When my wife first agreed to date me, she may not have fully grasped the extent of which golf would be entering her life. And I don't just mean the jostling for space in the spare closet, but how and where we spend our leisure time.
By my rusty count, this is the 10th Valentine's Day we've been together (five married, three with kids). Along the way, she's joined me on a few golf trips that many golfers would drool at.
But here's what amuses me to this day: We've teed it up at fancy resort or private courses in Maui, Dominican Republic, Lake Tahoe, Southern California and Northern Michigan among others. And do you want to know her favorite-ever round of golf?
Northwood Golf Club, that little $30 nine-holer in the redwoods of Northern California.
It's surprising at first, but looking at the experience through her eyes it makes perfect sense.
When I booked our modest Sonoma A-Frame cabin on Airbnb I didn't even realize we were literally a mile away from this mysterious Mackenzie course I'd heard so much about. One afternoon, we'd just been out on a cycling trip around area wineries and were driving back to the cabin. We'd already driven by the course a few times but on this occasion the sun was glimmering through the trees so invitingly I told my wife we had to pull over for a drink on the patio.
It took about 10 minutes of me gushing about the place, eyes glossed over from some combination of cabernets and Mackenzie mystique that my wife finally said, "Well, do you want to just go play?"
We paid about $50 for nine holes and shared a meager bag of rentals and some used balls. We were on the tee in minutes (the course was bustling but not jammed). We were still wearing sneakers and workout gear from our winery tour. No matter. On the first tee, I took a smooth swing and the head flew off my rental club down the fairway as the ball trickled a few feet. It certainly set a manageable expectation for the outing.
But here's why my wife loved the experience: Not only was the sense of place amongst the redwoods so perfect, but the short-ish nine holes was the perfect amount of golf. Then, she knocked in a couple really long putts on slow-but-smooth greens. That certainly helped. We both banged shots off these mighty trunks and the sound echoed throughout the course. It's way cooler hitting a bad shot off these trees than into a bush. Those little tree-trunk animal carvings also helped set a lighter mood.
Sure, there are couples where both partners are equally avid players. In fact, both times I've been to Bandon Dunes, I've been paired up for a round with a couple. I've also met plenty of couples on golf trips overseas in Scotland and Wales. Domestic resorts like Kiawah Island, Sea Island and Omni Barton Creek are marketing to couples hard with new dining concepts and spas bigger and more relaxing than the next.
Chances are that as a marital unit, one of you is more into the game than the other. So when I think about couples trips, I think about the places where together you might be able to catch that vibe we found at Northwood. A few ingredients are necessary, particularly if you're like us and one half of the union is a little less into the finest courses in the world than the other. Here are a few things to consider:
Don't make golf THE activity of the day: I think golf works better as a bonus activity rather than the centerpiece of your day. Better yet, at twilight, courses are less busy, not to mention the waning sunlight generally makes them prettier. Cocktails help.
You don't have to play the super expensive, PGA Tour course: Not only are you wasting your money paying for the prestige the spouse won't appreciate, but they are typically tougher for them, too. Green speeds are faster and bunkers deeper. Even onlooking maintenance workers can be intimidating.
Start at the 9-hole or short courses: 18 holes is a lot for those who don't play as much as you do. Big Cedar Lodge is leading the charge these days in offering flexible holes and length. New Orleans' Audubon Park, a par 62 right in the heart of Uptown, feels like an urban Northwood, offering a similarly superlative ambiance amongst incredible trees with an abbreviated routing.
Who you play with makes such a huge difference to beginners. They have to go out of their way to be inviting and encouraging. Ideally, find other gals to play with. They seem to have more fun when there is someone else in the group teeing off the red tees. If you know you're goint to be playing somewhere busy where you'll be paired up, mention it to the staff and they may see some members or regulars on the tee sheet they know will be accommodating.
Look for courses that offer an escape: Ditch residential community courses and instead look for a natural setting you won't find back home. Jasper Park Lodge and Stanley Thompson's National Parks courses in Canada come to mind.
If you're pretty sure your spouse isn't feeling a round, don't force anything. Let them sleep in and see if you can go out as a single first off and you can meet back up for lunch. You can go putting or to the driving range in the afternoon.
And remember, the round together isn't about your score. It's about the two of you. GHIN can wait.
For now, parenthood has descended on us and it's hard to say when my wife and I will have the time to play again together. I'm told that at some point our children won't need us as much and we may get some of our free time back. If that in fact happens, I do hope one day we'll play together more. I don't know if we'll ever go to Bandon but I think she'd dig St. Andrews. Perhaps we'll be like my grandparents who played regularly together in retirement. They were big on leagues in metro Detroit and would spend winters near Hilton Head Island. They could play rain or shine: as good as my grandma was at golf she was better at the bowling alley.
Until then, at every dinner we go to and someone asks us about my job and the best places we've been, I'll defer to her and she'll respond, "That course in the trees in Sonoma where I made those long putts." And she won't be wrong.
I've never really seen a definitive "Best Couples Courses" list. The analysis typically doesn't make it too far past the spa. I think there are elements the experience can lack - tournament yardage and conditioning. I'm not even convinced the service needs to be world class (sometimes all those people milling about can feel intimidating - same for caddies). But the atmosphere must not only be welcoming but deliver a surreal natural surroundings. Not every facility can be like Pinehurst or St. Andrews and offer quite literally everything from a putting course to a major venue. With that in mind, here are some courses that stand out as great couples picks: