Here's a fact to make many golf lovers cry. Every fall the University of Michigan hosts home football games of over 110,000 people; a population greater than that of Erie, Penn. crammed into one college stadium. To find parking and tailgate space for all of those alumni and fans, the school spreads out into local parking lots and high schools… as well as the nearby golf course.
Yes, for several weekends every fall the University of Michigan lets football fans turn its golf course into a parking lot with port-a-potties. The rest of the year, that course is better than good. It's the twelfth best college course in the whole country.
That is, at least, according to Golfweek, whose editors would know.
Golf may be one of the more divisive sports out there. People who love the game invest in it wholeheartedly, bizarre attire notwithstanding, while all the rest of us… well, we just don't get it. To non-players, golf as a sport combines all the fun of balancing your checkbook with competitive parallel parking, one in which the players only break a sweat out of frustrated rage.
Yet speaking as a travel writer, we should all be immeasurably grateful for golfers and their odd Scottish habit, because their passion for this game has given us some of the most spectacular private parks the world has known since Versailles. In fact Golfweek recently released its 12th annual roundup of the best courses around the country and the world. The 2017 Ultimate Guide is just that: an ultimate guide, featuring a roundup from some of the best destinations around the world.
There's no arguing with some of the results.
Take, for example, Royal County Down on the coast of Northern Ireland, ranked the best course in Great Britain and Ireland. At 127 years old, perched near the Atlantic Ocean, this isn't just one of the best golf courses in the world. It's simply one of the best stretches of greenery anywhere, full stop.
Of course, to take a walk across this course you'll have to learn to play the game, get yourself over to Ireland and then pony up the princely sum of $250. The return on that investment might well be worth it though; frankly, on vacation, people have spent far more money far more foolishly than whiling away the day on a picture-perfect Irish coastline.
Closer to home, Golfweek has ranked the best residential course in America as North Carolina's Wade Hampton Club. Part of its charm, certainly, must come from an enviable setting on the outskirts of the Nantahala National Forest.
People who golf often speaking about the tranquility they find out on the course, the meditation of connecting with sport far away from offices and strip malls and information superhighways. While its effectiveness as a form of therapy is dubious at best, there's something to be said for golf as one of our increasingly dwindling opportunities to escape into… if not nature, certainly a marvelous garden.
The Wade Hampton Club fits that description, and so much more. Anyone who lives close enough to call this their residential club is lucky to spend time walking from tee to tee with the view of distant mountains and a truly splendid forest stretching all around them. It could be, almost, enough to make one forget that they were playing golf.
Back out of the country, Golfweek also took a look at the best courses in the Caribbean and Mexico. For anyone looking to completely relax with a tropical drink, an escape to the warm weather and a favorite pastime that positively screams "indulgent spouse," some of these courses should probably go on the vacation plan for winter 2017.
The best of the lot would be Cap Cana's Punta Espada Golf Club, sprawled along the east coast of the Dominican Republic. Here's why. Where Royal County Down offers a imperial green sense of Irish history, and Wade Hampton is American down to its heavy, timbered toes, Punta Espada captures everything that we imagine the Caribbean to be. With surf breaking just off the edge of the fairway and dotted palm trees in the sand traps, this course is one jaunty pirate away from being a Disney film.
But, poking fun aside, this is what makes golf courses so special. The best ones, like those Golfweek ranked in its Ultimate Guide, serve the same purpose as the best parks and gardens. They capture a sense of place and personality, not forcing the landscape to adapt to them but somehow inhabiting the world that built them.
One of the best courses in America should absolutely be set in a national forest because this is a nation defined by our landscape, not just the dusty southwest but even more so the wooded mountains of the east coast where our country first came into being. Northern Ireland's finest course reflects not just the rolling green hills that gave the island its nickname but also the gentility and sense of Victorian style that to this day defines an intimate sense of Britishness.
And as to Punta Espada, people have fled to the Caribbean from across the world for hundreds of years just to get a taste of what that course managed to bake entirely in.
For golfers looking to make some vacation plans, these are courses well worth checking out, as is the full list available here.