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:
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.