In terms of the quality of golf, resorts, countries and cultures, 2015 is at the top of the ten years I’ve been a “travel insider.”
With two trips to South Korea, three to Ireland, Canada, Hawaii, multiple trips to the Midwest and the Pacific Northwest, 2015 was also my most traveled year. I logged over 200,000 miles of an ongoing magic carpet ride as I chase the sun at some of the best golf getaways in the world.
Pebble ($495), Pasatiempo, Portrush, Bandon, Cabot, Cypress, Sea Island, Straits, Ardglass, The Goat, Royal County Down, Waterville and Winter Park Country Club ($8 for residents), just to name of few.
And don’t think I don’t appreciate my incredibly fortunate position of being asked to review golf for a living. I say it a lot, because it’s true, but I never take it for granted. And, as it relates to helping you make the best decision for you and your group, as to where to stay and play, I take it seriously.
For the purpose of reflecting on five of my 2015 highlights, I’m excluding the two personal buddies trips—the Uncle Tony Invitational at Bandon Dunes in Oregon and the Father/Son at Waterville in Ireland. But I am considering the trip I took to Northern Ireland, where I was invited to play in the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open Pro-Am at Royal County Down.
“Let me think about that for a second,” I said. And I waited one second. “I am IN!”
1. IRISH OPEN PRO-AM
My best friend, Todd Curran, would caddie for me. And we’d plan more golf on the front and back end of the tournament. We stayed at the Culloden Estate and Spa, Slieve Donard Resort and Spa, and Ardtara, some of Ireland’s elite lodging options.
We played Holywood, home of Rory McIlroy, who treated us to a tee time and trolleys. Royal Portrush, host of the 2019 Open Championship. Portstewart, which has one of the most underrated front nines in the UK. We played Ardglass, a hidden gem and a must play on any Northern Ireland golf itinerary.
Off the course, we caught the tail end of a Van Morrison concert. (That part where he walks off the stage because he’s distracted and disrespected by crowd activity.)
As for the pro-am, in which I was paired with Rickie Fowler, who had just won The Players Championship, it was my most memorable round of my year. (I didn’t say “best,” I said “most memorable.”)
There was quite a crowd gathered around the first tee. Over 3,000 crazed Irish golf fans, and only about half of them were there to see Fowler. Most of them were fans of my other two playing partners, who are apparently very famous.
A.P. McCoy, I’ve since learned, is the Secretariat of jockeys in the UK. At 4,357 career wins, he has almost twice the number of wins than the guy who is second best. McCoy might’ve been more popular than Fowler.
The other amateur in the group was Patrick Kielty, a successful comedian who was born and raised in County Down. A hometown hero, of sorts.
And then there was me, who was incredibly overwhelmed and humbled by the situation. I shook. I had the sweats. Shortness of breath. And I sucked. At least until the eighth or ninth hole, when I finally started to feel my feet. I was so afraid of killing someone. There were so many people. And they were so close. And they were all in danger. Regardless, my buddy and I had a blast. All week. But don’t expect us to remember all of the details.
What I do remember is Fowler and his caddie, Joe Skovron, were gracious and engaging. The crowd was warm and supportive. The same could be said of Ireland in general. It might not be the “Home of Golf,” but a golf trip to Northern Ireland rivals any trip to St. Andrews.
2. CRENSHAW’S LAST MASTERS
One of the most cherished benefits of doing what I do has been getting to spend time with Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw, who are not only successful partners in architecture, but they are two of the game’s finest gentlemen. And going into Crenshaw’s last Masters, I found out two things: That I’d be interviewing Crenshaw the week before Augusta National, and that I had an invite to his party after his final competitive round.
At Big Cedar Lodge in the Ozark Mountains of Missouri, Crenshaw shared his emotions and state of mind as he approached his 44th Masters week. “Quite simply, I can’t play the course,” said Crenshaw. “It’s the right time. It’s part of life. I will be an encourager of the younger players from now on.”
I’ve covered eleven Masters, but this was my first time going to Augusta as a fan. My friends and I were in the massive gallery encouraging Crenshaw on Friday afternoon.
Having met up with him on the 11th tee, Crenshaw saw me standing outside the ropes. He nodded, and then walked over to where I was standing. He shook hands with my friends, and then, when it was his turn to tee off, he offered me his driver. “Here,” he gestured. “You hit this. I can’t reach the fairway anymore.” The crowd laughed with him. And then Crenshaw obviously hit the shot. A high draw, slinging its way down the hill and coming to rest on the left side of the fairway. Short, but serviceable. Such a proud man and champion, and yet so decent and humble. I remember watching Crenshaw navigate the drastic decent down the 11th tee and into Amen Corner for one last time. The legend and legacy he leaves behind at Augusta National will last forever.
Later that night, Crenshaw gathered a small crowd into the living room of a rented house in Augusta. He stood in the middle, rotating and making eye contact with people as he talked and turned. “You can’t make it in this life without friends,” said Crenshaw. “Bobby Jones once said that friends are among life’s most cherished possessions. And he was right. We are rich with friends. I want to thank you all for your support. As for today, I don’t know how to describe it, other than I’m happy it’s over. And I’ll be seeing a lot more of this guy, my partner in architecture, Bill Coore.”
And then he called Carl Jackson to the center of the room. Jackson is Crenshaw’s longtime caddie and soulmate, and as the loyal looper took his place next to Crenshaw, the two men locking arms, Jackson was back to being the tree Crenshaw has leaned on throughout the years. The relationship so much more than just club selection and putting breaks.
“I love you until the day I die,” said Crenshaw, looking up at Jackson. And then he turned back to the crowd. “When we’d try to read a putt, I would say, ‘Carl, it looks like one cup to the right.’ And if he agreed, he’d always say to me, ‘We’re together.’ Well,” said Crenshaw, “Carl, we’re together.”
Needless to say, to have spent that time with the Crenshaws, during that week was incredibly special. And so was playing on opening day of Cabot Cliffs with Crenshaw, in which he shot a smooth 73. Coore and Crenshaw’s addition to Cabot Links will officially open in Inverness, Nova Scotia next summer. I always felt it would be in the conversation of the top 10 courses in North America. Now that it’s done, it might be in consideration for top 10 in the world.
3. SOUTH KOREA
Having made two trips to South Korea in 2015, one for a travel story, and one for a story relating to the Olympics in 2016, I was afforded an incredible opportunity to experience the Korean culture and get to know more about why they’ve emerged as such a force in the future of golf. Even though, of the two million golfers in country, only 40 percent actually play golf on one of the 500 courses. The rest go to simulators or driving ranges. (Simulator golf tournaments are televised.) To the kids, golf is not a game—even at an early age—golf is a career opportunity. The kids are trained to be machines. They are expected to be masters of a chosen craft.
Anyway, what they’re doing is working. And it was fascinating to learn more about the who, how and why.
Not to mention, having tea and later emailing with a real monk. I got a picture with the cheerleaders of one of the professional baseball teams. I got rototilled by some of the countries finest amateur table tennis players. Even the smallest and sweetest of my competitors heartlessly blasted ping pong balls off of my forehead. They nod and apologize, of course.
As for the Jack Nicklaus golf course at the Jack Nicklaus Golf Club, which hosted the Presidents Cup, it was hard to believe you pay $1 million for a membership. The course is good, considering it’s all built on landfill, but far from great. That being said, it provided ample drama to a well-contested Cup. More proof that you don’t have to have a great course to have a compelling match play venue and event.
4. REVERSIBLE ROUTING
Having covered the history, design, development and redesigns of hundreds of courses all over the world, it’s now hard to come across something truly unique. And then I started covering Tom Doak’s design of a reversible course at Forest Dunes in Roscommon, Mich. “I like to say that I didn’t build two courses,” said Doak. “I built 18 greens that can be attacked from multiple directions.”
What Doak says is true, but those 18 greens will be consumed by the avid amateur as one course that is played one day in a clockwise order of 1 to 18. And the next day, golfers will go on a routing that is counterclockwise.
And the two routings will certainly be directly compared as though they are two different courses. Which they are. And to have been there through various stages of development, even playing a portion of the course with Doak when it was still just dirt, was priceless access and an education in advanced golf architecture.
Although the green complexes are small for such a layered concept, I do think Doak pulled it off. And I’m excited to see the feedback when the course opens for limited preview play in the summer of 2016. If successful, an efficient and sustainably smart concept like this has serious growth potential, especially as the world of golf continues to consider alternate ways of growing the game.
5. HERB KOHLER, PETE DYE AND DESTINATION KOHLER
From Coore and Crenshaw at Cabot, to Doak at Forest Dunes, Robert Trent Jones Jr., at Chambers Bay, David McLay Kidd at Sand Valley, Tom Weiskopf at TPC Scottsdale, Tom Fazio at Waterville, Gil Hanse at Streamsong, Jim Wagner at Mossy Oak and Keith Rhebb at Winter Park Country Club, I learned a lot about architecture in 2015. But one of the more memorable moments was interviewing Herb Kohler and Pete Dye about the development of Blackwolf Run, Whistling Straits and how they brought multiple majors to one remote Midwestern destination.
Dye has built all four courses at Destination Kohler. And there are ongoing talks of a fifth course. “We better do it quick,” said Kohler. “While Pete is still alive.” Both men laughed. (Dye celebrated his 90th birthday on Dec. 29, 2015.)
In doing that interview, as well as touring and sampling all of what the resort has to offer, I was reminded why it is one of the ultimate golf getaways in the world.
The Straits is my favorite of all Pete Dye public designs. Service is exceptional. The food options, culinary culture and other off-course amenities are tirelessly held to five-star standards. I also had the opportunity to sit down with David Kohler, who has recently taken over a bulk of the leadership responsibility on behalf of his father.
The younger Kohler has worked his way up to the top of the company, and it’s obvious he has an appreciation and respect for all that has been created within the family brand. David is sharp, articulate, thoughtful and demanding. Kohler Company is in good hands, which is more good news for the avid amateur.
From subsidized caddie academies and junior green fees, water conservation and redesigns, reversible routings and the ongoing growth of short courses, foot golf and Top Golf, I’m looking forward to shining the light on more of what’s right with golf in 2016.