4,102 yards, forced carries never come into play.
9. Washington County Golf Course, Hartford, Wis.
Not far from Whistling Straits and even closer to 2017 U.S. Open site Erin Hills is one of the most playable and prettiest municipals you'll find anywhere. Designed by Midwest golf architect Arthur Hills, Washington County Golf Course has generous fairways, plenty of water hazards, shallow bunkers and big greens with a good bit of slope. With five sets of tees, it can play as long as 7,150 yards. And like many on this list, it's a bargain with walking green fees topping out at around $43 on weekend.
10. Crandon Golf at Key Biscayne (Fla.)
With an upscale clubhouse and a really good design by Robert Von Hagge and Bruce Devlin, the Crandon Park golf course is a must-play if you're in the Miami area. The course was built on a pristine island environment, with seven salt-water lakes and views of Biscayne Bay and the Miami skyline. Dotted with palms, mangrove and other tropical plants, there's also an assortment of tropical wildlife and crocodiles. Renovated in 1993, was also the host of the Champions Tour event for 17 years. With large tee boxes, the course can be stretched to nearly 7,200 yards.