For seven years, Chris King has taken a September golf trip with buddies.
They've traveled to North Carolina, Virginia and even hit Myrtle Beach, S.C., where King has deep ties to the golf industry in public relations. They've never had a single round rained out until this year's trip to Pinehurst, N.C., which was derailed by Hurricane Florence. It was the first taste for King and his crew of the inherent risks of taking a fall golf trip during hurricane season.
"Everyone holds their breath heading into each hurricane season," King said. "From the business side of golf, a loss of golfers, a loss of revenue, damage to property, they are things you are always concerned about, and not to mention the human toll."
His group was lucky. Because they were all driving to Pinehurst, they didn't have to worry about the hassles of changing/canceling flights and worrying about refunds or rebooking fees. King said he didn't ask for a refund from Talamore Golf Vacations because the group will use the money they've already paid toward a future visit.
For those of us who live outside of the region, the question remains: Should you book a golf vacation to certain golf destinations - namely Florida, the Carolinas, the Gulf Coast and the Caribbean - during hurricane season? Officially, the Atlantic hurricane season starts June 1 and runs until Nov. 30. In the Eastern Pacific Ocean, hurricane season begins May 15 and ends Nov. 30, according to the National Weather Service.
There are certain benefits to traveling during hurricane season, especially in late summer/early fall when children head back to school. The resorts and courses are often less crowded, and they're usually offering deals. Tee times and room rates can be as much as one-third less. Meanwhile, the conditioning of the courses tends to be excellent before aeration, falling leaves, frost delays or overseeding become issues later in the fall.
Against my better judgment, I booked a flight to a golf travel conference in the Dominican Republic at the beginning of September. As the dates crept closer, I found myself checking the weather app on my phone and even glancing at The Weather Channel more than usual. The forecast was good ... until the day I landed. As soon as I was handed my room key at the Secrets Cap Cana Resort & Spa, it started pouring. It didn't stop raining until the following morning some 14 hours later. No matter. A day later, golfers from around the globe were enjoying exquisite weather at Punta Espada, one of my favorite courses in the world. A sudden rain shower that night ruined our outdoor banquet - guests had to sprint from their tables to the shelter of the main lobby - but again, the golf at Casa de Campo's Dye Fore within 24 hours was all sun and no clouds.
Phil Weidinger, another golf industry marketing/public relations specialist from Stateline, Nev., wasn't as fortunate during his fall trip to North Carolina. His week-long Pinehurst visit was cut short by the hurricane. After squeezing in a round on Pinehurst No. 2 on Thursday, Sept. 13, he planned to fly home early on a ticket he rebooked with Southwest Airlines. When Southwest canceled that flight that night in anticipation of the storm, he was left with two choices: Buy another ticket on a different flight or ride out the storm. He paid $600 to get home.
"It was better to get home and be safe," he said. "There wasn't a lot we could do while staying there. It was going to rain, and there would be a lot of water. From an inconvenience standpoint, it was a little stressful."
Booking through a reputable tour operator and buying travel insurance, especially for trips with airline flights, are good ways to protect yourself if a hurricane comes calling. Ty DeLavallade, the president/founder of Golf Quests, a golf tour operator serving the Caribbean, Bermuda and Mexico, recommends that golfers buy travel insurances when they book their own flights. His company sells travel insurance that covers hotel stays, ground transportation, and lost or damaged clubs and luggage.
Working with a golf packager, tour operator or resort salesperson whom you trust is also key. That way if a hurricane is bearing down or has landed, you have someone you can trust feeding you proper information and advice. DeLavallade said his personal relationships with the staff at hotels and courses can make it easier for him to collect refunds or credits. "We are going to do our best to get your money back directly or cancel the rounds of golf and get either cash or travel credits," he said. "It depends on the clients and circumstances."
King said he was pleased with the customer service he got from Talamore. "Golf courses and resorts want people to have a good time when on their property," King said. "The goal is never to get you to come for just one year. In Myrtle Beach, we thrive on customer loyalty. It's important that whoever they (golfers) are booking the trip through that they tell you: 'This is what it will be like (course condition-wise and weather-wise). You can still play.' Nobody wants you out there playing in the middle of a hurricane."
Golf Advisor's Managing Editor Brandon Tucker advises golfers should think twice before booking a golf trip to an island or foreign country 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," he wrote in this article about when to plan a golf vacation.
Despite ruined golf getaways, both Weidinger and King said they wouldn't have second thoughts about booking another fall trip during hurricane season.
"You have to live," Weidinger said. "It (a hurricane) doesn't happen all the time. What are you going to do? Stay in your house the whole time and never go anywhere?"
Flooding has made traveling to and from certain locations in the Carolinas challenging, but many courses are already open again. Nearly 70 courses in Myrtle Beach are expected to be open by this weekend. Courses on Hilton Head Island, S.C., and the Outer Banks of North Carolina escaped the wrath of the storm. Other North Carolina courses have a longer road to recovery. Pinehurst Resort has delayed the grand opening of the new No. 4 by Gil Hanse at least a month.
"If I had booked one week earlier or one week later, we probably would be playing," King said. "Even if it hits, you still only have a 1 in 12 chance (in the fall), it impacts the trip. Mathematically, I'll take my chances."
Both men expressed concern for what the local residents are going through, and the victims they've seen on the news. Golf is just a silly game compared to their plight. But tourism is a major economic force in these regions, and the more golfers who visit, the quicker the recovery will be.
Have you taken a fall trip impacted by a hurricane or tropical storm? What was the experience like? Let us know in the comments below.