I've come across tigers, bears and whales -- oh my -- in all my years playing golf.
Seeing wildlife is one of the greatest joys of golf. Courses attract animals of all shapes, sorts and sizes. They're essentially zoos without cages (well except for one I've discovered). Some creatures are a nuisance -- geese, rabbits, biting insects and backyard pets that wander into play. Others are a welcome sight -- turtles sunning themselves on the banks of a pond or deer wandering out of the woods.
Playing at dawn or dusk is the best way to see the animal kingdom up close and in action. The more remote the location, the better. You just might see something amazing. From whales off the coast of Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, to bears in Alberta, Canada, I've been lucky to see plenty of cool critters. Some get the juices pumping more than others:
The Usual Suspects
Animals: Birds, squirrels/chipmunks, turtles, deer, snakes, frogs, cats, dogs, ducks, geese, rabbit, fish
My Encounters: Everyday golfers can find these species at most everyday courses. It's a sure sign a course is a healthy habitat when fish, frogs and turtles live in the ponds and deer are hiding in the woods and fields. I've had a couple memorable moments with a few of these animals. I, unfortunately, drilled a deer playing the Links of Spanish Bay on the Monterey Peninsula, Calif. a decade ago. In my defense, I figured the deer was perfectly safe in the middle of the fairway. That deer fared much better than some poor bird did at Oakland Hills Country Club near Bloomfield Hills, Mich. Playing the difficult par-3 ninth hole on the famous South Course during a media day event prior to the 2008 PGA Championship, I watched in horror as a local PGA Professional smashed a tee shot that derailed a bird midflight. Feathers flew. The bird didn't survive. Neither did his chances at birdie.
I once witnessed a goose attack a poor guy putting on a par-3 green at a course in Ohio. He fended it off, thrashing his putter like a sword, a la Chi Chi Rodriguez. When I hit up to the green moments later, the angry bird let me pass.
Animals: Fox, cows, sheep, goats, antelopes, eagles, swans
My Encounters: Here's where sightings get fun. Foxes are my favorite. They're so cute and cuddly. I've probably only seen three or four, so they're a rare discovery. Cows, goats and sheep might not sound too exciting, but overseas, they take a good links experience to the next level.
Playing through cows and sheep are part of the charm at Brora Golf Club in the Highlands of Scotland. Lahinch Golf Club in southwest Ireland uses goats as the local weathermen. If the goats roam freely, the weather will be good. If one or more stay close to the clubhouse, look out for the bad weather brewing. Herb Kohler, the owner of the luxurious American Club in Kohler, Wis., wanted his Straits Course at Whistling Straits Golf Club to be as authentic a links as possible. His staff releases a flock of 40-some Scottish blackfaced sheep daily to mingle with the golfers and mow down the rough.
Bighorn sheep are wild, not farm, animals that live in more mountainous terrains. I've seen a flock scamper off the exclusive driving range at Cascata near Las Vegas and driven by more at PGA West in La Quinta, Calif.
Animals: Whales, crabs, pelicans, sea otters, sea lions, seals
My Encounters: The West Coast is where I've seen all of these water lovers. Five pelicans flew overhead just as I finished putting on the 13th green of the Ocean South Course at Pelican Hill Golf Club in Newport Coast, Calif. some years back. It was almost as if someone from the PR and marketing department released them to be included for my story. This tiny par 3 of just 131 yards is the finale of a three-hole stretch that kisses the Crystal Cove beach along the Pacific.
I've played Pebble Beach Golf Links twice but never seen the sea otters, sea lions and seals that frolic around the inlets and bays in other parts of the Monterey Peninsula. Maybe the third time will be the charm.
Playing Quivira at its grand opening in December 2014, I could see the outlines of whales well offshore. Whales typically migrate along the Mexican coast and Hawaii from December through February. The golf courses in oceanfront winter hotspots like Punta Mita, north of Puerto Vallarta, and Cabo San Lucas, located at the tip of the Baja Peninsula, and Maui are great spots to catch a spout or maybe even a breach.
My coolest maritime adventure was during a round at Litibu Golf Course, a relative unknown but spectacular Greg Norman design near Punta Mita in Mexico. Its par-3 fourth hole right on the ocean was being overrun with thousands of tiny crabs during mating season. The little crabs were so prevalent that you couldn't help but crush a few every time you moved your cart. Natural selection, I guess.
Video: Top 5 animal encounters on the European Tour
Animals: Bears, moose, elk, crocodiles/alligators, coyotes, bobcats, wild boars/pigs, rattlesnakes
My Encounters: That magical evening in the Canadian Rockies will always be one of my favorite golf memories. After a day driving through snow in the mountains (in July!), a tour bus full of golf writers arrived at the famous Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge, located four hours from Calgary. After dinner, sometime well past 9 p.m., we all jumped into carts for an emergency nine at dusk. We quickly came upon a mother black bear and her two cubs wandering a fairway. The next day, another bear was rustling about in the trees near a green. Later that trip, at Stewart Creek Golf Club in Canmore, Alberta, I photographed an elk with a huge rack of antlers.
I don't mess with alligators and especially crocodiles. I once hit my ball too close to a couple of baby gators sunning themselves near a pond on Sanctuary Golf Club at Cat Island in Beaufort, S.C. I knew momma had to be close, so I ran in with a 7-iron, took a wild swing and advanced the ball without sticking around too long. Bogey was worth avoiding trouble.
The most spooked I've ever been on the golf course was at Iberostar Golf Club in Cancun. A huge momma croc that I stopped to photograph lunged toward me with only a plastic fence between us. My heart crawled up into my throat. I took off in the cart after a near heart attack. A couple weeks later, I read about a New Yorker who had lost two fingers in an attack. I was lucky. The lagoons in the area are filled with crocs, which are more aggressive than their alligator cousins.
For the record, whenever there's a "beware of rattlesnakes" sign on a course in the desert or mountains, I don't bother looking for my ball.
Animals: Kangaroos, monkeys, leopards, lions, tigers, elephants, giraffes, zebras, hippos, cobras, guineafowl
My Encounters: I've seen several kinds of tigers in golf -- Mr. Woods, of course, and real tigers at El Tigre Golf Club at Paradise Village Resort near Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. The splendid Robert Von Hagge design got its name from the live tigers kept in a cage next to the 17th tee, a good par 3. These beasts are just a mere sideshow to a stout, 7,239-yard course that bites back with plenty of water.
The golf courses in South Africa - where I spent two weeks in December of 2015 - felt like zoos without fences. My foursome stumbled upon zebras and a majestic sable antelope on the Signature course at the Legend Golf & Safari Resort. After taking photos of some monkeys in a tree at Leopard Creek Country Club, I lobbed a flop shot that hit some type of three-foot lizard lounging on the green. On the signature par-5 13th hole, two hippos grazing in a dry bed of Crocodile River were visible from the green. Later, I attempted to chase a baby cobra down a fairway at Leopard Creek to get it to "hood up" (in my mind "pose") for a photo. Not the brightest move, Einstein.
At least the snake didn't attack like the mamma guineafowl on the Montagu course at Fancourt. As I was walking closer to take a photo of her babies, the bush chicken jumped on my back. She probably would have gouged my eyes out if I hadn't dove into the cart and scared her off. My playing partners got a kick out of it, but I learned a valuable lesson. Don't mess with exotic animals.
Editor's Note: Have you been lucky enough to play through such beautiful beasts? We'd love to hear your stories. Tell them in the comments below or share your social media photos by tagging #golfcoursewildlife and sending them to our Golf Advisor Twitter or Instagram accounts.