How to Protect Your Golf Clubs from the Airlines
Serious golfers, and mediocre ones, bring along their clubs for the ride no matter where they travel.
"I’ve taken clubs to London, Scotland, even Africa with no problem, and they come with me every time I fly. My status with Delta lets me check them for free," said Andrew Haynes, a New York-based creative director and golfer. "There’s always a course or range somewhere!"
But travel with prized golf clubs isn't stress-free. "I am in constant fear of my clubs being lost, bludgeoned or generally maimed," said Patrick Koenig, a golf photographer who takes more than 30 trips per year (and hundreds of flights) around the world with his clubs. He has good reason to worry. John Dooley from Concierge Golf Ireland, a golf travel service, posted earlier this year on Twitter about his experience flying his clubs with Delta from Tampa.
"This is 1200 euros' worth of golf clubs, destroyed," he said. "And it's not really the price that kills me. It's more that as a golfer, you find some clubs that you loved to use that are wrecked." Delta covered the replacement cost in full with no hassle, Dooley said.
Matt Ginella is editor-at-large for Golf Advisor and travel insider for Golf Channel. He's had his bags delayed several times, and worse.
"I was heading to Bandon Dunes [the famous Oregon course], with American. Our plane left the gate but had to come back because of a blackout. Basically, we got separated from our luggage. I lost the entire set of clubs, never to be seen again." He said American told him this was highly unusual because clubs are easy to identify amidst the black suitcases. But golfers are persistent.
"Golfers never stop looking for their bags," Ginella explained. "Sometimes it's not the clubs themselves but an object of sentimental value. For example, in my bag today, I have the ball marker used by my uncle Tony. He's the one that introduced me to the game. If I lost that, no amount of money could replace it," he said. And then there's his putter, which he's had for 14 years: "I'd never change my putter," he said.
Some golfers are luckier than others. "I haven't had any bad experiences," said Blair Wheeler, a North Carolina-based golfer and surfer and frequent American Airlines traveler. He said his surfboards have suffered a much worse fate with airline travel.
Wheeler takes precautions. He and the other jet-set golfers I interviewed shared some of their secrets for protecting their clubs from aggressive baggage handlers.
Start With the Right Golf Bag
"You need a good bag," said Haynes. Club Glove, the bag of choice among those interviewed, is made by a company founded by a golfer and pilot in 1990, and is widely used by PGA Tour pros. The Club Glove bag is made with ballistic nylon and features inline skate wheels. The secret is the "stiff arm," which is a pole with an umbrella-shaped disc at the end that fits inside a soft golf bag to brace against impact to the heads of the clubs. "I would highly recommend adding a "stiff arm" to protect the woods in your golf set," Koenig said. "If your clubs are dropped from a distance of about six feet or more and land directly perpendicular to the ground there is a good chance that your driver head snaps right off. A stiff arm prevents this from happening," he said.
The Hard Case
The next step up for protection is a hard case. The leader in the space is SKB Cases. However, none of the golfers I spoke with own a hard case. (I previously owned a $65 case purchased at a sporting goods store. It did the trick, but was heavy, bulky and cost me additional oversize charges.)
"A complete hard case gets pricey and in my opinion is unnecessary," says Koenig. Dooley explained that hard-case golf bags are cumbersome to store and heavy. On a recent trip, several players had hard cases, which made it impossible to load the clubs in the car, he said.
Pad It with Non-Golf Items
"I try to pack the clubs super tight, and wrap them with a towel through the irons, hybrid and woods," said Wheeler. "Then I put my rain cover on them and back that with any dirty or sweaty clothes I have from the trip. Then put all of this in my padded Titleist travel bag." Haynes agreed, "My golf bag also holds my toiletries, extra shoes and a jacket that couldn’t fit in my carry-on. Normally that gives me a little extra cushion," he added.
Off With Their Heads
Some golfers will play with woods that have detachable or adjustable heads, and will remove them for travel. They'll take them off and put them in the head covers, even going so far as to bring them as a carry-on. Just don't forget the adjustment tool.
Point-to-Point If You Can
Baggage is frequently lost in transfer. It pays to book point-to-point travel if that's an option -- but it's not for many of the great courses in the world such as those in Scotland. The biggest problem is that you have "no control" over the airlines getting the clubs onto the right plane, Koenig said.
Airlines like Lufthansa and Delta are becoming more tech-savvy, providing app users with updates as their luggage is loaded on the plane and offloaded at the terminal. That's not the case, however, for most US domestic airlines.
"I am looking out the window at Pearson Airport in Toronto right now waiting for my flight to Denver and I am pretty sure I just saw my clubs go on a plane to Newfoundland," Koenig joked.
Ship Your Sticks
An alternative to the airport hassle is to avoid it altogether. Services like ShipSticks provide you with a shipping label for UPS or FedEx and help you schedule a pickup for your clubs at home through their app. Your clubs are shipped to your destination, either in your own soft case, hard case or cardboard box. You need to time it right, but ShipSticks is cheaper than trying to ship your clubs on your own or check them with an airline. One benefit is that the service automatically includes $1,000 of insurance, but the company recommends that golfers insure for more. "Golfers use ShipSticks," said Koenig. "But I think it’s just a big effort for the same sort of service as an airline."
The Horror: Rental Clubs
It's definitely in the realm of first-world problems, but for a golfer, delayed clubs are a real bummer. "American Airlines lost my clubs once," Haynes said. "The airline delivered them the night I arrived, but I had to play my first 18 holes with rentals," he said. Haynes didn't say how well he played that day with the rentals, but he was happy to get his clubs back eventually, undamaged.
For more, read The Ultimate Guide to Flying With Sports Equipment.
Mike Arnot is the founder of Boarding Pass NYC, a New York-based travel brand and marketing consultant to airlines, none of which appear in this story.