While in County Kerry, Ireland, several years ago, veteran meeting planner Paula Kelly, a vice president with the former AmerUs Annuity Group (now part of Aviva), got a directive from a company executive: “Get me some tee times at Ballybunion Golf Club.”
Not so easy. The Old Course at Ballybunion is not only one of the most beautiful links courses in the world, but also one of the best. Golf Digest lists it as seventh among the 100 best courses outside the United States. It's also booked. For example, by November 2006, tee times for May, June, July, and August 2007 were already gone.
Kelly went to work. After tapping every contact she could think of, she finally got the owner of her host hotel to pull a few strings. “Unfortunately, it ended up that the executive who asked me to book the times had to give up his slot for one of the other attendees,” she says. “He was so upset. He just disappeared — no one saw him for the rest of the day.”
Planners need to make sure they do their homework early — and well — to get tee times on the top courses in the British Isles. It's also important to educate attendees about true links-style golf and to make sure golfers are receptive to the high standard of golf etiquette expected by the locals in this part of the world.
It is no stretch to say that the lion's share of the world's best golf courses, at least those outside the United States, are in the British Isles. In Golf Digest's rankings, courses from Ireland, Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales, and England account for 11 of the world's top courses, including the No. 1-ranked Old Course at St. Andrews.
Most of these courses are also links style, which means they are located on or near sandy, coastal areas. While not every links course is near the water, most of the great ones are, and they are uniformly spectacular.
“It's a fantastic atmosphere,” says David Baum, publisher and editor-in-chief of Golf Odyssey, a monthly newsletter that, among other things, reviews the world's best golf courses and resorts. “It's just a very pure golf experience.”
Mary Ellen Burke, a regional sales director with Continental Airlines in Houston, has organized customer golf events in Scotland for eight years. She says that for a golfer to play at any of the great courses there, particularly the Old Course at St. Andrews, “is a dream come true.”
“You play some of these courses, and they're so magical and so historical, you expect to see old Tom Morris (a 19th-century golfer and course designer) come walking down the fairway,” says Kelly.
The courses are “so beautiful, so spectacular,” says Stina Sternberg, a senior editor with the magazine Golf for Women. “Be prepared to be seriously distracted.”
According to David Brice, founder of Golf International Inc., a New York-based golf travel company, the demand to play these courses has increased by more than 300 percent since the early 1990s. There's been a proliferation of companies — his and PerryGolf, Wilmington, N.C., are two major ones — geared to help planners organize their golf trips and get them on the most desirable courses.
Another change is that some of the great courses are seeing properties developed around them that are suitable full-service host venues for both small and large groups. Ten years ago, Ireland and Scotland were pretty much “meat and potatoes” golf destinations, says Gordon Dalgliesh, president of Perry-Golf. “That's changing.” St. Andrews in Scotland, for instance, now has two luxury resorts close by: The Fairmont St. Andrews opened in 2001, and the historic Old Course Hotel overlooks the ancient golf course and has just added a Kohler Waters Spa.
“St. Andrews these days provides such a juxtaposition,” says Sternberg. “You have such an awe-inspiring, extremely traditional experience on the course, then you head over to the Kohler Waters Spa for a massage.”
Dalgliesh, who recently planned a trip for the CEO of a major food and meat manufacturer, says that executives at that level “have expectations that go far beyond what they experience on the golf course. You can't put them in a basic hotel,” he says. “They're going to want good food, nice hotels with good showers, and a massage after a round of golf. Ten years ago, that was hard to get.”
Sternberg spent three weeks in Ireland, Scotland, and Wales last summer playing golf courses and shooting episodes for a golf show — “Golf with Style!” — that she hosts on the Golf Channel. “Ireland can be completely customized to be a more modern, easy-breezy type of experience, if you want it to be, or you can make it a more traditional experience and play in places that provide a more strenuous test of your golf game,” she says.
Judy Jackson, director of industry relations, Maritz Travel, St. Louis, says that a typical corporate group golf program is five nights long and will usually take place between April and October. A program in Ireland, for example, might start in Dublin, move via motor coach through Kilkenny, and into the southwest, where you'll find such notable courses as Ballybunion, Lahinch, Old Head, and Waterville.
Sometimes, Jackson says, if the budget's big enough, groups in Ireland can hunker down in one host venue, avoid motor coaches, and fly to their golfing destinations. She recently had an automotive group stay at the luxurious Mount Juliet Conrad Hotel in Kilkenny and take helicopters to the great links courses in Ireland and Northern Ireland.
“That was obviously a high-end experience,” says Jackson. “But there are so many wonderful courses in Ireland. Some might not have the name recognition, and it won't be exactly the same experience, but you can stay at the local hotels, get some great value, and have a memorable trip.”
Sternberg finished her three-week sojourn in Wales, and says her experience there “truly blew me away. I was so surprised. No one ever talks about Wales as being a truly great golf destination, but it was.”
She was particularly taken by the Nefyn & District Golf Club in Northwest Wales on the Lleyn Peninsula. “To me, it easily rivaled Pebble Beach,” she says. “But it's a muni (a public course), and it cost me about $50 to play. It was amazing!”
Perhaps most importantly, for a successful trip, planners “have to know what kind of golfers they're taking,” says Kelly.
If you're going to play at a course such as Ballybunion or Royal County Down in Northern Ireland, “then you don't want to take a bunch of duffers,” says Kelly. First of all, there's the question of whether they have a low enough handicap to get on these courses in the first place. If they do manage to get on one of these courses, the chances are they will play poorly, hold up play, and have a terrible time. As a planner, that scenario “terrifies me,” says Kelly. “I'd be afraid they would get thrown off the course! Find out what their handicaps are — and there are plenty of courses that aren't quite so hard.”
Optimal group size for golf trips to the British Isles ranges, depending on the destination, although Jackson says that a golf-only trip for 60 people should work very well. Robin Dugmore, managing director of the Old Course Experience, a company that books golf trips centered around St. Andrews, has booked trips for groups as large as 240 golfers.
As Paula Kelly found out when she tried to book tee times on Ballybunion, the demand for tee times on these famous courses is huge.
The good news is that golf travel companies such as PerryGolf have arrangements with many of these courses and can book tee times. The bad news for planners on a budget is that these tee times are available only at a premium and probably need to be booked well ahead of time — at least a year to a year and a half out.
“Let's say we're talking about a group of 16,” says Dalgliesh. “You might be able to do it in less time, but you'll have to make compromises. You may not get the courses you want, when you want them.”
St. Andrews continues to be the main golfing mecca for Americans heading across the Atlantic. In the old days (seven or eight years ago), anyone who wanted to play that course had to either book far in advance or go through its lottery system, in which starting times are drawn every day for the next day's play.
“Getting on the Old Course was a tremendous challenge,” says Continental Airlines' Mary Ellen Burke. Every year she brings a group of 16 to Scotland, and in the past, getting 16 consecutive tee times at St. Andrews was impossible.
Now, a company called The Old Course Experience has an exclusivewith the St. Andrews Links Trust, which runs the Old Course, through which it is awarded a significant number of starting times for group packages.
“What it really did for the destination,” says Robin Dugmore, managing director of The Old Course Experience, “was open it up to high-level meetings, incentives, and groups.” Typical programs run three or four days, and participants can choose from a number of hotels (including the Old Course Hotel and the Fairmont) and a plethora of golf courses. Most importantly, booking with the Old Course Experience guarantees participants one round on the Old Course.
Burke also ensures that her attendees get the full flavor of the St. Andrews experience by bringing them to local pubs and booking meals at area restaurants. She even brings in golf historian and playwright David Joy to portray Old Tom Morris. “He brings out the old golf clubs and tells the old stories,” says Burke. “Some of my customers get so into the story. They get very emotional about it.”
After you've acquired the tee times, booked the hotels, and gotten your golfers to the right place at the right time, the learning experience is far from over.
For one, golf carts (or “buggies” as they are called in Ireland and the U.K.) are rarely used, so players will be walking. And they will be expected to keep up a certain pace. In fact, for most of the premier courses, players are required to present official handicap cards, although, according to Maritz's Judy Jackson, sometimes a letter of introduction from a home club will suffice. At St. Andrews, the minimum handicap is 24 for men and 36 for women.
Most importantly, golfers should be prepared to treat the game, and the golf course they're playing it on, with respect. If, for example, a golfer decides that he is going to go through his warm-up routine while standing on the first tee, it wouldn't be unusual, Dalgliesh says, for the starter to tell the golfer to move off the tee if he wants to take some practice swings.
“It's a short growing season over there,” Dalgliesh says. “So it takes a longer time for something to be repaired. The view is, ‘There's no point damaging something if you don't need to.’”
Many of the courses, such as St. Andrews, are public, so visiting golfers are bound to interact with club members who treat their golf courses with reverence and take etiquette seriously.
“If you're going to play golf with the locals,” says Sternberg, “make sure you have brushed up on the rules.”
Even off the course, there are a few nuances to be aware of, warns Dalgliesh. For example, in the United States, it's quite acceptable for golfers to wear their golf shoes inside a clubhouse. “Over there, a lot of clubs have tried to keep a distinct line,” says Dalgliesh. “The shoes that you wear on the golf course are not the shoes that you wear in the clubhouse.”
And when in Scotland, says Dalgliesh, “a gentleman always removes his cap when he's in the clubhouse.”
Playing the Links
What might pass for a miserable 18 holes of golf in the United States — four or five hours battling the wind and horizontal rain — is “all part of the experience” on a links course, says Gordon Dalgliesh, president of the golf travel company PerryGolf, Wilmington, N.C. “They [Americans] will play golf over there in weather they wouldn't walk their dog in here.”
“You're playing by the sea,” says David Baum, publisher and editor-in-chief of the newsletter Golf Odyssey, “so you're usually playing in some type of wind, sometimes 30, 40, or 50 mph gusts.”
In addition to adjusting to the weather, links-style courses are “designed to be played along the ground, rather than through the air, because they're relatively flat and firm,” says Baum. “That's not what Americans are used to. But better players should have no problem adjusting.”
Americans used to tooling around the golf course in a golf cart will also have to adapt to walking the four or five miles necessary to complete 18 holes. Carts are unlikely to be allowed, except for health reasons, Dalgliesh says. “So if you're planning to play six or seven rounds of golf in six or seven days, make sure you're in shape. It would be a shame to spend thousands of dollars and after three days be unable to play because you're suffering from blistered feet.”
Fortunately, caddies are available to carry golf bags, provide local knowledge, and help finding lost balls, which happens frequently on these types of courses.
Not for Men Only
At first glance, the British Isles might not appear to be the most welcoming environment for women golfers. “You don't ride a golf cart, and the caddies don't patronize you,” says Stina Sternberg, senior editor at Golf for Women magazine. “They're going to treat you like an athlete.”
Then there's the rigorous devotion to tradition. Mary Ellen Burke, a regional sales director with Continental Airlines in Houston, this year investigated the possibility of getting tee times on Muirfield's highly restricted links. “I was told it's a very strict club, very protective of its rules and regulations,” she says. “And women are not allowed in the clubhouse.”
It was, she said, the first time in almost 10 years of arranging golf trips to Scotland that she got the message, “Women aren't necessarily welcome.”
However, that is increasingly becoming the exception rather than the rule, says Sternberg. During a three-week tour of courses in Ireland and the United Kingdom last summer, she played the Royal Belfast Golf Club, which was founded in 1882 and is considered to be the oldest golf club in Ireland.
“A few years ago, that was a place you couldn't go unless you were some old dude in an argyle sweater,” she says. “Well, those guys are still there, and they're happy to see you. It's really a great layout and women-friendly. And you see women everywhere.”
So, there might be times that women will “be treated differently,” says Sternberg. “Just be prepared for things to pop up. Believe it or not, it's part of the charm of the place.”