My year in golf began on a beach. Not a beach in the golf vernacular – as in a bunker or a sandy waste area or even a seaside links in Scotland – but a real, honest-to-goodness beach. Actually, it was several beaches in Southern California.
A couple of years ago, I hatched the idea to write about the avid surfers who work for golf companies based in and around Carlsbad, Calif. These are the people who design, build and market the metalwoods that you just took out a second mortgage to buy. And in their down time – before work, at lunch time, after work – many of them sneak away to local beaches such as Turnarounds or Ponto or Swami’s for a quick surf. You can find them there any day of the year – even, I can attest, on chilly winter mornings when temperatures hover in the 40s.
In January I finally got around to writing about golf’s surfing culture. That produced one of the more unusual Golfweek covers you’ll ever see: five golf industry executives, surfboards in hand, outfitted in wetsuits, at Cardiff Beach, just south of Carlsbad. For one issue out of the year, it was fun to show a different side of these folks, whose professional and personal lives are otherwise immersed in golf.
“They say that Old Tom Morris used to jump in the ocean every single day at St. Andrews, which is crazy,” said Geoff Cunningham, the Linksoul apparel co-founder, who jumps in the Pacific with his longboard virtually every morning. “But it’s so therapeutic. It’s Prozac, basically. It makes your whole day go better.”
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For nearly two years, architect David McLay Kidd had been telling me about a course he was building in Nicaragua. He liked the area so much that he decided to build a home near the third hole, overlooking the Pacific Ocean. I wasn’t sure which was more strange: a Five Star-quality golf resort in a decrepit, third-world enclave, or the fact that my friend was building a vacation home there.
Kidd lobbied me to go see the course at Mukul Resort, and initially I resisted. I’m not generally inclined to do anything that might promote the interests of a socialist, anti-American country. But Kidd persisted, and finally I relented. While the two-hour-plus drive from Managua to Mukul didn’t change my view of Nicaragua, the experience upon arriving at the resort gave a glimpse of what the country could be if it ever gets its political situation in order. With long coastlines fronting both the Pacific and Caribbean, Nicaragua should be a tourist mecca, much like its more stable southerly neighbor, Costa Rica.
Mukul’s Guacalito Golf Club also was something of a revelation. It was evidence of a new chapter for Kidd, who has one of the more fascinating client rosters of any architect. Kidd at times has been criticized for building courses that are too penal. But in this assignment at Mukul for Nicaraguan mogul Don Carlos Pellas, Kidd largely succeeded in recapturing the playable design style that characterized Bandon Dunes, his first, and still most famous, design.
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I’m often asked to name my favorite international destination, and you can safely assume that it’s not Nicaragua. My standard refrain is that there are a lot of great options, but there’s a reason why the vast majority of Americans’ international golf trips are to Scotland and Ireland.
As I write this, I’m sitting at my desk in my natty black Royal Dornoch pullover, for which I paid handsomely to commemorate this year’s most joyous round.
When I arrived in Scotland in April with a group of U.S. tour operators, I asked Bill Hogan, the gregarious president of Wide World of Golf, for his opinion of the best course on our itinerary. Without hesitation, Hogan said, “Dornoch.” I knew of Dornoch’s reputation, but I was surprised that Hogan was so definitive. It’s not as if there aren’t plenty of great links in Scotland. Heck, we were going to play a bunch of them during a 10-day tour that would take us from the most remote region of southwest Scotland up to Dornoch in the north.
But Hogan was right. Dornoch was more than merely a round of golf; it was a wonderful experience. It was one of those rare days when I walked off the course feeling more energized, physically and mentally, than I had felt on the first tee.
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Almost as good as Royal Dornoch was the Plantation Course on Maui, where I was playing with a group of Golfweek course raters in March. Now, I’ll admit, my first round on the Plantation had been perplexing, even a bit aggravating. I wanted so much to love that course, but had found it utterly confounding.
You know that scene in the 1983 movie “WarGames” where the world is on the verge of global thermonuclear war unless the powerful Defense Department computer can figure out the secret to Tic-Tac-Toe? Ally Sheedy asked Matthew Broderick, “What’s it doing?” and Broderick said of the computer, “It’s learning.”
Well, my second time around the Plantation Course, I thought about that computer. I was learning the secrets of the Plantation – beginning to understand the angles on drives, the runouts on approach shots, the affect of the slopes on putts. Now, understand, I’m not suggesting that the fate of the free world hinged on me learning how to play the Plantation Course, but it sure did do wonders for my state of mind.
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Even casual golfers know about Royal Dornoch and the Plantation Course. Every year I like to find a couple of sleeper destinations that send my editors and Golfweek’s readers to Mapquest to try to pinpoint the location.
This year one of those spots was Galena, Ill. For years I had been curious about Eagle Ridge Resort, a 63-hole property near the Mississippi River in northwest Illinois. The golf was worth the trip – especially The General and the North Course at Eagle Ridge – and Galena was utterly charming. Main Street in Galena maintains a 1950s facade, but with the niche specialty shops, upscale restaurants, microbrewery and winery that are de rigueur in modern vacation destinations.
Roger Packard, an architect now based in China, did most of the design work at Eagle Ridge. Packard hails from Chicago and is the son of Larry Packard, a prolific Midwest architect who retired to Innisbrook Resort in Palm Harbor, Fla., where he designed all four courses.
Shortly before the PGA Tour visited Innisbrook in March, I had lunch with Larry Packard. He was proudly sporting the flashy red tartan blazer that he had selected years ago to signify membership in the American Society of Golf Course Architects.
As soon as I sat down, Packard handed me a sheet of paper headlined, “Six ways to be happy.” I suppose he thought I looked like someone who could use some life advice. And who better to give it. Packard spent the past century designing some 250 courses and living a fruitful and fulfilling life.
So when you golf fans raise your glasses this holiday season, be sure to offer a toast to Larry Packard, who turned 101 years young in November. Merry Christmas, Larry.