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        With few exceptions, golf courses that have remained open the last two months across the nation have done a good job of adapting to play during the pandemic -- by closing pro shops and clubhouses and accepting green fee payment online only; by restricting cart use to one person or mandating walking only; by turning cups upside down or inserting raised foam edges to keep flags free from grabbing; and, most recently, by announcing the requirement to wear masks whenever there is a situation in which players are within the suggested social distance of six feet. Scorecards have also become a rarity.
        Yet despite all these restrictions that golf purists surely -- however quietly -- hate, reports are that public courses are crowded across the country where the weather is good. Public layouts, by the way, account for 80% of all golf courses.
        “Every day is Saturday morning,” friend and fellow blogger Brad Chambers wrote recently about Monroe Country Club near his home in Charlotte, NC. He has written a review of Monroe for my companion web site, OffTheBeatenCartPath.com. “When I checked in for my round, the golf pro told me they were completely full today (Friday), were full yesterday and were full all weekend.”
        “Almost any industry you can name is struggling to stay solvent during the Coronavirus epidemic,” he added. “[But] not golf in North Carolina, nor in any other state that is allowing it to be played.”
Monroe CC par 3 behind green 1Par 3 2nd hole at Monroe CC, Monroe, NC, designed by Donald Ross.
        Brad has been monitoring GolfNow, TeeOff and other sites in his state that offer discount rounds and, he wrote, “[the green fees] are $10 to $20 higher than I remember seeing them at any time, especially during the week.” (Note: Brad’s article at OffTheBeatenCartPath.com will be posted by Wednesday. In the meantime, you can read his other entertaining articles at ShootingYourAge.com, the web site he maintains.)
        Brad's is, for sure, anecdotal evidence of the popularity of golf, but it provides something of an antidote to the continuous harping by the mainstream media about the death of golf. In the Wall Street Journal’s “Mansion” section on Friday, a front-page article argued that new-community developers have turned their backs on golf and are now including such amenities as community gardens instead. Some, as we read often, are plowing over their under-utilized golf courses and creating green spaces for walking and other essentially passive ventures (but only if local ordinances and covenants prevent construction of new homes).
        I have no quibble with preserving green space in planned developments. We have 24 million golfers in the U.S. and the vast majority play on public golf courses not located inside the gates of traditional golf communities. And the many more millions who don’t play golf deserve the majority of space devoted to whatever they want to do – or not do, in the case of such leisurely activities as walking. I do object to the media’s contention that any of these reactions by developers is a signal of the demise of golf. There is no denying that, in anticipation of baby boomers reaching retirement age, developers saw golf as the ultimate lure for real estate sales. The result was more golf courses in the U.S. than was sustainable, especially in view of how the margins to operate a country club even in the best of times are incredibly thin. A pullback in the industry was inevitable. Golfers population is down from 30 million at its peak in 2003 to 24 million today.
        But 24 million is still a huge number for any activity, and golf is by far more popular than other active sports like skiing (9 million) and tennis (fewer than 18 million). There is clear evidence from just before Covid-19 became an acknowledged crisis that golf was as popular as ever. According to the National Golf Foundation, golf rounds played in February were up 19.1% compared with February 2019; it is my own humble assumption that February rounds played in regions where Covid has had the most profound effects – the Northeast and Pacific Northwest, where rounds were up 99.6% and 52.2%, respectively – could translate into, “I gotta play before they shut things down.”  (Check out the Golf Datatech map here.). Golfers are smarter than the average Joes, and they could see things coming that politicians and others couldn’t. (Okay, I’m a partisan when it comes to my fellow golfers.)
        So intent were golfers on playing even after restrictions were in place that they literally put themselves in harm’s way. In Rhode Island, for example, three neighboring Massachusetts golfers dropped their car off just short of the RI border, threw their clubs in the back of a car with Rhode Island license plates, drove to a nearby golf course, ignored the warning signs that said “Rhode Island golfers only,” started play and then were arrested. Where local municipalities have closed courses, local players have shared their grievances in a more politically correct way, by signing petitions; in Palm Beach County, FL, according to the New York Sunday Times, 8,000 people signed such a petition.
        Couple the NGF numbers and the obvious intensity of dedicated golfers with Brad Chambers’ own on-the-ground evidence, and a case might be made that when the all-clear signal is given, the return to the golf course could very well be dramatic, restorative and, like reconnecting after many years with a high school sweetheart, exhilarating – even life changing for some.
        Sociologists are predicting that post-pandemic life in the U.S. may never be quite the same. As regards golf, that may not be all bad.

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        I was going through the 40,000 photos I have taken over the last 15 years and found the one below. I was looking for some photos to accompany a review I just posted at OffTheBeatenCartPath.com. I had forgotten about the photo since I stumbled upon the trash can 10 years ago in Vermont, at Lake St. Catherine Country Club, a wonderful course that certainly qualifies as off the beaten path. Located in Poultney, VT, about a five-iron from Lake St. Catherine across the road and just a couple of miles from the New York State line, I didn’t see any other players on the course on a pleasant fall afternoon.
        I wondered at the time, and still do, what may have come over the owner of those clubs in the can. Did he (or she) give up the game on the spot? Was it an accumulation of frustrations or just one bad shot that led to the demolition derby? Today, looking at the photo more closely, it appears that one of the clubs is a putter, which may explain a lot. Is there any club in the bag that betrays us more often? Is there any putter that makes it past a year or two without being discarded for another, like a bothersome mistress? (My wife may be reading this, so let me testify that I have never had one of those, unless you count golf itself.)
        The most troubling part of that photo, for me, is that the owner of the clubs saw fit to dump them so unceremoniously, so publicly, without a proper burial. The only time in 60 years of golf that I broke a club – I slammed it against my bag when I was in my 20s – I tossed the two pieces in a lake on the next hole. I recall, as a kid, watching "Terrible" Tommy Bolt on TV toss his clubs in a lake.  Water just seems a fitting way to bury your clubs.  But, come to think of it, I don’t recall much water on the Lake St. Catherine layout, despite its name. I guess we will have to give you a pass this time, whoever you are.
        Please visit OffTheBeatenCartPath.com for reviews about some out of the way golf courses that are worthy of a visit.

DSC 0005.JPGNow matter how much they have frustrated you, golf clubs deserve a proper burial, and this isn't it.

Tuesday, 24 March 2020 13:43

Heavens Cry Over Golf Course Closures?

        Late last week, I was heartened that my golf course standby in Hartford, CT, Keney Park, was doing all the right things to stay open and safe for its customers. These included online payment to avoid the need to go in the pro shop, extra-sanitizing of golf carts while encouraging people to walk, and inverting the golf cups to sit above the green to keep hands out of the cups and off the flagsticks. 
        It all became pretty much moot on Friday when the Governor declared that, at 8 pm on Monday, all “non-essential” businesses would be closed. After an appeal by the state golf association for an exemption, and emails to the Governor’s office from golfers like me, all courses that had remained open were forced to close.
        Last week in the state, temperatures were in the 40s and 50s with one day in the 60s. The mild winter had been good to the turf and golfers, sensing that a drought was ahead – i.e. opportunity to play might dry up for months – crowded golf courses. In New Jersey, according to a New York Times article, play was up 300% in the first 19 days of March in Somerset County. Those courses have also been shut down for now.
        Call it divine coincidence but on Monday, the day Connecticut's Governor Ned Lamont decreed all golf courses and other non-essential business be closed at 8 pm, it began alternately snowing and raining in Hartford at noon, covering the course with about four inches of white stuff. 
        It stopped snowing at 8 pm.  The course would not be playable for at least another two weeks anyway.
        Stay safe everyone.

        Caveat: I am not a financial expert, nor do I play one at this website. I recognize that we are in uncharted waters today, so please do not take the following as advice.

        Before coronavirus, and with an eye on the apparent stability of their 401Ks and other equity-dependent investments, thousands of baby boomers were considering a move to golf communities in the South. But with the stock market pretty much in freefall, many may be giving up hope about the retirement lifestyle they had counted on.
        Perhaps they shouldn’t.
        As the 2001 drop after 9/11 and the 2008 recession taught us, markets come back, and sometimes quickly. In the first day of trading after the 9/11 catastrophe, the market sank by more than 7%. But a month later, the Dow and NASDAQ were back to pre-9/11 levels. It took longer to recover from the global financial crisis that reached its peak in 2008, but by 2013, stability had been restored and many high-quality homes in the southern U.S. had passed pre-recession levels.
        During both those major financial events, some folks nearing retirement panicked, sold their equities at steep losses and put their money in safe instruments – at annual interest rates lower than 2%. When markets rebounded by multiples of that 2%, those conservative investors were left behind. Even worse, for those with relocation aspirations, housing prices had risen by as much as 5% to 8% per year in the highest-quality communities; these investors found that the homes they might have purchased earlier were now well beyond their reach.
        Like everyone else, I do not like to lose money. Having begun my 8th decade, my wife and I need all the savings we can hold onto. I was still working in 2001 and counted on a paycheck to take care of my family’s sustenance. But as a retiree in 2008, I was on a fixed income, and the recession caused me a fair bit of agita. But call it laziness, brain freeze or dumb luck, I ignored the instinct to panic-sell the equities in my retirement fund. By 2012, I was feeling financially whole again.
        We are all in different circumstances that govern our decisions. But for those of us who have the resources and patience to weather storms, sometimes inaction is the best action.

        Most of us will not make it to Augusta National for this year’s Masters tournament, but many will certainly be glued to the television for most every stroke, or at least the after-round highlights. A daily ticket to attend each of the four rounds of the event can reach well into the hundreds of dollars, but there is a way to be fully invested for as little as $1 for the entire tournament – by selecting the six players from the field whom you think have the best chance of winning, or at least of making the cut.
        “Fantasy” betting sites such as Fanduel and Draft Kings now legally take bets on all golf tournaments, foreign and domestic, every week of the season. What started as a roundabout way to pay fantasy baseball and football players for daily wagers now extends to golf and other sports. Although you can wager up to a few hundred dollars, casual fans like me plunk down as little as $1 to pick a team and then settle in to see if your “horses” make it to the finish. It is akin to owning your own baseball team and trading your players for a new crop every weekend. (Full disclosure, I tend to lose interest in any but the major tournaments when two or more of my players fail to make the cut after round two.)
        You do not get to pick any six players, though. You have a budget, typically $50,000, for your entire team, and the betting site assigns values to each player such that you really only get to choose one or two Rory McIlroys or Justin Thomases for your team; you need to dig deep to find tour rookies or Monday qualifier types to round out your group. For this week’s Player’s Championship, I note that the favorite, McIlroy, is priced at $11,700. Pair him with Jon Rahm ($11,000) and you have spent nearly half your salary with four players to go. Good luck with Sepp Straka at $6,000.
        Payoffs depend on the amount you bet and the various types of wagers. Since I wager only every few weekends, I tend to choose the events in which I think I have the best chance to make more than I bet. This past weekend, for example, for the Bay Hill Invitational in Florida, I chose a $5 event with only 71 participants and a total payout to the top 15 of $300; other events can feature thousands of participants and, of course, they will pay a lot more to the top finishers and will typically pay deeper into the group of also-rans. The Bay Hill winner in my betting group was only going to make $60 but the chances were good you could at least get your money back if you chose wisely. (Note: Some make a living from this. I’m retired.)
        For a change, I did get my money back, and then some, pairing the eventual winner, Tyrell Hatton, with Sung Jae Im (3rd), always-in-the-money Colin Morikawa (T9th), Matthew Fitzpatrick (T9th), Talor Gooch (T13th) and Bubba Watson, my only big name choice, who missed the cut. 
        I can hear you saying, “Talor Gooch? How would he ever know to bet on Talor Gooch?” The answer is I have Sirius/XM radio in my car, I listen to the fantasy sports station, and every Wednesday they invite a golf betting expert on to discuss that weekend’s golf event and his picks, both the top-budget golfers as well as some deep sleepers. When I heard him say “Talor Gooch,” I figured few other players would take a flyer on the barely known Gooch. Other good sources for information and odds on all the tournament participants include the betting sites for William Hill, Bovada and others.
        Draft Kings and the other fantasy sites – they try not to refer to themselves as “betting sites, will sometimes kick in a few dollars for new subscribers. This could be a good week to consider plunking down a dollar or two and settling back to watch the Player’s Championship. But I am offering no advice on picks, except to predict you will have fun and you have to be able to afford the losses (which is why I never bet more than $5). As they say in the investment business, “Past performance is no guarantee of future performance.” My $27 of winnings this past weekend was a total surprise. Who knows what this weekend will bring.

        I have big plans for late spring and, of course, they involve golf. It also involves a friend from North Carolina and a brother-in-law from England and a week of golf in the Scottish Highlands. I mention their geographies because, like a putt that rolls in a direction you didn’t read, who knows which countries and states will be affected by the coronavirus come June?
        I booked my plane flight to London before the virus left China, committing a little over $1,000 for my wife and me. I have a resort booked for five days in Aviemore, a Scottish town about a 35-minute drive from Inverness and under an hour from widely regarded seaside links and one heralded parkland course with the oddly attractive name Boat of Garten.
        Beside the flight and lodging, the other dollars I will need to commit ahead of time – all non-refundable under normal circumstances – are the golfing fees which, for three people, are not inconsequential. (I also intend to ship my golf clubs from Connecticut to the first golf course we will play in Scotland, but I can wait on that until the week before I leave the States.) When I looked a month ago, the online tee sheets at Lossiemouth, Nairn, Fortrose & Markie and Boat of Garten still looked fairly open for the first week of June; on the other hand, we don’t want to fly thousands of miles without tee times. I expect to book those times next week.
         My question for the golf courses will not be about refunds but rather if the trip is cancelled because of circumstances beyond our control, will I be able to get a rain check. More than that, I have begun to research travel insurance, something I have never considered buying in the past. I went to a web site TravelInsurance.com and entered a few details about my trip that included the ages of the four people traveling, the country visiting (United Kingdom) and the total cost of the trip. (I estimated $5,000 total for all of us.) The insurance site also wanted to know when I made my first payment, which was for the flights in mid-February.
        The 18 quotes that came back ranged in price from $296 to a whopping $819, but each carried different features and coverage. The low-price estimate had everything I was looking for, and included the following:

        Trip Cancellation $5,000 (100% of trip cost)

        Trip Interruption $7,500 (150% of trip cost)

        Medical Evacuation $250,000 per plan

        Emergency Medical $50,000 per plan ($0 deductible)

        Baggage Loss $1,000 per person

        Flight Accident $50,000 per person (plan limits apply)

        Accidental Death No Coverage

        The $819 option covered trip cancellation and trip interruption at exactly the same levels, but added medical evacuation at $1 million per person, emergency medical at $50,000 per person (rather than $50,000 for four people), baggage loss at $2,000 per person, and no coverage for flight accident or accidental death. 
        I’ll be doing a bit more research but the lower priced plan looks more than good enough.

Saturday, 15 February 2020 10:42

Talking Winter Golf Weather

        My wife and I are spending a couple of weeks on the South Carolina coast at Pawleys Plantation after our son’s marriage in Vero Beach, FL a week ago. As you might expect in February, the weather was much more suited to golf in Vero than it is in Pawleys Island, SC. The 530 miles between those two cities makes a big difference in terms of climate.
        This morning (Saturday) in Pawleys Island, it is 38 degrees and the Saturday men’s golfing group just called off its round. Although the sun is shining brightly, the wind is blowing at about a 10-mph clip. My wife has headed for a walk on the beach, but I believe the over/under on her beach walk will be about five minutes; I have been out there on cold days and the wind blows stronger and the air feels much colder than they do just one mile inland.
        Mindful of Mark Twain’s quote that “Everyone talks about the weather, but no one ever does anything about it,” I understand that when it comes to golfing, especially in the winter, there is no perfect climate in America; okay, I have heard San Diego comes close, but if your target is the Southeast for a retirement location with golf, you will have to pick your poison. Florida this time of the year is terrific, with many days in the 70s and even the worst days tolerable in terms of temperature, even if it rains a bit. But, oh, those summers in Florida can be relentlessly hot and humid, forcing the inveterate golfer to play early in the day or late.
        On the Carolina coast, summers can be almost as hot as in Florida, but the ocean breezes and almost predictable afternoon thunderstorms – they last a few minutes and cool things down a little bit for an hour or so – make summer golf in the Carolinas slightly more tolerable. But winter is a catch-as-catch-can endeavor, as the men’s group at Pawleys Plantation found out today. Bottom line: If you can stand the heat, Florida golf is the best bet year-round. But if you don’t mind losing a few days of golf each winter, South Carolina is a great alternative. 
        By the way, my wife just returned from the beach. She says she made it just over six minutes. She loves the beach.

Sunday, 02 February 2020 12:47

My Favorite Modern Courses in South Carolina

        A couple of weeks ago, I posted my choices for the best “classic” courses in South Carolina (scroll down two articles below this one). Here are my choices for the best “modern” courses in the state. (Note: As a panelist on the South Carolina Rating Panel, I am asked each year to rank the state’s courses. This year’s voting will be published in late March, but you can read our past rankings at scgolfpanel.org.)
        After an unbroken string of five years voting with my fellow panel members that the Ocean Course at Kiawah Island was the best course in the state, I decided this year to vote purely on “playability” and the fun factor, rather than design quality alone. And for that reason, I relegated the Ocean Course to number two because the experience can be daunting, depending on the wind. And frankly, as one ages – I am now 71 – a layout like Pete Dye’s by the ocean can feel unrelentingly brutal. Still, it is impossible to ignore just how dramatic and visually delightful – and intimidating – it is.
Secession first teeThe farther you walk along the first tee at Secession, the closer you get to the green on the tricky par 4 1st hole.
        My top course this time around is Secession near Beaufort, SC which, in terms of location, is not that much different from the Ocean Course given the prevailing winds that whip in from the Atlantic, although in Secession’s case, a scenic bit of marshland separates the course from the water. The private Secession course is certainly challenging and scenic, but the overall experience is loaded with a kind of atmosphere the more public Ocean Course does not enjoy. To relax with a post-round libation and cigar on the sprawling deck behind the clubhouse, overlooking the expansive marsh as the ocean light dims, is an experience you don’t forget.
        The Jack Nicklaus course at Colleton River in Bluffton fills my third slot almost entirely based on its greens, the fastest I have played in the last 10 years. If you watch a lot of golf on television, especially the big tournaments like The Master’s, the commentators often grouse about the speed of the greens. Give me fast greens any day of the week because for me, and I suspect for many of my fellow golfers, our putting strokes go to pot the farther back we take the clubhead. Fast greens force a shorter backstroke and, thus, a better chance at hitting the ball on the projected line. The greens at Colleton River, which is also home to a Pete Dye course, were running at 13+ on the stimpmeter when I played them but were as true as any I have ever enjoyed. They were fast but not furious.
Secession island greenThe 17th's tiny island green is almost impossible to hit when the wind is blowing. But not to worry; you are permitted to play from the adjacent marsh without penalty (hah).
        The layout at May River, also in Bluffton and also designed by Nicklaus, feels like a golf course that has been sculpted rather than laid out. Because the course sports a lot of sand and some scrub trees, it feels a bit wild in a Pine Valley “barrens” kind of way -- or somewhat like Bulls Bay in Awendaw, just north of Charleston, which landed at #5 on my list because it is a quintessential marsh course, using the tidelands as both framing and hazard and capturing all the best elements of the imagination of the late Mike Strantz, whose small collection of courses provide more fun than any other designer’s.
        My 6th favorite course in South Carolina is another Strantz gem, Caledonia Golf and Fish Club in Pawleys Island, the darling of visiting golfers and the best of the 90 courses on the Grand Strand of Myrtle Beach. It is certainly more “refined” than Strantz’s other courses, but the huge greens, wide fairways, and imaginative placement of trees, sand and water are unmistakably his.
        Rounding out my top 10 are Wexford Plantation on Hilton Head Island, the Cassique Course at Kiawah Island, and the Cliffs at Mountain Park in Travelers Rest, just outside Greenville and, I just realized as I wrote this sentence, the only layout on my list not on the coast. Of my top 10 classic courses, only three are on the coast.
ColletonNicklausbywaterJack Nicklaus knows how to feature to great effect sand and water on his coastal layouts, but at Colleton River, it is all about the greens.

        If you are a long-time golfer, you have surely stumbled across golf courses that wowed you beyond expectations – most likely because you had no expectations. That feeling of serendipity and discovery is at the heart of why I have just launched a new web site, OffTheBeatenCartPath.com. There you will find reviews from average golfers of unexpected gems that are unknown outside their local community and under-appreciated by the rest of us because we have never heard of them. They may not be difficult to get to – indeed my favorite such golf course, Keney Park, is “hidden” in plain sight in the city of Hartford, CT – but they certainly are worth going a little out of the way to play.
        I purchased the web site OffTheBeatenCartPath more than a decade ago from another devoted golfer. There is a small trove of reviews from the mid 2000s at the site that span a number of states and provide enough guidance to consider playing those courses; I have checked, and they are all still in business. (Given the golf industry’s woes of recent years, these survivor golf courses are likely to be very good indeed.)
        I want OffTheBeatenCartPath.com to feature as many reviews by our readers as possible and, over time, to inspire some of you to “show off” your hidden gems to other readers who may be passing through your area. (I extend an invitation to play with me at Keney Park to any of you who might be in the Hartford, CT, area. The first post-round drink will be on me.)
        In coming weeks and months, I intend to build other features into the site, including short recommendations for a pre- or post-round meal; and since life is not all about golf (nyuk, nyuk), we might add some local color to our reviews. And we certainly intend to expand the number of states that feature excellent golf off the beaten path.
        Mostly, though, I hope OffTheBeatenCartPath will inspire others to share their favorite local golf courses with the rest of us. Send us your ideas through the web site and we will make it as easy as possible to post your review. And don’t worry about writing skills; I spent 40 years in a career that included editing, and I enjoy the art of wordsmithing.
        I look forward to seeing you off the beaten cart path.
IMG 1400Way off the beaten path: Ladybank Golf Club, Cupar, Scotland

Thursday, 16 January 2020 12:25

My Votes are in…for best courses in SC

        As a member of the South Carolina Golf Rating Panel, I am asked to vote every year for the best golf courses in the state. Some years we vote for the best public courses, some years for the best courses public and private combined. This year, we have been asked to vote for the 10 best “classic” courses in the state and for the 30 best “modern” courses, regardless of whether they are public or private. Results of the voting will be announced publicly coincident with the Panel’s annual meeting this spring.
Chanticleer 2Greenville Country Club's Chanticleer course, a Robert Trent Jones Sr gem.
        Given the large number of excellent golf courses in the state, it is a difficult task but one I take seriously because South Carolina is my second state of residence. (I am a resident of Connecticut most of the year.) I also believe the panel’s judgment on best courses can be helpful to visiting golfers as well as for those retirees looking for a private club to join. I have played a majority of the courses in the state thanks to both my retirement gig as a golf community reviewer but also as a member of the panel. Many of those I haven’t played in the last few years left quite an impression; I have no problem comparing them fairly with those I have played more recently.
Palmetto locker roomEverything says "classic" and classy, locker room to golf course, at Palmetto Club.
        I played my number one rated “classic” course five years ago. The Chanticleer course in Greenville is part of a two-course membership inside the limits of one of the most popular cities in the Southeast. I rated its Greenville Country Club companion, the Riverside course, renovated a dozen years ago to “feel” like a design by Seth Raynor, #7 among the classic courses. But Chanticleer, designed by Robert Trent Jones the Elder, and renovated in the early aughts by his son, Rees, is so sleek, challenging and fun that I rated it just ahead of the heralded Palmetto Golf Club in Aiken and the famed Sea Pines Harbour Town course. The rest of my Top 10 include Camden Country Club (#4), The Dunes Golf & Beach Club in Myrtle Beach (#5), Florence Country Club (#6), the Surf Golf and Beach Club in North Myrtle Beach (#8), Orangeburg Country Club (#9) and the Wild Dunes Resort Links Course in Isle of Palms (#10).
        In the coming days, I will post in this space my choices for best modern courses in South Carolina.
Florence CC approachFlorence Country Club's course was designed 94 years ago in the "style of Donald Ross."

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