With a wide range of ages, handicaps and various levels of golf enthusiasts, the flat desert terrain, some of the forgiving fairways, idyllic weather in November and Arnold Palmer’s Steakhouse were a good fit for our needs.
We stayed at La Quinta Resort & Spa, which, in 2009, was in the midst of an impressive and expensive renovation. We reserved two of the Spanish casitas, complete with lounge space, flatscreens and small pools, which would help cool competitive Ginella tempers. (I should've never had my brothers share a cart.)
After all of my travels, I still say the Mountain Course is a unique experience for the avid amateur.
There are points within the round in which you are playing along the base of the Santa Rosa Mountains. We couldn’t resist the urge to stop, look up and around, and be in awe of what seemed to be a massive movie set.
There’s nothing incredibly unique or memorable about the Nicklaus and Norman resort courses at PGA West, but they were both good additions to our itinerary.
I’ve played the TPC Stadium Course, but not on the trip with dad and brothers. Like the ocean (and The Ocean Course at Kiawah), I respect the Stadium for what it can and has done to me physically and emotionally, but it would’ve been too much for this crew.
My dad, who suffers from old Italian pride and aging knees, would’ve buckled under the weight of the hike, deep bunkers and testy approach shots. My brothers would’ve broken clubs (or each other) before we got to the fifth hole.
The Dunes, the fifth course the resort offers to its guests, is on the opposite end of the Stadium in terms of difficulty. It would be the late-afternoon option if you wanted to play an emergency bag-of-beers 18 with a scramble or alternate-shot format.
If you had connections or were owed a favor by a member, I’d try to play Palmer and/or Nicklaus private courses. The Palmer is more recognizable as the course used for the final round of the Bob Hope (now Humana Challenge), but you might be more impressed by the routing and the intimacy of the Nicklaus private:
As perfect as La Quinta was for our needs, my combative brothers still almost came to blows over, among other things, slow play.
The pool wasn’t cool enough to chill this sibling rivalry.
If you followed my experience there last February ("Golf Can Be Cool"), you know how much I enjoyed the ancillary activities surrounding the Skybox Village overlooking the par-3 16th hole and the post-tournament concerts across the street at the Birds Nest.
It was the rare case of something living up to the hype. Not unlike Vegas during the first week of March Madness, once you’ve been, you’ll want to run it right back.
Although my trip to Scottsdale in 2012 wasn’t a buddies trip to play golf, it could have been—and probably should have been.
I stayed at the Talking Stick Resort, which has a youthful vibe and opened less than three years ago, so it still has the general feel of clean. There’s a big pool for hot afternoons and a sprawling casino for late-night wagering. The two golf courses on the property were designed by Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw, so they’re both good, but if I had to pick one, I’d play the North (pictured above).
For two more rounds, I’d play both courses at We-Ko-Pa. I prefer Saguaro over Cholla. (The common theme of the golf: fair, fun and relatively affordable desert courses with no houses lining the fairways.)
Because Saturday crowds at the Phoenix Open exceed 100,000 (attendance was 173,210 on Saturday in 2012), here’s my recommended itinerary:
Arrive Wednesday afternoon of tournament week, and play Talking Stick's South Course as a warm up. I’d play the North on Thursday morning before heading out to the tournament in the afternoon. (There are shuttles from Talking Stick to TPC Scottsdale, where the tournament is played. Catching a cab back was never a problem.)
Anticipate staying out late Thursday night, so don't schedule golf for Friday morning and, instead, enjoy one more day at the tournament on Friday afternoon. After that, I'd go to the concert at the Birds Nest.
Wake up late Saturday morning and play We-Ko-Pa Saguaro (pictured above) in the afternoon. Then, after one last BIG night in Scottsdale, I’d fly home Sunday.
One drawback to a Scottsdale buddies golf trip during the Waste Management Phoenix Open is that you can’t play TPC Scottsdale Stadium. Any other time, the Stadium course is a lot of fun and worth considering, even with its $299 green fee. The Champions course across the street is decent, but after playing it once, I don’t feel the need to go back.
On Twitter yesterday, I asked followers where they’d stay and play in Scottsdale. Talking Stick, TPC Scottsdale Stadium and We-Ko-Pa were popular golf picks. So were both courses at Grayhawk, Troon North and Boulders South.
Their top lodging choices were the W Hotel, Fairmont Princess or renting a house. If you’re on a tight budget, @dbomaha suggests staying at the Gainey Suites.
Scottsdale is a second home to a lot of avid golfers. After a trip to all that is Waste Management, you'll know why.
In my next 10 blog posts, and with the help of golfdigest.com’s Course Finder, I’ll be sharing favorite courses near the 10 best destinations.
No. 9 is Hilton Head Island/Savannah. This is a destination that I don't know well enough to give you an accurate ranking of courses to include in a buddies trip. As one guy, traveling the country for six years, Hilton Head has somehow slipped through the cracks of my planning. (My loss.)
Last year colleague Max Adler wrote a travel story about staying and playing at Hilton Head. I loved this line: "Just when you thought a post-round beer couldn't taste better, the owners of Bomboras Grille make you think again." (Click here for that entire story.)
And so, for the purpose of this blog, I asked Adler to share his thoughts on this destination:
“Don’t play 36 two days in a row,” is rule number two of five from Golf Digest Editor-in-Chief Jerry Tarde, who has engineered more buddies trips than anyone. So while the Hilton Head/Savannah area posts important top 10s in our rank of Best Courses, Best Value and Best Weather, it’s the ease of chartering a fishing boat or simply heading to the beach on a spare afternoon that makes it a top spot for good friends.
Nevertheless, golf is the reason you and your crew came, and you can’t come to Hilton Head without playing Harbour Town Golf Links (pictured above). Disregard that it ranks No. 21 on Golf Digest’s America’s 100 Greatest, never mind that it hosts a PGA Tour event, and forget that you can snap a group photo at the iconic finishing hole with the lighthouse backdrop. What matters is it’s the only public course on the island where you can hire a caddie, and to stroll unburdened inhaling the ocean breeze is an experience not to be missed. Also, it takes some local knowledge to get around because the Loblolly Pines can block approaches from sides of certain fairways.
While I was at Sea Pines Resort, I’d go to Heron Point if I was playing well (pictured above), but the Ocean Course if I needed to sort my swing out. The former is a pretty vicious Pete Dye design filled with hazards that slither beside the angular doglegs like snakes.
The other all-inclusive resort with three solid courses, and which is generally less spendy, is Palmetto Dunes. The Arthur Hills layout (pictured above), is the most spectacularly situated with 10 holes along water, but the George Fazio is the better test because of small, elevated greens. The greens were switched from Bermuda to Zoysia grass in 2010, which is a heartier strand designed to thrive in high-salt, high-traffic conditions.
No matter what courses you play or where you go for apres-golf, you’ll be sure to find your beverage served in comically oversize Styrofoam cup. This is just the way of the lowcountry people, and a larger drink ration is always good for buddies-trip morale.
Here's a grid which compares all the courses discussed above:
We created this grid by going to golfdigest.com, clicking on Courses & Travel, scrolling down and clicking on Course Finder.
Type in the course names, and then click the box below each course that says “+ Compare.” After finding and clicking on all of the courses, in the bottom right of the screen, click on “Compare Now.”
Next up is destination No. 8: Scottsdale.
My ranking of buddies-trip destinations would look a little different, and for my money, Austin is much better than 28th-best in the country. You'll definitely agree if you visit during the Austin City Limits music festival in October.
In my next 10 blog posts, and with the help of golfdigest.com’s Course Finder, I’ll be ranking my favorite courses near the 10 best destinations.
I’ll be counting down No. 10 to No. 1, which means I'm kicking off with No. 10, Traverse City, Mich.
I love the combination of golf and value in Michigan. In or around Traverse City, Arcadia Bluffs, No. 10 on America’s 100 Greatest Public, would be the axis to any good buddies trip. Although it’s not a better course than Spyglass Hill (No. 11), Bandon Trails (No. 14) or Plantation at Kapalua (No. 17), the Warren Henderson/Rick Smith design, located on Lake Michigan, is so much fun I spontaneously played it twice before I left. Arcadia's scenic Amen Corner goes out and along the water and consists of the 594-yard 11th (pictured above), the 431-yard 12th and the 190-yard 13th.
From now on, every golf trip I make to Michigan will include a round at Forest Dunes, No. 20 on 100 Greatest Public (pictured above). It’s a tremendous walk in a remote setting, good service, an impressive clubhouse, two distinct nines and a fun finish highlighted by the drivable par-4 17th and the bet-settling 19th. The 90-minute drive from Traverse City is well worth it.
The Grand Traverse Resort, which has been ranked as high as No. 48 on our list of Top 75 Golf Resorts in North America, is a good place to stay. There are three courses, a nice restaurant, and its marketing staff gets creative with golf packages, but if I had time for only one round on the property, I’d play The Bear (pictured above). I’d also play it from a mix of blue and white tees. The Bear can be obnoxiously difficult from the blue tees (6,618 yards).
For my fourth round, I’d express interest in "joining" Kingsley Club (pictured above) and hope they’d allow me and my group to pay for a round on what's nearly a perfect private golf experience. It's so good, and relatively affordable, that I considered joining even though I live in Brooklyn.
I’ve created a grid which compares all four courses above:
I quickly created this grid by going to golfdigest.com, clicking on Courses & Travel, scrolling down and clicking on Course Finder. I typed in the course names, and then clicked the box below each course that says “+ Compare.” After finding and clicking on all four courses, in the bottom right of the screen, I hit “Compare Now.”
For more on Arcadia Bluffs, Forest Dunes, Grand Traverse Resort and other courses I’ve played in Michigan, click here.
Next up is destination No. 9: Hilton Head Island/Savannah.
Every year, four couples (my husband and I included) take a post-holiday golf trip. It’s golf for the guys, some golf and a lot of spa time for the wives. (After all, we have to look good when the guys come in after a long hard day on the links, right?)
Anyway, I'm in charge of picking the place this year. Since everything is a competition in our group, I have to have the best place EVER, so I’m turning to a professional for advice.
We live in South Carolina and have done Pinehurst and Myrtle Beach to death. I realize that the time of the year and the weather are going to limit our choices, but I hope you have some ideas for an awesome golf experience with some awesome amenities. We usually try for 4-5 days in early January and we’re willing to travel. I have read about a couple of places that you have mentioned recently—Bandon Dunes and Cabot Links—but January probably makes those unrealistic.
Help me out, OK?
Brenda Kirk, Charleston, SC
First of all, I don’t recommend Bandon Dunes in January unless you dip yourself in Thompson’s WaterSeal and you’re willing to play through bone-chilling winds. And this spa experience you speak of, at Bandon, is best described as modest with a few massage tables.
As for Cabot Links: also a pass in January. Cabot will get real good when they complete the second course, add a spa and more amenities, which I’m not even sure is part of the grand plan.
You’ve been to Myrtle and Pinehurst, and I’m ruling out Sea Island, Kiawah and Pebble Beach because their average highs in January aren’t over 60 degrees. Hawaii is always popular in January, and if that’s what you’re looking to do, I’m a fan of Kapalua on Maui and the St. Regis on Kauai. If you want to get weird and wild and venture out of the country, I had a great winter trip to Mayakoba in Mexico.
The above are a bit more expensive and more exotic than mainland America, so I’ll offer these suggestions based on January weather and your specific needs.
Key Biscayne, Fla.
Miami is a popular destination in January, but Doral’s golf offerings don’t do it for me, which is why I prefer Key Biscayne. Less than 30 minutes from the airport and over the Rickenbacker Causeway, “the Key” has an opulent Ritz property on the water (pictured above) with multiple food choices and plenty of amenities, including world-class tennis courts and instructors. The public golf course across the street, Crandon Park, is fun, flat, affordable and void of fairways flanked by houses.
Average high in January: 75 degrees. (My story about Key Biscayne.)
San Diego, Calif.
It’s no secret that I love San Diego for more than those pathetic Padres. La Costa is nice, and could work for your group. The courses there are a mess in terms of routing and they’re over priced. If you’re going to spend that kind of money, I suggest staying at the Grand Del Mar. Prepare to be wined, dined and pampered. The Tom Fazio-designed course is good and secluded, and you’re close to Coronado (pictured above), which is my second favorite public facility in the country—behind Bethpage. If you want to save a little money but you’re committed to San Diego, try the Lodge at Torrey Pines, which also offers guaranteed tee times on the South Course, host of the 2008 U.S. Open (Tiger’s last major).
Average high in January: 66 degrees. (My trip to San Diego.)
I’ll start by saying Tucson is a tough town going through tougher economic times. And on the outskirts of some struggles is a pocket of serenity known as the Ritz-Carlton Hotel at Dove Mountain. The resort, built around two saguaro cacti entrenched in the Sonoran Desert, seamlessly blends into the setting. It’s not only easy on the eyes, but you’ll appreciate an organic respect of the Native-American culture and the luxurious lodging and snappy service typical of a Ritz property. The spa (pictured above) is tranquil and unique—and I say that having seen more than my share of copycats. And although the 27 holes of Nicklaus-designed golf gets heat from fickle tour pros who complain about severe undulations on the greens, the common golfer will be too busy enjoying Sonoran sunsets and tequila drinks to be frustrated by an abundance of three putts.
Average high in January: 64 degrees. (My trip to Tucson.)
La Quinta, Calif.
If you want to guarantee yourself idyllic weather in January, head to Palm Springs and check into the casita comforts of La Quinta Resort & Spa. There are little pools attached to intimate quads of socially conducive rooms, a Jim McLean golf school, 23 pristine tennis courts, nine boutique shops, a first-class spa, seven restaurant options on property, and Arnold Palmer’s restaurant down the street. Of the five golf courses available to guests, the Mountain Course (pictured above), which runs along the base of the Santa Rosa Mountains, is a fun ride for couples golf. Average age of the locals is up there, way up there, but that has never bothered me. And I’m guessing it won’t bother you, especially if you’re traveling with a good group willing to make your own fun.
Average high: 71 degrees. (My trip to La Quinta.)
I also asked this question of my Twitter followers: “Couples trip in January...good golf, obviously, and a spa is a priority...where would you go?”
Here are 10 of the responses I received:
@jasleeack: Kiawah. They'll have the beach to themselves and there is another hotel being built near the resort.
@duckhook7: The Boulders in Scottsdale or Half Moon in Montego Bay.
@dbomaha: Scottsdale. The Boulders Resort has your golf and a Golden Door Spa for the ladies. #worldclass
@starnzie: Inn at Spanish Bay, done.
@justin_essner: Waldorf Astoria Orlando.
@MRicks83: Ritz Carlton Naples, FL.
@Judd_Henry: Palmetto Bluff, top notch Nicklaus with Auberge Resort. Plus, weather in Low Country is sunny and dry in January.
@bule1101: Dove Mountain, any Ritz or Four Seasons on Hawaii, Pelican Hill, Ritz Sarasota, One & Only Bahamas, Lajitas, Aviara, Ritz Half Moon Bay.
@iGolfReviews: Casa de Campo, DR or El Conquistador, PR.
@Chip_Gaskins: Calusa Pines and @RitzCarlton Naples or Barton Creek in Austin, TX with Austin Golf Club.
Hope some of this helps, Brenda. And let me know what you decide.
Do you have a golf and travel question? Send a tweet to @Matt_Ginella, or email to firstname.lastname@example.org (subject: Mailbag).
Photographs by: Jensen Larson (Key Biscayne), J.D. Cuban (Tucson), and Joey Terrill (La Quinta and San Diego).
Editor's Note: Golf Digest's Roger Schiffman is on a golf trip to Ireland with wounded U.S. veterans.
The past three days were the most gratifying of this entire odyssey of links golf, Irish hospitality and incredibly emotional stories from our band of 11 wounded veterans-turned-golfers and their spouses or friends. By day we experienced truly great golf at Portmarnock on the outskirts of Dublin and Pat Ruddy's European Club about 45 minutes south. By night we were treated to a bit of Jameson or a pint of Guinness or Smithwicks, some local music and the soldiers' harrowing tales of battle scars, heartbreak, and selfless heroism.
In Dublin, we're staying at the classy Merrion Hotel, which, as have all the hotels, treated the soldiers to a gourmet dinner as well as full Irish breakfast each morning. The trip, created by Golf Digest Irish Tours' Linton Walsh, is being sponsored by a grant from the Irish Tourist Office (Failte Ireland) and Aer Lingus. Titleist donated 22 dozen logoed ProV1s, and Kartel provided raingear, headwear and other apparel. TaylorMade offered rental clubs. The soldiers were identified through the Salute Military Golf Association and the Folds of Honor Foundation.
The weather held for us at Portmarnock, a typically gray Irish day with little breeze and temperatures warm enough to require only a layer of UnderArmour and perhaps a sweater. I had the privilege of playing with Chad Pfeifer (left), who is missing his left leg and has played golf only four years. I predict he will make it to at least the Web.com Tour one day, and it might be fairly soon. A self-taught player who can't put weight on his left foot -- only the heel of his left golf shoe touches the ground throughout his swing -- he posts over his right leg throughout his action and has a full and complete arm swing. His prosthetic under his left knee seems to keep him stable, resulting in crisp contact every time, a gentle fade off the tee and a barely perceptible draw into the greens. Did I mention he plays to a plus-2 handicap and drives it 280 down the middle seemingly at will? Chad's ultimate goal is to make it on tour.
Chad is also a supremely nice guy, very mellow, no highs, no lows. Nothing seems to bother him on the course. He lives in the Phoenix area with his wife, whose brother, Mark McGee, was along on the trip as Chad's partner. Mark told me that Chad's acceptance of his injury, which occurred in Iraq five years ago, is remarkable. If he's bitter or sad, you'd never know it. He's turned all his emotions into becoming a phenomenal player, hitting 500 balls a day. He shot 75 at Portmarnock, which is a very difficult course from the back tees. If you miss a fairway, it's almost a certain bogey. And the recently aerified greens were slick and bumpy.
At the European Club the next day, I played with Lieutenant Colonel Carolyn Fota, who suffers from a traumatic brain injury incurred in Haiti. She was hit on the side of the head with the butt of an AK-47 by a young soldier who she says was simply scared. Today, she is on serious medication and suffers from epileptic seizures if she forgets to maintain her equilibrium. Which is why her method of teeing the ball requires her to kneel on all fours, put the tee in the ground, then place the ball on the tee, then slowly get back to her feet. She started playing golf a year ago as part of her rehabilitation. Others would be frustrated by the length of time her brain needs to focus on a simple five-foot putt, but she is undaunted. Her golf swing is getting better, and she plans to take lessons with Jim Estes, the teaching pro who has worked with more than 800 wounded veterans at Walter Reed.
Fota's loving husband, Frank, a nuclear regulatory expert, is also on the trip. He's clearly devoted to her and her well-being. He doesn't play golf -- yet -- but Carolyn is talking him into it. She played with rental clubs everyday, which only compounded the stress of learning an already difficult game. When she gets properly fitted clubs and starts taking lessons with Estes, she'll be on her way to rapid improvement.
Carolyn is one of three women veterans on this trip. One of the others is Danielle Green, who was a standout basketball player at Notre Dame about 15 years ago. (We played on the smaller course a few days ago at Royal County Down.) Danielle grew up in a very tough, drug-infested environment in Chicago. She vowed at age 7 to escape by getting good grades, working on her basketball skills and playing for Notre Dame. And she succeeded. She also dreamed of going into the military. Which is what she did after five years at Notre Dame.
She was one of the first women to get injured in Iraq. She was hit by an RPG (rocket-propelled grenade) while policing the roof of a building. The explosion instantly severed her left arm, sending a burning pain throughout her body. Yet she remained conscious. Despite the pain and shock, she managed to help others who were also in danger before she was dragged to safety by her buddies. Then she realized she had been wearing her wedding ring -- she had gotten married just seven months before. Her buddies went back onto the roof under enemy fire and retrieved her arm and her ring.
Today, Danielle, who was awarded a Purple Heart for her bravery, has two Masters Degrees and counsels other wounded veterans. She has been playing golf for six years, using her immense athletic ability to hit long, if not always straight, drives. A natural left-hander, she had to re-program her brain to do everything right-handed, including writing and playing sports, a long, tedious process. And sadly, Danielle's husband died suddenly of a heart attack just a year ago. But she actually smiled more than anyone on this trip, a tribute to her perseverance and what golf can do for you.
How Danielle and these other veterans manage to pick themselves up and get through life every day with such a positive attitude is beyond me. But one thing is for sure. They are using golf -- and everything the game has to offer -- to give them focus, stay upbeat and keep forging ahead.
Next up? Our final stop: Dromoland Castle. . .
By Roger Schiffman
Editor's Note: Golf Digest's Roger Schiffman is on a golf trip to Ireland with wounded U.S. veterans.
I’ve played Royal County Down three times now -- well, three-and-a-half. The first was 28 years ago on my honeymoon. My wife and I arrived at 4 p.m. after driving four hours from Sligo to find a calm sea, warm sunshine and maybe the most perfect golf experience in the world. The second was two years ago when we were on a golf tour through the northern part of Ireland. After our round, we loved the place so much we talked the caddie into another nine holes as the sun was setting.
Those were great experiences, but nothing compared with the round we played last week in the company of two wounded veterans -- Tim Lang and Brian Donarski, better known simply as “Ski.” They’ve had more than 50 surgeries between them, and using golf as rehabilitation thanks to Jim Estes and the Salute Military Golf Association (SMGA.com), Tim carries an 8-handicap and Ski a 5. And they can play to them.
After all-night rains that rendered most courses throughout Ireland closed last week, the skies broke about 9 am and we were treated to the most blissful weather Ireland has to offer. In the middle of the round, it was 70 degrees and sunny with nary a breeze at Royal County Down, ranked No. 1 in the UK by Golf Digest Ireland, which is sponsoring this trip, along with Aer Lingus, the Irish Tourist Office and several Irish Hotels, including the 4-star Slieve Donard next to the course. (Royal County Down was also ranked as the best course outside the U.S. by Golf Digest.)
Tim Lang was awesome. Until then, he had never walked even one hole on a golf course, always using a cart due to the fact that his right leg is missing. But carts are simply not allowed at Royal County Down, no exceptions. Tim wanted to play the course so badly that he decided to try it. With his stump blistered from overuse on this trip, and lathered up with Lidocaine and antibiotic ointment, he walked all 18 holes of a long, tough, hilly golf course. Twice, we flagged down the ranger, who gave him a ride between holes.
Grimacing between shots but never complaining -- Tim is a marine, after all -- he shot 79 that would have been even better if not for an unlucky break on the long par-3 13th hole, when his flop shot from deep rough rolled just over the green and into a deep, water-sogged pot bunker, and he took three shots to get out.
Tim’s injuries are too many to recount here. But not only did he lose his leg when he was “blown up” (his words) in Iraq, he was sent 75 feet into the air, landing on pavement, breaking his back in four places. During his lengthy recovery at Walter Reed, he developed a horrible infection -- probably due to the dirt and bacteria that entered his body when his leg was blown off, causing him to lose so much weight that his friends and family no longer recognized him. He went from 225 pounds to 109 before doctors finally got him on the path to recovery. That’s when he met Jim Estes, who got him to try golf. “Golf was a sissy sport,” says Lang, who was a star football player in high school. But Estes convinced him to swing a golf club. As soon as he got a shot airborne, he was hooked. He started hitting 500 balls a day. It’s been less than four years, and he shoots in the 70s often. He weighs 190 today and looks strong.
In fact, he is strong. He averages about 290 off the tee, and hits his 9-iron from where I hit my 5. Today, Tim is a sweet guy. He would do anything for you. He lives in Michigan with his wife, and is working toward a college degree while in demand for motivational speaking jobs. I’d hire him in a heartbeat.
Next stop, Dublin and the Portmarnock Golf Club
Editor's Note: Golf Digest's Roger Schiffman is on a golf trip to Ireland with wounded U.S. veterans.
After a long drive -- on the road in a coach bus from Old Head toward Dublin, not on one of the rolling links fairways so common in Ireland -- we stopped at the Blarney Castle, where most of us climbed to the top and kissed the Blarney Stone, giving us the "gift of the gab." These wounded veterans might be missing legs or arms and are probably dealing with mental demons, but one thing is for sure: they are tough and "can't" is not in their vocabulary. It's not easy climbing to the top of the castle on two good legs, and you have to somehow get to the top to kiss the Blarney Stone. There are no elevators.
A few hours later, the entire group of wounded veterans, spouses and friends were treated to a fantastic dinner at the Angler's Restaurant just outside of Dublin, about a 20-minute drive from Carton House, where we stayed for the night. Carton House is a 5-star resort hotel with a strong parkland golf course, spa, and fishing retreat. It's the site of next year's Irish Open. And it's represented by local Irish golfer Shane Lowry, who just happened to win the Portugal Open last Sunday, so the Irish pride was flowing.
At the dinner, which was preceded by lots of Irish "Craic," which means music, drink and general revelry, we really got to know one of the service members who is on the trip. Charles Eggleston's motivational talk after the meal was second to none. You see, he doesn't have a "live day," the anniversary of the moment when he should have been killed in combat. He has a number of "live days" as he was hit on five different occasions over the course of six years. Needless to say, he has received the Purple Heart, the highest honor bestowed upon a soldier.
The stories he told were harrowing, and I'll only give you the barest details here: Right side of his face blown away, multiple back and shoulder injuries. But the way he told them was so positive and uplifting because somehow he jokes and laughs and remains so very upbeat. He talks about the others he met in Walter Reed who he said were less fortunate. And he recounts how golf gave him a purpose in life, and his goal now is to, along with Jim Estes, introduce the game to as many other wounded servicemen and women as he can. But mostly he worries about the other soldiers who fight "the war after the war." Meaning what they deal with when they get home. Many, he says, can't deal with life, and tragically they take their own.
Not only is Eggleston a good friend of Major Ed Pulido and Dan Rooney, founder of the Folds of Honor Foundation (the main veterans group represented on this trip), he advises President Obama on various issues regarding the Veterans Administration and how to make the government's policies more equitable, more sensitive, more sensible. He says progress is being made, however slowly. He showed me photos of himself with Michelle Obama (a huge supporter of veterans projects), General Colin Powell, Joe Theismann, Tiger Woods. You get the picture ... he's a celebrity in his own right.
Sometimes, life just isn't fair. Which is why this trip is so important for these heroes. Two days ago when we played Old Head, these wounded veterans were in awe the minute we drove across the cliffs out onto the small peninsula, just wide enough to hold an 18-hole golf course. If you're afraid of heights, this course is not for you. But what a spectacular place it is.
The weather has turned wet and cold, but tomorrow promises to be a great day -- we have another long drive north, with our next destination Royal County Down, ranked the No. 1 course in Ireland. More to come...
The more time I spend with the wounded veterans who are on this golf trip to Ireland, the more grateful I become. This is not a political thing. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a Republican or a Democrat, conservative or liberal. It’s not about how you feel regarding the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. No, it’s simply about supporting the troops. And they don’t get nearly the support they should when they return home, many with debilitating injuries -- physical as well as mental -- that will haunt them the rest of their lives.
At least they get a chance to forget about the realities of their injuries for a few days here in Ireland. All they need to think about is hitting a little white ball down the fairway, onto the green and into the hole. Everything else is pretty much taken care of for them by the Irish people, whose warmth and appreciation are next to none. The Irish Tourist Office, Aer Lingus and the Irish hotels have come through for them big time.
Two nights ago was a great example. After we played the spectacular Tralee Golf Links, the manager and captain of the club sponsored a dinner for all of the attendees on the trip. A phenomenal time was had by all. After a sumptuous dinner, the speeches started flowing as only they can in Ireland. Just about every Irishman and woman must have kissed the Blarney stone, because they all certainly had “the gift of the gab.” Never will you see such appreciation expressed by the people of one country to another. In the words of the Tralee captain, “You have not only defended the freedom of the United States, but of all the free world, and Ireland is most undoubtedly part of the free world.” In the words of Linton Walsh (editor and publisher of Golf Digest Ireland and director of Golf Digest Irish Tours), who conceived of this trip, “Never before have I been so proud to be Irish.” (His speech went on much longer, of course, describing how the trip came to be and what it means to the soldiers and to people of Ireland.)
But then Major Ed Pulido got up and thanked the Irish hosts by saying, “We protect those who support us, and your support has been unequivocal.” He finished by introducing Sergeant Ramon Padilla, who lost his left arm in Afghanistan but now plays a mean game of golf. I was honored to play with him at Ballybunion, after which I nicknamed him “Fairway” because he rarely misses one. He has devised a prosthetic that enables him to not only make full swings, but also stroke delicate putts. Amazing.
The stories of these brave men and women just don’t stop. Last night my wife, Patricia Donnelly, a sport psychotherapist and health coach, and I had dinner at the Porterhouse Pub and Restaurant with Jim Estes, the former Nationwide tour winner and now teacher in Maryland who introduces golf to wounded veterans through his SMGA (Salute Military Golf Association) and Tim Lang, one of his pupils. Lang is such an amazing individual. The harrowing experience he had in Iraq, not only losing his right leg but sustaining multiple back injuries is hard to comprehend. More than 45 surgeries, as well as complications from a terrible infection, sent him from his fighting weight of 225 pounds to 109 before he finally recovered. He’s now an 8-handicapper and a long-drive champion. (More on him in a future blog.) The Porterhouse owner was so moved by the presence of a wounded U.S. veteran that he refused to charge for his dinner. The meal, by the way, was excellent in all respects, and we were in great spirits on the walk back to the Killarney Plaza Hotel, only a block away.
The four of us were paired together yesterday at Dooks, one of the hidden gems of Irish golf. Tim and Patty took on Jim and me for an epic four-ball match. Jim and I played hard but finally succumbed on the final two holes and had to buy them a round of Jameson that evening. This true links is not overly long, but very difficult and ultimately one of the most scenic courses in Ireland. It’s not Tralee, but I’d be very happy to play it everyday for the rest of my life. The views, especially on the front nine, are breathtaking, a blend of gentle mountains and the sea, with a long stretch of beach sand in the distance, and quaint Irish homes dotting the coastline and hillsides. It’s difficult to concentrate on the golf shot before you. But that’s only one of the things that makes Irish golf -- and this once-in-a-lifetime trip -- so special.
Next stop: Waterville