Planning a golf trip? Ask an expert

Now that the pandemic is well in the rearview mirror, lots of people are planning golf trips farther afield. I spoke to TJ Rule, President of Golf Away Tours about the state of golf travel and some of the things to watch for when planning your next golf getaway.

So, TJ, after two years of travel disruption, after the pandemic, is golf travel back to normal?

I’d say it’s beyond normal – we’re at a peak that is higher than what it was in 2019. And I think that’s across the board. This year was a bit of an anomaly in the sense that so many trips from 2020 and 2021 were pushed forward to this year. So, automatically the bookings were already there and then filling in more bookings pretty much filled up the entire year. So, this year was almost like three years rolled into one, if you will. And now that’s rolling into next year as well. The demand for 2023 has been off the charts and certainly busier than any year previously for us.

Does that mean that 2023 is already booked and people should be looking to 2024, or is there still availability next year?

Depends on what you’re looking at, but a lot of the top courses are already booked for next year. For example, Royal County Down opened up their books on May 3rd this year. And by about May 5th most of the year was sold out. And then a month later, the entire year sold out. We haven’t been able to book anything for Northern Ireland for next year for a number of months now. The same thing will happen in May of this year – they’ll open up their books and it’ll sell out quickly for 24 as well. But for next year, most of the top courses are pretty much sold out already.

Presumably, when people ask you about a trip to Scotland and Ireland, they want to play all the Bucket List courses – the Old Course, Carnoustie, Ballybunion, Portrush etc. If you tell them that they’re all booked up, are they interested in some of the other courses in Scotland and Ireland or more likely to put their trip off until they can get the ones they want?

Sometimes, because people have seen a course on TV, you get some pushback and they tell us, it’s those courses or nothing. People think of it as a once in a lifetime trip perhaps, or maybe they’re taking their father over for one last trip and they have to hit the top ones. But others can be convinced that if they go, there are lots of other great courses to play. We’ve been focusing a lot on Northwest Ireland: Rosapenna, Ballyliffen, Carne and so on where there’s a lot of availability still. There are spots in Scotland too that are not the typical top end courses but still amazing areas and great courses. If some of those courses hosted the Open and had that kind of visibility, people would view them differently. So, I guess we get a bit of both, but most people want to tick off the boxes and have at least a couple of the big courses on their itinerary. And if they can’t, then quite often they’ll just push it to the next year.

Ballybunion Old

What about other countries?

There are some areas in Wales and England that are quite popular and have great courses. And we’ve been focusing on other destinations. Spain and Portugal have become very popular too.

Talk a little bit about high-end destinations like Bandon or Cabot or Big Cedar Lodge – luxury stay-and-play resorts which have a different experience than Scotland and Ireland.

Well, first off, it’s a totally different product. They’re very good. Some of those resorts we sell and some we don’t. Bandon famously doesn’t deal with tour operators at all and give us anything. So, we don’t push Bandon, even though it’s a great spot. You just put your head on one bed the entire week and get up and play golf and eat dinner and then go back to bed and get up and play golf again. It’s pretty awesome and the courses are very, very good. It’s a product that certainly has a lot of people’s interests, but it’s a very different product from what we offer in the UK and Ireland. Over there, you’re going for more than just playing golf. You do have to travel around a bit to hit the top courses and people understand that. So, that’s kinda fun and adds to the experience in terms of getting on a bus with your buddies and playing cards and having a drink on the way, then experiencing a new place to eat that night or a new nightspot to discover.

How important is the cultural aspect? My personal experiences in Scotland and Ireland involved way more than eat, sleep, golf, repeat.

You’re right. A lot of people are adding other outings to their trips, whether it be whiskey tours or culinary experiences or visiting castles or taking in sporting events. There’s certainly a lot more of that. Or visiting the cities, like going to Edinburgh for a day and just walking around. So, we do see that a little bit.

Adare Manor, Limerick, Ireland

Do you see a change in the itineraries people are looking for when they talk to you?

Well, we certainly see that there’s less people wanting to play 36 a day, which is good cause that’s too much golf. We used to do that a lot; people would wanna play every day, just golf. And now there’s a little bit more of a balance, whether it’s playing 18 a day and having time in the afternoon to go visit, or even having a full free day to go to a city or visit a castle or whatever. And it certainly happens more with couple’s trips than it does with a typical guy’s golf group. Guys groups are still pretty much about playing golf every day. They might have some time in the afternoon to do something else, but they’re still playing golf every day, although not 36, which is good.

We hear a lot of reports that when people travel, it’s tough to rent a car. Is that true in the UK now?

It was but not so much now. Earlier in 2022 when travel started again in a big way the rental car companies couldn’t get new vehicles. Because of that the demand was well beyond what they could handle. It seems to have settled down now and we haven’t had any issues

The Ryder Cup will be played in Italy in 2024. Has that generated any interest?

Yeah, there’s a big push on because they’re hosting the Ryder Cup and we actually had our main golf travel conference there in October. But to be honest, I have a tough time selling it because it doesn’t excite me. I love Italy for a lot of reasons, but the golf product isn’t very good to be honest. I went there years ago and played what they considered three of their top five courses and they probably wouldn’t be in the top 15 in Ontario. Now, is it good enough to build a trip around? Sure. Because you wouldn’t just do golf, right? You would do some culinary experiences and wine and so on, but as a golf tour operator, we don’t get a lot of interest in Italy.

Now Southern France is a different story. It has some really good courses around Bordeaux. Rod Whitman’s done some work there and other top designers as well. They’ve got a little bit more of a pedigree in terms of golf architecture and some history with the Biarritz course. You can obviously pair that with Bordeaux wines and food and history. That’s an area I think we’ll focus on a little bit more moving forward because it’s a good product. You can combine that with Paris as well and get on some of the private courses, which are world class.

One of the areas where a number of well-known architects have been focusing for the last 10 or 15 years is Southeast Asia, particularly Vietnam and Thailand. Are those destinations on your radar?

Not so much because it’s a long way from Toronto and many of our clients are in Ontario. From the west coast, it would be a little bit easier. I know that the product there in terms of golf is very good. I haven’t been myself and that’s another reason that I don’t sell it. Cause I don’t like selling things that I don’t know. However, if someone phoned up and said they want to visit Thailand or Vietnam and play golf, we could help them. We have a partner there on the ground who knows both countries very well and between us we could put together a great itinerary.

Last question: one of the comments I hear a lot is that it’s almost impossible to get on the Old Course. Is that true?

No, that’s not true. They have a process where they provide tee times to certain tour operators based on how much business they give them and it’s not very many to anybody. And the pricing is insane. If you had a seven-day trip to St. Andrew’s and the cost was X dollars, if you want to just add a guaranteed time at the Old Course, you’re probably looking at X plus $4,000 US per person.

Just for the Old Course?

To guarantee a time. Yeah. Now, if you go in the ballot in August for the following year, there’s a two-week application process that they do every year for two times the following year. And anybody can go in that and it’s like winning the lottery. It’s like the Master’s draw but if your name is drawn, you just pay the green fee. It’s 225 pounds. But the chance of winning that are probably 2-3%.

Then they also have a 48-hour ballot where you can go in as a foursome and put in a ballot. The chance of getting on that are probably more like 10 to 20% on a daily basis. So, if you’re in St. Andrew’s for a week, you have a pretty good chance of getting on through that process and then failing that you can just walk up on a daily basis and register as a single or twosome. At various times of the year, that works pretty well. It’s just not guaranteed. And each of those methods will just cost you the regular green fee.

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Peter Mumford
Peter Mumford is the Editor of Fairways Magazine. He's played over 500 different courses in 21 countries and met some fascinating people along the way. He's also a long-suffering Toronto Maple Leafs fan.

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