February 22, 2010

The Smartest People In The Room

In a round-table Q+A, the winners of our Best Buddies-Trip Planner Contest explain what makes their getaways so great

Photographs by Cy Cyr & Matt Ginella

Photographs by Cy Cyr & Matt Ginella

Recognizing that it takes a ton of effort to organize a successful group getaway, Golf Digest created the Best Buddies-Trip Planner Contest as a way to give back to the givers. Our six winners, selected from reader nominations, were treated to three days of lodging, dining, spa services, merchandise and golf at the Pinehurst Resort. Senior editors Matt Ginella and Peter Finch gathered insights from these expert trip planners on a variety of topics, including whom to bring, where to play, where to stay, and how to do it all for the best price.

GOLF DIGEST: Let's talk about the most important ingredient in a buddies trip. What is it?

BARBARA BERWICK: It's the people you invite. Secondarily, it's the venue. But to have the right camaraderie among friends, that makes the trip.

ROY GRIFFIN: It has to be the individuals, the right mix, so everyone gets along.

CALVIN WEIDE: See, we're just the opposite because our group is so diverse [up to 30 people], and for most of them it's actually not about the golf, it's about a bunch of guys coming together from different locales and doing their own thing and, oh, by the way, we're going to play golf. There are people who've been thrown out of the group because nobody ever wanted to see them again. But everybody does not have to like each other on the trip. I don't like half the guys I invite on my trip, and it's an invitational.


Marina del Ray, Calif.

Number of trips: 15

Typical group size: eight

Top trip: "Almost Pinehurst" tournament at Mid Pines Inn & G.C.

Roy Griffin, 49

Snellville, Ga.

Number of trips: 10

Typical group size: four to eight

Top trip: Scotland pilgrimage

Bob Sandt, 54

Park City, Utah

Number of trips: 20-plus

Typical group size: eight to 50

Top trip: "Playa Azul Open" in Cozumel, Mexico

Neil Thomson, 34

Charleston, S.C.

Number of trips: seven

Typical group size: 16

Top trip: "Ponce de Leon Invitational" at Sea Island

Dave Walker, 58


Number of trips: 21

Typical group size: 130 to 140

Top trip: "Watson's Springfest" at Bristol Harbour in upstate New York

Calvin Weide, 49

Claremont, N.H.

Number of trips: 10

Typical group size: 16 to 30

Top trip: Myrtle Beach

GD: What's the payoff for you?

CALVIN: The venue. I want to play nice courses. But for everyone else on the trip, it's getting together, enjoying the nightlife, playing some golf if it happens to be nice weather. If it doesn't happen to be nice weather, they know how to entertain themselves.

GD: Your trip is like getting a hall pass.

CALVIN: Yeah, a lot of these guys let loose. For them it's like their one time to be a different person. We have an award that we call You Did What? At the end of the trip, everybody kind of tattles on one of the other guys about something off-the-wall that he did. A lot of times, I find it's the new guys who have the best story and give you the thing that's most memorable about the trip. For the first five years, the guys who won the actual tournament never came back. But the You Did What? winners always came back. That's the part of our trip, the extracurricular activity, that draws people back.

NEIL THOMSON: Similar to what Barb was saying, I'd rather go to a bunch of B-level courses with the crowd we're inviting rather than the best courses and invite guys I don't even know very well. For our trip, we've kept it at 16 people. We've gone seven years now, and everyone has played at least four or five years. So you build these traditions within the group, and there are fewer and fewer surprises. Now there's almost year-round e-mail and chatter about the next trip. Twelve months out, we'd already gotten written invitations out, and everybody accepted.

CALVIN: I wouldn't consider your courses B-level.

NEIL: Well, no, we've been lucky to play some really good courses. We've been able to do it by going offseason: in January or in the dead of summer at a place like Sea Island. So that makes it affordable. Otherwise we'd be priced out of it.

DAVE WALKER: My deal is so different than what everyone else does. We're 130 to 140 people. I can't move this around on a yearly basis. I have to find a course that everyone is happy to play. I have to find a hotel that's nearby. I have to find a price point that's reasonable. Not too far from our homes in Toronto. Food that's OK. Once you've found the right spot that can marry a really good golf course with the price and hotel and everything else, you're going to stick with it. And the numbers, year after year, will prove that it does work.

GD: To be a successful trip planner, it seems like the word "democracy" cannot be a factor. It has to be a dictatorship. Do you agree?

BARBARA: You have to have the illusion of a democracy. Otherwise you'll have coups going on and all that stuff. Keep the illusion alive, but you have to maintain control.

ROY: After you've done it so many times, you really know the best way to do it. So at some point you're almost snobbish about it. Like, "This is how we have to do it: This is where we're going to play, and this is where we're going to stay." Certainly there's flexibility. If eight guys don't want to go out and have Thai food, that's fine. You can go with five or six. But with our group, they pretty much fall in line.

CALVIN: If you open it up to people, half the guys want to play in the afternoon and half want to play in the morning. Then you've really defeated the point of it, because you're trying to get them all together at the same time.

I always try to get the morning tee times. The guys who go out and party hard the night before are always lobbying against that. I say: "Hey, if we go later and happen to hit a frost delay for two or three hours, then we've kind of blown the whole day." The best thing is to take the 8 o'clock tee time, and if we get a frost delay till 10, that's fine. We'll still be the first ones to go out.

‘ have to have the illusion of a democracy. Otherwise you'll have coups going on.'

GD: Dave, you're a pretty big dictator for your spring trip?

DAVE: No, one thing I learn as I age is that I really don't know everything. Guys come to me all the time and say, "Why don't we try this?" And then I go to my little inner circle, we discuss it, and lots of times we try it. Maybe we try it for a year, maybe we keep it. We tried night golf for two years on Wednesday night—four holes from 150 yards. It was a blast until one of my buddies almost walked into the pond on the ninth hole. Well, that was the end of that. But our trip is always evolving.

GD: Some of your trips are more focused on venues, some on camaraderie. How about service? Is service another key for you?

BARBARA: Definitely. Quite honestly, I didn't know to ask for enough when I first started; I didn't know the clout that we had. Now the resort where we stay, Mid Pines, does everything for us. The pros make up scorecards with our pairings and strokes, tally our scores at the end of each round and maintain a big, professional scoreboard for us. Last year I decided on Sunday morning that we would have a glow-ball tournament on Sunday night. Bob the pro called around and located glow balls for me and helped to set it up. They've accommodated many special requests through the years, from feather pillows to special bottles of wine. We want the same table in the dining room each night we're there, and we don't even have to ask anymore. It's taken care of.

NEIL: That's the great thing about going back to the same place. Going back to Sea Island for the third time, they know we'll behave, and we know they'll really customize our trip. We'll meet with some of the management, and we'll do little outings in the trophy room and stuff.

BOB SANDT: My group goes on a trip to Cozumel [Mexico], and the service is incredible. The cart girl comes by, and I'm "Señor Bob"—I'm a king. But when you're traveling, you're at their mercy. Like on a Scotland trip, you'll run the gamut: You'll go from excellent service to "they-don't-care" service. The group has to be go-with-the-flow kind of guys.

GD: Do you ever have cases where some people start to irritate each other and don't get along? And if so, what do you do?

DAVE: Mine's easy. I've got it right on my form: Who do you want to room with? And I already know what groups of guys are together. We have a five-man scramble on Friday afternoon, which is a random draw, and that really is a great mixer. That was the whole idea when we started, so guys could get to meet other guys, play as a team, drink beer, high-five and have fun. But for the main rounds, I always try to get the groups of buddies who come together. I'll allow them to play in fivesomes because there's always a group of five coming down together. We have the course to ourselves, and a fivesome can play just as fast as a foursome. So no, I never have issues with that.

GD: If I'm on your trip and I come to you and say, "I have a problem with this guy . . . "

DAVE: Then don't hang out with him. It's a big complex, and it's not like you're stuck rubbing shoulders with this guy all the time. So you might run into one guy that you're not fond of, and you might get him in the scramble, but that's one round. For the actual tournament, you're with your buddies.

BOB: On a smaller trip you can't escape and go hang with a different group of people. You're with the group you're with. I've had a 70-year-old man who's one of my best friends, the sweetest guy you ever knew, leap over a table at Ladybank Golf Club in Scotland ready to punch another guy. They were talking about the one guy flicking a piece of mud off his ball, and they were accusing the guy of picking the ball up—like we're such rules aficionados. Another time we're following each other down the freeways of Spain, and this one car screeches over to the side of the road. The driver jumps out of the car and says, "I'm not driving with that ------- anymore." So we had to put the guy who was driving in our car and smooth that thing out. One time I'm sitting at a table in Cozumel having the greatest time, and the proprietor, Fernando, goes: "Uh, Bob, we have a problem." I go up, and my friend has punched another guy in the nose, and it's bleeding. I go up to the room, and the other guy has a bandage on his head. I don't know if it's just my trips, but I get some unruly characters.

Guys come to me all the time and say, "Why don't we try this?" . . . Lots of time we try it.'

ROY: If you have a small group, you put them together for a week and they're not used to living with each other, it gets on their nerves.

GD: Barbara, does this happen on your trip?

BARBARA: I don't tolerate it. In my group, some of the women tend to stray a little bit, get too far out of the little circle, and some of the others get nervous about that. I just ignore [the complaints], and that nips it right in the bud.

GD: As the trip planner, do you feel responsible for solving these conflicts?

BOB: You feel like you have to be the peacekeeper, which puts you in an awkward situation. You have to be the fixer when you're a trip planner.

GD: Is there anything you guys lose sleep over as the trip nears?

DAVE: Just the weather.

ROY: Yeah, the weather. The stuff you can't control. You start checking it a month out.

DAVE: We get up in the morning, and it's Golf Channel, then Weather Channel.

CALVIN: What I lose sleep over is, I put everything on my credit card. So I'm afraid that someday somebody is going to trash some room or something, and it's going to come back to me.

GD: Let's talk about money. How much do your trips cost?

CALVIN: It's usually about $375 per person. We've never gone over $500. That's playing four to six courses in three to five days.

DAVE: We have three-day, five-day and seven-day packages. The most anyone paid last year was $1,050 for the full week. The five-day was about $800. The three-day was $580. That's golf, accommodations, some food, prizes.

BARBARA: Before airfare, drinking and shopping, my trip is about $1,600 for four days at Mid Pines. That's one round of golf per day, lodging and all food.

NEIL: Our thing is always five rounds, four nights and two people to a room. That baseline number—no food or drinks, just lodging and golf—we like to do right around $1,100 to $1,200. Then you know there's food and drinks, but it goes from there. Some people are a little more thrifty, some really live it up.

ROY: The part that I plan for everyone would be about $2,200, and that's for nine or 10 rounds in St. Andrews or elsewere in Scotland, and it includes lodging and ground transportation. To that you'd add your walking-around money, airfare and food.

BOB: My Cozumel trip is for seven days, lodging with breakfast, seven rounds of golf for $1,200. My guys will not share rooms. So that makes it a little more difficult price-wise.

GD: Has the economy affected your trips?

You feel like you have to be the peacekeeper which puts you in a awkward situation.'

BARBARA: People had to dig deeper into their piggy banks this past year, but they would go without food rather than skip the trip.

NEIL: Our trip is called the Ponce de Leon Invitational. There was talk about having a "Recession Ponce" this year, where we'd stay in some of the guys' homes and we'd play at a club where a lot of them are members. That was evaluated, and we decided not to do it. We just made sure the Sea Island lodging and golf price was going to be no more than in the past.

BOB: What you're hearing is that most of us are traveling in the value season. You don't hear most of us going to Scotland or Ireland in June or July. That's kind of the corporate environment, or at least it used to be. And I think golf resorts are starting to reel from not having that business anymore. Can we now go to Pinehurst in June and get the value package? I think it's going to be interesting going forward with the way the economy is.

GD: We've talked about camaraderie, venue, service, price. Going farther down the list, what other things are critical? Lodging?

DAVE: Accommodations? We're packin' them in like carp. If you want your own room because you want to get your eight hours, you're going to the wrong event. Sleep is like way down at the bottom.

GD: What about food? Do you focus on it?

ROY: Not a lot. We've figured it out. There are a few good restaurants over there in Scotland, and we know where they are.

What you're hearing is that most of us are traveling in the value season.'

DAVE: In our deal, we include lunches Thursday through Sunday. Instead of having 130 guys come in and say, "I want a hamburger; I want a hot dog," and then they have to go make it, it's just done. They give us lots of food, and they don't charge us very much.

CALVIN: But we're different—we're usually just four foursomes.

DAVE: But you can negotiate on your deal—a lunch or something.

NEIL: At La Quinta this year we got box lunches for one of the rounds, then every day they gave each player a little voucher for a free drink. Just ask for a couple of things and they might say, "Sure." The guys get kind of excited about it: "Hey, a free drink!"

DAVE: For our scramble on Friday afternoon, they'll make you a Bloody Caesar or a White Russian. So as every group drives up, free drink! And they all think it's the greatest, and they all get a picture with the girl.

GD: Nobody ever gets tired of free stuff. On that note, let's eat. Lunch is on us.