Tuesday, February 9, 2016

2016 PGA Merchandise Show Product Picks


The Guru has to been to more than 20 PGA Merchandise Shows so I've seen just about every new golf product imaginable. "The Show", staged annually in Orlando, Florida is the greatest display of golf products and services on the planet.

I spent three days wandering the miles of aisles at the Orange County Convention Center  at this year's show in late January. With more than 1,000 companies represented there's a great mix of new and old product offerings.


Here are some of the booths and products I liked:

Premier Golf Travel--I heard lots of buzz at "The Show" about the 2016 Ryder Cup. Excitement abounds that Jordan Spieth and other young guns can help U.S.A. get the Cup back. Hazeltine National Golf Club near Minneapolis will be the venue for the 2016 Ryder Cup matches. If you want to go, Premier Golf is the official distributor of Ryder Cup travel packages. I spoke with a couple of their travel experts, Premier Golf President Jim Ward, and international golf travel specialist Ann Mabry. Premier has a great selection of accommodations in their various packages and they can provide you with all sorts of great information on attractions, places to play and dining in the area. C'mon, all together now: "U.S.A., U.S.A., U.S.A..."


Puerto Rico-I spoke with Waleska Lugo, the director of sales/luxury market for the Puerto Rico Tourism Company. We talked about the great golf options in areas like San Juan, Dorado Beach, Rio Mar, Bahia Beach and Ponce. There are more than 20 championship golf courses in Puerto Rico. My favorite course in Puerto Rico is Royal Isabela in the northwest corner of the country about 70 minutes from San Juan International Airport. Some of the things I like about Puerto Rico as a golf destination, include: No money exchange. No passport needed. Great airline deals and easy access. Excellent selection of golf courses by top notch designers. Superb cuisine and exceptional restaurant selection in San Juan. Friendly people. Bacardi rum. Rum Punch. Medalla Light Beer. Pina Coladas. El Yunque tropical rain forest...

Sligo Wear--The Guru likes to add a little pizzaz to his wardrobe on the golf course, but I definitely can't go for the in-your-face Loudmouth John Daly look or that over-the-top, orange pumpkin Rickie Fowler fashion statement. Luckily, there's a Montreal, Canada company, Sligo Wear, that makes some great looking, tasteful, colorful golf clothing. "What sets us apart are our bright colors, patterns and design detail," Bernadette Ray, Sligo's Florida sales rep told me at "The Show". "The colors and patterns are dynamic and fun." Sligo offers shirts, shorts, pants, sweaters, wind shirts, wind jackets, belts, hats and other accessories.

Sundog Eyewear--I ran into my long-time friend Hal Quinn (we teed it up in China a few years ago) at the Sundog booth. He introduced me to the company's TrueBlue line of sunglasses. I absolutely love the TrueBlue Laser sunglasses I wear from their Performance Collection.  One of its advantages is they reduce short term eye fatigue by decreasing veiled glare. The TrueBlue lens is the only non-prescription sunglass lens in the world to incorporate both synthesized Melanin and OLP (Ocular Lens Pigment) to provide ultimate eye protection and vision performance. Quinn and I had a great conversation about the damaging impact of blue light on the front and back of the eye. Sundog Eyewear has  been at the forefront of lens technology to combat the negative effects of blue light. For golfers, Sundog also has some great selections in its Athleisure and Athleisure/Polarized collections.

TaylorMade M2 Irons--Introduced at "The Show", these game improvement irons are designed to give golfers greater distance and higher trajectory. Hmm, the Guru could use both of those as well as a major reduction in three putts. What's the secret to these new irons?I was told that club designers positioned the center gravity lower and farther back in the clubhead.
Topgolf--I'm a huge fan of these golf entertainment/nightclub style complexes that feature point-scoring golf games with micro-chipped golf balls, great drinks and fab food like Asian Sesame wings and cinnamon-sugar dusted donut holes. I'm not the only one who loves Topgolf, either. Last year more than 8 million people visited the 24 Topgolfs around the world. At "The Show" Topgolf made two big announcements: They'll soon break ground on Topgolfs in Orlando and Nashville with scheduled openings for early 2017 and they acquired the World Golf Tour, the leading web and mobile golf game.

Voice Caddie--My friend Tommy Glasgow of the Buffalo Brand Invigoration Group introduced me to this great company, which has a slew of high-tech products like a portable launch monitor, Hybrid Golf GPS Watch and Golf GPS Band. One of their reps showed me the VC300 Voice Output Golf GPS, an amazing device that you clip to the bill on your hat or visor. There are 30,000 courses preloaded and it has automatic course and hole recognition. With a simple click, it provides distances from the front, center and back of the green. Better still, it only costs $129.99. 
VPAR--I first used the VPAR golf app at Salish Cliffs Golf Club, an excellent resort course near Tacoma, Washington. Hey, now you can use your paper scorecard as a beer coaster because this special piece of technology keeps your score and a lot more. VPAR allows you to set up your own golf tournaments with friends and follow their scores in real time leaderboards on your phone or to share online. It also has a GPS course planner and tracks performance (or, in my case, lack of performance).  

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

9 Great Golf Travel Tips for 2016

Royal County Down in Ireland

Jordan Spieth certainly got off to a great start in 2016 with his victory in Hawaii. I'm hoping some of the tips below will help make your golf travel excursions real winners in 2016

1. Play Royal County Down--Recently voted #1 in Golf Digest's World 100 Greatest Golf Courses, this Irish gem is world class on so many levels. It's Ireland's answer to the Old Course at St. Andrews and Pine Valley and Pebble Beach. Opened in 1889, Royal County Down is set on natural dune-land at the foothills of the mountains of Mourne in Newcastle, about 30 miles north of Belfast. Stretching out before you like a Monet painting come to life, this course is colorfully accented with purple heath and yellow gorse. Roller coaster like fairways, blind drives, bunkers framed by shaggy fescue grasses and smallish greens dominate the golf experience at Royal County Down.

2. Great Canadian Value--If you want great value, head north, my friends. The U.S. dollar is predicted to stay strong against the Canadian Dollar in 2016. Now is an excellent money-saving time to play heralded locales like the Canadian Rockies (Banff and Jasper) and Cabot Links and Cabot Cliffs in Nova Scotia.

3. Hot Destinations--South Africa and New Zealand: For those seeking new golf horizons, these two destinations offer great golf and a wealth of off-the-course activities. In South Africa, the experience encompasses stunningly scenic courses, winery tours and safaris where you can see the Big 5 (elephant, leopard, buffalo, lion and rhino) all in one day. New Zealand offers golf courses with Jack Nicklaus, Tom Doak and Robert Trent Jones Jr. designer tags, uncrowded golf courses, exceptional cuisine and fine wines and an awe inspiring landscape of rugged mountains, lush forests and spectacular beaches.

4. New Golf Courses to Play--Tired of the same ol' courses. Here's a list of courses that have recently opened or are set to open in 2016. Trilogy (Ocala, Florida), Blackjack National (Houston, Texas), Oakhurst at Greenbrier (Sulphur Springs, West Virginia), Forest Dunes (Northern Michigan), Canyons Golf Club (Park City, Utah) and Links at Brunello (Halifax, Canada).

5. Ryder Cup 2016 Fever--Young guns like Jordan Spieth and Patrick Reed will try to bring the cup back to the U.S. The 2016 Ryder Cup matches will be staged at Hazeltine National Golf Club near Minneapolis, Minnesota in September. Minneapolis is easily accessible thanks to an excellent airport and the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul are loaded with a variety of restaurants, shopping options and recreation opportunities.

6. Mobile Passport App--Is there anything worse than returning from a fabulous international golf trip only to be welcomed by long, slow moving lines at customs in the U.S. The Mobile Passport App is the ultimate time saver. It allows U.S. Citizens to expedite the entry process back in the U.S. by avoiding the line at Custom and Border Protection (CBP) and going directly to the "Mobile Passport Control" express lane. Airports where the service is available include Chicago, Miami, Atlanta, San Francisco and Seattle-Tacoma.

7. Burn Your Miles--This is a great year to start spending all those miles you've piled up. Several experts are predicting airlines will move to devalue points even more this year.

8. Change in Tee Time Policy at The Old Course--Late last year, the St. Andrews Links Trust announced that beginning in 2018, the guaranteed tee times previously given to The Old Course Experience will be distributed to several different golf tour operators. This is could be great news for those planning to play the Old Course in the future because several golf travel experts predict lower prices for guaranteed tee times.

9. Destinations for Non-Golfer Spouses--For those who want to avoid leaving their spouses alone in a hotel room with a remote and a big screen, there are numerous golf destinations where non-golfers can enjoy themselves. Gaming destinations such as Biloxi, Atlantic City and Las Vegas have a wealth of entertainment offerings. The Monterey Peninsula has the charming village of Carmel-By-the-Sea and the 17-Mile Drive. Hilton Head Island is brimming with excellent restaurants, bicycle trails, walkable beaches and shopping areas. San Diego has great shopping, beach and boating activities and superb restaurants. Orlando has theme parks, outlet shopping and walkable villages like Winter Park and Mount Dora. Branson has live entertainment shows, a vibrant downtown area and outlet shopping.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Golf Travel Guru's Top 5 Favorite Pubs


For the GT Guru, the only thing better than crushing a drive down the middle of the fairway on the first hole on a dew busting morning is savoring the first sip of hops and barley after the round at one of my favorite pubs.

Luckily my travels have introduced me to some amazing pubs. While I've consumed enough beer at these places to consider myself somewhat of an expert, fact is, my choices are totally subjective. My selections are based on fairly innocuous factors like the friendliness of the clientele and bartender, whether somebody bought me a beer for being an amiable guy and if my fries or chips were hot. 


That said, here are five of my favorite pubs:


1. McDonnells (Bellmullet, Ireland)--The nickname for this cozy pub teeming with locals is "The Lobster Pot" (because once you go in, you never come out). It's located a couple of doors down from the Talbot Hotel on Barrack Street, where I stayed on my visit to play Carne Golf Links. I sauntered into McDonnell's one night and, yes, I did make it out, but just barely. The locals are a friendly bunch and there's a great selection of beers and ales. 

2. Hargadon Bros. (Sligo, Ireland)--I just love the live, toe-tapping Irish music in this place. Sligo is one of the live music capitals of Ireland and Hargadon's had a fantastic group performing the night I was there following a round of golf at The County Sligo Golf Club at Rosses Point. The superb pub menu includes a steak sandwich, Bangers and Mash and the "Homemade Irish Beef Burger." There's also a Hargadon's in Dublin.

3. Mr. B's Lounge at Pinecrest Inn (Pinehurst, NC)--Donald Ross once owned this place and after a brew or two you might feel like you're in Scotland. There are photos of Mr. Ross on the wall and the Barrett family, who've owned Mr. B's for more than 40 years, make everyone feel welcome. It's been voted the best 19th hole in America by several websites and publications and I heartily agree with them.


4. Original Irish Pub (Atlantic City, New Jersey)-A long-time fixture in Atlantic City a block or so from the Boardwalk, this places oozes with history. The walls are dotted with classic black and white boxing and baseball photos and if owner Cathy Burke is around she'll show you the booth were Joe DiMaggio always dined back in the day.  Better still, just like at the Masters where concession prices are circa 1980, this place has the same approach. For lunch, you can get burgers and sandwiches for under $5. 


5. Golfer's Corner Lounge Bar at the Dunvegan Hotel (St. Andrews, Scotland)--The classic Yogi Berra line, "It's so crowded, nobody goes there anymore" could well describe this St. Andrews favorite. While it's a bit touristy and usually teeming with Americans, I still love this place. Dubbed "The Dunny" by locals, the bar is situated just 112 yards from the 18th green of the Old Course.  Jack Willoughby, a fourth generation Texan and his wife, Sheena, own the Dunvegan. The ambiance is a combination of traditional Scottish pub, Texas roadhouse and college bar. Several Old Course caddies hang out there and if you're lucky you'll sit next to one of them at the bar, like I've done, and hear all sorts of great stories--especially about goofy Americans. The menu has a sports bar flair with burgers, wings, fish and chips and American style chili.

Friday, November 13, 2015

On Location: Atlantic City, New Jersey

 

Mark Twain could have easily described Atlantic City when he famously said: "The reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated."
All you seem to hear these days is how Atlantic City is down and it can't get up.
Not true.
I played some excellent golf courses, hit the slots, hoisted a few at the Original Irish Pub, had a shot of Tequila at the Tropicana's taco and tequila bar, strolled the Boardwalk, feasted on a funnel cake and gorged myself on some of the best Italian food and seafood I've enjoyed in all of my global travels.
Atlantic City is much more than mega-casinos and the Boardwalk and tourism officials are working diligently to expand its appeal.
After spending a few days there, rest assured, golf vacationers, especially buddy trippers, will find "AC" very accommodating on many levels.
Once you put the clubs away for the day, there are few destinations that can match the off-the-course entertainment that encompasses 24-hour casino gaming, big name shows, comedy clubs, pub crawls, eclectic dining and deep sea fishing.
GOLF OVERVIEW




There are 20 courses within 25 minutes of the Boardwalk in Atlantic City. The menu features lots of diversity, too. On my visit, I played a couple of classic, tree-laden layouts, a links style course and a replica holes course. 
Word is, they started swinging the sticks in the area way back in 1890s so golf is an integral part of the overall Atlantic City experience.
Better still, Atlantic City offers reasonably priced golf packages. The average cost is about $375 per person for a 3 day/2 night stay with three rounds of golf. Casino accommodations typically run around $475 and value-oriented hotels are approximately $275 for the package.
Here's where I played:

Atlantic City Country Club--Dripping with tradition at every turn, this historic club was founded in 1897. Playable and picturesque, I see why this has been ranked the #1 Public Golf Course in New Jersey by several publications and websites. The beautiful views of the Atlantic City skyline, superb course conditions and classic clubhouse grill and locker room are at the heart of this course's appeal. It received a makeover and modernization treatment by designer Tom Doak in 1999.


McCullough's Emerald Golf Links--This course plays much longer than its 6,535 yards from the back tees. It's an Irish-Scottish golf experience with lots of grass mounds, bump and run opportunities and tricky winds. It's a true replica course as the hole designs are inspired by famed courses like St. Andrews Old Course, Carnoustie, Prestwick, Gleaneagles and Turnberry. It has water on five holes, a three-acre waste bunker, an island fairway and 100-foot elevation changes. My favorite hole is number 7, a 464-yard par four, which is dedicated to architect Alister Mackenzie.  It's the hole with the humongous waste bunker facing you off the tee.

Stockton Seaview Hotel & Golf Club--A fixture on the Atlantic City golf scene since 1915, this 36-hole complex offers two different golf experiences. The Bay Course, home to the LPGA's ShopRite Classic, is a Donald Ross/Hugh Wilson design that runs along Reeds Bay and has a Scottish feel. The Pines is a traditional parkland-style layout.





Twisted Dune--You could air drop this course into Scotland and it would easily blend in. If you love Scottish links golf, this American version is the closest thing to being there. The wind, bump and run shots and undulating fairways make it fun and challenging.


In conversation with local, well connected golf tourism officials, other play suggestions include Ron Jaworski's Blue Heron Pines, Shoregate GC and Galloway GC.

7 Little Things I Liked

1. The free Wi-Fi you can access while walking outside on the Boardwalk.
2. The funnel cakes on the Boardwalk. The best in the world. Period.
3. The affable and all around great guy, Mike Charlton, who is a Greater Atlantic City Golf Association member, owner of GolfAC.com and knows everything about Atlantic City golf vacations.
4. The Turtle Nine Putting Course at Seaview Hotel & Golf Club.
5.  The amazing vintage photographs of Yankee greats like Dimaggio and Berra hanging on the walls at The Original Irish Pub.

6. The traditional clubhouse at Atlantic City Country Club that has lockers for swimmer Michael Phelps, PGA Tour star Hale Irwin and other notables

7. The amazing bowl of homemade white bean soup I had at Twisted Dune.
ACCOMMODATIONS

I stayed at Tropicana Casino Resort. It's a great place for golfers in Atlantic City. It's located directly on the Boardwalk and has a 24-hour casino, 25 restaurants including Carmine's and Chickie's, Pete's Sports Bar and Crab House and Hooters, lots of bars and nightclubs, concert showroom, IMAX theater, spas, swimming pools and shops.



Atlantic City has a good mix of casino hotels as well as reasonably priced chain offerings like Ramada, Comfort Inn and Days Hotel, which are offered in golf packages.
DINING

You can get everything from fantastic funnel cakes to phenomenal seafood in Atlantic City. There's a terrific blend of old and new restaurants with some that have been around for decades and others inspired by celebrity chefs like Bobby Flay, Gordon Ramsey and Guy Fieri.
On my visit, I dined at some of Atlantic City's most heralded traditional restaurants. 
Angelo's Fairmont Tavern--Known as "Little Italy By the Sea", this cozy restaurant has been serving home style Italian fare for more than 80 years. Forget all these chains, this place is the real thing. Owned by the Mancuso family since 1935, this traditional Italian restaurant has a wood bar, pictures of Sinatra on the wall and huge portions. If you want to celebrate a round of golf and truly immerse in the Atlantic City lifestyle, eat at Angelo's. The menu is dotted with classic favorites. I had the sauteed mussels in red sauce, fried calamari and lasagne with a meatball. Bravo! Bravo! Bravo!
Dock's Oyster House--Opened in 1897, this classic seafood restaurant is an absolute don't miss in Atlantic City. Let's face it, you don't stay open that long unless the food is great-- and, believe me, it's phenomenal. The dining experience encompasses white tablecloths, professional veteran waiters and a comprehensive menu of spectacular seafood specialties and prime steaks. I had Oysters Rockefeller, Potato Crusted Flounder and the Apple Crisp topped with vanilla gelato. This is the best seafood restaurant I've ever dined at. Period. End of Story.
Original Irish Pub--With walls dotted with vintage black and white sports photos, friendly service and prices that look like they haven't changed since the 1980s, this is a great place to gather after a full day of golf. For lunch, you can get a hamburger for $4.00, turkey sandwich for $4.50 and grilled chicken sandwich for $6.50. There's also an excellent selection of beers at reasonable prices. Chances are, you'll meet and see Cathy Burke, the wonderful long-time owner, who greets every customer with a smile and good cheer. Better still, it's open 24 hours.
Other exceptional places that are popular with golfers, include Carmine's, Capriccio, Cuba Libre, Chef Vola's, Il Mullino N.Y., Gallagher's Steak House and Landshark Bar & Grill. For a quick bite, don't miss the legendary White House Subs, a local mainstay since 1946.
THINGS TO DO

Stroll the Boardwalk--Running about 4.5 miles, this wide wooden walkway dates back to 1870. Updated and safe, it has complimentary Wi-Fi and is lined with casinos, nightclubs, restaurants and saltwater taffy shops.
Casino Gaming--The biggest names in gaming are represented in Atlantic City. Wanna throw some bones or play black or red? The top casinos are Borgata, Ceasars, Harrah's Tropicana, Bally's Wild West, Trump Taj Mahal, Resort Casino and Golden Nugget.
Big Name Entertainment Shows--The casino showrooms feature lots of major entertainment acts such as Jerry Seinfeld, Toby Keith, REO Speedwagon and Beach Boys founder Brian Wilson to name a few.
Deep Sea Fishing--If you can't win at the tables or slots, there's some excellent deep sea fishing charter options in Atlantic City and nearby Ocean City and Point Pleasant. The big catches are Striped Bass, Bluefish, Tuna, Mahi and Marlin.
Outlet Mall Shopping--The Tanger Outlets near The Boardwalk is an open-air mall spanning three city blocks with 109-stores, including Columbia Sportswear, Timberland and Kenneth Cole.
Bass Pro Shop--Opened in April 2015, this expansive, wilderness-themed store has been a huge hit in Atlantic City. Overflowing with fishing and hunting gear and outdoor apparel, the store also has a 13,000 gallon aquarium and pistol range.
Steel Pier--This iconic amusement park pier stretches 1,000 feet over the Atlantic Ocean. It has 25 rides, an arcade and food outlets.  
LOCATION

Atlantic City is situated 96 miles south of New York City. Philadelphia International Airport is 65 miles from Atlantic City. Fifteen minutes from the Atlantic City Boardwalk is the Atlantic City International Airport, which is serviced by Spirit Airlines, Air Canada and Choice Aire. Other distances to Atlantic City: (Harrisburg, Pa-155 miles, Hartford, CT--226 miles and Boston, MA-326 miles).
THE SCOOP

Visit DoAC, which is a great place for general information upcoming shows, accommodations and restaurants. For golf package information, call 844-475-2922 or click to PlayACGolf.

For those who wants lots of party opportunities after golf, I suggest clicking to Atlantic City Golf After Dark. Devoted casino gamers that want "Golf 'n Gamble" packages can click to Golf and Gamble or call 877-946-5318. 

Thursday, October 29, 2015

On Location: Branson, Missouri

Buffalo Ridge GC

Sitting in Billy Gail's Cafe in Branson with a hubcap-size blueberry pancake, two eggs over-easy and a steaming hot cup of coffee, I was thoroughly convinced this was the ultimate pre-game meal before hitting the first tee at the Tom Fazio designed Buffalo Ridge course.

Ah yes, I was totally immersed in the "Branson Good Life"-- an enviable lifestyle highlighted by live entertainment shows, phenomenal fishing, exciting and challenging golf, down home dining and stunning lake views.

Branson has evolved in the past few years by expanding its golf, shopping, dining and RV offerings.

Better still, Branson will get even better in the coming years with a $100 million downtown revitalization program and new golf courses under construction.

GOLF OVERVIEW
Top of the Rock Par 3

The Branson area has eight golf courses and four other golf opportunities. Listed below are the courses I played on my visit.

According to Lynn Berry of Explore Branson, late spring and summer are popular times for golf.

"Fall is a spectacular time of the year for golf when the leaves change color and the temperatures are  moderate with many Indian Summer days," says Berry.

She's excited about Branson's golf offerings and says the white dimpled ball menu will expand.

Expected to open by late 2017 are a new Bill Coore/Ben Crenshaw designed championship layout and a 12-hole family-oriented course by Gary Player.

Branson Hills Golf Club--The name might be a bit confusing. This course recently changed its name from the Payne Stewart Golf club. Highly regarded, it was voted the No. 1 golf course in Missouri by Golfweek 2012-2015. Managed by Troon Golf and superbly maintained, the course incorporates elevated tees, dramatic drops tee to green, wooded areas, natural rock outcroppings, waterfalls and creeks. It was designed by Chuck Smith with consultation from PGA Tour pro Bobby Clampett.

Buffalo Ridge Golf Course--I love Tom Fazio courses and Buffalo Ridge quickly became one of my favorites not withstanding the double bogeys dotting my scorecard. From the interesting approach shots, engaging water features and all-out-fun downhill tee shots to the buffalo grazing on nearby land, the experience is top notch.

Ledgestone Country Club--A beautiful setting where you get the full force of the photogenic Ozark surroundings. I love the grasses--Bentgrass greens and Zoysia fairways. There are dramatic elevations from tee to green, 48 bunkers and water in play on 11 holes.

Top of the Rock--I've teed up at hundreds of courses around the world, but this is the absolute best par three I've ever played. The first Jack Nicklaus Signature par three ever built, the course debuted in 1996. It's part of the PGA Champions Tour Big Cedar Lodge Legends of Golf Tournament. The park-like setting has native grasses and trees and beautiful wildflowers everywhere. There's also a 70,000 square-foot putting complex designed by Tom Watson and an Arnold Palmer designed practice facility.

Thousand Hills Golf Club--Near the 76 Strip and the live music shows, this resort course is a 4 1/2 hour excursion through rolling fairways, hardwood forests, rock formations and streams.

10 Little Things I Liked

1. Seeing the "Million Dollar Quartet", a broadway style show about Elvis, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis

2. Dining at Arnie's Barn at Top of the Rock, which has Ozarks cuisine with a Mexican flair and pictures of Arnold Palmer dotting the walls. I had the "Dos Equis Battered Cod Tacos" for lunch...scrumptious.

3. The affordable ticket prices for the live shows in Branson. The top ticket price is $55 and the average is around $38.

4. Some of the amazing panoramas possible at the elevated tee boxes at the courses.

5. The Lost Canyon Cave & Nature Trail at Top of the Rock, where you can enjoy a cocktail, beer or wine in the middle of the tour. Cheers!

6. The genuine down home midwestern warmth and friendliness from everybody I met.

7. The absolutely amazing country style breakfasts I enjoyed at several locally owned restaurants.

8. The walkability of downtown and Branson Landing.

9. The phenomenal Kansas City Strip steak topped with peppercorn sauce accompanied by cheese noodles and asparagus I had at Level 2 Steakhouse.

10. Strolling the aisles of Dick's 5 & 10 in downtown Branson, a throwback general store (opened in 1961) with more than 70,000 items.

ACCOMMODATIONS

I stayed in the golf villas (4-bedroom) at Branson Hills Golf Club, which had a well-designed floor plan for golfers with a television in each of the four rooms, a comfortable and beautifully appointed common living room, a fully-equipped kitchen and easy access to on-site golf. Other options include a 2-bedroom villa and 3-bedroom and Studio Condo at Eagle Bunker Condos.

Branson is appealing to golfers on all sorts of budgets. There's a dizzying array of places to stay (16,500 units total) such as golf resorts, chain hotels, family-owned motels, cabins, condos and private vacation rental homes in a variety of price categories.

In addition to the villas, Branson Hills also has a Hampton Inn on property. Other popular places for golfers include, Thousand Hills Hotel and Golf Resort, Big Cedar Lodge, Chateau on the Lake Resort & Spa, Hilton Promenade at Branson Landing and Hilton Branson Convention Center.

DINING

I enjoyed some great food on my visit and I've the got the expanding waistline to prove it. The Guru rarely eats a big breakfast at home, so when I'm on the road I gravitate to great diners with country style breakfasts. At the risk of exaggeration, Branson has some of the best breakfast places in America.

Billy Gail's--This down home eatry set at a former gas station location is country breakfast nirvana. Hubcap-size pancakes, French Cakes (a French Toast/pancakes combination), steak and eggs and friendly service are the draw.

Clocker's--If you love biscuits and gravy and hash browns cooked in a frying pan, you'll love this  restaurant in downtown Branson, which is popular with the locals.

Arnie's Barn--Overlooking the Top of the Rock golf course, this unique restaurant was named in honor of Arnold Palmer. The 150-year old barn was transported, plank by plank, from Latrobe, Pennsylvania, Palmer's hometown and reassembled at Top of the Rock. The walls are dotted with golf memorabilia and the menu features "Mexican cuisine with an Ozark flair". I had the Dos Equis Battered Cod Tacos with Lime Aioli, spicy Chipotle salsa and cilantro slaw. (Best fish tacos I've ever had.)

Level 2 Steakhouse--Located at the Hilton Branson Convention Center hotel, this upscale restaurant has a big city ambiance. It's a superb fine dining experience with 28 day corn fed Midwest beef, fresh seafood flown in from Hawaii, locally grown produce and a 1600 degree Infrared Oven. A nice touch is the five different steak knives you can select from to cut your steak.

Other places I heard great things about are Farmhouse Restaurant (chicken fried steak), Little Mo's (BBQ) and White River Fish Company (catfish and alligator).

THINGS TO DO

--Live entertainment shows at popular theaters like the Oak Ridge Boys Theatre, Welk Resort Theatre and Mickey Gilley Theatre.
--Silver Dollar City theme park
--Dinner theatres like Dolly Parton's Dixie Stampede Dinner & Show and Branson's Murder Mystery Dinner Show
--Shopping at Branson Landing
 --Starting each day with a country style breakfast
--Fishing with or without a guide on Lake Taneycomo and Table Rock Lake
--Hiking nature trails such as the scenic Table Rock Lakeshore Trail (2.2 miles)
--Stone Hill Winery and Lindwedel Wine Garden
--Copper Run Distillery
--Shopping at Dick's 5 & 10 in downtown Branson
--Spas (there are 10 spas in the Branson area)
--Branson Scenic Railway
--Showboat Branson Belle
--Branson Auto Museum

FUN FACTS

--There are 100 shows a week with more than 57,000 total seats
--1,000 acres of shoreline on three lakes
--More than 200 restaurants
--Population of Branson is 10,520

LOCATION

Branson is located 52 miles south of Springfield-Branson National Airport in the southwest part of the state. Driving distance from major cities is: Springfield, Missouri--43 mi., Kansas City, Missouri--211 mi., St. Louis, Missouri--251 mi., Omaha, Nebraska--401 mi., Dallas, Texas--413 mi., Nashville--432 mi. and Chicago--546 mi.

THE SCOOP

For more information, click to Explore Branson or call 417-334-4084/1-800-296-0463