In 2011, I teed it up on nearly 100 golf courses ranging from Hawaii to Scotland, from posh spots like the St. Regis Princeville to bargain spots off I-95 like Santee, South Carolina.
Over some holiday chili dogs and egg nog, I took a little time to reflect on the highs, the bargains, and the bizarre...
Best resort golf deal: For $50 a month, you can play golf at 4 p.m. until sunset at Ka'anapali Golf Club on Maui. It's part of the 'Fit Club' they introduced recently to encourage walkers. I played and got in 14 holes before walking in (the Kai course usually runs over $100).
The catch, you ask? None I can think of.
Wackiest golf hole: I've never played a quarry golf course that didn't have at least one hole that raised your eyebrows. In Nebraska, Iron Horse Golf Club's 10th fairway bottlenecks between water and the quarry wall. All three shots on this par-5 are every bit as penal as the picture:
Most memorable course name: Few golf courses in the world roll off the tongue quite like Santee-area's Wyboo Golf Club. The sticker price, about $28 to play a solid, Tom Jackson design, is equally memorable.
Biggest bonehead: That would be this guy, who didn't heed his GPS warning and drove straight into rocks at La Cantera and off to E.R.
Best model golf operation: No developer should be allowed to build a golf course until they've visited WildHorse Golf Club out in Gothenburg, Nebraska. This humble operation off I-80 has a meager clubhouse and no-name course architects. But the course is in phenomenal shape, walkable and the design is fantastic.
Even better, anyone can play it for under $50, and locals can buy season passes for about $500.
Best 'value' digs: In Augusta, our room at America's Best Value Inn on Washington Road was about $150 a night during Masters week (about triple what it normally costs) and included a free breakfast and happy hour. Once I caught wind of houses charging upwards of $30,000-$40,000 for the week around Augusta, suddenly $150 for two beds within walking distance of Magnolia Drive seemed like a steal.
Best power lunch: I think I got as many stock tips as golf tidbits during my lunch with the always business-savvy Greg Norman at Sandals Emerald Bay.
Best way to grow the game: I can't think of a better way to introduce a novice to the game of golf than an hour or two at TopGolf, a new driving range concept that's gaining steam in the U.S. If there isn't one near where you live now, just wait a couple years, as up to 50 locations are in planning stages.
Most bizarre driving range site: A cold spell in Scottsdale during the Waste Management Phoenix Open caused a malfunctioning sprinkler head at Troon North Golf Club's driving range:
Best way to kill jetlag: Walking around Royal Dornoch in the Highlands at 4 a.m., watching the sunrise and getting the sea breeze in your face is a great way to kick off a week of links golf.
Most unique happy hour: Mussels are so abundant around Prince Edward Island that a lot of places don't even charge you for them; they're simply in a cooler at the corner of the bar and you can help yourself. One of the best spots is at Glasgow Hills Golf Club, which features a clubhouse perched overlooking green hills and the Atlantic Ocean, where you can enjoy a cold beer, fantastic view and as many fresh mussels you can pry open.
Best course to ball hock: The Plantation Course at Kapalua's fairways are some of the widest in golf - and apparently not wide enough. I must have found 40 usable balls during my twilight round - and by the back nine I was getting picky, saving room in my bag only for the best quality stuff. Green fees are over $200 at Kapalua, but at least you can make a lot of it back with used Pro-V1s.
Best wildlife encounter: Without a doubt, it'd be the multiple bear sightings at the Fairmont Chateau Whistler Golf Club. It's not every day a bear and cub stumble upon the tee box in front of you:
Luckiest bounce: By the time I got to the 17th tee on the Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass, my swing was in shambles, thanks to Pete Dye's treacherous design revealing every little flaw in my error-prone game. Then, on golf's most famous tee box, I bladed a pitching wedge straight towards the left side of the island with little hope it would find land. Somehow, the ball smacked into the top of the bulkhead, jumped over water and landed safely on the grass behind the green. I may not have made the green, but I didn't find water, either. That's a 'push' for me.
'Overachieving Butler' award: Paul the Butler surely knew I was visiting the Sandals Emerald Bay on my own for a press trip; a rare solo traveler at this Bahamas getaway geared towards couples. But that didn't stop him from creating this romantic bathtub scene in my guest room:
Favorite golf course played in 2011: I played an old favorite, Royal Dornoch, and also a few great new ones like Castle Stuart and Dormie Club. But it's tough to think of a better all-around day of golf and travel than in Bend, Oregon at the Nicklaus Course at Pronghorn Golf Club. The scenery, the design, the conditions, the sunny weather and the accommodations (not to mention all sorts of other activities like mountain biking, fishing and even skiing) makes this one of the best travel experiences you could ever draw up. A day of golf and mountain biking gets the nod for my favorite day on the road in 2011.