By Tony Leodora

For the past three years the team of Ken Gibson and Jeff Ploppert have shown the ability to rise to the occasion. They proved it again when the GolfTalk Live Winter Invitational Series invited the best-of-the-best to compete in the season-ending Tournament of Champions at Play-a-Round Golf on Lancaster Pike in Malvern.

The tandem combined for a record-setting net score of 11-under-par 25 in the nine hole final, winning by six shots over a field of teams that qualified with strong performances during the year.

Ploppert contributed with a pair of timely birdies on the only holes where his partner struggled, but quickly admitted that the team’s success was really a one-man show.

“Ken was absolutely on fire today,” said Ploppert, after Gibson shot a 38 gross/28 net on his own ball. “I honestly don’t believe he can play any better than that.”

Gibson shrugged it off by saying, “Some days it just all falls into place.”

Finishing second was the husband-wife team of Jim and Eileen Whitmore at net 31. Third place went to the duo of Jim Woodward and Artie Schenck.

As always, the management team of Steve Graves and Steve Graves Jr. hosted the event, set up the course (back 9 at TPC Sawgrass) and provided the scorekeeping.

“This was, by far, the best year we have had for the Winter Invitationals,” said Graves Sr. “We were almost sold out every week and had a tremendous group of people playing. It was a nice mix of the old standbys and a number of newcomers. We are already looking forward to next season.”

The GolfTalk Live Winter Invitationals are held on a number of Saturday mornings throughout the winter, immediately following the live broadcast of the award-winning GolfTalk Live radio show. The show began its eighth year on the air March 1 and is hosted by Tony Leodora.


Tony’s Test Drives
One in a series of occasional reviews of courses, destinations, equipment or products by our traveling golf writer and host of the GolfTalk Live radio show.

By Tony Leodora

I can’t hide it any more. I must make a public admission.

I have been conducting a 20-year affair with a temptress who has a large legion of other lovers.

How could I resist. Her beauty is beyond explanation. Her allure is sexy and seductive. She has given me an enormous amount of pleasure – for the last 20 years.

And also a fair share of frustration.

But I never get tired of the experience. The passion still burns bright.

My 20-year love affair is with Caledonia Golf and Fish Club – located at the south end of Myrtle Beach’s Grand Strand.

It was love at first sight.

I first visited Caledonia just a couple of months after it opened, in January of 1994. The late Mike Strantz, had just finished work on the course – his first solo venture after a number of years working with the design team of acclaimed golf course architect Tom Fazio.

The creative artistry of Strantz had dominated many of Fazio’s projects in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s – and it was quite evident at Caledonia.

Strantz painted a work of art on the landscape canvas that once was a bustling rice plantation at Caledonia. Amidst the abundant live oaks, draped with Spanish moss, and the scenic low country wetlands, Strantz seemed to concentrate as much on beauty as he did on strategic golf.

Walking the property with Strantz, and talking about his debut solo project, there was a lot of conversation about the merits of Caledonia. He pointed out some of the construction challenges, highlighted the design strengths and commented on the finishing touches – such as ornamental plants and flowers, wooden covered bridges, and the wrought-iron and brick overpasses that allow golfers to manipulate their way through the wetlands.

At one point, Strantz stopped dead in his tracks and gazed out at the impressive landscape. In a comment that seemed more inspired by genuine amazement, instead of a lack of humility, he said, “I think we’ve got something very special here.”

The thousands of golfers who have visited Caledonia over the last 20 years agree. So do the golf course rating panels.

Caledonia has been rated in a number of Top 100 lists – including Golfweek’s Top 100 Modern Courses, Golf Magazine’s Top 100 You Can Play, and America’s 100 Greatest Public Courses by Golf Digest.

Bob Seganti is the director of golf operations at Caledonia – as well as the neighboring sister-course at True Blue. He expanded his duties from True Blue, taking over both jobs after the death of longtime Caledonia Director of Golf and best friend Todd Welden last fall. Seganti is a native of the Philadelphia suburbs, but came to the Pawley’s Island area in 1995. And never gave moving away a thought.

“I fell in love with the area right from the start,” said Seganti. “And the same thing with the golf courses. Caledonia is just a classic beauty and just an outstanding rout. It’s almost a floral garden, with all the feature trees and landscaping. True Blue is like its naughty sister. It is a challenging course that is loved by hardcore golfers.”

For 20 years Caledonia has served as one of the leaders with regard to golf excellence in the Myrtle Beach area. People still regard it as the jewel of their annual golf trip. Even if they are staying on the northern end of the Grand Strand, the long drive to Caledonia, on the very southern end, is never too long.

“People never seem to tire of this golf course,” Seganti reported. “They come early, they stay late. They sit on the rocking chairs on our back porch and watch the golfers trying to deal with our 18th hole.”

While the 18th hole is one of the most memorable tests at Caledonia – because of the demanding tee shot and even tougher second shot to a green that is staunchly protected by water – it is only one in a memorable collection. It has been called “a collection of 18 signature holes.”

And it’s hard to believe it has already been around for 20 years.

“We have a number of special things planned for this 20th anniversary year,” said Seganti. “There are some specials we will be running, and some special events we are planning.”
It is a year-long birthday celebration for a course that definitely deserves celebrating.

And, after the latest rendezvous, there seems to be no reason to break up this 20-year love affair.


Tony’s Test Drives
One in a series of occasional reviews of courses, destinations, equipment or products by our traveling golf writer and host of the GolfTalk Live radio show.

By Tony Leodora

In recent years, the big word throughout the golf industry has been “contraction.”

Especially in the United States, the number of golf courses has been contracting rapidly. During 2013 a total of 158 golf courses closed in the U.S., compared to only 14 courses opening.

There are very few areas in the world that have shown golf growth. Everyone points to China as the leading example. And, certainly, there has been great growth in China.

But that country pales by comparison to the growth that is taking place in another country. Within the next couple of years, the amount of golf courses on the tiny West Indies island of St. Kitts will triple.

Dating back to 1976, when architect Robert Trent Jones first brought golf to the island with the opening of the Royal St. Kitts GC, visitors had only one option. That is changing rapidly.

Kittitian Hill, an upscale residential and opulent cottage hotel property, plans to unveil a dramatic golf course designed by Masters champion Ian Woosnam in December of 2014.

Another spectacular project, Christophe Harbour, also is underway. It will combine luxury residential properties, with several five-star hotels and a mega-yacht marina – all complemented by a Tom Fazio-designed golf course. Target for opening is 2015.

In advance of the new developments, the original Royal St. Kitts GC also underwent a major renovation that established it as an excellent example of resort golf. It is an extremely enjoyable layout, yet the ever-present trade winds can add enough challenge for any level of golfer.

“We realize now how important golf can be to the total tourism capability here on St. Kitts,” said Ricky Skerritt, St. Kitts Minister of Tourism. “The beauty of the island is the main attraction, but playing golf on such a beautiful island is very appealing to a lot of people.”

Mike Cole is a PGA professional who grew up in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Twelve years ago he moved to Jamaica and ran the golf program at the famous White Witch GC. In 2013 he followed the renovation at Royal St. Kitts GC and moved to the island.

“I saw the tremendous potential that exists here,” said Cole. “The quality of life is absolutely great. As soon as more people learn about this island, it will become the hottest thing in the Caribbean.”

The renovation of Royal St. Kitts GC by Canadian architect Thomas McBroom established it with modern drainage and the latest technology with regard to turfgrass and agronomy.

There is a links-style feel to the course, as few trees dot the landscape and the seaside back nine is whipped by the ever-present trade winds. However, golfers are able to find almost any shot they hit. That factor aids pace of play, often a point of contention at resort courses that were designed to be too difficult for the caliber of everyday player.

The new Kittitian Hill course should be quite the opposite. Located on a former 400-acre sugar plantation, the golf course has more than 200 feet of elevation change. Also, there are a series of “gaughts” or ravines that are caused by extreme storm water runoff. Golfers will have a total of 10 forced carries across the hazard areas.

The course plays up the side of a mountain, affording spectacular water views and panoramic vistas of the countryside. The entire project is being planned with the environment in mind.

“The plan is not to use any insecticides or pesticides on the course,” explained Bob Harrington, the golf course project manager. “There are going to be a number of areas on the property where organic farming will be practiced. A farm-to-table culinary style will be part of the culture here. As a result, great care is being taken to preserve the natural condition of the property.”

At Christophe Harbour, the scale of everything is grand. The project covers 2,500 acres of cliffs and waterfront on the southeast tip of St. Kitts.

“This is one of the most spectacular projects I have ever been involved in,” said renowned golf course architect Tom Fazio, who has been involved in a number of world-class golf properties. “The only word you can use to describe every phase of Christophe Harbour is ‘spectacular.’ It is absolutely breathtaking.”

With regard to the golf course, which is currently under construction, Fazio had the same impressive assessment. “Take the best holes at Pebble Beach and put them on cliffs about 100 feet above the sea,” said Fazio. “That’s what the entire course will be like.”

With that kind of quality golf situated on a small island, there is a substantial amount of attraction for the traveling golfers of the world. If that is not enough, there is always the sister island of Nevis, just a short ferry ride away. A Robert Trent Jones II golf course, with more spectacular views of the Caribbean and Mt. Nevis, is located at the impressive Nevis Four Seasons Resort.

All of this development will enhance the natural beauty that exists on St. Kitts – one in a string of Caribbean islands that share a volcanic origin.

“I hear a lot of people comparing the look and feel of St. Kitts to Hawaii,” says Tom Jaronski of The Golf Connection, a Royersford, PA-based company that runs pro-am golf tournaments throughout the Caribbean and Mexico. “The golf is great. The scenery is great. The weather is great. The biggest challenge St. Kitts faces today is that not enough people know anything about it. Once they come, they’re hooked.”

Getting hooked on a beautiful island like St. Kitts is a given. Getting hooked on St. Kitts Golf is the next project of the 40,000 inhabitants, known as Kittitians. And they are off to a flying start.


By Tony Leodora

At some point, on the way down to the annual PGA Merchandise Show in Orlando, the thought crosses the mind: “Is it really possible to come out with something new? Haven’t they exhausted all of the innovative possibilities? After all, we are just talking about hitting a ball with a stick.”

And every year there is another wide range of innovative new items at this “Super Bowl” of the golf industry.

True, this year there was no knock-you-down kind of product – like the first metal wood, or the first oversized driver. But there were plenty of new wrinkles to keep people busy for three days – four days, if you count the rain-shortened Demo Day.

So, your trusty reporter compiled all of his notes, hit golf balls until his hands ached, walked miles and miles of the giant convention center … and interviewed just about everyone who had some sort of new-fangled golf invention.

After all of that exhaustive research, here is another addition of a much anticipated report from the PGA Merchandise Show – Tony’s Top Ten. It represents the 10 items that caught my eye, and imagination … while, at the same time, presented a real possibility of making a difference in the game of golf.

These items also air – with interviews – in the Feb. 1 GolfTalk Live radio show.

  1. Bridgestone True Balance Putter – Putter designer Steve Sax goes all the way back to the Carbite putter days. He brought his expertise to Bridgestone and came up with something new. The True Balance Putter features the game’s lightest grip and shaft. As a result, all you feel is the head. And there are a number of popular head styles.

    www.bridgestonegolf.com

  2. 4 Yards More Hybrid Tee – Philadelphia-based inventor Frank Carroll has been coming out with a number of great golf products, starting with his Greenkeeper spikes. A few years ago his 4 Yards More Tee made quite an impression, and has been a strong seller ever since. New he has answered the call of golfers and come out with a 4 Yards More Hybrid Tee. It follows the same basic theory of the standard tee – less friction equals longer, straighter drives.

    www.4yardsmore.us

  3. Antigua Women’s Line – Antigua has been one of the fastest growing golf apparel companies in recent years. A lot of the success is owed to the Desert Dry Xtra Lite fabric used in many styles of shirts. “We felt it was time to expand our women’s line of clothing,” said president Ron McPherson. “We did it using the same technology that has been successful in the men’s line and the same bold, bright colors that are in demand today. Bottom line: peak performance, plus appealing style.

    www.antigua.com

  4. Tour Edge Exotics XCG7 Fairway Wood – This is not the first time Tour Edge has made Tony’s Top Ten. And not the first time it made the list with a fairway wood. Acknowledged on the professional tours as one of the best fairway woods available, Tour Edge keeps adding wrinkles that improve on what is already the best. The CB Pro model of this fairway wood is now available with a Slip Stream sole that allows the head to maintain maximum speed through impact. The beta titanium cup face provides the hottest ball launch on the market.

    www.touredge.com

  5. Bridgestone B330 Golf Ball Series – Bridgestone has been making good golf balls for a number of years. But it also helps to be a little bit lucky. In developing the new B330 line of golf balls – four varieties that can be fitted to the needs of every golfer – the research team stumbled into something very interesting. By adding a secret, high-tech ingredient – WATER – to the composition of the core, they achieved amazing results. Now known as the ball with Hydro Core Technology, Bridgestone has a ball that is extremely long, yet it performs well off the tee.

    www.bridgestonegolf.com

  6. Putting Stick – Pro Model – The Putting Stick made last year’s list and really attracted a lot of attention. Former LPGA Tour star Alice Miller called it the best training aid at the show. But inventor Vlad Gribovsky wasn’t finished. He came out with a new Pro Model that is more portable, easier to use and provides a bit more feedback than the original model. One thing is still the same – no training aid teaches the art of putting better. Visitors to the booth at the PGA Show were amazed at how simple the principle is.

    www.tpkgolf.com

  7. Eye Loc Eyewear – This might have been the most innovative item at the show. The fact that it addresses one of the most common problems in the game – keeping the head still or swaying – is a welcome adjustment. Inventor Vinny Lamorte has teamed up with PGA Profession Tony Vos and marketing expert Mark Zander to bring an easy-to-use training aid that focuses the eyesight on the golf ball and provides immediate feedback if your head is moving off the ball.

    www.eyeloc.com

  8. Golf Buddy – There are a lot of laser distance measuring devices on the market but the Golf Buddy is voice activated. It can be transformed easily from a wrist watch to a small device that clips on a golf cap or another accessible form of clothing. It measures distance to the front, middle and back of the green. It is extremely accurate and easy to use.

    www.gpsgolfbuddy.com

  9. Mantis Putter – The Mantis Putter came out last year and immediately grabbed the attention of the golf world. Its distinctive green color blends in with the grass on the green, allowing maximum concentration on the golf ball. In addition, the original mallet head design provided excellent balance and feel. Now Mantis has added a blade putter to its line and the reception at the PGA Show was loud and united. This putter combines traditional feel and weighting with a new technology that produces a relaxed, smooth putting stroke.

    www.mantisgolfco.com

  10. Swing Shirt – Most training aids designed to promote a connected golf swing are either too restrictive or too hard to put on … or both. The Swing Shirt is an incredibly simple design that promotes the feeling of a connected swing by used of zippers that connect the sleeves of the golf shirt to the body of the shirt. The constraint can be tightened or loosened with a simple zip of a zipper. Golf professionals everywhere have given an immediate endorsement to this product.

    www.swing-shirt.com


By Tony Leodora

It was an exciting first day of action at the PGA Merchandise Show in Orlando, as eyeball estimates recorded a good attendance.

In addition to all of the business being conducted, there also were a number of award ceremonies taking place.

In the main auditorium the PGA of America presented its highest honors to golf professionals. Receiving the national award for Teacher of the Year was Lou Guzzi, director of instruction for the GolfTalk Live radio show. Guzzi teaches out of his golf academy at Talamore CC in Ambler, PA.

Across the giant convention center, the International Network of Golf presented its media awards for the top achievers in a number of academies.

In the golf radio show category, the GolfTalk Live show won an Outstanding Achievement award. It was the sixth consecutive year the show was honored – three previous times being named the No. 1 Golf Radio Show in America.

In the television show category, the new Traveling Golfer show also received an Outstanding Achievement award – a remarkable accomplishment for a show that was launched in February of 2013. The show is produced by Jamie McWilliams, who shared in the award.


By Tony Leodora

To say the least, this year’s PGA Merchandise Show – the annual Demo Day – did not get off to a flying start.

A cold afternoon wind whipped across the massive practice range at Orange County National GC and sent patrons and exhibitors scattering. Tents that were not dismantled fast enough were ripped to the ground by unexpected wind gusts.

After a promising morning that kicked off the week-long activity in the Orlando area, attracting everybody who is anyone in the golf industry, it was a rude end to the day.

Later in the night a symposium that was formed to discuss innovative ways to return players to the game of golf ended in much the same fashion.

With TaylorMade CEO Mark King, National Golf Foundation CEO Joe Beditz, PGA of America president Ted Bishop and international corporate innovation expert Gary Hamel making up a high-powered panel, there was much anticipation.

The point of the evening was to announce a new initiative to reverse a very disturbing trend in the golf world.

Beditz, a master of statistical analysis, highlighted the fact that 5 million golfers – out of a onetime high of 30 million – have left the game in the last 10 years. Even more disturbing is the fact that golfers in the age 18 to 34 group have dropped from 14 percent of the golfing population to only 11 percent. And they are no longer the largest age group, in terms of numbers. That can only lead to further erosion.

To put it bluntly, Beditz said there is “a cancer in our sport’s participation rate.”

To combat this trend, a new initiative has been formed to gather information from around the world on how to make golf more fun, more engaging, more interesting. The panel is looking for help from anyone, anywhere. Innovative ideas are the goal. To this end, TaylorMade has pledged up to $5 million in funding to support the initiative over the next five years.

But, despite the high-powered individuals leading the charge — and the high-financed support behind them – there was plenty of skepticism in the room. After all, millions have been spent on initiatives like First Tee, Play It Forward and Get Golf Ready over the years without any appreciable advances.

The night began with a lot of enthusiasm but the sound of leaking air was quite noticeable throughout the program. The fact that the United States Golf Association was missing from the panel made the possibility of breakthrough innovations seem even less plausible.

King ended the evening by saying, “At the very least, you can’t blame us for trying.” On that note, a lot of people left the room with a wait-and-see attitude.


By Eddie Caiazzo

Another golf year is coming to a close … less swings on the course, but the holiday season is in full swing.  Instead of taking part in the shopping madness that is the holidays, why not get the golfer in the family something they will really enjoy.

Although, the golf economy has been on the decline for a little over a decade, companies are still putting out brand new products and inventions keep moving from the drawing board to reality. The larger companies do the heavy work in terms of researching, testing and adding to their long list of industry feats. The smaller companies strive for that breakthrough idea or product.

Once again, GolfTalk Live has spent the year sifting through the long list of new products. Some are awful. Others aren’t bad. And then there are the products that made it to the top of the list –great examples of just how much passion there is for this game.

Presenting the 2013 GolfTalk Live “Products of the Month.”

  1. Antigua – Hybrid Shirts – Antigua has been a hot name in the golf apparel business in recent years.  With great products at a great price, it is no wonder they keep raising the bar for golf apparel.

    The hybrid shirt is a combination of Antigua’s lightweight outerwear and short sleeve knit shirt, employing the quarter zip front and the company’s patented popular Desert Dry fabric.  Plenty of colors are available and the shirts are perfect for when it gets a bit chillier here in the northeast region of the US. 

    Go to www.antigua.com to order.

  2. Butch Harmon About Golf DVD – Phil Mickelson, Tiger Woods and Adam Scott. What do these superstars of the game have in common?  They have all been instructed by the legendary Butch Harmon.

    Referred to as the world’s greatest golf teacher, Butch Harmon shares a lifetime of knowledge on how to play the game of golf.  Broken into 10 sections, Harmon takes the viewer from the beginning fundamentals of the game, such as ball striking, to selecting the correct clubs.  From the player picking up the clubs for the first time to the more advanced golfer, Butch Harmon’s DVD is guaranteed to help.

    To purchase, go to www.butchharmondvd.com

  3. Srixon Q-STAR Yellow Golf Balls – The golfers on the PGA Tour know all about the Z-STAR golf balls from Srixon.  Sometimes, the amateur golfer needs a ball more in tune with their skill level. That is why Srixon created the Q-STAR ball.

    Available in tour yellow or white, the Q-STAR ball was designed to be the perfect combination of distance and accuracy off of the tee, with more spin control from fairway to green.

    To find out more about the Srixon Q-STAR balls, go to www.srixon.com.

  4. Tour Edge Exotics XCG6 Fairway Wood – One of the only repeat companies to make the GolfTalk Live “Product of the Month” ranks each year is Tour Edge.  For 2013, their XCG6 Fairway Wood was a great addition to their product lineup.

    Against its competitors, the XCG6 performed at the very top with the lowest spin rate and the highest carry distance of 251.8 yards.  That is six yards more than any other fairway wood on the market.

    To see the results of how the XCG6 performed and to purchase, head to www.touredge.com

  5. adidas Golf mi adizero Tour Custom Shoes – At just 10.6 ounces, the adizero Tour shoe is the lightest cleated shoe ever made. 

    Available in seven different styles and 11 different colors, the adizero Tour earns the name custom.  Create yours at www.adidas.com

  6. Volvik Golf Balls – The golf industry has finally embraced the colored golf ball! 

    In 2013, the Volvik golf ball became the number one colored golf ball — earning one victory, 13 top-five finishes, 22 top-10 finishes and 48 top-25 finishes on the LPGA Tour.

    For the best playability, added distance and enhanced durability, check out the most colorful golf balls around at www.volvik.com.

  7. The “Double Duty” Divot Repair Putter from WH Golf – Approved by the USGA to conform to the rules of golf, the Divot Repair Putter is the only putter on the market with a divot repair tool attached right to the back of the club.

    Walt Graves, of WH Golf, invented the “Double Duty” to save the backs and knees of older golfers.  Gaining a GolfTest USA Seal of Excellence, golfers of all ages have benefitted from the “Double Duty” for its putting ability.

    Golf course superintendents everywhere are urging golfers to repair their ball marks. Make it easier by going to www.divotrepairputter.com.

  8. Cleveland Golf – 588 RTX Wedges – “Stress-free” and “short game” usually do not belong in the same sentence.  But that is what Cleveland Golf has used to describe their 588 RTX wedges.

    The 588 RTX wedges combine the legendary performance of 588 with the breakthrough Rotex face.  The Rotex wedges are Cleveland Golf’s most advanced spin technology ever.

    To make your short game deadly, grab your Rotex wedge at www.clevelandgolf.com.

  9. Nexbelt – With over 80 styles of belts for men and women, the Nexbelt had one of the busiest booths at the PGA Merchandise show earlier in the year.

    The Nexbelt is the “belt with no holes” and completely customizable.  While traditional belts have a one inch loop separation for adjustment, the Nexbelt instantly expands or tightens in quarter inch increments.

    Golf Professionals have also enjoyed the Nexbelt because they can customize the buckle to display the club logo and they no longer have to carry all of the different sizes.

    To get the most stylish and innovative belt on the market, head to www.nexbelt.com.

  10. TPK Golf – The Putting Stick Pro Version – Teaching professional Mitchell Crum enjoyed great success making Bo Van Pelt one of the top putters on tour in 2012 using the original Putting Stick.

    Invented by Vlad Gribovsky, the Putting Stick is a patented practice and training aid developed to help golfers of all levels improve their putting stroke.  The eye alignment mirror has been specially designed to be used with the Putting Stick, with a slotted base plate that slips on to the end allowing the user to monitor eye alignment through practice sessions. 

    Under the advisement of Crum, The Pro Version has a built-in eye alignment mirror and the leveler can now differentiate up and down and left and right, and can be found by going to www.tpkgolf.com.

  11. ClubCrown Wrap by Vive – Golf club customization is now possible and ClubCrown Wrap gives golfers the outlet for personal style to shine through on the golf course.

    The ClubCrown Wrap conforms to the USGA rules of golf and is a one- size fits all semi-permanent adhesive allowing personalization of the driver, fairway woods and hybrids.  The crown of the club can be customized to display many patterns and logos including the official Mossy Oak brand, the U.S. Military and an expanding line of NCAA Division 1 teams.

    Get your clubs wrapped at www.clubcrown.com.

  12. TaylorMade – SpeedBlade Irons – Five years ago, TaylorMade gave the average golfer a ticket to achieve greatness with the Tour Burner irons.  Now, TaylorMade has changed the game yet again.

    The SpeedBlade Irons debuted in October and feature the Speed Pocket; a handlebar shaped slot in the sole of the 3-7 irons.  This enables a large area of the face to flex and rebound at impact.  Faster ball speed and higher launch are the result, and with TaylorMade’s inverted cone technology, the sweet spot on the SpeedBlade’s is now the size of a quarter.

    Shave strokes off your game and order the SpeedBlade Irons at www.taylormadegolf.com.


Tony’s Test Drives

One in a series of occasional reviews of courses, equipment or products by our traveling golf writer and host of the GolfTalk Live radio show.

By Tony Leodora

In 1493, on his second voyage to the New World, Christopher Columbus discovered the island of Puerto Rico. It quickly became a favorite possession of the Spanish Empire.

In the 1960s and ‘70s, when jet travel opened the Caribbean to tourism, Americans re-discovered Puerto Rico. The island had been a commonwealth under the protection of the United States ever since the early 1900s but it was not until the latter part of the century that it became a popular tourist destination.

Resorts — with magnificent hotels, casinos and golf courses popped up all over the island. Cruise ships frequented the port in Old San Juan.

Then, as Americans became more adventurous and other Caribbean countries became developed, Puerto Rico slipped slightly in popularity.

Now, amidst the travel challenges of the post-9/11 world, Americans are re-discovering Puerto Rico. And the main reason is because it is the easy tropical destination.

Make that EASY, with all capital letters.

Puerto Rico still has the same natural beauty that first attracted visitors to this mountain and beach paradise. It still has the tropical rain forests and the blue water.

The hotels have increased in number and the older ones have been renovated. So have the golf courses.

But, what is driving people back to Puerto Rico is that they find it is easier to get there … and safer once they are there.

It is part of the United States – so no passport is needed for travel. Cell phones work normally, without use of expensive additional coverage. The American dollar is the only currency.

And almost everyone speaks English. Fluently.

“There has been a tremendous Americanization of Puerto Rico in recent years,” explains Devin Rivera, one of the first Puerto Ricans visitors meet when they arrive at San Juan airport.

He is an extremely well-spoken and well-versed tour guide and driver for Dragon Fly Adventures, the major transportation company on the island. He has lived in Puerto Rico and New York and is a wealth of knowledge on the mixing of the two cultures.

“With the dramatic improvement in education in Puerto Rico in recent years, we are now able to compete for jobs on the American mainland,” he explains. “As a result a record number of 60,000 Puerto Ricans moved off the island last year.”

Conversely, more Americans are re-discovering Puerto Rico as a vacation spot.

“We are seeing more and more people coming here for vacations, especially quick vacations,” Rivera explains. “There are so many non-stop flights from so many American cities. They can come here without a lot of preparation.”

Welcoming guests when they come to Puerto Rico is the main job of Danny Williams. He is the general manager of the Wyndham Grand Rio Mar Resort and Spa, which sits on the north coast of the island … about 40 minutes east of the airport.

After spending a number of years as general manager of the Sheraton Atlantic City Hotel, Williams made his way south – way south – to a much bigger challenge in Puerto Rico.

“People are looking for easier and faster vacations these days,” says Williams. “With all the difficulty and problems associated with overseas travel in today’s world, Puerto Rico has re-surfaced as a prime vacation destination. Our challenge is to be ready for Americans when they get here.”

“Being ready” means providing all of the modern conveniences and amenities Americans desire when they spend their ever-shrinking amount of time on vacation.

The beach needs no renovation. The Wyndham Grand Rio Mar sits on one of the most pristine stretches of beach in Puerto Rico. The adjoining pools (one for adults only and one for families) and gardens are also spectacularly landscaped and appointed.

The hotel, already a beautiful four-star property, is undergoing a $20 million renovation. It will be complete in late 2014. It features three outstanding restaurants – authentic Italian, another that features Asian fusion and sushi, and a third that has a Puerto Rican/Caribbean flair.

But the main attraction for many at Wyndham Grand Rio Mar is the two championship golf courses.

The original Ocean Course dates back to 1972 and was designed by George and Tom Fazio. Additional renovation was done by Puerto Rico’s iconic golfer, Chi Chi Rodriguez, who also served as the first golf professional at the resort.

In 1997 the River Course was added, designed by Greg Norman. It is the perfect complement to the Ocean Course – completely different in style and look, but even more challenging.

“We are very fortunate to have two championship courses, like the Ocean and the River courses,” says Jeff Willenberg, the director of golf and tennis at Rio Mar. “They have two distinctly different looks and different levels of challenge. The variety keeps our guests and members from ever getting tired of playing the two courses.”

The Ocean Course has ample tee shot landing area and has an airy, open feel to it. Par is defended on the second shot, which is usually an attempt to land softly on the elevated table-top greens.

The River Course is tighter off the tee, but not too tight. There is a premium placed on strategic placement of the tee shot, allowing the best angle to approach the low-profile greens.

If anyone needs additional validation to the pedigree of the courses at Rio Mar, it comes from the most famous name associated with golf in Puerto Rico – Chi Chi Rodriguez. Owner of 38 professional tournament victories – including eight on the PGA Tour and 22 on the Champions Tour – Rodriquez has had a long relationship with Rio Mar.

He was the first golf professional at the Ocean Course and assisted with the renovation of the course in recent years.

“I planted 4,000 trees on that golf course,’’ claims Rodriguez, although don’t spend a lot of time looking for a photo of him wielding a shovel. Instead, he sculpted a worldwide reputation using his golf clubs … and his gift of gab.

“I took out 14 bunkers and worked on the drainage,” explains Rodriquez. “Even though it was built more than 40 years ago, it is a great golf course. The 16th hole (a 240-yard oceanfront par 3 from the back tees) is one of the most beautiful holes in the entire world. And difficult, too.”

Norman’s River Course is equally beautiful. It is bisected by the Mameyes River and a number of large bridges had to be constructed to navigate the golf course. Lush tropical wetlands add to the difficulty of this course.

There is an excellent clubhouse that sits atop the highest point on the course, serving the needs of golfers at Rio Mar. A highlight is the Iguanas Pub, providing excellent views of the course from the second floor.

The bottom line is that the needs of all golfers and vacationers can be met within one property – the Wyndham Grand Rio Mar Resort and Spa. And what those golfers and vacationers will re-discover is that Puerto Rico makes it easy to enjoy all that this special part of America has to offer.


Tony’s Test Drives
One in a series of occasional reviews of courses, equipment or products by our traveling golf writer and host of the GolfTalk Live radio show.

By Tony Leodora

Play the word association game.

Nevada – Las Vegas

Golf in Las Vegas – great quality but very expensive

Great golf at a more affordable price in Nevada – Mesquite

That’s right. Those who come across golf in the Mesquite area of Nevada will find it to be an emerging golf destination that makes an immediate impact. In fact, first-timers liken the golf experience to “striking it rich.”

Located in the northeastern corner of Nevada, close to both the Arizona and Utah state lines, Mesquite is quickly becoming a favorite stop for visitors who are looking for a pure golf experience.

With a few casinos that are much smaller than the grandiose palaces found in abundance in Las Vegas, Mesquite is known to some as “Las Vegas Light”. But there is absolutely nothing “light” about the quality of the golf courses to be found in the area. They range from very good to outstanding.

“Getting the word out about the golf we have in this area has been a major project in recent years,” explains Cody Law, executive director of Golf Mesquite, a cooperative effort between golf courses and hotel/casinos to market the area. “We now feel we have a product that can compete on a national level with other golf destinations and we are trying to reach golfers across the United States and Canada.”

Just over a one-hour drive north on I-15 from the Las Vegas airport, Mesquite is easily accessible from just about everywhere. Flights into Las Vegas are reasonable, as are costs for the rest of the trip. The golf courses, of equal quality to the courses in the immediate Las Vegas area, are available at about half the price. So are the hotels. And the restaurant prices in the Mesquite area are about as reasonable as can be found anywhere.

For those reasons, Mesquite was chosen as the site for the 17th Freedom Trail Challenge, an amateur competition that has visited sites across the United States and overseas. Not a single member of the experienced group of golf travelers was disappointed with the choice. In fact, to a man, they were greatly surprised with the quality to be found in all aspects of the trip.

The hotel was the Eureka Casino and Hotel, a medium-sized facility that offered extremely clean and fresh décor, large rooms, a nice outdoor pool and Jacuzzi area and a relaxing spa.

Immediately next door to the hotel was the casino that offered great breakfasts every morning (either buffet or off the menu), a fabulous seafood buffet on Friday night, and the award-winning Gregory’s Mesquite Grille – a steakhouse of the highest quality, but not at killer prices.

The hotel and casino proved to be a nice extra but the Freedom Trail Challenge group, and most of the groups that come to Mesquite, are there for the golf.

One group, also staying in the Eureka Hotel, was from the Harrisburg, Pennsylvania area. They have been coming to Mesquite annually for 10 years. When quizzed about their apparent golf addiction to Mesquite, one of the players said, “Shhhh. Don’t tell anybody about this place. It is the best kept secret in America.”

The Freedom Trail Challenge group played five rounds of golf on four golf courses. It proved to be a good mixture of variety and convenience. Two of the courses were part of the Oasis GC complex – 36 holes of championship golf and an excellent clubhouse/restaurant.

Oasis Palmer – Built in 1994 and designed by Arnold Palmer, the course hosted a PGA Tour event in the first year it opened. It also hosted “The Big Break Mesquite” television series on the Golf Channel. In the years since, it has matured into the consummate members’ club … as well as a friendly stop for visitors to the area.

Palmer made excellent use of the natural elevation changes in the area – using bluffs and rock outcroppings as tee sites that afford 100-foot drops to the fairways and greens below.

The course has five sets of tees – ranging from 4,226 yards to 6,468 yards – which affords enough flexibility for a comfortable round of golf for all levels of players. Highlight of the course is Hole 6, the short par 4 that doglegs slightly left and places a green in a magnificent setting that is surrounded by rock cliffs. The green complex is cathedral-like, and No. 6 is Palmer’s favorite hole on the course.

Oasis Canyons – This course came about in stages, completed seven years after the first course opened. The first nine was built by the Palmer construction group. The second nine was built by a local company. Amazingly, it matches very well the style of the original course and provides a perfect complement.

True to its name, the Canyons Course also has plenty of elevation change … and some of the most magnificent views to be found on any golf course.

The most memorable hole was probably No. 9, a 175-yard par 3 from the back tee, with at least a 100-foot drop from tee to green. The views of the surrounding mesas, smaller mountains and the huge Virgin Mountains in the background can cause traffic jams with the golfers who find it hard to move on to the next hole.

Coyote Springs GC – This Jack Nicklaus signature course is the perfect course to play on the way to or from Mesquite. It sits in the middle of a very desolate area, about 45 minutes from the Las Vegas airport. The golf course is the only thing in sight for miles – unless you count the most abundant residents of the area, coyotes and roadrunners.

The course was part of a planned major community that has yet to be completed, due to the economic recession that hit in 2008. However, nothing has been spared on the golf course. Amazing water features – a series of connected ponds and waterfalls – bring beauty to a site that was originally desolate desert.

Nicklaus provided extremely generous landing areas off the tee throughout the course … but don’t think that makes it a pushover. Par is defended once golfers reach the extremely undulating greens – a trademark of many Nicklaus designs in recent years.

Sand Hollow GC – The one day the group decided to make a trek out of the immediate Mesquite area proved to be the highlight of the entire trip. John Fought, a native of Utah, designed Sand Hollow GC in Hurricane, Utah – about a 50-minute drive from Mesquite.

The drive, north on I-15 through the Virgin River Gorge, proved to be the perfect preliminary to playing an outstanding golf course. Winding through canyons with seemingly artistic rock formations towering above the highway proved to be, as one player termed it, “a religious experience.”

Once arriving at Sand Hollow, eyes popped at the beauty to be seen. Emerald fairways are accented by fiery red sand bunkers – with the mountains of Zion National Park looming in the background.

The front nine is more of a parkland layout, with a gentle roll to it. The back nine is a step into one of the most dramatic settings in golf. The holes wrap around the side of a mountain, with ledges looming above huge ravines.

The black tees are a hearty 7,315 yards, with a slope of 137 and a rating of 73.7. The blue tees play to 6,893 yards and the whites are 6,462. There are red tees at 5,306 yards. The elevation and thinner air allow the course to play a bit shorter and the generous tee shot landing areas allow the golfer to attack the course.

The emerald green fairways are offset by the red-colored powdery sand in the bunkers. It is a look no golfer will ever forget.

In fact, the entire trip was unforgettable. Jim McCalmont, a Golfweek Top 100 Course rater, may have put it best when he said, “I didn’t know much about golf in the Mesquite area before this trip, but I guarantee that I will be back.”


By Tony Leodora

Each year there is a two-week window when the weather is still mild enough for golf and Mother Nature decides to splash a multitude of colors on the typically green canvas of the sport.

For 2013, a year when a warm September has allowed the trees to hold their leaves a little longer than normal, the last two weeks of October prove perfect for a combination of activities – playing golf and leaf-peeping – in the mountains of Pennsylvania.

For the latest test drive, we loaded up the car early on a Saturday morning and headed north into the coal belt that lies just west of the Pocono Mountains.

The area is dotted with towns that were the home of hard-working people who immigrated to this country in search of a better life. Despite the rigors of working in the coal mines and the quarries near places like Tamaqua, Hazelton and Mahanoy City, the newcomers to America improved their lot in life.

When work slowed, in the latter part of the last century, many moved out of the area. Others looked toward new businesses for their livelihood. One such business came about with the resurrection and renovation of Mountain Valley Golf Club. What was once a run-down, unattractive 18-hole public course is now a 36-hole modern club and restaurant that is one of the shining lights in Barnesville, a rural area amidst the old mining towns.

“People around here are very proud of what has happened at this club,” reports John Rizzo, director of operations at Mountain Valley GC. “It has really meant a big change for the area. Now, we want to get the word out to the surrounding areas that Mountain Valley is a great place to visit whenever golfers pass through here.”

New ownership took over Mountain Valley a few years ago and immediately began making big changes.

Golf course architect Brian Ault (Wyncote GC, Blue Ridge Trail GC) was called upon to take a very rugged piece of property and transform it into a championship 36-hole layout. Nine new holes were added and combined with the existing 27 holes. Then the original holes underwent a major renovation. Irrigation was added, trees were cleared, greens were re-shaped and modern strains of turfgrass were planted. The golf course is complimented by an excellent practice range and two putting greens – one of which is illuminated for night practice.

Even more drastic was the makeover of the facilities. The old pro shop and lunch counter was dressed up for use as the players’ grille. Across the parking lot a magnificent new clubhouse was erected, taking full advantage of spectacular views that exist in a 360-degree arc from the building.

There is a modern pro shop, locker room, attractive full-service restaurant and a huge outdoor deck that is a popular happy hour spot throughout the warm months. Located on another prime vista is an outdoor pavilion that is very popular for outings.

“We’re doing a lot of wedding business now,” says Rizzo. “That’s a far cry from what things were like here 15 years ago.”

The golf courses also are a “far cry” from what was on the property before the change of ownership and renovation. The recent 4 ½-star rating that was given to Mountain Valley by the readers of Golf Digest magazine is proof that things have changed drastically. It also was voted one of the Top 50 Value Courses in the U.S. by Golf Digest readers.

The Mountain Course, true to its name, snakes across the ridges on some of the highest elevations in the area. On one of the holes the view is reported to be 30 miles, on a clear day.

It stretches to 6,739 yards from the tips … and even the blue tees, at 6,184 yards, play much longer due to the elevations.

The front nine is the better of the two nines on the Mountain Course, with wide enough corridors through the heavily wooded surroundings. The back nine is tighter – with a real shocker coming on the 600-yard par 5 12th hole, which tightropes along a precipice – with “lost ball” lurking on either side.

The Valley Course is slightly shorter, at 6,635 yards from the gold tees and 6,038 from the blue tees, but it still has plenty of starch in it. The slope from the back tees is a healthy 139 and it only drops to 132 from the blues.

What makes Mountain Valley GC so attractive for a quick weekend hop is that ownership now has built the new MainStay Suites hotel, just down the road from the entrance to the course. It is a modern, convenient stop for an overnight stay between two rounds of golf at the course. Add a dinner with great views at the clubhouse and it proves to be the perfect quick golf getaway.

Bottom line – Mountain Valley GC is a worthwhile stop any time of the year. But, when the leaves are changing, it becomes an uplifting golf and visual experience.