Nine thoughts on this year’s buddies’ golf trip

Each August, on the heels of our annual golf getaway, I reflect on what revealed itself in the build-up, execution, and aftermath of the three (or sometimes four) day spectacle. Organizing those thoughts into something coherent and valuable takes as long to plan as the actual golf trip. Here is my attempt for the 9th Edition of our golf trip.

Hole 1) My handicap index number improved during the Golf Trip.

Observing my handicap index go down with each successive round was a surprising first for golf trips I’ve participated in. This annual buddies trip, in particular, which consisted of five 18-hole rounds over three days, usually produces declining golf score results as the week wears on. Not this year.

I showed up at Park Mammoth to start the trip as a 6 handicap and watched my index only drop from there.

There were enough low-level bets on the line in each round of this golf trip that the entire group plays pretty close to what most would consider tournament golf. We don’t play perfect golf, but we keep the gimmies inside the putter grip, and count all the penalty strokes when someone blasts one into the woods or sends one into the pond.

I entered the week with one of the two lowest handicaps of the eight-man group, and for the most part, I kept up my end of the bargain as my team’s “A-Player.” It was exhausting, grinding for three days to get the ball into the hole, but the laughs and memories made along the way, along with the final round drama of the team competition hanging on in the balance, kept things enjoyable.

A bit of burnout set in upon re-entry to the real world, and a small break from golf was in order. Nonetheless, that I returned uninjured and relatively positive about my golf game, having met my expectations for the week. It made having to give the fellas a couple of extra strokes per round worth it.

Hole 2) Moving up made everything more fun.

Setting egos aside and moving up one or two tee boxes made everything more fun at The Hermitage. The scores were better for all, with the better players chasing more birdies and pars, and our less skilled players putting up respectable rounds in record time.

That it took a decade’s worth of trips to overcome the tyranny of the longer hitters in the group is both embarrassing and disappointing for me. In trying to balance the needs and wants of the group members, I’d worried far too much that playing from around 6,000 yards instead of 6,400 or 6,700 yards would be “boring” for our two or three longer drivers of the ball. What a waste of time!

Golf trips are funny. Even a simple 75 yard forced carry can jump up and bite otherwise good players.

Putting for birdie and trying to drive the occasional green proved plenty challenging and fun from a tee or two forward, while the mere mortals of the group had every opportunity to reach all of the greens in regulation with scoring clubs in hand. I dare say there were more net pars and birdies this year than all the previous trips combined.

And, of course, there were no complaints. If ever there is clamoring to move back and play the courses longer, I’m going to have to see some evidence that the game is too easy for the petitioners before I even consider it. Odds are better than even money that conversation never happens.

Hole 3) Stay and Play is the way

There are hosts of reasons why the destination golf model of high-end courses built in far flung places with on-site luxury lodging dominated the golf business over the past 20 years. It’s good business; once the resort has you on-property, there’s not really anywhere to go, so they end up with all of your lodging, food, and beverage money.

Yet, my golf group is perfectly content to pay a small premium at a place like The Hermitage for a similar experience because it is unimaginably convenient, compared to the alternative. I’m sure a more talented economist than I could isolate the value, in dollar terms, of not having to climb into a hot car after playing 36 holes in the August heat to drive back 20 minutes of more to the hotel or rental home with sore feet and a sweaty shirt stuck to your back. Whatever that number is, I’ll gladly pay it to park the car upon arrival and not get back into the car until it’s time to go home.

To be able to unload the golf clubs, return the cart, and walk about a pitching wedge’s worth of path back to the cabin for a cold drink and a snack in the shade is an intangible that, in my opinion,has been criminally undervalued by golf trip planners everywhere.

Hole 4) The Hermitage Sheep

Meet Wooly Nelson of The Hermitage.

The gimmick at The Hermitage is that the President’s Reserve course acts as the home for a large flock of Scottish Blackface sheep. As best I could ascertain, the sheep have their run of the place, free to roam about from meadow to woodland as they see fit. In the Tennessee August heat, they mainly moved from shade to shade, but their paths did occasionally put a few of their number on a green or in the fairway. Terrible etiquette, even for sheep.

They are as friendly as they are smelly, more novelty than dedicated lawn mowers. It was a pleasant distraction, to see them pair off and demonstrate different roles and personalities. I only wished they demonstrated a bit more hunger, attacking the wooded undergrowth and decorative monkey grass with more vigor.

Hole 5) The Monkey Grass Problem at President’s Reserve

The President’s Reserve course at The Hermitage presents a tough challenge. The course meanders through mostly isolated corridors, as holes unfold along a journey through dense woodlands and between several lakes, ponds, and the Cumberland River.

If sand traps and water were the only hazards, I might love the course. Unfortunately, all of the holes are framed by a variety of ball-eating lirope that I know as monkey grass. While arguably aesthetically neutral, at best, this stuff is a Holy Terror for wayward hackers.

The sheep are plenty friendly. I just wish they were hungrier.

It’s so dense that one can’t see the ground around the base of the plant, so that it’s functionally knee-high rough. Any wayward shot careening outside the cart path or into the woodland canopy is a lost ball. I wonder if they were going for the Pinehurst/Pine Needles decorative grass aesthetic and it got completely away from them. It’s an unnecessary obstacle, for sure.

It’s a hindrance to pace of play and probably makes the course play a handful of strokes above it’s listed rating, maybe more. Seriously, each hole might as well be surrounded by a moat. If only the sheep would eat it.

Hole 6) Hatti B’s Hot Chicken is the real deal

On the last night of the trip, I went to pick up enough chicken tenders, wings, and sides from local Nashville favorite come small chain of hot chicken parlors, Hattie B’s Hot Chicken. It was phenomenal, just the kind of comfort food our group needed after playing 90 over three days.

The hot sauces are hot, the milder sauces are flavorful, the sides (and desserts) are delicious, and the tea is sweet enough to make your teeth hurt. I have no idea where visiting Hattie B’s falls on the spectrum between tourist trap and local gem, but if you’re visiting the Music City and need to get full fast, it warrants serious consideration. At $20 per man, our group of eight received enough food to feed twice that many people, all from the comfort of an easy-to-use Internet interface. It’s not live music and dancing, but it’ll do in a pinch.

Hole 7) Side game gambling equilibrium

My guys love the golf on the golf trip. Sure, there’s plenty of levity and camaraderie, but the competition on the golf course holds the trip together. It’s the secret sauce that makes our trip work each year, as we cram 90 holes (or more) of golf into three hot August days.

However, that isn’t to imply that all eight or nine guys stay locked in for three days straight, giving their best for the sake being their best selves. Far from it. To sustain the guys’ enthusiasm, we change scoring formats every nine holes, and organized side games have been an integral part of the trip from the beginning. The games have evolved along with the trip, and we seem to be zeroing in on our equilibrium that creates maximum interest among and between all the trip members.

There’s something for everyone at the sports book known as our Golf Trip.

In addition to the week-long team competition, there now exists a gross score Calcutta, a cumulative best net score, an Over/Under board for scores on individual rounds, and several standing Nassau bets whenever certain guys are paired up. This is all independent of the nightly poker game, where fortunes won on the course that day are often lost in the cards that night.

Yes, golf has become a form of light-hearted gambling for my guys. It’s another mechanism to help keep them in the moment and away from whatever they’re getting away from back in the office at home. The key for me, as trip organizer, is that I no longer have to run these side games. Instead, they were proposed organically, and now operated by, other individuals on the trip; all I have to do is provide the giant scoresheet and the Magic Marker, sit back, and what the hilarity ensue.

Hole 8) Driving the green on a par four is the most fun thing in golf

The Hermitage provided plenty of good memories for the guys, and for me, the best was driving the 18th green on the General’s Retreat on Day One. With a small audience (who were gambling on our every move like the degenerate staff members at Bushwood CC), the conditions were ideal to try to drive the final green. All I had to do was to carry the lake and avoid the four bunkers occupying a goodly chunk of the 270 yards between the tee and the front of the green.

And, I did. I didn’t fly it onto the putting surface, but I did roll it up, over, and just off the back of the severely backstopping green. It  was no comfort that I was long left after one shot to a massively downhill middle-right pin, and despite the wad of cash wagered that I’d three putt or worse, my steely nerves allowed me to two-putt for birdie. It’s a prideful memory of executing a difficult shot with all eyes on me that will always make me smile.

A quiet reflection of my triumph from behind the 18th green.

Thinking about that hole in the context of golf course design, the drivable par four hole has evolved into a popular choice for architects over the past two decades, and for good reason. If the risk/reward decision is in balance, as I would argue it is on The General’s Retreat course at The Hermitage, a short par four can be the best hole on the course. It presents an opportunity for golfers to attempt the ultimate hero shot, the golf incarnation of “No Guts, No Glory!” It’s a challenge I enjoy, and one I wish was offered more often.

Hole 9) Multiple cabins for multiple purposes

Not all golf trip lodging options are created equal, and not all options exist on every trip. The Hermitage stay-and-play cabins worked out phenomenally for our group. Each cabin has two bedrooms with two queen beds and a bathroom, a large common area with sofas and a dining table, plus screened in back porches. We creatively spread our eight guys across three of these adjacent cabins, which allowed us to segregate non-golf operations.

We had our food and drink cabin, where all of our food was delivered and stored, which was fairly easy, because we ate like frat boys for the week. Pizza. Barbecue. Biscuits. Hot Chicken. Donuts. Banana pudding. Keeping the mess contained to a single space is an essential golf trip skill.

Next door, we developed our sportsbook and casino cabin. That was the center of the evening fellowship, with the day’s winners rewarded and gambling debts settled before the tote boards, while anxiously awaiting the low-grade psychological warfare that is the nightly $10 Texas Hold’em game. Having a clean space devoid of dirty dishes and empty cans in which to perform these nightly rituals not only maintains proper decorum, but keeps the playing cards and chips safe and clean.

Thank you, Nashville.

Finally, we had our quiet space cabin, colloquially known as the “Don’t Mess with Those Guys” cabin. That is the general vibe around wherever I choose to sleep, and it affords the guys the chance to take a work call or Zoom meeting in relative peace and quiet should it be required during the trip. An oasis of seriousness within the larger golf trip playground.

It’s a setup that works brilliantly for our group. We have recreated the same silos under a single roof and in multiple cabins on previous trips. I’d like to think most golf trips self-sort in this manner, but maybe it’s just us?

Grill Room

Those are the thoughts from our Nashville expedition. The Hermitage proved a lovely host that offered us just what we needed for 2022. I struggle to imagine just how different our experience will be next year at Bandon Dunes, but I can’t help but smile when I try.

The sheep of the President’s Reserve.

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