Clockwise from top left: Fred Hicks scrambles; state pride; the 428-yard first hole at the Country Club course at Bella Vista; Ken Ray (plaid shorts) and crew.
Add Bella Vista, Ark., to the list of remote buddies-trip destinations offering value and a variety of good golf worth writing about.
Take it from Ken Ray of Ponca, Okla., who has led a group of avid golfers to the Natural State's northwest quadrant for 20 years. "We can't play this cheap at home," says Ray, an 8-handicap. "We've only been rained out of one round in 20 years -- and there are streams, waterfalls, lakes, little mountains, birds and foliage."
The area's six courses, all within 15 minutes of each other, charge $42 ($29 after 2 p.m.). There's everything from undulating, narrow and demanding to flat, open and forgiving -- and all in good condition. Only 14 miles from the Bentonville, Ark., airport and a four-hour drive from Ponca City, Bella Vista is comparable to St. George, Utah, Michigan's Garland Lodge & Resort and some of the spots on Alabama's Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail in terms of price and quality of golf.
When his group first started coming to Bella Vista, it was a small retirement community, Ray says. "We've seen this area explode." In large part, that's because of the growth of Walmart and Tyson Foods, headquartered there. Fifteen minutes down Highway 71 is the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art (featuring, among other things, Andy Warhol's Dolly Parton).
As if Ray & Co. were in town for the paintings. They come for three days at the end of May, two nights in two four-bedroom condos, four rounds of golf, meals, drinks, poker and, of course, the camaraderie. All in, it's $447 a man, including gas and $30 a round of side bets. (As part of this Ambush, Golf Digest covered one dinner, drinks and handed out $100 worth of gift certificates.) The group plays a combination of two-man better ball, scramble, alternate shot and individual low net. The most anyone wins is $240; the most they can lose is $120. "If you think your handicap is too high we'll lower it immediately," Ray writes in his pre-trip memo. "If you think it's too low, you have two weeks to practice. We strive for fairness, not compassion."
Ray sent around another email the day after the 20th trip in which he summarized scores and money and asked for feedback on how he could improve the annual gathering. As the old friends from Ponca City Country Club in Oklahoma prepare for their third decade of diminishing laws of debauchery, Ray reminded the group to stay focused on the soul of buddies trips: "Golf is the thing that keeps us going, and the friendship is the key to success."
ASK @MATT_GINELLA of @golfdigestmag
__Q: Going to Pinehurst for massive buddies trip. Recommendations for off-resort courses?
__Q: Still wish Bandon was viable for family of 4.
A: Unless your family is full of good & avid golfers, it's NOT a family destination.
__Q: What's the best desert golf course experience in PHX area? Have one day.
A: I'd play Saguaro at We-Ko-Pa.
A: If you gave me 10 rounds, I'd play Cypress (6), Pasa (2), Spy (1) PB (1).
__Q: Great golf in Scottsdale. Only negative, @JayBilas snoring like Blackhawks goal horn.
A: Buddies-trip survival kit: ear plugs!