Golf and Cruising - Vacation of a lifetime on the water

By Jeffrey A. Rendall, Images courtesy of Marc Johnson and Elite Golf Cruises

SUNRISE, FL -- It may sound odd, but the golf vacation of a lifetime just might be found on the water.

Lots of people probably figure they can play golf while enjoying a cruising vacation, but not many would know you can cruise specifically to play great golf courses (and even improve your game) -- but that’s the reality of sailing these days. A good many of the cruise lines actually have very active golf programs, complete with an on-board golf professional and facilities to satisfy even the most avid players.

Consider this your warning shot across the bow – cruising is a great way to get in a golf vacation.

Caye Chapel in Belize

A good part of the reason why golf mixes so well with salt water is the way the programs are run, led mostly by a Florida based company called Elite Golf Cruises. Elite knows golf and cruising, and has designed on board golf academies that will fit your itinerary – and most likely, your budget as well.

Jeff Waggoner is Elite’s Operations Manager, and he says there’s a lot going on with golf on the high seas: “We don’t control the ship itineraries, so we can’t just create a ‘Golf Cruise,’ but we can make suggestions on the best ships to center your vacation around golf. The best golf-friendly cruise lines are generally Carnival and Princess, and within those companies there are two or three ideal itineraries that are full of beautiful courses.”

In order to offer the best golf in any particular port-of-call, you have to know the golf courses that are found there – and that’s precisely what Elite strives to accomplish. Elite’s professionals get the ‘luxury’ of visiting the courses every trip around (cruise ships loop around the same itinerary for sometimes several months at a time, so if it’s a 7-day cruise, the ship will return to the same spot every week), so if there are changes, the professional will be able to plan accordingly.

A good example was a few years back when Hurricane Wilma struck Cozumel Island off the Yucatan peninsula in Mexico. Our ship (the Coral Princess) was due to dock at Cozumel several weeks after the hurricane – but conditions on Cozumel mandated a switch to a golf course on the mainland. The Coral Princess’s golf pro took care of the whole situation – and the passengers didn’t even have to get involved.

One of Marc Johnson's golf groups on St. Kitts island.

Waggoner says they’re always looking for great new courses to make the best use of a port visit, and have found a gem in a popular spot. “We’re proud of a new relationship with the Yucatan Country Club (in Progreso, Mexico). The course (the Jaguar) is one of the best courses I’ve ever seen.” Other notable examples of Elite’s course repertoire include White Witch in Montego Bay, Sandy Lane in Barbados, Tiera Del Sol in Aruba, Caye Chapel in Belize and Cozumel Country Club (which we visited as part of our second cruise, earlier this year).

Most of these are not exactly household names, but rest assured, courses like them aren’t exactly found down the road in your neighborhood.

Lest you believe that you’ll need dry land to think about golf on a cruise, Waggoner says they’re developing new programs all the time to please you while at sea – and for those who crave golf, it’s just what you’ve always wanted.

“Our program at sea is always evolving and changing,” Waggoner explained. “Every ship now offers a free golf clinic to welcome the guests to the golf program and give them a sample of what we do onboard, as well as offer a few basic tips on the golf swing. We also host putting contests and other golf related events -- especially on ships with simulators.”

Right next to the ocean at St. Thomas.

Elite also has a relationship with Nike, presenting another unique opportunity for passengers to see and try the latest top-of-the-line products from the minds that created Tiger Woods’ equipment. To that end, there’s a free Nike demonstration which takes place during designated at-sea days, a rare chance to have Nike virtually come to you.

Elite also dreamed up the ‘Guilt-free Golf Program,’ which provides spa discounts for the golfer’s significant other on the cruise (if they play in one of the ports-of-call) – so there’re no worries about keeping all the fun to yourself if you choose to tee it up.

There’s no doubt, a big part of the golf experience on your cruise will be determined by your ship’s golf pro – and for us, we’ve been fortunate both times we’ve sailed to have golf professionals who were not only skillful players, but good guys as well. On our cruise last January (aboard the Carnival Legend), Marc Johnson showed us a good time on the links and made all the arrangements while on board the ship – it couldn’t have been easier.

Johnson’s been sailing for just over two years now, and though he’s only a few golf seasons out of college, knows the game as well as many a seasoned veteran. Johnson says he’s seen all kinds of golfers during his time with Elite, and he’s ready for all of them: “I’ve seen everything from scratch players to beginners on our cruises, but if I were to give an average ‘true’ handicap to those who play on the excursions, it would be close to a 24. Guests need not worry about playing with someone of a markedly different ability – I match people with others of like ability unless they tell me otherwise.”

If your ship has a simulator, take advantage of it.

True to Johnson’s words, I was paired with a honeymooning couple at one of the courses we played – the bride was a former college player carrying a one-handicap and the groom was just taking up the game. My playing ability fit nicely in between, and we all had a good time.

All of Elite’s pros are present and ‘on duty’ during golf excursions, and play right alongside you – a good way to get to know the courses, and also a means of picking up a few tips if you want them. Best of all, they’re there to make sure you have a good time – don’t be afraid to ask for a few mulligans.

As you’d probably expect, Johnson thinks the quality of the golf courses makes cruising a great way to take a golf vacation. “These courses aren’t your regular ‘munis’ that a lot of people play every week – they’re unbelievable layouts with some of the most spectacular views you’ll ever see on or off the golf course. Not only that, we offer lessons on board with either the ocean or a simulator as your backdrop. Cruising is hard to beat.”

I asked Johnson if it’s possible to play courses other than the ones offered as shore excursions at the various destinations – and the answer was a qualified ‘yes,’ but not recommended.

Looking happy before teeing off in Belize -- you have to take a short plane ride to get to Caye Chapel.

“Some of our destinations only have one course while some places offer a handful,” Johnson lectured. “I’ll promise you this: When you go on an excursion with us, you’ll never miss the ship, because they’re required to wait for any passengers taking part in a ship sanctioned shore excursion. I’ve had people go off on their own in the past and spend a lot more money than they would have through our program – and they’ve probably hurried their way through their golf round, too.”

There’s also the ‘worry free’ golf program offered by Elite’s professionals – namely, all the arrangements from tee times to transportation are already made for you. Transportation is no small consideration, either. Every port-of-call has more than enough locals waiting to offer tours of the destination’s attractions, but you could potentially have trouble finding someone who knows the golf courses.

Johnson made it so that all we had to do is show up the morning of the excursion – and judging from experience, that’s a huge benefit to let someone else do the legwork.

Value’s included in the deal, too. Golf excursions aren’t cheap, you’ll certainly note – but if you compare what it would cost you overall to travel to a destination and play golf there, cruising is actually a very good value. Johnson says cruising is the best way to golf in the Caribbean, for example, because everything is built around the piers – and the local economies depend heavily on tourism. “Cruise groups are often the main source of income for the local golf courses, so that’s reflected in the level of service they give us – first rate, all the way,” Johnson added.

The Caribbean sea is one of the water hazards at St. Kitts.

Like Waggoner above, Johnson thinks the best cruise lines for golfers are Princess and Carnival, since they offer itineraries that are golfer friendly. Johnson says every Princess ship with a golf program also has its own simulator – whereas only a handful of Carnival ships are similarly equipped (our ship, the Legend, did not have a simulator). Simulators are handy on sea days because they allow you to ‘play’ any number of pre-programmed courses (over 50) – so you can enjoy virtual-reality golf every day, if you choose.

“Simulators make our jobs easy,” Johnson said. “For lessons, we’ll use the ‘range mode,’ which maps out the trajectory, spin, carry distance, total distance, swing speed, the works. The sensors are very accurate regarding the distance and the ball flight, too – which certainly helps when giving lessons and clubfitting.”

And should you choose to buy what you’ve just been fit for, there are advantages to doing that at sea as well. All purchases are tax & duty free, and Nike offers free shipping (to the lower 48). The ship’s golf shop is also supplied with Nike shirts, caps, golf balls, golf gloves and the V1 home edition software, which is a great tool for swing analysis.

And the ship’s also stocked with extra club sets for rent, should you choose to leave your sticks at home (highly recommended).

All in all, there’s much more to a cruise golf experience than hitting golf balls to kill time on board a ship. Those images we’ve all formulated of golf at sea are becoming more and more outdated as time goes on, thanks largely to the efforts of the cruise lines, the folks at Elite Golf Cruises and on board pros like Marc Johnson.

Simply put, cruising allows you to do as much or as little golf as you choose, along with the other immense benefits of enjoying a vacation on the water.

It’s something to consider for the next time you’re planning a golf vacation – or any vacation at all. Golf heaven just might be found in a place that you’d never thought of before.

Note: Special thanks to Marc Johnson for his extraordinary efforts in catering to our golf needs for our cruise – and he’s a good sport, too, humbly accepting defeat when my female playing partner beat him during our match.


Elite Golf Cruises
1305 Shotgun Rd.
Sunrise, FL 33326

Phone: (800) 324-1106
About the Company:
Elite Golf Cruises is in its 10th year as the exclusive provider of comprehensive onboard golf academies, providing certified instruction, Nike Golf equipment (rental and retail), Virtual Golf Simulation, Guided Golf Excursions and professional golf entertainment on the finest cruise ships on the high seas.
Rick O’Shea is the President of Elite Golf Cruises, and he founded the original concept back in 1994 with the goal of ‘providing a complete and enjoyable golf experience to the beginner golfer and the serious golf fanatics interested in improving their game.’


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