Len Ziehm On Golf

Ryder re-opening is a milestone well worth celebrating at PGA Golf Club

The Ryder Course has the most impressive first tee displays of all the PGA Golf Club courses.

PORT ST. LUCIE, Florida – December’s re-opening of the Ryder Course merited a celebration at PGA Golf Club – the winter home of the PGA of America’s 29,000 members.

The first course to open at the premier resort on Florida’s east coast was the last of its three 18-holers to get a facelift during a hectic five-year period. General manager Jimmy Terry re-opened the Ryder for public play on Dec. 1 and formally celebrated the event two weeks later with a media contingent that was quick to recognize the magnitude of the work that had been done.

“We started five years ago, and this is a joyful occasion for us to wrap it up,’’ said Terry. “Honestly, there has never been a better time to be a part of PGA Golf Club.’’

The sometimes frantic five-year period began with the hiring of Terry and highly-decorated director of agronomy Dick Gray, whose leadership in the renovation of the three courses led to his being honored as the Turfnet Superintendent of the Year in 2016. There’s no higher award in his industry than that one, but Gray downplayed the work on the Ryder layout. He called it “basically a grass job,’’ but those who had played the course before the renovation quickly realized it was much more than that.

The par-5 fourth hole became the Ryder’s most visually stunning hole after its recent renovation.

A little historical perspective is in order.

The PGA Golf Club opened its doors on Jan. 1, 1996, and the first tee shot was struck on what was then called the North Course. The second, called the South, was opened four months later. Both were Tom Fazio designs.

Ten years later those courses were renamed, the North becoming the Ryder in honor of Samuel Ryder – founder and namesake of the Ryder Cup – and the South becoming the Wanamaker, in honor of Rodman Wanamaker, whose name graces the trophy given annual to the winner of the PGA Championship. The Ryder features a colorful history display at the No. 1 tee and each hole has markers recounting big moments in the history of the match play competitions between the U.S. and European teams.

PGA Golf Club also has a third course, named in honor of its designer Pete Dye, that opened in 2000.

“The Dye is different just by its look,’’ said Gray. “The Ryder and Wanamaker, from being designed by Fazio, have a lot of commonality but they’re grassed a little differently.’’

The most memorable Ryder Cup at Medinah in 2012 is in the spotlight at the No. 18 tee of the Ryder Course. Click on photo for a better view.

Playing-wise, the Ryder has always been the most player-friendly of the PGA Golf Club courses.

“On the Ryder you don’t have to carry a tee shot over anything,’’ said Gray. “On the Wanamaker you’ve got to play over something (hazards), and that’s a big difference.’’

The Ryder still has its wide fairways and 11 lakes and ponds, but it also now has the same Celebration grass on its fairways and Tif-green putting surfaces that the Wanamaker and Dye layouts have.

“It’s now the same grass, the same quality of turf, on all three courses,’’ said Gray. “It should be consistent from green to green, hole to hole and course to course.’’

The change in grass, though, does create a new look from the old version of the Ryder.

“We reframed some of the holes, and that should change the look of the place and the way it plays,’’ said Gray. “Our players can read the hole from the tees better just because of the re-framing.’’

The hole that looks the most different on the Ryder since the renovation is No. 4, a par-5 that plays 484 yards from the tips. Water runs down the right side of the fairway and now comes into play more around the green as well. It’s the most visually stunning hole on the new course, but the new white sand bunkers are attractive throughout.

Course yardage is listed as an even 7,000 from the Medal, or back, tees. The first of the six tee placements is at 5,038 yards.

Big, white sand bunkers were a consistent challenge after the Ryder Course renovation.

The Ryder renovation was not in the original sequence planned for the five-year resort-wide renovation. It was to be done immediately after the Wanamaker redo, but the plan was altered by the scheduling of a series of big events in the 2017 season. The second course to be renovated turned out to be the Dye, as the club staff feared that the Ryder might not be ready in time for this year’s big events. The Dye was re-opened in November of 2016.

Now all that decision-making is over, several golf publications have honored the work done, club membership is up to nearly 1,000 and its finances are, in Terry’s words, “much improved. All is well for PGA Golf Club and its nearly 250 work families.

“We’re charged with delivering an exceptional product,’’ said Terry. “We came on board with a five-year plan to re-establish the PGA Golf Club to a level commensurate with the reputation of the PGA brand. There’s an expectation that comes with that, and we’re not scared of those expectations. We spent over $15 million in renovations and capital projects to re-establish this place.’’

So what’s next?

“We’re not done. There’a few other things to finish,’’ said Terry. “We’re at the next stage.’’

Sale of the fourth course, St. Lucie Trail, and the 35-acre PGA Learning Center will likely impact the timetable for when those “other things’’ will be addressed. Terry said there have been offers made on those properties but completion of the sales is not imminent.

Between the 11 lakes and ponds and striking bunkers the Ryder Courses offers lots of good views.

Rich in history, Miami Springs has maintained its connections with the past

Miami Springs will always have a prominent place in history books — and not just for golf.

MIAMI SPRINGS, Florida – The first thing you notice are the trees. The Miami Springs Golf & Country Club has lots of great big ones, and there’s a reason.

Trees played a big part in the design of this, arguably the most historic 18 holes in Florida – a state with over 1,300 courses, more than any other in the nation.

Unlike many of the old courses, both in Florida and elsewhere, many of the original trees were allowed to grow at Miami Springs. Over 70 were lost during Hurricane Irma in September, but not the controversial one blocking the green at the par-3 twelfth hole. Many of the course’s regular players were hoping that tree would have blown down, but it’s still standing.

Miami Springs is located beside the Miami International Airport and is just two miles from the famed Trump National Doral Miami resort and spa. Much to the credit of its operators, Miami Springs’ layout wasn’t seriously altered over the years. It still plays at 6,755 yards from the back tees, just like it did during its 30 years as the home of the Miami Open and the 34 years it hosted the North & South tourney – the largest minority-sponsored golf competition in the United States. Miami Springs was the first Florida course to admit minorities, in 1949.

Those were just the biggest of many big events held at Miami Springs. If only those trees could talk, they would have some interesting stories to tell. As it is, the operators of the course have thankfully embraced the course’s rich history. Its well documented on the course’s website.

Massive tree like these are the trademark at Miami Springs. Many are over 90 years old.

The present ownership, the City of Miami Springs, has a friendly staff and that adds to the good vibes you get when you visit the place. It starts with the waitress in the small but neat dining room and the starter at the first tee, who is quick to extol the course’s charm, and it extends all the way to the guy greeting us in the parking lot after our round. He wanted to sell us clubs and was reluctant to take no for an answer, but he eventually did with a smile on his face.

We were paired with a caddie from Doral and a young local who was well versed on the public courses in the area. Miami Springs is one of their favorites. It’s not just the course, either. Miami Springs also has the only lighted grass driving range within 25 miles.

From a historical perspective, Miami Springs isn’t the first course in the area. There was a six-hole layout at the Royal Palm Hotel in 1897 and Henry Flagler opened nine holes at the Miami Country Club in 1898. Miami Springs developed from the enthusiasm of a group called the Miami Coconuts, a group of businessmen who loved golf but had no place to play.

This massive banyan is the most memorable of the trees adorning Miami Springs.

Tubby Smith, the leader of the Coconuts, was editor of The Southern Golfer. Some historical accounts claim that he designed the course in 1922. The more widely held belief is that a respected Chicago architectural firm, William Langford and Theodore Moreland, did the work. At any rate, the course — built for $101,000 – opened as Dade County’s first municipal course in 1923 under the name of Miami Hialeah Golf Club.

It was originally owned by the City of Miami, which kicked in $3,000 for prize money to create the first Miami Open in January, 1925. The event drew all the great players of the era. Cyril Walker, the reigning U.S. Open champion, was there along with Walter Hagen, Long Jim Barnes, Jock Hutchison, Tommy Armour and Gene Sarazen. The reigning British Open titlist, Abe Mitchell, led wire-to-wire in winning the $600 first prize, however.

For the next 29 years the Miami Open was a sports highlight in south Florida. Sam Snead won it six times, including the last staging in 1955 when rain shortened the event from 72 to 54 holes. On the champions wall in the clubhouse he’s even listed as “Sammy Snead’’ in the early references.

There are plenty of famous names among the Miami Open champions

The Miami Open became an official PGA event in 1945 and was held in January as the traditional kickoff to the circuit’s winter season. In 1955 it was shifted to December dates with a $12,500 prize fund and still drew 25,000 spectators.

That, though, turned out the end of a great run. The PGA required a $15,000 purse the next year, and the City of Miami refused to pay it. Not only that, but the governmental body deemed the Miami Springs clubhouse an unsafe structure and burned it down in a fire drill.

Looking back at the Miami Open years, the tourney became a milestone when Arnold Palmer made it his first professional event in 1955, a year after winning the U.S. Amateur. He shot 78-74 and missed the cut by six strokes but Palmer returned to tie for eighth in the tourney’s last staging a year later.

While the Miami Open was the main event, Miami Springs also hosted a second PGA event during those years. The Miami Four Ball was part of Byron Nelson’s record 11 straight victories during the 1945 season.

Modern tee markers contrast with Miami Springs’ rich past.

With the PGA gone Miami Springs hosted the Major League Baseball Players outing from 1956-67 along with the North and South event. Those events brought such luminaries as Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra, Jackie Robinson, Althea Gibson, Nat `King’ Cole, Sugar Ray Robinson and Joe Louis to Miami Springs.

Seven years after the last Miami Open the PGA Tour established another longstanding tournament in Miami. Doral, with its Blue Monster course, hosted tournaments for 55 straight years until sponsorship problems led to the circuit putting a tournament in Mexico in its place on the 2017 schedule.

So now Miami is without a PGA Tour event? That doesn’t sound right. Doral, with its four 18-holers, will likely host big tournaments again. Miami Springs, most likely not.

Still, it was at Miami Springs where Florida’s rich golf history really got its start. That’s why it deserves such a prominent place among the 53 courses listed on the Florida Historic Golf Trail.

Two months later remnants of Hurricane Irma were still present at Miami Springs.

A year later, and the Arnold Palmer spirit still lives on at Bay Hill

ORLANDO, Florida – It’s not unusual for a golf destination to lose its owner or – in Florida, at least – to be hit by a hurricane. That’s just part of life.

When the owner, though, is the legendary Arnold Palmer and the hurricane is one of the most devastating in the history of the state, that changes things. Palmer’s Bay Hill Club and Lodge has coped with both challenging developments and – we found out first hand – is now dealing with another.

We visited Bay Hill to see how the club has adapted to life without Palmer, whose consistent on-site presence made the club like no other, and the aftermath of Hurricane Irma, which battered all of Florida and neighboring states in September.

All was well after the first night of our visit. The next day, though, we woke up to the sound of fire alarms. A water main burst caused damage to several rooms in the 70-room Bay Hill Lodge, a dilemma with the tourist season fast approaching but nothing that will have a long-lasting impact.

Palmer died on Sept. 25, 2016, while awaiting heart surgery near his long-time home in Latrobe, Pa. He was 87, and his passing triggered tributes worldwide. The man known by all as “the King’’ or simply “Arnie’’ did a lot more good things besides just winning golf tournaments. He was one of the most beloved sports figures of all time, and six months after his passing a statue in Palmer’s honor was erected at Bay Hill. It was completed in time for the annual Arnold Palmer Invitational – an annual stop on the PGA Tour.

Now, eight months and a hurricane after that tournament, we found Bay Hill still a vibrant place. Palmer is gone, but certainly hasn’t been forgotten. The memories of his good old days in tournament golf were always reflected in the décor at the lodge and more classic photos and memorabilia have been added in the past few months.

Given its history, this recent addition to Bay Hill may be the club’s most interesting piece of artwork.

The most interesting is a piece of artwork in the member’s lounge. (It’s important to note that everyone lodging at Bay Hill is a “member’’ during their stay and is treated as such).

Two Bay Hill members, John and Shirley Horn, commissioned the artwork, which was created by artist Bill Mack. You have to know the history of the piece to fully appreciate it; a casual glance won’t do.

Mack purchased the iconic metal sign that was built in 1923 to welcome visitors to Hollywood. It was located at Mount Lee in Los Angeles before Mack acquired it in 2007. He used the metal from it as a façade to paint portraits of illustrious movie stars, but included Palmer among his subjects. In Mack’s judgment, the 80-year old metal material “gives each painting a heartbeat, a sense of time and place.’’

The Bay Hill Lodge is the perfect place to showcase this unique artwork of Palmer. He’s been the subject of many other forms of art over the years, including the statue that has been a feature at Bay Hill since last year’s Arnold Palmer Invitational.

The Arnold Palmer statue has found a permanent home among the flowers of Bay Hill.

That statue was moved after the PGA Tour event and is now located behind, instead of in front of, a flower garden. Its present location is better than its former one, though there were some fears that the statue was vulnerable when Hurricane Irma visited. Those walloping winds couldn’t take down “Arnie,’’ however, and Bay Hill – unlike many courses in the area — escaped pretty much unscathed as well. The course was closed only five days for cleanup.

Otherwise, the most notable change at Bay Hill isn’t all that notable. There’s just some new signage on the club’s 27 holes, but the Champion, Challenger and Charger nines were as pristine as ever – even a few days after over-seeding and other maintenance procedures were performed.

Palmer’s love affair with Bay Hill started that day in 1965 when he won a charity exhibition event there that also included Jack Nicklaus and Don Cherry. Palmer immediately told his wife Winnie that he wanted to own the place. In 1970 he took out a five-year lease and became the owner officially in 1975.

The Charger nine isn’t used in the Arnold Palmer Invitational but it has more picturesque holes.

Groundbreaking for Bay Hill actually came in 1960 and architect Dick Wilson designed the original 18 holes, which opened a year later. Palmer’s influence, of course, took the place to new heights. In addition to the golf it now includes three restaurants, three lounges, six tennis courts, a full-service spa, an Olympic-size swimming pool, a marina and seven guest cottages.

Palmer’s presence, as much as the facilities, made Bay Hill the special place it has become. In our first visit, in 2014, he dined and socialized with his visitors. No other golf destination could provide that. It’s not the same with him gone, of course, but the aura continues with his daughter, Amy Palmer Saunders, and her husband Roy overseeing the operation. The spirit of Arnie lives on, as you can see from the scenes below, taken on and off the course.

`Little Copperhead’ upgrade bolsters Packard influence at Innisbrook

Eleven holes on Little Copperhead have water hazards but No. 14 looks different than the others.

PALM HARBOR, Florida – Sheila Johnson’s Salamander Hotels & Resorts company, had an extraordinary two days last week.

On Thursday Salamander re-opened its Jack Nicklaus-designed Hammock Beach course in Palm Coast, Fla. It had been closed for a 13-month restoration. The next day Salamander put on a festive celebration to mark the re-opening of the North Course at Innisbrook Resort, located in Palm Harbor – part of the Tampa Bay area.

Innisbrook’s North Course is frequently referred to as “Little Copperhead’’ because of its connection to the PGA Tour layout that’s also on the premises. The big Copperhead is more famous as the site of the Valspar Championship in March.

The renovation at Little Copperhead took about half as long (six months) as the one at Hammock Beach but it may go down as more impactful. Little Copperhead is part of one of Florida’s busiest resorts and it’s going to draw plenty of raves once the tourist season kicks into high gear in the next few weeks.

The work done at Little Copperhead centered on the putting surfaces.

Director of golf Bobby Barnes envisioned an update of the North Course for two years before it became a reality.

“We replaced all 18 greens, and it was a project that was tremendously successful,’’ said Mike Williams, Innisbrook’s managing director. “We finished on time, under budget and have a project well done.’’

Williams has been in his current job only eight months, but he had worked at Innisbrook previously when Hilton was the resort’s manager. Williams spent 25 years working at various locations for Hilton, then was executive vice president for Crescent Hotels for five years before deciding to “retire’’ at Innisbrook. Williams and his wife will soon move into a house they are having built near the No. 10 green of Innisbrook’s Island Course.

His eight months on the job, though, haven’t been the life of a retiree. In addition to dealing with the uncertainly of Hurricane Irma’s October visit that wreaked havoc with the entire state Williams worked immediately to gain approval for the Little Copperhead renovation. That delighted Rob Koehler, superintendent of the North and South courses at the resort, and Bobby Barnes, the director of golf. Koehler and Barnes had dreamed of doing the North Course renovation for two years.

“The greens were over 40 years old,’’ explained Barnes. “We switched to TIFEagle Bermuda, the same as at Copperhead and the Island Course, and we re-sodded all the bunker collars.’’

The new greens on Little Copperhead played like they’d been there for years at the Grand Opening..

Those new greens played during the grand opening round as if they had been there for years. Those who have visited the course in the past will also note three new trees on the first hole, two more on the right side of the No. 18 fairway and three palms that now outline the island green at No. 5. Koehler managed virtually the entire project.

That’s particularly noteworthy, in that no new architect was deemed needed. The original layout designed by the legendary Larry Packard is still very much in evidence. The sizes of the greens were expanded where shrinkage had occurred over the years, and that will allow for additional pin placements now. That’s always a good thing.

Packard designed all four courses at Innisbrook, and Little Copperhead merits a special place in the resort’s history. Nine of its holes were once part of the Copperhead course, which opened in 1972. Packard designed the two Copperheads nine holes at a time and the back nine of the North Course was once part of the premier layout.

The biggest difference between the “big’’ and “little’’ Copperhead is length. Little Copperhead – the North Course – measures only 6,325 yards from the back tees. It has an unusual quirk with back-to-back par-3s at Nos. 15 and 16 and plays to a par of 70. Big Copperhead is 7,209 yards and a par 71.

Though already hosting a professional tournament for 25 consecutive years, both the U.S. Golf Association and PGA Tour have toyed with the idea of bringing a major championship to that layout. It hasn’t happened yet but, down the road, who knows?

No. 18 received two new trees to enhance another of designer Larry Packard’s trademark doglegs.

Packard finished his storied career – he designed over 600 courses — at Innisbrook. Before moving there in 1984 he worked on the courses with his son Roger. Though not achieving the notoriety of his father Roger was a successful course architect as well. He started working with his father in the Chicago suburb of Hinsdale and, teaming with two-time U.S. Open champion Andy North, designed two of Illinois’ best courses — Cantigny, which has 27 holes in the Chicago suburb of Wheaton, and The General, at Eagle Ridge Resort in Galena. Roger created three 18-holers at Eagle Ridge.

The first course the Packards worked on together, though, was at Innisbrook. They joined forces on the Island Course, which opened in 1970 as Innisbrook’s first 18-holer. Recently lengthened and renovated, it has hosted U.S. Open qualifiers, the Ladies PGA Legends Tour and the NCAA Championships. The Packards worked on courses together for about 15 years before Roger eventually went out on his own.

In addition to his work in Illinois, Roger designed Sweetwater – a course located on what was then the Ladies PGA Tour headquarters in Sugar Land, Tex. The LPGA later moved from that area to its present location in Daytona Beach.

Larry Packard also created the South Course, which contrasts with the others at Innisbrook in that it is more links-style with 10 water hazards. Larry was an Innisbrook resident until his death in 2014 at the age of 101.

Roger was on hand at Innisbrook to celebrate the 2015 re-opening of the Copperhead course following a major renovation. He had done most of his work in China in recent years before being stricken with esophageal cancer. Roger moved back to Palm Harbor to seek the aid of the same care-giver that his father had in the final months of his life. Roger died on Oct. 14 in Palm Harbor. He was 70.

The island green at No. 5 has been enhanced with the addition of some new trees.

Good golf is more than just another attraction in the buzzing Daytona Beach area

The par-3 fourth is typical of the beautiful holes offered at Sugar Mill, one of Florida’s best courses.

DAYTONA BEACH, Florida – It might be difficult to look at Daytona Beach as a golf destination but — without question — you should.

Admittedly the self-proclaimed “World’s Most Famous Beach’’ is the main attraction in the Volusia County area. Or maybe it’s the Daytona International Speedway, the recently renovated world’s largest motor sports stadium and the site of the annual Daytona 500.

Golf, though, is very much a part of the Daytona scene as well. After all, it is the headquarters of the Ladies Professional Golf Association. LPGA International has two courses on its premises, the most prominent being the Jones Course – a Rees Jones creation that re-opened in September after a greens’ renovation during the summer months.

The Jones and its companion Hills Course (an Arthur Hills design) will host the final stage of the LPGA Qualifying School from Nov. 27 to Dec. 3 and the Jones will be the site of the Symetra Tour Championship from Oct. 5-8, a season climax that includes pro-ams on the days both before and after the main event.

Those upcoming events will create the highlight of the area’s 2017 golf season, but there are plenty of other playing options for visitors within a 20-mile radius. Our three-day, three-course visit was highlighted by a round at Sugar Mill Country Club, a Joe Lee design in New Smyrna Beach.

Lee, who died in 2003, was a well-respected Florida-based architect who made a rare venture out of the South to design the Nos. 2, 3 and 4 courses at Cog Hill, in Lemont, Ill. The last of Lee’s courses at Cog Hill, better known as Dubsdread, was the long-time home of the PGA Tour’s Western Open.

Sugar Mill doesn’t have the stature of Cog Hill or some of Lee’s other designs, but it is one of the very best courses in Florida, believe me, and it has the added benefit of offering 27 holes. Sugar Mill is a private club, so getting on the course might not be easy. Non-member tee times are frequently available in the summer months and occasionally available on weekdays during the winter, however. I’d recommend giving Sugar Mill a shot. If you’re successful getting on you’ll find it well worth the effort.

Architect Ron Garl’s creative bunkering made Victoria Hills a most challenging layout.

Another, very different, course is more readily available for play in New Smyrna Beach. We’re big supporters of the Florida Historic Golf Trail, a collection of about 50 courses around the state that have been opened to the public for at least 50 consecutive years. You never know what you’re going to get when you test a Historic Trail layout, but you will get a good taste of golf history in the state that has the most courses – over 1,300 of them.

We’ve tried about a dozen Historic Trail courses over the years and the New Smyrna Beach Golf Club is the second-best of the lot (trailing only El Campion, at Mission Inn Resort in Howey-in-the-Hills).

Construction of the New Smyrna course was started by the Donald Ross and Associates architectural firm in 1949 but Ross wasn’t really involved. He died in 1951 and the 18 holes weren’t completed until 1956. The present version represents a Bobby Weed re-design and was completed in 2006.

Mounds defined many of the fairways on the Jones Course at LPGA International.

Our three-day tour of the Daytona area concluded with a round at Victoria Hills, in DeLand. The tour turned out a most-interesting one, in that we played three very different courses in three very different weather conditions and all three had their own charm. Victoria Hills, designed by prolific Florida architect Ron Garl, opened in 2000 and was the toughest of the three layouts.

Garl created a challenging course around 104 big, deep bunkers and elevation changes that are most unusual for Florida courses. While LPGA International and Sugar Mill are located in well-established areas, Victoria Hills is in the heart of a construction boom. Houses are being built around the course and clubhouse upgrades are also in the works. When they’re completed Victoria Hills will become one of the most attractive golf options in Volusia County.

The Ponce de Leon Inlet Lighthouse, built in the 1880s, is one of many sites worth seeing in the Daytona Beach area.

Others – particularly Cypress Head and Spruce Creek in Port Orange; Halifax Plantation in Ormond Beach; and Hidden Lakes, The Preserve at Turnbull Bay and Venetian Bay – all in New Smyrna Beach, also come with glowing recommendations. Spruce Creek is noteworthy, as it’s located in a secluded, fly-in gated community.

In reality, the attractiveness of the golf in the Daytona Beach area is enhanced by the other offerings available. They work hand-in-hand in making this area of the world’s most popular golf/vacation destinations because there’s so much to do there.

In July, for instance, the International Association of Golf Tour Operators – 13 industry leaders from Costa Rica to Australia – visited the area for their North American convention and didn’t just play golf. They also took spins around the Daytona International Speedway track, which has been active with a variety of events about 300 days a year since a $400 million 2 1/2 -year renovation project was completed in January of 2016.

The Speedway isn’t just a tourist hot spot during Speed Week in February. Daily tours are also available and the facility’s museum reflects that sport’s rich history. It’s interesting, whether you’re an auto racing aficionado or not.

Dining and lodging options abound and, if you want a quick stop to see something different, try out the Ponce de Leon Inlet Lighthouse. It’s 175 feet high – the second-highest lighthouse in Florida – and you can climb to the top of it or stay at ground level to check out some replica homes from the 1800s.

The Walk of Fame was just one of the highlights offered at the Daytona International Speedway.

Hanse’s new Black Course adds to what has made Streamsong a special place

There’s lots of good holes at Streamsong, but my favorite is No. 7 — a par-3 on the Blue Course.

STREAMSONG, Florida – There are over 1,300 golf courses in Florida, more than any other state in the nation, but one facility stands head and shoulders above the rest.

Streamsong Resort, located in the central portion of Florida, has three of the very best 18-holers – not only in the Sunshine State but in the entire United States — now that the Gil Hanse-designed Black Course has opened for public play.

“To have three courses is great,’’ said Scott Wilson, Streamsong’s director of golf. “It gives our guests more variety, and it helps us to be considered in the big picture of resort golf. Pebble Beach, Bandon Dunes, Kiawah, The American Club, Pinehurst – they all have four or more.’’

Yes, it’s a big deal that Streamsong now has a third course – and it’s something special thanks to the designer’s innovative touches. But our comprehensive three-day visit also left us wondering more about what will be coming next

Punchbowl greens are a rarity, and this one can’t be seen from Streamsong Black’s No. 9 fairway.

Streamsong had barely opened its doors in 2012 when we showed up unannounced for a quick tour on a get-acquainted mission that didn’t involve the hitting of a single shot. The intentional brevity of that visit underscored to us just how far Streamsong has come in only five years. Then it had two golf courses that – based just on the reputations of the architects – were sure to be well received by early players.

There was no lodge then. Now there’s a big, state-of-the-art one that has 216 rooms. Lodging is also available at the Clubhouse, and there are four upscale dining restaurants plus a rooftop lounge on the property. The resort also offers such amenities as archery, sporting clays and bass finishing, but golf overwhelms the others, and more is certain to come down the road. The Mosaic Company, Streamsong’s owner, has 16,000 acres to create more golf options on what once had been a phosphate strip mine.

How that land will be used remains to be seen but one very dedicated – though admittedly low level – employee told us that the goal was to eventually have nine courses, each with its own clubhouse. Wilson said that won’t happen and is cautious in discussing any growth possibilities.

This windmill is the logo for Streamsong Black, and is also the key point of reference for players on the course.

“Our goal has been to open three courses, make sure we’re doing it right and make sure our guests are having a good time,’’ he said.

That’s already happening and, while the growth of golf overall has been slow in recent years, it’s never lingered at Streamsong. An expansion to at least five courses in a relatively short period of time seems a given. That’s the number of courses at Bandon Dunes, the Oregon golf mecca that – like Streamsong – is managed by Chicago-based KemperSports.

Comparisons between Bandon and Streamsong will be inevitable as more players visit both hotspots. I already have my opinions on that, but will save them for a later date.

For now it’s time to celebrate the arrival of the Black Course. Its formal opening festivities in late September were sold out for months in advance.

Like the Red, designed by Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw, and the Blue, designed by Tom Doak, the Black is basically a walking-only course. Carts were available in the afternoons during our visit but walking – either with a caddie or a rickshaw (a basic pull cart) – was much more appropriate and a better way to enjoy the unique Streamsong experience.

Streamsong’s understated logo and masculine decor reflect the resort’s sleek architectural style.

First-time visitors should be aware of two things: Streamsong doesn’t come cheap (it shouldn’t surprise anyone that this kind of quality golf would come with a commensurate price tag) and a degree of physical fitness is a requirement. Our caddies told us that playing the Black Course meant an eight-mile walk and the other two were about a mile less.

For the sake of comparison, a walking round on the Black didn’t seem quite as tiring as similar rounds at either Chambers Bay, the 2015 U.S. Open site in Washington state, or Erin Hills, the 2017 U.S. Open venue in Wisconsin.

Considering how much hype the Black opening created in the golf world I didn’t feel the new course overshadowed Streamsong’s other two layouts. For me the hole with the best wow factor on the property was No. 7 on the Blue, a par-3 that could play anywhere from 97 to 203 yards with a walk across a bridge needed to get from the tee to the green.

As for a favorite course among the three I agreed with all of my playing partners from the three-day visit. (They came from Illinois and Virginia, played all three courses during their stay and we had not met any of them prior to our rounds together). All of us liked the Red the best, for whatever the reason.

The Lodge, with its 216 rooms, is the main gathering place for Streamsong’s visitors.

The Black, though, has some features that the others don’t. Hanse’s fame as an architect took off with his creation of the Brazil course that hosted the 2016 Olympics golf competition, and Streamsong Black has been described as “bigger, broader and bolder’’ than that course in Rio de Janeiro.

After playing it for the first time your No. 1 memory will be the highly unusual punchbowl green on No. 9. It’s about 60 yards in width and depth, but you can’t see it from the fairway. There are two putting surfaces at No. 3, another par-4. The bunkers are numerous and eye-catching throughout the course because of their sharp, ragged-shaped edges. Water comes into play only minimally, at Nos. 3 and 18.

The Black, the only Streamsong course that plays to a par of 73, has three par-5s on the back nine and the course – at 7,311 yards from the back tees – has a maximum length about 200 yards longer than the Red and Blue layouts. The Black is built on 300 acres and has 86 acres devoted to fairways and 11 to putting surfaces.

The teeth from prehistoric inhabitants on the land on which Streamsong was built were used in this lobby exhibit at the Lodge.

Hanse’ creativity extended beyond his 18 holes. He included an extra 340-yard par-4 cutoff hole that finishes at the clubhouse for players who want to play just nine holes. It’s part of a state-of-the-art practice facility dubbed The Roundabout. There’s also a two-acre putting green, called The Gauntlet, available and the course configuration allows for play in six-, nine- and 12-hole loops to create a variety of playing options.

The second-highest point on the property is on the Black Course, and you can see the other courses from there. All have their own flavor.

“They’re all a lot of fun to play. You have to use your imagination over all the property,’’ said Wilson, who doesn’t see Streamsong hosting a truly big tournament like a U.S. Open or PGA Tour event despite the obvious golf riches available.

“It’s not that we wouldn’t want the national attention,’’ he said, “but could we handle it with those galleries?’’

Understandably there’s some doubt about that, and the scheduling of any such event would also have to fit into Florida’s weather patterns. Still, the U.S. Golf Association has played one of its national championships at Streamsong and smaller Ladies PGA or Champions Tour events might make for a good fit there, too.

Architect Gil Hanse made good use of rugged terrain in creating Streamsong Black.

Panhandle courses are providing a fresh twist for Florida golfers

Forced carries, like this colorful one on No. 8 at St. James Bay, are typical of Panhandle courses.

PANAMA CITY BEACH, Florida – You would think, given all the years I’ve spent travelling through Florida and now residing there, that the state’s golf scene couldn’t provide much in the way of surprises.

Then we visited two destinations in the Panhandle, the sometimes forgotten section in the northwest portion of the state. That was an eye-opener.

Make no mistake, golf is an amenity in the Panhandle. Fishing and beach life are the most popular attractions that bring visitors there. The golf, though, shouldn’t be taken lightly. In fact, it’s getting a big boost these days as course operators strive to make it a tourist destination as well, and Chicago-based KemperSports is a major part of that effort.

KemperSports took over the management of the Bay Point Golf Club in Panama City Beach nearly two years ago and most recently assumed a similar role after Chicago-based investors purchased the St. James Bay course in Carrabelle. They’re very different places, but their courses will definitely be of interest to serious golfers.

Bay Point, which has two 18-hole layouts, has an interesting history. Its Lagoon Legends course had been considered the most difficult course in Florida – if not in the entire United States. While a course with a slope rating in the 140s is considered a major challenge, the Lagoon Legends’ number was an astounding 157.

Island greens are one thing, but St. James has two of its women’s tees set off on islands.

Robert von Hagge, a prolific course architect from the 1960s into the 1980s, was the designer. He put severe moguls in the fairways, and they became infamous to the course’s players.

“It must have been really hard. You could hit a drive down the fairway and never find it,’’ said Ryan Mulvey, now the general manager at Bay Point. So, in 2004, the owners of the course made the unusual decision to bring in the Florida-based Nicklaus Design Group to soften the course.

Since the trademark of courses designed by the legendary Jack Nicklaus is that they’re always challenging, that must have made players wonder what a Nicklaus “softening’’ might be.

Nicklaus’ son Gary was the lead designer for a thorough renovation that was completed in 2005. The moguls disappeared and the green complexes were toned down. There’s still a touch of the strange – the sharp double dogleg par-4 fifth hole with two forced carries – but the course is certainly playable and the slope is now a more reasonable 143 from the back tees. Water comes into play on 15 of the 18 holes.

KemperSports came aboard on this project when New York-based Torchlight Investors took over the course along with the very pleasant Sheraton Bay Point Hotel in 2015. Bay Point is Torchlight’s only venture into the golf industry. Since then the number of rounds on the two courses climbed from 35,000 in 2015 to 52,000 last year, and the projection for 2017 is 57,000.

St. James head pro Rob Burlison introduces one of his eye-catching statues.

Golfers don’t just come just to play the now renamed Nicklaus Course. They also find the Meadows layout a nice complement. Unlike the Nicklaus Course, the Meadows is very tight with beautiful oak trees, small greens, lots of doglegs and no forced carries. Willard Byrd designed the Meadows Course in the 1970s.

Pricing is also unusual for Florida, in part because the Panhandle doesn’t have many courses. Panama Beach City is about 60 miles into Florida from the Georgia and Alabama state lines. It’s a five-hour drive from Atlanta, four hours from Birmingham, Ala., and New Orleans and eight hours from Nashville. But Tallahassee, Florida’s capitol city two hours to the east, provides the most out-of-town visitors.

Though Florida represents a get-away for golfers residing in cold climates, the golfing price structure at Bay Point doesn’t reflect that. The presence of beach-goers has led to greens fees being higher in the heat of summer than they are in the winter.

General manager Ryan Mulvey shows off the new patio at Bay Point.

“In the winter we have the lowest rates of the courses in our area (roughly $60 for the Nicklaus and $50 for the Meadows) and in the summer we can charge the highest rates (about $90 for the Nicklaus and $70 for the Meadows),’’ said Mulvey. “It’s just the market that we’re in. It’s challenging in that’s it’s not a golf market. There are only three (comparable) courses in our market, but once people get here, they love it.’’

Bay Point has one offering that the other courses don’t have. GolfBoards – eight of them – were offered starting last July and they’ve added to the Bay Point experience.

St. James Bay, the other KemperSports facility in the Panhandle, is two hours to the east and in a different time zone. There are some joint marketing projects in place between the facilities, and getting from one to the other offers a nice drive though small towns along St. Andrews Bay and the Gulf of Mexico.

St. James Bay, recently sold by original owner Eddie Clark to the Chicago group (called MJM Carrabelle), was designed by Jacksonville, Fla.-based architect Robert Walker. It opened in 2003 and is the only golf course in Franklin County. Its home base of Carrabelle is a hotbed for tarpon fishing.

GolfBoards are among the new features offered to golfers playing at Bay Point.

The St. James Bay course stands out for its golf offerings from its abundance of forced carries. You get a wake-up call from the very first one, when you arrive at the No. 1 tee, and some of the other holes even have two of them. The forced carries won’t be popular with every player, but the wetlands and plant life throughout the well-conditioned course will be appreciated by all.

Golf Advisors has consistently listed St. James Bay among its most popular courses in Florida and more recently rated it No. 83 among its top 100 nationally. Its staff, headed by six-year head professional Rob Burlison, is a friendly bunch.

Unlike Bay Point, St. James Bay doesn’t consider itself a resort. Though it has comfortable, upscale lodging available, St. James Bay is a stand-alone public golf course.
It doesn’t have as many nearby attractions as Bay Point but St. George Island is 30 miles away and the town of Apalachicola has an unusually nice array of dining and shopping options.

No. 5, a dogleg left par-4, is the most controversial hole on the Bay Point layout.

Florida courses amazingly recovered quickly from Hurricane Irma

PGA Golf Club, in Port St. Lucie, got into the swing of things, hosting Women’s Golf Day on Saturday.

From the standpoint of this hurricane rookie and new Florida resident the damage incurred from Hurricane Irma was devastating – and it was. The entire state was impacted by one of the biggest hurricanes ever to hit the Sunshine State in mid-September – and that’s saying a lot because hurricanes are an annual concern for Floridians.

As big as Irma was, however, the state’s golf courses were spared serious damage based on reports gathered personally as well as from media outlets and golf friends from around the state.

With the Florida tourist season starting to kick in, we’ll be doing further research and will make at least three trips to various parts of the state in the next five weeks. We will provide reports from the scene from golf facilities on both coasts as well as the central portion of the state.

Until then, here’s a sampling of how a cross-section of Florida courses survived Irma’s wrath.

This big tree went down at The Evergreen Club, an indication of how strong Hurricane Irma was.

PGA Golf Club, the designated winter home of the PGA of America’s 28,000 members in Port St. Lucie, resumed normal operations on Sept. 16, just five days after Irma touched down in Florida, and its PGA Learning Center and dining facilities reopened two days before that. PGA Golf Club encompasses four 18-hole courses but one, the Ryder layout, is undergoing a renovation, and won’t re-open until early December.

“We were fortunate in terms of the amount of damage at our facility, and our staff did an incredible job with the cleanup,’’ said Jimmy Terry, PGA Golf Club’s general manager.

The Evergreen Club, a popular nearby public facility in Palm City, had the most eye-catching damage – a huge tree that was uprooted on its fourth hole – but golfers resumed play on nine holes of the course after only two days of cleanup and it’s now completely open though there’s still signs of tree damage.

More than 250 trees went down at Innisbrook Resort, home of the PGA Tour’s Valspar Championship in March, but three of the courses re-opened quickly. None of the downed trees landed on a green or a tee box. Innisbrook’s North course was undergoing a renovation when Irma paid her visit, but its re-opening is planned for early November.

With its new greens, the Jones Course at LPGA International is ready those the Symetra Tour Championship Oct. 5-8.

TPC Sawgrass, home of the PGA Tour’s Players Championship in Ponte Vedra, was hit harder though only 200 trees went down. Dye’s Valley was re-opened first and The Players’ Stadium Course opened on Friday.

LPGA International, a few miles south of Sawgrass off I-95, wasn’t hit nearly as hard as the PGA Tour headquarters were. Kate Holcomb, of the Daytona Beach Area Visitors and Convention Bureau, reported the damage throughout Daytona’s 20-plus courses as “cosmetic, requiring cleanup but not long-term recovery.’’

Mike Glenn, general manager of LPGA International, said all that resort’s courses but one were open after only a couple days of cleanup and the well-regarded Jones Course opened last week after a summer greens’ renovation project was completed.

“The courses are in great shape. You wouldn’t know there was a storm,’’ said Glenn.
Sailfish Point, in Stuart – a waterfront community in the southern part of the state, closed two days before Irma arrived and opened a few days after Irma left.

Hurricane Irma couldn’t knock down this tree on No. 7 at The Evergreen Club — but it came close.

The more centrally-located facilities didn’t feel the brunt of Irma. Reunion Resort, which has three courses in Orlando, needed only one day for cleanup before re-opening. Streamsong, near Lakeland, was fully operational on its Red and Blue courses and the new Black Course opened on Friday.

Another of our personal favorites, Mission Inn in Howey-in-the-Hills, had only minimal damage on its El Campeon and Las Colinas courses but was very much involved in the hurricane recovery effort. The resort housed a number of energy company employees and transformed its ballroom into a makeshift shelter for 200 senior citizens forced to evacuate a nearby assisted living facility.

Hammock Beach, in Palm Coast, had its Conservatory course open three days after Irma hit. That resort also provided lodging for over 50 of its employees and their families who didn’t feel safe in their homes during the storm. Hammock’s Jack Nicklaus-designed Ocean Course, though, remains closed. Last year’s visit from Hurricane Andrew created severe damage there and the recovery plan was upgraded to a restoration, leaving the course closed for a year. It’s expected to open later this fall.

Wisconsin’s Grand Geneva Resort is approaching two milestones

Not many resorts have courses as colorful as The Brute and Highlands at Grand Geneva.

With the big tournaments held recently at Erin Hills and Whistling Straits and the opening of Sand Valley, it may seem that luster could be off the Wisconsin golf destination that started all those good things. Don’t you believe it, though. Grand Geneva is doing just fine, thank you.

Dave Hallenbeck, director of golf at the Lake Geneva resort, has seen it all in his four decades there. He’s impressed with what’s gone on in golf throughout Wisconsin as well as what’s gone on at his home base.

“Blackwolf Run (Kohler), The Bull at Pinehurst Farms (a Jack Nicklaus design in Sheboygan Falls), Erin Hills, Sand Valley. These are world-class golf properties that I never would have expected in Wisconsin. Geneva National has been very successful. They have a wonderful facility over there,’’ said Hallenbeck. “Keeping up was our biggest challenge.’’

But Grand Geneva has more than kept up with what’s been going on around the Badger State, and that goes for neighboring Illinois as well. The resort is an easy drive from all parts of the Chicago area and its courses are well-known to players from that area.

Coming up in 2018 is the 50th anniversary of the resort and the 25th anniversary of its ownership by Marcus Corporation. Both milestones are meaningful, because no Wisconsin destination has the history that Grand Geneva has, and that’s all been beautifully chronicled in a coffee table book, “A Grand Tale: The History of Grand Geneva Resort,’’ published by Nei-Turner Media Group.

Grand Geneva director of golf Dave Hallenbeck has a prize possession — one of the original golf bags from the resort’s days as the Playboy Club.

The building of the Playboy Club-Hotel started it all. It was completed in 1968 and brought visitors by the droves to Lake Geneva. Hugh Hefner was, of course, the man behind that.

Hallenbeck arrived during the Playboy days – for the first time. At age 19 he was a lifeguard at the Playboy Club’s swimming pool – one of the first heated outdoor pools anywhere.

Now 63, he returned after college to work as an assistant under the late head golf professional Ken Judd 40 years ago. Golf wasn’t part of the equation when Hefner started the Playboy Club. Skiing was available when the resort opened. Golf arrived shortly thereafter when architect Robert Bruce Harris designed The Brute – a course way ahead of its time when it opened.

“At the time it was massive, and that’s what Playboy wanted,’’ recalled Hallenbeck. “Big greens, big bunkers, one of the longest courses at 7,300 yards from the tips. In the 1960s that was unheard of.’’

There’s still a mystique about The Brute. It’s always been very near the top of my frequently changing list of favorite courses. The most amazing thing about it now is the fact that the course still operates with its original greens. That’s unheard of. Even Hallenbeck admits that something will have to be done at some point.

“Over 50 years the greens have settled, and we’ll have to address those issues,’’ he said. “We’ve got to tear them up, but that’s a whole year project, and that’s hard to do when you’re packed every day. Overall The Brute has withstood the tests of time, which is amazing.’’

The Brute may be approaching 50 years, but that doesn’t detract from its beauty.

The Brute was built after the resort was under Playboy Club ownership. Playboy departed in 1981, selling the resort to Chicago-basked Americana Hotels Corporation. The resort endured two foreclosures before Chicago’s JMB Realty Corporation took ownership in 1988 and present owner Marcus came on in 1993.

Marcus took a resort that had fallen on hard times and revitalized it with golf a big part of the process.

Grand Geneva’s other course is more historically significant than even The Brute. It opened as the Briar Patch, a joint design effort by legendary designer Pete Dye with a then young Jack Nicklaus functioning as a consultant. Nicklaus was at the height of his storied playing career, having won the 1965 and 1966 Masters tournaments before being brought to the resort before the Briar Patch’s completion in 1967.

The Briar Patch was Nicklaus’ introduction to golf architecture, but won’t go down as one of his premier architectural efforts. Architect Bob Cupp was brought in for a 1996 renovation.

“He redid the whole course,’’ said Hallenbeck. “From a playability standpoint it’s a very nice golf course.’’

The course was renamed The Highlands after Cupp completed his work, which included the development of fescue fields. The end result is a beautiful course, one different from The Brute, with exceptional greens. Both are popular with visitors, many of whom don’t share my clear preference for the older course.

Just what this sculpture is remains a mystery, but it’s a landmark at No. 16 on The Brute.

Unlike Blackwolf, Whistling Straits and Erin Hills, the Grand Geneva courses haven’t made a splash hosting big tournaments. They won’t, either. Instead of being a tournament venue, The Brute and Highlands are popular destinations for charity events, and that’s been great for Hallenbeck.

“My goal was to raise $1 million for charities in my career,’’ he said. “That was my goal 40 years ago. At the end of this year we will have raised $25 million.

Grand Geneva hosts about 25 charity events each year. The Easter Seals Golf Classic and National Italian Invitational celebrated their 40th anniversaries this year. Juvenile Diabetes, United Way, Make-A-Wish – they’ve all benefitted from hosting tournaments at Grand Geneva.

Fescue fields, created by architect Bob Cupp, greatly enhanced the renovated Highlands course.

“I’ve been on up to 20 charity boards,’’ said Hallenbeck. “When I started on them I was the kid. Now I’m the senior member, and I’m working with the grand kids of some of the people I had worked with on some of these charity committees.’’

He calls children’s charities “my passion,’’ and worries that there’ll be no one ready to pick up those projects when he retires in about two years. That’s a concern for later on, plus – with his two children getting married this fall and already settled in the area – Hallenbeck doesn’t plan on straying very far.

For now the immediate issue is what will happen at Grand Geneva as it heads into its second 50 years.

“I suspect the newest thing will be just trying to be as competitive as we are with everything,’’ said Hallenbeck. “Marcus is so good at doing what they do. They’ve already expanded the villas.’’

Grand Geneva also offers more activities and dining opportunities than most Midwest golf destinations, and the views are stunning throughout. That suggests the second 50 years could be even better than the first.

Fountains beside the fairway spice up the finishing hole on The Brute course.

What’s going on at Pinehurst? Plenty, as usual

Pinehurst has offered the best in American golf since 1895, and nothing has changed since then.

PINEHURST, North Carolina – There’s one thing that you can always be sure of when you visit this premier golf destination. There’s always something new and exciting in the works. This time that’s been taken to extremes.

Always looking for something different, our visit this spring provided that in an unusual way. Our two rounds were on courses about to face the wrecking ball. That did two things: it showed what resort owners judged in need of updates and it tantalized us for the possibilities of what lies ahead.

Both the courses we played were created by well-respected designers in the early 1990s. Mid South Golf Club, an Arnold Palmer design, was a favorite of mine off previous visits. Pinehurst No. 4, created by Tom Fazio, provided the stage for a most fun round in our first (and undoubtedly last) tour of the course.

Mid South will be closed on June 5, Pinehurst No. 4 on Sept. 13.

The design for the new par-3 course at Pinehurst has visitors excited about what’s to come.

The greens at Mid South will be changed from bentgrass to Champion Bermuda, the same procedure that was performed on the companion Talamore course across the street last summer. The greens will be enlarged by 20-40 percent by Southport, N.C.-based Shapemasters, a firm that has previously worked with courses designed by Jack Nicklaus, Rees Jones, Pete Dye, Greg Norman and Tom Fazio.

A hard-packed sand base will be installed as part of a cart path improvement and new condos are being built near the Nos. 9 and 18 greens. Mid South is also adding basketball and pickle ball on one of its tennis courts and putting a new barbecue and hospitality area in near the swimming pool. That’s part of a $6 million capital improvement plan initiated by Talamore’s parent company at its four resorts in North Carolina and Pennsylvania.

At the Pinehurst Resort, however, the changes will become even more dramatic as soon as this fall. The Pinehurst No. 4 renovation will be a big deal if for no other reason than it’s being directed by the hot architect Gil Hanse, most noted recently for designing the Brazil course that hosted last summer’s Olympics golf competition.

Hanse will be putting in wire-grass, which transformed Pinehurst’s famed No. 2 course for the historic back-to-back U.S. Open and U.S. Women’s Opens of 2014. He’ll also eliminate many of the bunkers from the original design. Both moves will enhance a course that has never been short of players in the past.

Condo construction is underway near the big green serving the Nos. 9 and 18 holes at Mid South.

Pinehurst No. 4 is just part of a bigger transformation at the resort, however. The Deuce, a chef-driven restaurant, is a welcome new addition to the clubhouse and work has already begun at two of its other courses. When everything is done some less frequent visitors might feel they won’t recognize the place.

Already the No. 1 holes on Pinehurst No. 3 and Pinehurst No. 5 have been closed. As soon as next week construction will begin on a par-3 course where those old holes had stood.

A birds-eye view of what’s going on at Pinehurst’s No. 5 course will be revealing.

Pinehurst No. 3 already has a new first hole and two new par-3s. That was required in its transformation to a par-68 course. The new first hole of Pinehurst No. 5 is to open on May 1.

And that’s not all. Thistle Dhu, the popular putting course, is being moved to a much better location. It’ll be in full view of patrons enjoying all that the clubhouse has to offer.

All these changes may not have really been necessary, but they’re all for the good. Pinehurst has always been a trendsetter when it comes to golf destinations, and that’s been underscored by the projects now in the works.

Bunkers were a trademark of Pinehurst No. 4, but they’ll be greatly reduced in the upcoming renovation.