Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Punch Shots: Which Am Tour major makes the best golf vacation centerpiece?

Am Tour Major Championships

Left: Ivan Marin shows off his winning crystal from the Puerto Rico Open's Sr. Jones division. Right: Bayonet/Blackhorse hosts the Northern California Championship May 19-20. 

What makes the perfect golf vacation? For some, it's the chance for competition on a world class golf course. 

With major championship season under way on the Golf Channel Am Tour, we asked veteran travel writers Jason Deegan and Mike Bailey which major venue they'd most make the centerpiece of their golf vacation.

Jason Deegan: Kohler, Wisconsin
It’s hard to turn down playing on U.S. Open venues (Chambers Bay and Pinehurst No. 2) and PGA Tour stops (the TPC of Sawgrass, Disney and PGA National), but if I were forced to pick one Am Tour major, I’d tee it up at Blackwolf Run for the Midwest Classic May 19-20. It offers arguably the best combination of tracks on the circuit, although fans of Pinehurst and Troon North could certainly argue their sites are just as good or better.

The Meadow Valleys and River courses at Blackwolf Run are championship tests one hour north of Milwaukee in sleepy Kohler, Wis. Nine holes on each course were recently renovated to create a composite layout that will host the 2012 U.S. Women’s Open. Golf Digest ranks both courses among the "Top 100 Public Courses in America" (River No. 15, Meadows Valley No. 60). The setting of the River course might look pretty, but the meandering river creates a dangerous place for golf. More elevation changes characterize Meadow Valleys.

Looking for more? There’s a PGA Championship and future Ryder Cup course right down the road in Haven. Just don’t ground your club in any of the thousand or so bunkers on the Straits Course at Whistling Straits.

The five-star digs at the old-world American Club are gorgeous, but too pricey for many. Stay at the resort’s Inn on Woodlake to save a few bucks. It isn’t warm enough in May to truly enjoy the beaches of Lake Michigan. However, it should be just fine for golf. Kohler is the kind of place where players could bring some buddies, the wife or even the entire family. It’s a relatively affordable destination (away from the resort) and packed with great golf. Not everybody will secure victory against these two tough Pete Dye courses, but at least those who play in the event will head home feeling like a winner.  

Mike Bailey: Black Horse at Bayonet in Monterey 
When asked what my favorite golf destination is, more often than not, I point to one region: the Monterey Bay area. It is, of course, where you'll find Pebble Beach, but the location is special for so much more than that, including the site of the Golf Channel Am Tour's Northern California Championship at Bayonet/Black Horse Golf Club in Seaside on May 19-20th.

The tournament will be conducted on the Black Horse Course, considered the easier of the two layouts, but by no means a pushover at more than 7,300 yards. Like its sister course, which has hosted U.S. Open qualifiers as of late, Black Horse was covered by a 2008 $13 million renovation led by architect Gene Bates. This wasn't just a restoration; this was a complete makeover, better than the original. Despite the great history of this 36-hole complex that was once part of the old Fort Ord military base, these two courses have never looked better, especially Blackhorse. What you have now is a beautiful all-bentgrass championship layout with cool fingerling bunkers, wonderfully complicated greens complexes and views of the Pacific that most golfers didn't even know existed before.

As a golf destination, though, the Monterey area is unparalleled. The event takes place in May, and for some of us in the South, it's already unbearably hot, so the sweater weather temperatures of Northern California are already welcome. Add to that the rest of the courses in the Monterey collection: I am particular fond of century-old Del Monte and even some inland gems such as Carmel Valley Ranch, Quail Lodge and Rancho Canada, and you could spend a terrific week of playing golf. And don't forget nearby Pacific Grove, the back nine of which runs along the ocean and shares the same designer as Pebble Beach.

You can also chalk up the charming ambience of Monterey Bay with its cafes, boutique hotels, Cannery Row, Old Fisherman's Wharf and the Monterey Bay Aquarium. There's nothing more beautiful or relaxing.

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