The drive was just a quick 20 minutes from my home in Easton, Connecticut, to the private airstrip in Bridgeport where an Excel jet waited to fly me and three companions to Sea Island, Georgia, for three days on the renowned links. Arriving at the terminal, I simply pulled alongside the aircraft, unpacked the car, and parked 50 feet away. No lines. No hour-long trip to the closest commercial airport in New York City. And no waiting on the tarmac behind ten other planes scheduled to leave at the same time: We were No. 1 for takeoff.
As we climbed to a cruising altitude of 40,000 feet, things only improved. No one reclined his seat back into our knees or fought for space on the armrest, and my friends and I were free to enjoy one another's company uninterrupted. Two hours later we found ourselves on final approach, descending over the fairways and greens of the Sea Island courses. Two members of the hospitality staff were waiting for us, an SUV idling nearby. They quickly ferried us to our rooms, a mere five minutes away. We changed clothes, ate lunch, and walked to the first tee of the excellent Seaside layout. Glancing at my watch as I got ready to hit, I saw it was 1 p.m. We had taken off four hours before! Had we boarded the commercial flight we'd originally considered, we would now be arriving in Savannah—a two-hour drive from here.
Private jets are becoming increasingly popular among recreational golfers and now I know why. "It's all about convenience," says Sam Babington, a Connecticut insurance broker. "You leave when you want, from where you want, and you don't have to worry about parking or security." Former IBM chief executive officer John Akers points to other benefits. "It's a great way to bond and build camaraderie among your foursome," he says. "It begins as soon as you get to the airfield, and you arrive at your destination fresh and relaxed."
PGA pro Mike Weir, the 2003 Masters champion, has witnessed a similar dynamic at courses across the country. "I play in a lot of corporate outings and pro-ams [tournaments pairing pros with amateurs who pay for the privilege], and these days many of the amateurs travel by private jet," he says. "They come in the morning, play their game, and then head back home so they can be with their families that evening, and at their offices the next day."
It's not solely about saving time, either. The most committed players guarantee themselves the best possible golf when they fly by private jet. "We were worried about weather," says New York City surgeon David Volpi about a trip he and some friends took last summer. "So we booked the same tee time on the same day at Whistling Straits in Wisconsin, Pinehurst in North Carolina, and Kiawah Island in South Carolina," he says. "And we waited until we got to the airfield the next morning to decide which place we would go to, depending upon the conditions. Pinehurst looked best, so that's where we flew."
Until recently the cost of booking a private aircraft made this type of travel prohibitive to all but professional golfers on tour...and a few very well-heeled aficionados. But with the recent advent of jet cards—vouchers sold by jet companies for a set amount of flying time—and the increased availability of planes (onetime rentals, that is) from first-rate charter services, a foursome can get to most any course in the United States for a bit more than a first-class commercial fare each, and with considerably less hassle.
CitationShares, one of the nation's largest private-jet services, offers such a card. For just under $76,000 you can get a 20-hour jet card good for 18 months that assures you a five- to eight-seat plane at the field of your choice in the domestic U.S. within eight hours. Divide that among four players and it comes to $19,000 each. With those hours you could make six round-trips from New York City to Sea Island at a cost of about $2,000 per jaunt. (Another option, "fractional ownership," may be all the rage among business executives, but the price is steep. The smallest stake is usually a 16th share—50 hours of flying—and costs anywhere from $135,000 to $770,000 a year, depending on the company and the type of aircraft. And that doesn't include monthly management fees or fuel surcharges.)
Going the charter route means you only have to commit to one trip at a time—and for less money than you'd spend on a jet card. An eight-person Excel jet chartered through the company TAG Aviation USA, for instance, costs approximately $3,000 an hour, putting the price of a four-hour trip at $3,000 a golfer. The downside? Charter services cannot always guarantee you'll have a plane when you need it.
My companions and I didn't have price on our minds as we hacked our way around Sea Island. We focused entirely on our game, though truth be told, none of us played all that well. And as we headed home, we once again appreciated the easy trip to the airport—but this time four private jets were set to take off before us. A half hour into the trip, we learned that a snowstorm had enveloped the New York area and we couldn't fly into the airfield where we'd left our cars. Not to worry, the pilot said, heading to a larger airport some 80 miles away. Upon landing, we found that CitationShares, which had handled the trip, had already arranged for a rental car for us (which, it turns out, is standard practice for private-jet providers). We quickly loaded up and drove off, arriving at our cars—and ultimately our houses—only three hours later than expected. Obviously, I wished I had gotten home earlier. But I felt better about the delay when I learned that evening that the commercial flight we'd initially reserved for our return had been canceled.
JOHN STEINBREDER WRITES FREQUENTLY ABOUT GOLF FOR DEPARTURES.
Those wishing to fly by private jet have several options available to them:
FREQUENT FLIERS Fractional owners purchase a time-share that guarantees a jet anytime and anywhere for a certain amount of flight hours each year (the minimum is usually a 16th share, or 50 hours annually). Jet cards—vouchers good for a set amount of flying time—allow travelers to commit to fewer hours but offer fewer guarantees.
TOP PROVIDERS CitationShares 877-832-8678; www.citationshares.com Flexjet 800-353-9538; www.flexjet.com NetJets 877-356-5823; www.netjets.com Flight Options 877-703-2348; www.flightoptions.com Sentient 800-760-4908; www.sentient.com
OCCASIONAL TRAVELERS When you fly by charter service, there's no long-term commitment. Great for those who only need a plane once in a while.
TOP PROVIDERS TAG Aviation 650-342-1717; www.tagaviation.com Jet Aviation 800-232-5388; www.jetaviation.com The Air Group 800-233-8890; www.theairgroup.com
CHECKING UP Several independent companies audit private aircraft concerns and provide—for a fee—detailed safety reports.
TOP PROVIDERS ARG/US 800-361-2216; www.aviationresearch.com Wyvern Consulting 856-829-7500; www.wyernltd.com
Platinum and Centurion Card members can call the Private Jet Program (866-297-8785), which helps you select from a list of providers it has thoroughly researched and consequently endorsed.
THE BEST RESORTS: ON THE FAST TRACK
One of the great ironies of playing golf in the United States is that the country's top five resorts also happen to be among the toughest to get to. That is, of course, unless you fly private.
BANDON DUNES Bandon, Oregon
To get to this fabulous but remote spot, a commercial flier has to fly to Portland, then either hop on a commuter flight to North Bend Municipal Airport or make the nearly five-hour drive. Going private: Fly direct into North Bend then catch a 25-minute shuttle van to the resort. Time saved from touchdown: Five hours if you drive from Portland; one hour if you catch a flight to North Bend. Charter rate: If you fly from Seattle, $7,000 round-trip.*
PEBBLE BEACH Pebble Beach, California
Many people traveling to this legendary resort fly to San Francisco, which is a two-hour drive away. Going private: Jets can land at Monterey Peninsula Airport, which is only ten minutes from the fabled Golf Links. Time saved from touchdown: An hour and 50 minutes. Charter rate: If you fly from Los Angeles, $6,400 round-trip.
PINEHURST Pinehurst, North Carolina
The site of this year's U.S. Open is a one-hour drive from Raleigh, North Carolina. Going private: Small jets can land at the Southern Pines airport, five minutes from the resort. Time saved from touchdown: 55 minutes. Charter rate: If you fly from Washington, D.C., $6,600 round-trip.
SEA ISLAND Sea Island, Georgia
The usual routine for visitors here is to fly into Jacksonville (roughly an hour's drive from the south) or Savannah (about two hours from the north). Going private: Those flying by private jet can take a straight shot to McKinnon Saint Simons, which is only five minutes from the first tees of Sea Island's three resort courses. Time saved from touchdown: Just under two hours from Savannah; 55 minutes from Jacksonville. Charter rate: If you fly from Miami, $8,000 round-trip.
WHISTLING STRAITS Kohler, Wisconsin
Most people catch a commercial flight to Milwaukee and drive an hour. Going private: Jets can fly into Sheboygan County Airport, just five miles from the center of town. Time saved from touchdown: 50 minutes. Charter rate: If you fly from Chicago, $6,300 round-trip.
* Estimated round-trip fee based on charter of a seven-passenger jet.