The 25 Toughest Golf Courses in the World
What do you consider a great golf course?
Selecting the top courses in the world is not easy, and, yes, some good grounds were left off this list.
For any golfer, even the top 100 courses in the world are difficult to play.
Our list of the world’s toughest golf courses are a mix of difficulty, atmosphere and tradition. That criteria make these facilities the toughest to tackle.
#25: Crystal Downs
Location: Lake Township, Mich.
Crystal Downs Country Club is a private course located near Frankfort, Mich., and was established in 1929. The course is located in a remote region, and it’s quite short, a par-70 that covers only 6,518 yards from the championship tees.
This course makes up for the lack of length with numerous danger zones throughout.
The place tends to get windy, the course is hilly and very contoured everywhere, and you will be flirting with thick fescue (two of the worst words in golf). You can throw in some blind shots, and what’s the deal with that huge tree in the middle of the seventh fairway?
Word to the wise, you don’t need a driver on holes where you might tend to hit one. Accuracy counts, big time, and if you putt well, who knows?
Crystal Downs is a unique challenge that most golfers would love to take on.
Location: Juno Beach, Fla.
Seminole Golf Club is a private club established in 1929 and located at Juno Beach, Florida. This course is the only course on our top 25 list where you have to navigate around palm trees. Ah, living the life of Florida.
Some holes offer good views of the Atlantic Ocean, which means you’ll have to navigate through some winds coming off the water.
But what Seminole is mainly known for is the bunkers and where they are strategically located in the fairway and greenside. If you play enough sand during a round, the scorecard is not going to be pretty.
You’ll also have to deal with a good amount of elevation, and some fairways tend to be narrow and difficult.
Still, this course has been compared to some of the best in the world, and if you’re able to get on, add this to your list of what to do during a Florida vacation.
#23: Chicago Golf Club
Location: Wheaton, Ill.
Located in the Chicago suburb of Wheaton, Illinois, the Chicago Golf Club was established in 1892 and is one of the five founding clubs of the United States Golf Association (USGA).
It was the nation’s first 18-hole golf course, and the first to host a U.S. Open outside of the Northeast. The course was tweaked a little in 1923, but it’s pretty much the same since.
However, that doesn’t take away from the challenges this course can throw at you. This course has hosted a number of major championships, and you’ll see why right off the bat. You’ll see everything from huge mounds in the fairway to blind shots to bunkers in front and to the sides of the greens. You need to place your drives well to give you a chance at landing on the green.
What’s interesting is this course gives you a links-type feel, and, the best news, there are no trees to get in your way. Throw in some decent length on the par-4s, and this course can be a lot of fun to play.
#22: Fishers Island
Location: Fishers Island, N.Y.
Fishers Island is a private country club that opened in 1926 and has a spectacular view of Long Island Sound.
The length of the course isn’t anything too daunting at 6,616 from the championship tees, but it does have its share of trap doors you need to avoid, and that makes Fishers Island one of the more competitive courses.
The third hole plays nearly 400 yards, but if your approach shot tails to the right, you have a extreme uphill climb to the green. No. 4 has a huge ravine you must carry off the tee, and you end with a dramatic slope on the green. You’re greeted with another ravine to carry on the 207-yard, par-3 fifth. Go right, and you’re in big trouble. If you like scenery, No. 7 is truly a marvel, a straight shot at Long Island Sound.
But the challenge starts back up on the ninth hole, called "Double Plateau," because of the difficult putting surface. No. 10 has a slight left dogleg and a steady, but rigorous uphill to the green, so play at least a club longer as you make the climb. And watch the dramatic slope to the right on No. 12.
Fishers Island is called the "Cypress Point of the East." Yes, the atmosphere is grand, and if you like different challenges, try Fishers Island on for size.
#21: Kingston Heath
Location: Cheltenham, Victoria, Australia
Kingston Heath is one of the elite golf courses located in Australia in the suburbs of Melbourne.
The course opened as a par-82 (yes, 82) and was the longest golf course in Australia. According to Wikipedia, Kingston Heath’s founders thought it was easier to shorten the course, so it became a par-72 at 6,352 meters.
The first hole greets you with a huge fairway, but it gets difficult after that, especially where the bunkers are placed. Golf author John Sabino adds, "they (the bunkers) are strategically placed and difficult. The greens and fairways are both relatively flat, but given the angle most bunkers are set at, it is hard to hold the ball on the green if you are coming out of the sand."
What struck Greg Norman was that Kingston Heath had the best par-3s in the world without water. Between the short holes and the bunkers, you can see why this is an unique challenge for anyone.
#20: Pacific Dunes
Location: Bandon, Ore.
If you’re a fan of links golf and you don’t want to travel across the pond, then head for the Bandon Dunes Golf Resort in Oregon and, in particular, take on the Pacific Dunes course. In all, the resort has four golf links and a pitch-and-putt course.
Designer Tom Doak took what he was given to create a number of contoured fairways and greens, natural dunes, and he utilized the natural backdrop of the Pacific Ocean to give this course a Scottish-type feel.
The course starts in the forests before it heads toward the ocean. Of course, with any course that lies beside an ocean, the wind could play havoc with your game. Be as accurate as possible, or it could be a long day.
Hey, no matter what, you can’t beat the scenery.
Location: County Kerry, Ireland
Located in Southwest Ireland, Ballybunion’s Old Course looks intimidating nestled along the Atlantic Ocean with its contoured fairways, numerous sand traps and tricky weather conditions. If nothing else, the scenery will calm your nerves. The Cashen Course is Ballybunion’s second course, but the Old Course is more challenging.
While the remote location has drove away the potential of major events, that does not diminish the challenging holes this course presents. Also, the weather conditions can change almost instantly, so come prepared.
If you’re looking for a major challenge of links golf, the Old Course will deliver. The fairways are tight on many holes, and it’s difficult to tell how elevated some of the greens are. And it doesn’t take much to hit out of bounds on some of these holes.
But like many other Scottish courses, the views are spectacular, and if you’re up for a great challenge, this course is one to put on your list.
#18: Pinehurst No. 2
Location: Pinehurst, N.C.
Located in Pinehurst, N.C., Pinehurst Resorts is regarded as a golf mecca. The Resorts operate nine golf courses and has been named the top golf resort in the world.
So while you have your choice of courses, No. 2 is the most challenging and most iconic of the courses. Before you play, however, there is discussion as to which course best fits you. For now, we will turn our attention to No. 2.
Pinehurst No. 2 gets its strength from the difficult approach shots. There’s not a signature hole to speak of, and nothing really blows you away, but that doesn’t mean you can go on cruise control. Accuracy and precision are your greatest allies — or demons — depending on how your round is going.
How you play your chips and putts will dictate your day. Come up short on one of those elevated greens, and your nightmare has begun.
There are a couple of notable lengths, such as the 10th hole (par-5, 580 yards) and the 11th (par-4, 453), but distance won’t be a huge factor as long as you hit fairways.
Pinehurst No. 2 has been the host site of the U.S. Open, Ryder Cup, U.S. Senior Open, U.S. Amateur and the U.S. Women’s Open, to name a few. You don’t host a USGA major unless the challenges are huge.
#17: Turnberry Golf Course
Location: South Ayrshire, Scotland
Turnberry is not quite in Pebble Beach’s ballpark for gorgeous scenery, but Turnberry does have similar spectacular views off Scotland’s Ayrshire’s coast with an iconic light tower.
This golf resort, owned by President Trump since 2014, has three links courses, a golf academy and a five-star hotel. If you’re lucky to get on this course, it’s quite the vacation spot.
The Alisa Course, though part of it was destroyed during World Wars I and II to make a landing base for the Royal Air Force, is the championship course among the three, so we’ll turn our attention there.
This course has some decent length to it, and you have to navigate through some stiff winds off the water. That’s only the first four holes. From the fifth hole to the 11th, the course moves along the seaside and makes for some interesting play.
Sabino raved about the ninth tee, saying: "You are hanging on the edge of a cliff with the white lighthouse nearby, the craggy rocks below and one of the most scenic views in golf with the course all around you and the majestic hotel on the top of the hill."
Turnberry has hosted a number of major events. The best was the 1977 Open Championship, in the "Duel of the Sun" when Tom Watson beat Jack Nicklaus by a stroke.
If you like golf history, a challenging but scenic course, and a superb place for a vacation, Turnberry is a great option to consider.
#16: Winged Foot
Location: Mamaroneck, N.Y.
The two West and East courses at Winged Foot were established in 1921 in Mamaroneck, N.Y. and designed by A.W. Tillinghast, who has designed many courses across the U.S. The West course, with a 75.7 course rating, is the toughest of the two, and we will take that direction.
Tillinghast wanted to design 18 of the toughest holes golfers will see, and he was successful in that venture. Jack Nicklaus was once asked to rate Winged Foot on a scale of 1 and 10, and he gave it a 12. That’s what you can expect.
The strength of this course appears to be the par-3s. In particular, the third hole is called "Pinnacle" and travels 243 yards to a two-leveled green with a wicked slope, and pin placement can determine a nightmare here. The 10th hole, just under 200 yards, is surrounded by bunkers with a sharp incline, and a house located 40 yards beyond the green. Ben Hogan described it as a "3-iron into someone’s bedroom."
Winged Foot has been host to many major professional and amateur tournaments, and also is famous for one of its members — President Donald Trump.
#15: Sand Hills
Location: Mullen, Neb.
The state of Nebraska is host to one of the great golf courses in the world. This location is unique to United States golfing facilities because it's located in a remote part of the state in tiny Mullen with a population of a little more than 500 residents.
Yet Sand Hills is regarded as having one of the best course designs after Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw spent two years surveying the land.
What’s interesting is that only a little more than 4,000 cubic yards of dirt was moved in constructing this course, which was finished in 1994. Just $1.2 million was spent on this course, so you can see this is all Nebraska natural. Also, it’s a private course with most members from out of state.
As Golf.com’s experts put it: "Rolling, sandy terrain, rippled fairways crafted to accommodate ever-present winds, wavy prairie grasses and gigantic 'blow-out' bunkers create the sensation of being seaside in the middle of land-locked Nebraska."
There are no easy holes, but the greens are inviting if you set yourself up for an easy chip, a bump-and-run or perhaps a hybrid putt. For a course that is as close to nature as possible, Sand Hills is a standout.
#14: Royal Portrush
Location: County Antrim, Northern Ireland
Royal Portrush was founded in 1888 in Northern Ireland and has two courses, the Dunluce Course and Valley Links. We will focus on Dunluce.
Dunluce is the championship course and hosted the Open Championship in 1950. What’s significant about that is it’s the only time in Open history that the tournament wasn’t held in the British Isles. The Open Championship returns in 2019.
Each hole has its own name, and a good part of the course borders the Irish Sea. For a good hint about how tough this course, there isn’t just one signature hole — there are many.
The fourth, fifth and 16th holes are the ones to beware of, in particular. No. 4 is a par-4 that travels more than 480 yards, has a buffet of bunkers along the fairway with thick rough that gobbles up wayward drives. The fifth hole is a par-4 that is around 80 yards shorter than No. 4, but you have a dogleg and a very challenging, contoured green that if you go long, you’re on the beach, and short presents a tricky putt. The 16th hole is known as "Calamity Corner," a par-3 that goes uphill over 236 yards, which demands a great shot to the hole in the wind. Good luck.
Some of these holes are changing for the 2019 Open, but the best in the game will have their work cut out for them. And so will you.
#13: Merion Golf Club
Location: Haverford Township, Penn.
Established: 1912 (East), 1914 (West)
The Merion Golf Club is comprised of two private courses located in Haverford Township, Delaware County, Penn., the East and the West. We will focus on the impressive East course that has been the site of golf history many times over.
This is where Bobby Jones completed the grand slam in 1930 in the U.S. Amateur, which at that time was considered one of the top four golf tournaments with the U.S. Open, British Open and British Amateur. Ben Hogan’s comeback from a near fatal accident to win the 1950 U.S. Open was held at Merion. Merion also was the site of the classic 1971 U.S. Open Monday playoff between Jack Nicklaus and Lee Trevino, which Trevino won.
Merion is a pure ball striker course where precision is paramount. You have to hit fairways, or it will be a long day. And you have to hit the right side of the fairway to give you a good second shot to the green. The course has you digging into your bag with different club selections because of the wide variety of lengths on the par-3s and par-4s.
Golfers also have to deal with some wicked doglegs, and there’s actually clumps of grass in some bunkers, which is done on purpose.
Merion is truly a one-of-a-kind course that presents many challenges.
#12: Pebble Beach Golf Links
Location: Pebble Beach, Calif.
Golfers definitely have their preference for their favorite courses, but from a pure scenic standpoint, none can match the beauty of Pebble Beach, adjacent to Carmel Bay and the Pacific Ocean. That by itself puts this masterpiece in the top 25.
The course gives you a dazzling look with holes up against the shoreline, then it guides you back through the forest, and then back to the seaside, a layout unlike any course in the world. There’s nothing like going down the 18th fairway with the sound of the waves crashing the shoreline to the left and a great view of the beach. Yes, you could easily get lost with this atmosphere.
The course is host to annual PGA Tour and Champions Tour events. It is clearly a challenge to all levels of golfers. Perhaps the most famous hole is the par-3 seventh hole that’s barely 100 yards. You are literally on a elevated tee, hitting toward the Pacific Ocean to a tiny green at the bottom.
There are others who say the par-4 eighth hole covering 427 yards on the blue tees is even more daunting. You tee off right against the coastline, and you don’t want to go much beyond 250. Then you hit downward from 175 toward the hole that has trouble at both sides. This is the ultimate test of accuracy.
Pebble Beach has some of the greatest holes in golf. Golfers can get on Pebble Beach, but green fees travel more than $500 for a round that does not include cart and caddy fees. If you have the cash and want a beautiful vacation spot, you have to play Pebble Beach.
#11: National Golf Links
Location: Southampton, N.Y.
Talk about a course with rich tradition. The National is known for its Scottish-type links layout — thanks to one of its brainchildren, Charles B. McDonald — and for its iconic windmill that can be seen from most holes.
Located in Long Island between Shinnecock Hills Golf Club and Peconic Bay, this course offers many challenges, and you need to take a little time to plan out each shot. There are some serious sharp turning doglegs and blind shots to navigate. The tight fairways tend to be fast, so your ball could literally roll off course.
The interesting thing about this course is its variety of lengths. For instance, the first two holes from the back tees are both par-4s that play from the back tees at 327 and 330 yards, respectively. Then the third hole is a par-4 at 426 yards, and the fifth hole also is a par-4 that plays 478 yards. You get the idea.
Many of the holes were patterned after courses in the British Isles, and they have their own names. It gives you the traditional golf course feel from across the pond brought to the United States.
Location: Gullane, East Lothian, Scotland
Established: 1744 (1891, 18-hole expansion)
One of the biggest challenges this course has to offer is getting a tee time as Sabino learned when he said he had to book a tee time a year in advance.
Then, once you get on, players have to adhere to a strict code of ethics. If you step out of line once, you get reprimanded at the end of your round. Yes, they will be watching you.
Beside that, you will be walking where the greats of the game have traveled. Muirfield has hosted 16 Open Championships, the last one in 2013 when Phil Mickelson won.
The biggest quirk about Muirfield is its layout as a links course. Most links courses have the same wind pattern as they run up and down against the coastline. Muirfield, on the other hand, is arranged with two loops of nine holes, one clockwise, one counterclockwise, so you have a different wind pattern with each hole.
Muirfield gives golfers a lot of variety, a sense of history, and is quite old school when it comes to rules on the course.
#9: Royal Melbourne
Location: Blackrock, Victoria, Australia
Established: 1891 (club), 1926 (West), 1931 (East)
The best Australia has to offer is two courses, the West and East, that were established in 1926 and 1931, respectively. They are combined for tournament play, known as the Composite Course, but for our purposes of going out and having a great time (assuming you’re doing well), the West course is the better of the two, and that’s where our focus lies.
The West course is on anyone’s top 10 list. It brings some unique challenges that differ from hole to hole. This course plays a little more than 6,600 yards with a good collection of doglegs. You have to be on it for distance control, so prepare yourself to do some extra managing.
What really looks wicked are the greenside bunkers and how you have to deal with different types of slopes. In many cases, the greens are elevated, and you will not have much green to work with.
Even playing a few holes well will give you much satisfaction. And, if not, there’s nothing like spending a vacation in Australia.
#8: Royal Dornoch
Location: Dornoch, Sutherland, Scotland
Royal Dornoch is definitely an oldie but goodie among the world’s best golf courses. Located in Dornoch, Sutherland, Scotland, there are two golf courses that were created in 1877 — the Championship Course and the Struie Course.
Sticking with the Championship Course, one look tells you it is a must to keep the ball straight, and if you go off the fairway, please don’t be a hero. Just get back on track and take your medicine, if that’s possible.
For layout purposes, it’s your typical contoured, pot-bunkered links Scottish course, but it’s anything but typical. Each shot counts, so you need to be a good ball striker here. That’s for sure.
Golf Digest’s experts note that the greens sit on a plateau so if there’s the typical Dornoch wind coming into play, it will be very difficult to stick an approach shot. Thus, your scorecard blows up like a balloon.
For a course so difficult and so highly rated, there has never been a significant professional golf tournament played here. Go figure.
But Tom Watson once said playing Royal Dornoch is the most fun he’s ever had on a golf course. That says a lot about Royal Dornoch.
Location: Plum, Penn.
If you’re up for one of the biggest challenges in golf, Oakmont Country Club in Pittsburgh is the course for you. There are some good reasons why this course has hosted a record nine U.S. Open tournaments.
If you took an overview of the course, it looks pretty challenging for most amateurs. It’s worse when you play the course. You would think a course that has few trees and no water hazards could be had, but not Oakmont.
There are approximately 200 bunkers, and the greens are huge and fast. Speaking of bunkers, there’s one called Church Pews that comes into play for the third and fourth holes. Its shape is 100-by-40 yards and takes all of a golfer’s sand skills to somehow put the ball back in play to give you a chance to score.
Here’s how the experts at Golf Digest view Oakmont: "The sloped fairways, the strategic bunkers and ditches, the diabolic speedy greens, the intimidating shots everywhere you turn — all tie together to bring together a collective continuity from beginning to end."
#6: Shinnecock Hills
Location: Southampton, N.Y.
The oldest golf course in the United States began in 1891, and its clubhouse was constructed in 1892. It has hosted numerous big events, including five U.S. Open tournaments.
This links-style course is located in Southampton, with gorgeous scenery between Peconic Bay and the Atlantic Ocean. Shinnecock Hills will test your nerves with its challenging doglegs, many bunkers, elevated small greens and plenty of wind on most days.
The holes surrounding the clubhouse — Nos. 4, 9 and 17 — appear to be the most daunting of all. Depending on where you stand on the tee, sometimes it seems like there’s more sand than grass.
There are good reasons why this course has hosted many major tournaments. The USGA seeks out the toughest of the toughest for a U.S. Open venue, and Shinnecock always answers the call.
#5: Augusta National
Location: Augusta, Ga.
The crown jewel of American golf is rich in history as annual host of The Masters, and definitely not easy to tame. Bobby Jones and Alister MacKenzie designed the course, but Augusta has gone through many changes over the years. Some wonder if it’s even fair to put MacKenzie’s name on it. Still, from the members tees, there are four killer par-4 holes of 395 yards and over to navigate.
Augusta could be described as very private, and has had its share of controversies. Not only is it almost impossible for anyone outside of members to get on, there was a time not long ago when African-Americans and women were banned from playing, but that has changed.
If, by some stroke of luck, you are able to play Augusta, you will be greeted with magnificent conditions. The fairways look like green carpet, the greens are typically lightning fast, and the tradition this place holds can be overwhelming.
Of course, the most famous stretch is Amen Corner from the second shot on No. 11 to the second shot on 13, with the famous crossing of Nelson Bridge over Rae Creek after you tee off on 13. You can survive this stretch with solid ball striking or suffer the consequences.
Overall, give this course an A for amazing experience.
#4: St. Andrew (old course)
Location: St. Andrews, Fife, Scotland
The history of golf is displayed no better than on this Scottish masterpiece. It is considered the oldest golf course in the world, the birthplace of the sport, and called the "Cathedral of Golf." It has been the host of many Open Championships and the site of some of the most historical moments in professional golf history.
The course itself offers plenty of quirks, especially if you’re used to playing golf in the states. There are double-greens and blind bunkers — and the pot bunkers are deep. You might hit a shot to the green and think it’s great to be on the putting surface until you realize you now have a putt that seems like it’s 50 yards away.
The fun starts right away on the first hole with the Swilken Burn guarding the green, and where many balls have landed, or there’s the hell bunker to avoid on No. 14. Once you reach the 18th hole, you have the honor of crossing the Swilcan Bridge where many of the greats of the game have crossed. Take a selfie — so what if you hold up play.
Getting on this course is no easy venture considering pretty much every golfer on the planet wants to come here. But if you’re one of the lucky ones, take in the history and enjoy this one-of-a-kind museum of fine golf.
#3: Royal County Down
Location: Newcastle, County Down, Northern Ireland
Now, we’re getting into some hardcore, old-fashioned links courses. Royal County Down, located in Northern Ireland, opened in 1889. There are two links-style courses, but we’ll talk about the championship course that spans more than 7,200 yards.
First, we need to talk about the scenery — it is absolutely awesome. When the weather is right, you have the the Mountains of Mourne overlooking the Irish Sea under blue skies and puffy white clouds. Now that you’ve seen that, it’s time to bear down and take in some vintage Irish golf.
What this course demands is hitting the ball straight and carrying it long, which is bad news for anyone who doesn’t have a low handicap. There are some nasty hazards to deal with. The hole everyone talks about is the fourth hole, a 217-yard par-3, where you have to carry 200 yards over dense gorse. Don’t hit it short, or it’s bye-bye ball.
Once you’re done, take in the clubhouse that is vintage golf and admire the picture of the queen hanging in the bar. As golf author John Sabino puts it, "The clubhouse at Royal County Down is an understated affair that appropriately befits its Royal patronage."
#2: Cypress Point
Location: Pebble Beach, Calif.
This private course nestled in beautiful Monterey in Northern California has some of the most breathtaking sites you can imagine, mixing in the Del Monte forest with gorgeous seaside views. It has some breathtaking holes, too.
The yardage doesn’t seem too intimidating, but once you’re on the course, you have a fight on your hands. It requires numerous accurate shots while navigating a stiff breeze from the Pacific Ocean when you get close to the water. This course is loaded with doglegs, blind shots and bunkers.
Once you’re worn out grinding through 15 holes, you get to face the biggest test over the final three. You have to carry the ball more than 210 yards over the ocean on the 16th hole if you feel brave enough, or for us chickens, there is a way to lay up. On No. 17, you have trees in the middle of the fairway to navigate, and you have to land a blind tee shot on 18.
If you play this course, you are required to have a caddy. At least you can bounce some thoughts off someone. Think of it as on-course therapy.
#1: Pine Valley
Location: Pine Valley, N.J.
A private golf course in Southern New Jersey, Pine Valley is the most challenging course out there. Golfers have said this course, with modest 7,057 yards from the championship tees, is a huge mental test with every shot.
Johnny Miller said of Pine Valley, "There are no weak holes. There’s a masterpiece with every hole."
The slope rating is 155, and it doesn’t get much tougher than that. Each shot has to be well-thought-out from tee to green. One mistake can be deadly, and you will make mistakes. It’s golf, after all. If you do make a mistake, just worry about minimizing the damage and get back on the fairway ASAP.
You’ll swear there are bunkers everywhere. Beware of two holes. One is a par-5 7th hole named "Hell’s Half Acre" that includes what is considered the longest non-seaside bunker in the world called “the Devil’s Asshole,” no lie. Then, your finish is an impossible par-4 18th hole that’s greeted with a huge hazard to get over and a narrow landing area with bunkers all around.
This course is very exclusive, and the only way you’re getting on is if you know a member and there’s an opening. The clubhouse is nothing special, but the on-course experience provides the greatest test.
Sources: Golf Digest, Golf.com, Planet Golf and golf author John Sabino.