Near Miss 

A dedicated slacker (and budget traveler) ponders the resort life.

The thing about golf is, you never really know how you're going to play until you go out there and play. So it came as quite a letdown when my first shot at Sandestin's Baytowne Golf Club went straight down the middle of the fairway. "Great," I thought. "Watch me shoot a great score, and then I'll have to come back."

Not just come back to golf, you understand — on that I am hopelessly hooked, pun intended — but come back to the resort life. Maybe it's aging, or maybe my demagogic travel mind is finally opening up a little, but a guy could get addicted to renting a house between the bay and the beach, playing some golf in the morning, and choosing between a few nice restaurants for dinner.

Consider: I woke up that morning in a room with a view of Choctawatchee Bay, walked over for a big breakfast in Baytowne Village, then called for a free shuttle to the course, where I was set up with a cart, clubs, and a four-color guide to the course. Even the course designer knew how to get a duffer like me. I scanned the scorecard and saw that the first hole was a straight-ahead par 4 with no water, 381 yards from the gold tees ... but only 281 from the white! My companions — two salesmen from Birmingham and a local — and I looked at each other, shrugged, and said, "Let's play the whites!" A golf course is no place for pride.

The other thing about golf is, it suffers from a double-barreled bad reputation: one, that it's a refuge for guys who want to get away from women, and two, that it's a refuge for rich, white assholes. (Certainly, the latter would have been my view, had I been visiting Florida in my usual Greyhound/campground mode.)

As for the first, well sure, sometimes the guys want to be with the guys. And sometimes the ladies want to be with the ladies. And sometimes everybody wants the kids to be with the kids. So let's just put gender aside and say you're a golfer, traveling with other golfers. And let's say you've decided to stay at Sandestin. And let's say you want to get in 18 holes while the rest of the crew does something else.

Just as a quick sampler, here are some options, golf first: On the 2,400-acre Sandestin property, you've got four courses to choose from: Raven, designed by Robert Trent Jones Jr., has mango-scented towels and people who clean your clubs for you; his brother Rees Jones' Burnt Pine rolls along the coastline for 7,000 yards; Baytowne, which winds through the resort and features kids' tees; and The Links, which has views of the bay and marina.

So my Guy Mind was whirling on that first fairway. But what if I were married and had kids? What to do with the non-golfers? Obviously, there's the beach, but there's also more shops than flagsticks around (including the world's largest factory outlet mall) and the inevitable salon/spa in the resort. The wife can send the kids out for a sailing lesson, tennis camp, or a ride on a pirate ship, or she could just drop them off in the KidZone to do games, arts, and crafts.

And then there's the money. They've got "stay and play" packages that include lodging, greens fees, cart, and practice balls. Prices vary by season. Four people can spend two nights in a house and play two rounds at Baytowne for $230 in winter up to $356 in summer. Two people can share a hotel room and play The Links twice for the same amount of money. You can spend more than that, but getting together a few friends for a couple nights and a couple rounds and spending a few hundred bucks each is downright reasonable, even to a guy who used to have as his life motto: "Don't pay rent — pay bus fare!"

That's why I was in so much trouble on the first hole at Baytowne. I mean, there's the comfort. And the convenience. And the variety. But now this: a reachable par 4? It got worse when I hit my approach onto the green. Walking up there for my 10-foot birdie putt, I had visions of grandeur: the rental house on a lake, walking to the beach in the mornings, a different course every day, the fishing, the sun, the surf ...

It's a good thing I missed that putt.

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