A Top 100 Courses panellist explains his best methods for getting some of the world’s toughest tee-times

So many golf lovers, myself included, get lured in by elite, private clubs and the desire to play their courses. You know they consistently make the top golf course lists in publications such as Golf Digest and you hear the hushed chatter of those who have played them.

Although there is a burning desire to experience these places, it feels like there are large barriers (some quite literally) stopping you, or maybe even a secret handshake required. So, how do people actually play there?

We are blessed in Australia to have some of the world’s best golf courses right here in our own backyard. Unlike the USA, many of our country’s top courses are also public. In the USA, only one course in the Golf Digest top 10 is a public golf course, and it can still cost up to $700 for a round. Your TV screen is as close as you’re likely to get to the rest.

Compare this to Australia where two of our top four courses can be played by anyone. Even better, you can play them for less than $200 with all-day rates available. We are also blessed in Australia to have reciprocal course access, which does not really exist in many other countries. Your membership may allow you to access other private courses across the country. Even if it doesn’t, many of our top courses allow interstate golfers to play for a fee, perhaps with a letter of introduction from your home club.

In Australia, we also have a variety of charity golf days held at our top golf courses and companies that hold private days for a fee at most of our top 10.

So how do you access private courses in the USA if you are travelling? Here are a few ways I have found.

Meeting members at the course you wish to play is always the best way. Not only might you gain access to amazing courses, you might also make some life-long friends. Meeting these people and getting an invitation is not necessarily easy, but I have met wonderful members at charity events and by playing at public courses in that country.

I once met two gentlemen at a public course in Los Angeles; one of them was from a prestigious course in New York and the other from a top course there in LA. Since then, I have been lucky enough to play golf with both men numerous times at their home courses. They in turn have other friends that might join you and be members at other exclusive courses. Bear in mind, the more exclusive the public course you play, the more likely you are to meet people who are members at better courses.

Another way is to stay at certain hotels. You may have to become an internet detective, but there are hotels in numerous countries (not always cheap ones, mind you) that have special arrangements with top courses nearby.

Some tips have served me well. Be generous with your own time and offer to host other golfers back here in Australia. I have flown interstate just to host friends who have been generous with their home courses internationally, and I wanted to return the favour. I have also helped members from some exclusive clubs get the low-down on trips across New Zealand or Australia.

Also be genuine. These are friendships that may be more than just golf transactions over time. People from exclusive clubs are constantly hassled for access to their home courses, and it gets old very quickly for them. If they have invited you to attend, bring a small gift from Australia and a handwritten card to say thank you for the opportunity. The gratefulness and effort are often noticed, and future invites or connections with their friends given.

After one round at a great course (one of my favourites) in San Francisco, we went back to the clubhouse bar. I don’t drink and that always piques their interest as they assume that, as an Aussie, it’s a given! Instead I gave out some Caramello Koala chocolates and Minties. That started lots of different conversations and, from that one post-round chat, I received invites to numerous other top courses in the area.

Like with most things in life, listen, be respectful and grateful and invitations do occur down the track. I have learnt to not wear out my welcome and to read the tea leaves for those host members, with the expectation that they have been generous and that the transaction has now been completed. Respect that, as continuing to push that connection often leads to negative barriers at other clubs where they have friends.

I love international golf, the friends I have made and the courses I have had the opportunity to play. Yet some of my favourite courses are still public courses, like Barnbougle in Tasmania, or Oak Quarry in the USA. Sometimes you have to appreciate that any golf is great golf. 

Loren Justins has been a member of our Top 100 Courses judging panel since 2010 and US Golf Digest’s panel since 2017.

Illustration by Mario Wagner