Master architect Robert Trent Jones Sr. created the concept of a “heroic” hole, differentiated from “strategic” or “penal” design as something between the two. Jones defined such a hole as one that demands a heroic carry or gamble for the better player to get in position for a birdie (or eagle), but one that leaves an option for the lesser player to take the safe route. Jones’ ultimate expression of a heroic hole is his 481-yard, par-54th at Dorado Beach Resort’s East Course. Recently given a facelift by Jones’ oldest son, Bobby, the 4th has returned to its 50-year-old glory days when Sam Snead and Jimmy Demaret helped capture the 1961 Canada (now World) Cup Matches there and when Jack Nicklaus called it, “one of the 10 best holes in the world.” With a drive that flirts with a lake on the left, an approach that tangles with tall coconut palms and another lake on the right, and the Atlantic Ocean beckoning behind the green, the risk/reward 4th lives up to the hype.
In 1960, the man developing the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel, Laurance S. Rockefeller (yes, of those Rockefellers) prowled the dark lava landscape he had in mind for his resort’s golf course alongside the dean of modern architecture, Robert Trent Jones Sr. As Rockefeller surveyed the cactus-flecked, desert-like terrain, he asked Jones if a golf course could be built. After some experimenting, Jones answered in the affirmative. The mudrock (volcanic stone) could be crushed and was actually quite porous. It could indeed be used as a soil base. The discovery allowed nearly a dozen courses to be built on the Kohala Coast over the next 40 years. The best of them, however, remains the original at Mauna Kea. Inspirato offers lodging within the Hualalai resort community, which possesses two of the Big Island’s best lava-lined courses and is near more oceanside fairway splendor at Mauna Lani. Still, it’s Mauna Kea, just to the north, that tops them all, partly for its rugged, hilly, 7,370- yard journey; partly for its renovated greens and deepened bunkers, the work performed in 2008 by Trent Jones’ son, Rees; but mostly for its jaw-dropping, gargantuan par-3 3rd hole. Stretching 272 yards from its tiny, isolated back tee set into 5,000-year-old black lava rock, this unparalleled one-shotter demands a career shot over crashing Pacific surf to a huge green ringed with a necklace of bunkers. Nearly 50 years ago, in December 1964, Jack Nicklaus downed top rivals Arnold Palmer and Gary Player over four rounds in the nationally televised Big Three match. Afterwards Nicklaus called Mauna Kea, “the most fun golf course I’ve ever played.” Jack, I can tell you that it’s still really fun.
Hilton Head has beckoned vacationers since 1960 or so, but it wasn’t until 1969 that it took its exalted place among golf destinations. It was all due to Harbour Town, where Jack Nicklaus, serving as co-designer with Pete Dye, made his first foray into big-time course architecture. The PGA Tour staged a November event in 1969 and both tournament and course were judged roaring successes. It didn’t hurt that another future designer, Arnold Palmer, won that first event with a hardfought, 1-under-par total. Situated 15 minutes away from Inspirato’s Hilton Head property, Harbour Town is a bewitching brew of dark lagoons, flat, narrow fairways framed by moss-festooned live oaks, tiny greens and bunkers shored with railroad ties. The emphasis here is on strategy and placement, which explains why brilliant ball strikers such as Johnny Miller, Tom Watson and Payne Stewart won here twice each and why Davis Love III owns five trophies from the Heritage Classic. To win, all of them had to survive the fabled 472-yard, par-4 18th, one of golf ’s “must-play” holes. To the left are the breeze-fueled salt marshes of Calibogue (pronounced “Cali-bogey”) Sound. To the right, trees, condos and out of bounds. In the distance looms Harbour Town’s most enduring symbol, a candy cane-striped lighthouse, along with a luxury boat-filled marina. Spring in the lowcountry is a special time of the year, and a round at Harbour Town is a perfect a way to experience it.
Promotional hyperbole may have influenced Cabo del Sol’s designer, Jack Nicklaus, to trumpet its closing trio as “the three finest finishing holes in golf,” but after you’ve played them, it’s hard to argue with the Golden Bear. The Scottsdale-by-the-sea setting at the southern tip of Baja, within 10 miles of more than a dozen Inspirato residences, combines cactus, mountain and ocean in a delightful—and slightly surreal—package. This 1994 seaside/desert design features newly redone back-to-back par-3s along the Sea of Cortez on the front nine and the aforementioned finish that sandwiches two demanding, dramatic par-4s around the unforgettable 178-yard, par3 17th. From a clifftop tee, the 17th calls for an all-or-nothing shot over a wave-splashed sandy cove and rugged rock outcroppings, with cactus-covered hills and the turquoise-blue sea forming a compelling backdrop. A fistful of the world’s elite golfers have trod the fairways, including Hall-of-Famer Raymond Floyd, who won the PGA Tour’s Senior Slam here in 1995. Dr. Gil Morgan broke Floyd’s course record when he captured the Senior Slam in 1998, on rounds of 66-68, beating Hale Irwin by six shots. However, locals still talk about April 12, 1996, when Jack Nicklaus and Lee Trevino dueled in a televised Shell’s Wonderful World of Golf match. With highs in March averaging 75 degrees and lows only in the 60s, frost is the last thing you’ll encounter this spring. An icy margarita might be the first though—ordered on the Courtyard Bar at the Clubhouse’s terrace overlooking the sea.
An explosion of heralded golf courses has turned the Dominican Republic from a one-trick golf pony (Casa de Campo’s wonderful Teeth of the Dog course) into a paradise of seaside links. Among the most remarkable of the recent designs is Tom Fazio’s Corales Golf Course at Puntacana Resort & Club. The mostly private Corales course is accessible to guests of the Punta Cana Resort (including Inspirato members) and community residents, who include designers Oscar de la Renta and Bunny Williams and singer Julio Iglesias. Stylish bunkers, mature palms, scattered lakes and a closing trio of jaw-dropping holes along the sea are highlights. As superb as Corales is, the nearby Punta Espada Golf Club at Cap Cana is even more spectacular. This 2006 Jack Nicklaus design incorporates oceanfront bluffs, beaches and jungle in its memorable 7,400-yard journey through a slice of Domincan Republic teeming with wildlife, from an iguanafilled cave to the left of the first fairway to native roosters that strut around like they own the place. What most crow about, however, is Punta Espada’s 13th hole, a beautiful brute of 250 yards that plays directly over the Caribbean Sea. Mortals can utilize a short-right bailout area—but you didn’t fly this far to lay up—and neither did Fred Couples who not only conquered the 13th, but the other 17 holes as well, when he beat out Corey Pavin to win a Champions Tour event at Cap Cana in 2010. See if you can do the same.
As iconic images in golf go, none so perfectly captures the agony of defeat as Bernhard Langer’s anguished grimace at the 1991 Ryder Cup. Amid suffocating pressure, the German star had just missed a 6-foot putt on the final green at Kiawah’s Ocean Course to hand the U.S. team victory in the fabled “War by the Shore” match. Not so glum was Rory McIlroy, who manhandled this notoriously difficult Pete Dye design at the 2012 PGA Championship, romping to an eight-shot win over the best in the world. Whether you match Rory’s final-round score of 66, or shoot 106, your emotions will likely run more to Rory-like glee, rather than Langer-like misery—purely for the setting alone. Filled with tranquil lowcountry charm amid live oaks, wavy golden grasses and strong sea breezes, Kiawah’s Ocean course is lovely, but lethal. A blend of tidal marsh carries, scrub-topped dunes and undulating greens pair with 7,356 muscular yards to form a relentless mix of beauty and brawn. Dye’s masterpiece was the fourth course at Kiawah and was finished specifically to host the Ryder Cup. While Dye has softened the greens and their surrounds over the years, the Ocean Course remains among the toughest tests in the country. If you find yourself overwhelmed, you can always retreat to the Ryder Cup Bar at the clubhouse, overlooking the Atlantic and regroup.