America's parks, from big-city green spaces to playgrounds in the country, aren't just all monkey bars, merry-go-rounds and benches to feed the pigeons.
There are dozens of incredible municipal courses run by parks and recreation associations in cities, counties and states across America. Some of these collections of courses are good enough to be golf destinations in their own right. The best munis have a long history of tournament golf from the PGA TOUR to major championships.
We've sorted out the 10 best park systems that offer muni golf, plus a bonus destination right across the Canadian border. They're not ranked in any order. We've added another 10 choices that probably deserve more attention.
Many of them you've probably never heard of before, but being built in a park usually (but not always) guarantees a natural setting without homes. Like all munis, they tend to be less expensive than other high-end public courses, too. Here's a guide:
Los Angeles County Department of Parks and Recreation
Courses: Alondra Golf Course, Chester Washington Golf Course, Diamond Bar Golf Course, Knollwood Golf Course, La Mirada Golf Club, Lakewood Country Club, Los Amigos Golf Course, Los Verdes Golf Course, Marshall Canyon Golf Course, Mountain Meadows Golf Course, Santa Anita Golf Course, Links at Victoria Golf Course, Whittier Narrows Golf Course. 9 holes: Norwalk Golf Center, Maggie Hathaway Par-3 Golf Course, Eaton Canyon Golf Course, El Cariso Golf Course, Altadena Golf Course.
Comment: This collection of courses, the largest of its kind, stretches from the San Gabriel Mountains to the Pacific coastline, offering affordable greens fees, discount programs for senior citizens and students and a strong junior program. Of the 20 facilities, 13 are 18-hole regulation courses with three 9-holers, a challenging 18-hole executive length course, a more beginner-friendly 18-hole executive course and a 9-hole par-three course. The Norwalk Golf Center, rebuilt this year, features a lighted, nine-hole, par 3 course.
Kentucky State Parks
Courses: Barren River Lake State Resort Park Golf Course, Kentucky Dam Village State Park Resort, Boots Randolph Golf Course, Mineral Mound Golf Course, Pennyrile Forest State Park Resort, Dale Hollow Lake Golf Course, General Burnside State Park Golf Course, Lincoln Homestead State Park Golf Course, My Old Kentucky Home State Park Golf Course, Hidden Cove Golf Course at Grayson Lake State Park, Wasioto Winds at Pine Mountain State Park Golf Course, Eagle Ridge Golf Course At Yatesville Lake State Park. 9-holes: Kincaid Lake State Park Golf Course, John James Audubon Golf Course.
Comment: The land of bourbon and thoroughbreds sports plenty of golf, too. A golf trail card pass buys unlimited golf for a single ($900) or an entire family ($1,300). What a steal. Brian Ault, designer of Dale Hollow and Hidden Cove, both recognized by Golf Digest, recently renovated the General Burnside course located on an island surrounded by Lake Cumberland in Somerset.
New York State Parks
Courses: Battle Island State Park Golf Course; Beaver Island State Park Golf Course; Red Course, Black Course, Yellow Course, Blue Course and Green Course at Bethpage State Park; Bonavista State Park Golf Course; Chenango Valley State Park Golf Course; Dinsmore Golf Course; Governor Alfred E. Smith/Sunken Meadow State Park Golf Course; Green Lakes State Park Golf Course; Indian Hills State Golf Course; James Baird State Park Golf Course; Montauk Downs State Park Golf Course; Robert Moses State Park Pitch and Putt Course; Rockland Lake State Park Golf Course; Sag Harbor State Golf Club; Saratoga Spa State Park Golf Course; Soaring Eagles Golf Course at Mark Twain State Park; Springbrook Greens Golf Course; St. Lawrence State Park Golf Course; Wellesley Island State Park Golf Course.
Comment: The reputation of Bethpage Black – host of the 2002 and 2009 U.S. Opens – speaks for itself, but there are plenty of other good courses in the New York State Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation chain. Montauk Downs is worth the drive to the tip of Long Island to play.
San Diego Parks
Comment: Torrey Pines in La Jolla headlines this small but formidable group of courses owned by the City of San Diego Park & Recreation Department. The North was recently refurbished by Tom Weiskopf, and the South is on tap for another U.S. Open in 2021. Another nearby muni, the Coronado Golf Course owned by the beachfront city of Coronado, creates a foursome of fun for those visiting San Diego.
Courses: Hudson Mills Metropark Golf Course, Huron Meadows Metropark Golf Course, Indian Springs Metropark Golf Course, Kensington Metropark Golf Course, Lake Erie Metropark Golf Course, Stony Creek Metropark Golf Course, Willow Metropark Golf Course, Lake St. Clair Metropark Par-3 and Foot Golf.
Comment: One of my many regrets since leaving Michigan is not having played Stony Creek, the toughest and most beautiful of this chain of Metropark courses surrounding metro Detroit. They're consistently in good shape and very affordable. My old employer, the Ann Arbor News, held its golf league at Hudson Mills. On a sad note, the Wolcott Mill Golf Course and the Lower Huron Par 3 Course were recently closed. I taught my son how to swing a club at Lower Huron a decade ago. It should also be noted that the four regulation courses of Oakland County are equally good with the Lyon Oaks Golf Club in Wixon a signature Arthur Hills design.
Courses: Sleepy Hollow Golf Course, Manakiki Golf Course, Big Met Golf Course, Seneca Golf Course, Shawnee Hills Golf Course. 9 holes: Little Met Golf Course, Mastick Woods Golf Course, Washington Golf Learning Center.
Comment: When your park courses are anchored by Donald Ross (Manakiki) and Stanley Thompson (Sleepy Hollow), you know golfers are in good hands. Shawnee Hills is the most versatile facility with an additional nine hole par-3 course and a driving range. Its fourth hole, a 469-yard uphill, tree-lined, dogleg left par 4 that used to be a par 5, is considered the toughest hole in the chain.
Georgia State Parks
Courses: The Creek Golf Course at Hard Labor Creek State Park, Highland Walk Golf Course at Victoria Bryant State Park, The Lakes Golf Course at Laura S. Walker State Park, Brazell's Creek Golf Course at Gordonia-Alatamaha State Park, Lake Blackshear Resort &Golf Club at Georgia Veterans Memorial State Park, Meadow Links at the George T. Bagby State Park &Lodge, Wallace Adams Golf Course at the Little Ocmulgee State Park and Lodge.
Comment: I toured a few of these hidden gems in 2004, writing this feature. Little Ocmulgee, George T. Bagby and Lake Blackshear offer a feel of a golf resort with nice accommodations and top-shelf golf.
Tennessee State Parks
Courses: Bear Trace at Cumberland Mountain, Bear Trace at Harrison Bay State Park, Bear Trace at Tims Ford Golf Course, Fall Creek Falls State Park Golf Course, Buford Ellington championship Golf Course at Henry Horton State Park, Montgomery Bell Golf Course, Paris Landing Golf Course, Pickwick Landing State Park Golf Course, Warriors' Path Golf Course.
Comment: I also toured some of these courses during the short-lived glory days of Tennessee's Bear Trace Golf Trail, a loosely knit collection of Jack Nicklaus courses across the state built to compete with the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail in Alabama. You can read about my adventure here. The two best courses were also the most remote, a factor in the closings of the Bear Trace at Chickasaw and the Bear Trace at Rock Creek Landing. The three remaining – Cumberland Mountain, Harrison Bay and Tims Ford – are marketed with the six state park courses as the Tennessee Golf Trail.
San Francisco Parks and Recreation Department
Comment: The TPC Harding Park, a host of numerous big-time pro golf tournaments, lands its first major, the PGA Championship, in 2020. It's the closest to a bucket-list experience, finishing on the shores of Lake Merced. The other courses all have their merits, even if they are rough around the edges. Lincoln Park looks toward the Golden Gate Bridge, and Sharp Park is an Alister MacKenzie design that could see changes in the future now that its legal and political battles with environmentalists appear to be done.
Miami-Dade County Parks
Comment: Crandon Golf at Key Biscayne, which hosted the Senior PGA Tour 18 times, is the jewel of this five-course county collection, but did you know that the Country Club of Miami has its own history with the pros? Arnold Palmer was the 36-hole club's first professional, and Jack Nicklaus competed in his first pro tournament as a professional there. The West course is closed for upgrades until the end of July.
BONUS: Niagra Parks in Canada
Comment: The legendary Canadian architect Stanley Thompson designed Whirlpool, located against the backdrop of the Niagara River Whirlpool and Gorge. The Legends complex, which include a par-3 course and golf academy, provide contrasting styles between Canada's two most prolific modern architects, Doug Carrick (Battlefield) and Thomas McBroom (Ussher's Creek). The 1,050-yard Oak Hall par 3 is so close to the falls, golfers can hear the roar.
Other strong options
City of Los Angeles, Calif. – Of the seven regulation courses and six others, the Rancho Park Golf Course is the most well-known. It hosted the Los Angeles Open, now the Genesis Open at Riviera Country Club, off and on for four decades from the 1950s to the 1980s. Website: http://golf.lacity.org/
New Orleans City Park, La. – The new South Course of Bayou Oaks at City Park, which opened earlier this year to join the North course, could someday host the PGA TOUR. Website: http://www.cityparkgolf.com
Milwaukee County Parks, Wis. – The best of the 15 courses of various sizes - the Brown Deer Golf Course, a former PGA Tour venue - now hosts the LPGA Symetra Tour. Website: http://milwaukeecountygolfcourses.com/
City of Sacramento Parks and Recreation Department, Calif. – Of the four golf facilities owned by the city but operated by Morton Golf, Haggin Oaks Golf Course is the most versatile, with a lighted and automated driving range, mini-golf, a golf superstore, a secondary course (Arcade Creek) for Footgolf and spillover play, and its historic Alister MacKenzie Course. Website: https://www.cityofsacramento.org/ParksandRec/Recreation/Golf
Alamo City Golf Trail, Texas – The San Antonio Parks and Recreation Department has spun off its eight courses, including the popular Brackenridge Park Golf Course, into a golf trail. Website: http://www.alamocitygolftrail.com/san-antonio-golf-courses/
Coachella Valley munis, Calif. – I'm cheating here because none of these munis in the southern California desert are connected, but almost every city in the Coachella Valley has built a high-class muni to give its residents a place to play – the Players Course and Celebrity Course at the Indian Wells Golf Resort, SilverRock Resort in La Quinta, the Legend Course and Resort Course at the Tahquitz Creek Golf Resort in Palm Springs and the Firecliff Course and Mountain View Course at the Desert Willow Golf Resort in Palm Desert.
City of Scottsdale, Ariz. – The city and the PGA TOUR, which owns the network of TPC courses around the country, are involved in a complicated lease regarding the Stadium Course and Champions Course at the TPC Scottsdale, home of the Phoenix Waste Management Open, the loudest, most attended tournament in golf. Website: https://tpc.com/scottsdale/