Essential Golf: A passion for the Game
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Essential Golf’s Top Golf Resorts

Essential Golf's Top Golf Resorts
(Dave Sansom Photography)

The dull term “bucket list” hardly seems appropriate for our sparkling selection of wished-for experiences that more fittingly lie in the land of heart’s desire. So, kicking the bucket aside, some of us do indeed have that long list of golf courses that shape our golf vacation choices, while others fall in love with a single destination and return there year after year. Whichever path you tread, Essential Golf sets out to present an array of vacation choices that offer not only memorable golf experiences but also entertaining variety and warm hospitality.


California – The Golden State 

The Golden State has upwards of thirty public golf courses that are highly rated. In this issue of Essential Golf we’ll visit just one, returning to others in the next issue. 

One of Southern California’s highly rated golf destinations is Indian Wells Golf Resort (IWGR), a 36-hole premier golf resort located near Palm Springs, just minutes from Palm Springs International airport. Surrounded by four luxury hotels, the IWGR stands out as one of the few golf properties in California with two courses ranked in the top-20 “Best Courses You Can Play” in California.  

The family-friendly resort has an “exclusive” atmosphere with genuinely warm hospitality. The panoramic views of the surrounding Santa Rosa Mountains are a rugged backdrop, with magnificent waterfalls and brooks that flow through beds of wildflowers, adding a great splash of color throughout this remarkable setting.  

Dave Sansom Photography

Designed by Clive Clark, the Celebrity Course is a challenging yet highly playable course design. While the Players Course, designed by John Fought, looks back to other great designs such as Riviera, Winged Foot and Augusta National. The bunkers placed throughout the undulating topography of the Players Course complement the mature trees and natural desert arroyos. While playable at all skill levels, the Players Course was also designed to challenge the most skilled players, which makes the course the perfect broad challenge for competitive golf.  

The stay-and-play packages are offered in partnership with four nearby luxury hotels— Miramonte Resort & Spa, Hyatt Regency Indian Wells Resort and Spa, Renaissance Esmeralda Resort & Spa and Indian Wells Resort Hotel. This gives guests the best opportunity to experience both the Players and the Celebrity courses while enjoying a variety of accommodations and facilities. Each property mentioned above has its own unique amenities, from spa treatments to fine dining. So you can book the perfect package to suit your idea of an ideal golf vacation. The stay-and-play packages are available for two- or three-nights stays and of course include two or three rounds of golf. The advice is to book early because the golf stay-and-play packages are already (June) proving very popular.

Mississippi – The Magnolia State 

Of the 140 or more golf courses in Mississippi, (known as the Magnolia State for the magnolias that thrive in the long, hot and humid summers, and short, mild winters) there are many designed by prominent names such as Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Jerry Pate, Tom Fazio, Davis Love III and Bob Cupp. With many golf vacationers keen to find new challenges, there’s an impressive array of choices here, where the varying terrain has helped these big-name designers create some of their masterpieces.  

Shell Landing Golf Club is a championship-level course in Gautier, designed by Davis Love III, making innovative use of the interesting and diverse topography. The Shell Landing course also has the benefit of being located on the waterfront along the beautiful Mississippi Gulf Coast. The lush fairway features five sets of trees, water hazards, slopes, dog legs and bunkers. Even the most experienced players are happy to find that this is a challenging course to play. The public course is considered one of the best, and one of the prettiest, in Mississippi.  

Approximately 90 miles northeast of Jackson, Dancing Rabbit Golf Club is built on the ancestral lands of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians. Located in the heart of the state’s Pines region, the club features two courses with challenging terrain, the Oaks and the Azaleas. Designed by Fazio and Pate, these 36 holes are situated adjacent to the Pearl River Resort. Dancing Rabbit has a public course that offers several golf package options designed for both individuals and small groups.  

Russell Kirk/

Also, on the on the ancestral lands of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, the Pearl River Resort, the Southern States’ premier gaming and entertainment enterprise. Pearl River Resort’s portfolio features Silver Star Hotel, Golden Moon Hotel, Dancing Rabbit Golf Club, Dancing Rabbit Inn, and Geyser Falls Water Theme Park located in Choctaw, Mississippi and Bok Homa located in Sandersville. 

The Silver Star and Golden Moon gambling houses feature two entertaining hotels-gambling houses with a variety of slot machines, table games, Sportsbook, over 1,000 hotel rooms, an award-winning steakhouse, a sports bar and grill and a variety of other dining options, a full-service spa and live entertainment.  The Dancing Rabbit Golf Club with two championship golf courses, as well as family fun at the nearby Geyser Falls Water Park.

Missouri – Mother of the West 

A U.S. state that has as its anthem a waltz written and played by a ragtime piano player (Lee Edgar Settle) must have a lot going for it. And indeed Missouri has! The anthem is the “Missouri Waltz,” so popular that it featured in a 1939 film starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, and was later recorded by Glenn Miller, and still later by Johnny Cash. And with that, we waltz our way straight to the Ozark Mountains Big Cedar Lodge Resort to enjoy its many entertainments including first-class golf amenities.  

Presented to us as “America’s Premier Wilderness Resort,” Big Cedar assures us of a warm welcome to all who seek a memorable golf vacation. This luxury resort is placed within the magnificently rugged landscape of the Missouri’s Ozark Mountains, so if you long for the great outdoors, this is for you (complete with inviting accommodations, impressive restaurants, and four golf courses, along with some attractive package deals). 

Big Cedar Lodge has been pitched as “America’s Next Great Golf Destination,” and this is no exaggerations, with courses designed by many of the top names in golf: Tiger Woods, Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, Tom Watson, Gary Player, Tom Fazio, Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw. 

In addition to the well-known Top of the Rock Golf Course, a Jack Nicklaus Signature Course, another main attraction must be the Tiger Woods-designed Payne’s Valley Course—the first U.S. public golf course designed by Woods. TGR Design by Tiger Woods, says, “The design of Payne’s Valley creates a championship-caliber, family-friendly golf experience that allows individuals of all skill levels to come together to enjoy the game and the beautiful natural setting.”  The course has an attractive and inviting layout that includes challenging and pristine water features, large fairways and greens, and the famously spectacular 19th hole. 

Matt Suess Photography

Big Cedar Golf offers multiple practice facilities with access for golfers included in their greens fees. If guests wish to use the range without playing a round of golf, Buffalo Ridge also offers daily access to the practice facilities. Here’s a rundown of each practice amenity located at the different courses. 

Payne’s Valley – Driving Range (Ozarks National), Short Game Area (Ozarks National), Putting Green. 

Ozarks National – Driving Range, Short Game Area, Putting Green. 

Buffalo Ridge – Driving Range, Short Game Area, Putting Green. 

Top of the Rock – Putting Green. Guests playing Top of the Rock can use the Buffalo Ridge Driving Range if you wish to warm up before your round. Buffalo Ridge is 16 minutes away from Top of the Rock by car. 

Mountain Top – Driving Range (Ozarks National), Short Game Area (Ozarks National), Putting Green. 

With golf as the big attraction of the Big Cedar Lodge Resort, there are plenty of activities here if you want to mix it up with golf. There’s fishing for bass on Table Rock Lake’s 43,000 acres of clear water, or trout fishing at nearby Dogwood Canyon Nature Park, boating from Long Creek Marina. At the shooting academy there’s clay shooting, with shotgun and ammo provided. Or simply chill out and enjoy spa treatments or the 10,000 acres of nature park.

Alabama – The Heart of Dixie 

The coastal towns of Gulf Shores and Orange Beach continue to gain popularity with golfers, with the area attracting many with its attractive climate along with no fewer than 171 holes of golf, all within a 15-mile radius. The lodging options are attractive too, with many including beachfront condos and houses, on-site golf condos, as well as traditional hotels.  

Just north of the white beaches of Gulf Shores is the 36-hole Arnold Palmer signature golf course at Craft Farms Golf Resort, which has shaped the area’s golf landscape.  

The first Arnold Palmer design in the area, Cotton Creek, has a unique setting, featuring rolling fairways and large undulating greens, playing over 7,000 yards. The more recent of the two Palmer designs in Gulf Shores is Cypress Bend at Craft Farms. The layout features sprawling bunkers, classic greens and year-round perfect golfing conditions. The resort owners tell us that here you’ll find “Pure Palmer Golf,” and indeed 18-hole Cotton Creek golf course and 18-hole Cypress Bend golf course are considered the best public courses in the South.  

Here there are fun challenges for golfers at every skill level, with a backdrop that gives a peaceful environment of the natural Baldwin County Alabama landscape.  There are massive oak tress dripping with Spanish moss, pine forests, numerous lakes and creeks that are the habitat for a variety of native wildlife. And these courses do have a distinctively coastal feel, with dwarf Bermuda grasses and numerous lakes that meander throughout the property. The style of play is both friendly and relaxed. To play Craft Farms, you can book online. 

Chris Granger/Gulf Shores and Orange Beach Tourism

Directly along the coast is Kiva Dunes, a world-class resort located on the Fort Morgan peninsula of Gulf Shores. The resort has one of Alabama’s most acclaimed public courses, with vacation rentals ranging from beach homes to condos overlooking the 18th green. Each accommodation gives access to the resort’s four pools, two restaurants, and over 3,000 feet of private beachfront. 

The course layout was created by Jim Edgemon, the property’s developer, together with long-time friend and former U.S. Open Champion, Jerry Pate. Between them Pate and Edgemon developed a links-style course that today is ranked the No. 1 public golf course in Alabama.

New Mexico – Land of enchantment 

Santa Fe has long been a popular destination for its local color and culture, food and of course golf (for which the climate is perfect for almost 300 days of the year).  

There are many great golf experiences to enjoy such as the Marty Sanchez Links de Santa Fe just eight miles west of downtown. This is a high-end municipal course of country club standard, designed by Baxter Spann, of Finger, Dye and Spann, based in Houston. The 7,415-yard, par-72 championship course has five sets of tees, suitable for players of all levels, along with 360-degree panoramic mountain views that surround the Sangre de Cristos, Jemez, Ortiz and Sandia mountains, and scenic high-desert landscape. 

Inn of the Mountain Gods

Also with this region, the Club at Las Campanas, Santa Fe, features two Jack Nicklaus Signature courses, both consistently rated among the top courses in New Mexico. Members enjoy the strategic course design and thoughtful layout that weaves through the beautiful high desert area of northern New Mexico. Both award winning 18-hole courses offer an exceptional golf experience.  

Also high in the New Mexico popularity rating is Inn of the Mountain Gods Resort, situated in spectacular Sierra Blanca Peak region. The resort is located on the Mescalero Apache reservation in Mescalero, recognized as the sacred land of the Apache tribe. The resort offers a very wide range of vacation activities.  Here you can enjoy zip-line rides, boating, biking and horseback riding—and of course all the fun of the gambling house, as well as the challenges of the golf experience. 

The resort’s championship golf course (6,834 yards, par 72) was designed by Ted Robinson. Opened in 1975, it features an island fairway as well as fast-breaking greens that are not only beautiful to see, but they’re also quite challenging to play. 

And the gambling house? Well, what’s in the bag is the full, fun range of games you would expect in any high-class gambling house.