Publish date:

Looking to Play Bucket-List Golf Courses? Take a Number, Because Tee Times Are Scarce

When the pandemic took hold in 2020, many of the world's top golf destinations began pushing reservations into 2021. According to tour operators, that created a high-demand ripple effect that may last for years.
Booking a reservation for St. Andrews' Old Course will take patience.

Booking a reservation for St. Andrews' Old Course will take patience.

Ready to bust out of your pandemic lockdown and start notching some bucket-list golf? Already getting your legs in shape for a hike around the Old Course at St. Andrews?

Well, there’s bad news, so you might want to take this sitting down.

When the pandemic unfolded in early 2020, the St. Andrews Links Trust, the body that operates the Old Course, pushed that year’s tee times into 2021. Then, as lockdowns dragged on, both the 2021 tee times and 2020 reservations were pushed into 2022.

According to travel experts, that left little to no room for new reservations until 2023 or even 2024, or whenever the bulge in the reservation pipeline finally clears.

So, if you don’t already have a tee time reservation, you’re likely out of luck.

“I’d say forget [the Old Course] for 2021,” said Jim Mills, who has run Fore Golf, a packager of U.K. and Irish golf tours, for 40 years. “Other U.K. courses have 2021 tee times available, but the Old Course isn’t open except by the ballot.”

“The ballot” is an online lottery for a small share of each day’s tee times. It’s held two days prior — a system that’s only useful for players willing to hang out in St. Andrews with no guarantee of getting on. The other option is to stand in line at the Old Course starter’s shack well before dawn in the hope of snagging one of that day’s cancellations.

The Links Trust did not respond to a request for comment. Its website says only that “information will be made available on 2021 advance reservations in due course.”

Gordon Dalgleish, president of Perry Golf, another golf-tour operator with access to Old Course tee times, said that in light of the unavailability of Old Course tee times, U.S. golfers are well-advised to consider other, more off-the-beaten-path destinations in the British Isles.

Among them: northwest Ireland, northern Scotland or northwest England. One of his suggestions, Royal Dornoch Golf Club, in the far northern Scotland County of Sutherland, is a solid four-hour drive north from Edinburgh.

“One area is the Lancashire Coast of England,” Dalgleish said. “There are three [British] Open courses there that, for one reason or another, have been overlooked by golf travelers: Royal Birkdale, Royal Lytham and St. Annes, and Royal Liverpool.”

Another plus: Some Lanchashire lodgers used the lockdown to update aging facilities. “You can stay in one hotel and play some Open courses, plus five or six other quality courses.” Dalgleish said.

The scarcity of 2021-2022 tee times also has hit the Irish icons of Ballybunion and Lahinch. “Most 2020 and 2021 bookings have rolled over into 2022, creating an oversold situation on Irish golf courses next year, especially the trophy links courses,” said Marty Carr, CEO of Carr Golf, a Dublin tour packager.

“It’s going to be key to book early, and we’re already seeing bookings for 2023 now taking place,” he said.

Like Dalgleish, Carr recommends more remote venues, such as Gil Hanse’s renovation of Narin and Portnoo Golf Links on Gweebarra Bay in County Donegal; or Patrick’s Links, a Tom Doak design farther north along the Atlantic coast.

Ruth Moran, of Tourism Ireland, said Ireland’s reopening offers U.S. golfers a chance to experience some of the lesser-known gems of the Emerald Isle, including Ardglass and Portstewart in Northern Ireland; and Tralee and Dooks, both in County Kerry in the southwest.

In the U.S., tee-time availability later this year and in 2022 is mixed.

At Pebble Beach Golf Links, the resort’s online reservation engine recently showed some availability in August and September, but almost none in October or November before things start opening up again in late December. A Pebble Beach spokesman declined to comment.

Bandon Dunes Golf Resort General Manager Don Crowe reported that the Oregon resort is “experiencing incredible demand and seeing record-breaking occupancy rates” even with 24 new guest rooms coming online this summer. Demand in 2022 is on the same pace, judging from call volumes to Bandon’s call center, he said.

“Golfers are eager to travel and we are eager to welcome them to Bandon Dunes Golf Resort — it just might take a bit more advanced planning than before,” he said.

In Arizona, where golf never shut down, there’s no bulge in the pipeline, but Doug Hodge, general manager of the TPC Scottsdale, said, “People are definitely booking further in advance, and I would advise that,” especially if your trip coincides with the peak of Scottsdale’s season, Major League Baseball's Spring Training in March.

At the Kohler properties in Wisconsin, including Whistling Straits, venue for this year’s Ryder Cup, Mike O’Reilly, director of operations, reported “limited tee times or packages available for the remainder of 2021.”

It’s the same story at Georgia’s Reynolds Lake Oconee’s Ritz Carlton golf resort, which is sold out Thursday to Sunday until mid-November. “Ditto for The Sea Pines Resort” in South Carolina, said Karen Moraghan, who represents both properties.

At the French Lick Resort in Indiana, “Golf-buddy trips are at an all-time high and weekends are selling out regularly,” said Dave Harner, a spokesman for the property, which features designs by Donald Ross and Pete Dye.

For folks eyeing a tip to Pinehurst, Shane Sharp, a resort marketing representative, said the Sandhills region is booming. The most affordable way to play Pinehurst this fall, he says, is via the resort’s Donald Ross package: two nights and three rounds on any of the Pinehurst courses, including No. 2, for $1,129.

Chris King, who books trips into Myrtle Beach through myrtlebeachgolf.net, said competition among the area’s 90 courses kept the Grand Strand’s prices stable, and availability remains good.

“‘The Rewards Package,’ a four-night, four-round deal, is as good as almost any in golf travel, seriously,” King said. Depending on the courses selected, lodging included, the price can range from $425 to $600 double occupancy. The deal also comes with a $100 gift card for each player, he said.

As for the cost of getting there, there’s more bad news: Gas prices recently hit a seven-year high. Airline passengers should expect the cost of fares and rental car prices to remain high for months. Over the Fourth of July weekend, the average price of a rental car was up 86 percent over the same period in 2020, CBS News reported.

But deals do pop up. Keep your eyes peeled for offers through online packagers like Scott’s Cheap Flights, Travelzoo and TripHound, which send out email bulletins on deals almost daily. Hopper and Hotwire offer alerts via their mobile-phone apps.

An example of a recent Travelzoo deal: A fully refundable three-night stay at the Casa de Campo Resort in the Dominican Republic through December, including a round on Pete Dye’s Teeth of the Dog course, for $395.

Joe Brancatelli, a former editor of Frequent Flier Magazine who runs JoeSentMe.com, a website for business travelers, says if you’re going to go, go. Prices will remain high for awhile, so don’t fixate on price. 

“Stop spending hours online looking for the cheapest airfares, hotel rates and car rentals. Find the fairest rates — and book them,” he said.