Where are my golf clubs? What to expect when airline snafus delay your travel bag

If an airline can misplace the golf clubs of the no. 1 player in the world, it can happen to anybody.

After finishing in a tie for 23rd at the U.S. Open in 2014, Rory McIlroy's clubs disappeared somewhere between Newark, N.J., and Dublin, Ireland.

He tweeted to United Airlines, pleading for answers.

United delivered his clubs two days after landing, just in time for the first round of the Irish Open at Fota Island Resort in Cork. He ended up missing the cut in his poorest performance of the season. Coincidence?

More recently, a lesser-known pro golfer, Michael Buttacavoli, was attempting to qualify for the U.S. Open, but chose to withdraw after American Airlines couldn't deliver his clubs in time:

For the rest of us, missing golf clubs don't cost us thousands of dollars in potential prize money, but the trauma certainly puts a damper on any golf getaway. Thankfully most airlines reimburse some golf-related expenses until your golf travel bag is delivered to you.

"If you are a golfer and you've experienced it, nothing is more disappointing," admitted Kent Powell, a spokesman for American Airlines. "You've got your tee times. They're expensive. You've scheduled them months in advance. Your game is off (already) even if you have to rent a set."

Sympathy from an airline? Who knew?

Your golf clubs are missing, now what?

As a guy who flies his clubs all over the world for a living like McIlroy (just for smaller paychecks), I've had pretty good luck when it comes to finding my clubs on the conveyer belt.

The airlines tout that 99 percent of their bags arrive on time. My clubs have disappeared only twice, spanning probably 100 golf trips over the past five years. Both were overseas flights with at least one connection.

One wasn't even the fault of the airlines. Last year in Scotland, a groggy American fresh off a redeye flight grabbed my golf travel bag off the carousel in Edinburgh and dragged it to Turnberry Resort before realizing it wasn't his. I still don't know how my bag made the journey cross country to Muirfield , where I was competing in media day for the Open Championship. Somebody covered the bill; it wasn't me. I was so overjoyed they arrived minutes before my tee time that I went out and won the tournament.

Most stories of lost clubs don't have a fairytale ending, however. Most of us would rather the airlines lose our suitcases packed with clothes than the clubs. When it does happen, there are policies in place to salvage your vacation.

Robert Lehr, the manager of Central Baggage Services for Southwest Airlines, said his airline will reimburse for rental clubs every day your clubs are missing, plus pay for two sleeves of balls, a glove and a new pair of golf shoes, provided the customer has the proper receipts. Lehr said Southwest used to only reimburse for shoe rentals, but updated the policy several years ago to reflect its commitment to customer services for golfers.

He indicated reimbursement checks of less than $500 can often be written at baggage services departments in the airport on the way home. Claims costing more must be sent through his department, taking up to 30 days to process.

"One of the things we take pride in is we look at each specific situation," he said. "It may come across as vague, but we provide our agents flexibility to do the right thing and make the right call for the golfers."

Powell said American Airlines will reimburse the cost of rental clubs, balls, a glove and rental shoes -- even at prestigious clubs where prices in the pro shop are higher -- as long as the purchases/costs are "reasonable." Powell indicated by e-mail that the airline would "consider" reimbursement for buying shoes if the club didn't have rentals available.

"We deny very few of them," Powell said of reimbursement requests for lost golf luggage. "... We realize we have diverse shoppers. Some of them are Kmart and some are Pebble Beach.

"If your personal bag was lost, we would do the same for golf clothing."

United and Delta airlines didn't respond to multiple requests seeking information on their policies. My colleague, Mike Bailey, indicated that United wouldn't reimburse him for any golf-related expenses unless his clubs were missing for longer than 24 hours.

The only time the airlines truly lost my clubs came prior to a Writer's Cup tournament I played in at the old Doonbeg Golf Club (now called Trump International Golf Links Ireland ) several years ago. I called the airline customer-service line every morning for three straight days trying to find out when they would be delivered. At the end of the week-long trip, I was reimbursed somewhere around $300 for rental clubs, balls, shoe rental and a glove. I don't recall which airline lost the clubs, although I remember the whole process being relatively smooth, other than the anxiety of wondering where they were during the whole ordeal.

Guarding against the hassles of lost clubs

Powell offered several tips to safeguard against losing golf travel bags.

1. Make sure the final destination on the luggage tag matches your itinerary before handing the clubs off to airline personnel.

2. Remove all the old baggage stickers from previous flights. "The (luggage) system is automated. If they (the bags) are scanned, sometimes it reads both (stickers)," Powell said. "It then goes to a default room. It could get delayed with that extra five minutes (it takes to identify the proper destination)."

3. Put a business card with your contact information inside the golf bag itself, not just outside on the case. "DFW (Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport) has 17 miles of baggage belts. They go through rollers and curves and swinging doors," Powell said. "It is easy to have the name tag ripped off. Slip a business card inside, so we can pull up your itinerary and have it get to you on the next delivery."

I have my own tricks to be proactive against lost luggage. I've begun putting an extra golf glove and a couple sleeves of balls and a golf outfit (including a hat) in my carry-on. I also wear street golf shoes to the airport, so I've got a pair ready if something goes wrong.

Lehr said golfers should also consider putting their "electronics" (i.e. range finders and GPS devices) in their carry-on, a tip I'm considering. Odds are, eventually, my clubs -- and yours -- will disappear again for a day or two. I want to be ready when they do.

Jason Scott Deegan has reviewed more than 700 courses and golf destinations for some of the industry's biggest publications. His work has been honored by the Golf Writer's Association of America and the Michigan Press Association. Follow him on Twitter at @WorldGolfer.
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Where are my golf clubs? What to expect when airline snafus delay your travel bag
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