I couldn't wait to pull my clubs out of my travel bag and start playing.
I had just arrived in the Dominican Republic in the fall of 2018 to speak at a golf travel conference. The schedule also involved teeing it up at some special seaside courses: Puntacana Resort, Punta Espada and Casa de Campo. What a lineup.
My excitement faded when I realized my Bluetooth speaker was missing from my golf bag. My mind raced thinking of all the people who could have potentially looted my bag: TSA employees, airline luggage handlers, airport personnel, customs agents in America and the D.R., resort staff who delivered the bag to my room, etc.
There was no way I could point my fingers at someone as the culprit. I succumbed to the reality that there was nothing that could be done. It was gone, and no amount of phone calls or paperwork or complaining was going to do much good. I resigned myself to the fact that maybe the thief needed the $129 speaker more than I did.
Turns out, I'm not the only victim at Golf Advisor. Matt Ginella, Golf Advisor's Editor-at-Large, has had not one, not two, but three range finders stolen from his golf travel bag while flying within the past year. Like me, he felt helpless.
"I’ve never bothered submitting any claims," he said. "Always thought it would be a waste of time."
We at Golf Advisor have learned the hard way so you won't have to: Don't pack anything of value in your checked golf bag. Items that are small enough to be pocketed quickly without detection are most vulnerable. Your best bet is to carry these items on the plane.
"I’d avoid packing anything small, expensive and easy to sell online," Ginella says.
What not to pack
Don't worry. It's not like your prized Miura wedge or Scotty Cameron putter will disappear. However, expensive electronics are another story. Here are five items that definitely don't belong in your golf travel bag when flying:
Range finders can cost upwards $400 for the latest and greatest, so they can fetch a nice resale prize for anybody who snatches one.
Put range finders in your luggage or carry on. Leave them in your golf bag and they might go missing. One color scheme is the base of efficiency. Some of our favorite off-course activities around the country. This and more in our family-themed travel tips: https://t.co/EBnqVh6bAi pic.twitter.com/m5Av6yI9dO— Matt Ginella (@MattGinellaGC) October 22, 2019
Electronic GPS devices, including watches and handheld items, are also pricey, so treat them like jewelry or a nice watch. You would never put those in checked luggage.
My bluetooth speaker - a Sound Caddy - was in the shape of a golf club and hidden underneath a head cover like every other club in my bag. I thought that was enough to keep it safe. Apparently not. The person who took the speaker unscrewed it from the shaft and left that useless piece in my bag.
Random bottles of ibuprofen are fine to keep in the bag, but prescription drugs should always be kept away from strangers.
Logo golf balls
As most everybody knows by now - check out my tweet about the #wallofballs hanging in my house -- I collect logo balls from every golf course I play. I've had random golf balls seemingly disappear in the past, so I treat the $5 logo balls I buy like gold. They come home in my backpack or carry-on luggage, not the golf bag.
Carrying extra items on a plane can be a hassle. They add bulk and the electronics can get flagged for a hand search at TSA security lines. Another pitfall: I accidentally left my rangefinder in the carry-on Ogio bag in my room for two days on my latest trip to St. George, Utah. I felt naked without it for two rounds.
Still, it's better to be safe than sorry.
What airlines, TSA say
I reached out to three major airlines - Delta, Southwest and American - and the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) via e-mail, asking what golfers should do when they find something missing.
American Airlines indicated that golfers should immediately file a claim at its baggage service desk at the airport, but declined to answer any followup questions, writing:
"We are going to decline (an interview), but would point out that many individuals - other than an airline - have access to a bag during a bag's journey, including the TSA who inspects each bag. If there is a claim that an item has been stolen, our team will flag that for our corporate security team for further review. We do encourage customers to place valuable items in their carry-on bag."
A spokesperson for Southwest noted that individuals can call the airline at 1-800-I-FLY-SWA to report missing items after they have returned home. "As always, we advise customers not to check any valuables in luggage," he added.
TSA spokesperson Lisa Farbstein indicated that golfers should also file an online claim with TSA. Farbstein, who plays golf, is a proponent of using a lock for travel golf bags.
"It's a good idea to use them because, please keep in mind that TSA's checked baggage areas have video cameras, so the likelihood that something is taken is slim," she wrote in an e-mail. "But after the golf bag (or any checked luggage) is screened, it is kept in an airline baggage area, which is not likely to have security cameras."
Farbstein also emphasized that golfers should keep their clubs and shoes clean, and not put prohibited items in golf travel bags, to avoid hand searches.
"Environmental debris/residue can trigger alarms, delaying the screening process," she wrote. "For example, it is possible for golf shoes to have residue from the course caught in the spikes (hey, it happens to me), and the chemicals on the lawns, plus the sod and soil in the spikes, may trigger an alarm when the shoes get scanned. So be sure to scrape off your golf shoes after you're done [with] your round. Not a bad idea to also clean your clubheads for the same reason."
To me, it seems like there's some finger-pointing going on between TSA and the airlines. Neither wants to be blamed for employing a thief or having to issue reimbursement checks for missing gear. Golfers like us are the ones caught in the middle, teeing it up without tunes or exact yardages. Any golf traveler who wants to avoid all this nonsense should heed the immortal words of Kansas:
"Carry on, my wayward son."
Have you had something "go missing" from your checked golf bag during a flight? Were you able to recover the item or get compensation from an airline? Let us know in the comments below.