By Larry Olmstead

There are a lot of secret methods for legitimately getting on golf courses that are widely considered ultra private and untouchable. Bear with me for a moment and I will tell you how to learn those secrets. It will cost you exactly nothing, since they are being given away for free.

Here's a true story:

Somerset Hills is a classic century-old design by the legendary A. W. Tillinghast that sits quietly in rural New Jersey, with few members and fewer guests. The old-line ultra-private club is one of the best golf courses in the world, currently ranked 47th in the U.S. among all challengers, public or private, by Golf Magazine, ahead of stalwarts such as Spyglass Hill, Shadow Creek, Torrey Pines, this year’s U.S. Open venue, Congressional, and about 18,000 others. But the ranking is deceptive: These lists give weight to the history of having played major tournaments, which puts Somerset Hills at a disadvantage to its more famous peers like Shinnecock Hills, Olympic Club and Merion. Having played them all, I would say it is better than these three higher-ranked layouts. I'd say it is one of the best golf courses in the nation, and among the elite in the world.

World's top places to play golf
In Pictures: World's top places to play golf

So how much would you pay to play Somerset Hills?

It's certainly better than courses that command more $300, like the Champions Course at Florida’s PGA National. It's better than Las Vegas' Cascata and Wynn Golf Club, which both command a whopping $500. So, I think if you are a true golf lover who cares about great architecture and memorable experiences (and can afford it), it is probably worth a thousand bucks.

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Buy my friend and frequent golf companion, Mr. G, disagrees. He just bought a threesome to accompany a member at the club’s monthly member/guest at Somerset Hills at a charity auction at his son’s school for $750. That's $250 per player, or the same as lots of crappy courses in Florida.

Charity auctions are the leading unsung way to play the nation's greatest layouts. I've been at such affairs and seen rounds at Augusta National and Cypress Point offered. A good friend of mine just bought a charity auction package that included two rounds at Pine Valley (pictured), the pundits' consensus best course on earth, and about the toughest ticket in the game, far harder to get on than Augusta.

There is virtually no golf course, including some that are so private they don't have any members, like Denver's The Sanctuary, personally owned by Re/Max realty founder Dave Liniger, that you can’t get on through charity.

The problem is that the charity auction market is heavily fragmented, and if you didn’t happen to have a kid in the random school my friend's sons goes to in New Jersey, you might never get the opportunity to steal a round at Somerset Hills.

Until now.

David Baum, owner of The Golf Vacation Insider, has painstakingly compiled a free list of the best charity auctions for getting onto top courses. Yes, I said free.

I know David and this is no scam. He was a very successful financier at Goldman Sachs until 9/11 caused him to reevaluate his priorities, and led to him moving from Wall Street to the golf course, his real passion. He shares the same passion for great courses, travel and golf course architecture that I do, so much so that he started a few businesses in this sector. He recently compiled a guide called "21 Secrets to Playing the Golf Courses of Your Dream."

Okay, so some of the 21 hints aren’t exactly revolutionary, like having your home pro call the club for you. But there are a bunch of new tricks in here. Baum even tells you how you can buy private course access on eBay. In addition to the 21 secrets is the detailed list of auctions that sell access to particular courses, including dates and contact info, by far the best thing in the guide in my opinion. The list reads like a Who's Who of great golf and includes 10 of the of the top 20 private courses in the United States, according to Golf Magazine, considered the most authoritative such ranking. These courses, all available at auction, are:

Merion, Crystal Downs, Seminole, Winged Foot, Prairie Dunes, San Francisco, Riviera, Oakland Hills, Friar's Head, Olympic Club. The rest of Baum’s list is packed with superstars including many more U.S. Open and PGA Championship venues, Southern Hills, Olympia Fields, Medinah, Muirfield Village, Maidstone, East Lake, Bel Air CC, Baltusrol, and yes, Somerset Hills.

Putting this together took a lot of heavy lifting, and as Baum said, "As far as I know, nobody has ever put together a list like this." He sells printed versions of the 28-page report for $27 at, but he gives it away electronically if you register (again for free) to Golf Vacation Insider. It's easier to use this link for the free offer, rather than find it through the main site.

So what is Golf Vacation Insider? It's basically a website and email newsletter offering reviews of new and existing golf courses and resorts, special deals and lots of insidery golf travel advice. Its tagline is "Where to
Stay, Where to Play, What to Pay." If you love golf and travel to play golf, even if you have absolutely no interest in buying private course tee times at auction, Golf Vacation Insider is probably a good idea for you.

You can also very easily unsubscribe at any time (you won't want to, though). Either way you still get the free guide to the best private golf access.

In Pictures: World's best places to play golf