Times to use extreme caution when planning a golf vacation

I've played enough golf around the world on some excellent courses, but there have been times when I've played a course that should have been a first-rate experience, but instead I left underwhelmed.

The nature of my gig is that courses will invite us out of season for preview play, or sometimes try and squeeze media into the tee sheet on a day or time they shouldn't in order to accommodate our tight schedule.

But it's also quite apparent reading your reviews and comments on Golf Advisor that similar annoyances happen to paying golfers, too.

When I'm on my own dime, there are times when I like to gamble on saving money, like during shoulder season, or by playing in the afternoon. Here are a few instances where I'd have a hard time committing my own - and especially my buddies' - time and money on a golf vacation to visit a top course or destination:

Playing a new course during 'preview play'

As a member of the golf media, I play a lot of courses before their grand opening and even stay in accommodations before they are finished (I know - cue the world's smallest violin). It's always cool to be one of the first to do anything, but I would have serious reservations about paying my own money to do it, which has been a growing trend among bucket-list courses (especially those from Mike Keiser properties).

There are just too many variables. Some of the most common annoyances: really slow greens, splotchy turf (frankly, you feel guilty taking a divot on a course that is still growing in) and everpresent maintenance crews. Tee markers might not be set out, and it's a good bet the course isn't rated or on GPS systems yet, so you can't submit the score in GHIN (or get accurate yardage).

I remember playing the Old MacDonald 10-hole loop at Bandon Dunes before it opened, and not only were there no facilities, but the caddies were still trying to figure the place out. Fescue-turfed courses like Cabot Cliffs seemed to need an extra year or two to truly grow in. Reports out of The Loop at Forest Dunes during its preview and first season were that the greens were so firm they were almost impossible to hold. At a development at Paraiso Del Mar in Mexico, we were staying in unfinished accommodations and the water that came out of the hotel room sink was orange-ish.

Another obvious nuisance of preview play: if you like a stiff drink afterward, there's usually little-to-no F&B and the clubhouse is usually either a trailer or you have to be shuttled back to the main resort.

There are times when courses don't rush the opening and are in great shape well before opening day (Wickenburg Ranch is an extreme case: The course was maintained for years before officially opening). If you simply have to be that golfer to play the course first, just remember there are reasons it's still in "Beta" mode.

Courses surrounded by booming real estate

Early in my career in the late-2000s I played a lot of courses whose real estate component had gone belly-up. Like this:

D'Andrea golf course's front nine is void of residential development, but it appears that will eventually change.

Pad sites as far as the eye can see and not a worker onsite. That course, D'Andrea in Reno, ultimately closed for good.These days, with real estate roaring back in many places it's a different scene: active construction sites and lots of noise.

New or revamped golf course residential communities will often promote bargain green fees in their first view years to show off not only the course but the home sites. But if there's too much construction going on at once, it's a real nuisance.
One of the more frustrating rounds I've had in awhile was a few years ago at Verde River Golf Club. The development had been reborn and the course renovated. The layout and conditions were good, and the temporary clubhouse was over-achieving. But the construction of the clubhouse and surrounding real estate was going seriously gangbusters. Good for them, but there were big trucks making a racket throughout our round. Based on reviewer comments around this time I wasn't the only one who felt the vibe was spoiled. Had I brought a group with me, I would have surely felt some heat.

Few in the golf business wants to trade 2018 for 2008, but if you're heading to a brand new course with an emerging real estate community, it's worth poking around and seeing if there have been recent complains about the noise.

Right before the course hosts a PGA Tour event

If you want to experience how a course plays for the pros, it's probably better to play the course after the event and not before it. Here's why:

Remember in 2007 when Phil Mickelson paid a site visit to Oakmont before the U.S. Open and hurt his wrist hitting shots out of the rough? By the time Open week arrived, the rough had been thinned, yet Mickelson was still ailing and missed the cut.

Oftentimes, committees will grow out their rough to extreme lengths in the month or so before the event, then right before the tournament, they will cut it back to desired level. It's easier to trim than to grow, right?

This hampered a round I had at Silverado right before they staged their first tour event in 2014. They wanted to get it exactly right for their first Safeway Open - rightfully so - but the result for those of us playing a couple weeks beforehand were balls that were barely findable just off the fairway (and I miss a lot of fairways).

On a normal basis, the wine-country resort sets up to play like a smooth cabernet. But my round was hardly easy going.

At Torrey Pines South last January, the course was enduring a lot of rain and staff chose to let the rough grow out prior to the Farmers in a couple weeks' time. In this setup, the Open-doctored layout is just too taxing for a mid-handicapper. I enjoyed the walk, but I wouldn't have minded a better chance at hitting all those elevated greens from the cabbage.

In addition to course conditions, courses before an event are almost always cart path-only for over a month prior to the event. Grandstands are being set up and the necessary clanking, parking and other logistical items may make things less peaceful than normal.

The extreme cases are of course Erin Hills and Chambers Bay, whose layouts were tweaked constantly until their U.S. Opens.

Contrarily, after an event, you may see some wear-and-tear on the perimeter of holes and scaffolding may be coming down, but the course is usually in wonderful shape (especially if you're not playing the tips). Staff are excited to get back into their daily operations and carts are allowed in the fairways again.

During transitional seasons, especially fall overseed

If you can help it, steer clear of desert golf destinations in the fall, generally from September through November as they generally perform the most thorough overseed.

What you'll get if you come during this time period is either a course that is being dried out prior to overseeding (so dried out that balls barely stop in the fairway and on the green), or so wet that you get no roll - even on a worm-burner. Cart-path only is generally the name of the game until at least early December.

Green fees are lower, but honestly I would struggle to pay $75 to play a Top-100 course that is soaking wet and cart-path only.

I'd recommend sticking to destinations that don't overseed at all like many in the transitional, Mid-Atlantic states, on either coast, or play fall golf in the north.

If you are going to a multi-course resort, chances are they will overseed one course at a time, so ask in advance and play the one(s) being spared.

And obviously, no one wants to take a trip to play greens that have just been aerated. Any decent resort course worth its name be sure to tell you at the time of booking if there is maintenance planned (and hopefully have a reduced rate), but it never hurts to ask.

During a destination's big event (unless that's why you're there)

There are tales about foreigners showing up to the gates of Augusta National with their clubs during Masters week thinking their badge affords them a round on the course.

But that's not what I mean.

Big golf or sporting events like the Super Bowl bring in throngs of tourists, and when they're in warm-weather destinations, golf is on many itineraries. Most courses around Augusta National charge a very high premium to play during Masters week. The Waste Management Phoenix Open takes place during peak golf season, and a destination that is otherwise full of courses competing against one another with aggressive stay-and-play or last-minute specials not only maintains rack rate, the best courses inch up to a super-rack rate. Not only that, tee times sell out months in advance.

Ryder Cups are also notorious for steep green fee increases in the area, and lodging prices spike and a room can be hard to find. Golf course packagers usually guard their times and rooms closely for their best clients.

I've written before that my favorite time to travel is the shoulder season, so naturally a golf trip during a big event is the antithesis of that: super primetime crowds and prices. I'll watch the event on TV and play somewhere closer to home. Instead of a Ryder Cup or Super Bowl, take in a local regular-season baseball or hockey game in the evening, which hardly affects tee sheets to the same degree.

During an ownership or management transition

This can be a little tougher to identify because you probably aren't scanning the local papers for news about the courses you're about to play, and operators themselves generally try to keep things like receivership or ousted management companies (and lingering legal battles) on the relative hush until the course is back firing on all cylinders. Prior to Integrity Golf (a Central Florida-based management company) going under in 2017, many of their properties' reviews submarined. Golfers showed up to tried and true layouts like Metrowest and Mystic Dunes only to realize they had deteriorated. Now new management companies are bringing them back and reviews are improving.

Even though the golf economy is out of its doldrums, ownership and management changes still happen. Try and keep an ear to the ground. Use the Golf Advisor "Follow this course" option for all your candidates and you'll be alerted the day a new review is posted. I also like to check golf course locations on Instagram and look for any recent postings from golfers.

Tee times right after an outing

One of the more regular complaints I see on Golf Advisor reviews is golfers who tee off in the afternoon after a tournament or outing and almost immediately run into backed up tee boxes. Again, the course representative on the phone should tell you that's the reason there are no morning times available, and you should try to tee off with a solid hour or more gap.

That said, don't necessarily let a corporate group taking over a golf resort steer you away. Often times, they are stuck in conference rooms and the golf course is wide open, and they usually go to banquet halls instead of the resort's restaurants. You may see a lot of suits and lanyards but the actual facilities you want may be wide open.

Islands during hurricane season

Maybe fatherhood is making me more cautious, but there have been some extraordinary hurricane seasons in recent years and it's enough for me to recommend using caution visiting the Caribbean in August and September when Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico storm activity is at its highest. The continuing tragedies in decimated Puerto Rico are certainly top of mind.

It's one thing to be stuck in Florida during a major weather event, but quite another to be on an island or in a foreign country. All-inclusive specials can be abundant to these destinations in the late-summertime for this very reason, but just remember why. Instead, late-summer trips to the Midwest or Pacific Northwest should be much safer. If you do plan on Caribbean travel in late summertime, do consider buying additional insurance.

Speaking of foreign travel, I know there have been a lot of federally-issued warnings about travel to Mexico lately. I went to Cabo and Riviera Maya last November and couldn't have felt safer.

What events or seasons do you try to steer clear of when planning a golf trip? Let your fellow golfers know in the comments below

Brandon Tucker is the Sr. Managing Editor for GolfPass and was the founding editor of Golf Advisor in 2014, he was the managing editor for Golf Channel Digital's Courses & Travel. To date, his golf travels have taken him to over two dozen countries and nearly 600 golf courses worldwide. While he's played some of the most prestigious courses in the world, Tucker's favorite way to play the game is on a great muni in under three hours. Follow Brandon on Twitter at @BrandonTucker and on Instagram at @btuck34.
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I played Torrey Pines South in 2008 two weeks before the U S Open. My son worked at the Hilton and got us a 1:00 tee time. We decided to play it from the tips and like you mentioned in your article the rough was so high that you could hardly find your ball if you were in it. Fortunately I wasn't in it too much that day but when I was all you could do was chop it out to the fairway. I heard some people say that non professional golfers would have a hard time breaking 100. I think that Tiger gave Justin Timberlake that bet. I don't think he did. I ended up shooing 89 that day. Still have the scorecard.

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I found that the Seaview Marriott Bay course is exceptional the weeks before and after the LPGA visits. The do excellent prep work and LPGA players do not tear up the course contrary to other comments.

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Having played many tourney courses before and after over the decades, I prefer to play courses right BEFORE major events as the course is destroyed for days/weeks/months by crowds, grandstands, etc. Rough, which is an integral part of most courses, is trampled to death. I just played Bellerive and am glad I did. But to each his own...

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Avoid any course just after the PGA or LPGA has played it. One would think it would be exciting, but these pro players take divots that really chew up the fairway. The only redeeming factor that the divot patches are usually 40 to 70 yards beyond where you hit your drive. But they really do chew up a course and it takes 2 to 3 months to recover. I know, I was in St. Andrews twice during and after the British Open. That was the time to play the Castle Course, Kingsbarns or Crail.

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It was decades ago but I played Medinah on Thursday the week before the U.S. Open. Great experience except the greens had been top dressed and the rough was a good 8" long before they cut it back. Great experience, but punishing.

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We have done Myrtle Beach area as late as early December and had good sweater weather. OK, it's a bit of a risk but it has worked for us and even with shorter days we have managed to get in 27 and we've played some of the better courses at bargain prices. We've also done it in the early Spring before rates go up. That didn't work out as well.

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I often recommend to people to shoot for the value window between Thanksgiving and New Years in Myrtle. The years I lived there it certainly seemed like a solid time.

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Good read. Verde River (Rio Verde, AZ) is Still under massive construction- surprised to hear its been going on that long. Heard they had to redesign some of it- there huge Cat equipment moving dirt right up to the edge of at least 7 or 8 fairways. Plus it’s literally in the middle of nowhere.
Another problem is the recovery of a course that has PHA events. TPC Scottsdale a good example. Played it in l June- it is still in horrible condition from the months long ordeal of taking down grandstands with tens of thousands of seats. Fairways worse than some munis.

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Verde River is a great layout played it for first time this past January. Some houses being built around the course, but none of this was a problem for playing the course. Excellent course.

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Played it multiple times this spring. Fantastic course( better than the previous tract) yes there is construction nearby ,but it doesn’t effect play. It’s only a few miles down the road from The Four Seasons and Troon North.

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Gee wiz, I guess this would be a problem for me if I had your job, but in the real world playing Pebble Beach anytime of the year is a thrill for me.

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A lot of folks are only going to pay for Pebble once. There are definitely some times of year that are going to give you a better shot at getting your money's worth than others.

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Good article and some good points. Being based out of Florida we do our buddies trips sometime in May-July. Sure there is some rain to deal with but the snowbirds have gone, the courses have emptied and the rates are great. We just have to check summer maintenance schedules first, summer time means punched greens and fairways and depending on the size of the tyne used we try and plan around that.

Commented on

Great idea. Sounds like we're on the same page re" shoulder season. Glad you're doing your due diligence.

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Times to use extreme caution when planning a golf vacation