Want to take a golf trip south this winter? Here's what you need to know

Key winter golf markets from Florida to Arizona have varying rules and restrictions amidst the pandemic, so do your homework before you leave.
A double rainbow hangs over the 8th hole on the Plantation course at Kapalua.

Many golfers have enjoyed a summer of golf at, or within driving distance of, home.

At some point this fall, that will no longer be an option for at least a third of the country's population. As courses in the Midwest and upper East Coast begin to close for the season, resident golfers will turn their attention south, daydreaming of sunny skies and green grass.

So where should they go for that winter getaway? Some people are comfortable flying during the coronavirus pandemic, but quite a few still aren't. The trend of driving to a vacation destination, even farther than what is normally tolerated, will likely be the transportation mode of choice for most golfers this winter season.

John Bixler, the general manager of Celebration Golf Club outside of Orlando, said his club is bracing for the loss of its international clientele from Europe and Brazil who come for Orlando’s theme parks, golf courses and sunny weather. “We are shifting a lot of marketing efforts to drive markets in the Northeast and Midwest,” he said.

Staying out of the national news for spiking case counts and the tightening of local restrictions will be key if some of golf's best warm-weather destinations want to attract golfers in the coming months. Policies for COVID-19 restrictions vary state by state, so here's a handy guide on what to expect when traveling to six of golf's most popular U.S. winter destinations.

Arizona

Kierland: Acacia #9

After a summer spike, the state's metrics for new cases and hospitalizations remains "stable," according to azcentral.com.

Arizona courses are wrapping up overseeding this fall. An overseeding schedule of 286 courses put together by the Arizona Golf Association indicates that all but 40 courses will have completed the transition from bermuda to rye grass sometime this month. Only a handful of courses will stretch overseeding into mid to late November.

With its wealth of courses and resorts, Phoenix/Scottsdale remains America's No. 1 winter golf destination. The timing and scope of spring training - will fans be allowed in stadiums? - could determine how well the destination fares during its traditional high season.

Talking Stick Golf Club General Manager Steve Leonard said the biggest issue facing courses in the Valley of the Sun will be single-rider carts. Most facilities only have so much inventory. If courses run out of carts, they might have to block off tee times, which results in lost revenue, while limiting access for golfers. To combat the issue, Talking Stick has adjusted its pricing strategy. Golfers can choose between a single cart rate, a shared cart rate and a walking rate when they book an advanced tee time. It also purchased 24 pushcarts to encourage walking on its two Coore & Crenshaw designs.

Need a primer for the area? Check out links to the best golf resorts in Phoenix and Scottsdale and the valley's 10 best public courses.

May 20, 2020

California

No. 7 is the second shortest par 4 at TPC Harding Park.

Between the wildfires, heavy smoke and pandemic restrictions, there have been times when I felt imprisoned in my own home living in California's Bay Area. We have endured the longest, strictest of all pandemic lock downs. Only recently could I get my haircut. San Francisco is the only local county that currently allows some indoor dining. Things are very different elsewhere in the state, including SoCal, where most businesses have been open for months with fewer limitations.

With California being so large, it's best to do your research about your destination's policies regarding Covid-19 first before booking. Currently, the state's hospitalizations are at a record low, according to the San Jose Mercury News. Sonoma County near Napa is the only county in California where cases are rising.

How many snowbirds will flock to the Coachella Valley, the hottest of California's winter destinations? Riverside County courses in Palm Springs, Palm Desert, Indio, LaQuinta, etc. are still following the Back2Golf guildelines put forth by the Allied Golf Association - a collaboration of the PGA of America, United States Golf Association and others - at the beginning of the pandemic: Pins stay in, no bunker rakes, prepaid rounds or touchless check-in, outside or to-go dining only, etc. Desert Willow Golf Resort in Palm Desert has equipped more than half its cart fleet with Clear2Ride cart dividers to help keep guests safe.

If you need help picking where to play, this story on California's 12 best golf destinations will point you in the right direction.

Hawaii

The Ocean course at Hokuala has the most consecutive holes on the ocean as any golf course in Hawaii.

The islands are back in play for golfers beginning October 15 with a minor catch - a negative Covid-19 test. Visitors must register with the state's Safe Travels digital system and upload the negative FDA-authorized nucleid acid amplication test (FAAT) from a CLIA licensed or certified lab within 72 hours of departure. GoHawaii.com, the official tourist authority, has posted the latest information for domestic travel to the state.

Our Brandon Tucker reported in September that the state's tourism industry, including hotels, restaurants, golf courses and other attractions, has been decimated with the 14-day mandated quarantine in place. Sadly, the famed Ko'olau Golf Club on Oahu has already closed. If you don't mind flying, now might be the best time to visit. Deals on airplane tickets, tee times and hotel packages will surely be promoted to get visitors traveling again.

Oahu sports the most golf courses, but the golf experiences of Maui and Kauai are more exotic.

Florida

A view of a hole at Hammock Beach Resort - The Ocean Course.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis removed all restrictions on businesses Sept. 25, according to the Orlando Sentinel, making the Sunshine State more "open" than most other states. Whether that's entirely a good thing depends upon your perspective. Local ordinances still can require masks, and my friends and colleagues who live there report that they're still seeing plenty of people wearing them.

ClickOrlando.com reports that the state is currently seeing a slight increase in cases, hospitalizations and deaths. Florida has so many different golf hotbeds spread so far apart - Jacksonville in the north, Orlando and Tampa in the midsection and Naples and Miami/Palm Beaches in the south - that it's probably worth doing some research online about that region's local restrictions and pandemic updates before booking your trip.

South Carolina

True Blue's green fee is high but when combined with a multi-round package it's a highly affordable Top-100 round.

Winter isn't high season in South Carolina; the weather can be frostier than in Florida and frost delays can crunch tee sheets. Discounts, no snow and the convenience of being within a day's driving distance are what make the trip to Myrtle Beach, Kiawah Island and Hilton Head Island worthwhile for northerners.

Chip Smith, who owns Atlantic Golf Management, which manages four courses and a restaurant in and around Myrtle Beach, S.C., said his company will be aggressive with winter rates to attract U.S. golfers to replace the Canadian snowbirds who can't cross the closed border.

"It is our lowest price time of the year, so we can get very aggressive during that time period," he said. " ... We can advertise a $69 per night (package) for golf and room, because it’s an inexpensive time of the year. We are ramping up that side of it, getting more aggressive to replace the Canadian market that we’ve enjoyed for so long but don’t have now.”

When it comes to statewide restrictions, South Carolina is mainly open in that golfers can dine in clubhouses and single-rider carts aren't common. Courses run by the Founders Group International require golfers to ask for a single-rider cart in advance but can only accommodate if extra are available. This has led to another change: Golfers are now allowed to walk the 21 FGI-managed courses through at least the end of the year. Some things still haven't changed - flags stay in, bunker rakes are out.

The Gulf Coast states

Grand Bear Golf Course in Saucier, Miss. is one of the most enjoyable Jack Nicklaus courses you'll ever play.

The Gulf Coast - stretching from Florida's Panhandle through Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and into Texas - is often mild enough in winter that northern golfers will have no problem teeing it up in temperatures in the high 50s and low 60s that will have the locals hibernating indoors. It's technically off-season in the region, so the courses might not be in the best shape, but they're playable and often at a discount.

Sadly, the Gulf Coast, especially Louisiana, has been hammered this fall in a record-breaking hurricane season. If you can support Lake Charles and its surrounding communities with your patronage, by all means do so. It's an underrated golf scene.

The state of Texas has an illustrious history in the game of golf, home to legends Byron Nelson, Ben Hogan, Ben Crenshaw and many more. The vastness of this historic western frontier also lends itself to a wide variety of styles of golf, from more traditional east Texas courses to arid, rolling Hill Country plays to the west. The majority of golf travelers will point their compass to San Antonio and Austin in central Texas, two Hill Country metro areas that serve as the most popular tourist destinations. San Antonio, home of the Alamo and many other amusement parks, features numerous golf resorts, highlighted by the two most recent Valero Texas Open hosts, La Cantera and the TPC San Antonio and JW Marriott Hill Country Resort. The state capital city of Austin is home to Omni Barton Creek Resort, as well as Hyatt Regency Lost Pines.
Mississippi is a land of friendly faces and tremendous golf value from northern Mississippi to the beaches of Biloxi on the gulf coast. Enjoy designs from top names in architecture from Jack Nicklaus and Tom Fazio to Jerry Pate and Davis Love III. While great golf is abundant in the northern area of the state around Tunica and West Point, on the gulf coast, the bustling town of Biloxi boasts a collection of excellent semi-private and casino resort courses framed by mossy oaks laden with gulf breezes. A year-round golf destination, guests can stay in affordable, oceanfront towers right on the beach. Golfers won’t go hungry on a Mississippi golf vacation, as staples at the table include Deep south seafood from blue crab, shrimp and oysters – just save room for mud pie for dessert. Our golf packages to Mississippi are expertly crafted and provide excellent value to the Magnolia State.
Alabama features a wide variety of exciting courses and resorts to experience from the mountainous northern region to the balmy gulf coast. With a reputation as one of the country's best states for value and hidden gems, you can name your price for a great golf getaway to the south.

Tell us about your experiences teeing it up in these winter destinations in the past. Which ones do you hope to visit this winter? Let us know in the comments below.

Jason Scott Deegan has reviewed more than 1,000 courses and golf destinations for some of the industry's biggest publications. His work has been honored by the Golf Writer's Association of America and the Michigan Press Association. Follow him on Instagram at @jasondeegangolfadvisor and Twitter at @WorldGolfer.
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Playing Sea Island and Sawgrass early December

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Want to take a golf trip south this winter? Here's what you need to know