My year in golf: Martin Kaufmann

The 12th hole at Laucala Island

The 12th hole at Laucala Island

A year ago, another writer suggested that I had “one of the three best jobs in the golf industry.” That would come as news to the bank that holds my mortgage note and the kindly old lady who does my taxes each year. But I could see the guy’s point. 

His remark came as we were finishing a round at a new course on a privately owned Fijian island. I’d begun the day with an hour-long workout with a private trainer, followed by a dip in my private pool and a four-course breakfast that included fresh fruits and juices grown and produced on the island. At the turn, I somehow found room for a lunch of white wine and oh-so-delicate lamb on a bluff overlooking the ocean. 

My biggest concern as we approached No. 18 was deciding what to do after golf. Should I enjoy a massage in a large, open-air bungalow high above the South Pacific or race a Sea-Doo around the island. Silly question, of course. Why choose when you can do both? 

That story on Fiji’s otherworldly Laucala Island prompted howls of envy from a few colleagues when it appeared in Golfweek’s fourth issue of 2011. It was at that moment that I came to this realization: It’s nice to be envied. It’s nicer to be rich, but I suppose I’ll have to settle for the occasional envy of my more exotic assignments. 

A year ago I had all but gone native. Aside from Laucala, 2011 began with stories on new resorts in the Bahamas and Anguilla. What can I say? If you’re a newshound, you follow the scent of a good story wherever it takes you.

In truth, while my business card says “travel editor” and the assignments occasionally take me to far-flung destinations, I spend much of my time pounding away on an old laptop in a windowless office on the west side of Orlando. And that’s OK, because sometimes one needn’t travel far to find a good story.

In January, while helping put together a special issue on televised golf, I had dinner with Golf Channel’s Brandel Chamblee at a restaurant near Golfweek’s offices. In late 2009, in my side gig as Golfweek’s TV critic, I had ranked Chamblee as the best analyst on television, and he hasn’t done anything to change that opinion. He’s even more entertaining off camera, where his story-telling isn’t subject to FCC guidelines. Some guys just have a knack for saying what we’re all thinking, but with more color and pith. That was evident in Chamblee’s amusing description of Tiger Woods’ endless swing changes: “He’s like your neighbor who has a Hummer and Prius in the driveway. He can’t make up his mind. You going to be green or mean?” 

Back on the road in March, I didn’t have to travel far to find the proverbial hidden gem all but sitting under my nose.

photo

The Gasparilla Golf Club

For years I had been getting occasional emails urging me to visit the Gasparilla Inn & Club on Florida’s Gulf Coast and check out its Pete Dye-designed golf course. I’d occasionally study a map and try to pinpoint the club’s location. Then I’d put down the map and forget about it until the next missive arrived. Finally, my curiosity got the best of me. 

You ever go somewhere and immediately have the feeling that you had been there years ago, during a happier, more innocent youth? That’s Gasparilla Island. In a “Fear Factor” world in which societal standards often seem to be in daily decline, the Gasparilla Inn is a haven for folks who still believe in opening doors for ladies, wearing a sport coat when dining out, and don’t have to be reminded to call elders “sir” and “ma’am.” Though I was raised in the Northeast, I have a lifelong southerner’s appreciation for those courtesies. I also have a special fondness for The Gasparilla Golf Club, which sits entirely on a separate island – sort of a low-lying cousin of Ireland’s Old Head promontory – with lovely ocean views and plenty of punch when the Gulf winds kick up.

I’ve just completed my sixth year editing Golfweek’s travel section. That’s longer than I’ve ever spent in any previous job. When I started in 2006, I naturally relished the chance to reacquaint myself with some of the must-see destinations: Scotland and Ireland, Scottsdale and Pinehurst, to name a few. You really can’t go wrong with name-brand destinations such as those. 

But there’s a special appeal to finding off-the-grid spots such as the Gasparilla Inn. Don’t get me wrong, I surely did enjoy this year’s international getaways, which included trips to Canada, Cabo and Cancun, as well as one island-hopping trip in October that took me from St. Kitts to Nevis to Puerto Rico in the space of five days.

photo

An aerial of the Wolf Creek Golf Course.

Still, the most exhilarating round I played this year was at Wolf Creek Golf Club in the blink-and-you-missed-it town of Mesquite, Nev. It’s the most extraordinary inland golf setting that I’ve ever experienced, and I doubt that my opinion will change anytime soon.

I’ve also developed a bit of a man-crush on flyover country – admittedly, not something I thought I would ever write. Perhaps that reflects my advancing age; something about the Midwest – the wide-open spaces, the inherently conservative nature – is greatly appealing. Last year, it was a trip to The Prairie Club near tiny Valentine, Neb. As one person told me, “I just feel better after visiting Valentine.” I knew what he meant. 

This year included trips to see new courses in Axtell, Neb., and Mayetta, Kan. Let’s just say that it’s a good thing rental-car companies no longer charge by the mile. I racked up nearly 800 miles in that three-day trip.

photo

An aerial look at the Payne Stewart Golf Course.

Most memorable, however, were four days spent in Branson, Mo. If you Google “Branson” and “corny,” you’ll get 1,140,000 results. I’m surprised the number isn’t higher. Branson’s reputation is that of a poor-man’s Nashville, with more than 50 theaters hosting both up-and-coming acts and, more often, performers on the down side of their careers. It’s also one of the region’s finest golf destinations. (The Payne Stewart Golf Club alone is worth the trip.) 

Branson’s 10,000 residents annually welcome seven million visitors, most of whom grew up watching “The Andy Williams Show” long before the ageless crooner brought his act to town 20 years ago. Tourists usually arrive by car, packing an unshakable faith in God and country. The performers often greet audiences before shows, shaking more hands and posing for more pictures than candidates before the Iowa caucuses. Their G-rated humor can be cheesy, but there’s no denying their talent or their patriotic sentiment when they close their shows, as sometimes happens, with “God Bless America.” Audiences uniformly rise and sing along.

The people of Branson are glad you came, and they want you to come back. So when you leave, as some now do, from Branson’s tiny airport, you’ll inevitably witness the single most unusual sight I saw during this year’s travels: the ground crew, lined up shoulder to shoulder, waving goodbye.

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