As you drive north on I-95 and cross the border into Maine, a sign welcomes you and reads “The way life should be.” A golfer playing a course on the water—where holes blend with the coast to create both strategic and aesthetic beauty—may feel a similar sentiment: “The way golf should be.”
Our fascination with courses on the water is near universal. We’ve determined this list of America’s best courses on the water based on panelists’ scores from our most recent 100 Greatest and Second 100 Greatest rankings. Of course, there is a hint of subjectivity involved; what qualifies as “on the water?” Do courses that play along lakes, harbors or sounds count?
We settled on a two-part litmus test. First, the body of water must be substantial—oceans, large lakes, harbors or coastal estuaries count. A small river or stream doesn’t pass this test. Second, the water must be in play, meaning a poor shot is likely to find the trouble at some point during the round. With this litmus test, we achieve our goal: Identifying our nation’s best courses that combine the unique strategy and aesthetics of playing on the water.
Scroll on to see our complete ranking and be sure to expand each course page to read reviews from our course-ranking panelists. We hope you enjoy our searchable course database, Places to Play, our new hub of courses content, complete with course reviews, experts’ opinions and star ratings.
1. Cypress Point Club
From Golf Digest Architecture Editor emeritus Ron Whitten: Cypress Point, the sublime Monterey Peninsula work of sandbox sculpture, whittled Cypress and chiseled coastline, has become Exhibit A in the argument that classic architecture has been rendered ineffectual by modern technology. I’m not buying that argument. Those who think teeny old Cypress Point is defenseless miss the point of Alister MacKenzie’s marvelous design. MacKenzie relished the idea that Cypress Point would offer all sorts of ways to play every hole. That philosophy still thrives, particularly in the past decade, after the faithful restoration of MacKenzie’s original bunkers by veteran course superintendent Jeff Markow.
2. Pebble Beach Golf Links
Not just the greatest meeting of land and sea in American golf, but the most extensive one, too, with nine holes perched immediately above the crashing Pacific surf—the fourth through 10th plus the 17th and 18th. Pebble’s sixth through eighth are golf’s real Amen Corner, with a few Hail Marys thrown in over an ocean cove on the eighth from atop a 75-foot-high bluff. Pebble hosted a successful U.S. Amateur in 2018 and a sixth U.S. Open in 2019. Recent improvements include the redesign of the once-treacherous 14th green, and reshaping of the par-3 17th green, both planned by Arnold Palmer’s Design Company a few years back—and the current changes to the iconic eighth hole.
3. Fishers Island Club
Probably the consummate design of architect Seth Raynor, who died in early 1926, before the course had officially opened. His steeply-banked bunkers and geometric greens harmonize perfectly with the linear panoramas of the Atlantic Ocean and Long Island Sound. The quality of the holes is also superb, with all Raynor’s usual suspects, including not one but two Redan greens, one on a par 4.
4. Pacific Dunes
This is the second course constructed at Bandon Dunes Resort and the highest ranked among the resort’s four 18s. To best utilize ocean frontage, Tom Doak came up an unorthodox routing that includes four par 3s on the back nine. Holes seem to emerge from the landscape rather than being superimposed onto it, with rolling greens and rumpled fairways framed by rugged sand dunes and marvelously grotesque bunkers. The secret is Doak moved a lot of earth in some places to make it look like he moved very little.
5. Whistling Straits: Straits
Pete Dye transformed a dead flat abandoned army air base along a two-mile stretch of Lake Michigan into an imitation Ballybunion at Whistling Straits, peppering his rugged fairways and windswept greens with 1,012 (at last count) bunkers. There are no rakes at Whistling Straits, in keeping with the notion that this is a transplanted Irish links. It has too much rub-of-the-green for the comfort levels of many tour pros, which is what makes it a stern test for top events, such as the 2007 U.S. Senior Open and 2021 Ryder Cup.
6. The Ocean Course at Kiawah Island
Often considered to be the first course designed for a specific event—the 1991 Ryder Cup—this manufactured linksland-meets-lagoons layout might well be Pete Dye’s most diabolical creation. Every hole is edged by sawgrass, every green has tricky slopes, every bunker merges into bordering sand dunes. Strung along nearly three miles of ocean coast, Dye took his wife’s advice and perched fairways and greens so golfers can actually view the Atlantic surf. That also exposes shots and putts to ever-present and sometimes fierce coastal winds. The Ocean Course will forever be linked with Phil Mickelson and his improbable victory at the 2021 PGA Championship.
7. Bandon Dunes
Chicago recycled-products mogul Mike Keiser took a gamble when he chose then-tenderfoot architect David McLay Kidd to design a destination daily fee on the remote southwestern coastline of Oregon. But the design Kidd produced, faithful to the links-golf tenets of his native Scotland, proved so popular that today Keiser has a multiple-course resort at Bandon Dunes that rivals Pinehurst and the Monterey Peninsula—or perhaps exceeds them given that all four Bandon courses are ranked on our 100 Greatest. None of that would have happened if McLay Kidd hadn’t produced a great first design that drew golfers into its orbit.
8. Sebonack Golf Club
Not since Augusta National had the nation’s greatest golfer teamed with one of the most highly regarded course architects on a design project. But the joint venture by Jack Nicklaus with Tom Doak at Sebonack was complicated by the fact that golfer Nicklaus was also an esteemed course architect in his own right, and the project sat right beside two American icons, Shinnecock Hills and National Golf Links. Some pundits have reduced Sebonack to “Tom’s bunkers, Jack’s greens,” but in truth it’s just the opposite. Doak convinced Nicklaus to go with small greens of sweeping contours and little imperfections the likes of which Jack would never have considered on his own. Meanwhile, Jack insisted that Tom tone down his usual ragged, jagged bunker faces to make them palatable to high-handicap club members. Sebonack hosted the 2013 U.S. Women’s Open to great success.
9. Monterey Peninsula Country Club: Shore
Mike Strantz was battling cancer while transforming the bland, low-budget Shore Course into a scenic and strategic marvel that rivals next-door neighbor Cypress Point. Strantz reversed direction of the fifth through 15th holes to provide a Pacific Ocean backdrop to most of them. He weaved fairways among trees so players could “dance among the cypress,” and added native grasses for a coastal prairie look. The stunning landscape would be Strantz’s last work of art. He died six months after completing the redesign. Former PGA Tour player Forrest Fezler, who was Strantz’s associate on the project, later served as a consulting architect in order to retain the Strantz vision, until he died in 2018.
10. Maidstone Club: West
Not only one of America’s earliest links courses, Maidstone is also one of the country’s earliest golf residential communities. Legend has it that Bobby Jones felt that Maidstone’s final three holes made it one of the great match-play courses in America. If so, that’s because the 17th has one of the tightest green sites in America, the green sitting just in front of a major street intersection, with roads right and left less than 12 paces off each collar. As befitting a seaside course, Coore and Crenshaw cleared out brush and restored many sand dunes areas and removed turf in some spots of rough to expose the sand beneath.
11. The Kittansett Club
Only recently, with the discovery of some original blueprints, has it been conclusively established that the ocean-side, links-like Kittansett, long thought to be the product of an amateur architect, Frederic Hood, was actually the work of well-known course architect William Flynn, who also designed Shinnecock and Cherry Hills. Credit that revelation to authors Wayne S. Morrison and Thomas E. Paul, who reveal that and much more in their massive 2,260-page biography of Flynn entitled The Nature Faker: William S. Flynn, Golf Architect. Credit Gil Hanse with restoring the bunkers without the aid of those Flynn plans. Instead, he used old aerial photographs.
12. Monterey Peninsula Country Club: Dunes
The Dunes Course, long been in the shadow of its big brother Shore Course (ranked 53rd) was originally routed by Seth Raynor, who died before construction. It was completed by Robert Hunter, a partner to Alister MacKenzie (who did not participate in the work). In the 1990s, Rees Jones remodeled the course and reshaped holes to mimic the Raynor look. When Tom Fazio was brought in to make the Dunes as appealing to members as the gorgeous Shore Course, he and former associates Tim Jackson and David Kahn opted to give the Dunes a MacKenzie look. Sandscapes now frame most holes, fairways now zigzag around jagged bunkers and nearly all the greens are now diagonal to lines of play. The Dunes Course now lives up to its name.
13. Arcadia Bluffs Golf Club: Bluffs
Can a 100 Greatest course be a sleeper? The Bluffs Course at Arcadia Bluffs has been overshadowed by No. 18 Pacific Dunes ever since it finished second to it in the Best New Upscale Public Course race of 2001. And likewise it’s been second-fiddle to No. 14 Crystal Downs, a northern Michigan neighbor that every visitor wants to play, even though it’s private and Arcadia is public. And even by No. 23 Whistling Straits, the imitation links on the opposite side of Lake Michigan that Arcadia Bluffs resembles, although the sand dunes at Arcadia are natural, not manmade. Now the Bluffs faces competition from within, the newly-opened sister layout, the South Course at Arcadia Bluffs, designed by Dana Fry in the style of C.B. Macdonald and Seth Raynor.
14. Sheep Ranch
Sheep Ranch began life as a different Sheep Ranch in the early 2000s, a rag-tag, cross-country, 13-hole course with no irrigation built by Tom Doak on a bluff just north of what would later become Old Macdonald. It was a little-used recreation that only insiders knew about. Mike Keiser tapped Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw to convert it into Bandon Dunes’ fifth regulation 18-hole course and Coore and Crenshaw’s second. Spread across an open, windswept plateau, using many of the same greensites, Coore managed to triangulate the holes in such a way that nine now touch the cliff edge along the Pacific Ocean. Extremely wide fairways and large putting surfaces allow the exposed course to be playable in extreme winds, and with its fast arrival to the top 15 alongside Bandon’s other courses, Sheep Ranch has accomplished the most difficult of feats for resort courses—distinction among equals.
15. Eastward Ho!
Herbert Fowler’s most engaging 18-hole design out on Cape Cod. Routed on an isthmus in the Atlantic, with each nine looping out and back along the ocean’s edge, the course’s rugged topography was splendidly used to pose challenges in stance, lie and depth perception. It’s now golf’s equivalent of a spine-tingling, neck-twisting roller coaster ride along a waterfront. If you come upon a flat lie at Eastward Ho!, it’s likely a tee box.
16. Chambers Bay Golf Course
Prodded by his partner, Bruce Charlton, and their then-design associate Jay Blasi, veteran architect Robert Trent Jones Jr. agreed to a radically different, vertical-links style when building Chambers Bay in an abandoned sand quarry near Tacoma. By the time Golf Digest named it as America’s Best New Public Course of 2008, the course had already been awarded the 2010 U.S. Amateur and 2015 U.S. Open. In the Amateur, Chambers Bay proved to be hard, both in the firmness of its dry fescue turf (Jones called his fairways, “hardwood floors”) and its difficulties around and on the windswept greens. For the U.S. Open, the firmness and surrounds were more manageable, but the greens were notoriously bumpy. That’s now been remedied, as the fescue turf on the putting surfaces has been replaced with pure Poa Annua.
17. Manele Golf Course
Manele, previously called The Challenge at Manele, has unseated Kapalua’s Plantation course as the highest-ranked public course in Hawaii. And the Nicklaus design is worthy of high praise. It has three ocean-cove holes, including the par-3 12th and dogleg-right par-4 17th. You might argue Manele has been perpetually underranked, starting with its finish on Golf Digest’s ranking of Best New Resort Courses in 1994, well behind World Woods’ Pine Barrens course, which is currently 90th on our 100 Greatest Public.
18. The Creek
When it was conceived in the early 1920s, The Creek was considered “The Million Dollar Club” because of the wealth of its exclusive membership. The line that writer Royal Cortissoz wrote upon its 1923 opening remains true today: “The distinctive character of this course lies in its range.” It opens with holes framed by trees, mainly lindens that line the entry drive, then moves onto a bluff that overlooks Long Island Sound. At the turn, holes play adjacent to the shore, offering fresh takes on two of C.B. Macdonald’s most exciting template holes. The 10th, a dogleg along the sea, is his version of the Leven (of Lundin Links in Scotland), while the 11th is not just a Biarritz green, but an island Biarritz green. Other Macdonald favorites are also at The Creek, including the Eden, Redan and Short.
19. Mauna Kea Golf Course
The immediate thrill at Mauna Kea is its iconic par-3 third, a daunting tee shot over an ocean cove that’s a great substitute for those unable to gain an invitation to tackle the 16th at Cypress Point. The remaining holes at Mauna Kea are thrilling, too, with constant views of the ocean, awkward lies on sloping fairways and roughs of crunchy lava rock. A decade ago, Rees Jones updated his father’s original work by relocating and redesigning all the bunkers. They now add to Mauna Kea’s beauty.
20. Kiawah Island Club: Cassique
Kiawah Island Club’s Cassique Course (pronounced Kah-seek) was created by Hall-of-Famer Tom Watson and his crew from old farm fields along the tidal marshes of the Kiawah River. As a five-time Champion Golfer of Year, Watson wanted his design to demand the “touch, feel and imagination” of links-style golf, so he framed most holes with choppy faux dunes, rumpled the fairways and installed some of his favorite links features: a burn a la Turnberry, Carnoustie-inspired Spectacles and a Hell Bunker from St. Andrews. With the front nine in open land and the back nine among trees, Cassique poses bump-and-run opportunities everywhere, and even has a couple of blind shots.
21. Bayonne Golf Club
Both Bayonne Golf Club and its neighbor, No. 197 Liberty National G.C., were built at the same time, part of a massive transformation of the Jersey shoreline along the Hudson River and New York Harbor. Bayonne was built on an old sanitary landfill covered with 7 million cubic yards of fill, much of it dredged from the harbor to efforts to make the harbor deep enough for supertankers. The deposits were piled up to 10 stories high, which developer-designer Eric Bergstol then shaped into towering faux sand dunes. The course is an ode to Irish links, with no trees, cart paths or level lies. Fairways flow down narrow valleys, edged by steep slopes laden with tall, wavy fescues. Bunkers are deep and often fearsome. A few greens sit right above the harbor and all putting surfaces have confounding humps, bumps and rolls. Tucked away down a bumpy, unpaved road past a strip mall in blue-collar Bayonne, N.J. is this private, walking-only enclave.
22. Ocean Forest Golf Club
Twenty-some years ago Rees Jones might have completed America’s last true oceanside links at Ocean Forest. It’s certainly one of the premier linksland settings in the country, far more authentic in its links characteristics than his Haig Point or Atlantic G.C., despite some holes in woodlands. Ocean Forest’s fairways laterally traverse several rumples of dunes, some 18 feet high, through a pine-covered delta formed where the Hampton River flows into the Atlantic. The routing skirts saltwater marsh, the river’s edge and finishes with a one-two punch on the seashore. This may be the most walkable course among all those nationally ranked, despite the fact that the 18th hole finishes a half mile from the clubhouse. Here’s an obscure piece of trivia: The day Ocean Forest opened in 1995, O.J. Simpson was acquitted of all murder charges against him.
23. Secession Golf Club
Pete Dye and his son P.B. did the early routing of Secession, but when they left in a dispute with the developer, Bruce Devlin, a PGA Tour veteran who’d previously designed courses with Robert von Hagge, stepped in and finished something much in keeping with the then-prevailing Dye philosophy of low profile architecture. Greens were set at ground grade, protected by low humps and pot bunkers with vertical stacked-sod faces. Still, Devlin invariably left open the fronts of greens for running approach shots. The site itself is a peninsula in marsh, with several holes on individual islands. Secession demands a complete game, both aerial and ground, particularly in steady ocean breezes.
24. Sea Island: Seaside
The Sea Island resort continues to credit famed British golf architect H.S. Colt for its Seaside design, but in truth the present Seaside Course is purely Tom Fazio, who incorporated a nine originally designed by Colt (previously called the Seaside Nine) along with a nine (the Marshland Nine) designed in 1974 by Joe Lee, to create a totally new 18- hole course. But in keeping with the resort’s heritage, Fazio styled his new course in the design fashion of Colt, with big clamshell bunkers, smallish putting surfaces and exposed sand dunes off most of the windswept fairways. The Seaside Course has hosted numerous USGA championships and has been a mainstay of the PGA Tour’s early season roster for many years.
25. Torrey Pines: South
Torrey Pines sits on one of the prettiest golf course sites in America, atop coastal bluffs north of San Diego with eye-dazzling views of the Pacific. Rees Jones’ remodeling of the South Course in the early 2000s not only made the course competitive for the 2008 U.S. Open (won by Tiger Woods in a playoff over Rocco Mediate), it also brought several coastal canyons into play for everyday play, especially on the par-3 third and par-4 14th. An annual PGA Tour stop, Torrey Pines hosted its second U.S. Open in 2021.
26. Country Club of Fairfield
Country Club of Fairfield has a topsy-turvy design history. Seth Raynor did the original design, but the clubhouse was never built where Raynor intended it, nor was an island par 4 shown on his original plan. In the mid-1920s, A.W. Tillinghast visited the course and sketched out a new fourth through sixth holes around a lagoon, which were subsequently built. Robert Trent Jones was hired in 1960 to install a practice range. To accommodate it, Trent sacrificed the old par-4 18th. He also rearranged several other holes, all of which were built under the supervision of Trent’s friend, architect Geoffrey Cornish. Cornish made further alterations in the 1980s. In the early 2000s, Tom Doak was hired to re-establish Raynor greens and bunkering style, turning most of the work over to his restoration expert, Bruce Hepner. Now on his own, Hepner is the club’s current consulting architect, and he has done a noble job instilling the Raynor look and feel to a routing that’s hardly Raynor anymore.
Though architecturally it might rank behind its neighbors on the Big Island, Nanea and Kuki’o, the experience at Kohanaiki is up there with any other in Hawaii. Built on a 450-acre site with opulent homes selling for as much as $30 million and as little as $3 million, this Rees Jones design features a thrilling stretch along the ocean from Nos. 12 to 16. Fairways are firm and fast and typically offer playable routes off the tee for a range of players, though challenging, fast greens with significant slopes offer a strategic test for the better player. Kohanaiki scores highly in the Fun category, and though comfort stations are not a part of our course rankings, having one of them after each nine—plus an on-site brewery, a wine-tasting room plus personal wine lockers for members and a whiskey room—makes this a top-notch experience for guests and members.
28. Hyannisport Club
According to Ted Kennedy Jr., Hyannisport Club’s golf course was what convinced his grandfather, Joseph P. Kennedy, to establish his family’s summer getaway in the seaside town on the southern tip of Cape Cod. Less than a mile away from the Kennedy Compound, the course was originally designed by Alex Findlay and later redesigned by Donald Ross in 1936. Hyannisport has been the home course of the Kennedys, including President John F. Kennedy, who was photographed playing the course during his presidency. Tipping out at under 6,300 yards, Hyannisport is quite short by modern standards, but the coastal breeze can play a significant factor. Many holes play along the marshlands on the Nantucket Sound, presenting both scenic and strategic value. The club maintains a small membership by invite only, but if you’re fortunate enough to get a tee time, enjoy the charming stroll around JFK’s summer escape.
29. Bay Harbor Golf Club
One of three grand “new Pebble Beaches” that debuted in the late 1990s, Bay Harbor was ranked third in Golf Digest’s survey of Best New Upscale Public Courses of 1999, behind the twin juggernauts Bandon Dunes and Whistling Straits. Bay Harbor consists of 27 holes, but we rank its Links 9, which plays mostly on a plateau overlooking Lake Michigan, and its Quarry 9, which dips in and out of a lakefront stone quarry. Though there isn’t lodging directly at Bay Harbor, the Inn at Bay Harbor is an upscale option part of the Autograph Collection right down the road. And eight-person cottages with stay-and-play deals are also available at nearby Crooked Tree.
30. The Misquamicut Club
This is the definition of a great classic hidden gem with an original design by Donald Ross and later work done by Seth Raynor. The compact routing makes great use of land movement and boasts challenging green complexes. The fabulous inland holes include the tremendous 165-yard Volcano hole at the eighth. The back 9 plays in and around lowland marshy areas and has a flat but great collection of holes where you navigate in and around the marshlands.
Original article by Drew Powell and Stephen Hennessey on GolfDigest.