Two of the biggest leisure trend upswings during the 2020 coronavirus pandemic have been golf, which is through the roof with a record breaking year for equipment sales, and demand among travelers for freestanding lodging such as cabins or cottages, which require no crowded lobbies or elevators and share no hallways.
Basically, people want space and fresh air, and increasingly, these two trends are coming together at some of North America’s very best golf resorts. Without the foresight of the impending pandemic, several of the world’s best golf resorts – think Pebble Beach, Sea Island, Kohler – have very recently added cabins – just in time.
Consider Destination Kohler, which has hosted both Men’s and Women’s Majors – on three of its four excellent courses – and already has one of very few Forbes 5-Star hotels at a golf resort with more than one course. With a vast array of recreational, lodging, dining and amenity options, this world-class resort already had just about everything a guest could want – except freestanding lodging. But Kohler recently upped the ante when it started adding deluxe cabins to its luxury hotel rooms and suites. Similarly, golf’s other renowned Forbes 5-Star multi-course resort, Georgia’s venerable Sea Island -also with a vast breadth of outdoor activities and dining options – recently added golf cottages as well.
Big Cedar Lodge in the Ozarks of Missouri took the opposite approach. This spectacular outdoor sporting resort already had plenty of deluxe log cabins with large porches, luxury bathrooms and full kitchens, but in recent years has quietly grown to become one of the 20 largest golf resorts in North America by adding course after course by top designers including Coore & Crenshaw, Fazio, Nicklaus and most recently (this month), the only public course in the country designed by Tiger Woods.
Whether the golf or the cabins came first doesn’t really matter to golf fans, what matters is having very good examples of both. Let’s clarify definitions: Because I am listing destination golf resorts, I am limiting the slate to those with at least two eighteen hole courses, because while a single great course makes for fun weekend, anything less does not anchor a golf vacation. In terms of lodging, my focus is cottages or cabins that are part of a full-service resort and an alternative to hotel rooms, not luxury rental homes in residential communities attached to golf resorts. That option is found all over the place and while freestanding, renting a house is a very different vacation experience than staying at a resort. This focus is on more golf-oriented units designed for a twosome, foursome or in a few cases, two foursomes.
Here are your North American Top 10, in no particular order:
Destination Kohler, WI (also known as the American Club Resort): The hospitality flagship of privately owned plumbing, kitchen and generator giant Kohler Co., this is basically their 19th century utopian factory town and world headquarters turned into an expansive luxury resort that spans the entire village, and beyond, all the way to the shores of Lake Michigan. The resort includes multiple lodging options, one of the nation’s best spas, fishing and outdoor activities and four excellent golf courses, all designed by the late and legendary Pete Dye, split between two 36-hole complexes. The original courses at Blackwolf Run hosted the Women’s U.S. Open, and the links style Straits at Whistling Straits multiple men’s PGA Championships – and it remains the site of the 2020 Ryder Cup, now postponed to 2021. Golf Magazine ranked this the Number Two golf resort in the entire country behind only Pebble Beach, while the marquee Straits Course is the third, fifth or seventh best public course, depending who you believe: Golf Digest, Golfweek or Golf Magazine. Kohler’s recent move into cottages added four new one-of-a-kind luxury units, starting at two bedroom, two baths, with extras like gourmet kitchen, wood-burning fireplace, wrap-around porch complete with a firepit, and of course, a signature luxury bathroom showcasing the best of Kohler’s fixtures.
Pinehurst, NC: Another resort spread over an entire quaint village, it was the very first golf resort in the U.S, and is now the largest in the Western hemisphere, with a stunning nine eighteen-hole courses – and a new short course. Often called “America’s St. Andrews,” there is simply no place on earth, public or private, other than Scotland’s St. Andrews, that can lay claim to so much golf history. Its signature Number Two course is the only one on earth that has hosted two different Men’s Majors and the Ryder Cup, as well as Women’s Majors, the U.S. Amateur, the Tour Championship and basically every important event that ever changes venues – the U.S. Open is returning yet again in 2024. No significant player in the last thirteen decades has failed to tee it up here, but instead of relying on its unrivalled history, in recent years Pinehurst has undergone a renaissance with the addition of the short course, the addition of a ninth course, the critically acclaimed restoration of Number Two and total renovation of Number Four. One hotel was completely rebuilt, new restaurants and even a brewery were added, along with many other improvements. But for years the best kept secret here has been the Carolina Villas, freestanding units perfectly designed for a foursome (foursomes with spouses/partners) with eight beds in four bedrooms, all with private bath and separate entrances, plus a large central living area, immediately next to the flagship Carolina hotel with immediate access to all services.
Bandon Dunes, OR: When Golf Magazine ranked newcomer Pacific Dunes the best public course in the country, it was the first time that slot had not belonged to Pebble Beach in decades, and it was a golf travel revolution. Amazingly, four of the five courses here are ranked in Golfweek’s Top 10 U.S. Resort courses and Golf Digest and Golf Magazine respectively have ranked Bandon Dunes as the best and second-best golf resort in the country. It is a pilgrimage for every serious golfer, though the secluded location and lack of non-golf resort amenities is less appealing to families, golfers with non-golfing partners or those seeking a fully rounded golf and resort experience. Because Bandon was built for and is aimed squarely at golfers, it has always had cabin products perfect for foursomes, the best and largest of which are the four bedroom Grove Cottages, each room with King bed and private bathroom.
Pebble Beach, CA: The nation’s most famous golf resort just barely made the cut – in 2017 Pebble Beach added two cottages as part of the new Fairway One expansion, the first and only such standalone accommodations at a mega-resort with three separate luxury hotels and a plethora of dining and activity options. With just two units at such a large and always popular place, they might be very hard to book, but if you can it is worth it. Named for two of the more famous part owners and board members of Pebble Beach Company, Clint Eastwood and the late Arnold Palmer, the Eastwood and Palmer Cottages each front the first fairway of the famed Pebble Beach Golf Links, the top Bucket List public course in the nation, with a 1,000-square-foot living room with 17-foot-high ceilings, floor-to-ceiling stacked stone fireplaces, wet bar, dining area., four bedrooms and an outdoor terrace with fire pit. The golf at Pebble Beach speaks for itself, with two other exceptional layouts, The Links at Spanish Bay and Spyglass Hill, a fourth eighteen, the underappreciated Del Monte, and coming in 2021, a new 9-hole par-3 course designed by Tiger Woods. Woods has a special feel for the place, having won the 2000 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach in record fashion, by 15 strokes, and as if that historic turn of the millennia performance was not enough, he also won the AT&T here the same year.
Big Cedar Lodge, MO: Following the September 23 grand opening of Payne’s Valley – the first public Tiger Woods design in the country and the first Woods’ layout at a full service resort anywhere – Big Cedar will become one of the 20 largest U.S. golf resorts with three eighteens (it already has the Number One and Two ranked courses in the state and Payne’s Valley is likely better than both – read my detailed review of the amazing new course here), a 12-hole short course considered among the world’s best such layouts, and a 9-hole Jack Nicklaus designed par-3 course so good that is the only par-3 ever used in a PGA Tour Champions event. In addition to its five courses, a Tom Watson designed natural grass putting course and stunning practice facility, Big Cedar has two of the best freshwater resort marinas in the world, every conceivable outdoor activity, multiple restaurants and bars and spa, a world class shooting center, even a cave tour and private nature reserve. All things to all people, it is one of the best golf resorts, one of the best fishing resorts, one of the best outdoor sporting resorts, and according to Travel + Leisure magazine, it is the Best Family Resort in the country.
The cottage offerings fit the immense scale of the place, starting with the original luxurious log cabins, each with full kitchen, deluxe bathroom with walk-in oversize rain shower and soaking tub, large porches with gas grills, and fireplaces. These are where countless celebrities including President George H.W. Bush would stay when he came to fish and golf, and there are five sizes, from one room cabins to two bedrooms plus loft models. Last year Big Cedar added a new boutique lakeside glamping resort within the larger resort called Camp Long Creek, which is especially welcoming to those seeking an isolated outdoor experience as it has its own al fresco “restaurant” out of a vintage Airstream trailer, and even a dog park. Camp Long Creek has two sizes of Camp Cabins and also Camp Huts, which are similar, and all have kitchens and outdoor firepits.
Sea Island, GA: Sea Island has been a top luxury golf resort for so long – it’s the only resort on earth to earn four different Forbes 5-Star awards (spa, dining, lodging, lodging) for 12 straight years – that it is easy to overlook all the many recent improvements, on and off the courses. For golfers, the big news was the complete 18-hole redesign of the nearly hundred year old Plantation Course by Davis and Mark Love – brothers who grew up playing the course and have known it intimately for more than 40 years. PGA Hall of Famer Davis Love lives on Sea Island, and with his brother also designed the Retreat course which turns 20 next year. The star of the three eighteens here is Tom Fazio’s Seaside, which hosts an annual PGA Tour event. That’s 54 holes of spectacular golf, 18 of them brand new, and in the past two years the resort also added a one-acre natural grass putting course that has been immensely popular, and a brand new state of the art teaching facility, used regularly by several Tour players.
The new Golf Performance Center spans 17,000 square feet with computerized club-fitting and teaching bays that open to the outside, the highest-tech indoor putting studio made today, full gym with locker rooms, and extensive outdoor driving range and short game areas. Also new are the seven 2-4 bedroom golf cottages adjacent to the 5-Star Lodge at Sea Island, with their own oceanfront pool and pool house. (NOTE: The website is a little confusing as these Lodge cottages are listed under rooms at the 5-Star Lodge, while the Sea Island “cottages” are individual 3-7 bedroom luxury homes sprinkled around the residential areas, not the kind of cottages this story is about).
Reynolds Lake Oconee, GA: With four eighteen-hole courses and one 27-hole layout, Reynolds is quietly the third largest golf resort in the nation, yet flies under the radar of many travelers. It should not, as it enjoys great weather, sits on large and beautiful lake, is anchored by a unique boutique format Ritz-Carlton luxury hotel, and has one of the world’s best golf training, teaching and club fitting facilities, along with standout golf, especially the Rees Jones designed Oconee, Jack Nicklas Signature Great Waters and 27-hole Tom Fazio National. Just as with golf there is a range of cottages to choose from. The Ritz-Carlton, which just underwent a complete top to bottom renovating, has 2 and 3-bedroom luxury cottages (1,798 and 2.401 square feet) with fireplaces, wrap around porches and full hotel amenities. In addition the Reynolds community has the National golf cottages, designed to easily accommodate up to eight guests with 4-bedrooms, 4 ½- baths, dual living rooms, full kitchen, dining room and porch. These are located steps form the National Tavern and the driving range at the 27-hole Fazio course.
Cabot Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, Canada: The “Bandon Dunes of Canada,” Cabot Cape Breton has two highly acclaimed seaside walking only links course of the style you typically have to cross the Atlantic to play – both are ranked in the World’s Top 100. The newest addition is the Nest, a 10-hole par-3 course set on the highest piece of land at the resort, all of which overlooks the Atlantic from clifftops. It is a true golf pilgrimage destination, self-contained with three restaurants, a couple of lodging options, caddies, excellent food and excellent golf. But if you make the long trip, the best place to stay is in one of the 19 sleek contemporary golf villas, all within a few steps of the first tee at Cabot Links and the clubhouse. They were designed by an award-winning architect and include full gourmet kitchen and private deck with ocean views. The cottages come on two- and four-bedroom models, each with a luxury private bathroom for each bedroom.
Sand Valley, WI: This is the only resort on this list I have not personally visited. Star golf developer Mike Keiser had so much success with Bandon Dunes by building architecturally significant links-style courses on the perfect terrain that he decided to do it again, only in Wisconsin instead of the remote Oregon coast. Using two of the same designers at as Bandon Dunes, Coore & Crenshaw and David McLay Kidd, the result is a (currently) 36-hole pilgrimage destination resort that also adds an immensely fun 17-hole short course, the Sandbox. How good is the golf at Sand Valley? When the Coore & Crenshaw designed Sand Valley opened in 2017 it was Golf Digest’s Number One new course of the year, anyplace, and in 2018, the Kidd designed Mammoth Dunes took the same top annual honors. Both are currently ranked in the Top 30 You Can Play.
Like Bandon the non-golf amenities are sparse and the entire resort is designed around playing all day, but the lodging options include both 4 and 8-bed four-bedroom cottages with features like commercial style gourmet kitchens, fireplaces, and outdoor private areas with firepits. Uniquely there is a single one-bedroom unit, the Crenshaw Cabin, for the solo enthusiast or golfing couple, with a screened porch and one of a kind setting with views down Sand Valley’s Eighteenth hole.
Firestone County Club, OH: This is a new and special notable addition to the list above, but not a conventional “resort.” Firestone Country Club is a legendary 54-hole private club in Akron, Ohio that has played a big part in golf history, hosting multiple Majors and Senior Majors and World Golf Championship events, and has been the site of big victories by Jack Nicklaus, Tom Watson and Tiger Woods. Firestone is an old school private club with cottages designed to accommodate four golfers set along its fairways. For decades these have been reserved exclusively for members and their guests, but this year the club opened limited one, two and three-night stay and play packages to the public for the first time ever, something virtually unheard of in this category of golf facility – with three excellent courses and caddies. With a large full-service clubhouse and a couple of dining and drinking options onsite, this effectively turns Firestone into a boutique resort option within a private club setting. I recently wrote about the Firestone news and other private courses non-members can now access here at Forbes, and you can find much more detail here.