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The 18th hole at Harbour Town Golf Links on Hilton Head Island, S.C. The gang of 16 in Scottsdale, Ariz., two years ago.
The 18th hole at Harbour Town Golf Links on Hilton Head Island, S.C. The gang of 16 in Scottsdale, Ariz., two years ago. (Sea Pines Resort)
By Walter V. Robinson
Globe Correspondent / December 7, 2008
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When Mark Twain famously described golf as "a good walk spoiled," he could not have imagined the sight of 16 golfers spilling exuberantly from an airplane in South Carolina, loading luggage and clubs into four minivans, driving to Hilton Head Island, transferring the clubs to golf carts and speeding to the first tee.

Only to have my friend Tim Leland inquire - of no one in particular, but really of everyone - "Which course is this?"

Or the image, perhaps, of Timothy O'Neill, a trial lawyer whose wits are always about him in the courtroom, leaving clubs behind so often that he's been assigned an on-course minder. Which did not prevent him from leaving his wallet behind on a tee box - after do ing same in clubhouse. Which was either the year before or the year after he absentmindedly walked up to an alligator while looking off into the mid-distance for a missing white spheroid.

Never mind that Leland is an accomplished world traveler and - on some holes - a competent golfer. Never mind that every one of the 15 other men on this annual trip is mature, independent, and - if traveling alone - more than competent enough to overcome even diffcult travel-related challenges.

But put these aging baby boomers into a large group every November for a five-day golf trip, as I have done for 16 years, and what you have is a herd of cats. Or a mobile day care center. Fifteen men so helpless that most of them, most of the time, cannot find their copies of the detailed trip itinerary I labored over for weeks so I wouldn't have to constantly answer questions like, "What course are we playing tomorrow?"

It started innocently in 1993: Four duffers on their first away-from-home golf outing, to Hilton Head. But then it grew, like kudzu. Out of control. First to eight. Then 12. And finally 16. No problem: Another year, add another foursome. So far, we've been to Hilton Head 11 times; Scottsdale, Ariz., twice; Myrtle Beach and Charleston, S.C., once each; and, just last month, the PGA Resort in Port St. Lucie, Fla., with a mere 12 golfers.

Oh, how I've tried to swear off this adventure. Each year, I promise myself, will be the last. But there is always a next year - and, at our age, who's to complain about that? It's not the challenges of the courses that keep me going. It's the side-splitting unpredictability of the inmates in my peculiar asylum. Like, for example, one of my closest friends, who had never played south of Rhode Island. After we laughed so hard we cried, we forgave him for that Hilton Head moment when, without bothering to ask, he assumed that the cylindrical divot mix container on the golf cart was a urinal.

Every one of us remembers that moment. Who, I ask, recalls the number of strokes it took to get the ball in the hole on the 17th at Harbour Town Golf Links?

To tell this story is to risk the possibility that friends may refuse to speak to me, or worse. (Note the identification only as Divot Mix Richie.) Yet no matter what secrets tumble forth here, not one of my charges will be any less eager to send a deposit for next November's trip. And, truth be told, I can't wait until July to ask for those deposits.

And why is that? We love the golf, and in a group this big, some more than others. (You know those guys; they want to turn a leisurely afternoon replay into a grueling $5 Nassau.) But most of us look forward to the camaraderie as much as the occasional birdie - or for some, the occasional par.

How important is the male bonding? I learned the answer the hard way.

One year, I proposed - "foolishly," as I was later admonished - that we break from tradition and bring our wives along. The admonition, you should know, came from one of the wives. My fellow golfers greeted my suggestion with stony silence, and not because they like to carouse. This is a group that rises early, plays their 18 or more, is at dinner by 7, and in bed by 10. It took Bob Turner, one of the original members, darn near a decade to find three others willing to stay up for a late-night poker game.

What is never boring is the golf. How could it be among 12 or 16 otherwise kindred souls whose handicaps range from about 5 to 36? (Two players last month hadn't picked up a club since the prior trip.)

But even the single-digit handicappers wouldn't disinvite Royal Ford. Several years back, Ford hit a powerful drive - one of the few to find a fairway - and then took out an iron and hit the ball off the club's toe directly into the woods. Unperturbed, he dropped and hit another ball, with the identical result. His partner that day, his father-in-law, Tony Insolia, remarked, "Why do you need to practice that shot? You've got it down."

Back when my handicap was higher, I yanked a 5-wood so sharply left that it went under the golf cart behind me - and up into its innards. Before the ball stopped rattling around, never to reemerge, Tom Mulvoy intoned, "Two-stroke penalty."

Mulvoy, a former Globe managing editor who has the sole hole-in-one and only round in the 60s in all these years, is a legend on any course for his ability to recall what everyone in his foursome shot on each hole. Which is why Mulvoy was indispensable when Leland showed up one year with a bead counter to keep track of his shots.

A typical exchange as they headed off the green: Leland, looking at beads, "I had a seven." Mulvoy: "That was a six, Tim." Needless to say, Leland was told that he would not be invited back unless he got rid of the beads.

Every golf group has someone like Leland: He plays well enough on these trips to win quite a bit of money, which means that he's the object of good-natured ribbing. Like the day he played the par-five 17th hole on the Cholla course at We-Ko-Pa in Arizona, which is the most scenic hole on one of that state's best courses. Though Leland couldn't see the pin, he holed his third shot from 165 yards for an eagle. "Tim, the ball went over the green and into the cactus," he was told. After a fruitless search, his playing partner finally pointed him to the hole, where he found his ball resting in the cup.

But back to the basics: How, my friends sometimes ask, can one person put together a trip for 12 or 16? Almost as easily as a trip for two, is my answer, if you follow these steps:

First, plan early. For a November trip, that means July.

Second, buy in bulk: I go right to the group desk at the airline of choice. The fares are often comparable to the best online deal you can find. And booking a group has big advantages: If someone has to cancel you can add a replacement at no charge. And you pay only a small deposit when you reserve the seats, usually $25 or $50 a person. Final payment isn't due until 30 days before the trip. You can even assign seats.

Third, cajole. For New Englanders, destinations like Hilton Head and Scottsdale are heaven in November. But it's not high season in either venue. So use your leverage. Here's an example: Five years back, I was booking our arrival day afternoon round in Hilton Head. I called one of our favorite courses. They wanted $80 each. I proposed $50. They countered with $70. I said I could surely find a better deal elsewhere "for my 16 golfers." We played there for $55.

Fourth, book everyone a separate bedroom. For 12 golfers, look for three four-bedroom condos.

Fifth, bill everything to one credit card. And keep the frequent flier miles for yourself. At dinner, get separate food and liquor bills so the two guys drinking diet colas don't get dunned for those $55 bottles of wine. On the flight home, everyone writes me a check for what's owed.

Sixth, appoint a chairman (Mulvoy is our best) to arrange the matchups, sort through scorecards, and distribute the day's winnings. (We put $10 a day each into the pot.)

Seventh, have someone reliable make restaurant arrangements in advance. Our group has Bob Levey, the Globe's former restaurant critic. The result: Great restaurants arranged without a slip-up. Alas, Levey couldn't make it this year. Without him, the 12 of us walked into what we thought was a good restaurant at 7 on a Saturday evening. We were the only patrons.

The lone waiter wanted to be helpful. So when Peter Southwick asked what the "coconut-encrusted fish of the day was," the waiter scurried into the kitchen, and returned with this answer: "The fish is coconut." That was the highlight of dinner.

And finally, if you can make it work for 16 long years, threaten to hang it up.

But keep it going.

Walter V. Robinson can be reached at wrobinson@globe.com.

If You Go

Planning a group golf trip

When to go

Late fall or spring. In places like Hilton Head, S.C., or Scottsdale, Ariz., November is off-season. So rates are reasonable, courses uncrowded, and temperatures reliably in the 70s.

When to plan

Mid-summer. Airfares for fall travel are low, seats are plentiful. Condo complexes at golf resorts offer discounts for groups.

Where to stay

Look for four-bedroom, four-bath condos. Even at upscale resorts, the nightly lodging cost is easily kept under $100 a person.

Where to play

Resorts like Sea Pines Plantation on Hilton Head Island (www.seapines.com) offer packages for some courses. But the wagonmaster for a big group can often arrange discounts. And don't forget golf communities in the area: Some will offer complimentary golf in the hopes your group includes potential buyers.

How to keep it organized

Prepare a detailed plan with flights, minivan seating, room assignments, tee times, dinner arrangements, everyone's cellphone numbers, even driving directions for each day's golf and dining.

What it costs

You can book a five-day trip to Hilton Head - airfare, lodging, golf, and van rental - for under $1,000 a person without too much effort.

What we paidLast month, we flew JetBlue, Boston to West Palm Beach on a Thursday and back the following Tuesday, for $362 each - higher than normal because I booked in July when oil prices had boosted fares. We stayed five nights in three-bedroom condos and played five rounds at the PGA Resort in Port St. Lucie (www.premiergolf.com) for $917 each, breakfast included. Minivan rental was $104 each. Total cost, excluding lunches, dinners, and lost balls: $1,383.

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