Ask Travelin’ Joe: Is it better to ship your clubs or check them at the airport?

March 29, 2018

This week our courses and travel expert Joe Passov answers your questions on where to play in Palm Springs, how to tackle Bandon Dunes, and whether you should ship or check your clubs. Got a question about courses, travel or resorts? Visit our Facebook or Twitter page to send them our way.

What are the top five must-play courses in the Palm Springs, California area? —Jr Lauresta on Instagram

Dig deep into your contacts and alumni lists, because every one of Palm Springs’ top five courses is private. However, rather than be a pain-in-the-side to these so-called friends, let’s go the public-access route. PGA West’s TPC Stadium course ($99-$239), with all its Pete Dye flourishes and PGA Tour history is the place to start. Next up is La Quinta Hotel’s Mountain course ($89-$209), another Pete Dye masterpiece. While some are soured by one too many houses too close to the action, others rave about the series of holes that are practically cut out of the mountain. I’m in the latter camp.

After that, things get murkier, even as the region’s next 10 or so public plays are still terrific designs with stunning mountain backdrops. I’m partial to the two courses at Indian Wells Golf Resort ($89-$199). Clive Clark’s Celebrity course blasts you with a kaleidoscope of flowers, water features and mountain panoramas, while John Fought’s Players course is the more rustic and open, with bigger, bolder, deeper bunkers. The clubhouse and dining facilities at the Vue Grille & Bar are superb as well. In a city better known for its world-class tennis, its golf complex isn’t far behind.

Others I like in town are Desert Willow’s Firecliff ($103-$185), Classic Club ($109-$179) and Marriott’s Shadow Ridge ($99-$179). All three are located in Palm Desert. I guess that’s seven courses overall. A little bonus coverage from the California desert.  

I’m considering doing a trip near the bourbon train in Kentucky. What would you recommend playing? —Kyle Kuenn on Facebook

Do you mean ‘train,’ as in My Old Kentucky Dinner Train ($69.95-$84.95) or the more popularly known Trail, with an ‘l’? Either way, you’ll revolve around Bardstown, home to one of my favorite course names, My Old Kentucky Home State Park Golf Course ($25-$40). Close to the Bourbon Heritage Center, this 85-year-old layout will satisfy in the value department. 

If you’re indeed following the Trail, by car—preferably with someone else doing the driving—or by train, you’ll zigzag through the Louisville and Lexington areas. Kearney Hill Golf Links ($14-$47) is a solid choice in Lexington. A superb—and superbly cheap—Pete and P.B. Dye collaboration that tumbles over rumpled, links-like terrain, it played host to the 1997 U.S. Amateur Public Links, won by future Players Championship winner Tim Clark.

For good golf with resort trappings, check out, or into, the Griffin Gate Marriott Resort & Spa ($62) in Lexington. On the heels of a 2015 Rees Jones/Bryce Swanson bunker renovation, this 1981 Rees Jones creation is worthy of a four-hour tour.

In the Louisville area, Heritage Hill ($34-$59) in Shepherdsville will put you close to the Jim Beam Distillery and you can sip a fine design from former Jack Nicklaus associate Doug Beach that’s notable for its handsome woodland setting and bold bunkers.

Do you think it’s better to ship your clubs or check them at the airport for a trip? —Jon.Valentino on Instagram

There are serious travelers I know who do nothing else these days except ship their clubs—or rent at the course. I’m more of a pragmatic, situational guy. If you have multiple airport transfers, or tight connections, or are already burdened with too much luggage, or have to pay the airline to send that bag, occasionally with weight restriction penalties, ship it. If you’ve got a reliably sturdy travel bag, a direct flight, or status with airlines where your bag is free and tagged as “Priority,” check it. Make sure your rental car can accommodate a hard-case travel bag. Balance the cost and convenience factors and you’ll arrive at the correct decision—but on a case-by-case basis. [image:14104520]

I’m headed down to Key Largo in a few weeks. What courses within an hour’s drive are worth playing? —Berns.cj on Instagram

Either be prepared to risk a speeding ticket or two, or else leave your sticks in the garage. The Florida Keys shine for quiet, tropical beauty, beaches, umbrella drinks and sportfishing. Golf? Not so much. If you can wrangle a stay at Ocean Reef Resort, you’ll have two quality courses at hand, but it’s strictly stay and play.

Within Ocean Reef is another private club, Card Sound, where if you don’t know a member who can help, don’t ask for a tee time.

If you really have an itch to scratch, the nearest public golf is 40 minutes away, at the Cheeca Lodge in Islamorada. It’s only a 9-hole par-3 course, but Jack Nicklaus is the designer, so while short, there’s sufficient challenge and beauty to keep your interest. Another 20 minutes or so down the road from Cheeca is another petite par-3 layout of nine holes, Key Colony Beach ($13; $21 for 18 holes). It’s basic golf. Florida Keys Country Club in Marathon is 47 miles from Key Largo—about an hour and 10 minutes. Long known as Sombrero Country Club, it’s a pretty respectable spread, but is closed at least through April, due to the lingering effects of Hurricane Irma. Better to drive the other direction, towards Miami. The Biltmore Hotel ($146-$202), in Coral Gables, is a classic Donald Ross design, where Babe Ruth once teed it up, at an atmospheric hotel. Jim McLean now has his golf school here. It’s pricey until May 1, when rates drop considerably, but for history, atmosphere and a fun test, it’s worth the splurge.    

I’m going to Bandon Dunes with my father at the end of May. Do you have any tips or tricks to get the most out of our time there?—Cb006 on Instagram

No tricks necessary at Bandon Dunes. They take better care of their golf guests than anybody I know. As for tips, here are a few that have worked for me. First, make sure your tee times are booked, and re-confirmed. Bandon Dunes is justifiably hugely popular, with most tee times reserved well in advance. Second, be realistic about your fitness and stamina levels. You didn’t provide me with ages or body types, but walking 36 a day in what can be rugged terrain and climatic conditions can knock you sideways if you’re not physically fit. It would be criminal to miss out on the balance of your rounds if you’re too pooped to enjoy after Day 1. If you’re not in prime physical shape, considering adding the 13-hole par-3 course, Bandon Preserve to your afternoon itinerary instead of one of the championship layouts. It’s gorgeous and fun and gives you all the Bandon excitement you came for, minus the extra shots and the clubs that come with headcovers. Personally, I would add Bandon Preserve anyway—to at least one day of golf.

Don’t skimp on socks and shoes. Equip yourselves with the best, combining comfort and weather durability.

Think about shipping your sticks ahead of time. Though I’ve had good luck on my trips, I’ve had colleagues who have been without for a day. Small jets flying into North Bend often have weight/balance issues and even in good weather, clubs can get left behind until the next flight. 

Don’t limit yourself to a steady diet of Pacific Dunes. Yes, it’s the best, highest-ranked course at Bandon Dunes, but the other three championship courses serve up so much variety and memorable individual holes, that they’re worthy companions in every way.

If your legs aren’t in peak condition, think about doing Bandon Trails in the morning. The last five holes there yield some of the most strenuous walking on the property. You might be glad you got that out of the way early.

Invest some time at the practice range and on the putting green. It’s extremely helpful in getting you acclimated to swinging in heavy wind, and striking down on firm fescue turf.

So firm is the turf around the greens on most Bandon holes that sand wedge as a club choice is a silly option unless you’ve got Mickelson-like touch around the greens. Chipping and bump-and-runs and putting with a hybrid (or a putter) are usually better choices.

Even if you’re not accustomed to taking caddies, do it here. It’s worth the extra dough for the putting reads, the numbers and shot selection help and for the camaraderie. The caddie corps at Bandon is among the best on earth. It will enhance the experience, without question.

Don’t be afraid to order up a massage. Though I’ve yet to do it, friends of mine swear by the recuperative aspects of a one-hour treatment. For me, a hot post-round shower, Advil, Tylenol or the pain-management product of your choice and a celebratory meal and spirits at McKee’s Pub caps an outstanding day. Have fun!