Golf courses and characters keep us entertained on first leg of epic road trip

From New Orleans to New York over to Chicago and to Houston, Mike Bailey is spending a month on the road sampling golf, barbecue and American culture. Golf courses include everything from U.S. Open venues to hidden gems, covering all price points and challenges, all the while trying not to increase his handicap or waistline.

From a very playable Pete Dye course to another one that might even be more playable, the first week of my epic summer golf trip has been filled with excellent golf, eats and a few unusual activities.

The trip started on the Fourth of July weekend with an overnight stop in New Orleans, which is usually about five hours from my home in Houston but took more like eight hours because of traffic delays due to construction in and around Baton Rouge. But once my better half (Nancy) and I made it to New Orleans, the trip, which had covered just less than 1,500 miles in its first week, was smooth sailing. We didn't even have weather problems.

Golf began on the Dye- and Steve Elkington-designed TPC Louisiana in Avondale, just outside of New Orleans. In many ways, it's a light version of the TPC Sawgrass with wider fairways, less scary water hazards and less treacherous bunkering, but make no mistake: All the elements are there. With plenty of room to drive the ball, it's really a second-shot golf course, and if you play the right tees, there are plenty of birdie opportunities out there.

We paired the golf that day with dinner in the Warehouse District, which has certainly become trendy, but isn't exactly the tourist trap that the French Quarter can be. In this case, we tried Cochon, a Cajun/Southern restaurant where award winning chef Donald Link and his team prepare everything from crawfish pie to Louisiana cochon with turnips, cabbage, pickled peaches & crackling.

Definitely a 'Dawg' fan

The next day was basically spent driving to the Atlanta area, where we would spend the night to get up the next day and drive an hour or so northeast to the University of Georgia in Athens. I knew we would be playing one of the best public college golf courses in the country, but this Robert Trent Jones gem exceeded expectations.

Although the fairways and roughs on the UGA golf course are Bermuda, it definitely gave off an Augusta-like vibe with the extreme up-and-down feel of the holes, bunkering and difficult bentgrass greens. On the second hole, I found the wrong part of the green and predicted the possibility of a four-putt since I had to barely go over a ridge to get the ball to fall down to a hole location in the back about 70 feet away. Any kind of speed going over the ridge could mean putting off the green.

I didn't get it over the ridge, which meant the next putt was seven feet past the hole. Yep, that's a double bogey after hitting the green in regulation. I got the hang of the greens after that, though, and learned you've got to find the right spot. Nos. 12-15, which play around and over a lake, were particularly memorable.

Welcome to Mayberry

The next stop might have been the most interesting -- Mt. Airy in northwestern North Carolina. If you're not familiar with the town, just think Mayberry. It's the late Andy Griffith's hometown and much of "The Andy Griffith Show" was based on the characters and places there. In fact, I got a haircut at Floyd's Barber Shop, and the real Floyd, 90-year-old Russell Hiatt, was actually there to share a few stories on the day I stopped by for a trim.

But it takes more than Mayberry souvenirs to bring us to Mt. Airy. Yes, there's golf in these parts and another surprise -- wineries. About 30 of the latter, if you can believe it, in the Yadkin Valley. We stopped by impressive Shelton Vineyards for a tasting and tour. If we hadn't known any better, we would have thought we were in the Napa Valley. That was followed by an excellent dinner at the Harvest Grill on property. Paired with the local wines, the Carolina Summer Seafood Stew and Crispy Cornbread Crab Cakes are part of the restaurant's summer seasonal menu.

As for the golf, there are a couple dozen good-to-excellent courses, many of them -- such as Olde Beau Golf and Country Club and Cross Creek Country Club, which we played -- offered in packages with local hotels and cabins, which is where we stayed. Packages include accommodations and wine tastings and tours, and you can go into town and do a number of Mayberry-related activities.

One that I highly recommend is the Squad Car Tour, where a "sheriff" or "deputy" will take you around town and show you the sights in a restored, early-1960s Ford Galaxie patrol car, just like on the show. The tour starts at Wally's Service Station, which is right next door to a re-creation of the courthouse and jail from "The Andy Griffith Show."

Playing golf in Colonial country

After a couple of days in Mayberry, it was another 400 miles or so to reach the mega-Kingsmill Resort in Williamsburg, Va. Set right next door to Colonial Williamsburg and Busch Gardens, Kingsmill offers just about everything -- two golf courses, fine dining, a large tennis center, hiking and biking trails, water sports and a water park, and accommodations at the hotel or in condo units.

One of the golf courses, the River Course, is another Pete Dye design, and this one may be even more playable than the TPC Louisiana. With wide fairways, the 6,800-yard course, which is home to the LPGA's Kingsmill Championship, is all about the approach shots. With the expansive James River as its backdrop, the last few holes are particularly memorable, especially the 16th, a long left-to-right par 4 that opens up the views to the water. I found the pot bunker back left to a short pin and couldn't get a stance in it, so there are definitely parts of the course that will bite you if you stray.

Golf was followed by something a little more harrowing -- riding the roller coasters at Busch Gardens that evening. The Verbolten, which has two inverse vertical drops, probably wasn't the best idea following a dinner of bratwurst and beer at the Oktoberfest part of the park. But like the double bogey I made on 16 hours before, I managed to recover.

Mike Bailey is a senior staff writer based in Houston. Focusing primarily on golf in the United States, Canada, the Caribbean and Latin America with an occasional trip to Europe and beyond, he contributes course reviews, travel stories and features as well as the occasional equipment review. An award-winning writer and past president of Texas Golf Writers Association, he has more than 25 years in the golf industry. Before accepting his current position in 2008, he was on staff at PGA Magazine, The Golfweek Group and AvidGolfer Magazine. Follow Mike on Twitter at @MikeBaileyGA and Instagram at @MikeStefanBailey.
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Golf courses and characters keep us entertained on first leg of epic road trip
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