Golf is a game that is variously considered a pastime, recreation, sport, profession, religion or obsession. The ostensible object is to knock a small hard ball into a designated hole, with the minimum number of blows of a stick or club, while avoiding the hazards of the terrain such as vegetation, water, soft ground and loose sand. It is immensely frustrating - your "sweet shot" of the day is often followed by a shank into the brambles - yet irresistible to many. Two features are distinctive: while other games are played on a standardised pitch or court, each golf course is unique, so this is a motive for travel. Second is the "handicap" system that enables players of different abilities to play each other on a roughly equal footing.
This page is about golf from a visitor / traveler perspective. There's a world of difference between playing a course and being a full member of the club that owns it, and the waiting list for membership at the most prestigious clubs is on a geological time scale.
The remarkable history of golf is that there were furious laws against playing it, seemingly centuries before it existed. Hacking a ball with a stick towards a target is an ancient pastime, and the forerunners of the present game appear in the 13th century Low Countries, though it's not altogether clear whether they were playing golf, ice-hockey, or some hybrid. "Colf" or "colve" is the Dutch word for a stick, club or bat, and the game was banned in Brussels in 1360. Early modern Scotland had strong trading links with the Low Countries so in 1457 golf was banned in Scotland, an edict repeated in later years, for instance by James IV. Yet within a few years he was buying golf clubs and balls, and coming home very late to dinner in a foul mood with his jacket covered in burrs. A game in 1650 near Albany, NY ended in a murderous fight so it was banned all over again, but in the sporting spirit that imbues this game, the combatants apologised to each other before dying.
This early game had no generally-agreed rules, and the courses were entirely natural terrain, often along coastal grasslands. The first maintained or groomed course was in St Andrews in northeast Scotland, playing outward for 11 holes then homeward for a 22-hole course. Some holes were considered too short, so in 1764 these were combined to create a 9+9 course. And since the St Andrews golfers then codified the rules of the game, the 18-hole course became standard, and the Old Course there is considered the traditional home of golf.
Golf spread throughout the British Isles, and beyond in 1829 with the establishment of the Royal Calcutta Golf Club in India. By the end of the 19th century, clubs in Ireland, the United States of America, and Wales had organised the sport for their respective countries, and Scotland and England did so after the First World War. Golf has two global governing bodies, the Royal & Ancient (R&A) at St Andrew's and the United States Golf Association, and these work in partnership, for example in agreeing changes to the rules. This accord means that golf has not suffered the fate of other sports and split between a British version such as rugby or cricket, and an American analogue such as American Football or baseball. Match formats vary but golf is golf wherever you play in the world. Golf strokes have even been played on the moon.
Travel has always been integral to golf: as transport, leisure time and disposable income improved in the 19th / 20th centuries, hotel resorts or "country clubs" were developed that focused on golf, and every travel agent and railway station promoted them through elegant posters. This continues to the present day: one of the first things developers consider when assessing a resort project is the prospects for golf, existing or to be constructed. About the last thing they consider is wider impact on local land usage, labour, water resources and so on, so (greenwash as they might) they may conflict with community interests. This is especially problematic in arid climates.
Golf was an Olympic sport in 1900 and 1904 and then after a 112-year break returned in 2016. However Olympic golf is not as prestigious as the "Majors", and the top players usually skip it. The Majors are the four top men's tournaments: the Masters in April at Augusta, Georgia US, the PGA Championship in May at various US locations, the US Open in June at various US locations, and the R&A Championship in July at various British locations. These are contested between individual players, and matches between national teams are not a big feature of golf, but the Ryder Cup is played in odd-numbered years between the US and Europe including Britain, and the venue alternates between continents. The Solheim Cup, established in 1990, is the equivalent women's match and is also played in odd-numbered years.
Golf is one of the few things that unites this diverse continent, and a combined European team play the USA for the Ryder Cup every two years. Naturally players from the strongest golfing nations predominate. The British Isles are the main focus of golf in Europe, befitting their lead role in developing the early game and their suitable terrain and climate - mild winters means year-round play. St Andrews is the best known, but virtually every town in the UK and Republic of Ireland is near a course, and their cities may have over a dozen. These are briefly described on the relevant city pages of this guide: click through to the golf clubs' own websites for more detail.
Spain and Portugal are the two best developed on mainland Europe: their interiors can be arid but their coasts are watered by Atlantic weather. Valderrama in Spanish Andalusia is the best known of these.
In France courses are similarly down the Atlantic coast. The Czech Republic has opened courses since the fall of communism, and the Scandinavian countries offer the opportunity of around the clock golf during the summer months.
There are over 550 golf courses across Scotland, which equates to 500-and-some venues as the biggest clubs have more than one course. They're mostly coastal and lowland: the Highlands have few simply because they're thinly populated. In 1886 an uprising on the island of Tiree was settled amicably when the marines sent to quell it showed the islanders how to play golf along their machair terrain. Some top examples are:
- St Andrews where the R&A rule the roost, and only top players and tournaments grace the Old Course, but there are plenty more, accessible and affordable by mere mortals.
- Carnoustie near Dundee has often staged Open Championships.
- Gleneagles near Crieff in Perthshire surrounds a wonderful old railway hotel on the fringe of the Highlands.
- Royal Troon is an Open Championship course on the Ayrshire Coast.
- Turnberry north of Girvan in Ayrshire is an Open Championship course attached to a world class hotel.
- Royal Dornoch north of Tain is a notoriously tricky course, but Tain has a famous whisky distillery to console you later.
- Muirfield is a highly rated championship course in the sandhills of Gullane in East Lothian.
- Dalmahoy is midway between Livingston and Edinburgh.
See also the Tourist Agency's golf tourism website, which describes several of the courses in Scotland.
England has over 1900 golf clubs, and the game is an integral part of national culture, a weekly appointment to thrash undergrowth and send divots flying. Top courses include:
- Royal Birkdale, Southport.
- Royal Liverpool at Hoylake in Wirral hosted the Open Championship in 2023.
- Royal Lytham and St Anne's on the Lancashire coast.
- Royal St George's at Sandwich in Kent hosted the Open Championship in 2021.
- The Belfry near Tamworth in the Midlands, was the venue for a number of Ryder Cups.
- Wentworth near Chertsey has been the venue for the World Matchplay Championship.
Ireland was the first country to organise golf on a national level, with the men's Golfing Union of Ireland founded in 1891 then the Irish Ladies Golf Union in 1893. It has lush green terrain (euphemism for rain-swept) and is a popular golf destination. Famous courses include:-
- K Club is at Straffan near Maynooth, County Kildare. It hosted the 2006 Ryder Cup and has two courses designed by Arnold Palmer.
- Royal Portrush in Country Antrim in the North is to host the Open Championship again in 2025.
- Killeen Castle near Trim in County Meath hosted the 2011 Solheim Cup, on a course designed by Jack Nicklaus.
- Adare Manor in County Limerick is to host the 2027 Ryder Cup.
The Irish golf tourism website gives details of courses in the Republic and in the North.
Wales like the rest of the UK has a long golf history, and some 180 courses.
Stableford Scoring System originated in Wales, invented by Frank Barney Gorton Stableford (1870–1959) who mostly played in Anglesey, with the system first used in Glamorganshire in 1898. Your score is not how many shots to the hole, but points for holing out above or below par. Crucially, once you're so far above par as to net zero points, you just abandon the hole and go on to the next. So amateurs who fall into a heffalump trap can cut their losses and not abandon the match in disgust. Professionals enjoy Stableford because the points reward bold play and don't overly-penalise an unsuccessful shot.
For a complete list see the A-Z directory. Premier courses include:
- Aberdyfi or Aberdovey in Gwynedd on the west coast.
- Royal St David's is in Harlech also on the Gwynedd coast.
- Conwy in North Wales in 2021 hosted the Curtis Cup, the amateur women's equivalent to the Solheim Cup.
- Nefyn on the Lleyn peninsula in the northwest.
- Machynys Peninsula near Llanelli in Carmarthenshire is Wales's only course designed by Jack Nicklaus.
- Royal Porthcawl hosted the 1995 Walker Cup, the amateur men's version of the Ryder Cup. The defeated USA team included Tiger Woods.
- The Wales National is a golf resort near Pontyclun, Llantrisant west of Cardiff.
- Celtic Manor Resort in Newport hosted the 2010 Ryder Cup.
Portugal is a major golf destination: think of the country and you picture the greens of the Algarve, where half of Portugal's 75 courses are clustered. Top venues are:
- Praia d’el Rey Golf & Beach Resort in Óbidos north of Lisbon.
- Penina Hotel & Golf Resort in Alvor near Portimão in the Algarve.
Spain has over 400 golf courses, mostly on the coast in Andalusia and Cantabria. You don't want to be striding around a course in the baking summer heat of Extremadura, though one fellow who haunted those plains, Don Quixote, was surely the prototype of a golfer with dreams beyond his abilities.
The best-known course is Valderrama near Sotogrande, which hosted the 1997 Ryder Cup, the first ever held in Continental Europe.
There are a number of high-quality golf courses in Italy. Italy will host the 2023 Ryder Cup at the Marco Simone Golf and Country Club (also known as Golf Marco Simone) in Guidonia, Rome.
Belek near Antalya is the big golf destination, with over a dozen courses. It hosts the Turkish Airlines Open in November, part of the European tour.
Other resorts have courses but not as many as you'd expect, given the potential demand, and not nearly as many as hotel websites would have you believe: "golf" in this context simply means "gulf", an inlet of the sea.
Golf in Africa was long intertwined with colonialism and apartheid, but has gradually thrown off these shackles. By far the strongest golfing nation is South Africa: the Sunshine Tour is mostly played there, but also hosted by other southern countries. Egypt, Morocco and Tunisia have established golf resorts, like the Algarve but with better kebabs, but are working against the climate.
- Sun City in North West Province has the Gary Player course, which hosts the big-money Nedback Golf Challenge in November. Also designed by Player and managed by the same Country Club is the Lost City course, which in spite of the name is only 2 km further along the road.
- Johannesburg: Glendower GC in Edenvale east of city centre often hosts the South African Open.
- Durban: Beachwood Country Club is north side of the city.
- Port Elizabeth / Gqeberha: Humewood Golf Course is at Summerstrand southeast of the city.
- Cape Town premier courses are Steenberg and Clovelly, both south of the city.
- The Asian Tour is the top tournament for men, played over some 20 courses mostly in the southeast, but excluding Japan which has its own circuit.
- Japan Golf Tour is played over 20-some courses and seldom ventures beyond Japan. The season is from cherry-blossom time to end of November.
The Chinese claim to have invented golf in the 10th century, along with printing, chess, rockets, computing and everything else you can think of. This particular claim is unlikely since their emperors didn't pass laws banning it. Golf here was a colonial pastime, and Mao Zedong denounced it as a "sport for millionaires". (Since the Chinese yuan of his day was hyperinflated trash on a par with the Mexican peso, he may have been saying that golf was affordable by the masses.) Under communism it was disapproved of, or subject to outright bans, on a scale that suggests that all the party officials were playing it, or at least convening at the golf hotel to fix up crooked deals. In 2015 Article 87 of the Communist Party Disciplinary Regulations outlawed holding a golf membership card - this measure was designed to stamp out corruption, but apparently it didn't.
Courses are concentrated around the old colonial stamping grounds of Hong Kong, Macao and Shenzhen, see Golf in China.
Thailand has about 250 golf courses, with sixty clustered around Bangkok, and others in resort areas such as Phuket and Chiang Mai. The game was promoted from 1923 by King Vajiravudh (Rama VI), who'd been educated in England. The Thai Golf Association was founded in 1964 and they organised the Thai Open for pro golfers, which was absorbed into the Asian Tour in 1997. However the premier tournament (attracting Official World Golf Ranking points) is now the All Thailand Golf Tour, played through the year at a dozen courses - the Thai climate enables year-round play. Leading courses include Thai Country Club west of Bangkok and Alpine Golf & Sports Club north of the city.
There are over 200 golf courses, and the premier tournament is the Professional Golf of Malaysia Tour, played over some six venues. Most courses are in Selangor State around Kuala Lumpur, and in Johore Bahru near the causeway from Singapore.
Australia has over 1500 courses. Inevitably the game arrived with prosperous European settlers in the lusher landscapes of Sydney and Melbourne - the first documented games were in 1839 at Grose Farm, now part of Sydney. It spread out to broader income brackets, and onto harsher terrain, to places where you'd better look carefully before reaching an ungloved hand into a hole to retrieve your ball. The governing body is Golf Australia, formed in 2006 by merging the men's and women's associations. The premier tournament is the men's PGA Tour of Australasia, played in the austral summer predominantly in Australia with occasional matches in New Zealand, Papua New Guinea and Fiji. See Golf in Australia for more, and individual city pages for courses.
There are over 400 courses in New Zealand. Notable examples include Carrington Club on the Karikari Peninsula near Kaitaia, Kauri Cliffs north of Kerikeri, Gulf Harbour and Formosa in Auckland, Wairakei near Taupō, Cape Kidnappers near Hastings, Paraparaumu near Wellington, Clearwater Resort in Christchurch, Terrace Downs in Methven east of Canterbury, and Millbrook Resort in Queenstown.
There are over 2300 golf courses in Canada, of which some 900 are nine-hole. They're nationwide but concentrated in the well-populated Quebec-Montreal-Toronto-London corridor. Golf Canada is the governing body and organises the Canada Open, held at Oakdale Country Club in North York, Toronto.
- Not to be confused with Golfo de México, the sea to the east of the country
The warm sunny climate and ample predictable rainfall make Mexico a popular golf destination, especially in winter when North American and European courses become cold and miserable. All the major cities and resorts have courses, many to Championship standards. The premier tournament is the Mexico Open or Abierto Mexicano de Golf, nowadays played in April at Vidanta Vallarta, and part of the PGA Tour with a multi-million dollar prize.
Resort hotels often have packages and access deals with nearby courses. Notable destinations include:
- Los Cabos (San Jose del Cabo and Cabo San Lucas): Cabo del Sol, Puerto los Cabos, Club Campestre San Jose, Cabo Real, and Quivera.
- Riviera Maya (Cancun, Playa del Carmen, and Tulum): Gran Coyote Golf Riviera Maya, El Camaleon Mayakoba, Riviera Cancun, Puerto Cancun, and Riviera Maya GC.
- Pacific Coast (Puerto Vallarta, Nayarit): Vista Vallarta, Marina Vallarta, Vidanta Nuevo Vallarta.
The United States is reckoned to have 15,500 golf courses, far more than any other country. It has a long golfing tradition: the US Golf Association founded in 1894 was predated only by Ireland's Golf Union. As well as being the national association, the USGA co-governs the global game along with the R&A in St Andrews, Scotland. Golf courses are found in all states, even Alaska, but especially in the lush climes of the Carolinas, Georgia and Florida. Most famous, not always for the right reasons, is Augusta National Golf Club, where membership is strictly by invitation, and a bastion of privilege: it only accepted its first non-white man in 1990, and its first women members in 2012.
Three of the world's four "Majors" for top professionals are held in the US: the Masters at Augusta National Golf Club, and the US Open and PGA Championship which rotate around US courses. (The fourth, the Open Championship, is played mostly in Britain.) The PGA Tour is the premier men's tour globally and the LPGA Tour the premier women's tour - these are predominantly in the US but also visit Canada, Mexico and the Caribbean. The PGA Tour Champions for golfers of 50 and older is likewise mostly played in th US.
Those tournaments are for individual players. The Ryder Cup between US and European national teams is hosted by the US every 4 years, specifically in the year after the presidential elections. The next is in Sept 2025 at the Bethpage Black Course on Long Island, NY.
The Solheim Cup is the women's equivalent to the Ryder Cup, hosted by the US in even-numbered years. The 2024 event is at Robert Trent Jones GC in Gainesville, VA, about 40 miles west of Washington DC.
The Presidents Cup pits a US men's team against an international team of non-European golfers, ineligible for the Ryder Cup. This is hosted by the US in the year after it hosts the Ryder Cup, with the 2026 event at Medinah Country Club west of Chicago. (The 2024 event will be at Royal Montreal Golf Club). It's so named because the US President or other national leader is honorary chairman of the event.
Prosperous North American and European visitors have prompted development of golf courses. Notable examples are Tierra del Sol in Noord district of Aruba, Temenos in Anguilla and Half Moon in Montego Bay, Jamaica. US-based tours sometimes come this far south, for example the President's Cup in 2023 in Nassau, Bahamas.
Argentina has over 300 courses, concentrated around Buenos Aires but found across the country, and has produced several notable players.
The top tournament is the Argentine Open, played at Nordelta GC in Buenos Aires. From 2024 this forms part of PGA Tour Americas and is played early in the year. But the chronic problem is hyperinflation: in 2023 this is about 100% per annum, which makes Argentina an inexpensive holiday destination but its prize money doesn't attract top-flight international players.
See Golf in Argentina for further details.
A large industry exists to supply golfers with everything they need and a whole lot that they don't. The principal item this industry manufactures is a sense of discontent with your existing equipment: if only you would bin it and buy the new improved wonder-thingy, how much better your life would be, and not just on the course. You'd somehow acquire the charismatic lifestyle of those endorsing celebrities and lithe advert models, and so would your partner.
Golf clubs are a major upfront expense for all players - look after them, make them last, and keep them secure as they are popular targets for theft. Look up prices online and at discount golf warehouses. Large courses have a Pro Shop where, like convenience stores, you're paying more for instant supply.
Upscale golf courses are often part of a resort complex, with plush hotel restaurants serving all sorts of cuisine.
Medium-sized places usually have a Clubhouse with restaurant that's even more of a social hub than the course itself. People routinely drive out to the Country Club for lunch even when they've no plans to play that day. Check whether as a visitor you have access to these facilities.
Most Clubhouses have a bar, known as the "19th hole", and resort hotels have several.
There is a tradition that if you ace your tee-shot, scoring a hole-in-one, on completing your round you should buy everyone in the clubhouse a drink to celebrate. This seems to have originated in Prohibition 1920s America, but what's kept it going? No connection with whiskey company sponsorship of golf tournaments, perchance? The odds of an amateur scoring a hole-in-one are 1 in 12,500, and for pros that drops to 1 in 2500. But then do the maths for a big tournament, with over 100 professionals playing multiple rounds: the odds approach 50-50 and buying everyone and their entourage a drink will max out all your bank cards. Tournaments may offer a side-prize to cover this, and companies even offer insurance against the possibility. So there's another piece of merchandise that golfers are persuaded to feel insecure without.
Golf is not exactly a dangerous sport. The main risk is driving to the course on public roads (look at that idiot overtaking!) and driving home again drowsy. Or of succumbing to the same heart attack that would have felled you if you'd stayed home that day watching TV.
Golf can be played in poor weather but not in thunderstorms - you're the tallest object on the fairway and you're wielding a metal club above you.
The game is invested with a samurai-code of decorum and honour. If your ball has gone into the rough, you may be the only person to see where it's landed. The other players will trust you to play it from precisely where it lies without any semi-accidental scuffs with your shoe to get it from behind a pesky fern. Part of what drives this is that golf clubs were traditionally the weekend version of the Chamber of Commerce or Tammany Hall where alliances were made and business deals stitched up, so you were on your mettle to appear trustworthy, especially if you were as slimy a toad as the rest of the members.
Breaches of etiquette that could get you kicked off the course include:
- Losing your temper, such as hurling a club or shouting at another player,
- Damaging the course, or failing to repair the inevitable toll of displaced divots and scrunched up sand bunkers,
- Playing too quickly so your ball hurtles into the group ahead of you,
- Playing too slowly so you impede a faster group behind - let them "play through",
- Dress-code violations,
- And yapping on your cell phone.
Check the local arrangements for caddies: are you expected to hire one, is it for a fixed fee or tip or whatever.
And whenever the club secretary waxes lyrical about this fine tradition of respect, don't publicly ask when did he first admit women and non-whites to full membership.
- As one playing season ends, another somewhere in the world is starting. There's always another resort you can head for and avoid facing the folk back home.
- Clean your equipment after play - that's commonsense care, and also relevant to biosecurity. Some border posts are antsy about this.