Big things are happening on the Citrus Golf Trail

It’s official. James Cramer (left) begins the introduction process leading into the announcement that the Citrus Golf Trail Open will make its debut in 2021.

SEBRING, Florida — The Citrus Golf Trail has – most justifiably —  promoted itself as “The Value Golf Capital of America.’’

Joe Staffieri, the  manager at Pinecrest on Loleta in Avon Park, created the Trail in 2012 and it’s flourishing like never before now.

“Golf can be expensive, but if you want to make a golf trip without breaking the bank you can come here and play for $20 — $60 in peak season,’’ said Andy Kesling, head professional at Sun ‘N Lake Golf Club and a Trail official.  “We’re very excited about what the future holes.  We have a lot to offer here.’’

The Sebring area isn’t just an economical place to play good golf. Big things are happening at the six golf facilities that comprise the Trail.  Two have recently gotten new owners and collectively the group has put together a big new amateur event that will debut in December of 2021.

The biggest splash made most recently has been at what had been the Spring Lake Golf Resort, a facility that had opened in the 1970s. Signature H Property Group purchased the 352-acre property in November of 2019, renamed it the Sebring International Golf Resort and went on a major rebranding mission.

“It had 45 holes in its heyday,’’ said Helmut Wyzisk III, president and chief executive officer of Signature H.  “Then it fell on hard times.  My business is re-positioning and re-developing golf courses.  We come in with a vision. Play had been coming down but it had a great footprint for us to bring in other amenities and save 27 championship holes.’’

Those 45 holes have been whittled to 39. The 18-hole Cougar, a 5,500-yard par-70 course, and the nine-hole Panther nine are being renovated. The nine-hole Bobcat has been closed and will become the gathering point for fishermen. And, within that mix, is The 12 –  a creation of Steve Smyers, a Florida architect who has designed courses across the U.S.

The 12 is a course that ties in golf and auto racing — a good combination in Sebring.

The 12 is so named because of the famous auto race, 12 Hours of Sebring, that is staged annually within earshot of Sebring International. Smyers’ course consists of 12 par-3 holes, some of them very much on the short side but all of them fun. A group of media played the initial round there on a Dec. 8 riding tour, but the course is perfect for walkers.

Meanwhile, the Panther nine is undergoing a major renovation.  What had been the longest hole in Florida golf – No. 4, a par-6 that measured 800 yards from the back tees – is no more. Wyzisk, his father Helmut Wyzisk Jr. and head professional Craig Bendall are creating a re-routing that will make the new par-3 on that part of the property a signature hole. A tee box with three elevation changes is being constructed.

A recreation center, 44 new cabins and some new golf villas are in the works and amenities like a member’s pool, bocce ball and sports courts are also in the future plans.

“We’re here to create something different, and we’re lucky to still have this property,’’ said Wyzisk. “We came in at the perfect time.’’

Here’s what’s left of the 800-yard par-6 hole at Sebring International. Once the longest hole in Florida golf, it’ll soon become an elevated tee box for a signature par-3 on the Panther nine.

Golf enthusiasm has been in abundance in the Sebring area, which is 60 miles south of Disney World.  That was evident with the announcement of the upcoming Citrus Golf Trail Open.  It was made at Pinecrest, one of six courses on the Trail, and a club that had been a big tournament site years ago.  One of the early televised match play elimination tournaments was played there in 1959 as part of the World Championship Golf series on NBC. It offered what was then one of the biggest purses in golf — $171,000.

The following year Pinecrest hosted the best men and women players in the world at the Haig & Haig Scotch Foursome tournament, which remained in the Sebring area until 1964. Arnold Palmer, Tommy Bolt, Julius Boros, Kathy Whitworth, Mickey Wright and Joanne Carner all played there and Al Balding and Fred Hawkins were regulars at Pinecrest after their retirements as tour players.

Guest players were pretty high profiles, too – Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Grover Cleveland, Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the comedy team of Burns & Allen.

Only amateurs – an expected 350 of them, men and women – will participate in the new Citrus Golf Trail Open, which will make its debut Dec. 2-5, 2021, and be a fundraiser for the Boys & Girls Club of Highland County. Its projected to become an annual event.

“It’s a wonderful time to announce this exciting new tournament that will shine a light on the great courses that make up the Citrus Golf Trail,’’ said Kesling. More details are to be announced on the Trail website (www.citrusgolftrail.com).

In addition to Pinecrest and Sebring International, the courses on the Trail include River Greens, Sebring Municipal and Sun ‘N Lakes’ two 18-holers — Deer Run and Turtle Run.

This fallen pine went down in a hurricane two years ago at Sebring Municipal. Reflecting the powers of nature, it’s become a popular photo shoot for golfers.

 

 

 

 

GOLF TRAVEL NOTES: Two long-time favorites are changing course

 

 

First of all, HAPPY HOLIDAYS to all of our traveling golfers from our place in Florida’s PGA Village.

We are now in the heart of the holiday season and we hope that all our friends will enjoy these days to the fullest. Golf travel wasn’t so easy in this pandemic year, but we’re sure that better days are ahead. Len Ziehm on Golf wanted to remain on your radar when it came to providing the latest from travel destinations. To do that we have made three driving trips in 2020, visiting seven states after the pandemic clicked in big-time on March 12.  Spending 37 days on the road for those jaunts isn’t much, compared what we’ve done in our previous 10 years driving around the country to report on golf travel. We have one trip, albeit a short one, remaining in 2020.  Next week we’ll be going to Sebring, Florida — a great place for golfers who want to play a lot and still enjoy the many benefits that a small town offers.

IN THE MEANTIME, here’s updates from some of our favorite places that we visited recently.

California’s LaCosta Resort, the scene of lots of big tournaments in the past, has been named the site of the NCAA Championships three years in a row.

DESPITE THE problems caused by the pandemic there were three big stories in the world of golf travel in 2020.  Two involved long-famous destinations, the other a Texas town that is certain to become one.

Back in the day Ohio’s Firestone and California’s LaCosta were among the very best PGA Tour stops.  Firestone, a long-time private club, hosted big tournaments since the 1950s and LaCosta was on the pro tour calendar from 1968 through 2007 before focusing on resort play.

Now things have changed.

Firestone, now open to non-members, is offering stay-and-play packages, and LaCosta, with its 36 holes, is back in the tournament business – or at least it will be soon.  Following a renovation of its Champions Course by Gil Hanse – the game’s hottest architect at the moment, the resort will host the NCAA Division I men’s and women’s championships from 2024 to 2026.

We’ve been to both places, but not in recent years.  I’ve played the Firestone courses and reported on tournaments there.  LaCosta was a key part of a five-week driving trip through western states in 2015 that included stops at prominent destinations in California, Washington and Arizona.

LaCosta was a name from the past even back then.  It had hosted 25 PGA Tour events and two LPGA tournaments in those more high-profile times.

From 1968-98 it was the site of the Mercedes Championship – also known as the Tournament of Champions. Tournament rounds consisted of nine holes on the Champions Course and nine of the Legends Course, and a great list of champions included Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus, Johnny Miller, Tom Watson, Lanny Wadkins, Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods. Then that event moved to Hawaii.

LaCosta wasn’t tournament-starved for long. A year later the Accenture Match Play Championship, a World Golf Championship event, moved in and was staged there until 2006 (minus one year when the event was played in Australia in 2001). Then it moved to Arizona.

In came the LPGA with its Kia Classic, in 2011 and 2012, but then it switched to Aviara, another  course in the Carlsbad, Calif., area.

Losing those big ones was a blow to the resort, which had been taken over by the Omni hotel chain. LaCosta celebrated its 50th anniversary while we were there and Champions, originally designed by Dick Wilson, was notable for its steep bunkers (78 had been put in during a redesign for the WGC arrival).  Now Hanse and partner Jim Wagner will begin another upgrading with the NCAA Championships in mind.

As for Firestone, it was the site of such biggies as the World Series of Golf, three PGA Championships, the WGC Bridgestone Invitational and – most recently – the Bridgestone Senior Players Championship. Its underdoing a renovation, too, with 18 bunkers being removed from the Fazio (formerly West) Course and the remaining 51 being reshaped and enhanced by the Better Billy Bunker system to improve drainage.

There’s also been a management change. Jay Walkinshaw, who held management positions at –among others – California hotspots Olympic Club and  Pebble Beach, is now the general manager and Tommy Moore is the new director of golf.

A potentially bigger splash  is being made in Frisco, Tex.  The PGA of America announced it was moving much of its headquarters there from its long-time home in Palm Beach Gardens, FL. The PGA is making big plans for the facility in Texas, and the first two of its courses there – the East, designed by Hanse, and the West, designed by Beau Welling — are almost finished.  They won’t be open for a while, however, as the PGA wants to a full year for the courses to grow in  and maintenance practices established.

The projected opening for the courses is June of 2022 and the first tournament scheduled in Frisco is the Senior PGA Championship in 2023.

MORE TIDBITS, FROM HERE AND THERE

We’ve hit lots of shots on lots of courses in Myrtle Beach, but this was one time a free drop was mandatory,

MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. – As always, lots is going on in this golf mecca. The Myrtle Beach Preseason Classic, a two-man 54-hole team event, will tee off on six courses from Feb. 1-3.  The 150-team field is already full…..The March Championship has a new name.  It’s now the World Amateur Q School….Three-time World Long Drive champion Sean Fister is now on the staff of the Dustin Johnson Junior Golf Academy….Mystical Golf, which has three courses (Man-O-War, The Witch and The Wizard), has overseeded its layouts with Ryegrass and that means wall to wall emerald green fairways, rough and putting surfaces as opposed to the usual dormant brown conditions found on most courses during the cold weather months.

STREAMSONG – KemperSports has expanded its role at this three-course central Florida destination. The Chicago-based group has been involved with the Streamsong golf operation since the resort was launched in 2012. Now Kemper will manage all resort operations.

PINEHURST, N.C. – The U.S. Golf Association and Kids Golf Foundation both announced they’re setting up headquarters in this golf hotbed, but there’s more. The Dormie Club is getting a 16,600-foot clubhouse, a stand-alone pro shop and 15 cottages to enhance its Bill Coore-Ben Creshaw designed course. Improvements have been made to the course, too.  All the projects are to be completed by June, 2021.

BANDON DUNES – Oregon’s very special facility has announced its championship events for 2021.  The Bandon Dunes Cup is May 2-5, the Golf Digest Open June 6-9, the Links Championship June 27-30 and the Fall Match Play Oct. 20-23.

BARTON CREEK – This Omni resort and spa in Austin, Tex., will host the PGA Professional Championship – the world’s largest all-professional event – on its Fazio Foothills and Coore-Crenshaw courses in April of 2022.

EAGLE RIDGE – Illinois’ premier resort has won the Stella Award from North Star Meeting Group for the second year in a row.  Its Gold award  in the regional hotel category honors the “Best Golf Resort in the Midwest.’’ Eagle Ridge has four courses, headed by The General.  The resort’s attractions also include the new Highlands Restaurant and Lounge 289.

 

 

 

 

There’s nothing miniature about Tiger’s newest venture

The PopStroke courses remind Tiger Woods of happy times in his youth.

PORT ST. LUCIE, Florida — Tiger Woods has a new golf venture. Woods and PopStroke, a company based in his hometown of Jupiter, FL., announced a partnership agreement 13 months ago, and it seems a fine fit after making a visit to its first facility.

There is a tendency to think of PopStroke as a souped up version of miniature golf.  It’s a lot more than that.

The first PopStroke facility is in this south Florida community located near PGA Golf Club, the designated “Winter Home of the PGA of America.’’ PopStroke consists of two 18-hole “miniature’’ courses – the Kahn Preserve and the Jackson Trap – so named because the designer’s name is Jackson Kahn. Both have artificial turf putting surfaces.The Kahn course is for beginners and is wheelchair and stroller accessible. While it’s the easier of the courses, it’s no creampuff.

By comparison the Jackson is more challenging with its 36 bunkers, false fronts and severe breaks on the greens.  All that aside, PopStroke is less about competition and more about pure fun. Just don’t expect that you’ll be putting into the “clown’s mouth.’’ None of the features on the more traditional miniature courses are present at PopStroke with the exception of the last putt. You don’t pick up the ball when you putt out.  It rolls down a pipe directly back to the reception desk.

The ambience is pleasant on the courses, to say the least.  Attractive landscaping provides the look of a real golf course, but in a miniature version. There’s lights for night-time play (the facility is open from 10 a.m. to 11 p.m. seven days a week) and there’s also equipment available for indoor activities in the event of bad weather.

Water doesn’t come into play, but it’s certainly evident when you play at PopStroke

Again, though, there’s lots more to PopStroke than “miniature’’ golf.  The course has a jumbotron, which can be used for scoring as well as watching televised sports events.  Twelve TVs are available throughout the facility, which also includes three golf simulators and a sports bar with full service dining available.

Woods, who lives in Jupiter – about 30 miles south of the first PopStroke —  and has a restaurant in that town, announced his partnership in PopStroke on Oct. 10 of 2019.  The board of directors also includes PopStroke founder Greg Bartoli and Peter Bevacqua, president of NBC Sports and former chief executive officer of the PGA of America.

Tiger merchandise is available in the welcome center and he’s pictured on the PopStroke website, so his involvement is more than in name only.

“Some of my happiest memories are spending time with my pops on the golf course having putting contests,’’ Woods said after his involvement was announced.  “I’m looking forward to others enjoying time with their kids at PopStroke.’’

Port St. Lucie has the first one.  The second opened in Fort Myers, FL., on Aug. 25 and a third is expected to open in Scottsdale, Ariz., sometime in 2021.

A jumbotron allows PopStroke golfers to watch TV sports while they’re on the course.

 

 

 

 

PGA Tour will make Delaware debut at the 2022 BMW Championship

 

After conducting its premier tournament in the Chicago area for two straight years the Western Golf Association will  take the BMW Championship away from the area for at least the next two.

The Glenview-based WGA announced Tuesday that the BMW Championship will be played on the South Course at Wilmington Country Club in Delaware in 2022.  Cave’s Valley, located in the Baltimore suburb of Owings Mills, Md., will host next year’s tournament.

Medinah (2019) and Olympia Fields (2020) hosted the FedEx Cup Playoff event the last two years, which interrupted a trend in which the WGA took the tournament out of the Chicago area on an every other year basis. That trend started in 2012 when the event was held at Crooked Stick in Indianapolis.

The Chicago site in 2013, 2015 and 2017 was Conway Farms in Lake Forest while the non-Chicago sites were Cherry Hills in Denver (2014), Crooked Stick (2016) and Aronimink in the Philadelphia area (2018).

Though the BMW Championship dates back only to 2007, it has deep historic roots in Chicago.  The playoff event grew out of the Western Open, which the WGA first conducted in 1899. From 1962 through 2006 the Western was held only at Chicago facilities.

The 2022 BMW Championship will mark the first time the PGA Tour has held a tournament in Delaware, but Wilmington Country Club has deep historic roots, too.  It was established in 1901 and relocated in the 1950s when Robert Trent Jones Sr. designed the South Course.

Vince Pellegrino, WGA senior vice president of tournaments, called Wilmington “one of the finest clubs anywhere in the United States.’’

“We’re thrilled to be taking (the BMW there),’’ said Pellegrino.  “The South Course has everything you look for in a traditional championship layout.  It will present a strategic test for the world’s best players and a perfect venue for fans and PGA Tour partners.’’

The BMW Championship is a key component in the fund-raising efforts of the WGA.  Its Evans Scholars Foundation has provided scholarships for deserving youth caddies since 1930. Since 2007 the BMW has raised more than $35 million for Evans Scholarships. Two Evans Scholars – Owen Griffin (Illinois 1983) and Dan Walsh (a junior at Penn State) — came out of Wilmington Country Club.

“The BMW Championship at Wilmington will give us an opportunity to show a new market the power of the Evans Scholars Program,’’ said John Kaczkowski, the WGA president and chief executive officer.  “This is a critical step in our efforts to expand from coast to coast and reach more deserving caddies.’’

The tournament has been the penultimate event of the BMW Cup Playoffs, immediately preceding The Tour Championship in Atlanta.  Next year’s event at Cave’s Valley will be held from Aug. 23-29.  No dates have been announced for the event at Wilmington.

 

 

It’s all in the family: Coral Ridge redesign is Rees Jones’ `lifetime dream’

 

Rees Jones (left) was a budding architect learning his craft from his father  in his early years. They’re pictured here checking out a course in Hawaii. (Rees Jones Photo)

 

FORT LAUDERDALE, Florida — Robert Trent Jones Sr. was the premier golf course architect of his generation, having designed about 450 courses around the world. Both of his sons – Robert Trent Jones Jr. and Rees – became prominent – and prolific – architects as well.

Rees, for instance, has worked on a ton of golf courses —  about 230 world-wide, according to the best estimates, and he’s  gained fame as “The Open Doctor’’ because he’s been brought in to get fine existing courses in shape for big championships. That number includes seven courses used for U.S. Opens, nine for PGA Championships and six for Ryder Cups.

Given all that, when Rees Jones calls his work on his latest course “a lifetime dream,’’ you’d best take notice. Especially when there’s a distinct tie-in with his famous father.

Son has tackled his father’s designs 18 times in the past.  Among Rees’ redesigns came at such famous places as the Atlanta Athletic Club, Bellerive (in St. Louis), the Blue Course at Congressional in Maryland, Golden Horseshoe in Virginia, Hazeltine in Minnesota and The Dunes Golf & Beach Club in Myrtle Beach, S.C.

This latest redo, though, is different – and more special – than all the others. Coral Ridge Country Club, the only 18-holer within the boundaries of Fort Lauderdale, is scheduled to re-open in November and that can’t help but be an emotional time for Rees Jones. Now 79, he was a part of Coral Ridge even before he reached his teen-age years..

Jones’ father designed the original 18 holes at Coral Ridge in 1954. The elder Jones had an office near the 17th hole for his architectural business and operated out of the facility’s clubhouse at the end of his career. He remained a member of the club until his death in 2000. Rees’ mother Ione, who died in 1987, was also very active in the club

Rees spent most of his formative years growing up in New Jersey, but he knew Coral Ridge quite well.

“We traveled every winter and stayed at a little hotel behind the course,’’ he said.  “I’ve been part of that facility all my life, so getting to embellish and restructure that course has been a lifetime dream because it was the fabric of both my family life and my design life.’’

To both father and son Coral Ridge was something special.

“Coral Ridge was his baby,’’ said Rees of his father.  “And, when I was first there I was 11 or 12, so I was just past a baby then.’’

In his childhood years  Coral Ridge was a swinging place.  The legendary New York Yankees’ pitcher, Whitey Ford, was a member.  So was Joe Namath, the great New York Jets’ quarterback.  Pro golfers Julius Boros and Lew Worsham were also on hand.  Boros lived on the 11th hole and gave Rees golf lessons.

“Historically athletes really liked to hang out there,’’ said Rees.

And it wasn’t just athletes.  Dave Thomas, who created the Wendy’s restaurant chain, was one of the  Jones family’s “special friends’’

“Coral Ridge is a very special place.  There’s no other place like it in Florida,’’ said Rees. “My father loved Florida, and he went to the club every day and had a lot of friends there.’’

Five years ago Rees designed a par-3 course at the club, called “The Rees Nine.’’ With holes ranging from 70 to 200 yards, It has been popular with higher handicappers and youngsters who like the challenge of the undulating, multi-tiered greens.

As for the “new’’ golf course, Jones understandably likes everything about it. The par-72 layout measures 7,322 yards from the back tees.

“The routing is the same, though we slightly relocated the No. 9 and 13 greens,’’ he said.  “All the fairways were elevated, and drainage is now 1,000 percent better than it had been.  A big reason for the renovation was because the course needed a new irrigation system.’’

It got more than that.

“We also rebuilt all the greens,’’ said Jones.  “The par-3s are all distinctly different, and the par-5s are all distinctly different.  We put the original Robert Trent Jones bunker style in, and it looks like the old-time bunker style.  But it seems a brand new golf course now. The members had no idea how great it would turn out, and  I’m blown away by what we’ve accomplished.’’

Most of the work on the course was done in the heart of the pandemic, but didn’t slow down Jones’ architectural work.  He still had three associates traveling to other job sites, one of which was in Japan.

“We had 13 jobs during the pandemic.  I was lucky because I have a reputation,’’ he said.  “But I hardly work because I love what I do.’’

His location helped, too.  Jones resides in Juno Beach and he says “golf is very healthy in the state of Florida. A lot of communities are built around golf courses.’’

Coral Ridge had at one point divided its ownership among the four Joneses – Rees, his parents and brother Robert Trent Jones Jr. Each owned 25 percent. When Jones Sr. passed on the course was sold to a local group headed by Phil Smith. Rees kept a 5 percent share then,  but sold it after designing The Rees Nine.

To this day Rees Jones remains a Coral Ridge member and believes his recent work assures the club will have “one of the top golf courses in the Southeast.’’

“We started planning for this five years ago, and work began at the end of the (last) winter,’’ said Jones.  “We wanted to restore it back to the design my father had and make the changes much like he did during the life of the club. It was like Pinehurst No. 2, when (original designer) Donald Ross lived next door to that golf course.’’

Rather than the changes being made by the father on his own designs, now those changes have been made by the son.

“We really accomplished the task,’’ said Rees.  “My father would be looking down on us and say `Well done.’’’

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Streelman missed this year’s Masters but is in position to make it in 2021

The Masters finally tees off on Thursday, but Chicago’s best player – Kevin Streelman – won’t be there. Streelman had a great year and, in a normal season, would have been on the brink of qualifying when he held a No. 49 world ranking entering last week’s Houston Open.

In a normal year the top 50 in the Official World Golf Rankings the week before the Masters get into the field – but this, obviously, is no normal year. The pandemic caused that.

“I could have won the U.S. Open, the PGA Championship and the FedEx Cup and I still wouldn’t be in this year’s Masters,’’ said Streelman, whose world ranking dropped to No. 51 after he missed the cut in Houston.

As far as this week’s 84th Masters was concerned, it didn’t matter how Streelman performed in Houston. The top 50 before the Masters was determined on March 17, the last ranking period before the Masters was originally scheduled on April 9-12. Streelman, coming off a year in which he finished No. 122, wasn’t inside the top 50 at that time. Neither were Daniel Berger, now No. 13 in the world; Viktor Hovland (23), Ryan Palmer (31) and Harris English (35).  They won’t play at Augusta National this year either.

Streelman, who grew up in Wheaton, qualified for the Masters five times between 2011 and 2016 and survived the 36-hole cut in his last three appearances.  His best finish was a tie for 12th in 2015.

The Masters had planned a field of 96 players but the original qualification standards were impacted after the pandemic shut down the PGA Tour for three months and forced many tournaments to be either canceled or rescheduled.

Winners of PGA Tour stops in the previous calendar year had been awarded Masters invites, but not this time. Berger and Hovland won tournaments after play resumed but that didn’t factor into Masters invitations. This week’s tournament, played seven months late, didn’t hold its popular par-3 contest and – like most PGA Tour events — won’t have spectators.

Streelman, though, has no regrets about having the week off.

“I feel blessed to have had a great year on the golf course,’’ he said.  “At my age (42), I was just a few strokes off making it to the Tour Championship.  That’s something I’m very proud of, and I came close (to winning) at Hartford and Pebble Beach. I worked very hard during the quarantine (March 13 to June 10) to stay in shape and keep my golf game sharp.’’

The Masters is still on his mind – but it’s the 2021 version and not this week’s.  He can get in by finishing in the top 50 when the 2020 season ends on Dec. 6.  After the Masters there’s two tournaments – next week’s RSM Classic at Sea Island, Ga. and December’s Mayakoba Classic in Mexico.

“If I had had a nice week in Houston I might have shut it down for the year,’’ said Streelman, “but now I’ve got some unfinished business. I’m on the bubble for the next Masters. If I have a solid week in Sea Island I could shut it down then.  If not I’ll play in Mexico.’’

If he’s in the top 50 after those two tournaments he’ll be in the 85th Masters next April.

“I hope to get my ranking into the low 40s or even into the 30s.  That’d put me in good position for next year, too,’’ he said.  “But if I don’t play well I’ve still had a great year.’’

Off the course Streelman was an active participant in helping the PGA Tour to become the first sports league to get back in action after the pandemic shutdown.

“I’m really proud of the way we worked together.  We had calls every week of the quarantine.  We talked to professional scientists, people smarter than us,’’ said Streelman.  “We figured out a way to make it work, and we did it together as a team.  This was really a shining moment for the tour.’’

 

 

 

Sluman, back in Chicago, will wind down his career on Champions tour

Life will change dramatically for Chicago’s only member of PGA Tour Champions after this week’s season-ending Charles Schwab Cup Championship in Phoenix. Jeff Sluman will enter the retirement phase of what has been a great 40-year career on both the PGA Tour and the 50-and-over circuit.

“I’m not going to go full-time anymore after this year,’’ said Sluman, now 63.  “I will still play golf, but don’t want to do it 28 weeks a year – maybe just half of that.  I’ll pick and choose (his tournaments).  I’ve earned the right to do that.’’

No question he has, but there’s more to it for Sluman than just a reduction in tournament appearances. He’ll also be back to being a full-time Chicago resident.

Sluman lived in Hinsdale for years when he played the PGA Tour, then opted to move to Delray Beach, FL., as a Champions Tour member while maintaining a part-time residence in Chicago’s River North. Now both the Florida and River North places have been sold and Sluman and wife Linda are living in an apartment in Clarendon Hills until their new place in Hinsdale is ready.

Giving up the warm weather in Florida in favor of Chicago winters apparently isn’t a concern.

“Growing up Rochester (N.Y.), it’s not that big a deal to go back to that horrendous weather we get in December, January and February,’’ said Sluman.  “We have family and friends (in Chicago) and it’s really important at this time in our lives to have them around.’’

Their daughter, Kathryn, also is working in Chicago after her recent graduation from Sluman’s alma mater, Florida State, and that’s a factor in the relocation as well.

Sluman’s golf game tailed off in this pandemic-impacted season. His Schwab Cup ranking (No. 70) is the lowest ever and his best finish was a tie for 26th on Sunday in the TimberTech Championship at The Old Course at Broken Sound in Boca Raton, FL . The course is a regular Champions Tour stop and is located just a few miles from Sluman’s former home in Delray Beach. He joined PGA Tour Champions in 2007 and the last of his six victories on the circuit was in 2014.

“I’ve been winding down,’’ said Sluman.  “It’s a common theme as guys get older.  You don’t puitt as well, and that showed up in my game the last three years.’’

In his days on the PGA Tour Sluman was a big-time player despite his 5-7, 140-pound frame.  He won a major title, the 1988 PGA Championship at Oak Tree in Oklahoma, and five other tournaments.  Two of the others came at the now defunct Greater Milwaukee Open, and Sluman also had a then-course record 63 at Cog Hill’s famed Dubsdread course when the Western Open was played there. (The record was since bettered by Tiger Woods’ 62 in a BMW Championship played there).

Rarely injured, Sluman played in over 1,000 PGA Tour-sanctioned tournaments, which translates to over 3,000 competitive rounds and over 59,000 holes.  Thanks to his consistent play over four decades he has over $30 million in career winnings, and he’ll be adding at least a little bit to that total in the next few years.

“There’s still golf in my future, just not as much,’’ said Sluman.  “This is a great way to wind down your career, semi-retire and still get those competitive juices going.  You can’t do that in any other sport.’’

His last full season isn’t one to remember fondly.  The pandemic led to eight of 27 Champions Tour tournaments being canceled and many more rescheduled. Still, the Champions was the first circuit to allow spectators and – unlike the others – conduct weekly pro-am events.

“It’s been difficult for everybody in the world,’’ said Sluman, “but personally we did all right.  My family’s healthy, and my daughter graduated from college.  She spent four-five months with us, which normally wouldn’t have happened.  She’s working now, but probably would have gotten an apartment in downtown Chicago earlier than she did. The pandemic is what it is, and we’re all going to have to live with it and get on with our lives.’’

HERE AND THERE

Doug Ghim, the PGA Tour rookie from Arlington Heights, had a $75,000 payday thanks to a tie for 14th at the Bermuda Open on Sunday.

Even though July’s John Deere Classic was canceled due to pandemic concerns the event’s Birdies for Charity program announced a $12.2 million payout to charities in the Quad Cities.

Wheaton’s Kevin Streelman and Northwestern alum Luke Donald are in the field for this week’s Houston Open – the last tournament before the Masters.

 

 

Rees Jones’ latest course design is a `lifetime dream’

Rees Jones has worked on a ton of golf courses —  about 230 world-wide, according to the best estimates. He’s  well known as “The Open Doctor’’ because he’s been brought in to get fine existing courses in shape for big championships. That number includes seven courses used for U.S. Opens, nine for PGA Championships and six for Ryder Cups.

Given all that, when Jones calls his work on his latest course “a lifetime dream,’’ you’d best take notice.

That’s what Jones said about his work on Coral Ridge Country Club, the only golf course within the boundaries of Fort Lauderdale. Play is expected to commence there in mid-November, and that can’t help but be an emotional time for the 79-year old designer who was a part of this facility even before he reached his teen-age years.

Jones’ father, Robert Trent Jones Sr., was the premier architect of his generation.  He designed the original 18 holes at Coral Ridge in 1954. The elder Jones had an office near the 17th hole for his architectural business and operated out of the facility’s clubhouse at the end of his career. He remained a member of the club until his death in 2000. Rees’ mother Ione, who died in 1987, was also very active in the club

Rees spent most of his formative years growing up in New Jersey, but he knew Coral Ridge quite well.

“We traveled every winter and stayed at a little hotel behind the course,’’ he said.  “I’ve been part of that facility all my life, so getting to embellish and restructure that course has been a lifetime dream because it was the fabric of both my family life and my design life.’’

In more definitive terms, Robert Trent Jones Sr. designed many more courses than Rees – about 450 of them — but one was special.

“Coral Ridge was his baby,’’ said Rees.  “And, when I was first there I was 11 or 12, so I was just past a baby.’’

In his childhood years  Coral Ridge was a swinging place.  The legendary New York Yankees’ pitcher, Whitey Ford, and Joe Namath, the great New York Jets’ quarterback, were members.  Pro golfers Julius Boros and Lew Worsham were also on hand.  Boros lived on the 11th hole and gave Rees golf lessons.

“Historically athletes really liked to hang out there,’’ said Rees.

And it wasn’t just athletes.  Dave Thomas, who created the Wendy’s restaurant chain, was one of the  Jones family’s “special friends’’

“Coral Ridge is a very special place.  There’s no other place like it in Florida,’’ said Rees. “My father loved Florida, and he went to the club every day and had a lot of friends there.’’

Five years ago Rees designed a par-3 course at the club, called “The Rees Nine.’’ It has been popular with higher handicappers and youngsters. As for the “new’’ golf course, Jones understandably likes everything about it. The par-72 layout measures 7,322 from the back tees.

“The routing is the same, though we slightly relocated the No. 9 and 13 greens,’’ he said.  “All the fairways were elevated, and drainage is now 1,000 percent better than it had been.  A big reason for the renovation was because the course needed a new irrigation system.’’

It got more than that.

“We also rebuilt all the greens,’’ said Jones.  “The par-3s are all distinctly different, and the par-5s are all distinctly different.  We put the original Robert Trent Jones bunker style in, and it looks like the old-time bunker style.  But it seems a brand new golf course now. The members had no idea how great it would turn out, and  I’m blown away by what we’ve accomplished.’’

Most of the work on the course was done in the heart of the pandemic, but didn’t slow down Jones’ architectural work.  He still had three associates traveling to other job sites, one of which was in Japan.

“We had 13 jobs during the pandemic.  I was lucky because I have a reputation,’’ he said.  “But it hardly feels like work because I love what I do.’’

His location helped, too.  Jones resides in Juno Beach and he says “golf is very healthy in the state of Florida. A lot of communities are built around golf courses.’’

Still a private facility, Coral Ridge had at one point divided its ownership among the four Joneses – Rees, his parents and brother Robert Trent Jones Jr., also a prominent course architect. Each owned 25 percent. When Jones Sr. passed on the course was sold to a local group headed by Phil Smith. Rees kept a 5 percent share then,  but sold it after designing The Rees Nine.

To this day Rees Jones remains a Coral Ridge member and believes the nearly completed work assures the club will have “one of the top golf courses in the Southeast.’’

“We started planning for this five years ago, and work began at the end of the (last) winter,’’ said Jones.  “We wanted to restore it back to the design my father had and make the changes much like he did during the life of the club. It was like Pinehurst No. 2, when (original designer) Donald Ross lived next door to that golf course.’’

Rather than the changes being made by the father, now those changes have been made by the son.

“We really accomplished the task,’’ said Rees.  “My father would be looking down on us and say `Well done.’’’

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hopfinger has begun his run for a PGA Tour card

This is a local golf success story that is still in the making. Lake Forest’s Brad Hopfinger put himself in position to earn his PGA Tour card in the last eight weeks of his tour’s season.  He has another full year before he can join golf’s premier circuit, but his chances of making it to the big time are much brighter now than they were a year ago..

Hopfinger, 31, has played on the Korn Ferry (formerly Web.com, Nationwide, Ben Hogan) since 2015. That was a few months after he won his only pro tournament, the 2014 Illinois Open. He turned pro in 2011 after winning that year’s  Illinois State Amateur.

Only 10 players own titles in both events, but Hopfinger found that carrying his in-state success to the next level wasn’t easy.  He never considered giving up, though.

“I don’t like the question, but that’s the reality of sports,’’ he said.  “I’m a professional golfer.  That’s what I do.’’

And lately he’s been doing it quite well. He started 2020 with only conditional status on the Korn Ferry. Now he’s inside The 25 – the circuit’s coveted status that assures advancement to the PGA Tour at season’s end.

“It doesn’t mean much with this wrap-around season,’’ said Hopfinger, “but when the year started, with conditional status, I wasn’t even sure when I could play.’’

Because of the pandemic the end point for determining The 25 was pushed back to the end of the 2021 season. The PGA and Korn Ferry circuits endured a three-month layoff before resuming play on June 11. Lots of tournaments on both circuits were either canceled or postponed.

Hopfinger was quarantined in Chicago for seven weeks, then had a brief tuneup in Scottsdale, Ariz., before the tournament scheduled resumed in Florida on June 11.

A tie for 16th in Mexico in the last tournament before the pandemic-induced stoppage of play assured Hopfinger more tournament opportunities once play resumed, and when it did he missed only one cut in the remaining 15 tournaments.

“(Mexico) was huge,’’ he said. “I wasn’t sure what would happen when we could get back out, but I did well in Boise (tie for sixth), which is one of our bigger tournaments.  I kept chipping away, and the momentum kept building.’’

In the last eight tournaments he had two finishes – a tie for third in Wichita and a tie for fourth at the Evans Scholars Invitational at Chicago Highlands in Westchester – that were even better than in Boise. Hopfinger went from No. 64 in the rankings all the way up to No. 21. He has some local company in The 25. Northbrook’s Nick Hardy is No. 15 after a solid rookie pro season, and Northwestern alums David Lipsky (11) and Dylan Wu (16) are also in the hunt for PGA cards.

Hopfinger grew up playing at Exmoor Country Club in Highland Park and still plays most of his Chicago  golf there.  In college he spent one year at Kansas and three at Iowa.  This season’s Korn Ferry season ended on Oct. 11 and the start of the 2021 tournaments hasn’t been announced yet. He is just thankful that 2020  went as well as it did in very trying times.

“The big thing for all of us was that it presented so many challenges,’’ said Hopfinger.  “We were all incredibly fortunate that the PGA gave us the opportunity to keep working, and doing it the right way. We were the first sport back, and that was good for us and also good for the game.’’

 

HERE AND THERE

 

Justin Fetcho has resigned after six seasons as men’s coach at Southern Illinois.  A former assistant at Illinois, Fetcho guided the Salukis to two Missouri Valley Conference championships and three NCAA appearances.  Assistant Eric Gilpin will guide the team on an interim basis. Fetcho plans to remain in Carbondale and pursue opportunities outside of golf.

Wheaton’s Kevin Streelman is sharpening his game with three weeks left before the Masters. A final round 64 on Sunday gave him a tie for 28th in last week’s Zozo Championship in California.

Winnetka’s Elizabeth Szokol, Illinois’ only LPGA player, had her best showing since the pandemic stoppage with a tie for24th in the Drive On Championship in Georgia on Sunday. Her best showing is a tie for 21st in the Australian Open in February, before the LPGA halted play for five months.

 

 

Unexpected problems didn’t faze Biancalana at Senior PGA tourney

In this chaotic year for scheduling golf tournaments the Illinois PGA did the best of the three major local organizations.  The pandemic forced the cancelation of the Western Golf Association’s two national junior championships and the Chicago District Golf Association had to call off its two biggest events – the Illinois State Amateur and Chicago District Amateur.

The IPGA, though, was able to salvage its four major events even though its tournament schedule couldn’t begin until July.

Last of the section’s majors was last week’s IPGA Senior Players Championship at Twin Orchard, in Long Grove. Black Sheep’s Kevin Healy won it, then led eight other of his competitors to O’Hare for a flight to the Senior PGA Professional Championship in Port St. Lucie, FL. A 10th IPGA member, Illinois coach Mike Small, was already there after opting to bypass the Players event.

Then things got very interesting – especially for Roy Biancalana, a veteran teaching pro who divided his time between St. Andrews, in West Chicago, and Blackberry Oaks, in Bristol, this year.

The Illinois contingent had to test negative for the Covid virus before they were allowed at the PGA Golf Club, where its Wanamaker and Ryder courses were used for the 32nd playing of the senior national championship. Their flight arrived in Florida at midnight on Tuesday and their tests were at 8 a.m. on Wednesday.  Results weren’t available until 7 p.m., meaning none of the players at Twin Orchard could get in a practice round.

Small did, but he had his problems, too.  He started the first round in spectacular fashion, going eagle-birdie on the first two holes, but – after finishing the first 18 in a tie 27th of the 266 starters – he became ill and had to withdraw from the tournament.

The field was cut from the 266 starters to the low 90 and ties after the second round, and only Biancalana; IPGA Senior Player of the Year David Paeglow, of Kishwaukee in DeKalb and David Hannon, a teaching pro at Links & Tees in Addison, survived to play in the third round. Paeglow and Hannon didn’t advance to Sunday’s final 18, when the field was limited to the low 70 and ties after 54 holes.

Biancalana didn’t think he did either when he finished his third round, but winds picked up after he was done and he managed to squeak into the field for the last round.  By then, though, the week had taken an understandable toll on him.

When he arrived in Florida he learned that his laptop was missing – and that was just for starters. His rental car broke down the same day he picked it up and a tooth that had been bothering him for awhile was acting up as well.

“It took two days to get a new rental car,’’ said Biancalana, “and I was on the phone trying to get the computer six-eight times a day.  That was distracting.  By the time I started the first round I felt tired.’’

Plus, he was also out $1,800 for the computer that was never located.

Though he had played the tournament courses many times in past years, the lack of a practice round was a problem.  Biancalana, who won two Illinois Opens and made the cut in a PGA Championship, has been a tournament player for 45 years and this was the first time he went into competition without a practice round.

“I did feel a little uncomfortable. I didn’t feel I read the greens right,’’ said Biancalana.  “I’ve played these courses hundreds of times, but it was a problem getting used to the grass.’’

He eventually did. Biancalana finished in a tie for 49th place, finishing at 5-over-par 292 for the 72 holes.  He was 23 shots behind champion Omar Uresti, who set a tournament scoring record with an 18-under performance and won by six strokes. The top 35 qualified for the KitchenAid Senior PGA Championship in 2021.

Biancalana, though, will be back to PGA Golf Club’s courses.  Thanks to a fifth-place finish in the IPGA Championship he’s qualified for the PGA Professional Championship there in April where he will be “playing against the kids.’’ Now 60, he plans to beef up through weight-training and diet changes in time for that competition