Ten great 'little' golf destinations in the U.S.

TRUCKEE, Calif. -- Most golfers are familiar with the big destinations like Myrtle Beach and Phoenix-Scottsdale, as well as name-brand resorts like Pebble Beach, Pinehurst or Bandon Dunes.

But there are lesser-known pockets throughout the United States, small-town destinations if you will, that have collections of golf courses, accommodations and local charm that aren't that well known outside of their areas.

These would be the best little golf destinations in the United States. All are unique, offering something a little different. And while some destinations like San Diego or Palm Springs hang their hat on limitless choices, you don't need to do hours of research to sift out the must-plays. Some of these destinations are better values than others, but they all make for terrific little golf vacations.

Here's a list of the my personal top 10 in the United States, starting with a spot in the mountains of California that's so magnificent you might not even care what you shoot.

1. Truckee, California

For a town of just 16,000 there might not be a better collection of golf courses, restaurants and hotels. Truckee, located on the Truckee River high up in the Sierra Nevada Mountains on the Nevada border less than an hour north of Lake Tahoe is a popular second-home spot for San Francisco's elite, so you know that the standards are set high. The courses are all excellent, from the original Tahoe Donner to Coyote Moon , Schaffer's Mill , Gray's Crossing and Old Greenwood , just to name a few. And those are just the courses open to the public (Truckee has some outstanding private offerings, too). Restaurants in this charming town -- which, of course doubles as a ski destination in the winter -- cover everything from the iconic Cottonwood and Moody's Bistro, which not only have great food but live entertainment, to the new Fifty-Fifty Brew Co., to old world Italian at Pianeta Restaurante to the incredible sushi at the Drunken Monkey. This non-resort town also features a wide range of cool hotels, from the "haunted" Truckee Inn to the ultramodern, Euro-style Cedar House.

2. Brainerd Lakes, Minnesota

For much of the country, Minnesota isn't on the radar when you think of golf destinations, but it should be. One destination in particular, the Brainerd Lakes area three hours north of the Twin Cities, is outstanding. With more than 450 holes, it has a concentration of top-rated golf courses by some of the game's best architects. Two courses are of the top 100 variety -- the Arnold Palmer-designed Deacon's Lodge and The Classic at Madden's on Gull Lake , a Scott Hoffman-designed course meant for walking. And there are several family-friendly resorts, including Cragun's Resort and Hotel on Gull Lake, Grand View Lodge and Madden's on Gull Lake.

3. Graegle, California

About an hour north of Truckee is Graegle, which certainly doesn't have the restaurant or hotel scene that Truckee does, but offers up some good-to-sensational golf. Heading the list is the Dragon at Nakoma , Whitehawk Ranch Golf Club , Grizzly Ranch and Plumas Pines . A lesser-known course, Graeagle Meadows , earns very strong ratings on Golf Advisor and is walker friendly.

Adding to the golfing authenticity of this area, there are a handful of little pitch 'n putts and a driving range, mini golf and locally adored Frostee burger and ice cream shop in the center of town.

Also noteworthy is the fact that Lake Tahoe and Reno -- which also offers great golf, casino resort and other fun things to do -- are within an hour of Graegle and Truckee.

4. Gaylord, Michigan

Northern Michigan is chock full of great little golfing pockets. About an hour east of Traverse City, the north's main city, is Gaylord. This small town and resort area, also a popular ski destination, delivers the best concentration of secluded, hilly and forested golf in the Midwest. Treetops Resort is the main draw, particularly the Rick Smith Signature and Tom Fazio Premier designs (plus a remarkable par-3, Threetops ). Next to Gaylord's Main Street, 36-hole Otsego Club features one modern course (the Tribute ) rivaling Treetops to go with one of the destination's classic plays. Tom Doak's Black Forest , as well as Michaweye Pines and Loon Golf Resort round out a diverse collection of plays in this proclaimed "mecca" of golf.

5. Wickenburg, Arizona

With the recent addition of Wickenburg Ranch Golf & Social Club , arguably one of the best golf courses in Arizona , this town of 6,300 an hour northwest of Phoenix now has three quality golf courses to go with its dude ranches, Western stores and bed-and-breakfast inns. Wickenburg Ranch is slated to become private eventually, but for now it's open to the public and has been priced well below the Scottsdale market to the southeast. The course was actually originally completed in 2008 but didn't open because of the bad economy. Yet it was still maintained, so it basically had seven years of grow-in. As a result, conditioning is perfect. Designed by Bill Brownlee and Wendell Pickett, the course has elevated tees, sloping greens and plenty of scenery, including Prescott National Forest and Vulture Peak. The other two courses, Los Caballeros Golf Club and Wickenburg Country Club are memorable as well. Beautiful Los Caballeros traces its roots back 65 years as a guest ranch, while Wickenburg C.C. is a classic William P. Bell design.

6. St. George, Utah

With spectacular red rock bluffs as its backdrop, St. George, located in southern Utah offers terrific year-round golf due to its mild winters. With mountain views, pristine water features and some of the best designers in the business, the sampling of the area's outstanding golf includes private Entrada at Snow Canyon Country Club as well as public facilities such as Coral Canyon Golf Course , The Ledges Golf Club , Sun River Golf Club , Sky Mountain Golf Course and the spectacular Sand Hollow Golf Resort , a John Fought design that includes a nine-hole Links Course . Of course, St. George is just 40 minutes from Mesquite, Nev., which also offers quite a few exceptional golf experiences.

7. Gulf Shores, Alabama

It's no secret that lots of golfers like fishing, and the Gulf Shores, Ala. area is a great place to do both. The destination boasts the largest charter fishing fleet in the world, and there's plenty of golf, value accommodations (some right on the beach) and a slew of terrific restaurants, especially seafood, as well as the famous beach-front Flora-Bama nightclub on the border between Florida and Alabama. By combining excursions like fishing, parasailing and dolphin cruises with golf at venues like Kiva Dunes Golf Course , Craft Farms and Peninsula Golf & Racquet Club (priced very reasonably compared to other parts of the country), traveling golfers can put together a well rounded itinerary.

8. Lake Geneva, Wisconsin

Although it's closer to Milwaukee, the Lake Geneva area is known as Chicago's playground. About an hour and a half north of the Windy City, Lake Geneva was founded by the Chicago's wealthy families around 100 years ago, much of it happening around Chicago's fires. Nearly 50 years ago, Hugh Hefner thought so much of the area that he built one of his famous Playboy Resorts, which is now Grand Geneva. Centering around one of America's most pristine lakes, the area offers 22 golf courses, many of them exceptional. In the town of Lake Geneva, there are a host of good restaurants and bars with plenty else to do, including zip-lining and walking the lake path, which reveals the homes and mansions of many of Chicago's elite who built homes there. Besides the two outstanding courses at Grand Geneva (Highlands and the Brute ), Geneva National has three excellent tracks, there's the beautiful Abbey Springs and Como Crossings at Hawk's View Golf Club , which not only has a terrific 18-hole championship course, but a really enjoyable par 3 as well ( Barn Hollow ).

9. Branson, Missouri

There are fewer than a dozen golf courses you can play in Branson, Mo., but they're of decent to high quality and reasonable. And when you combine the golf with the wholesome entertainment, great service and feeling of innocence you get here, Branson makes for a clean, fun golf vacation. Buffalo Ridge Springs Golf Course or Branson Hills Golf Club are probably the best golf facilities in the Branson area and arguably the best public golf courses in Missouri , but the area also boasts on the best par-3 courses in the world, Jack Nicklaus' Top of the Rock . Besides playing golf, visitors will also want to take in the shows in town.

10. Ocean City, Maryland

The Ocean City, Md. area is a terrific golf retreat for Northeasterners and those on the Atlantic seaboard, who can make the easy drive from cities like Philadelphia, New York and Washinton D.C. Comparable to Myrtle Beach, S.C., but with fewer courses, there are some exceptional tracks, including Lighthouse Sound and Rum Pointe G.C. , which have great water views and aren't far from Ocean City's famous boardwalk. There you will find dozens of hotels, restaurants (including Captain Galley's II, which serves the best crab cakes ever), bars and pubs, which make it a great place for buddies or families.

Do you have a go-to 'little golf destination'? Let us know in the comments below.

Mike Bailey is a senior staff writer based in Houston. Focusing primarily on golf in the United States, Canada, the Caribbean and Latin America with an occasional trip to Europe and beyond, he contributes course reviews, travel stories and features as well as the occasional equipment review. An award-winning writer and past president of Texas Golf Writers Association, he has more than 25 years in the golf industry. Before accepting his current position in 2008, he was on staff at PGA Magazine, The Golfweek Group and AvidGolfer Magazine. Follow Mike on Twitter at @MikeBaileyGA and Instagram at @MikeStefanBailey.
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Steve Rocca has 16 years of journalism experience, including stints at the Virginian-Pilot, the Louisville Courier-Journal, the Palm Beach Post and the New Orleans Times-Picayune.
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