The greater Phoenix area has some phenomenal golf. And a lot of it, too. They say that there are over 200 golf courses in and around Phoenix and Scottsdale. Of course, not all golf is created equal. But still, you visit this part of the country, and you can find somewhere to play without much problem. And the weather will probably be good. It’s why so many snow-bird golfers decide to retire to Arizona.
My wife, kiddo, and I spent the weekend in Scottsdale. I’ve been blessed to travel to a lot of different places for golf but I am not sure there is a finer overall golf venue to visit with your family. We stayed at the Fairmont Princess, and I was able to play three first-class courses: TPC Scottsdale, Grayhawk Raptor, and We-Ko-Pa Saguaro. Each course provided a different style of desert golf…something I didn’t know was even possible before this trip.
It also happened to be Christmas season, and the Fairmont Princess goes all out for the holidays. It might be hard to imagine a winter wonderland in the middle of the Sonoran Desert, but they pull it off. Absolute Christmas heaven for an 18-month-old boy and his parents.
Here’s how our weekend went…
Day 1: TPC Scottsdale Stadium Course
We all know TPC Scottdale as the host of the Waste Management Phoenix Open every year on the PGA Tour. Yep, it’s the party tournament with the stadium grandstands around the famous 16th par-three hole. It’s one of the most popular stops on tour for fans and golfers alike, and I was stoked to see if the course itself provides similar excitement.
The clubhouse is grand and nearby to the Fairmont hotel, where most of the players stay during tournament week. In fact, the great little par-three fourth hole runs parallel to some of the Fairmont villas. The fifth teebox backs up to the Fairmont grounds and borders a cool walking path along the course. The hotel makes for a neat backdrop for many holes on the front nine.
The pro shop here is solid. It’s large and has all the major brands. I think that is a common theme in Scottsdale, though. The retail world is a big deal here and that extends beyond the pro shops. I was joined by a single for my round at TPC Scottsdale, a doctor from El Paso. He and his wife were in town just for the weekend as well. He told me they drive to Scottsdale once a year. “I play golf and my wife shops. We have to drive so she can fill the car with everything she buys,” he said. I found out later the shopping really was world-class. But I played a bit quicker after that, not knowing where my wife was and how much money she was spending.
The Stadium Course was in perfect shape. The track is a Tom Wieskopf and Jay Morrish-designed, 7,266-yard par 71 that was built in 1987 as a site for the then Phoenix Open. It was easily the best conditioned of the three courses I played in Scottsdale. Winter is high traffic season for Arizona, as most travelers fly in from the north to escape the cold weather back home. Temperatures each morning were in the 40s, but it warmed up to a comfortable high in the 60s after lunch each day, usually with clear skies. My round at TPC was cloudy, but we avoided rain from earlier in the week. The course was lush and the greens were as good as any I’ve ever played anywhere. The ball was rolling so pure on them. I’m willing to bet they keep them that perfect year-round.
TPC Scottsdale also has a second course, The Champions Course, that was built in 2007 and it offers a more inexpensive alternative with similarly stellar conditions. Both sites offer dynamic pricing, with green fees fluctuating throughout the month, week and even time of day. But in December, tee times for the Stadium Course can run you anywhere from $94.00 to $250.00 depending on when you want to go out. Prices for the Champions Course seem to hover around the $100.00 mark all day long.
TPC Scottsdale was a subtle introduction to desert golf for me. While the fairways were definitely surrounded by desert plants and sandy, hardpan surfaces, the course still didn’t quite feel like a true desert course. There was certainly cactus everywhere but the course is also surrounded by residential adobe houses and, of course, the ever-present Fairmont Princess resort. It was classy desert golf. Nothing wrong with that at all, but you aren’t out in the middle of the Sonoran. There is still a constant presence of civilization and the plants that lined the fairway were spaced out enough to still play your next shot. Not a ton of lost balls on this course.
It takes over two months to assemble the stadium grandstands around the par-three 16th, and construction was well along the way in December. In fact, the bones of the stadium were large enough to see the structure from many points on the course. That gives a looming feeling of excitement throughout the entire round. I can only imagine how it must feel for the pros to know that a stadium of 20,000 screaming fans await you at the end of your round, spending all day in the same seat just to see you hit a 150-yard shot.
Fans form an early morning line at the entrance of the Waste Management Open and then run almost a full mile to the stadium to stake their claim on a seat. And if you get up during the day without someone holding your spot, you might lose it. It’s a rowdy crowd, too, as fans are encouraged to make some noise during the golf. There really isn’t another place like it on tour. Even in December, standing on the tee inside the empty structure, you could feel the pressure. It’s a really fun experience and worth the price of admission.
Like any good Weiskopf/Morrish design, the Stadium Course offers a drive-able par 4. The fact that it is the 17th hole here only adds to the end-of-round drama for the PGA Tour event. In 2001, Andrew Magee made a miraculous hole in one on this hole, the first-ever ace on a par 4 in PGA Tour history.
Overall, TPC Scottsdale Stadium Course is a solid but not overly spectacular layout. What makes the course special is the first-class conditioning on the fairways and greens, the history of the tour event and the obvious thrill of playing the Stadium Course. The finishing four holes make the course worth the trip, with 16 and 17 being the absolute highlights of the round. Even hole 18 provides a beautiful finish back towards the clubhouse. If you can play this course anytime between December and February, you’ll get the added treat of weaving through the grandstands and seeing how the course will look for the professionals. That is an underrated experience.
I ended the round with a meal on site at Toro, the clubhouse restaurant and rum bar. They are known for their sushi but also offer a solid burger and a stunning view overlooking the 18th green. I noticed that the nearly full restaurant was patronized by mostly non-golfers, so this must be a real deal lunch option for the community of Scottsdale. I thought it was a great spot and the atmosphere was good fun with golf course vibes.
Back at the Fairmont, the family had our first night at Christmas at the Princess. I know this is a golf article, but I’m telling you guys….this is just another reason to bring the family to Scottsdale in November/December. The Fairmont is a HUGE property with 750 guest rooms and several restaurants on-site—but there isn’t a tree or building that isn’t completely covered in Christmas lights. They managed to over-decorate in a classy manner but I’m pretty sure the scene would still make Clark Griswold proud. I’m a big fan of overdoing it at Christmas, so this was right up my alley.
Christmas at the Princess felt like a holiday-themed Disneyland. There were hot chocolate stands—you can order it “naughty” with alcohol or “nice” for the kids, Christmas characters walking around in costume for pictures, a ferris wheel and carousel in ‘Smoresland,’ a Christmas train ride around the property, an ice skating rink with fireside lounge chairs, and of course pictures with Santa. My son will be 18 months this Christmas, and he was in heaven with all the lights and characters. And quite honestly, my wife and I were in constant awe of this place as well. Everything is just so impressive. The Fairmont in Scottsdale is perfect for families but even more so this time of year. We saw families with kids of all ages, but there were also couples there for a holiday-themed date night. If you go in the winter, that doesn’t mean forget your swimsuit—the Fairmont has heated pools including an adults-only pool if that’s your style.
We had dinner at La Hacienda, there at the Fairmont, and it was excellent. You can’t go to Arizona and not partake in the margarita selection, right? Well…we did. Also, the Carnitas Hacienda is apparently the signature dish and it was legit. So much flavor. Our first night’s restaurant couldn’t have been better. It was exactly what I had in mind when I thought about a hardy meal after a long day of chilly Arizona golf. I highly recommend.
Day 2: Grayhawk Raptor Course
My second round was Grayhawk, host site for the upcoming 2020-2022 NCAA Championships. Grayhawk Golf Club is also famous for being Phil Mickelson’s home away from home. Mickelson was one of the club’s original ambassadors, and he has sported the club’s logo on his bag for a while now. The restaurant on site is actually named Phil’s Grill after Lefty, and it is where I enjoyed my post-round meal. Solid spot for a beer overlooking the Raptor course and practice facility.
Grayhawk is home to two separate but truly equal golf courses: the Raptor and the Talon. I only had the opportunity to play the Raptor, but I did take a cart ride around the Talon and can attest that both courses house some truly unique golf holes. Grayhawk was established in 1994 but the club already has a ‘special’ kind of atmosphere for such a young place. The locker room is full of nameplates belonging to the best in the game and the amount of memorabilia, most of which belonging to Mickelson, make the club feel more established than it should in only 25 years of existence. The place feels historical. But the courses definitely back up the clubhouse swagger.
This is true desert golf. An errant tee shot here and you’re in the real junk…cactus and other natural plants that can impede your swing, swallow your ball and probably pierce your skin. I love it. The Raptor is a Tom Fazio design that stretches out to 7,090 yards and a par of 72. A bit further out of town than TPC Scottsdale but still in the city, the topography changes a bit to more rolling hills and wilder terrain. The desert tee shots can play tricks on your eyes, though. I’m not sure if it’s the McDowell Mountains in the distance or the natural swale of the landscape, but many of the tee shots looked like the landing areas were smaller than they actually were. When I would get to my second shot, I often realized that the fairway was much bigger than it appeared from the tee.
A weekend round at either the Raptor or the Talon could cost you north of $200, but what can you expect for Mickelson’s place. They do offer several different rates throughout the day and week, and a special 36-hole rate if you want to knock out both courses in one day. And it’s obviously cheaper on a weekday. For the money though, you are certain to get a quality round of golf. This course is just plain fun to play and is real deal desert golf. This is what I expected when I started planning an Arizona golf vacation.
The par three 8th hole at Raptor is the best hole I played all weekend. It’s one of those rare holes that makes you say ‘oh wow’ when you step up to the tee. The green is guarded by a team of elevated bunkers, protecting most of the putting surface and only exposing its top right tier to the tee box. The flag is just tall enough to peak above the top of those bunkers, giving the brave something to shoot for.
The shot is a mid iron and a miss right will still hit the large green complex. What you can’t see from the tee box is that a miss left will usually use the contours of the hill to kick your ball right, also on to the green. Its deceptively easy. My kind of shot.
The course finishes strong with a get-able par 5 back towards the clubhouse. This hole will hopefully provide a ton of drama for college golf over the next three years at the NCAA Championships.
Ultimately, I walked away from Grayhawk thinking that if I lived in Scottsdale, this would probably be my hang. The clubhouse is legit with great food options…even an extra bar/restaurant down near the Talon driving range keeps you satisfied no matter where your game takes you. They pipe music on speakers at the range while you warm up, too. Like I said…it’s a cool place to hang out. And the courses are what I was looking for in a desert track. Not perfectly manicured. Rugged. Lush green fairways contrasted with true desert sand and foliage. It’s going to be a beautiful course to watch on television for the NCAA tournament.
Add all of that to the Phil Mickelson aura that surrounds the place, and you’ve got yourself a pretty damn cool spot.
After the round, I met back up with the family for more time lounging around the Fairmont Princess. We ended up taking the Holiday Train ride around the property so the kiddo could look at all the Christmas lights. Then we settled in for an early dinner at Bourbon Steak, the premier dining option at the Princess.
No joke, this was the best steak I’ve ever eaten in my life. It was a simple 8 ounce filet with the restaurants three signature sauces on the side…but I didn’t need any of them. The meat was so tender I could honestly cut it with the side of my fork. And we had a cauliflower soup to start that was so good even my 18 month old son couldn’t get enough of it. I was tired from all the golf and my wife was tired from all the shopping. Yikes.
Day 3: We-Ko-Pa Saguaro Course
My final day began with a visit to the Well & Being Spa at the Fairmont Princess for some assisted golf stretching. This was a new experience for me but I gotta say…I kind of dig it. It was a mix between a yoga session and a massage, with a focus on golf swing flexibility. By the time I got to the course, I didn’t feel like I needed to warm up at all. Strange, but I think it might be a valuable thing to do before a round if you have the time. If nothing else, I learned a few stretches that I will absolutely utilize pre-round from now on.
My last round of the weekend was early morning at We-Ko-Pa Golf Club. I was playing the Saguaro course, a Coore/Crenshaw-designed track and one of two 18 hole courses on property. And I may have saved the best for last.
We-Ko-Pa Saguaro is just my kind of golf. If you’ve read any of my previous experience articles, you know that I am a HUGE fan of Coore/Crenshaw layouts. I think they’ve just got it figured out and this course is no different. If you take away the desert landscape, which here is much more untamed than at Grayhawk and TPC, the course just feels like a CC design. Fairway elevation changes, deceptive breaks and green contours, and seamless transitions from green to tee box routing.
Add that to the fact that the golf club is about 30 minutes outside of town, up in the Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation. So the landscape is open and the mountains just feel closer. The course doesn’t have any houses on it at all, which is unusual for Arizona golf. So this is a truly more natural experience. The Sonoran Desert is certainly vibrant here. The trouble right and left of these fairways is real-deal desert. Not a lot of relief to be found.
The Coore/Crenshaw strategic characteristics are still present in the design. Much like Bandon Trails, Sand Valley and Streamsong Red, there is nothing hidden from the golfer. The choices are all right in front of you. Fairway bunkers sit conveniently in middle fairway landing zones. Greens have visible false fronts and tabletop sides. You can see the options and it’s up to you to execute the shot. So simple and yet so many designs today feature blind shots and punitive hidden hazards. You won’t be frustrated by that here at Saguaro. This golf is meant to be thought about and enjoyed.
The greens are fair and run smooth. There aren’t many flat putts out here, but that feels like it’s because the course is at the foothills of the nearby mountain range. Saguaro feels natural…like the course has been there for ages and has always just been a part of the desert landscape. And the course is incredibly walkable, if that is your thing. I decided to hoof it for this round and I feel like I really got a taste of the desert landscape that way. Saguaro plays to 6,966 yards from the tips and is a par 71.
Green fees can reach $200 in the high season here. But summer and shoulder rates are much lower, which is true of all Scottsdale golf. But please do yourself a favor and don’t miss out on We-Ko-Pa. It’s a bit outside of town, but it was my favorite round of the trip. It probably helps that the weather was perfect, but I feel like that happens more often than not in Arizona.
We-Ko-Pa is a part of a resort and casino, so they offer several different stay-and0play options. It’s not a bad option if you’re looking to gamble and stay a bit outside of town.
To end the round, I was surprised by my wife and baby boy on the 18th fairway. The young man already has some golfing skills and loves nothing more than a golf cart ride. It was such a blast to see him out on We-Ko-Pa, looking at the giant cactus and desert mountains. We might be looking at a future Arizona State golf team member here.
Finally, we headed into downtown Scottsdale. The Kierland shopping center was fancy and well decorated, with more Christmas lights on every palm tree. And of course, a shopping mall Santa for photos. It also had every store you’ve ever heard of; it was definitely the hub for Scottsdale shopping. It felt fancy and upscale, but there wasn’t anything too high browed that would turn you away if you showed up in sweaty golf clothes with your Christmas shopping, margarita filled wife. Ask me how I know. We had our last dinner of the trip at The Mission—a trendy two-story Latin themed spot. We had a really good meal here and that may start to sound like a broken record at this point. But Scottsdale appears to have the food and beverage game figured out. I can only imagine the amazing dining options we missed, but I feel like we enjoyed some great dinner spots. I would recommend them all.
So, to summarize…
Like a great golf course, Scottsdale gives you options. It would take a full calendar year to play all the great golf in the area, and the food options are even more plentiful. Everyone I met that lived here seemed genuinely happy and proud of their community. It seems like a great place to call home and now I can attest that it is a phenomenal place to visit with your family. Especially around the holidays. Merry Christmas, readers!
If you want help planning your next golf experience or just have any questions about some of mine, reach out to me on Twitter or Instagram and shoot me a message. And feel free to check out my other golf experience articles. I look forward to hearing from you!
Ari’s Course Reviews: Seminole Golf Club
Like all of us, I am excited for the return of golf to TV on Sunday as DJ, Rory, Rickie, and Matt Wolff tee it up at Seminole for a charity match. Seminole is a very special place and one that most don’t get a chance to see, so it’s very exciting that they have opened their doors for this match and allowed the whole world to watch.
Seminole Golf Club opened in 1929 and was designed by Donald Ross. The course is consistently ranked as the best course in Florida and one of the best in the country. It is generally considered to be Ross’ best course along with Pinehurst No. 2.
The course is situated on a squarish 140-acre piece of land that sits in between Ocean Ave. on the west and the Atlantic Ocean on the east. There are two large north-south running dune ridges—a 40-foot dune to the west side of the property and a smaller dune on the east edge along the ocean—that define the property. Ross uses these dunes to great effect in shaping the holes. In fact, 13 of 18 holes are directly influenced by these dunes.
The lower elevation parts of the property are actually below sea level and feature a few drainage ponds and canals to shuttle water away from the turf. The routing is quite exceptional in its variety and uses every inch of this small property to its advantage. Each hole runs a slightly different direction which makes it difficult on this very windy site to always determine the exact direction of the wind.
A recent restoration by Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw has returned the bunkering to its original Ross glory as well as opened up old sandy waste areas on the dunes that had been lost to time. The course was also worked on in the mid-late 1940s by Dick Wilson, who brought the course back after WW2. Despite being worked on by these other architects, Seminole is considered very true to its original Donald Ross design and one of the most authentic Ross courses left in the country.
The course is famously difficult despite its moderately short length, though new back tees now stretch it to over 7,300 yards. The main defense of the course is its small, contoured greens and its many bunkers, often deep and treacherous, especially around the greens. Ben Hogan famously used to practice here to get ready for The Masters. Similar to Augusta, this is largely a second-shot golf course where positioning on the greens relative to the hole location is key for success.
Like a lot of older, classic courses, and typical of Ross, it’s always best to be below the hole and anyone who finds themselves past the hole or especially over the green are in for a very tough next shot or lag putt. This is made more difficult by the firm and fast greens that are hard to hold on all but the best-struck shots. It has a reasonable mix of shot requirements into the greens with many requiring an aerial shot and a few holes where you can use the typically firm turf to run the ball up onto the green.
The course is a real treat to play, especially if you like windy, firm, and fast golf.
Seminole Golf Club: Hole by hole
The 1st hole is a mid-length par 4 that starts down in the low area by the clubhouse and is a gentle handshake of a start. The fairway is flat with bunkers staggered on both sides and the green tilts away from the line of play with bunkers left and right but open in the front.
The 2nd is a longer par 4 that gives you your first introduction to the dune ridge to the west. A new back tee makes the carry over the water about 240 yards. The fairway is flanked by bunkers and the first sandy waste area up on the left. The real fun is at the green, which is set up into the dune ridge, is surrounded by bunkers and is extremely difficult.
The 3rd is a dogleg-right par 5 that’s reachable for long hitters. The tee sits up on the dune ridge and the tee shot drops down back to the flat part of the property. The tee shot is over the sandy waste area and a set of bunkers set into the fairway. The green is set back on top of the dune and slopes hard back to front. I once watched a player who has won multiple amateur major championships hit this green in two and then putt off the green into the front bunker.
The 4th is a par 4 that plays along the top of the dune ridge to a fairway that serpents through fairway bunkers and sandy waste area set on both sides. The green is slightly elevated and slopes off on all sides.
The 5th is the first par 3. It is typically a mid-iron to a small, rounded green that is completely surrounded by six deep bunkers. Always a tough target to hit and hold.
The 6th is a hole that was singled out by Hogan as one of his favorites. A shorter par 4 of a little under 400 yards, the fairway is squeezed between the out of bounds property line of trees on the right and a sandy waste area on the left and is flanked by bunkers on both sides. A line of three bunkers coming off the right side of the green cut into the middle of the fairway short of the green to about 75 yards. The slightly uphill, hourglass-shaped green tilts to the left and away from the line of play and is very hard to judge and hold.
The 7th plays from an elevated tee on the dune ridge down to a flatter fairway flanked by bunkers on both sides. There’s water fronting the green which is also flanked on both sides by bunkers.
The 8th is a long par 3 that plays slightly uphill to a large green that is open in front allowing a run-up shot if hit towards the middle of the green. A longer shot to one of the bigger greens on the course. Four bunkers around the green catch any stray stray balls hit in their direction.
The 9th is a par 5 that is pretty straight playing along the boundary line of the property. There is a little water canal that creeps in on the left side and then pinches the fairway. There are bunkers on both sides staggered up the fairway from tee to green. The green itself is small, flanked by a single bunker on both sides, and extremely contoured, especially on the front—another hole where you can run the ball onto the green.
The 10th heads back away from the clubhouse and is back down on the lower, flatter land. A classic cape hole, there’s water left off the tee that also wraps around the front and left of the small, contoured green. It’s the third hole in a row where you can use the firm turf and contours to run the ball onto the green, though I doubt you will see anyone do that Sunday!
The 11th is a long, tough par 4. The tee shot is over a water hazard that also wraps around the right side of the fairway. The approach shot is uphill and partially blind to a narrow green surrounded by trouble. One of the harder holes on the course.
The 12th is a very interesting, mid-length par 4. The tee shot is downhill off the dune ridge to a fairway with a little canal of water left and a couple of bunkers towards the end of the fairway to make the longer hitters think a bit. This green is just diabolical with a very narrow front section and six bunkers surrounding it. This is my personal favorite green on the course.
The 13th is a fantastic par 3 that plays directly at the ocean. Another small target to hit especially with a lot of wind, the green tilts left to right and the green is surrounded by nine bunkers. The green sits on top of the eastern dune ridge and is set right at the edge of the beach. This is Seminole’s version of a reverse redan.
The 14th is the first of two par 5s in a row and is very reachable for the longer hitter. The fairway landing area is flanked by bunkers on both sides and there’s water left of the bunkers that rides the left side as well as another water hazard on the right near the landing area for many players layup shot. The green is small and surrounded by bunkers. It is set up back up on the dune ridge again.
The 15th is a hole that I really like. It is a mid-length par 5 with two different fairway options off the tee. The right fairway is more narrow, requires a longer carry over water and has a row of trees and bunkers on the left side. The water you have to carry off the tee also wraps around the right side of the fairway. Hitting it here makes the hole play shorter and provides a better, more open angle into the green for the player trying to reach in two. The left side is a much shorter carry over the water and has a little more room but provides a longer next shot with a worse angle. A very interesting and strategic hole that plays very different day to day based on different wind direction and intensity.
The 16th is mid-length, dogleg-right par 4 that plays to a fairway with a sharp right bend to it. The inside of the dogleg has five bunkers to catch the aggressive long hitter who takes the better line into the green. The green is again small and very hard to hold with 4 deep bunkers to penalize misses.
The 17th is an all-world, short to mid-length par 3 where you are happy just to hit and hold the green. The tee is set next to the beach and offers one of the best views on the course. The green is extremely narrow and surrounded by seven deep bunkers that make par very difficult. The green is very hard to hold even with a short club in your hands. Par feels like an accomplishment on this one especially when the wind is up.
The 18th tee also offers a great view of the ocean. The hole is a mid-length, dogleg-left par 4. The tee shot plays downhill to a fairway that slopes and bounces right and is once again flanked by bunkers on both sides. The approach shot is back uphill to a green sitting on the dune ridge that is surrounded by deep bunkers and generally slopes back to front and left to right. A great finishing hole.
A day playing golf at Seminole is not one to be missed. It’s one of the best golf experiences in the country and easily my favorite course in Florida. The facilities are top-notch and it has my favorite locker room in golf. The diagram of Claude Harmon’s course record round is one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen and it’s a testament to the course and its lasting challenge that his course record still stands.
I’ve been lucky enough to play the course a number of times over the years, and I can say that the work that Coore/Crenshaw and the club have done here is fantastic. The bunkers are much better than ever before and I absolutely love the look of the sandy waste areas that have been brought back as well as all the new, long views from up on the dune ridge where you can nearly see the whole course.
I am extremely excited to watch these four guys on Sunday take on this course in a way that most of us never could. I’m sure they will pull off some amazing shots and moments, but I’ll bet that Seminole proves once again it cannot simply be overpowered with length. Cheers to the club for opening their doors to all of us for this event, and let’s all enjoy golf being back on TV this Sunday!
A typical day of Korean golf, Gangnam style
I think every golfer dreams of being on a beautiful golf course on a warm Saturday morning, surrounded by good friends and playing well to boot.
Perhaps in reading this, you might think that the above isn’t all that much to ask for; but then again, depending on where you are, it can quite a challenge.
I started playing golf in Korea from the fall of 2000 when there were less than 240 courses here, most of them being private member clubs. Booking a tee time was very difficult unless you owned a membership at a course (often hundreds of thousands of dollars), and I often tagged along with those who had such privileges.
If you were out of luck in the affluent acquaintance department, then you had to try to reserve a tee time at least 3-4 weeks in advance. If you were in a bigger hurry, some services offered ‘scalped’ tee times for a fee. These companies would book the preferred tee times in advance, and then sell them to golfers who wished to play on a specific day and time at a premium.
With tee times being so hard to come by, your foursome had to be committed to playing on D-day, come hell or high water. Walk-ons have never been allowed on any course and is still not in practice today. But what if a fourth in your group happens to be a no-show? The remaining three had to foot the cost of the absent player, caddy fee and all.
There were just too many eager golfers willing to pay Pebble Beach-esque prices and not enough golf courses.
GOLF IN KOREA, 2020
Fortunately, the number of golf courses has more than doubled here since 2000, and is projected to grow to a maximum of 600 (18-hole) courses by end of 2025. The price, however, still remains quite high.
Over 60 percent of these courses are public and access to tee times golf courses are easier than ever before. Nowadays, we can open an app on our mobile device and can usually reserve a tee time 1~3 days in advance. Progress.
But still, playing a round of golf in Korea is a labor of love.
It requires a full day with careful planning, taking into account the main factors as follows:
- Choosing a foursome – As most courses still will charge green fees for FOUR players regardless of how many shows, all players are expected to show up on the day. If one has a less than a favorable track record of backing out last minute, they can expect to be uninvited to future foursomes.
- Choosing a golf course – There’s no guarantee that tee time is open at a course we want. More often than not, courses are fully booked from sun up to sundown, so it’s more of a compromise of choosing from what available that fits everyone’s schedule. The mobile apps to help book tee times usually lists all the available times and days to choose from.
- Price and location – As a general rule, the closer the course is to a large metropolis, the higher the green fee. Thus, cost and logistics, as well as the prestige of the golf and country club, also comes into play when choosing where to play. For example, from the Gangnam area of Seoul, most courses within 30-minute drive distance tend to be more expensive (green fee of $150~200) or more exclusive, meaning tee times are harder to come by. More distant courses may cost less at $80~150 but can take well over an hour each way along with toll fees and extra traffic.
Most courses are carved on the sides of low mountains and hills, with plenty of out-of-bounds stakes along most holes. This puts a premium on hitting the ball especially straight in Korean courses.
The golf season in Korea typically runs from late March to early November. For those willing to brave the cold weather, however, they can play all year round if well-prepared (my typical winter round is described below).
Outdoor rounds also tend to drop off during late July and August when the heat and humidity can be excruciating but otherwise, almost all of the courses in the country do robust business.
In peak season, golf courses can book up to 70~80 foursome per day, meaning tee times can be mere 7~8 minutes apart. With so many golfers, it can be time-consuming to hit a provisional and look for lost balls (which can result in less revenue!).
To save time and maintain the pace of play, Korean courses encourage golfers to continue to the OB/Hazard tee, which is marked in the fairway about 230-250 yards from the tee box. The golfer plays their 3rd or 4th shot from here depending on the penalty incurred from the errant tee shot.
Holes tend to be far apart, and most courses require you to ride a 5-seater power cart with a caddy. A single caddy is mandatorily assigned to a foursome to help with the pace of play, and also help fetch clubs, clean your golf ball, and occasionally help line up your putts. The foursome typically splits the cost of the caddy fee (120,000 KRW or about $100US) after the round.
Power carts are driven by the caddy and only on the cart path. The carts are also automated and can be controlled by a remote.
The clubhouses at many courses are enormous five-star resort-like buildings with high ceilings and chandeliers. Expensive sculptures and artwork decorate the vast lobbies and dining halls, and receptionists wear tailored suits or uniforms. Locker rooms and bathing facilities are opulent and meticulously maintained, making it feel like you’re at a luxury hotel rather than a golf course.
I’ve often wondered why a clubhouse would need to look like the Waldorf Astoria, but I’ve been told it’s a status thing that lingers from the old days. In fact, in the early years, I was reprimanded at two different country clubs for changing into shorts after a round of golf and walking into the front lobby. I wasn’t invited back to either clubs since then.
But things are definitely changing. In recent years, more golf clubs are allowing (proper length) shorts during the extremely hot summer months, and a formal jacket is no longer required at country clubs, save the very few most exclusive ones.
An average round here can last about five hours. It can be frustrating to be stuck behind a slow group as passing the foursome ahead is not allowed. Add to it an average of two hours to get to and from the course, along with time to shower and bathe (a social must!).
If you are playing with friends or entertaining business guests, having dinner together at a nearby restaurant is almost a certainty. All-in-all, if you spent less than $250 and managed to get back home within nine hours of having left, you’ve had a very successful day of golf. Seriously.
Despite all the obstacles of time and expense to play this often frustrating game, it seems we can’t get enough. In 2016, a report showed that over 3.3 million rounds of golf were played throughout the land of the morning calm and more potential golfers are waiting in the wings.
Not only do we like to play golf, we also work quite hard at improving our game through lessons, tons of practice and simulation golf, and the search for the latest and greatest equipment. So why is golf thriving here more than elsewhere despite the higher cost and time-consumption?
From my own experience, I think it’s mostly about social status.
In a country where golf requires a disproportionately large investment of time and money to play, a single-digit handicap is a sure-tell sign that one has the necessary means and the time to indulge this difficult game. Of course, this is just my opinion, and I’m sure not everyone plays golf for the sake of vanity.
But whereas my 8.2 handicap is not much of a deal back in Canada, here I am treated like a rock star in most golf circles (oddly enough, I seem to gravitate to those groups that treat me as such). But that’s a story for another time.
Some par-3 holes have a “hole-in-one” insurance machine. For 10,000 krw ($8.50), the foursome is insured for 2 mil. Krw ($1,700) payout in case of an Ace!
A TYPICAL (WINTER) ROUND OF GOLF
PLANNING FOR G-DAY
7 days to G-Day – After talking about playing a round of golf for over a month, I and three friends finally get around to syncing our schedules to book a tee time a week out in late February at a country club one of us has been raving about. Once the decision has been made and course booking confirmed, trash talk over messenger ensues.
3 days to G-Day – There had been no snow on the ground to speak of all through 2019 and 2020 winter, and yet Korea is hit with the biggest snowstorm resulting in 20cm of snow 3 days before our round. Crap. The course we have originally booked has informed us that they do not foresee their course being open on the day. Panic ensues.
2 days to G-Day – After checking all other options and frantically cross-check messaging each other, we finally decide on Shilla Country Club for the same day since one of us is only able to play that day. The most important factor in choosing this particular course wasn’t the price, travel time or location, but their reputation for being open most days.
The day before – Upon calling the course, Shilla CC says they will be open for business tomorrow but we will be playing at our own risk, since not all snow has been cleared or melted. “Oh, and perhaps you’d like to bring some orange-colored balls.”
9:00 AM – One of my friends arrives at my house to carpool to the country club, located 40 miles away, for our tee time at 11:12 am. Our navigation system shows that it will take about 67 minutes by car.
10:30 AM – We arrive on course to change and meet the other two at the clubhouse restaurant for breakfast/lunch. A typical meal at this time of day is about 15 dollars.
11:15 AM – After being greeted by our caddie and rolling a few putts on the practice green, we head to the first tee. After a light group stretch routine led by the caddy, we are away. Luckily, my first shot finds the left fairway despite a low pulled hook. Another short iron to an uphill green, but manage to scramble for a par. Great start and the snow is only spotty at best. Life is good.
Korea courses typically use a hardier type of grass that turns yellow in winter. Sturdier roots make for smaller irregular divots.
1:40 PM – After the front nine, we are told there are four groups ahead of us waiting to tee off the back nine. It is common to have a break/wait time of anywhere between 10-30 minutes between nines. We head into the restaurant/resting area next to the practice green to grab a snack and wait to be called.
2:05 PM – Food items and drinks are quite pricey at most courses and it’s no exception here. After a light snack of fishcake and soup, we tee up on the back nine with renewed hope and trash talk.
4:45 PM – We walk up the 18th fairway chatting how lucky we were in deciding not to cancel today’s round. It turned out to be a gorgeous sunny day, not nearly as cold as we thought it would be. The snow had mostly melted and wasn’t an issue for the most part. Now if only our scores could’ve been better…
5:00 PM – After paying (divide the total fee of about $100 and any tip by four) and thanking the caddy, she checks our clubs and asks for our signature to show all of our clubs are accounted for. Then we all go to the parking lot to put our golf bags into our respective cars, before retiring to the locker room.
5:35 PM – We chat about the game and how we played while soaking in a hot pool. All bathing amenities and towels are provided at the club. After changing into fresh clothes we brought with us, we go to the front desk to settle our tab for the day. Most golf courses pay after the round is done, which includes green fee (super cheap off-season price at $50!), my share of the power cart fee ($22) and any food/snacks we’ve eaten ($20), and anything procured at the pro shop. I print out my scorecard at the digital Kiosk to rub it in their noses of others during dinner.
5:45 PM – After checking the road navigation app, we decide to eat dinner nearby to wait for the evening traffic to lessen back into Seoul. A quick search of nearby restaurants on the App leads to one with favorable reviews by many past golfers who have visited. We all share the address by messenger and head out in our cars to meet at the restaurant.
6:50 PM – After a mediocre dinner, the navigation app indicates 62 minutes back home. We part ways at the restaurant with good-natured ribbing suggestive of a bigger ass-kicking next time and drive back home, careful not to fall asleep.
8:00 PM – We arrive at my place and my friend thanks me for the ride. He has another 15 miles to drive across to the other end of Seoul. I don’t envy him.
8:15 PM – Carefully placing my clubs back in the house, I shed out of my clothes like a chameleon and retire to bed early with my phone. Lack of sleep the night before and spending over nine hours for golf takes its toll!
But tomorrow is another day, and I have to be prepared both mentally and physically to go through this wonderful process at any time. For who knows when the opportunity to play golf in Korea may present itself next?
The TPC San Antonio Experience
There are few places I enjoy playing golf more than the Texas Hill Country. It is just a gorgeous part of the country and the golf there feels different. More rustic, maybe. Limestone rocks along the walls of bunkers and live oak trees and prickly pear cactus lining the fairways. Whitetail deer rise with the sun to meet early morning tee timers. And the natural landscape of those Texas hills provide a beautiful opportunity for elevation change golf holes with scenic views. At TPC San Antonio, you get all of those things plus the thrill of playing a PGA tournament course.
TPC San Antonio is a part of the JW Marriott Resort property. There are two courses on site, the The Oaks and The Canyons. The Oaks Course is the host site of the Valero Texas Open each year on the PGA Tour. The Canyons course was the host venue for the AT&T Championship on the Champions Tour from 2011 to 2015. I was able to stay on property and play both courses.
The JW Marriott San Antonio Hill Country Resort and Spa
The JW Marriott is massive and honestly, quite luxurious. I was a bit surprised at the blend of class with Texas charm. I half expected a more western motif, but the hotel itself feels high-end. It sits on 600 acres of prototypical Hill Country terrain, giving most every room incredible vista views. The dominant feature of the property, however, is undoubtedly the nine-acre water park complete with a lazy river and dozens of slides. The pool stays heated during winter months, too, so it is always able to be enjoyed as long as you stay in the water. The weather was a bit too windy and cool for us to brave it.
I traveled to San Antonio with a big group for this trip. There were 8 adults in our posse plus three kiddos under three years old. I was interested to see how the resort would handle a party of our size, but everything went off without a hitch.
Our rooms were spacious and complete with a good-sized balcony overlooking the waterfall and pool area below. My wife was impressed with the size of the bathroom and kept saying how nice it was. Our particular room had a pretty great view of the Canyons Course, even though I didn’t know which course it was at the time. But you can see the rolling hills of the course perfectly and that gets you excited to get out on the course.
The main lobby is on the second floor of the hotel with a fantastic bar and hang out area down below on the ground floor. At check-in, the front desk gives you a coupon for two free drinks from the main lobby. Touch of class there. It was a great way to meet up with our friends and family after we all got situated in our rooms. Fireplaces make the area cozy and just outside the doors are more sitting areas with sounds from the nearby waterfall. Not a bad place to have a glass of wine.
We weren’t playing golf on our first day since that was our travel day. But we did get a chance to check out 18 Oaks, the resort’s steakhouse inside of the TPC Clubhouse. The dining room overlooks the 18th green of the Oaks Course, thus the name. And though the restaurant is upscale, they had absolutely zero problem with the kiddos joining us at the table for dinner. The resort is without a doubt geared towards the golfer, but family is not far behind on the priority list.
And the food was legit. You can expect high-end steakhouse prices but my T-bone (I ate the bone) was savory and worth the money. I knew this was going to be the best meal of the trip so I ponied up. Also, the goat cheese topped fried cauliflower was the crowd favorite side dish. Bellies full, we went to bed early and prepared for The Oaks course in the morning.
The Oaks Course
TPC San Antonio is young, relatively speaking. Opened in February of 2010, both courses are obviously a part of the Tournament Players Club network. The clubhouse is large and still feels new. TPC Members have their own wing of the building for locker rooms and a member’s grille. Additionally, members get a separate practice area of the driving range for personal use.
Both TPC San Antonio courses are semi-private, meaning the only way to get on to play is if you are a TPC Network Club Member or a guest of the JW Marriott San Antonio Hill Country Resort and Spa. The simplest and best value way to get on is to book a stay and play package with the resort. I recommend picking out a weekend and then calling the resort to work out a deal. I found everyone at the resort to be incredibly friendly and eager to accommodate.
The pro shop is a big one, but like all TPC courses I have played, the same brands appear in stock and there are some glaring omissions. No Peter Millar, for example, but instead mostly athletic brands like Adidas, Puma, and Nike. I never expect much from TPC pro shops anyway as I know the logo is not one I will be wearing much of anyway. Lack of originality can ruin a logo.
The Oaks Course is a Greg Norman design with PGA Tour Player Consultant Sergio Garcia and it is no joke. The par-72 course can stretch to 7,435 yards and it winds through narrow corridors of the Cibolo Canyons, just north of San Antonio. From the tips, called the Tiburon tees, the course has a 145 slope and a 76.6 rating. Of course, it is much more manageable from one of the other six tee boxes, but The Oaks course is widely considered one of the toughest stops on tour.
This course offers challenges from tee to green, and I am not just saying that. Some courses are second shot courses with demanding approaches. Some courses require precision off the tee. Some courses throw challenging green complexes at you and call for delicate short-game play. The Oaks course is a balance of all three. Some fairways are large and inviting, but the green itself will punish a lack of focus. Some holes need an accurate drive off the tee to have any shot at par. It really is a tough course but I wouldn’t call it unfair at all. It just takes concentration all round. There aren’t any break holes out there.
The defining features, for me, were the bunker systems. HUGE bunkers on every hole, but especially around the greens. And they are devastatingly deep. They loom ruggedly on most every full shot and none should surprise you. If your ball finds its way into one, it’s not because you couldn’t see it. Let’s just hope you can get out.
The most memorable hole on the course is undoubtedly the par-3 16th. Water is present front left of the green, but it is really not in play. The hole plays 192 yards from the back and 163 from the traditional men’s tees, but aiming for the middle of the green isn’t an option. Waiting for your ball there is a bunker, smack dab in the center of the green, surrounded on all sides by undulating Champions Bermuda, funneling your ball around the sand trap.
The grandstands were already going up behind the green in preparation for the Texas Open coming up in April. It’s always a cool feeling playing a course with tournament stands around. The 1,002 room JW Marriott Hill Country Resort looms in the distance, welcoming you back home as your round comes to a close.
The course is in wonderful condition, which makes sense with the PGA Tour event less than a month away. But the greens were genuinely sensational. They held approaches really well and my putts weren’t bumpy at all. Not too fast or too slow, either. And while the natural undulations of the Hill Country can play tricks on the eyes, the reads weren’t unfair. I think they can be mastered but probably not in your first round. I am sure the assistance of a caddie would do wonders.
The 18th hole is a classic. Now that I have played a few of the TPC Network courses, I realize that a solid finishing hole is a priority for them. This one is an almost 600-yard par 5 with a meandering creek down the left side that crosses the fairway in front of the green. With the right wind, getting home in two is achievable for the pros, but that creek does give some hesitating thoughts. The clubhouse is elevated green side and left, offering views of the closing hole from the patio of 18 Oaks restaurant.
My wife and son were waiting for us on 18 green, which is becoming a bit of a tradition for these articles. He’s a sweet little boy who loves to putt with dad at the end of the round. I am excited for him to be able to play all 18 with me soon.
The Oaks Course was an absolute beast and a grind, but I loved the layout. It is not a course where you are going to score low without a perfect ballstriking day, but the scenery and conditions made it such a nice time. Still, I was more exhausted after that round than any I can remember. It’s not a bad course to walk at all, but you are just grinding mentally all day. Overall, I feel really happy having played it once but not sure that is a course I would want to play every day. It will be fun to watch the pros attack it in April now that I have played it myself.
After our round, it was definitely time for some food and drink. We needed a recharge and the ladies had already discovered the famous strawberry jalapeno margaritas from the resort restaurant Cibolo Moon.
We ended up eating dinner at High Velocity, a laid back grill and sports bar that is just off the lobby bar in the main hotel entrance. High Velocity is a relaxed environment with a great beer menu. The Golf Channel was on the big screen and mood was good. Honestly, a pretty great place to unwind after a round of golf to talk about the course.
The Canyons Course
The Canyons Course at TPC San Antonio shares the same clubhouse and practice facility as The Oaks, but the course runs along much closer to the resort hotel. And though they share the same property, the two courses couldn’t be much more different.
The Canyons, a Pete Dye design with influence from PGA Tour Consultant Bruce Lietzke, can be stretched out to 7,106 yards from the back tees but is a more manageable 6,142 yards from the tradition men’s tees. The par is 72. While Pete Dye is known for his ‘dyeabolical’ designs, this course plays much easier than the The Oaks. And in my opinion, it’s a much more fun course because of it. The course conditions aren’t quite on the same level, though.
The first hole is a straight away par 4 with an elevated tee and wide-open fairway. Swing away. But to the right of the teebox is a great view of a couple other holes, all below you in elevation with sneak peeks into the course that lays ahead. It’s an exciting glimpse into the literal rises and falls the course is going to provide. That is in absolute contrast to the Oaks Course. While the Hill Country surrounds on all sides, the Oaks Course only has about 100 total feet of elevation change all round. That is not the case here at The Canyons. Many more cliffs than valleys on this Dye design.
The bunkering on The Canyons, while still impressive, is much more shallow and manageable than the day before. Dye uses positioning, rather than size and depth, to bring strategy into play. And the classic coffin bunkers are still present, though a bit bigger than any others I have seen on his courses.
I enjoyed the Canyons’s par 3’s a bit more than those on The Oaks. The par-3 fourth hole plays only 162 yards, but water hugs the left side and creates a more-nervous-than-you-should-be swing. Miss slightly left and you’ll be wet but plenty of room right. Be careful though, as the entire green slants towards the water and it isn’t hard to chip one completely across. The whole was a nice surprise after the first three holes, which were more traditional in design. We found out the hard way.
The par 4 ninth hole is wonderfully design. A bunker hugs the left side with a subtle hat tip to more famous church pew bunkering. The hole bends right to left around that bunker and then steep downhill towards the narrow green, 348 yards away. The perfect drive with a right to left ball flight can be propelled down that hill and get you much closer to the green than you’d expect.
And then of course, the Canyons closes with perhaps the best hole on property, the 441 yard par four 18th. A slight bend around famous Pete Dye bunkers, the hole feeds you back towards the resort. And the slope of the fairway feeds your ball down to those bunkers, if not through them to the native Texas grass and brush down below. The Live Oak trees don’t come into play near as often on this course, which definitely gives it a more ‘swing away’ feeling on most every hole.
I thoroughly enjoyed my round at The Canyons course, but if you are making the trip to TPC San Antonio, you should without a doubt play both courses on property. Each one offers different challenges and rewards. If you want to play where the pros play, test your game and enjoy world-class course conditions, you’ve got that at The Oaks. If you want a course with phenomenal views where you can enjoy swinging hard and having fun from tee to green, that is The Canyons. Play them both and get the best of both worlds.
The City of San Antonio
We spent one extra night in downtown San Antonio, just so we could show the kiddos the famous River Walk and the Alamo. Don’t sleep on this city. It really is a fun weekend destination for you and the family to accompany your golf fix. And of course, Sea World is always a huge hit with the little ones. All and all, I would say this was a great trip for the whole family. The JW Marriott San Antonio Hill Country Resort is an awesome place to stay. They were more than accommodating to us with the kids and the food options were wonderful. The golf was a great sampling of Texas Hill Country golf. And the City of San Antonio is a uniquely cool place to visit.
If you want help planning your next golf experience or just have any questions about some of mine, reach out to me on Twitter or Instagram and shoot me a message. And definitely check out my other golf experience articles. I look forward to hearing from you!
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