A good golf course isn’t the only way to determine how cool your home club is.
A big part of the equation is, how good are its events? Whether you’re a member of a private club or a season pass holder at a public course – even a muni! – your club should be hosting special and unique events that make the season memorable. A good management team and/or creative head pro will go a long way to boosting your satisfaction.
I’m not really even talking about tournament golf. Most, if not all private clubs, host the traditional club championship and member-guest tournament. They’re fun and all, but are there any unique twists that make them better than the rival club across town? So many of them are cookie cutter in presentation. Tournaments that crown the best player aren’t quite as common at public courses, but they do happen, sometimes in the form of a city or local championship.
I’m referring to one-of-a-kind events that most golf pros aren’t even brave enough to try. Events that fall outside the realm of traditional golf – maybe they don’t even include keeping score at all? In my 20 years of covering golf, I’ve only discovered a few that made me think: “That sounds fun. I wish I could join in on the shenanigans”.
Maybe my thinking relates back to one of the first big breaks of my golf writing career. My first and only assignment for Golf Magazine was to cover the Jeff Daniels Comedy Golf Jam, a charity fundraiser for the Purple Rose Theater, which Daniels founded in Chelsea, Mich. The outing, held at the Polo Fields Golf & Country Club in Ann Arbor from 1996-2005, featured a wild round of everything but traditional golf. Every hole required a different challenge – teeing off in a bunker, hitting while someone hiding in the bushes screams during your backswing, avoiding hundreds of cow pies strategically placed in the fairway. It was as zany as you’d expect from the guy who starred in “Dumb & Dumber.”
The Comedy Golf Jam was one of a kind, although there are other interesting and unique golf events like it out there today. The trick is finding something interesting enough that it has staying power. Tetherow Golf Club in Oregon hosted the first GolfBoard Open, a cool idea that never went anywhere after 2015. Here are six other golf events I’ve found that have shown (or could show) some longevity. I'd love to participate in any of them. Remember, it's not about what you shoot. It's how much fun you had.
Have you played in a unique golf tournament/event at your home course or somewhere else as a guest? Tell us about it in the comments below.
Kris Kringle Open at the Upper Montclair Country Club, Clifton, New Jersey
Does Santa play golf?
Michael Holiday - the name fits - has solved that mystery. Holiday, the head pro at Upper Montclair CC, and member Jim Murray created a Christmas-themed charity classic where participants dress up in Santa suits to play golf, raising money for the New Jersey Golf Foundation, the charitable arm of the New Jersey section of the PGA of America.
“(Being a golf pro) is about being creative and changing the environment of the club," Holiday said. "We are always trying to come up with ideas on how to stimulate the membership. We decided, ‘Why don’t we dress up as a bunch of Santas?’ Snow or no snow, doesn’t matter. Let’s play some rounds of golf.”
Last December, its fourth season, the Kris Kringle Open attracted 160 players to play nine holes in mild conditions, raising more than $20,000 and collecting hundreds of toys for families and children in need. Holiday buys the Santa suits at a local store. A live band sets a festive mood for the dinner, raffle and after-party.
“We had no idea it was going to be this big,” Holiday said. “I just thought it would be a couple of guys playing golf on a day in December.”
"Drive" at the Ka’anapali Golf Courses, Maui
This corporate party traditionally held on a Friday several times a year is where "Topgolf" merges with a traditional driving range. Really any facility could pull it off.
Ka’anapali sets up 12 “lounges” with couches and tables like the hitting bays you see at Topgolf. Corporate groups buy up the lounges, where clients and employees eat food from the featured Maui chef and drink beer provided by a local brewery. A live band entertains when participants aren't competing in skills competitions and games held on the range. Part of the proceeds from “Drive” support local charities through the United Way.
“Basically, it is an energized party that has a golf theme to it,” Ka'anapali Director of Golf Sutee Nitakorn said. “Corporations are able to do a lot of team building around it. Once I had the first one (in 2018), the next five were sold out within a day.”
Car Golf Turkey Scramble at the Muskego Lakes Country Club, Muskego, Wisconsin
Mark Krause had grown weary of playing golf in Wisconsin's cold, wet weather. In 2001, the co-owner and general manager of Muskego Lakes broke the semiprivate club's rules by taking his vehicle onto the course, driving on the cart paths and using the heater to stay warm. He began allowing customers to do the same.
The practice became so popular he created the Car Golf Turkey Scramble in November 2010, an annual event that sells out at 120 players every fall. Most players covet the "Car Club Membership Card', which allows them to pay $5 extra in addition to green fees to use their car/truck on the course when the weather dips below 40 degrees. One group shows up early to cook breakfast in the parking lot and tailgate.
"I've still never heard of anywhere else doing it," Krause said of allowing vehicles on the course. "They should in Canada when it's cold or Arizona in summer when it's hot. It is a cool experience overall."
Participants play at their own risk. An errant shot or two have damaged vehicles, which stay organized in a line on the cart path.
"One guy pulled ahead too far (in front of the tee) and his buddy shanked a drive into a nice blue truck," Krause recalled.
Wine & Dine at the Yellowstone Club, Big Sky, Montana
It's more about fun than golf at Wine & Dine events at the Yellowstone Club, a prestigious private club in Big Sky country, where I had a memorable trip last fall to two sister properties, The Club at Spanish Peaks and Moonlight Basin.
These nine-hole scrambles, held three times monthly July through September, are followed by dinner with wine pairings. Each has a theme where four unique competitions are held on the course. At a "College GameDay" Wine & Dine a few years ago - named after the popular college football pregame show on ESPN - players had to kick a football off a tee or throw it to determine where their drive would end up. Golfers have raced downhill on a Golfboard, mimicking downhill skiing, and paddled across a lake in a kayak to deduct shots from their scorecard.
"Our club is based around fun," Yellowstone Director of Golf Bill Ciccotti said. "We are trying to provide a unique experience. You want to cater to serious golfers, but you want all skill levels to enjoy it."
Shots in the Night at Indian Wells, Indian Wells, California
Night golf events are gaining in popularity all around the country because they're casual and different.
The leader in the clubhouse is Indian Wells Golf Resort, a Troon Golf-managed resort that launched "Shots in the Night" last fall, an interactive golf experience after dark running from mid-October to mid-April Thursday through Sunday nights.
Groups up to six golfers can rent one of seven putting greens or 12 hitting bays by the hour ($40). Overhead lights project laser images onto the greens, creating skills challenges and games to play. On the range, the glowing, inflatable targets in the shape of beach balls and bowling pins light up when struck. Drinks from the Vue Grille & Bar, a food truck, live sports on TVs and music keep the party going even when your game goes to sleep.
Other facilities are finding night golf makes sense for them, too, at least sporadically. At Ak-Chin Southern Dunes in Maricopa, Ariz., "Glowout" events are held bi-monthly on #miniDunes, a six-hole short course within the practice range that opens in the afternoon once the range is picked clean of balls. The themed events - 1980s night, The Masters, Halloween - with live music are popular with families. At the Eaglewood Resort & Spa in Itasca, Ill., glow golf on the course and cosmic putting have been popular with corporate groups looking to blow off steam and enhance team bonding after meetings all day. David Fazio, the PGA director of golf operations/golf sales manager, said these events have grown profit margins every year for the past three seasons. At the Buenaventura Golf Course, a KemperSports-managed municipal course in Ventura, Calif., 56 people came out for its first glow golf putting event, which also included cornhole and a taco bar, prompting General Manager Carl-Van Vallier to plan more in 2019.
Winter Pentathlon at the Crystal Springs Resort, Hamburg, New Jersey
Inspired by the Olympics a decade ago, this annual February event attracts between 40 and 50 diehard players competing for $2,500 in prizes.
The format offers four hours of challenges, some indoors and some outdoors, so nobody freezes if the weather turns sour. This year was the best weather yet with no snow or ice cover and mild temperatures.
Golfers played three holes on the resort’s Wild Turkey course, hit shots on the range in a “Closest to the Snowman” competition, tested their skills in a “Golf Simulator Challenge” indoors and worked the angles in a “Stymie Putting Contest”. Ultimately, the “Cabin Fever Shootout”, another putting competition for the top point scorers of the day, determined the winner while everybody else enjoyed a buffet dinner.
“Every winter we have a pretty passionate group of members and core golfers. We try to keep them engaged even when we are closed,” said Adam Donlin, the resort’s director of golf. “The feedback has been positive.”