Many golfers dream of having the opportunity to play one of the many celebrated private courses in the United States, such as Pine Valley in New Jersey; Shinnecock Hills in Southampton, New York; Riviera Country Club in Pacific Palisades, California; and Augusta National Golf Club in Georgia. But challenging golf experiences on memorable layouts are also available at courses open for public play. According to the PGA of America and the World Golf Foundation, 80 percent of all golf rounds are played on courses that are open to the public, including municipal courses.
Municipal courses are owned and/or managed by the city, town or county. Public courses are owned by individuals, real estate development companies, partnerships or corporations. Public courses may be owned by one entity and managed by another. For example, the two courses at Arizona's Talking Stick Golf Club were designed by Ben Crenshaw and Bill Coore, are owned by the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community and managed by a company called Troon Golf, which also manages a number of other golf clubs in the metro Phoenix area.
Municipal courses generally have lower green fees than public courses, but not always. Preference in both tee times and prices may be given to residents of the city or county over nonresidents. Torrey Pines' South Course near San Diego is a top-rated municipal course with green fees for 18 holes that can range up to approximately $300 for nonresidents. On the lower end, many municipal courses across the country can be played for less than $20.
Although municipal golf courses may earn money, cities and counties typically do not have a profit motive. Their primary mission is to provide reasonably priced outdoor recreation for local residents. Municipal courses use their revenue sources to pay for the maintenance of the course and facilities, including staff salaries. Privately owned public courses, however, are usually managed with the objective of making money. Municipal courses typically offer motorized cart rentals, but many do not require golfers to use carts. Public courses are more likely to require cart rental. Municipal courses also may offer only limited food and beverage options such as snacks and soft drinks to avoid the expense of operating a restaurant, while public courses are more likely to have full-service restaurants and more extensive golf shop merchandise. Municipal courses can have more upscale amenities, though, and public courses can be bare bones.
Major golf championships have historically been played at private courses instead of municipal golf facilities, but that has begun to change in recent years, as the USGA has started to select more public courses as venues for its championship events. For example, Chambers Bay, a municipal layout near Tacoma, Washington, will play host to the 2015 U.S. Open, and Bethpage Black, a state-owned course in New York, hosted the U.S. Open in 2002 and 2009. PGA Tour tournaments are held at a mix of private courses and public courses, including a few municipal courses such as Torrey Pines. In recent years, higher-quality public and municipal facilities have been built or older courses have been redesigned and upgraded to be tournament-quality layouts.