Traveling with golf clubs is a pain in the ass.
You've got to get them in your car or drag them on the subway to the airport. Then you've got to get them to the terminal to check them in, likely forking over at least $25 each way just to get them on the plane. After your flight, then you have to retrieve the clubs, praying they haven't been mangled by the baggage crew, before playing Luggage Rubik's Cube to get your sticks in a rental car or somehow in a taxi.
And then, when your trip is over, you do that all over again.
That's all if you're traveling alone, nevermind someone else, especially kids who have three or four times as much luggage as you could ever imagine taking anywhere. The lack of space caused by and the constant annoyed glare of your traveling companions really makes you think twice about even bothering with your clubs.
But you still really want to play golf. So what do you do? You have few choices.
You could hire a service like Ship Sticks to freight ship your clubs door to door, taking you and the airlines out of the equation. However, there's still the variable that plans might change and you don't get to play, especially on a family vacation or a work trip. And if you don't play, you paid to ship your clubs just to look at them.
The other option is a new one for American travelers. The company is called Clubs to Hire. Irishman Tony Judge started Clubs to Hire in 2010 in Portugal, setting up shop in the airport at Faro, a popular travel spot in the Algarve, particularly for golfers. His idea: Offer golfers a service to reserve full sets of the latest golf clubs, to be picked up at the airport or delivered to the course and returned to the drop-off location at the end of their trip for a flat fee, charged in one-week increments. Judge saw the service as a way of combating the excessive baggage fees European airliners, particularly the low-cost carriers like RyanAir and British Airways, were charging to lug your set in the air. He undercut their baggage fees and added in the convenience of cutting down how much the golfer has to handle their own bag.
"We took a leap of faith, a risk," Judge said in a telephone interview. "After about nine months, we started to get decent traction. I started jumping to other busy golf destinations in Spain and Portugal and built a brand down there."
The company now has 27 locations and will serve some 75,000 customers in Europe.
This summer, Judge brought Clubs to Hire to the United States. After a couple of years of research, Judge decided to start off in three markets: Orlando, Las Vegas and the Phoenix-Scottsdale area in Arizona. Judge is also open for business in the Dominican Republic, in the popular golf destination of Punta Cana.
"It's the early steps in what I hope will be a bigger business over here in the next two to three years," Judge said, suggesting there might be some 10 markets that make sense.
Several factors drove Judge's choices, including how many golfers travel to each destination by air each year, how many courses are in the area, as well which airlines fly in and out of the major airport. Every major American airliner, except Southwest, charges to load golf bags, sometimes extra because of their bulk.
Judge says some 60 million people travel through the Orlando airport each year, a staggering figure. His research estimates about 1.5 million of those people are golfers. Even if he can land just a few percent of those golfers as clients, Judge's Florida foray will be a success.
Vegas sees an equally jaw-dropping number of people come to town, either to gamble, party or both. Minutes off the strip -- and at Bali Hai, just south of Mandalay Bay, too -- are a number of scintilating desert courses.
Scottsdale is the Myrtle Beach of the Southwest. If the Grand Strand is Golf Mecca, then Scottsdale is Golf Medina. Plenty of courses in every price range and level of conditioning. Judge's business should make sense for a lot of golf travelers, especially those snow birds fleeing the cold and traveling across three times zones to get into PHX.
Booking through Clubs to Hire is simple. Head to their website, enter the dates you're traveling and where you're heading, then the search will return the available sets for rent and display the weekly fee. Pick your set, head to checkout and settle up, with fees ranging from $50 to $80, depending on the manufacturer of the set you choose. When you land, head right to the Clubs to Hire kiosk in the airport, pick up your clubs and roll. If one of the manufacturers Clubs to Hire offers has upgraded their line -- for instance, TaylorMade launching the M1 over the R15 and AeroBurner lines -- between when you book and when you travel, then Clubs to Hire will upgrade your set for no charge.
It's more convenient and less risky than dragging your gamer set through the travel process and it becoming some of the $200 million annually in damaged baggage. It's a way better deal than lining up a rental set where you're playing, with most clubs offering a very limited selection and charging an outrageous per-round price.
However, Judge admits that Clubs to Hire is probably not the best choice for a highly competitive scratch player. Better players are more particular about their equipment and, if they're competing, don't want to waste time trying to acclimate to a new set on the fly.
It's also probably not as good of a choice if you're traveling for weeks or months on end to the same destination. If you're someone who is old enough or can afford to "winter" somewhere, you're better off bringing your own sticks.
But if you're a traveler who is looking for a more convenient airport experience, who might be tight on space or whose golf plans are pretty fluid, if not practically spontaneous, then Clubs to Hire is for you.