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A Generation Later, the Evolved Golf Trip

The first time I went on a golf trip I had to scavenge for a pay phone between rounds the first day to call home – collect – just to check in. And if no one answered, there was no way to leave a message. For those who have no clue about the Ma Bell technology of the 1980s, a collect call was when you dialed 0 and actually talked to a live human being – a telephone operator. She – remember the 1980s was still a very gender specific time in the career world and telephone operators were women – would place the call for you and ask whoever answered on the other end if he or she would “accept the charges.” During this process you hoped and prayed that your 5-year-old wasn’t the one to answer.

“Hey. Just wanted to check in and make sure everything is OK,” you’d say to your wife.

 “The 5-year-old is pitching a fit and just spilled grape Kool Aid all over the new carpet, the 7-year-old forgot her lunch so I have to drive it to school, the meter reader (you’ll have to figure this one out for yourself) is here, a thunderstorm last night washed all the mulch into the ditch so now I won’t be able to watch As the World Turns. Yeah, everything is fine.”

“OK. Gotta go. The guys are waiting for me on the first tee.”

I exaggerate. This was more the Howard and Marion Cunningham era of the 1950s, but for some, it lingered into the ’80s. Compared with today, it was a sexist time. Women stayed home with the kids. Men went off to work each day.

And once a year they got together with their golf buddies to head to Myrtle Beach for a long weekend of all-day golf and degenerate nightlife, because few other golf destinations existed and anything outside of driving distance was unrealistic.

The golf scenes in Ocean City, Maryland, Atlantic City, New Jersey, and Virginia Beach were as bereft as their boardwalks in February. The Pocono Mountains were thought of only for skiing. Pinehurst was just a few resort courses. Williamsburg had only the Gold Course at the Golden Horseshoe Golf Club.The Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail didn’t exist; nor did places like Santee, South Carolina, or most of the resorts we now regularly frequent. Kiawah Island? Just marshy wasteland. Kingsmill? Just the bare bones of the Plantation Course. Nemacolin Woodlands, Rocky Gap, Hyatt Regency Chesapeake Bay, Bay Creek, Reynolds Lake Oconee, Grandover, Wild Dunes were all years or decades away from even making it to the planning table.

And forget winging to Florida. Air travel was still largely for the well-to-do in the days before frequent flyer programs and airline cooperatives. The Wall Street Journal says the average domestic flight in 1980 was $592. So what, you say? This was a time when the average salary was $12,513. Do the math. Even though you could check your clubs for free, flying to Pebble Beach or the British Isles was simply out of the question.

The golf trip, like society, like technology, like the distance we can all hit the golf ball, has come a long way during my years of traveling with my clubs. As a child of the Cold War, I started playing golf in the midst of what Americans perceived as a very real threat that the Soviet Union would soon launch nukes and the mother of all wars would ensue.

How could I have ever imagined that one day I’d play golf in communist strongholds like China and Vietnam? I’ve met some very interesting people in both those places and the only time I felt at all awkward was when I went for a walk around Hanoi and passed a large military base of the Vietnam People’s Army, which I remember as the enemy army of North Vietnam. I wonder if the young kids beginning to take golf trips now will have the same experience with places like Pyongyang and Tehran.

The golf trip has changed. Like the Oldsmobile, it is no longer of your father’s generation, and, as you can see, it is no longer the golf trip of my younger days. I suspect it will continue to evolve as the world continues to evolve as the game continues to evolve.

Some of the great stories I’ve heard from guys a generation or two before me involve being stationed in the U.K. during the Cold War and showing up at one of the great courses of England or Scotland and walking right on – for an absurdly low greens fee. Granted, that was military R&R in the days before anyone could realistically think about a British Isles golf trip. Now that we can, we pay absurdly high amounts to play those courses.

But even in the 20 years that I’ve been traveling to play the great links courses of Scotland, Ireland, England and Wales, things are different – and easier. The first time I went to Scotland, it cost me $54 for a 10-minute phone call. Now I can call from anywhere in the world and not worry about the cost. Or I can text, email, FaceTime, Facebook, Skype, Snapchat, Tweet, or whatever.

As golf trips around the country or around the world became within reach of more and more players, companies emerged to plan your trip and handle all the arrangements. While many of these companies still offer that service, I’ve not called one in years.

The advent of sites like Airbnb and Home Away has made it too easy not to make all the arrangements yourself. You can spend $400 a night at the Old Course Hotel in St. Andrews or you could spend $500 for seven nights at an Airbnb flat in the middle of town. Since you’re essentially living in someone’s home, the washer-dryer combo makes packing a whole lot easier, too.

I rarely stay in an impersonal hotel any more. OK, I give up the traditional Scottish breakfast, which is wonderful at most hotels and included in the cost of the room, but I’ll eat my porridge and toast with eggs, bangers, tomatoes, mushrooms, baked beans (yes, for breakfast) and black pudding at a local cafe and mingle with local Scottish folks and the cost will be a mere pittance of my overall savings. Plus, it’s considerably more social to get a two-bedroom flat with a kitchen and living room where the entire group can hang out.

There are all sorts of services that make golf travel easier these days, though I still don’t understand these club shipping services. I once looked into shipping my clubs to Ballybunion, Ireland, and was flabbergasted to find it would cost me more than $400 and two to four business days on both sides. Taking your chances with the airline and a free bag is still the way to go, because even the airlines usually get you your missed bag by the next day.

Even what we pack has changed. Not because we need different clothes thanks to climate change – we don’t. Florida is still warm, Scotland and Ireland are still cool and windy, California still has its rainy season. But when packing for my first golf trip it never occurred to me to take my entire collection of 150 classic rock albums and assorted other genres as well as a hi-fi (that’s what we called it back then, short for high fidelity) to play them all on. Today, I throw it all in the carry-on.

Even the rangefinder and GPS devices have changed the golf trip. While taking a caddie for the experience on the great links courses of the world is still highly recommended, it’s not the necessity it once was. We can glance at our wrists to find distances to bunkers and burns and the front, center and back of the green. In fact, the last time I took a caddie was at Ballybunion and that’s exactly what he did. He used a rangefinder to double check his GPS wristwatch and not once did he look at a yardage book or pace off a distance from a course landmark to calculate the number. It kind of took the air out of the experience for me.

Speaking of GPS, remember when every golf trip had the designated and underappreciated navigator riding shotgun? He was deep into the oversized Rand McNally map book while your group debated whether to take the next right or left.

Those days are gone. Now, in the space of a pocket of your suitcase, or just your pocket, you can take your caddie, your music collection and your communication device and still have room for your toothbrush. (Because who packs a toothbrush in a checked suitcase? You never know what grubby hands might be going through your bag.)

It’s all changed. It’s all so different. Who’d of thought? Now I can’t help but wonder what the next decade will bring. See you in Pyongyang? [END]