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Capital Conundrum: Which destination is the golf capital of the United States?

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The PGA Tour is in our nation's capital this week for the AT&T National, which begs the question: Which destination is our country's golf capital?

A handful of golf destinations claim to be the golf capital of America - or even the world - and plenty more can throw their hat in the ring as contenders.

It’s hard not to recognize established golf resorts like Kohler, Kiawah Island or Bandon Dunes, while other golf-rich destinations like Hilton Head Island, San Diego, Orlando all have strong cases. 

So which destination is in fact America’s Golf Capital? Here are seven finalists: 

The Monterey Peninsula: I’ve long trumpeted this special spot in northern California as the best golf destination in the world, not just America. Pebble Beach Golf Links alone has the scenery, history and swagger to carry the moniker, but Spanish Bay, Spyglass Hill, Quail Lodge and ultra-private clubs like Cypress Point and the Monterey Peninsula Country Club make up a deep roster of places to play. Those to say the place is too pricey have never played Pacific Grove, Del Monte (the oldest course in continuous operation west of the Mississippi River), Poppy Hills and the Bayonet and Blackhorse courses in Seaside. 

Pinehurst: The Sandhills of North Carolina are another place filled with history and charm, especially the village of Pinehurst. All the destination lacks is the ocean. The recent redesign of Donald Ross’ Pinehurst No. 2 has rejuvenated Pinehurst Resort. The No. 4, No. 7 and No. 8 courses are just as good as No. 2 in my opinion. Smaller resorts like Mid Pines Inn & Golf Club and Pine Needles Lodge & Golf Club – and the wild look of Tobacco Road by Mike Strantz – can keep golfers busy for a week or more.

Myrtle Beach: The “Grand Strand” – a stretch of roughly 90 miles from Pawley’s Plantation, S.C., up into North Carolina – once boasted more than 115 courses. That number has been trimmed to around 90, but that’s still enough inventory to be the self-proclaimed “Golf Capital of the World,” a slogan trotted out by Myrtle Beach Golf Holiday. I call this place an “everyman” kind of golf destination. It’s affordable and loaded with convenience, making it ideal for buddy trips of all sizes. Resorts, restaurants, bars, entertainment and courses can be found seemingly on every block.

Phoenix-Scottsdale.: The Valley of the Sun could probably proclaim itself America’s “Winter Golf Capital.” Outside of southern California and southern Florida, it’s probably got the best golf weather in the country from October through April. Heavyweight clubs – think Troon North, Grayhawk, Talking Stick, TPC Scottsdale, We-Ko-Pa, The Boulders – compete every day to impress customers with great service and awesome desert courses in prime condition. In summer, the rates drop significantly for value-hunters still looking to bag a trophy course.

Northern Michigan: The Gaylord Golf Mecca calls itself “America’s Summer Golf Capital,” but we’ll lump in northern Michigan as a whole for this piece. Maybe I’m biased because I live in Michigan, but this is my second favorite golf destination in the States. What it lacks in high-end restaurants and nightlife, it makes up for with comfortable summer temperatures, a rustic backwoods vibe, cool beach towns like Traverse City, Harbor Springs and Charlevoix and plenty of great golf resorts (Boyne Mountain and Highlands, Bay Harbor, Treetops, Crystal Mountain, Shanty Creek Resorts, Grand Traverse Resort & Spa, Arcadia Bluffs, The Homestead) and standalone courses (Forest Dunes, Black Lake, True North).

Naples: Naples also proclaims to be the “Golf Capital of the World.” This ritzy, sleepy southwest Florida enclave does boast the second-most golf holes per capita than any other community in the country. I’m not a fan of Florida’s flat terrain and how developers constantly use all the best beachfront property for real estate and resorts instead of golf holes, but there’s no arguing there’s plenty of strong golf at Tiburon, TPC Treviso Bay and Old Corkscrew, along with wonderful restaurants up and down Tamiami Trail and a vibrant art and shopping scene.

Palm Springs: I hesitate to put Palm Springs here, because this desert oasis might be past its prime. It’s not as much of a Hollywood hangout anymore and the bursting of the real estate bubble has decimated Coachella Valley, putting many of the golf courses in financial limbo. But there’s just too much history and too many fine resorts, restaurants and courses – Indian Wells, PGA West’s TPC Stadium course, La Quinta, etc. – to ignore another vacation hideaway known for great winter weather.