(Written by Jim Allen) … Golfest 2011-Florida “The Sequel” represented our eighth annual big golf adventure. And unlike all the previous editions, it returned to a previous Golfest destination. So what we did was hit the rewind button to 2010, pull out a couple of the best segments, and then bolt on some new components for the 2011 version. Call it part deja vu, part new experience, but all pure golf trip that was viewed with a lot of anticipation and interest. A dozen golfers took the challenge and the good news is that the May 24-31st road show lived up to the hype. Florida dished up some high quality weather and 126 quality golf holes. It was interesting, entertaining, competitive and downright enjoyable. If you hit the rewind button, this is how it panned out:
(5/24) – Travel Day – They say if you are proactive, do your homework and plan extensively, fifty-percent of your activities can go bad and you can still end up with a good final product. It also helps when you surround yourself with good people. Golfest was improvising on the fly when we found out on our Las Vegas layover that our planned Shingle Creek Golf Club opener needed to be changed. Our travel agent extraordinaire … Golf Exclusives and Worldwide Golf Vacations … discovered while confirming our tee times that Shingle Creek decided to move up their aeration schedule by a week. Wouldn’t that have been a bummer to find that out the hard way? Get all whipped into a frenzy, travel across the country, only to discover a golf course that looked like a war zone. Instead we rebooked at the National Course at ChampionsGate just five-miles from our original site. This one falls into the proactive category!
Yesterday, we made another change with a last minute golfer substitution. Tony Lopez was forced to drop out to care for his roommate/brother who got in a violent car accident that morning. That prompted a “pinch me I’m dreaming” phone call and invitation to Mark Suzda at around 4:00 p.m. Ironically, Mark lost out on going to Golfest 2010-Florida when his sister passed away the night before departure. A last minute scramble for a SWA ticket had Mark frantically loading his bags – even if his flight required a sidebar connecting trip to Pittsburgh. But you know what? He didn’t care. He was happy to make the trip and already has his sights set on TPC Sawgrass.
Speaking of sidebar, Todd Baltzley and Golfest rookie Chet Dodson took the words “warm-up” to a whole new level. Using the premise that it was the only way they could cash in some flight coupons, they arrived in Orlando four days earlier. I’ll have to remember that one and it will work unless my wife reads this first. Todd and Chet ended up “warming up” with 36-holes at Hunters Creek Golf Club, 26-holes (it got dark) at the Magnolia Plantation Golf Club, 27-holes at Royal St. Cloud … (take a breath here) … plus 18 at the Kissimee Golf Course, and a final 18 at Dubsdread Golf Club. If we both took the same third grade math class, that adds up to 125-holes – a trip onto itself! Those two boys would eventually leave the Sunshine State with more than 274 golf holes under their belt. There is a fine line between passion and an addiction. We’ll call this one an addictive golf passion!
(5/25) – ChampionsGate Golf Club/National Course & Celebration Golf Club -Celebration, FL – The mini-vans were rolling out of the Springhill Suites parking lot before the crack of dawn (that’s 3:00 a.m. PST) and everybody was bouncing around like they just had pure adrenaline milkshake. Anticipation will do that type of thing. Speaking of mini-vans, you …, like me …, have probably made fun of them with a fair share of soccer mom jokes. But to be honest, they absolutely rock in a four person per van golf trip. Lots of room to throw and go — throw in your stuff in and go!
After a quick breakfast in the ChampionsGate Clubhouse, all headed to the range to work out any last minute swing nuances they accidentally brought on the trip. With the exception of a couple of holes, this Greg Norman design was pretty much a wide open affair. It’s a Florida resort course that while very nice from a conditioning standpoint, lacked what can best be described as “personality.” There were no distinguishable landmarks or traits that made it stand out from any other course on the face of the earth. In reality, it could have been located just about anywhere and been called a muni-course. However, it was stroke friendly with many posting what would be their best scorecards of the week. Mike Rittner lit it up with a 79, despite a five-over par blow up on the final two-holes. That’s typically what happens when you start adding up your scorecard before the round is over. Jeffrey Adkins posted a 21-handicap crushing 81 because he couldn’t do anything wrong — drives in the heart of the fairway and some crisp iron shots. Jim Allen (yes … Jim Allen) won the long drive award and Mark Suzda went pin seeking to win the closest to the pin money.
Once completed, we caravanned over to the Celebration Golf Club. Rumor had it that you could pick up our bright purple shirts on local Doppler radar. The staff at the course was very accommodating and the service was over the top. So was the clubhouse and surroundings which made it a pretty cool place to hang out. It had a Disney feel to it. This course featured water on just about every hole and even offered up a few gator sightings. Coincidentally, their driving range features floating green islands in a big lake, complete with — gator sightings. Throw in undulating greens and some forced carries and the overall scores nudged up a few strokes from this morning. Everybody agreed that the Celebration course was “more our style.” Overall, there was 10 birdies today, with Rittner and Jim Dee each scoring three. There were also three near misses in the hole-in-one category, with three iron shots hitting the flagstick and rolling away.
Dinner’s tended to be of the drive-thru or cold pizza variety as immediate calorie intake was deemed more important than waiting for a local restaurant to dial up a steak. Yes, that was Chet Dodson limping around, featuring blisters on both of his feet, most of it blamed on his extensive “warm up” rounds. Other casualties were Mike Barbone’s lost Maui Jim sunglasses, and some unnamed Golfestians who decided to test their alcohol intake capabilities on their kidneys last night. The good news is that we get to sleep in tomorrow. We don’t tee off at Arnold Palmer’s Bay Hill Club until 1:00 p.m.!
(5/26) – Arnold Palmer’s Bay Hill Club – Orlando, FL – The Bay Hill Club is part golf experience, part resort, and part museum. Even a non-golfer would know within seconds that this is Arnold’s place … and we’re not talking about the former “Govenator” of California. We’re talking about Mr. Palmer himself. We managed to arrive early and casually killed a couple of hours before heading to the first tee box. We were presented with a special 50th anniversary Bay Hill Club pin upon check-in, which was a nice collector’s item. It was seen pinned on our shirts the rest of the week.
Unlike the courses of yesterday, Bay Hill played about 400 yards longer and was more intimidating. Many of Arnold’s greens are extensively protected by bunkers, putting extra emphasis on pin point accuracy. You either bounced it up to the green through a small gap between hazards, or you flew it in. How the pros do that with a four-iron amazes me. Some Golfestian’s (who we will leave unnamed to protect the guilty) spent more time in the sand than the average family of four would on a Hawaiian vacation. We joked that our caddy was considering a legitimate workers comp claim for “rakers-elbow.”
But seriously, we all had a good time and continue to earn a larger respect for what we see on television when watching the Bay Hill Invitational. Even more so when we turn around and see the back tees another 50-yards behind the ones we’re playing. Bay Hill’s finishing hole rates as one of our 18 best holes of all-time. The approach shot to the well-protected green, with water on the right dares most to bite off more than they can chew. Hockey fans might be interested to know that NHL goalie Martin Brodeur was two groups ahead of us and has a swing that looks … well … like a hockey players!
High score of the day went to Mike Barbone. Proper golf etiquette says I shouldn’t embarrass him by revealing it here. However, I’ll give you hint by saying it resembled the temperature in Death Valley on a hot August day. Craig Decker cranked up his driver for long drive award on number 12, and Jim Allen pocketed 50 bucks for closest to the pin honors. Snowmen outnumbered birdies by an eight to one margin today. Dinner was served up in the Bay Hill Club. A good night sleep is to be followed by the only significant travel of this Golfest, a 180-mile venture up Highway 95 to the Omni Resort on Amelia Island. Can you say “road trip?”
(5/27) – Ocean Links Golf Course @ Amelia Island, FL – The Amelia Island Plantation can best be described as a southern tropical paradise, located just a few miles below the Georgia-Florida state line. It buddies up to the Atlantic Ocean and we are staying in spacious three-bedroom / four bathroom / full kitchen villas. One thing you find out quickly in this neck of the woods is that they love “roundabouts,” and if you’re not paying attention, you might end up in Cuba. We made so many U-turns, I think some of us were getting dizzy and had whiplash. After checking in, we ate some lunch, watched some golf on TV, and kicked back before heading to the pro shop at the Ocean Links Golf Course. We discovered two things at the range. One, the humidity level had been ramped up; and two …, nobody brought bug spray.
This Ocean Links Course was a very scenic, tight, and lush layout. Each hole was neatly framed and most of the cart paths were through waste bunkers. If you want a definition of “neatly framed,” it means trouble loomed with narrow fairways, lots of trees, and small greens, but nobody seemed to care. It was a thinking man’s shot-makers course, because if you just wailed away, you found yourself in deep trouble. Some of the long hitters bagged their drivers after a few lost balls. Five of the best golf holes played out right on the beach.
We were forced to wait out a brief lightning and rain storm on the front nine. Conveniently, we found shelter and stopped behind our villas during the delay, which allowed Jim Dee to go grab our Grey Goose bottle out of the refrigerator. By the way, scores ranged from an 84 (Mike Rittner) to a 112 (Greg Haeussler). Todd Baltzley nailed long drive and John Lundgren earned closest to the pin on the short par-3 18th finishing hole. Along the lines of par-3’s, playing them well was the key to scoring well here. While most courses feature four, Ocean Links dished up six. And despite their appearance, it seemed that none played easy.
At this point in the trip, Golfest has definitely joined the electronics age. Golfest Central features ipads, laptops, WiFi connections, Twitter Feeds, Facebook posts, and a ton of website hits. W e scored our 200,000 website hit last week. Not bad for a three-year old website. It’s even more cool when you consider we are just a bunch of regular guys out to have a good time on a golf course.
Dinner was supposed to be of the Outback Steakhouse variety, but our GPS was on the short bus and had us driving aimlessly around Northern Florida. It suggested that we take a ferry across the bay. All we wanted was food – and we wanted it NOW! We settled on the Sand Dollar Restaurant, a nondescript restaurant frequented by locals. The service was great, the food good, and the laughs — plentiful. We even took the opportunity to eat some Florida Gator Tail. For those of you at home wondering … it taste like chicken!
(5/28) – Long Point Golf Course – Amelia Island, FL – You know that scene in the movie “48-Hours” where Eddie Murphy walks into the Country-Western bar and the music stops and everybody turns around and stares him down with some serious stink eye? We experienced that same moment when Golfest 2011 invaded the private members-only Long Point Golf Course at Amelia Island. Considering that we are out to promote the betterment of the sport of golf, are low maintenance, and play quick golf, we were set back by their snobbish attitude. It should be noted that Long Point wasn’t on our original Golfest 2011 agenda, but came into play when their sister course — Oak Marsh — was closed for maintenance. Long Point was located just a mile up the road from our villas, which had begun to fill to capacity with visitors coming in for the Memorial Day weekend. We appeared to be the youngest golfers at the facility (by at least 10-years) and we definitely had a strong visual presence in our bright Money Mailer blue golf shirts. With the exception of the bag drop attendants and cart girl Brandea, few at this facility were friendly. The course Marshall stalked us the entire way for no apparent reason.
This venue featured some nice wide fairways where even wayward balls hit into the woods tended to ricochet back into a play. There were a lot of undulations in the fairways, the greens were fast and the course slope rating was a stout 130. Back-to-back par-3’s on the back nine right on the beach made the course unique, even though they didn’t really fit into Tom Fazio’s 18-hole layout. However, it makes for some great Kodak moments which show up on the resorts brochures.
Chet Dodson earned long drive honors and Jim Dee score closest to the pin honors. Everybody seemed to struggle on the back nine. Mike Barbone was out of sorts today, losing a wedge and putter on the second hole. About 20-minutes later, they were discovered in the middle of the fairway? What’s even scarier is that later he was offering fellow Golfestians financial advice. Hmmm …? Mike “Madoff” Barbone? Run … Forest … Run!
The late afternoon activities were all over the board. The golf tournament was on the tube and power naps were the norm. There was a debate on whether it was okay to eat Advil’s like M&M’s? In addition, the official camera of Golfest (that’s what I call it), decided to crap out today, forcing an emergency trip to Jacksonville in search of a Best Buy. We also stopped for bug spray! Another group just left in search of food, but that didn’t go well. Our alleged financial adviser Barbone decided to turn Golfest into “Choke-fest II” in the Crab Shack restaurant for the second time in three years. Apparently Mike quit attending his chewing lessons. What started as an ordinary meal, ended up with Mike needing immediate attention when he began foaming at the mouth and couldn’t breathe. Local staff came to his rescue with a strategic placed garbage can after his actions began traumatizing small children trying to eat their fish sticks. They will never eat those again!
(5/29) – TPC Sawgrass – Dye Valley Course – Ponte Vedra Beach, FL – If there is a golf heaven, my guess is that it looks something like the headquarters of the PGA Tour in Ponte Vedra Beach — better known as … TPC Sawgrass. Home of two killer courses and an awesome hotel (Sawgrass Marriott), it comes highly recommended for those looking to quench their golf joneses. On tap for today was the unheralded Dye Valley Course, an equal to the sister Stadium Course, but without all of the historic over-the-top fanfare. We were enlightened that the Valley course was in excellent condition, and was recently toughened up to host the Nationwide Tour. Those actions took the typical winning score of 20-under and turned it into a challenging eight-under mark at the Winn-Dixie Open.
Course knowledge helped keep most of us out of trouble and that info came from our excellent fore-caddies (Adam, Marlon, and Dean), who helped us enjoy a great golf experience. This course didn’t favor any one persons game because it features dog leg rights and lefts and water on every hole. We were also lucky because the weather was absolutely perfect and the mosquitoes left us alone after being in vampire mode the past few days. Mark Suzda finally warmed up and shot an 82 and trails Mike Rittner by one stroke for the Golfest championship (gross) with only one round remaining. Craig Decker is also only another five strokes back if those two blow up. Mike Barbone rebounded from his restaurant choking incident to shoot one of his best round of the week. Go figure?
Most of the dinner conversations centered around the much-hyped Golfest 2011 Memorial Day finale tomorrow on the Players Stadium Course. Most of the boys had spent the past year or so dreaming about an ace on the famed island green. Little did they know that they had about the same chance of pulling that off as a one-night stand with Sarah Palin. In reality, most would be happier than heck if they just hit the green. Like a kid at Christmas, playing the Players Stadium course at TPC Sawgrass couldn’t get here quick enough.
(5/30) – TPC Sawgrass – Stadium Course – Ponte Vedra Beach, FL – They say if you are going to go out in style … GO BIG! In fact, our experience at TPC Sawgrass in 2010, was the main reason we broke tradition and returned to Florida for … “The Sequel.” Everything is done right at this facility with a lot of attention to smallest details: Engraved bag tags in the carts, customized lockers, preprinted scorecards, a friendly staff — and literally everything else in between. Oh ya … and the golf course is pretty nice also!
Thanks to PGA Professional and host Jenny Heinz, the GolfestOnline.com flag was proudly flying next to the clubhouse. We wore red and USA hats on this Memorial Day as our salute our Armed Forces. Golfest tends to stick out from the rest of the crowd, but that is part of our show — let’s make a big deal out of having fun on golf course! We had many complete strangers come up and ask who we were and what we are doing. All thought it was an awesome deal. And in fact, we do too!
The Stadium course was in excellent condition, despite the fact that 60,000 people had visited it three weeks earlier for the Players Championship. It represents golf in its most perfect form. Throw in four prize holes on the back nine, and it was time to see which Golfestian’s still had gas in the tank. With a slope rating of 137 on this Monday, the stage has been set!
When the dust settled after our 126-holes of golf in the past 144 hours, Jeffrey Adkins claimed the 2011 Golfest Net title, posting a dominating 13-stroke victory in his five best rounds (out of the seven we played). The final group featured the gross leaders Mike Rittner and Mark Suzda who ham and egged their way to … get this … a tie. Unfortunately, we did not know it at the time, because we did not calculate the best five rounds. If we did, we probably would have convinced Jenny to let us do a playoff on number 17 … David Toms and KJ Choi style. So this year we have co-champions.
Speaking of #17, that was the most common text we received from our friends at home … how did you do on the island green? To disguise some of the pain, let’s put it this way: We had a 33% success rate on hitting the green from 131-yards away. In layman’s term, we raised the water level with eight-balls (and a few others on the re-tees). Of the four that landed dry, only two made par (Todd Baltzley and Jim Allen!)
Miss Heinz, who was gracious enough to film our island train wreck, was coaxed into taking her best shot. She was presented with a Callaway eight-iron out my bag, took two warm up swings, and stuck it eight feet from the pin — ho hum – no big deal! To prove it wasn’t a fluke, she did the same thing with our third group. Mark Suzda ended up with closest to the pin honors for our group … about a two-car garage door away from the hole. By the way, Jenny hopes to go to Q-school and take her show on the LPGA road. We wish her well!
After investing in an obscene amount of official TPC Sawgrass merchandise in the pro shop, we repacked our golf travel bags. While we were walking out, PGA star Vijay Singh was walking in. Let’s not forget that this is a player owned course. We finished up the night with a tour of the 77,000 square foot facility and a first class reception and dinner in the Boardroom in the Clubhouse. The food and service was excellent. We passed out almost $1000 in cash, another $1000 in prizes, and a bunch of other awards.
Speaking of Barbone, we played a gag on him at dinner. After nearly choking to death two nights ago, we had the staff serve up something special (thanks to fellow collaborator John Lundgren.) Everybody at the table were delivered their thick steaks. Then, after a dramatic pause …, Barbone was presented his plate, which featured an assortment of strained Gerber’s baby food. The look on his face was priceless. But, at least it wasn’t blue!
Mark Suzda presented Greg Haeussler the TaylorMade driver he won on the closest to the pin on 17, since his shot possessed a certain “ugly factor” that ended up besting Greg’s effort. Drinks were served up in the veranda. And, this ace writer decided to end his week by accidentally walking into an open door while attempting to set up a photo opportunity. Once the stars cleared, it was nothing that a bag of ice couldn’t cure. (As Beavis and Butthead would say … Huh, huh … dumb ass!) I was determined to not let TPC Sawgrass get in my head. However, nobody said anything about the outside of it! I consider it a little souvenir from TPC Sawgrass!
So there you have it! A great week of Florida golf and proof that sequels can hold their own to a blockbuster feature event. So my challenge to all of you is … when are you going to quit talking about going on a weeklong golf trip to a premier golf destination in the United States … and actually do it?
For the second year in a row, the Players Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass was named the Golfest Golf Course of the Year!