Mention a municipal golf course in the UK and, a few Scottish gems aside, thoughts invariably turn to fox hole fairways and mottled greens with more bobbles than a Nordic hat shop. And even some of those Scottish treasures – St Andrews being the obvious example – are not strictly municipal courses anyway. They just happen to allow the public in, if you win the ballot and have the cash, of course.
Across the Atlantic, however, the land of opportunity is also the land of excellence when it comes to municipal – and that's properly public-owned – golf courses.
TPC HARDING PARK - San Francisco, CA
We're detailing five of the best here, starting with the glorious, and very current, story that is our first destination: TPC Harding Park. The San Francisco Recreation and Park Department-owned gem has been at the centre of world golf this past week thanks to its hosting of the 2020 US PGA Championship.
Only the fourth muni to host the Major (another one will be detailed below), TPC Harding Park was designed in 1925 and re-designed some 80 years later to bring it up to tournament standard. Or lengthening it by 400 yards, as it's also known. The toughest hole on the card is the par 5 fourth, a 606-yard monster that even the prodigious Bryson Dechambeau considers long, but this is a layout with a lot more subtlety to it than that.
And it's now guaranteed a place in the annals of major history thanks to Collin Morikawa's thrilling PGA victory, the climax of an improbably dramatic final day during which six players shared the lead (with what felt like half the golfing world within a shot or two) as the tournament went down the stretch.
As with all these courses, you are welcome to come and play TPC Harding Park – and not at the championship length of 7,169 yards unless masochism is your thing – but it will cost non-locals a pretty penny. Around $300, to be entirely accurate.
Photo Credits: Patrick Koenig, TPC Harding Park
TORREY PINES SOUTH, San Diego, CA
Further down the California coast, a round at San Diego's Torrey Pines South course will 'only' cost you $202. It is, however, money well spent. This is a serious place for golf in the US. So serious it held the US Open in 2008 and will do so again next year. The course is defined by its breathtaking (and at times scary) proximity to the Pacific Ocean, with sudden and unforgiving drop-offs to the sea a regular danger for the golfer who goes left, or right, or long. Or just wrong.
It's also home to coyotes, snakes and the third - a 200-yard par 3 signature hole. The course guide suggests players should 'avoid going long here as it will leave you a very difficult pitch to get up and down'. That's a masterful understatement because if you go too long, you'll probably need abseiling gear and a boat to get anywhere close to your ball.
Photo Credits: Patrick Koenig, Torrey Pines South
BETHPAGE BLACK, Long Island, NY
Across the country is, arguably, the most famous of all America's municipal courses, Bethpage Black, one of five Long Island courses making up the Bethpage State Park complex, is pretty much the mecca of public golf in the States. More than 200,000 rounds are played annually across the five courses, but only the bravest and best are advised to go near Bethpage Black which, even off the middle tees, still requires you to navigate 6,700 yards of tight fairways, major elevation changes and some very slippery greens.
For a golf experience, it's of the bucket list variety, as you'll be walking in the footsteps of the game's elite – Bethpage has hosted two US Opens (one of which was won by Tiger Woods) and the PGA Championship and will welcome the Ryder Cup to its turf in 2024.
If it were a movie, Bethpage Black would be the Godfather – recognised the world over as a classic.
Photo Credits: Patrick Koenig, Bethpage Black
CHAMBERS BAY, Seattle, WA
Our next destination, Chambers Bay, is rather more in the Godfather II mould. Panned by many at first glance, it's slowly gained acceptance, love and respect as it, and its critics, have matured. If you want luxury golf, the stunning setting south of Seattle will take some beating. The course has a UK-style links layout, with the waters of Puget Sound replacing what would traditionally be a seascape. The views are superb nonetheless, with some extreme elevations on key holes merely accentuating the visual feast. But it's not for the faint-hearted. As a walking golf course, you'll have to prepare yourself for a ten-mile hike, which will include around 600 feet of climbing up and down some of Washington State's more rugged topography.
As a result, it would be remiss of us not to suggest you take a pair of our shoes. Something durable, comfortable and breathable, like the Club Croco White, because your feet are going to need all the support they can get.
Support for the course itself was in short supply when it hosted the US Open in 2015 – less than 10 years after it was built. Pros and pundits alike complained, mostly about what they perceived to be the below-standard greens. A few years on, the course continues to bed in and the tide of opinion is turning. Whether it will host another major remains to be seen, but its status as a municipal masterpiece grows with each passing season.
Photo Credits: Patrick Koenig, Chambers Bay
TPC SCOTTSDALE, Scottsdale, AZ
Our final destination's status has been secure for a while now. TPC Scottsdale, in desert-dry Arizona, comprises two courses that have thrived since construction was completed in the mid-1980s. And the Stadium course's par 3 16th has quite the reputation. It is, on the face of it, an inoffensive short hole that can play anything from 119 yards all the way up to its Championship distance of 163.
What sets it apart, at least during the annual Waste Management Phoenix Open that's played there, is the group of stands and sky boxes that enclose the hole. And the pumped-up patrons who fill those seats. And the beer they're actively encouraged to chug. The result is 'the loudest hole in golf': a raucous celebration of tournament play with the brakes off, gladiatorial golf that prompts a huge adrenaline rush in the players and hefty hangovers in plenty of the crowd. But, once again, we can all still play the course for ourselves as it's publicly-owned.
Words by: David Wardale
Photo Credits: Patrick Koenig, TPC Scottsdale
All Photos by: Patrick Koenig