There are moments in the life of a golf writer—infrequent and ephemeral—where you ponder whether the day you are walking around in belongs to you. They are times of confusion and joy, of disbelief and of validation for having chosen a life that is more grind than gratification. Every once in a while, we get invited to places we don’t belong, venues where we await a tap on the shoulder and an escort toward the exit.
The industry label for these ventures is fam trips (familiarization trips) where we are invited to the opening of new courses or resorts, flown first-class and placed in suites and invited to long, wine-soaked dinners, chauffeured around islands and captained across deep blue bays in the hopes that we will write nice things about our surroundings. We might call them fam trips, but my wife calls them boondoggles, and as with most things, she’s spot on.
With our asses sore from weeks set upon desk chairs, our skin pasty from vitamin deficiency, our egos pureed by a steady stream of rejection and failed paragraphs, we suddenly find ourselves transported to alternate universes of wealth and privilege where we are not only told we belong, but that we are the most important people there. It’s an awkward two-step, to go from scribbling for the mortgage one day, then fretting over the spa menu the next. I’m not complaining. I’m just pointing out that we, the seekers of the golfing truth, get to play pretend once in a while. And it’s a game at which we excel.
I’ve pretended my way around butlered resorts in the UK and Ireland, and beach bar oases where my credit cards never once saw the Carribbean sun. I’ve played courses with cache designers and tour legends, amidst teams of PR handlers, all eager to ensure that I am enjoying myself. And once I forget that I’m only here because I have a few articles to my name, and that I’ll never, ever be back here again, I usually am. Twenty-four hours in, and I’m suddenly peer to the hedge-fund managers and the yacht travelers. And when they start talking golf courses, rattling off their meager resumes, I’m thrust into full swagger, this cock-of-the-walk kicking sand in their faces and giving them a shiver of something they haven’t felt in ages, and maybe even sort of missed: envy.
My latest boondoggle arrived as a curious invitation. This golf writer’s rule #1: You don’t say no to publicists’ inquiries. They are the fonts from which all flights and free stuff flow. But you also don’t promise warm coverage, or any coverage at all. Worse than missing out on a weekend of golf by the beach is trying to hammer together a thousand flattering words about three-star resorts with spiders in your bathroom. But if they’ll bring you along without guarantee of a glowing review, you go. And when I was asked to sample the first Sandals resort of my life under said conditions, I did. I brought my wife along, too.
Early research into our destination revealed Sandals Emerald Bay in the Bahamas to be an all-inclusive—strike that—a luxury-included golf resort. The rebranding of their free-for-all service seemed a wise tack, as all-inclusive, for me, conjured images of chicken fingers above dim sternos, of meaty hands clawing into chafing dishes, and green drinks sucked out of fish bowls. In my imagination, I saw crowds of roundish forms awaiting a dinner bell, arguing at the bar over short pours and demanding another free longneck for their complementary koozie. All-inclusives existed in the same experiential sphere as time-share sales weekends, and rock-bottom cruises, in impression no doubt sharpened by David Foster Wallace’s unforgettable essay (“A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again”) about the latter. This all might sound like snobbery, and maybe it is. But when you’ve excelled at pretending you belong at the Four Seasons, it ruins you for pretending that sweaty cheese passes for hors d’oeuvres.
We set out for the Bahamas with my clubs and a suitcase of low expectations. Sandals had been made a punchline by “The Office,” beloved by Michael Scott and thus stamped as a destination for the traveling naïve. Adults-only also had us a little uneasy, as if we were headed to a colony of hand-holders on honeymoon that, after ten years of marriage, would either make us chuckle or weep. But there was golf, and the chance to play in a pro-am for a Web.com event, which for this golf nerd, was a thrill no matter the pro I drew. And when I got my draw, Sandals Emerald Bay became my boon of all doggles.
As we pulled up to Sandals and eyed a team of waving Bahamians ready to welcome us home, I blanched at this omen of carefully choreographed fun. But after a smooth check-in and arrival at a suite overlooking ivory sand dotted with thatched palapas, hugging a placid bay of neon blue water, I flushed away my fears. We weren’t pulled into any conga lines, nor were we summoned to any buffets. We were left to ourselves on a shockingly peaceful retreat, with a dozen restaurants to be sampled at our leisure. Where were the crowds, wrestling for their free provisions? Where were the newlyweds doing it in the bushes? There was plenty to do, so said our daily calendar, but we did precious little but recline, read, and eat. And Sandals or anywhere, add some golf and some spa to that mix (we did), and we were suddenly in our dream vacation.
We dined at Indian, Italian, French, and beach-side Bahamian restaurants, and could not find a moment of complaint (our Indian spread was somehow the best I’d ever tasted). And after ordering as many appetizers and desserts as we desired, we walked away from each table without waiting for a check, and something about the genius of the luxury-included vacation occurred to me: It wasn’t just about gluttony. There was a comfort that came with knowing you could leave your wallet in the hotel safe. You didn’t need to study the prices on the menu; you didn’t have to save your budget by skipping lunch. You wanted, and you got. And my travel snobbery had kept me from double-desserts for far too long.
But I had not traveled to the Bahamas just to get fat. On Saturday morning, I checked in at the driving range for the pro-am of the Web.com Tour’s Great Exuma Classic, a mere fifty steps from the Sandals lobby. There are few driving rages more interesting than that at a pro-am, where flat-bellied champions with tour bags work through careful warm-ups beside blushing and flailing amateurs, and this amateur pool was more blush-worthy than most. There were hotel guests with rental clubs by the score, unsuspecting visitors who may have accidentally signed up for golf versus the tour of Pig Island (Exuma is renowned for its island of swimming swine, and while I skipped it, I’m told the swimming with the hogs excursion is boss). I went searching for my foursome, and when I spotted the name on the cart parked next to mine, I had no regrets about skipping the backstroking pigs.
Greg Norman designed the course at Sandals Emerald Bay (an estimable track of tropical routing, it’s back nine along ocean breakers is as good as Caribbean golf gets), so he was in town for the pro-am, and was scheduled to hit the ceremonial first shot. How I landed in his foursome, and then in the seat next to him at dinner that night, I never figured out. Surely there were folks here who had paid more than I had to cozy up to the Shark this weekend (since I had paid zero, that was not a small group). But sometimes the itinerary on a golf writer’s boondoggle launches itself into unexpected orbits. I’d hugged the Claret Jug, talked fishing with Darren Clarke, snatched salmon out of the River Moy on previous trips, but spending the day with the man in the wide-brimmed hat had turned my Sandals fam trip into a story for my grandchildren.
I expected the Shark to be standoffish, a course designer contractually obligated to shake hands and hit some shots in front of us. I’d prejudged him as being of enormous ego, and likely indifferent to a golf commoner like myself. And just as my prejudices about Sandals were off the mark, so were my notions about Greg Norman. It wasn’t all hugs on the first tee, but he was easy to talk to and eager to share stories. He was engaged in our golf, pointing out lines coaching my playing partners through their swings. We talked about the connection between surfing and golf, and when a rainbow appeared, he jumped out of the cart to snap pictures with the rest of us.
At dinner, we talked of his myriad business ventures, and his new course design work in Vietnam. I left suspecting he was more taken with business than golf these days—he’d closed a big tech deal the night before, and he was still beaming from the buzz of it. He was intense—not one for idle banter—but get him going on the business climate of southeast Asia, and there was no interrupting him. He wrote down the titles of books we recommended, and he ensured the table was drinking his wine. The Shark was genuine, and by the end of the night, it actually was hugs, and my wife left dinner convinced she was married to a superstar, a miracle for which I owed this resort my deepest gratitude.
When we left the next morning, we had changed as travelers. We were all inclusive-converts, our eyes opened to a world of vacations we had clicked past for decades. If it weren’t for the calligraphy of the resorts’ moniker (my only complaint: the grounds are over-branded with handwritten Sandals font that conjures Tom Cruise and Cocktail and unintended 1980’s nostalgia), we may have found ourselves here sooner.
We left reminded that the best thing to leave behind on any trip, golf or otherwise, was our expectations. I typically over-planned and over-researched my vacations to the point I hardly needed to take them, but going in blind in the Bahamas gave us the chance to be delighted at every turn. And of Sandals Emerald Bay, this freeloader of all freeloaders can assign my highest tribute, and admit to something I am almost afraid to write: I would have paid for it.