Feature Interview with David Baum
David Baum is the owner, publisher and editor-in-chief of Golf Odyssey: The Insider’s Guide to Sophisticated Golf Travel. Prior to purchasing the 15 year-old publication in 2005, David spent seventeen years in investment banking at Goldman Sachs. A long-time subscriber to Golf Odyssey, David jumped at the chance to shape a second career around his passion for golf and travel.
David continues the Golf Odyssey tradition of providing expert, anonymous reviews of golf destinations throughout the world without the support of advertising. He recently published two books, Planning the Ultimate Golf Vacation and Planning the Ultimate Bandon Dunes Golf Vacation. Originally from Columbus, Ohio, David moved to the New York area after graduating from Indiana University.
1. What is the background on Golf Odyssey? When was it started? And what is its tie to the book Golf Travel’s Guide to the World’s Greatest Golf Destinations?
Golf Odyssey has been in continuous publication for over 15 years. Originally, the publication went by the name Golf Travel, hence the tie to the book Golf Travel’s Guide to the World’s Greatest Golf Destinations. The name was changed to Golf Odyssey at the end of 1998.
I became a subscriber back in 2000 and instantly came to love the publication, as it was so much better at providing golf travel advice than anything else I had ever seen. The only publication it resembled was The Andrew Harper Hideaway Report, but Harper didn’t cover golf (or restaurants), just boutique hotels. I took many a trip based on Golf Odyssey’s recommendations and they were always spot-on.
After a 17-year career on Wall Street, I was seeking a new direction and it dawned on me that perhaps I could marry my passion for golf with my favorite publication, Golf Odyssey.
2. The front of every issue contains the following: “Golf Odyssey is dedicated to the publication of honest and unbiased evaluations of great golf destinations in the United States and abroad. Independence and confidentiality are the cornerstones of our editorial approach. We travel anonymously, pay our own expenses, and do not accept advertising from golf courses, resorts, hotels, or restaurants. Golf Odyssey serves its subscribers with practical information and discriminating advice.” Is Golf Odyssey wholly dependent on revenue from its subscribers to fund its operations?
Yes. Unlike most publications, we do not sell advertising. To date, all of our revenue has come through subscription sales.
3. That must mean that growing and retaining your subscription base is Golf Odyssey’s greatest challenge? How do you intend to do that?
Growing our subscriber base is clearly our biggest challenge. Thankfully, retaining subscribers has been relatively easy. Almost all of our readers renew year after year, and many of them give Golf Odyssey as a gift.
Our subscriber base has been growing steadily over the last 18 months, largely due to word-of-mouth referrals. To give newcomers a greater sense for the quality of our content, we recently launched www.golfvacationinsider.com, which has a great deal of free information. Our hope is that, over time, people who appreciate the insights we provide on the free Golf Vacation Insider site will upgrade to the premium content of Golf Odyssey.
We are also very close to launching a new and improved website that will provide subscribers electronic access to Golf Odyssey. A really useful feature of this new site is a back-issue archive that will include all of our newsletter content since the year 2000. We are planning to restrict archive access to Golf Odyssey subscribers.
4. What are the common characteristics of those who have been subscribers the longest?
Good question. Not surprisingly, most of our long-time readers are avid golf travelers and a number of them show up regularly on Golf Club Atlas. They take several trips a year, at least one of them being overseas. While some of these trips are with friends, many of our long-time subscribers also travel as couples. They take their golf travel seriously and seek out the best courses, hotels, and restaurants. Having said that, they aren’t always looking to travel first-class and do appreciate understanding the range of available options. We know from our conversations with our readers that they frequently work with elite travel providers such as PerryGolf and Kalos. At home, they often belong to multiple clubs (due in part to a large number of them owning more than one home). Geographically, they hail from 44 states, the District of Columbia, and seven foreign countries.
5. Your mission statement reads “golf destinations,” does that mean that every course covered is available for play to your readership?
It doesn’t mean that every course we cover is public, but every course we review is accessible to our readers. For instance, we may cover certain private clubs that can be accessed by staying at a particular hotel or by playing on a particular day of the week.
6. How often is Golf Odyssey published? Please describe the layout of a typical issue.
Every month, we explore two or three destinations in-depth. For each location, we critically review and rate three to five golf courses, lodging alternatives, and restaurants. We strive to give our readers a real feel for a particular destination and a sense of the flavor of the travel experience, and to identify features unique to that area.
In addition, we provide color photography, the most up-to-date contact and price information, ideas on non-golf activities, tips on how to get to the destinations, and, very importantly, the maintenance schedules for the golf courses. In my opinion, there is nothing more frustrating than showing up at a course you have been dying to play and finding out that the greens have just been punched. I don’t want that to happen to our readers.
Every other month we have a feature entitled What the Golf World Is Talking About. It usually includes around four short pieces on hot topics of interest to our readers, whether it be new course or lodging developments, travel-related accessories, travel specials, etc.
7. The reviews of the courses are anonymously authored. Why is that?
There are several reasons:
First and foremost, part of our edge is our ability to research stories for Golf Odyssey without destinations knowing that we are there. This is particularly important when evaluating hotels and restaurants, where service has such an impact on the experience. Perhaps this was best demonstrated by a story we did last year on Tom Fazio’s Green Monkey and Sandy Lane in Barbados. Some excerpts from our review:
“We certainly did not see the perfectly polished sales-and-marketing version of this lavish tropical hideaway. After two full days at the resort we sensed that Sandy Lane, which has a markedly British feel, looks out for some guests much more than others. In our brief stay we were lied to, inconvenienced, slighted, and ignored by various members of the staff.The rudeness and neglect with which we were treated is inexcusable anywhere in the travel service industry, but it is all the more offensive at a resort as outlandishly priced as Sandy Lane. We paid $1,300 per night for our Luxury Ocean Room and breakfast. If the service at Sandy Lane were not so patently flawed, we would be extolling the resort.”
Secondly, at Golf Odyssey, we like to speak with one voice. With only three of us writing stories and conducting virtually all of the site reviews, it is relatively easy for us to collaborate on each issue. The three of us have many shared experiences and tend to see the world in the same way. We often will travel with others (including some GCA’ers) and solicit the unbiased opinions of people we respect to round out our personal perspective. We believe this small-team approach provides greater consistency to our readers and allows us to give relative judgments between a course in Scotland and a course in Scottsdale.
8. What percentage of the reviews do you personally do? What “hidden gem” has been a particular favorite of yours about which the reader might not have heard much?
Lately, I have been doing about 20 percent of the reviews. As for personal “hidden gems,” one of my favorite courses is Farm Neck Golf Club in Martha’s Vineyard. This semi-private course is tough to get to and, in-season, tough to get on, but worth the effort. The front and back nines were built not just separately, but by different architects as well (Geoffrey Cornish and Bill Robinson on the front nine, Patrick Mulligan â€ a great golf name! â€ on the back). Half the fun is just being able to play golf on the beautiful island of Martha’s Vineyard. Better players should have no trouble scoring well and all players will appreciate its natural beauty.
On the lodging front, I like to mix things up. For example, if traveling through Lancashire, I strongly recommend the dormy houses at Formby and Royal Lytham. There’s nothing like staying right on property, plus you get discounted green fees and preferred tee times. As a complement, stay a few nights at the ultra-hip Hope Street Hotel in Liverpool. It is an easy drive to Hoylake, Birkdale, and Hillside, and you are guaranteed a great night’s sleep and a wonderful dining experience.
9. Based on all of your travel, you must have a great travel story that you can share.
As referenced above, I had an eight-day whirlwind trip to the Lancashire Coast planned for the fall of 2005. As if I weren’t already in the doghouse at home for taking off for eight days to play golf, I then get a call to join a couple of die-hard GCA’ers on a 16-person jaunt to Bandon immediately prior to my England trip. Of course, this was a trip I just couldn’t say no to. We all know Bandon is not easy to get to from the East Coast. Try flying to Bandon, playing 36-a-day golf for three days, closing down the Bunker Bar, and then pulling the Portland-Newark-Manchester double red-eye! It may have been the best two-week stretch of golf in my life.
10. The two primary courses covered in each issue are rated at the end of each review. Scoring is done on a 1 to 20 scale, with 20 being the best. The categories covered are Golf, Golf Services, Lodging, Restaurants, and Non-Golf Activities. In your January 2007 issue, for instance, Pebble Beach received a cumulative score of 92.5. Which places have received the five highest totals to date? Which have received the lowest?
I am hesitant to answer this question, as there is always a story behind a rating and it is easy to jump to incorrect conclusions by making judgments solely by the numbers. Our rating scale primarily functions to help our readers make relative comparisons among particular destinations and to get a sense for the relative strengths at a particular destination (i.e., golf vs. lodging vs. non-golf activities).
With that as a preamble, it should come as no surprise that the highest rankings tend to be of destinations that are strong in all five of our categories (golf, golf services, lodging, food, and non-golf activities). Top scorers since 2000 include The American Club, The Greenbrier, Kiawah, Lana’i, and Pebble Beach. International destinations with high overall rankings include Gleneagles, Kauri Cliffs, Mount Juliet, Punta Mita, and Skibo Castle.
As for the lowest scores, I think it is important to touch on our review philosophy. It would be very easy for us to write a lot of bad reviews, particularly given that we don’t need to worry about anyone canceling their ad contract. Having said that, most of our reviews tend to be about degrees of positivity (if that is a word) as we purposely seek out what we expect to be great destinations for our readers. Why should we devote hundreds of words to a destination we expect to disappoint?
A few spots that have scored poorly in recent years include Doral, Capitol Hill (on the RTJ trail), Bad Griesbach (Germany), Brainerd Lakes (Minnesota), and the Tamarron Resort (New Mexico).
11. How have the issues been refined with time?
Most notably, since taking over the publication we have dramatically increased the number of destination reviews. In 2004, Golf Odyssey published 14 destination reviews. Last year, we published 26.
This additional coverage was made possible, in part, by increasing our page count by 25 percent. The extra space has allowed us to include new features, such as publishing informative letters we receive from our readers, and to include more photography. Historically, Golf Odyssey was published in black and white. I conducted a survey after buying the business and many subscribers wanted color photography. We made the change to color early last year and the difference is like night and day. All of these changes were implemented without an increase in the subscription price.
12. You recently commenced a new undertaking, selling books under the Golf Vacation Insider imprint. The first one is on Bandon Dunes and is 40 pages long, entitled Planning the Ultimate Bandon Dunes Golf Vacation â€œ Insider Advice and Practical Tips for Creating a Great Golf Getaway. What was the genesis behind this offering?
When you step back and look at Golf Odyssey, one of our greatest assets is our content. We have the world’s largest collection of proprietary golf course and resort reviews. Historically, the only way to harness that knowledge was to be a subscriber and save all of your back issues (which many people have done). While this works well for the golf enthusiast who values the insights we deliver each month (and is organized enough to keep each issue), it does not work for most people.
The motivation behind the book (and future books, special reports, and the online back-issue archive) is to provide the high-quality information on golf travel (like we do in our newsletter) in a form people want. Someone may be interested in becoming an expert on Bandon Dunes, yet not interested in a monthly subscription publication. Now we can help that person.
13. What luxuries does the book’s extra length allow you to cover that you otherwise couldn’t in Golf Odyssey?
First of all, the extra length enabled us to provide in-depth analysis of each of the three main Bandon courses (in typical Golf Odyssey fashion), plus add exclusive interviews with David McLay Kidd, Tom Doak, and Bill Coore, discussing their work.
We were then able to provide much greater detail on golf services (including a rundown on some of the best caddies), lodging (tips on the best rooms at the resort and off-resort options), restaurants (including the best menu items), and non-golf activities. There is a special section on the Sheep Ranch as well as advice on how to optimally schedule your rounds, when to visit, and how to pack.
Our goal with the books, as with Golf Odyssey, is not only to put people in a position to select great golf destinations, but also to arm them with the little details that make the difference between a good trip and a great trip. We joke that we never want readers to feel like they need a trip mulligan.
14. What does your next book cover? Are the books only available to those who subscribe to Golf Odyssey?
Our next book will focus on Ireland and Northern Ireland. We have not decided whether to release it in one or two volumes. Since we also sell downloadable digital versions of our books, a single Ireland download may just be too large, as the book will cover over 75 courses, plus lodging and dining reviews and recommendations on non-golf activities.
Books are available to subscribers and non-subscribers alike.
15. GolfClubAtlas.com is a golf architecture website. Which features of Golf Odyssey will likely most appeal to GCA.com’s readers?
Well, Ran, I think Golf Odyssey is a great complement to GCA. As you know, we don’t hold ourselves up to be architecture mavens. We’ll leave that to GCA and guys like Tom Doak, Brad Klein, and Geoff Shackelford who live and breathe course design (and write about it quite well).
While playing the game is central to our coverage, Golf Odyssey’s perspective is on the total golf travel experience. Our day is just beginning when we step off the 18th green. We place as much importance on helping our readers select the best rooms at the best hotels and the tastiest entrÃƒ©es at the finest restaurants as we do golf course selection. Often times, these aren’t the fanciest places in town, but the out-of-the-way spots that you only know about by chatting up the locals and scouting them out.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, GCA readers are looking for the unvarnished truth, not PR spin or an advertorial. Because we travel anonymously and don’t accept advertising, our readers know that we always have their interests at heart. Our reviews are based on first-hand playing (and staying) experience, not previews or press junkets. And we’re often first to market. I can’t tell you how many times we have played a new course in the first weeks it has opened. One of our former staff members (now a well-known golf writer) was disappointed at learning he was the second person to ever check in at Bandon Dunes, back in 1999. Recently, we played the new Celebrity Course in Palm Springs the first week it was open and the Saguaro Course at We-Ko-Pa in its third week.
16. What part of the world hasn’t Golf Odyssey covered to date that looks like it might become a future quality golf destination?
This is always a tricky area for us. On one hand, we want to be on the cutting edge of global golf. At the same time, we want to be responsive to our subscriber’s desires. In our last subscriber survey, there was a clear message from our reader’s that we shouldn’t devote too much space to destinations that require a flight half-way around the world. Of course, not every under-covered destination requires a long flight. In fact, one region we have historically focused on is Canada which not only offers great golf, but is a relative value compared to the US and other parts of the world.
With that as a background, three areas that interest us quite a bit are China, Dubai and South Africa. While the game is well-established in South Africa, interest in travel there has risen dramatically. As for China and Dubai, the growth is just phenomenal â€œ not just in the course options, but accommodations as well. Given the logistical challenges in traveling to these destinations, we would love to add staff members living in these regions to enhance our coverage and provide local flavor.
17. How about a sneak preview of a few of the courses that will be covered in 2007?
To give you a sense of our geographic diversity, through March we have featured Barnbougle Dunes in Tasmania, Carnoustie, Pebble Beach, the Mayan Riviera, Scottsdale, Kiawah, and Palm Springs. Upcoming issues are likely to include stories on Southwest Ireland; the Abaco Club in the Bahamas; Muskoka, Canada; Northern Michigan; Muscle Shoals; Pasatiempo; Maine; and Scotland.
18. How does one subscribe to Golf Odyssey?