Golf in 2023 is synonymous with big, wide corridors from names like Tom Doak and Bill Coore. That perception largely belongs to Mike Keiser’s vision at Bandon Dunes following 1999’s Bandon Dunes (McLay Kidd), immediately followed by Tom Doak’s breakout smash hit at 2001’s Pacific Dunes. Of course, history will remember Sand Hills (1994) as the birthplace of the minimalist movement, but for the public, Bandon Dunes was their first taste of the ‘new wave.’
The concept clearly took off, spawning Sand Valley in Wisconsin and the Ben Cowan-Dewar collaboration at Cabot Cape Breton, which now has its own impressive list of sibling resorts in Florida, Scotland, Saint Lucia, and upcoming in British Columbia. In total, eleven big courses and four short courses are under the Dream Golf portfolio, with the new Whitman, Axland, Cutten par 3 course upcoming at Bandon Dunes, and the Jim Craig + Bill Coore & Ben Crenshaw courses at the new location Rodeo Dunes in Colorado currently under construction.
In September, I played all five courses at Sand Valley, capping off the Dream Golf resorts. While not necessarily scientific in my approach to ranking these, in my eyes, this is how the Dream Golf portfolio shuffles out. With that being said, it is a fairly impressive list of courses: two in Canada’s top 5, five in the World Top 100, and six in the USA Top 100. That doesn’t include Lido and Sedge Valley: Lido, which officially opened ths year, will almost surely debut in the Golf Magazine Top 100 list in a month’s time, and Sedge Valley officially opens next year. Of the courses currently open, only Mammoth Dunes doesn’t make the USA Top 100… but it does come in at 29th of the Top 100 public courses in North America & the Caribbean.
1. Pacific Dunes
Granted, the choice for #1 is, in my opinion, highly contested, but Pacific Dunes continues to be the flagship course in the portfolio in my view. Tom Doak’s 2001 masterpiece frequently visits the coast, and in doing so, the high, sensory overload moments come in waves: the 3rd and 4th, the 10th and 11th, and concluding at the 13th.
Even with the ocean side holes having so much discussion and discourse surrounding them, perhaps the strongest part of Pacific Dunes is the holes away from the water, including the 2nd, 6th, 7th, and 17th. The strengths of this golf course come throughout, and not just in random ocean occurrences.
2. The Lido
Narrowly missing out on the top spot, The Lido is a tantalizing golf course and is, quite literally, a resurrection of history. Whether we credit it as Tom Doak or C.B. Macdonald (…both?), The Lido is among the most curious golf courses in the country, with numerous blind shots, hidden features, and difficult decisions looming throughout the round. Templates like the Punchbowl, Alps and Biarritz are dialed up to a “10,” while the original holes—from Tom Simpson’s Strategy hole to Alister Mackenzie’s Prize hole, and even Macdonald’s own Channel, Lagoon, and more—match the intensity.
Playing golf at The Lido is akin to a four-hour guitar solo that never seems to slow down and only begins to balance out as it reveals more: never is it too much, but it teeters on insanity: a blessing to see it transported from New York to Wisconsin.
3. Cabot Links
Canadians in the know have been familiar with Rod Whitman’s efforts in Wester n Canada for years, but Cabot Links, a seaside coastal links in Nova Scotia, is his true coming out party, at least internationally. The accolades are worthy, and perhaps even ~underrated against its more known, picturesque sibling to the North. Nevertheless, Whitman’s green surrounds here make it the preferred course for replay rounds and those who spend summers in Inverness, and the routing, using the central hillside in the middle and the ocean in harmony, provide a fulfilling, faithful round and homage to the Old Country.
4. Bandon Trails
The only course from the two seaside resorts not on the ocean, Bandon Trails is a beautiful walk among the Pacific Northwest scenery. A good walk spoiled is not so here: rather, it is just a good walk, with some fantastic Coore & Crenshaw strategic moments present as the routing tackles the hilly property. Controversial moments at the 14th aside, the opening five and closing four are excellent holes chock-full of strategic interest, and even if the ocean isn’t really a factor here, the quality never drops.
5. Cabot Cliffs
An unusual grouping of six par 3’s, six par 4’s, and six par 5’s makes way for some remarkable one-shot holes in a set that is varied from the beginning: the dual green at the 4th is unusual, as is the green on the punchbowl 6th and do-or-die cliffside 16th, but that is half the charm. When the one-shot holes come, like the 2nd with its “Y” shaped fairway to a clover shaped green, they, too, bring a different look than other locations.
Among the Dream Golf portfolio, no closing stretch (or stretch in general truthfully) will make you pull out your camera or brings on such powerful emotions as the closing five holes at the Cliffs. Is this the most photogenic golf course in North America?
6. Old Macdonald
Likely the most controversial golf course on this list as I know educated people on both sides of the debate, but Old Macdonald for me clocks in at #6. Why? It is the most rambunctious, and perhaps exciting, of all eleven courses on this list. Templates like the Eden, Road, Sahara, and Alps are among the best in class, and throughout the golf course—whether Doak’s interpretation or faithful to its source material—you find some of the most compelling, aggressive architecture around.
It is a better match play course than stroke play, but forgetting about par and playing a match is as authentic as links golf itself. This course is a blast!
7. Bandon Dunes
The original course at the original resort, and the reason why the rest of these courses exist. David McLay Kidd’s seaside jaunt is a brute of a golf course, but I like it that way. Where Old Macdonald or Pacific might give you room to negotiate with the coastal winds, the OG asks you to hit it, and do it all over again. The drivable par 4, 16th might be the best hole on the property, and as a result, is rightly famous.
8. Sand Valley
The first course at the Wisconsin extension of Dream Golf, Sand Valley is a pleasant Bill Coore & Ben Crenshaw walk around the forest and sandy expanse, drawing inspiration from the English Heathlands. The outward nine is much more intimate as it meanders through trees (especially towards the back half with the excellent three-hole closing stretch of 7-9), while the back is much more open. You could play here every day and be happy!
9. Sedge Valley
Set to open in 2024, Sedge Valley is the newest course in the portfolio. In truth, this is a preliminary ranking and it could rise (or fall) with subsequent plays… especially as things begin to mature and grow in. The word for Sedge Valley is funk: a par 68, with a handful of drivable par 4’s and an impressive collection of five one-shot holes.
Even more than Sand Valley, the heathland vibe sticks out aesthetically and in trickery, with Doak’s architecture more playful than normal and as a result, the flow and pacing of the golf course is excellent. Even as I write about it, it feels like a grower.
10. Sheep Ranch
The most recent 18 hole addition to Bandon Dunes is a bunker-less, cliffside playground from Bill Coore & Ben Crenshaw, which turned an old Tom Doak 13 green golf course to a regulation layout. A whopping nine greens sit on the coast, but the par 5, 11th, nicknamed “Volcano,” might be the best of them all. The layout is a bit sleepier than the rest, but it might be the prettiest golf course in this list.
11. Mammoth Dunes
A big, wide, picturesque golf course among the, quite literally, mammoth sand dunes, David McLay Kidd’s golf course is a resort visitor’s favourite, but in my eyes, is more of a dumb blonde than full of substance. Nevertheless, a good set of par 3’s, including the fingerprint-esque par 3, 13th over a massive blowout bunker, and a tidy routing that makes for a nice walk are among the highlights here. Grades are relative to the other Dream Golf portfolio golf course, but this one just isn’t for me.
Please note: the grades are relative to the rest the Dream Golf portfolio as a way to separate the courses into tiers. By no means a D or F actually a D or F in the grand scheme of things, they are all worth playing.