My 2010 Travel Awards Part 1: Where golf is grand
I didn’t get to travel as much in 2010 as I did last year (see the 2009 awards column here), but that doesn’t mean this past golf season was any less special.
In fact it may have been better. During a stretch in July, I played the best golf of my life. I got my index down to a career-low of 10.7. I think the soul-stirring surroundings of the Canadian Rockies of Alberta, Canada, (not to mention the extra carry from the thin mountain air) are what inspired my game. Playing the Banff Springs and Jasper Park golf courses and staying at Fairmont’s two adjacent properties is among the 10 best golf trips in the world.
The golf is great, the scenery out of this world and the luxury of the two hotels unbeatable. I saw nature in its rawest forms … four bear at Jasper Park and a wild July snowstorm in the mountain pass between the two historic hotels. I shot two of my best scores of the summer at Canmore (78) and Banff Springs (81) on that trip. Pictured above are The Three Sisters peaks visable from the course at Silvertip Resort.
After a fun weekend hanging with Butch Harmon at The Loon in Gaylord, my momentum stalled when I twisted my back into a pretzel during a round at the difficult Erin Hills Golf Club in Wisconsin in August, slowing me down considerably. The future U.S. Open site will probably do the same to a few tour pros in 2017.
Thankfully, during my month-long golf shutdown, I still was able to find magic on the course. I thought I’d never be able to top walking inside the ropes for the final round of the 2008 PGA Championship at Oakland Hills, but I was wrong. Hanging inside the ropes with Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Johnny Miller and Tom Watson at the grand opening of The Golf Club at Harbor Shores in Benton Harbor, Michigan, was surreal, a story I’ll tell my grandkids.
I rediscovered a little more swing magic during a December trip to Los Cabos in Mexico on the tip of the Baja Peninsula. I eagled the fourth hole on the spectacular Mountain nine at Palmilla and drove a green for another shot at eagle on the 300-yard par-4 ninth at Puerto Los Cabos the following day.
Oh, and how could I forget … I found time to invade my favorite destination in the world twice, discovering even more magical links golf courses in Ireland and Northern Ireland. A good year indeed.
Here is part 1 of my travel awards for 2010. These awards focus on courses. Come back tomorrow for a deeper look at the stellar golf resorts I visited. A third installment dives into golf grub to die for.
Best U.S. Golf Destination: Northern Michigan.
I’m really not trying to be a homer when I say that northern Michigan is the second-best golf destination in America behind northern California. It has all the best characteristics of Myrtle Beach (affordability), northern California (scenic layouts on the water) and Pinehurst (courses designed on rolling hills cut through forest). You can’t go wrong with the places I saw this summer: Grand Traverse Resort & Spa in Acme (the Bear is featured in the picture), Forest Dunes in Roscommon, The Loon in Gaylord, The Homestead Resort in Glen Arbor and Boyne Mountain Resort. Runners-up: Orlando, Gulf Shores, Ala.; San Antonio.
Best International Golf Destination: Canadian Rockies in Alberta.
This destination is one of the few I’ve found where, if I return, I might actually play LESS golf. The hiking trail around the Delta Lodge at Kananaskis was beautiful, overlooking the course. At lunch, one couple was using binoculars to watch a cougar run down the surrounding mountainside. A helicopter ride over the mountains was an exhilarating rush. The white water rafting ride was just as cool. Can’t wait to go back. Pictured is Jasper Park. Close runners-up: Cabo San Lucas, Ireland.
Best course: Royal County Down in Newcastle, Northern Ireland.
The combination of scenery and strategy are what make RCD such an epic venue. I walked the course in 2007 during the Walker Cup, so to get the chance to come back and play it was a treat. Runners-up: The Ocean course at Cabo del Sol in Mexico, Doonbeg and Old Head in Ireland, Banff Springs and Jasper Park in Canada, Forest Dunes in Michigan.
Best Links course besides Royal County Down: Doonbeg.
Is there a better links destination than Doonbeg in southwest Ireland? The pampering after the round is almost better than playing golf. In my world, that’s saying something. Runners-up: Ballyliffin’s Glashedy course, Rosapenna’s Sandy Hills and Old Tom Morris courses. All hail Pat Ruddy, the eccentric Irishman who had a hand in all three of these lovable links along the northern coast. The folks at North & West Coast Links can help you find these treasures.
Most scenic course: Old Head of Kinsdale in southeast Ireland.
Wow. That’s the only way to describe the overwhelming clifftop views from this Irish beauty. I vividly remember shaking with fright on the fourth hole, trying to steady my hand for a drive at the iconic lighthouse, while trying to avoid a hook into the ocean’s watery grave. The tee shot over a coastal chasm on the twelfth invokes the same feeling. Runners-up: Ardglass Golf Club in Northern Ireland, Doonbeg in Ireland, Banff Springs in Canada, the Ocean course at Cabo del Sol in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico. Any of these is a photographer’s dream.
Toughest Golf Course: Royal County Down. Playing in a match that left no room for casual golf, RCD ate my lunch, and burned my ego. I lost at least five balls in its thick rough and without a caddie was left guessing on every shot, from the fairways with no yardage markers to the wildly breaking putts. Runner-up: The Bear at Grand Traverse Resort & Spa in Acme, Michigan. This Jack Nicklaus layout has been softened over the years, but the Golden Bear’s design still offers plenty of teeth. It continues to rank among the most difficult courses in the country. The Dye Course at French Lick Resort in Indiana is a bear, too.
Biggest Surprise Course: Ardglass Golf Club in Northern Ireland.
The first five holes rival any in the world for scenery. Starting your day teeing off in the shadow of a 13th-century castle and ending it with a drink inside makes the day. Runner-up: Forest Dunes in Michigan. I hadn’t played the Tom Weiskopf gem in at least five years, and I’d forgotten how good the routing is. His risk-reward elements on the back nine are unsurpassed.
Best New Course: Since I haven’t officially played Harbor Shores, Manitou Passage in Cedar, Mich., west of Traverse City, gets the nod. This former Arnold Palmer course (then called Kings Challenge) had fallen into disrepair before the nearby Homestead Resort took ownership. Tees have been repositioned and fairways widened to make the course more player-friendly and the conditioning is vastly improved. Golfweek rated it No. 37 on its list of the “Best New Courses” of 2010.
Best U.S. Open venue: Erin Hills in Wisconsin 60 miles west of Milwaukee.
I just happened to be visiting the day Alex Micelli, Mr. Bowtie of the Golf Channel, was in town. I enjoyed staying in one of the cozy rooms above the clubhouse, and have nothing but glowing praise for the revamped layout. Runner-up: Chambers Bay near Tacoma, Wash. Even if there were a few critics about the course setup, the 2015 U.S. Open venue showed well at this summer’s U.S. Amateur.
Best PGA Tour venue: The Ritz-Carlton Dove Mountain near Tucson, Ariz.
The host of the World Match Play Championship demands great shot-making or else the ball ends up in deep bunkers or a desert filled with cacti and jumping cholla. The Tortolita nine snakes its way through a secluded, scenic desert canyon. Runner-up: The Magnolia golf course at Walt Disney World, host of the Children’s Miracle Network Classic, near Orlando. The tee shot of the No. 17 hole, the final test of the Kodak Challenge, is daunting. The Westin La Cantera Resort in San Antonio used to be the stop for the Texas Open, too.
Best LPGA Tour venue: Magnolia Grove Crossings course, host of the Micro Bell Classic, near Mobile, Ala.
It was completely revamped prior to the 2010 tournament, making it easier for average Jasons like me and still maintaining a challenging tournament venue. Trees were removed, opening up fairway corridors.
Best European Tour venue: OK, it wasn’t technically a European Tour site this year, but the Adare Manor Golf Club has hosted the Irish Open in the past.
This year, the tournament buzz at Adare Manor came from the JP McManus Invitational Pro-Am, the most prestigious charity golf tournament in the world, held once every five years. The uber-rich owner of Adare Manor attracted 13 of the top 15 players in the world. The course might be the best parkland layout in Ireland. The par-5 18th finishes in the shadow of the imposing manor house.
Best U.S. private club experience: Tacoma Golf & Country Club in Washington. I didn’t have many expectations when I showed up, but the old-school vibe of the place won me over. PGA Tour star Ryan Moore joined the club this summer. That speaks volumes about its appeal. Runner-up: The TPC of Michigan. This former host of a Champions Tour major deserves kudos for weathering the economic woes of Michigan while continuing to deliver top-notch service and course conditions.
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