Value is obviously relative. And a 'value golf course' is an assessment of history, design, condition, service, fun factor, charm and cost relative to other courses in the area. Having had the opportunity to play throughout the U.S., I've developed a sliding scale of comparison courses that helps me make judgment calls on what I can safely consider good value. Those courses are Old Brack in San Antonio ($55), Bethpage Black in New York ($75), The Classic in Brainerd, Minn. ($125), Forest Dunes in Roscommon, Mich. ($150) and Pasatiempo in Santa Cruz, Calif. ($250).
For my money, my own money, I'd always be OK paying peak-season prices to play those courses on a weekend. Any course over $250 would have to be one of the best, not only in the country, but in the world. And at $495, plus the caddie or cart fee and at least $700 to stay in The Lodge, even a course like Pebble is relegated once-in-a-lifetime status.
I could play any of the courses on the following list every day for a lifetime. And that's the difference.
I'll continue to add to the list below until it becomes The Ultimate Guide to Value Golf in the U.S. (I'll stop at 50 courses, and continue to tweak the list accordingly.) The order will start with Coronado, the least expensive, and no course on this list will be over $99; $100 is a fair ceiling to what most cost-conscious avid amateurs would consider 'ultimate' value.
• Coronado GC in Coronado, Calif. ($35)
A good course with some fun holes. The flat terrain makes it easily walkable and finishes with a scenic stretch of golf along the San Diego Bay. Slow play can be an issue, but that's also a tribute to its popularity, not necessarily because it's a problem. People who play Coronado are willing to spend more time on the course as opposed to spending more money to ensure a four-hour round.
• Wachusett CC in West Boylston, Mass. ($40)
A Donald Ross original (1927), only 45 minutes from downtown Boston – Wachusett has been owned and operated by four generations of the Marrone family. The finishing hole is a 177-yard par 3.
• Peninsula Golf Resort in Lancaster, Ky. ($42)
There aren't a lot of Pete Dye designs for under $50. If you can find Peninsula Golf Resort, roughly 45 minutes from Lexington, you'll consider this course great value. With 24 neighboring four-bedroom villas, it's especially great for buddies trips who like non-pretentious seclusion for their various forms of debauchery.
• Warren Golf Course in Notre Dame, Ind. ($45)
The website says it all: 'Beautiful, Playable and Affordable.' Host of Notre Dame's golf teams and the 2010 Women's Public Links Championship, the Warren Course was built by Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw in 1999.
• The Highlands in Elgin, Ill. ($46)
A little less than an hour from Chicago, Highlands was built by Keith Foster and is considered one of the best deals in the Chicagoland area. Foster, one of the good guys in the golf industry, worked with Arthur Hills, and after breaking out on his own, has built up a well-respected resume of courses. He has also renovated some greats, such as: Southern Hills in Tulsa, Okla.;Garden City on Long Island and Colonial CC in Fort Worth, Texas.
• Wild Horse G.C. in Gothenburg, Neb. ($48.50)
Not far from Sand Hills Golf Club in Mullen, Neb., Wild Horse gets almost as much acclaim. Especially for a green fee of less than $50. Dave Axeland and Dan Proctor, two of the guys who worked on Sand Hills with Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw, designed Wild Horse. You'll enjoy a minimalist look on rolling dunesland for a nominal fee.
• Pacific Grove in Pacific Grove, Calif. ($52)
The back nine offers glimpses and stretches of golf along the same coastline as Pebble Beach. Pacific Grove is widely considered the poster course for value golf, and thus, it's on this list. ‘Nuff said.
• CommonGround in Denver, Colo. ($52)
Tom Doak waived his design fee to renovate an old military course into an 18-hole championship course and a nine-hole kid’s course. Doak did such a good job, CommonGround was used as the companion course to Cherry Hills for the 2012 U.S. Amateur Championship.
• Delray Beach Golf Club in Delray Beach, Fla. ($52)
The oldest muny in a state loaded with golf, Donald Ross built the first nine holes in 1923. Some complain about slow play, but no one is opposed to the green fee or the $3 charge for a bucket of balls.
• Brackenridge Park Golf Course in San Antonio, Texas ($55)
An A.W. Tillinghast original, 'Old Brack' is the oldest golf course in Texas and original host of the Texas Open (1922). With strategic doglegs, tree-lined fairways, some elevated square greens that are well protected by iconic Tilly bunkering – although it's only 6,200 yards from the tips – Old Brack has plenty of bite.