Old school golf destinations still have a swagger

While newer, more remote, golf-specific locales are dominating the headlines, the larger market golf regions still have plenty to offer

It’s not quite 9 a.m. on a Friday when a couple of minivans pull up near the bag drop at Troon North Golf Club in Scottsdale, Arizona. A dozen or so twentysomethings emerge, each clearly eager to play 18 on either of the club’s two Tom Weiskopf-designed courses. Not five minutes later, another mini-convoy drops off another excited group of young revelers ready to take on either the Monument or Pinnacle courses under a relentless 100-degree sun.

Inside the clubhouse, a sizeable breakfast crowd is making a fair amount of noise, the constant hum of chatter and activity at the tills suggesting business is good.

Mike Friend, the club’s director of sales and marketing, says the club is actually hosting three large bachelor parties on this particular day. The highly acclaimed facility, which opened in 1986, has been recording record revenue for a few years now and its two courses combined for more than 80,000 rounds in 2022.   

The expectation was not that the place would be closed, silent or derelict, but who knew Troon North was still attracting such healthy numbers, and charging up to $525 a round at peak times?

Troon North — Hole 16 — Monument
Despite opening in 1986, Troon North — with its Monument (shown) and Pinnacle courses — remains a top draw in the Scottsdale, Arizona, area that offers more than 200 golf courses.

Back in the early 2000s, a national golf publication couldn’t be opened without finding a travel story focusing on one, or more, of the country’s major golf destinations — Phoenix/Scottsdale, Myrtle Beach, the Coachella Valley, Orlando or Las Vegas. There were plenty of other worthy places dotted across the country, of course, but these five seemed to get 90% of the golf travel ink. Then, in 2007, the economy crashed.

New course construction more or less stopped. Hundreds of existing courses were forced to close. Equipment sales plummeted and any golf travel that people were planning was either cancelled or put on hold. The golf boom was over, and the industry, like the rest of the world, needed to reassess and change in order to survive.

Those travel articles dedicated to places with 100, 150 or 200 manufactured, camera-hungry, high-maintenance golf courses soon dried up. At a time when restraint was called for and golf needed to pull its inflated belt in, a shift toward smaller-scale, lower-cost developments favoring a lay-of-the-land architectural approach was obviously the sensible way to go.

Initially labelled "minimalism," the corrective movement, inspired by Golden Age (roughly 1900 to the start of World War II) designs, was initiated by Tom Doak at High Pointe in Northern Michigan in 1989. It gained significant momentum in 1995 with the opening of Bill Coore’s and Ben Crenshaw’s Sand Hills in Nebraska, and really took hold with the runaway success of David McLay Kidd’s Bandon Dunes in 1999 and Doak’s Pacific Dunes two years later.

In the aftermath of the Great Recession, those articles that touted the major markets gave way to a steady stream of content highlighting design and build projects created with comparatively small budgets. The trend became mainstream and, nowadays, those same golf magazines can’t be opened without finding editorial celebrating the latest remotely located, low-key, environmentally-sound new-build or small-footprint renovation/restoration of a century-old course.

Bill Hogan, business development manager for Alpharetta, Georgia-based Premier Golf, in business since 1988, says this new genre of course has totally transformed golf travel, taking significant demand away from the "old-school" destinations like Scottsdale and Myrtle Beach.

"Once Sand Hills was followed by Mike Keiser’s Bandon Dunes Resort, the appeal of modern links and links-style courses took over and was replicated across the world — Barnbougle Dunes, Cabot, Kingsbarns, Streamsong, Castle Stuart, Erin Hills, Yas Links, Prairie Club, etc.," he says. "The market’s demand for established resorts with huge spas, fountains and waterfalls, and glorious suites, moved to golf-centric places with basic amenity rooms, good but not outlandish restaurants, and pre/post-round activities almost entirely focused around golf — par 3 courses, huge putting greens and practice facilities."

Bandon Dunes — Hole 6
Bandon Dunes Golf Resort is one example of a secluded destination focused more on the golf experience.

One of Hogan’s California clients says he goes to Bandon Dunes to walk the golf courses and have a nice dinner. "That’s all he wants," Hogan adds. "He doesn’t want a spa or parking valet. And he certainly isn’t alone."

Gordon Dalgleish, president of Perry Golf, one of the world’s leading golf travel companies, is another who believes many golfers now appreciate the one-stop shop.

"They want to enjoy a more consistent service/lifestyle experience," he says. "Staying at an upscale hotel and playing four courses around the area is no longer the only option for the affluent golf traveler. They would prefer to stay and play at a top-ranked resort with everything on-site and therefore consistency in the type of course and its condition, dining and the general level of service."

Claudio DeMarchi sees it quite differently, however. The North America Representative for the International Association of Golf Tour Operators (IAGTO) and owner of a golf travel marketing firm, believes the impact of small, independent destinations is, and will continue to be, minimal. 

"There’s a reason why golfers return to places like Palm Springs and Myrtle Beach," he insists. "The number and diversity of courses for one, but the tourism infrastructure, bars, restaurants, and nightlife are also of the utmost importance."

To that point, Myrtle Beach, based on reporting by Omni Golf Tee Sheet, totaled a record of more than 2.4 million rounds played at 59 Golf Tourism Solutions member courses along the Grand Strand in 2022 (approximately 3 million total for the entire Myrtle Beach market). That’s an average of roughly 41,000 rounds per course, or about 115 rounds a day, every day — pretty impressive. To put that figure in perspective, it’s estimated the five 18-hole courses at Bandon Dunes Resort record somewhere between 150,000 and 160,000 rounds a year, or just over 30,000 rounds each — likewise impressive given their location and the strongly golf-specific model.

DeMarchi also points out that the new courses tend to be more appealing to a very specific type of golfer — better players as well as those in higher tax brackets.

"And I would bet most of the play is by males," he says. “The old faithful golf destinations keep people coming back because they appeal to all levels of golfer, men’s and women’s groups, and couples.”

He does concede places like Bandon Dunes will take a significant amount of play away from the more established destinations, and recognizes many golfers do make annual pilgrimages to them, but DeMarchi maintains a lot of those trips are made by bucket-listers who typically don’t return to a special course once they’ve ticked that particular box.

"Then there’s the tax situation," he says. "The sheer number of hotels, restaurants, and other places where golfers spend their money in somewhere like Myrtle Beach contributes substantial tax revenue — money the local tourism boards can use to market their destination, which is a big advantage. Long story short, I believe golfers will ultimately return to the larger destinations far more often as they offer a more rounded experience."

Larry Bohannan, golf writer for Palm Springs’ Desert Sun newspaper for the last 36 years and author of "50 Years of Hope" and "‘Palm Springs Golf: A History of Coachella Valley Legends and Fairways," is another old-school destination golfer/resident who isn’t unduly concerned about the rise of new, obscure, off-the-beaten-path destinations.

Omni Rancho Las Palmas Resort and Spa
Omni Rancho Las Palmas Resort and Spa in Palm Springs, California, offers three nine-hole courses — North, South and West — among its numeorus amenities.

"You have to remember, golf in the Coachella Valley is really about selling homes," he says. "The original country clubs like Thunderbird, Tamarisk, and El Dorado were part of residential communities. Bighorn, Tradition and even PGA West were built for the same reason."

Bohannan does concede, however, there are plenty of facilities in Palm Springs and its neighboring cities that do cater to tourists and public golfers.  

"About half our 120 courses are private and about half of the rest are public courses played by people who live in the desert full-time," he says. "The rest rely more heavily on tourism." Places like Desert Willow in Palm Desert, SilverRock in La Quinta and Indian Wells Golf Resort offer upscale courses that are about green fees and vacation rentals, he adds. "And they create significant tax revenues for the Valley."

He does not believe, however, these places have been impacted significantly by the new destinations.

"I think if you asked most people here they would say Bandon Dunes, Whistling Straits and others have taken some play away certainly, but not that much."

Both perspectives clearly hold water. While it’s true most of the content and social media these days focuses on the courses du jour, places like Phoenix/Scottsdale, Myrtle Beach, and Palm Springs certainly haven’t gone away. Troon North and Myrtle Beach are not alone in experiencing a bit of a renaissance. Desert Willow’s two courses exceeded 100,000 rounds in 2021.

These locales have adapted and changed in order to keep pace. At Scottsdale’s Four Seasons Resort, where guests have priority use of both courses at Troon North and enjoy guest privileges in the clubhouse, Ted Enright, the former golf concierge and now the go-to guy for all things golf, says he now sees a lot of smaller groups and couples playing a couple of rounds instead of big groups of just men who, a few years ago, might have stayed for five nights, played 36 every day, and had big steak dinners every night.

"I think the younger groups and couples make golf a part of their stay, rather than stay here just for golf," he says.

For American golfers, it’s clearly a win-win. Your father’s favorite all-in, mega destinations are still very much open for business and, indeed, thriving in places, while the more contemporary, humble and authentic stops are offering something entirely different.

Lucky us.