With the U.S. dollar on the wrong side of the tracks of the international exchange rate these days, U.S. golf courses seem to be crawling with Europeans on the hunt for good golfing deals. Every time you turn around, it seems you're bumping into a European.
What about the road leading the other way? It's a challenge for many tour operators to get American golfers headed in the other direction.
An Atlanta-based company, PerryGolf, is having some success doing it by catering to those with enough money to ignore pesky problems like unfavorable exchange rates and a floundering economy.
The company's luxury excursions to the British Open, both by sea and rail, are proving popular with those with wallets bigger than their handicaps.
"In 2003 and 2004, we're seeing the people who like to go every year or every other year," said Perry spokesman Mark Barnes. "Their affluence allows them to kind of overcome everything - the exchange rate, the economy, what have you."
Unfortunately, the terrorist strikes of 2001 hasn't been the only factor affecting golf travel. In the UK, it was mad cow disease and the scare of SARS.
"Through 2001, we were enjoying some really unprecedented levels, but then all those things took away probably 30 percent of our business," Barnes said, who added the company is about halfway back to those levels.
The company, founded 20 years ago by two Scottish brothers, uses the British Open and golf courses in the old country as the draw, and its 122-passenger ship and 36-passenger train as the icing on the cake.
This year, both packages, one by sea and one by train, are built around the 2005 British Open at the Old Course in St. Andrews.
For sure, it's for upscale golfers. Costs range from $5,695 to $9,875.
"This is ultra-deluxe, and you can see that at $9,875 per golfer, it better be," Barnes said. "And it is. The train itself is kind of an Orient Express, but they claim it to be the most luxurious in the world."
The Royal Scotsman holds only 36 guests, who will first stay two nights at the Westin Turnberry Resort, including golf at Ailsa course and Royal Troon, site of the 2004 British Open. Non-golfers can visit Culzean Castle and the Burns National Heritage Park.
Turning southeast, the train then heads to St. Andrews, site of the Open, where guests have tickets to the final round.
The ship is the 122-passenger Clipper Adventurer, and the itinerary includes the last two rounds of the Open. The ship sails around the coast of Scotland and includes golf at Royal Troon, Royal Dornoch, Royal Aberdeen, as well as Machrihanish.
Again, non-golfers will get their fill of sightseeing, including a day-stop at the Isle of Man, the island of Arran, Loch Ness and Crathes Castle.
The packages include just about everything a golf and travel connoisseur could want, including whiskey and cigars, as well as all the daily cocktail parties, green fees, transportation, tips, taxes and tournament tickets.
"It's like a country club," Barnes said.
"Everybody gets to know everybody after two or three days. We host everything, put all the tournament pairings together and keep everybody playing. The golfers go one direction in the morning, the sightseers in another, and everybody gathers back together in the afternoon."
Both excursions for the 2005 Open are about half full, and they will continue selling them until around April, officials said.
"Both programs are off to strong, early starts and ahead of schedule," Barnes said. "Our season runs in the fall - the British Open gets people thinking - until nearly Christmas. Then, the beginning of January is the next phase and that runs until almost May."
The economy and other travel-related problems have weeded out many tour operators who offer similar excursions, though Kalos Golf still offers golf cruises to the British Isles. Currently, there are no other tour operators offering train service.
"There's been some shakeout," Barnes said. "The last couple of years have been a real challenge. There aren't quite as many of us as there used to be."
With the Ryder Cup back in Europe in 2006, the company is also in the early stages of putting together a similar Ryder Cup excursion, involving only the ship. That trip would last 14 days.
For those who get seasick or train-sick, or who just don't like the regimented itineraries of cruises - or for those who want to maximize their golf - Perry offers deluxe, eight-seat coach tours as well.
Andrew Zausner, a 10-handicapper from Washington, D.C., has been on four coach trips to the UK with PerryGolf.
"We don't take spouses and we don't sightsee," Zausner said. "We play golf, we eat, we drink, we smoke cigars and we have the time of our lives."
For some reason, many golfers also like to fish. Take a look at the pros who play every year at the TPC Sawgrass in Ponte Vedra, for example. After their rounds, many of the pros can be found casting in the stocked lake on the course.
Maybe it has something to do with the stress-free environment of fishing, where a single mistake won't cost you thousands of dollars, or maybe it's just the lure of being outdoors, but anecdotal evidence suggests there is a significant crossover.
There are golf/fish packages in the U.S. in states like Louisiana, Oregon and Arizona, but precious few in the United Kingdom.
There are Scottish resorts affiliated with well-known golf courses that also offer fishing as an amenity, but the two sports have rarely been packaged.
That may change soon. PerryGolf, which offers luxury golf excursions by ship and rail in the UK, has been studying the possibility of combining the two sports into a single trip.
"I must know 15 guys in my club alone who are big-time fishermen," said Mark Barnes of PerryGolf. "And the pros are famous for fishing. Why not pair the two up into a themed golf tour and introduce it to the fishing crowd, since there is already a crossover interest between the two?"
Not a bad idea, especially if you're a fly fishermen. Britain is blessed with trout; they can be found naturally in every county.
The fishing in Scotland is even better. Scotland has more than 6,000 lochs, or lakes, many holding wild brown trout. Some of the larger lakes hold salmon, arctic char, grayling, pike and perch, among others. There are also more than a hundred quality salmon and trout streams.
In addition, you're never far from a commercial fishery in Scotland, where mainly rainbow trout are stocked, but also steelhead, carp and others.
"There's 15 hours of daylight in the UK," Barnes said. "That's perfect for a lot of folks who will play golf twice, but still there's six hours left - hit the dadgum river."
Barnes said the company is still looking at the possibility of offering golf/fish packages.
"We need to study the fishing opportunity before we offer it," he said. "The fishing is already there in any number of those five or six- star properties we do a lot of business with, but we're not selling it."
To many golfers/anglers, that could be an easy sell.
December 2, 2004
Veteran golf writer Tim McDonald keeps one eye on the PGA Tour and another watching golf vacation hotspots and letting travelers in on the best place to vacation.
From high-tech gadgets to clever, low-tech stocking stuffers, more great gift ideas have come across my desk this season than in the past five years combined. If you can't find something above for every golfer on your list, I'm going to chalk it up to Grinchiness.
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