The question comes all the time from players who have frequented top golf resorts in the U.S. and want to verify their opinions, as well as from golfers who have never played a certain top destination but dream of a trip.
“Which course at the resort is your favorite?”
Normally there’s a simple response, based on the evaluation of Golfweek’s Best Resort Courses list.
Going to Kiawah Island Golf Resort in South Carolina? There are several courses available, but you must experience the Ocean Course. Destination Kohler in Wisconsin? Sure, Blackwolf Run offers two strong layouts, but Whistling Straits is the clear favorite among the resort’s four full-size tracks. Pinehurst in North Carolina? As much admiration as the recently renovated No. 4 has received among an impressive roster that includes four of the top 200 resort courses in the U.S., Donald Ross’s No. 2 is a classic masterpiece and repeat U.S. Open site that clearly shines brightest among the resort’s offerings in the rankings. Pebble Beach Golf Links is part of a larger California resort that stuns, but the classic seaside track is a can’t-miss for golfers.
But the answer to which is best isn’t always so cut-and-dried.
Which is your favorite of the five 18-hole courses at Bandon Dunes Golf Resort in Oregon? There’s plenty of debate around the fireplace outside McKee’s Pub, and all five courses rank in the top 11 on the 2022 Golfweek’s Best Resort Courses list. There really isn’t a wrong answer when all the options are that strong.
How about the best of the two current courses at Sand Valley in Wisconsin? The resort is operated by Michael and Chris Keiser, sons of Bandon Dunes founder Mike Keiser, and as at Bandon Dunes the Golfweek’s Best list doesn’t necessarily establish a definitive winner between the eponymous Sand Valley layout and the resort’s Mammoth Dunes, both top-15 resort courses. Grab an Adirondack chair behind the clubhouse and let the “Which is better?” discussions begin.
Streamsong Red and Blue are intertwined. (Courtesy of Streamsong)
It’s the same story at Streamsong in Bowling Green, Florida, home to three courses ranked inside the top 20 on the 2022 Golfweek’s Best Resort Courses List. Red? Blue? Black? “If you had to play just one,” I am frequently asked, “which would it be?”
My stock answer: The next one. And I’ll defend that simplified response on the basis that I’ll gladly take a day at any of the three courses built by Gil Hanse, Tom Doak or the team of Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw. There are noticeable differences between the layouts, but they are so tightly packed in the Golfweek’s Best rankings as to inevitably invite debate – that’s a big part of the fun. Ask me which you should play, and I’ll tell you to sample all three and get back to me.
Bandon Dunes, Sand Valley and Streamsong combine to include 10 of the top 20 resort courses in the country. Apologies in advance for my dalliance into cliché, but asking to choose the best layout at any of them is like being asked which of your kids is your favorite. Only in this case, golfers often are more than willing to loudly announce their personal preferences.
Me? Not so much. Returning to Streamsong as a case study, there’s nuance to be considered. And the skill of the golfer. Putting prowess. The wind on any given day. Dozens of considerations, many of which change in time and with repeat rounds. Feel free to pick a favorite, but don’t be surprised to change your mind on another visit.
The Lodge at Streamsong in Florida (Courtesy of Streamsong)
Streamsong celebrates its 10th anniversary this year, inviting reinspection of its leap into the course rankings. Much has changed since the two original courses, the Red and the Blue, opened in 2012 on a former phosphate mining site that offered plenty of sand and a raw, rollicking landscape unlike anything else in Florida. A luxurious 228-room hotel and spa opened in 2014, auxiliary sports such as shooting and bass fishing were introduced, and most importantly the Black course came online in 2017.
The resort and courses continue to evolve, recently with the introduction of new putting surfaces on the Red and Blue and with new restaurant themes and names that include the rebranding of the Black course’s Bone Valley Tavern into a seafood restaurant – the staff might suggest the salt and pepper fritto misto, and you can’t go wrong with the lobster mac and cheese.
Despite the changes, the focus remains on the golf, perhaps more sharply than ever.
The three layouts share many similarities: strikingly open vistas and easy walks with few trees in play, mostly firm and bouncy turf, beautiful bunkers that appear as simple sand scrapes and great mixes of memorable holes routed in natural fashions upon what in actuality are completely unnatural sites left over from mining operations. A common refrain is that Streamsong, full of jagged dunes and rugged boundaries in middle-of-nowhere inner Florida, feels like playing golf on the surface of the moon – in the case of these three courses, that is a compliment.
But there are differences.
Streamsong Red in Florida (Courtesy of Streamsong/Bill Hornstein)
7,110 yards, par 72
Designers: Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw
This Coore and Crenshaw creation ties for No. 16 on the 2022 Golfweek’s Best Resort Courses list. Its average 7.51 rating on Golfweek’s scale of 1 to 10 makes it the highest rated course on the property, narrowly ahead of the Black then the Blue. It also ties for No. 37 on the 2021 Golfweek’s Best list of all modern courses built in the U.S. in or after 1960.
Many players – including Golfweek’s Best course raters – say the Red tends to present the most difficult driving challenges of any of the Streamsong courses, starting with its long, uphill, par-4 No. 1 that plays as the most difficult opener at the resort. In reality, most holes offer an abundance of width, but as many holes curve around lakes and large bunkers or other sandy expanses, they also tend to invite the most risk off the tee.
The Red’s greens are large and tend to be the least severe of the three layouts. Many of the putting surfaces are raised slightly above fairway level and are approachable with a running, ground-game shot. Most of the greens bleed into tightly mowed runoffs, but more than those swales and hollows, it’s the incredible array of bunkers that present the most challenge.
Fans of Coore and Crenshaw’s work should recognize their approach to design in the Red. It’s a beautiful walk devoid of extraneous shaping, with holes gently rolling up and down the dunes created by mining spoil left on the site decades ago.
The par 3s stand out, particularly the 16th with a Biarritz green that stretches some 70 yards with its defining giant swale in the middle. And in frequent Coore and Crenshaw fashion, they built a short par 3 that can leave players scratching their heads – the eighth typically requires nothing more than a wedge approach, but the green is the most contoured and challenging on the course.
Streamsong Blue in Florida (Courtesy of Streamsong/Laurence Lambrecht)
7,276 yards, par 72
Designer: Tom Doak
Doak’s Blue course checks in at No. 20 among all U.S. resort courses with a 7.32 average rating, good for No. 4 among public-access courses in Florida and a tie for 55th among all modern courses in the U.S.
While the Red kicks off with an uphill beast that begins just steps from and beneath the first tee of the Blue, Doak’s layout launches itself off a cliff. The tee of the par-4 first is perched atop a massive dune some 50 feet above the fairway, offering a panoramic view of the property – you just don’t find this kind of downhill shot in most of the Sunshine State.
The Blue plays mostly inside the loop of the Red, crossing paths with the Red at several junctions. Like the Red, the terrain teases with hills without ever becoming steep – aside from that climb to the first tee. Instead, the holes cavort across the roiled landscape left behind by mining operations.
The Blue tends to offer wider fairways, with Doak setting up strategic lines of play into greens that feature more internal contours and shelves than the Red. There are plenty of generous runoffs around the greens to accommodate less-accomplished players, but low-handicappers and elite amateurs need to follow Doak’s best lines to the flags if they hope to land balls close to the holes and keep them there.
In a golf architecture paradox for the best players, the frequently wide Blue sometimes demands target golf – a term that normally brings to mind tight holes and tough misses – despite the extraneous acreage of the fairways. Try to approach from the wrong angle, even from the short grass, and it can be difficult if not impossible to keep the ball close to certain hole locations. In short, it’s great fun to try to imagine what Doak is offering as you stand on a tee and plot your route to the hole.
The par-3 seventh, with a green set across a pond in the heart of the largest dunes on the property, easily has been the most photographed hole at Streamsong. And the closing pair is unforgettable, both serious challenges that will have a player whistling on the way to lunch or grumbling on the drive back to Interstate 4. No. 17 is a long par 5 that descends toward a series of cross bunkers that begin some 150 yards short of the green, forcing players to choose a layup followed by a long, uphill, semi-blind approach, or a daring second shot (sometimes third) to cross the sand and set up a shorter approach. The long, par-4 18th follows with a blind tee shot (at least for longer hitters) over a crest, then a downhill approach over another set of cross bunkers in the fairway and a perfectly positioned pit just short of the green.
Streamsong Black in Florida (Courtesy of Streamsong/Bill Hornstein)
7,320 yards, par 73
Designers: Gil Hanse and Jim Wagner
The newest course at Streamsong, designed by Hanse and Jim Wagner, is the 19th-ranked resort course in the U.S. with an average 7.37 rating for 2022, making it the third-ranked public-access course in Florida and tying it for No. 44 among all modern courses in the U.S.
Set a short car ride apart from the Red and Blue, the Black features a similar vibe with wide-open vistas and firm, sandy terrain without quite as much elevation change, but the story here is all about the greens. And all the green-height grass cut around them.
Yes, that might sound confusing. But the Black’s putting surfaces are actually greens within a sea of green-height grass. Think of a typical course with putting greens, then chipping areas and runoffs at fairway height, then maybe rough. On the Black, almost all of that is mowed to green height, with what might be considered the traditional greens and the hole locations toward the center. Combining that with sometimes severe slopes at the edges as well as within the tightly mowed areas makes for several highly entertaining approach shots that can be rolled toward the flag from more than one angle – and at the same time, away from the flag at any conceivable angle. Don’t be surprised to find yourself holding a putter while staring down a 40-yard shot.
In effect, and taking all the short grass into consideration, the Black features some of the largest putting areas in the world – some 11 acres in all. It’s a creative approach that definitely makes the Black stand apart from the Red and Blue, and not just because of that short car ride to the first tee. It’s somewhat a love-it-or-leave-it affair, with players frequently kvetching about what they believed to be a perfect approach shot bounding offline because of the tightly mowed slopes.
In that regard, it’s similar to Tobacco Road near Pinehurst, North Carolina, built by the late Mike Strantz and another sometimes polarizing yet popular modern layout with bold contours that can frustrate players who attempt one too many direct approaches to the hole. The Black doesn’t feature as many elevation changes as Tobacco Road, but the thought required to score well is similar.
The most memorable hole on the course must be the ninth playing toward an old windmill – a blind approach to a dramatic punchbowl green that’s 55 yards wide and 65 deep, all surrounded by a-ball-won’t-stop-there slopes. If there’s no group close behind, players can take their time sending extra putts up and down the bowl’s edges, rolling like race cars on a banked track and perhaps back toward the hole.
No. 7 of Streamsong Blue (Courtesy of Streamsong/Bill Hornstein)
So, Red, Blue and Black … how do you choose a favorite? In this case, I simply choose not to.
My take: The Red might be the most traditionally fun of the three, forcing good swings off the tee while rewarding solid shots into the greens. The Blue makes me think precisely – and to frequently realize that I don’t think precisely so well. The Black brings out imagination and bravado, and sometimes punishes my inability to master those same traits.
The three courses are similar, and they are different, with the greatest variations built into the greens and surrounds. The Red’s putting surfaces remind me of gently rolling ocean waves, while the Blue’s putting surfaces might be waves with steeper faces and shorter wavelength. The Black, meanwhile, foregoes the wave analogy with greens that call to mind nothing so much as a crumpled sheet of newsprint that has been unfolded and laid flat, with humps and lumps and creases at seemingly random intervals.
Each course stands on its own. To have all three at one resort is an abundance of golf bliss, a chance to walk until you can’t feel your feet and wake up wanting more. It’s as good as Florida offers, and I refuse to mess up that stroll with a grass-is-greener yearning to be on one of the other tracks on any particular day.