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Luxury Golf Tours

Robert Lowell
From the Print Edition:
Air Sick, Jul/Aug 02

(continued from page 2)

Can you imagine playing golf at Pebble Beach on Monday, Bandon Dunes and Pacific Dunes on Tuesday, 36 holes at Sand Hills on Wednesday and Shadow Creek on Thursday? Or how about Ballybunion in Ireland, St. Andrews in Scotland and Valderrama in Spain on consecutive days? It's all possible. No matter how luxurious you thought your last golf trip was -- first-class airfare, limousines, lavish suites at hotels close to the golf course, and sumptuous meals with the world's best wines -- it can't compare to one of the latest developments in the world of golf: private jet golf tours. With the growth of private jet use for corporate and leisure purposes over the last two decades, these small sky chariots have been increasingly used to whisk golfers to their destinations. For very princely sums, the well-heeled and the well-traveled can design their own golf itinerary that breaks the shackles of commercial scheduling and the chaos of commercial airline terminals. You get to go where you want to go and when you want to go, departing from smaller and friendlier fixed base operator terminals.

Or, you can take prepared itineraries with all the best features of high-end golf travel with the added bonus that the plane you are traveling in is dedicated to you and your fellow golfers. No one to get in the way of a good conversation over the merits of extra-distance balls, oversized drivers or single-malt Scotches. That level of luxury, convenience and privacy comes at a price, substantially more than a self-driven tour with four guys in a minivan sitting on top of their golf clubs, which, of course, we've all done and all enjoyed. But for $25,000 a person and up, depending on length of trip, destinations, accommodations, size of aircraft and number of players, you can literally have it all. If your tastes run to more modest excursions, those typically can be arranged for between $3,500 and $5,000. Companies like New York-based Destination Golf have a whole catalog of pre-arranged tours to golf meccas around the world.

Tim Ummel, the principal of the Kalamazoo, Michigan-based Jet Golf, which is owned by the UMLEX Group, specializes in organizing customized golf trips using private aircraft. "I'd say that about 10 percent of our business is incentive travel and the other 90 percent is totally custom," says Ummel. "We arrange for the private aircraft and everything else about the itinerary. That means using limousines to get them everywhere, including back and forth from home to the airport. We arrange all the rooms, all the luggage handling, all the meals, and the tips. You will have to get used to not dipping into your pocket, because everything will be taken care of."

Ummel calls the style the "butlered approach." At each step along the way, there will be somebody to take care of everything. On the plane itself, special catering needs are easily fulfilled. Want fois gras for a trip to Pebble Beach? Got it. Want the finest French Bordeaux wine? Not a problem. Want seared duck breast, lobster, truffled scallops or just pastrami on rye and hot dogs (grilled not boiled)? All can be arranged.

"I think the real benefit beyond the luxurious amenities you get with a private jet is the ability to go directly to where you want to go," says Ummel. "If you were taking commercial craft on a cross-country trip, it might take a week or more to accomplish what you can in five days on a private jet, because you don't have to adhere to a commercial schedule and don't have to change planes. This is very true of places that are more out of the way, that only have small airports nearby where the big planes can't land. You might save four or five hours on a single leg by being able to go directly to that small airport. For people who value their time, this is a big consideration."

Ummel often charters aircraft managed by TAG Aviation, an international aircraft charter and management company that has many planes available across the United States, from a King Air prop plane to large Gulfstreams, Challengers and Falcons. He also uses other charter companies. The base price of any private jet trip depends on the size of the aircraft and its itinerary. Charter jets can range from $1,500 to $7,000 per hour. If you want something bigger, say a Boeing 737 for your 30 closest friends, the price goes up exponentially. The operating costs cover pilots, fuel and attendant. You cover everything else.

As an example of the convenience and versatility (and dare we say the fantasy) of private jet travel, Ummel was asked to design and price a four-night, five-day trip that would originate in New York and take its foursome of travelers to both remote and exciting golf destinations.

The journey begins at White Plains Airport in Westchester County, north of New York City. There, a Challenger 601-3A with red leather seats and soft gray carpeting takes off as soon as the foursome and their luggage are aboard. With a range of 3,200 miles, the plane flies nonstop to Bandon, Oregon, the site of the new Bandon Dunes Golf Resort. If you leave by 7 a.m., chances are you will be playing golf shortly after noon on the Pacific Dunes Course at Bandon, a Tom Doak design that is as close to a genuine American links as you can find. The resort has its own well-appointed lodge for a good night's sleep and fine dining.

The next morning the Challenger lifts off for the Monterey Peninsula of California and the Inn at Spanish Bay. You could play the Pebble Beach Golf Links if you like, but chances are if you are taking this trip, you've been there before. Why not try the links-like course at Spanish Bay in the morning and the legendary Bayonet Course at Fort Ord in the afternoon.

The next morning you are off to the Coeur d'Alene Resort in Idaho, landing at a nearby private strip. The Coeur d'Alene course (with its movable par-3 green in a lake) is one of the most scenic of all American inland courses. After lunch, you then head for Las Vegas, check into Bellagio and try to hold on to your money in one of the private gaming rooms that evening, or take in a show.

The next morning you play Shadow Creek, the mirage in the desert created by hotelier Steve Wynn and golf course architect Tom Fazio. It's a Northwest-style course in the middle of the desert, a bucolic retreat from the hurly-burly of the Las Vegas Strip.

That afternoon you dash off to the middle of Nebraska. Nebraska, you say? For golf, you say? Yes, you are headed for the Sand Hills Golf Club, a Ben Crenshaw-Bill Coore layout. Like Bandon Dunes, it's a remote site that involves arduous commercial airline travel to get to. After staying overnight in one of the beautifully appointed cabins on the property, you can play two rounds of golf this day, and chances are you will want to. Sand Hills is routed naturally across sandy prairie land, the sand a product of an ancient ocean. At 5 p.m. you head back to White Plains, completing a five-day, coast-to-coast trip that might easily take a week by commercial airline travel, and leave you exhausted -- plus having played less golf.

The price tag? Ummel calculates it at $31,225 per person for four players, everything included, and that might mean his own presence as the tour coordinator. The price would come down to $18,945 for an eight-player group. The final price is determined by the hours the jet is airborne and any special catering and entertainment needs.

For a trip with a set itinerary and a bigger and broader range of players, you might consider TCS Expeditions of Seattle. Each July T. C. Swartz, the company namesake, follows his own passion and puts together a trip to Scotland, Ireland and Spain to play golf, and to learn about golf. Jim Flick, one of the world's leading golf instructors, and several of his associates travel with the party aboard a private 737. Flick has been an instructor to Jack Nicklaus and a business partner with him in golf schools. For Swartz and his passengers, who pony up more than $25,000 apiece, the trip is a midsummer daydream come true.

"I think having access to Jim Flick for 10 days is probably worth the price of the whole trip," says Swartz. "He's my best friend and he tends to become everybody's best friend. We have repeat business because Jim is part of this trip."

This tour originates in Ireland and ends in Scotland, with clients providing their own transportation across the Atlantic. Once in Ireland, everything is taken care of down to the last detail. The trip begins with golf at the Adare Manor Hotel course. Ballybunion is next, followed by a round at the spectacular Old Head golf course near Kinsale. For that part of the journey, helicopters are used to shuttle players and avoid the twisting Irish roads. A three-hour car journey takes 40 minutes or so by helicopter.

The lack of an extensive highway system in Ireland has encouraged the development of a helicopter service for golfers. Carr Golf of Dublin and American business magnate Wayne Huizenga's Southern Aircraft Services are partners in a new business called Links Helicopter, which provides chartered, dedicated service to golfers. It allows players to experience more of the great courses of Ireland in much less time. Marty Carr, president of Carr Golf, says the service was slated to begin June 1 and the cost was expected to be 1,450 euros (about $1,150) per operating hour. This way, players can base themselves at one or two fine hotels and play 36 holes a day at scattered locations.

After the Irish experience, the TCS 737 takes players to Spain's Costa del Sol for rounds at the San Roque Club and at nearby Valderrama, site of the 1997 Ryder Cup matches. The jet then flies to St. Andrews in Scotland for rounds at the Old and New courses, followed by a day at the British Open Championship at Muirfield in Edinburgh, and two more rounds at either old and crusty Carnoustie, the new and laudable Kingsbarns, or the Old or New courses. Each day, players will play at least nine holes with Flick or one of his associates -- a golf tour and golf school all in one. Flick and his instructors, including former PGA player Phil Blackmar, will be on the course and in the plane to give instruction.

"You get top-notch instruction, the best of hotels, the best courses, the best food and wine, the best sort of travel, and you get it every day for 10 days," says Swartz.

Mark Greenstein and his father, Morey, of the Bay Area of California have taken the trip twice. "I originally gave this trip to my father as a 70th birthday present," says the younger Greenstein. "It met all the criteria as far as the range and quality of courses and the fact that Jim Flick was coming along, who is a contemporary of my father's. I think another bonus is to meet so many well-traveled people. On a private plane like that, you get to move around and talk with lots of people. On that first trip it was kind of a father-and-son outing because there were so many fathers and sons on the trip. There were also three women, and they fit in very well. On the second trip it was a lot of husbands and wives. You get treated so well, and having your own plane makes it seem like a private club."

For those so fortunate as to own a private plane, golf touring companies can design and facilitate every part of the ground experience. Gordon Dalgleish of PerryGolf in Atlanta has designed several tours for jet owners. He has been working on a trip for members of a prominent Northeastern club who have the benefit of two private jets.

Nothing was quite so large as a trip Dalgleish helped coordinate last summer, when hockey super-agent Don Meehan of Toronto decided to treat his family, valued clients and even a few general managers and coaches to a golf trip. Meehan took 106 people on a golf tour of Ireland and Scotland, hiring the Phoenix Coyotes' Boeing 757 jet. "I had been very fortunate in the stock market," says Meehan. While the cost was not disclosed, you can figure at least one million bucks for this trip.

Meehan used his 50th birthday as an excuse, and gathered everyone at a private terminal to begin the journey. Among the amenities that PerryGolf arranged for the Meehan tour were bagpipers at the departure terminal and throughout the trip.

The grand entourage flew to Luechars Air Force Base just north of St. Andrews, Scotland. The group took over a good share of the Old Course Hotel and for three days played the Old Course at St. Andrews, the Carnoustie Links and Kingsbarns. From there they flew to Killarney, Ireland, the base of play for three courses. Because they had the private jet, they could all fly together into Kerry Airport, a small facility for commercial puddle jumpers and private craft. In Ireland they played Ballybunion, Tralee and the Old Head Golf Links.

"The people at PerryGolf really put together a wonderful program of golf and entertainment," says Meehan. "But this trip wouldn't have been possible without getting a chartered plane. It would have been difficult to coordinate everyone's travel needs from all parts of [North America] to an overseas destination. This way they only had to get to Toronto and everything was taken care of from there. No one had to pay a dime. Golf, caddies, food -- everything was paid for. It was fantastic. I don't think I could ever duplicate it."

The events of September 11 put a damper on the golf travel industry, though tour operators see business coming back. Golfers need their fix, after all. And increasingly, those who can afford it are turning to private jets as their transportation of choice. "There's no question that if you want to go to a lot of places in a short period of time, the private jet is everything," said Dalgleish. "It certainly is a luxurious way to go, but for many people it's about time. The jet allows you to do more in less time, and to change plans or destinations a lot easier."

From intimate getaways to grand tours, the private jet offers the ultimate in golf travel: freedom. It costs a pretty penny or two, but for those who can afford it there is no better way to get somewhere quickly and comfortably. "It's a lot of money," says Ummel of Jet Golf. "But we also think there's a lot of value."

Robert Lowell is a freelance writer based in New York.

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