Travel tips: How to plan, play and pack

The Kintyre Championship course in Turnberry, Scotland.

The Kintyre Championship course in Turnberry, Scotland.

If you want to learn how to play better golf, visit a good PGA instructor. And if you want to learn tips for seeing the great courses of the British Isles, talk to golf tour operators.

That's what I recently did, spending 10 days criss-crossing Scotland to see many of the great links and scads of fine hotels. Along the way, some good tips emerged for people considering a similar trip.

First and foremost, if you're planning a fairly elaborate overseas golf trip – which might include a lot of driving, and multiple tee times and hotels – don't try to do it yourself. Find a seasoned, reputable professional to schedule your entire itinerary. And I don't say that because I just spent 10 days in Scotland with some tour operators. That's a lesson I learned years ago. You'll pay a little more, but it's worth it. Too many things can go wrong, especially if you're trying to navigate on unfamiliar roads and scheduling multiple hotels. And that's another thing: If you're traveling with a group, spring for a coach driver. After your round, you can kick back, relax, swap stories and smack-talk, even enjoy a drink while a professional minds the road.

"Don't keep score, play match play," said John Gosselink of Fore Seasons Golf Tours.

This makes good sense on several levels. For one thing, as a golf tourist, you might be playing a course for the first time, and that fact might be reflected in a higher-than-usual score. On top of that, it's links golf, which is a rare and foreign treat to most of us Americans who don't have second homes at Bandon Dunes. And then there's the wind: On our first round in Scotland, at aptly named Western Gailes, we were hammered with winds of 35-40 knots, according to a gauge in the clubhouse. That translates to winds of 40-plus mph – all but unplayable conditions. So if you're obsessing over the number of strokes you're taking, you're likely to be disappointed.

But it's good advice for other reasons. It helps speed up play, particularly if you start hitting the ball in the hay. It's a fun change of pace from the game we Americans usually play. And it brings you closer to "real" golf, as it were. Remember, match play is how the Scots and Irish tend to play the game. So when in St. Andrews . . .

"Make a copy of your passport and keep it in your suitcase," said Debbie Bussey, president of Absolutely Golf & Travel. This is such obviously good advice that I'm kicking myself for never having done it despite the fact that I travel outside the U.S. several times annually.

Pack extra socks and change after every round. Whatever you do, don't play 36 holes in the same pair of socks. During the course of our trip, I heard Bill Hogan, president of Wide World of Golf, make this point, and it struck a nerve. I've always packed extra socks because my job as travel editor sometimes requires me to play two rounds per day. (Yeah, yeah, I know, I'm not expecting a pity party.) It might seem like a trivial point, but you need to take care of your feet, especially considering that in places such as Scotland, you'll be walking the courses rather than riding a cart.

On a related note, pack two pairs of golf shoes. News flash: It sometimes rains in Scotland and Ireland, the biggest overseas golf destinations for Americans. So be prepared: Pack a good rain suit and an extra pair of shoes.

Conversely, don't stuff your suitcase with extra golf shirts. You'll need that space for other stuff. Instead, pack extra layers – items such as long-sleeve mocks that don't take up much space in your suitcase. Most likely, you'll buy at least one or two golf shirts along the way – mementoes to help you remember your favorite courses. And in a pinch, you can wear a standard, short-sleeve golf shirt more than once over a long-sleeve layer.

Think ahead: You're going to bring back more stuff than you left with – shirts, sweaters, souvenirs, etc. So allow extra space, preferably in your suitcase, because your golf bag might already be pushing up against the airlines' 50-pound limit. And the last thing you want are additional baggage fees.

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