Snack Shacks // The Golfer's Halfway Home

How crucial is a good snack shack?  Put differently.. how crucial is air to breathe??  A snack shack, or turn shack, halfway house or “comfort station,” can truly elevate the experience at the golf course from mediocre to enjoyable, from great to world class.  After all, what are we really trying to do at the course?  The golf course is our reprieve.  And what does reprieve entail??  Often times that means eating and drinking.  As I write that, I think about the golf purists.  Those who scoff at carts, would never soil the game with alcohol, and can recite every US Open course back to Myopia Hunt Club.  Speaking of which, Myopia is my favorite course in MA, and it doesn’t have a snack shack.  It is certainly one of those purist-type places, where you need a legitimate impairment to take a cart.  But they also get it at Myopia.  In lieu of the turn shack, on the 9th tee is a cooler of lemonade, and next it, a cooler of iced tea.  So simple, but it absolutely makes the experience.  I played there a few times growing up, and as much as I loved the course, which is an old school gem, I was even more excited to get to the 9th tee and make an Arnold palmer.  I know I’m a little weird, but I bet there were a few other people that were excited to get to the turn as well, for a little refresher.  Those are the details that set a place apart.  In the modern era, we can accept a little more indulgence, and cater more to the player, without worrying too much about the tradition of the game.

Suffice it to say, a snack shack is an amenity that the top courses do not take lightly, as the best of the best understand their importance.  Here I will discuss not only some features of snack shacks in general, but some specific examples from the legendary “burger dogs” at Olympic Club, to the famous “comfort stations” at Discovery properties. 

There are a lot of factors that go into a snack shack.  Do you have a phone on the 8th tee?  Is this even a true “turn shack” or at some other point choke point on the course, to be accessed multiple times during the round?  Is this simply a hot dog and beer situation, or is there a grill for some more significant food?  Crucially, are there any homemade baked goods?  The first time I went to play Medalist, I barely made it to the first green before a guy in the group started telling me about the cookies at the halfway house.  So don’t be fooled by the trivial subject line.  These refueling stations shoulder the load of service and comfort in a culture that thrives on instant gratification. 

I qualified for the US Amateur at Olympic Club in 2007.  An absolutely top of the line situation at Olympic.  Between the Lake, Ocean and Cliffs par-3 course, there are 4 snack shacks on the property.  The one by the range, on the way to the Cliffs is my favorite.  I’m sure they have a lot of great things at this snack shack, but I’ve never ordered anything but the Burger Dog.  It’s a cheeseburger, that’s molded in a rectangle, so it fits into a hot dog bun.  You make a little boat out the burger, and can put any of your toppings in the middle.  It sounds a little gimmicky, but I assure you, it’s a show-stopper.  I singlehandedly attribute my Missed Cut to the Burger Dog.  I ate 4 of them mid-round, en route to a crowd pleasing 86 to kick things off on the Lake Course.  It’s a lesson that took me a while to learn.  In tournament play, you can’t get sucked in too hard by a top-notch snack shack.  It brings back memories of the Argentina Open at the Jockey Club in Buenos Aires.  Sporting an incredible little hut that makes Choripan (chorizo on bread).  Doesn’t sound like much, but it doesn’t get a whole lot better than a high-quality Choripan.  Nor does it get much better than the fresh tacos made at the snack shacks in Mexico.

Speaking of Mexico, I have to bring PGA Tour Latin America back into the fold.  Heineken was sponsoring the event in Mazatlan and set up bars all over the property.  They were little gifts from heaven.  There was one behind 18, one outside the clubhouse, and most crucially, one set up on the range itself, in a professional event no less.  I can’t tell you how happy it made me and my caddy that week.  They were handing out free 8 oz beers, and the “they” were gorgeous models from all over the world.  I was, in fact, able to get over the fact that the models were giving us the beer, to clear my head, and assess the situation.  Having a set-up like that on the range is as good as it gets. 

Which then leads me to the crème de la crème of this discussion, the “comfort stations” at the Discovery properties.  I was speaking with a buddy and talking about where our dream bachelor party would be.  I had my answer, but I let him say it first because I knew we'd be on the same wavelength.  Madison Club in Palm Springs.  Why not Vegas?  Nashville?  Because there is a lot to be said for great weather, pristine golf course condition, and unlimited access to the best snack shacks on the planet.  They start things off right there on the range.  Which is so crucial. What does everyone do when they get to the course.  You grab food quickly because you haven’t eaten, and you hit a few balls to loosen up.  How has it taken so long for courses to catch onto this dynamic?  And this is no snack shack.  A true comfort station.  We’re talking gourmet food, a full bar, premium snacks.. the works.  Right on the grass of the driving range.  And when you get on the course, you don’t have to wait long.  Two more unmanned comfort stations, that you can access at multiple points.  You go in there and help yourself.  This is not, oh help yourself to some peanuts and bud light.  This is, help yourself to anything you can possibly imagine.  Granted, this is an elite place.  Your average muni could never have anything like this.  But it’s the same principle as the Arnold Palmer at Myopia.  Madison is over the top, but it’s the fact that its included, no one is judging the 5 beers you grab, no one is nickel and diming you and marking off the $2.50 for a snickers.  When you’re out on the course, that’s your time.  Its generally accepted that the ONLY cart that is welcome to approach your group is the beverage cart.  And while some enjoy a little female interaction on the course, most people appreciate the privacy.  Madison has tapped into that psyche.   

These comfort stations are truly the pinnacle of their kind, and they punch above their weight class.  That is to say, they are legendary.  I don’t know any figures, but I’d bet anything that they have moved the needle on potential membership more than anyone would like to admit, or more than anyone knows.  The subconscious is a powerful thing, and making people feel special and cared for, with the details goes a long way. 

My favorite Snack shack in Mass was always Pine Brook.  I’ll never forget the first time I played there and went to the snack shack.  I got excited when I saw a chicken quesadilla on the menu and I went for it.  Not only was this a quesadilla, but it had guacamole and salsa on the side.  I kid you not, this chef was back there dicing up tomato, onion and jalapeno for the salsa, mashing an avocado and lime juice just for my order.  I was in shock and felt unworthy.  This was not your quick turn shack scenario, but I didn’t care.  Any group that wanted to play through was more than welcome.  This quesadilla matched anything I ate in Mexico or beyond, and the level of detail and care that went into it was unparalleled in the halfway house world.  I always am angling to get my buddy to take me out there when I’m back home, but it hasn’t happened often enough.  A real diamond in the rough, master of its domain, Pine Brook CC. 

But before I get completely wrapped up in the best of the best, lets discuss the real-life snack shack that we are most likely to encounter. 

I’m a big fan of the phone on the 7th or 8th tee, even 9th.  You have a little laminated menu and a phone that dials direct to the bar or turn shack.  Normally this applies to the place where the snack shack doubles as the 19th hole and connects with the full kitchen of the club.  I’m a big fan of this situation.  I’ve always wanted to get a real sandwich, or some buffalo tenders at the turn.  The pre-made, grab-and-go tuna salad has always made me shudder a little.  The phone enables my kind of order.  You’re making the turn, and there are groups behind you, so there’s no time for anything substantial to be made.  If you call this is in 30 min in advance, it’s a whole different ballgame. 

Another judgement I make about snack shacks are the quality and originality of the packaged goods.  There’s the standard Planters Peanuts, and probably the “basic package” that the course orders from their food and beverage supplier.  I love a halfway house that has something in addition to that.  Something local, something homemade as I mentioned, or imagine this, something with some nutritional value.  I know, peanuts are ok, but how about some local beef jerky, a chefs bar with different nuts and seeds, or those little almond butter bites you see at foo foo juice shops.  Even some fruit.  Not everyone out there is looking to get drunk and snack on munchies, and a good snack shack will cater to both the healthy and hedans. 

And now to perhaps the most important of all features.  The beverages.  First of all, water.  You may think, oh any water will do.  I beg to differ.  All you need is a pH stick to realize that not all water is alike.  Indian Ridge, where I grew up playing in MA, had amazing water bubblers.  No bottles, they had gone green before their time.  The water at the ridge was fresh and cold, and its amazing how much better this is than a Dasani out of a plastic bottle.  But that’s neither here nor there.  What I do like to see at a turn shack is some sort of non-alcoholic drink that catches my eye.  It could be lemonade.. it could be one of those fountains of Gatorade, or even better, Gatorade in a can, or a Mexican coke.

In terms of alcoholic beverages in snack shacks, I’ve always been of the mindset… you take what the course gives you.  Most of the time, they aren’t going to have everything, so there will probably be a house special, in addition to the basics.  I’ve never believed in being picky about this, you are not at a bar, you’re on the golf course.  That’s not to say I frown upon drinking on the course, but beggars can’t be choosers in a way.  If you’re a founding member at a club or you’re gung-ho for a particular drink, I have no doubt you’ll make that happen for yourself. 

One thing I do love is the buried bottle.  One of my all-time favorite courses, Crystal Downs, in Michigan, has a bottle buried on the 18th tee.  An absolutely perfect way to finish off the round on this Dr. Alister Mackenzie masterpiece (Unheralded, this place is the dark horse for greatest course in the country in my opinion).  I don’t remember the type of alcohol on 18, but I believe it’s always the same.  It’s a tradition there, or at least it was in my group, to indulge responsibly. 

I also want to mention my favorite snack shack in the Jacksonville area.  Atlantic Beach CC.  A unique and amazing snack shack.  ABCC showcases a double-decker snack shack/19th hole that is as inviting as it is innovative.  A spiral staircase that brings you to the upper deck seating area which overlooks the 9th and 18th green, and is directly on top of the 10th tee.  One underrated and Olympic Club-esc feature is the patio and inside area of the snack shack having a “down the line” view of the 10th tee shot.  It gives ripe opportunity for heckling and a tour vision view of the shots, in a very intimate setting.  The snack shack itself has a crisp feel, and an ample kitchen to make a plethora of options.  They even showcase a vertical garden, growing lettuce and other veggies hydroponically, inside.  This is a bigtime place to hang out after a round, as the 18th hole leads you directly to its doorstep, and a convenient stop at the turn as well. 

I hope you enjoyed the dive into the world of on-course food and beverage.  Its an interesting topic, especially in the USA.  Our culture is defined by consumption, luxury and ease.  Golf is a leisure activity that exemplifies these aspects, and a great snack shack is the cherry on top.  Most definitely, snack shacks are for the player, not the game.

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