An Overview of Golf Vacations

For those who wish to improve their game (or simply watch a lot of great golf): schools, resorts and tours

By , Wednesday, May 11, 2005, 12:00 AM

The sport of swells doesn't have to be. A top golf specialist reveals how you, too, can tee off at acceptable costs, and yet at famous clubs and courses.

In Scotland, the birthplace of golf, the sport is still infused with the character of its humble origins, a game invented by working class shepherds, played first with sticks and rocks, later balls and clubs. Modern day residents and students in St. Andrews, the town synonymous with the game, can play the legendary courses of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club for an entire season for what Americans pay for a single round at Pebble Beach.

But golf in this country has strayed from its egalitarian beginnings and for more than a hundred years has been perceived as a sport for the idle rich. If the golf media, with its "best of" and "must play" lists were to be believed, no round under $100 would be satisfactory, and a week-long golf vacation would be the sole province of Fortune 500 executives.

Golf for everyone

America is awash in first-rate, bargain-priced golf, and you can actually play and stay for a week for less than what one round on the nation's most expensive layouts would cost. Not only is cheap golf out there, but there is great cheap golf. So whether you want a week of warm-weather golf, a long weekend away from home, or a chance to hone your skills at a golf school, we'll be naming the very best deals.

First, a summary: there are several reasons golf can be cheap. One is competition in areas where so many courses are found that prices have to be low. Nowhere is this more the case than in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, a budget golf mecca. Off-season weather also brings cheap golf, and summer heat wilts prices in Florida, Arizona, and desert regions. Next, "municipal courses," a loosely used term for government-subsidized facilities, can also be great bargains whether they are affiliated with a municipality or not. While many are individual courses not worth traveling to, others, like the excellent string of facilities throughout Alabama, are destinations in their own right.

More reasons: Golf courses are increasingly being built to encourage summer traffic at winter destinations such as ski resorts, and some, like those we've found in Canada, offer off-season deals in prime golf season. Throw in the strong exchange rate of the U.S. dollar vs. Canada's, and these are some of the best deals going. Finally, there are courses in areas subsidized by casino gambling, where greens fees, like meals and entertainment, are kept artificially low to lure bettors. In this case, Las Vegas is the exception, as a shortage of courses keeps prices high, but areas like Reno, Nevada, and the gulf coast of Alabama offer great golf bargains.

Because of the success of the first U.S. Open ever held on an affordable course, Torrey Pines (outside San Diego), another high-quality municipal course, was just selected as the 2008 Open venue. This is a great trend, but in both these cases, the difficulty of getting a tee time offsets the bargain-at Bethpage, for example, golfers have been known to sleep in their cars to get tee times for the next day.
Read further for information on North America's best (and most affordable) golf towns, schools, resorts and tours.

Golf towns

Myrtle Beach, South Carolina: It may be old hat, but Golf City, USA, remains the nation's perennial bargain destination, and things are even better these days. At last count, some 120 18-hole public layouts were competing for visitors (with more on the way), as were a formidable array of budget accommodations. Myrtle Beach, an established destination, is all about packages that offer a smorgasbord of golf and lodging choices for unbelievably low prices.

The second most heavily visited beach resort in America for persons traveling by car, Myrtle Beach in the '90s became a travel phenomenon, a destination for millions each year, some of them attracted by a growing number of country music theatres and other evening performance venues, and others by golf. Though the golfing here hasn't much "cachet," and you might not want to boast about the stay to your friends, it is certainly a center for affordable golf vacations, and totally unpretentious in atmosphere and facilities.

The big player is Myrtle Beach Golf Holiday (800/845-GOLF, golfholiday.com/), which offers a free and comprehensive handbook detailing every course, hotel, motel, and resort, along with package pricing. For more detailed information and hotel brochures, find the Myrtle Beach Chamber of Commerce at myrtlebeachlive.com/.

Palm Springs, California: As a runner-up to Myrtle Beach, golfing here is of the highest quality, and widely available on numerous courses, but frightfully expensive (both for lodgings and greens fees) in winter and early spring. Go, instead, in off-season (June 1 to December 31) and you'll enjoy remarkably low rates for golf and accommodations at hotels ranging from the upscale Palm Springs Hilton Resort to the Wyndham Palm Springs Hotel (using the Tahquitz Creek Legends Course) to the moderately-priced Holiday Inn Palm Mountain Resort (using the Mesquite Country Club.) For a mouth-watering brochure of all the low-cost opportunities available to you during the blisteringly-hot summer months (it does cool down in fall and early winter), write to the City of Palm Springs Tourism Division, 777 N. Palm Canyon Drive, Suite 201, Palm Springs, California, 92262, or access palm-springs.org/.

A Tale of Two Floridas: Florida is one of the most golf-crazed states in the Union, and off-season it offers great bargains. But unlike Arizona, Nevada, or other hot-weather locales, off-season varies greatly throughout the state. For instance, southern and eastern Florida turn into golf ghost towns when summer's high temperatures and humidity arrive. But Orlando, which revolves around school holidays, is jammed all summer long, as is the Panhandle. There, winter is off-season, although to golfers from the rest of the country, even then it's a fine getaway from the cold.

The premier golf resort in the Panhandle is Sandestin (800/622-1038, sandestin.com/) in Destin, famed for some of the world's best beaches. A few years ago, Sandestin was purchased by Intrawest, the Canadian ski-resort operator that pioneered the pedestrian resort village concept at Whistler Blackcomb, British Columbia, and Mont Tremblant, Quebec. Things have only improved at Sandestin with the addition of a new hotel, a new high-end course, and a village full of shops, restaurants, and nightlife. In the winter off-season (November to February), when it's fine golf weather here, packages are $190 per person, double occupancy, with lodging and golf on either at one of four courses.

On the Atlantic Coast, near Jacksonville, the largest golf resort is Palm Coast Golf Resort, with four courses by big-name designers Arnold Palmer and Gary Player. Palm Coast changed hands, and the new owners built a marquee fifth layout, Ocean Hammock (800/654-6538, oceanhammock.com/), a Jack Nicklaus Signature course with a luxury hotel to go with it. It's priced out of reach of bargain hunters, but stay at Palm Harbor for a steal. Unlimited-play packages, which easily allow for two rounds per day with late-summer daylight, plus a room at the on-site resort hotel and discounts on meals, starts at $45 per person, per night weekdays, from May to October.

Reno, Nevada: Reno features many of the same big-name hotel/casino operators found in Atlantic City and Las Vegas, plus access to numerous golf courses in the Reno/Sparks area, as well as those in nearby Lake Tahoe and Carson City. Throw in plentiful cheap dining and entertainment, as well as great weather, and these gambling-subsidized golf packages are great buys.

There are about a dozen good courses in the immediate Reno vicinity. Most hotel packages include the same courses, so price, hotel choice, and included features are the main distinctions. Atlantis Casino Resort currently offers a package for $89 per person, consisting of two nights' lodging, two breakfasts, and one round of golf at the better courses (800/723-6500, atlantiscasino.com/). Harrah's Sweet Tee package includes two night's lodging, a round of golf at one of the better courses, for $79 per person (800/HARRAHS, harrahs.com/).

The Reno airport is an inexpensive destination served by both major airlines and low-cost carriers, notably Southwest. Details of golf packages from 14 casino hotels are available at http://golf.renolaketahoe.com/.

Primm, Nevada: Anyone who tells you great golf courses are expensive is dead wrong. Primm is proof. Drive just 40 miles south from the Vegas Strip on I-15 to Primm. You won't find Primm on most maps. It's not really a town, just an exit near the California border with three casino resort hotels, a huge factory-outlet mall, a gas station, and the two-course Primm Valley Golf Club (primmvalleyresorts.com/). The whole shebang is owned by MGM Mirage, which also owns Las Vegas's Shadow Creek, the nation's most expensive golf course, with greens fees of $500. (Yes, $500.) Locals call Primm Valley "the poor man's Shadow Creek," and they aren't far off. Like its cousin, Primm's courses were designed by Tom Fazio, widely considered the greatest living designer. Primm's 36 holes feature the same ornate landscaping as Shadow Creek: flower beds, elaborate water features, boulder-lined creeks, and waterfalls. In fact, all three courses have been ranked in Golf Magazine's "Top 100 You Can Play."

Rack rates for Primm packages are $80 per person, per night in the off-season (June to October) and $125-155 in peak season, but specials are often available. Second-round replays are also discounted to as low as $50 in summer. You can often add room and a round on both excellent courses for about $100 a day.

Bear Trace/Tennessee Golf Trail, Tennessee: To compete with Alabama's Robert Trent Jones Sr. designs, Tennessee went to Jack Nicklaus, the most famous golfer in history, now a world-class course designer. Nicklaus offers several "brands" of courses, and the more a developer spends, the more of Nicklaus's hands-on input he gets. The most prestigious level is the Jack Nicklaus Signature course, which adds $1 million to the tab. These are typically found at private, high-end country clubs and at a handful of luxury resorts such as the Four Seasons chain, and playing them will usually set you back over $200 a round.

But in Tennessee, Nicklaus reduced his million-dollar fee and built five excellent courses across the state. Each Bear Trace (866/770-2327, beartrace.com/) destination is unique, built to fit its surroundings, allowing the traveling golfer to experience variety along the way. There are two major booking agencies that offer custom packages along the trail, combining rounds at one or more courses with a choice of nearby lodging: Tucker Golf (888/826-1714, tuckergolf.com/) and Fairways Golf Travel (fairwaysgolftravel.com/). Golf rates start at $39 for Mondays and Tuesdays, $49 for Wednesdays and Thursdays, and $59 for Fridays through Sunday.

But the Bear Trace is not the only golf to be found in Tennessee's state parks. Five of its parks, also located across the state, contain 18-hole courses and resort hotels. In order to keep up with the "trail" phenomenon (in which golfers travel from course to course in a particular region), these five have been rebranded the Tennessee Golf Trail (866/836-6757, tnstateparks.com/), and since the parks department owns both the courses and the hotels, packages are simple and cheap. Flat rates are $45 per person, per day off-season, and $56 (weekday) or $65 (weekend) high season, including double-occupancy lodging and unlimited golf (including cart for the first 18 holes, after which the cart is additional). Especially on weekdays, when smaller crowds allow you to play 36 holes, it's an unbeatable deal.

The Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail, Alabama: Over ten years ago, the state of Alabama looked at various options to increase both tourism and the state's status as a retirement destination. Studies concluded the solution was golf, golf, and more golf, all of it bargain priced. In perhaps the most ambitious golf infrastructure project of all time, Alabama commissioned acclaimed golf course designer Robert Trent Jones, Sr., who planned seven different facilities with a total of 324 holes, spread throughout the state. That is equal to eighteen 18-hole courses.

The facilities were designed to be convenient for motorists, so that no complex is far from an interstate highway or more than two hours from another facility. The name "golf trail" is taken seriously, and golfers can combine two, three, or more trail stops in a bargain-priced driving tour. Courses extend from the Gulf Coast to Tennessee, west to Mississippi and east to Georgia. Two more courses were later added, for even more holes of golf. Save one, each stop has either three full-size nine-hole layouts and a nine-hole par-three course (36 holes), or else two full-size eighteens and an eighteen-hole short course (54 holes). Unlike pitch and putt, these consist of true par-three holes like one would encounter on any course, with island greens and holes stretching over 200 yards.

Pricing is confusing, as there are separate greens fees for different complexes, varying by month or season, creating dozens of different prices. However, they are almost all bargains. The maximum rate, at the priciest facility in high season (April, May, June) is $7. The lowest high-season rate is $37. June through September, the rates range from $37-$75. Additional rounds on the same day are half price most of the year, but summer (June-August) rates include unlimited play. All the par-three courses cost just $15 for 18 holes, a great option for families with young golfers.

Lodging along the trail is inexpensive, and the courses are surrounded by the likes of La Quinta, Holiday Inn Express, Hampton Inn, and many independent properties, whose rural locations and low rates reflect the same seasonality as the golf courses. Most include breakfast, and inexpensive dining abounds.

But like so many other vacations, packages are the way to go here. Two companies, SunBelt Golf (800/949-4444, rtjgolf.com/), which administers the trail, and Fairways Golf (800/647-2447, fairways.com/), offer a multitude of packages that are hard to beat.

The Big Fore Package, Mt. Tremblant/Gray Rocks, Quebec: Mt. Tremblant, 90 minutes from Montreal, is the premier ski resort in eastern North America, and understandably so. At its base sits Tremblant Village, a carefully planned pedestrian-only hamlet comprised of interconnected plazas and cobblestone streets, lined with cafes, bakeries, shops, and restaurants. In the heart of French Canada, the feel is more French than some parts of France. The village is also home to a luxury hotel (the Chateau Mt. Tremblant, a member of the upscale Canadian Pacific chain), several other hotels, and several condominium complexes. A few miles away sits Gray Rocks, an older, traditional, family mountain resort on a lake. Each of these resorts has two golf courses, and cooperates to promote a package combining all four layouts with numerous lodging choices.

Rates vary annually with exchange rates, which have been very good for Americans lately. This is strictly a late spring, summer, and early fall golf destination, and last year, the lowest-priced packages began at US $111 per person for two nights' lodging and two rounds of golf, including carts. At Gray Rocks,  prices start at $129 mid-week in June, and climb to $191 for a weekend in July and August for two nights of double occupancy.

The two courses at Tremblant are both new, fully featured resort courses, with included amenities like yardage books, and excellent maintenance throughout. At Gray Rocks, La Bete (The Beast) is a new course designed to look like an old one and has a truly exceptional layout that could command greens fees of $175 in many parts of the country. The old course, La Belle (The Beauty), is not so good, but most of the packages allow you to choose any four rounds you want, so playing each Tremblant course and La Bete twice gives you great golf for the money. All the Tremblant Packages can be booked at 800/461-8711, and Gray Rocks at 800/567-6767 or visit the website at grayrocks.com/.

Golf camps and schools

The John Jacobs Golf Schools

The largest chain of American golf schools is that of English golf star and coach John Jacobs-the John Jacobs Golf Schools-at 32 resort hotels in 15 states; it is now in its 31st year. Reason for its success? Affordable prices for high quality instruction at good resort and hotels. It's an excellent value, and you'll want to obtain the free, 72-page brochure outlining the program in all of its locations and seasons. John Jacobs also has an in-house travel department offering complete packages with airfare, foreign programs, and, for larger groups or families, condos at many locations in lieu of hotel rooms. A 10 percent discount is available to seniors much of the year. Write to Jacobs Golf Group at 6210 E. McKellips Rd., Mesa, AZ, 85215, or phone 800/511-1639, or access jacobsgolf.com/.

The Golf School: The Original Golf School, debuting 26 years ago at Mount Snow, Vermont (Grand Summit Resort Hotel) is operated from May until October at Mount Snow, from in the winter months at Crystal River, Florida (Plantation Inn) and Beach Club Golf Link (Ocean City, MD), and during the summer and early fall at Sugarloaf, Maine (Grand Summit Resort Hotel). Participants receive hotel lodgings (double occupancy,) for two days from $469. There's one pro teacher for each four students. There is a program for women-only at Mount Snow. Call 800/240-2555, or access thegolfschool.com/.

In the field of individual golf schools, limited to one location per school, I find two establishments to be especially impressive.

The Golf Academy of Hilton Head Island
7 Office Park Road, Suite 105
Hilton Head, SC 29928
843/785-4540golfacademy.net/
A far more expensive golf school than those we've 'arlier named, whose students make their own arrangements for accommodations in any of the many upscale hotels and lodgings of the popular, mild-weather, offshore Hilton Head Island. Here, of course, you are in one of the nation's o'tstanding golf locations, and the Golf Academy was founded in 1994 to take advantage of Hilton Head's e'inence in the sport. Instruction is by "Class A" PGA professionals, and is "meant to be non-intimidating," ac"ording to the Academy. It has programs for golfers of every level and welcomes singles, couples, seniors and the young. Accommodations can range from villas in Sea Pines (the island's f'remost golf area) to beachfront hotels, to cozy B&Bs. Instruction packages? They are for either three or four days. Each day typically begins with instruction from 9 a.m. to noon, followed by lunch, with a round of golf afterwards at 2 p.m. Breakfast and lunch are included in the rates, which are $1,395 for three days of instruction, $1,695 for four days of instruction. Add the cost of lodgings and dinner.

The Academy of Golf at PGA National1000 Avenue of the Champions
Palm Beach Gardens, FL 33418
800/243-6121golfdigestschool.com/
Offers three-day programs of instruction for beginners and advanced golfers alike, in classes that always include the partial participation, at least, of director of instruction Mike Adams. With a 3:1 student:teacher ratio, one-on-one attention is virtually guaranteed. More than 1,200 golfers a year come to these four championship courses, on which the fundamentals are stressed and every latest advance in technology is used. A three-day package, not including lodging, is $1,195, which includes breakfast, and six hours of instruction daily, followed by a round of golf. Complete computer analysis and personalized video are also included. Hotel packages are also available.

Golf resorts

Desert Deluxe Golf & Vacation Properties
8707 E. Vista Bonita Dr.
Scottsdale, AZ 85251
800/231-3660az4golf.com/
Desert Deluxe will first make the recommendation, and upon your agreement sell you a package that combines accommodations with greens fees and car rental. The firm chooses from many championship courses at different resorts, and offers mid-season (October to December, April and May) rates of $149 per person per night, including seven nights and six rounds for four golfers. Arrangements are for the serious golfer, most of them booking from four to seven days.

In the golf-happy state of Florida, a great many golfers make use of the Saddlebrook Resort, and its well-known school of golf instruction:

Arnold Palmer Golf Academy at Saddlebrook Resort TampaSaddlebrook Resort
5700 Saddlebrook Way
Wesley Chapel, FL 33543
813/907-4653
800/729-8383 x4300saddlebrook.com/apga.html

Designed to improve "both fundamentals and attitude." The Arnold Palmer Golf Academy offers programs for adults and juniors on all skill levels, and bases its teachings on Arnold Palmer's classics of golf instruction: "Mastering the Fundamentals," "The Scoring Zone," "Practice Like a Pro" and "Course Strategy" program. Three months and six months after "graduating" from the school, the player mails in a videotape of his or her swing and receives back an in-depth analysis from the staff, meant "to keep them on track." Located in a "four diamond" resort with four-star restaurant, Saddlebrook has two 18 hole golf courses, 45 tennis courts (har-tru, Laykold, red clay and even Wimbledon-style grass,) a 500,000 gallon "Superpool," and unique "Walking Village." Three and five-day programs include accommodations, breakfast, daily instruction, video analysis, 18 holes of golf daily, cart and greens fees, and Fitness Center admission.

Golf tours

Value Golf Vacationsvaluegolfvacations.com/
Golf enthusiast David Brice founded Value Golf Vacations, he says, to cater to the value-conscious "middle market,"the person of normal or modest income who nevertheless dreams of playing the renowned courses of Scotland, Ireland and Northern Ireland. The business is targeted at those golfers who travel extensively in the United States to various courses, but believe that Europe is beyond their financial means. (In fact, says Brice, 44 percent of their clients have never been outside the country before traveling with Value Golf.)   Value Golf offers a package that includes six rounds, four nights in Scotland for $1,823. Brice claims that at these courses the golfer experiences a new and more exalted kind of golf. But to keep costs down, guests stay at inexpensive bed and breakfasts, all personally inspected by Brice or his staff. (The B&Bs are often owned and operated by local golfers.)

Wide World of GolfP.O. Box 5217 4th Avenue at Mission
Carmel , CA 93921
800/214-4653wideworldofgolf.com/
Michael C. Roseto founded Wide World of Golf in 1957, the first-he claims-to introduce American golfers to the renowned courses of Scotland and Ireland. He has now extended his reach to include trips to Portugal, France, Spain, Italy, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa. Among other things, Wide World is the official golf operator of Seabourn/Cunard Cruises, making arrangements for passengers to play upon disembarking at various ports. Clients of the firm are every sort of golfer, from beginner to advanced; and tours are also organized to major PGA tournaments, where passengers play golf in between events.