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Golf groups drive a worldwide travel segment

By Bill Russ, courtesy N.C. Division of Tourism

Picture yourself, a golf fanatic, walking down the lush 18th fairway at Scotland’s Old Course — St. Andrews — in a party that includes your son and grandson, fulfilling your lifelong dream of playing one of the world’s most historic and revered golf courses.

“It brings tears to their eyes because they are finally completing one of those ‘bucket list’ things they’ve always wanted to do. We get a lot of multigenerational trips,” said Bill Hogan, president of Wide World of Golf (WWG), the oldest golf travel specialist in the United States.

Golf is phenomenally popular with an estimated 32,000 courses worldwide. The United States has more than 28 million players above the age of 6, with more taking it up every day.

For 52 years, WWG, based in Austin, Texas, has handled country club-type golfers who travel on domestic and international golf vacations. “We have a mix of custom, tailor-made packages for four or eight people to go to places like Scotland, Australia, South Africa and many other locales,” said Hogan.

Hogan said golfers usually want to play in Scotland, with its 600-year golf tradition, on legendary links courses like Turnberry, Carnoustie and, of course, St. Andrews. Ireland and England are also popular European golf destinations.

“The reason is the plethora of great links courses up and down the coast. Plus, they have famous courses which host the annual British Open,” said Hogan.

In addition to the previously mentioned classic sites, the Open has been played at Scotland’s Muirfield and Royal Troon.

Upon arrival at Glasgow or Edinburgh, WWG places clients in hotels near the region’s courses.

“They’re nicer hotels, like the Luxury Collection Turnberry Resort, Gleneagles Hotel, the Fairmont St. Andrews or the Old Course Hotel, with five-star amenities like spas, fitness centers and complete business offices. That’s eight or 10 days of playing the famous courses in the home of golf,” said Hogan, who has personally played on courses in 53 different countries.

Hogan said Americans watch the British Open on television and remark, “Some day, I’d like to go over and play those courses.’”

“Well, with us, you can. We do everything from soup to nuts.”

Most groups enjoy playing daily, but if there are nongolfing sightseers in the group, the itinerary might be two days on, one day off of golf. Also, traveling golfers discover that their scores on these outstanding courses are often much higher than anticipated, so the courses are both memorable and challenging.

One of the most unusual golf developments covers the entire state of Alabama — 468 holes on 28 courses at 11sites. The Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail was the brainchild of Alabama residents who wanted to boost tourism. They succeeded beyond their wildest dreams.

The courses have been rated some of the best in the United States and the world. Tourist dollars spent in Alabama rose from $1.8 billion in 1990 to $9.8 billion this year.

The Golf Group, located in Bloomington, Minn., likes to boast “Great golf trips by design — not by chance.”

“Customers come to us because they want a golf trip. We do the planning and design, and manage all the details,” said Tom Kozlak, agency golf specialist.

Kozlak’s clients naturally love the British Isles, but after that, it’s wide open. “They start to go afield. Spain and Portugal are fun. We’ve done a couple of trips to China. There’s tremendous golf there,” he said.

“The New Zealand trip is out of this world. Mexico and the Dominican Republic are great. We set up a trip somewhere, and when it’s over, people say, ‘Where are we going next year?’”

In the United States, Kozlak’s clients want to “Play the Greats,” a program designed to get them out on America’s finest courses. “People who follow that program say, ‘Let’s go to Sawgrass this year, or to Pinehurst or Pebble Beach.’ That’s their mission.”

When clients approach Kozlak about a potential domestic or international golf trip, he creates a sample itinerary on a website and pulls all details together for the group leader.

“He sends it to his pals and says ‘Here’s what we’re thinking of doing in September 2012. This is how much it will cost, here’s the route we’re going, the drop-dead date is such. Now give me feedback. Are you in or out?’”

Kozlak said one thing that sets his agency apart is that it can set up the travelers’ own games.
“In golf group travel, you wouldn’t believe how much a little competition adds to the trip — friendly wagering from a few dollars to hundreds of dollars to nothing,” he said.

“It makes it so much fun. We even create leader boards and money lists, just like the pros. We set it all up for them — a level of organized golf.”

Golf travel planners are the people who figure out what works and what doesn’t when providing marvelous golfing experiences, whether on a course surrounded by mountains in Japan or along the sun-splashed coastline of California.

The experts are there when our inevitable golf wanderlust kicks in.

Editors Note: Golf trips for groups generate millions of travelers worldwide each year.  The Group Travel Leader is presently read by more than 200 professional golf tour operators and golf group leaders.