The golf trip to Southern Pines in August 2020 will mark my 8th consecutive year as a golf trip captain. Add in random long weekends and overnight golf excursions that pop up from time to time, and I’ve spent a lot of time chasing this crazy game far and wide.
Each trip has been fun and unique, creating indelible memories for everyone in each group. There have also been plenty of lessons learned along the way, none that have anything to do with the golf swing or course management. There’s not a right or wrong way of doing things for a golf trip, so much as there are ways that maximize convenience, fun, and camaraderie more than other methods.
Here’s the list of what I believe are the foundational essentials to a great buddies golf trip.
1 – RENT THE BIG SUV
This advice remains evergreen with respect to golf trips. Never once I have regretted renting the biggest SUV available, which is often a Tahoe or Suburban, with the most room for people, clubs, and luggage. I’ve not once decried a truck as too big, but I have regretted going small in the past.
Our RTJ Grand National trip required our threesome to drive from Atlanta’s airport to Auburn-Opelika. That meant three men, three suitcases, and three golf bags (including two hard cases) had to fit into one vehicle. Being the naturally cheap descendant of Scots, I had reserved an “intermediate-size SUV” for us. Once we got to the rental car pickup lot, one look at what constituted an intermediate-size SUV and a look back at the golf bag travel cases we were toting and I knew that the Toyota Rav4 or Jeep Patriot weren’t going to get the job done.
Luckily, our friendly Enterprise salesman was able to accommodate our move up to a rather large (and surprisingly stylish) Chevy Tahoe, in which all of our luggage and persons fit nicely.
There are plenty of ways to save money on a golf trip, but skimping on roomy transportation shouldn’t be one of those ways. Go large if group transportation is part of the plan, with a large SUV or a minivan if available.
2 – LITERALLY STAY AND PLAY IF YOU CAN
A truth that Forest Dunes revealed in 2019 is that the fewer times you get back into the truck once the trip begins, the better the trip will be, guaranteed. At Forest Dunes, we got out of the cars and trucks the night we arrived and didn’t get back in them until we checked out three days later, and it was paradise.
That kind of convenience, where you never have to get into a car until it’s time to leave, usually comes at a premium price. Whether it’s worth the extra cash is a value judgment for each individual group, but it definitely should be a consideration when evaluating not only courses to be played and lodging options, but also where the group is going to eat its meals and find entertainment.
3 – STAY IN A HOUSE, VILLA, OR COTTAGE
The laughs and camaraderie don’t have to stop after everyone settles up the wagers at the 19th Hole. Some of the best memories on a golf trip are often produced during the down time, like relaxing around a poker table after the golf is done for the evening.
A member of our group told me that getting to spend time with the guys in the evenings is item 1A in importance to the actual golf courses played on any excursion. Keeping everyone under as few roofs or behind as few doors as possible makes a big difference in maximizing everyone’s available time together. Plus, the herd mentality will help keep the slow pokes on a better schedule, which benefits all members of the trip.
On site accommodations in a house are nice, but not always practical or available. Most travel companies have access to accommodations for small group; the better ones have tie-ins for houses for larger groups under one or two roofs. Air BnB and VRBO are also viable options, kind of game changers, really.
4 – PLAY MATCH PLAY VARIATIONS
Play something beside stroke play every round. Please.
Turning a golf trip into the equivalent of the City Championship by playing 36 holes a day may not be every trip member’s idea of a good time. Sure, there are exceptions when wanting to test yourselves in stroke play on all the courses of one of the large resorts like Kohler or Bandon is an admirable goal for a certain type of golfer.
In most cases, though, changing up the format from round to round will add to everyone’s enjoyment and enthusiasm. There’s a freedom for everyone in match play, knowing that a random blow-up hole or two won’t necessarily ruin the entire round the way big, ugly scores do in stroke play.
5 – HAVE SUGGESTIONS FOR WHERE TO EAT, BUT BE FLEXIBLE
For our groups, it’s understood that dining together is part of the plan. Getting a small herd of hungry golfers to suggest and agree on where to eat is one of golf’s great follies. Instead of trusting to luck, having a few suggestions ready that match up with the hours you need and locations that are convenient go a long way towards a great experience.
There’s nothing wrong with a happy accident when it comes to selecting a restaurant. If we’d stuck to our plans, our group wouldn’t know about Tacorita in Auburn, Alabama, or Dugan’s Pub in the center of Pinehurst. But just know that sometimes, if you wait too long or don’t have a plan, you end up with a few boxes of Papa John’s pizza because that’s the only thing available.
Also, check with your lodging provider ahead of time to see if gas or open flame cooking is allowed on the property you’re staying in. Sometimes staying in and grilling up dinner at home is exactly what a group needs.
HAVE A PLAN FOR THE MORNING AHEAD OF TIME
Unless you’re a maniac, willing to get up extra early to make a rudimentary breakfast for your entire group, like me, you need to think about the mornings of the golf trip before the sun rises. Heading out for 36 holes on an empty stomach is a complete shank of a plan, even if your group aren’t big breakfast eaters normally.
Have a designated go-to spot for coffee and some grub in the morning. If you’re getting out early, don’t count on the pro shop or grill room to be up and running at full capacity before you tee off. If you have a drive to the course, map out a quick stop for a minimum of a coffee and biscuit.
6 – ABOUT THOSE WAGERS
Collect the gambling wager money up front. To a man, everyone said they hated/resented having to reach into their pocket for cash after the round if they had lost the bet on whatever format we’d played as a group. The joy the winners felt seeing their vanquished opponents dip into their pockets paled in scope to the disgust the losers felt.
So, I started collecting the built-in wagers when I collected the money for the trip costs, well before any actual golf was played. Winnings were suddenly “bonus money” and there was less sting in losing, a change that everyone appreciated.
7 – DON’T OVERDO THE SIDE GAMES
Crazy side games make everything better. Just don’t overdo it.
As the Golf Trip leader, I come up with the formats, groupings, and cart assignments for our trips. I used to spend countless hours designing side games and multiple formats for each day that would, in theory, keep everyone focused on the golf, as the holes played count mounted.
However, my best intentions ended up failing spectacularly, with everyone overwhelmed by all of the score keeping and point tallying required to keep up with all of the competitions. I had too many wagers and side games stacked on top of each other, so much so that no one knew where they stood. It was a nightmare.
The following year, I changed the formats radically, moving us into a Ryder Cup style team competition, with fewer auxiliary games and points to keep track of during the round. To a man, everyone said that it was a greatly improved experience.
8 – CHANGE YOUR SHIRT AND SOCKS AT LUNCH
If you do plan on playing more than 18 holes of golf on a given day, comfort is critical to staying engaged and having a chance to play well all day long.
One trick I picked up on our Alabama trip years ago, that I still employ each year, was to change my shirt and socks after each round. I felt so much better after lunch once I put on a dry pair of socks and a fresh golf shirt, regardless of how waterproof my shoes were or how wicking my polo shirt may have been.
It took all of four minutes to excuse myself to the locker room to change my clothes. What I gained mentally and physically by no longer having a sticky, sweat-soaked shirt hanging against my torso gave me a distinct advantage over my playing partners in the afternoon session.
Pro Tip: Bring sandals to wear to give your feet some rest and some air in between rounds of golf. Especially if you’re walking, taking care of your feet and ankles is the most important self-care to perform besides keeping hydrated.
9 – ACTUALLY GO ON VACATION
Two weeks before our golf trip, I played in a KGA tournament several hours away from home. Just before teeing off, I received a series of e-mails that basically resulted in a real estate deal I had been working on falling apart. It was enough of a concern that I remained distracted the entire rest of the day, playing and posting my worst performance in a tournament that year, including recording an 11 on the par-4 first hole.
Lesson learned. On that subsequent golf trip I placed my phone on Airplane Mode so that I wouldn’t receive any calls, texts, or emails during my round, but could still use my cellphone camera to document our adventures. The difference in quality of the golf experiences between those two rounds is almost indescribable, as I was able to completely relax and immerse myself in the moment during the golf trip.
When getting away on a golf trip, actually get away from the daily grind and the moment-to-moment connectivity. The experience will be exponentially more enjoyable than if one is trying to keep in the loop about what is going on back at the office.
Other good information
There are many other little tips and tricks that can take a buddies trip from good to great, but many of them are destination dependent.
For example, I encourage everyone to try to play a short course (par 3 course, pitch n’ putt, putting course, etc.) on the day of arrival or as a way to get the most out of those last few rays of sunlight at twilight. Short courses are very much en vogue right now, and rightfully so, as architects have put real thought and strategy into building them as true resort amenities. I’m looking forward to playing The Cradle again this year as much as any course we’ll play on the trip not named “Tobacco Road.”
Regardless of how the golf trip is set up or where it is going, designing the experience to keep the focus on fun for everyone and maximizing time together with friends is never a bad plan. These tips are tried and true of real life experiences, and I hope they can help you have fun, too.