Len Ziehm On Golf

Want to get serious about your golf? Check out the PGA Learning Center

Rain — thanks to a $75,000 movable canopy — can’t stop practice sessions at PGA Learning Center.

PORT ST. LUCIE, Florida – The PGA Golf Club, with its four courses, has no trouble attracting golfers. There’s more to the place than those four courses, however.

Most notably, there’s the PGA Center for Golf Learning and Performance. This is where the really serious golfers hang out. Very few golf facilities have anything like it.

“We’re not a driving range. We’re a practice facility,’’ said Patrick Brosnihan, the director of operations. “There aren’t a lot of these facilities.’’

There is only one bigger one than the PGA Golf Club’s Center for Golf Learning and Performance. That’s at Orange County National Golf Center & Lodge in Orlando, FL. It’s spread over 45 acres and features a circular range that is the place to be on Demo Day, the traditional opening of the annual PGA Merchandise Show in January.

The PGA Center for Golf Learning and Performance is on just 35 acres but it has something its rival doesn’t have — the official connection with the PGA of America.

Club-fitting, club repair and fitness and video programs are housed in Learning Center headquarters.

“I’m representing what the PGA badge stands for,’’ said Brosnihan. “It’s the biggest sports organization in the world.’’

The PGA of America has 28,000 members and PGA Golf Club is their winter home. They wanted a practice center on the premises and got one about four years after the first two courses – then called North and South and now the Wanamaker and Ryder, both designed by Tom Fazio – had opened for play.

Dedication for the Learning Center was on Aug. 16, 2000, and the third PGA Golf Club course, the Dye, also opened that season. (The fourth, now called St. Lucie Trail, became part of the resort facilities in 2014 after existing as a private club for 26 years).

Many of those PGA members make good use of the Learning Center facilities, but for a variety of reasons. There’s a lot to digest when you visit this place.

Patrick Brosnihan has been the operations director at the Learning Center the past two years.

On one end of the property is the 23,650-foot square foot PGA Education Center. Opened in 2001 as a training forum for PGA apprentice professionals, it can accommodate over 400 students with its nine classrooms and 1,600 square-foot computer testing and club repair laboratory. Budding club professionals must go there to meet their certification requirements.

“You get eight years to finish,’’ said Brosnihan “It reminds me of residency requirements for a doctor.’’

The smaller building next to the Education Center is the Rotunda. It once housed a small museum of golf memorabilia but now is used for social gatherings.

Dominating the complex is the Learning and Performance Center and all that goes with it. Basically it’s a golf park.

The indoor portion is dedicated to technology. There are two monitors devoted to club fitting. They can provide numbers relative to such things as launch and spin-rate. Want to see if the clubs you own – or are considering for purchase – are right for you? This is the place to go. All the top equipment manufacturers have their products available.

“You can’t fit clubs without the numbers,’’ said Brosnihan. “Eighty-five percent of golfers aren’t fitted properly. I can understand why some people don’t want to be inside. They want to see where the ball goes outside, but there’s so much more technology inside. We want to get the (club-fitting) numbers first.’’

The sand comes in all types and colors at the Learning Center’s bunker practice area.

Video equipment as well as the fitness area directed by performance coach Tommey Lyons is also under the roof as is the club-repair operation, which works with between 300 and 400 clubs a week during the heart of the season. A golf psychologist isn’t on the staff yet, but adding a mind coach is under consideration.

There are all sorts of options for instruction and practice options outdoors. Brosnihan’s teaching staff is headed by lead instructor Jamie Fordyce and Billy Ore, who was working on the club-fitting side during our visit. There’s also three independent contractors who teach there, headed by Nancy Quarcelino, rated among the nation’s Top 100 teachers by Golf Magazine.

In addition to giving lessons, they put on a one-hour clinic every day but Sunday, with each focused on one segment of the game – pitching and wedges, driver and fairway woods, irons and hybrids, bunker and lob shots, chipping and putting.

All models of equipment are available for players who want to go through club-fitting procedures.

Their lessons can also be tailored to individual preferences. Individual, group, father-son, husband-wife — you name the type of lesson you want and the staff can fit your needs. There are also a wide variety of golf schools available as well as a Sports Academy that offers an eight-week program of activities that includes other sports as well as golf.

“It’s whatever you want. We can create anything,’’ said Brosnihan.

His mainstay staffers aren’t the only ones giving lessons, though. About 80 PGA club professionals from other areas of the country rent private practice areas, called pods, on the back end of the facility and bring their students to Florida for more focused training than might be possible at their home clubs.

The facility will also be used by 20-25 college teams and six-10 high school teams during the winter months. They come to train and play in tournaments on the nearby courses. The most celebrated of the Learning Center regulars is also the youngest. Jessy “The Rocket’’ Huebner, age 7, has won over 60 age group tournaments, most notably the 7-and-under division of the U.S. Kids Championship in 2016.

Well-regarded teaching professional Nancy Quarcelino gets a daily clinic session underway

If you are looking for tour players, you won’t find any at the Learning Center – with the possible exception of Jim Herman. While most of the many Florida-based tour players are based in nearly Jupiter, Herman worked at the Learning Center for years, still comes occasionally for Sunday games and has been given Lifetime member status.

Brosnihan admits that the Learning Center would be hard-pressed to stay alive without the nearby courses. They have driving ranges, but not the extensive facilities offered at the Learning and Performance Center. A challenge is getting the players using the courses that are just a mile or two away to test it out.

Teaching pods are all set up for professionals who want to bring their students to the PGA Learning Center.

PGA Golf Club is more than halfway through an upgrading program that involves the courses and their clubhouses as well as the Learning Center, which has been somewhat restructured. Director of agronomy Dick Gray, recently named the TurfNet Superintendent of the Year nation-wide, created a new practice chipping area and the other areas were spruced up as well.

They include a 7,000-square foot putting green, built to U.S. Golf Association specifications, and over 100 full-swing practice stations. Movable canopies are available to facilitate practice even in rainy weather.

The bunker practice area once was billed as having specific types of sand in each bunker to accommodate players from all parts of the country. That claim is no more. Now they’re just bunkers, though the color and texture of the sand varies.

“We did have all types of sand in our bunkers, but we couldn’t guarantee what type of sand each one was,’’ said Brosnihan. “We didn’t want to mis-represent.’’

And then there’s the three practice holes at the far end of the facility. They’re not always in operation but can offer an on-course experience for those wanting that after working at the other practice areas. Purchase of a one-day pass will allow you to do that.

Video analysis is just one method that Learning Center instructors use to teach their students.

Palm Beach has a par-3 course that is unlike any other

Palm Beach’s finishing hole gives players one last good look at the Atlantic Ocean and its parasailors.

PALM BEACH, Florida – I’ve always believed that the Nickol Knoll course in my former backyard is the best par-3 course in Illinois. As for the best par-3 in the entire United States I had given the nine-holer at Big Cedar Lodge in Branson, Mo., a slight edge over Three-tops, at Treetops Resort in Gaylord, Mich.

Now, though, I’m not so sure. A visit to the Palm Beach Par-3 here has confused the situation for me.

The Palm Beach Par-3 opened in 1961 as a combination effort by designers Dick Wilson and Joe Lee, and Raymond Floyd did a complete remodeling job in 2009. Actually, Floyd did much more than that. A Palm Beach resident at the time, the world golf Hall of Famer offered to re-design the course and did his work gratis. He also helped raise the $7 million needed to get the job done.

Palm Beach’s Par-3 dates back to 1961, but Raymond Floyd gave it a new look in 2009.

Needless to say, Floyd’s name is on the welcoming sign and his 18 holes are marred by only the fact that you have to cross busy Ocean Boulevard twice on the front nine in the course of your round. Otherwise the course couldn’t have a better location. The Atlantic Ocean is on one side and the Interecoastal Waterway on the other.

This course has a lot of other things going for it, not the least of which is the clubhouse fare. On our visit – in the heart of the Florida tourist season – the golf operation ran smoothly and there were even more people around in early afternoon on a Sunday to enjoy the dining. The Palm Beach Par-3 isn’t your usual par-3 snack shop. It has a full-service dining at its Fresco restaurant that attracts plenty of non-golfers.

As for the course, Golf Digest has called it “one of the best par-3s you can play anywhere.’’ As most of you know, I’ve always been skeptical about the ratings systems used by the various golf publications, but I can’t quibble with Golf Digest listing the Palm Beach Par-3 in its “Top 50 Most Fun golf courses in America.’’

The Intercostal Waterway is a most obvious landmark on most of Palm Beach’s front nine.

The course was in fine condition (especially the greens) when we visited. It also has a well-stocked pro shop and good practice range. The green fees don’t include use of a power cart, and that’s significant.

Walking has no negative stigma here. Pull carts are available and players walking with pull carts, those carrying their own bags and those riding on power carts shared the course comfortably on our visit. That’s not something you always find on par-3s that offers a bit of a challenge.

Holes range from 81 to 211 yards from the tips and three sets of tee options make it interesting for all level of players. Only four of the holes from the front tees are over 100 yars, the shortest being 49 at No. 9. Inevitably it’s the ocean views – all of them on the back nine – that most set this course apart from every other par-3, though.

Palm Beach’s clubhouse was a hopping place when we made our mid-winter, weekend visit.

Palmer Design Company shows off Shingle Creek’s new course — near Bay Hill

Course designer Thad Layton tees off during Shingle Creek’s media preview outing.

ORLANDO, Florida – The late Arnold Palmer’s Bay Hill Club is just a 15-minute drive from Shingle Creek Golf Club, an 18-holer connected to the Rosen Shingle Creek Hotel and in Palmer’s final days his design company was in the process of renovating the nearby layout.

That renovation is now completed and the course has opened to rave reviews.

Thad Layton, the lead designer on the project, said Palmer was most interested in how the new Shingle Creek course would differ from Bay Hill – site of the PGA Tour’s Arnold Palmer Invitational each March.

Palmer had played the original Shingle Creek course, designed by a less known local architect David Harman, at least two times since its opening on Dec. 1, 2003. That was even before the accompanying hotel had been built.

Shingle Creek provides a nice blend of challenging golf with a user-friendly design.

Layton took on a re-design that required the course to be closed for six months, though its Brad Brewer Golf Academy remained opened while the work was being done. The finished product is a fun course in which Layton completely re-designed three holes (Nos. 12, 13 and 14) and redid the other 15. The greens in particular underwent major changes. The original ones were relatively flat. The new ones have plenty of interesting undulations.

Brewer, who opened his Academy at Shingle Creek after directing the teaching operation at Bay Hill, said the course became a busy place immediately after its recent re-opening. His teaching staff includes Chris Spalla, a transplanted Chicagoan, and the director of golf, David Scott, got his start in the business at Naperville Country Club.

The Rosen Shingle Creek Hotel offers a steady presence to Shingle Creek golfers throughout their rounds.

A milestone for the world’s first replica golf course

Designer Ron Garl takes aim at his re-creation of the famed “postage stamp” green at Royal Troon.

OCALA, Florida – The world’s first replica golf course, turned 30 this week.

Ron Garl, one of the most prolific of all course architects, was the brainchild for the layout at Golden Ocala Golf & Equestrian Club. Back in 1986 he picked out eight holes from five of golf’s most famous courses – Augusta National and Baltusrol in the United States and Royal Troon, Muirfield and St. Andrews from Europe – and worked them into his design at Golden Ocala.

The concept of replica – also called inspired or tribute – holes has been tried numerous times by other architects since then. Few, though, have been as successful in creating the magic of the famous holes as Garl was at Golden Ocala.

To commemorate the 30th anniversary of both the concept and the course Garl hosted a small outing at the club for a variety of players – members who knew the course well all the way down to first-time visitors.

Some of the replica holes are, understandably, better than others. The most photogenic was Golden Ocala’s No. 13 – a re-creation of the “road hole, or No. 17 at Scotland’s St. Andrews. Being Garl’s cart partner in the outing, I benefitted from an architect’s eye view of the construction process. Needless to say, building the “road hole’’ was a difficult, time-consuming effort 30 years ago but the work then is still paying off today.

Having not seen the original European holes in person, my choice as the best of Golden Ocala’s replica holes was its No. 6 – the par-3 over-the-water sixteenth at Augusta National. That’s always one of the best holes for drama during the Masters tournament. (From my experiences at that annual April epic, it’s the best).

Architect Ron Garl has worked on over 100 Florida courses and over 250 world-wide.

Garl stressed the attention to detail that went into making each replica hole as concise as the original. Citing various reasons for selection including how the holes would fit into the topography available, Garl picked three holes from Augusta National. In addition to No. 16 he opted for another par-3 – Augusta’s No. 12 and Golden Ocala’s No. 11 – and the short par-5 13th at Augusta (No. 12 at Golden Ocala).

St. Andrews was the only other course to have more than one hole selected. St. Andrews’ opening hole – the first hole in golf – is No. 14 at Golden Ocala.

Other than the trio at Augusta National, the only other hole from an America course selected was No. 4 at Baltusrol – the par-3 fifteenth at Golden Ocala.

Royal Troon’s No. 8 – with its famous “postage stamp’’ green – is Golden Ocala’s par-3 fourth hole and the next hole in the rotation is a replica of Muirfield’s No. 9, a par-5.

“This is a very special place for me,’’ said Garl, who was in the 10th year of his 40 designing courses when he created Golden Ocala. The process back then included obtaining precise photographs of the famous holes – a project that cost $50,000 a hole 30 years ago.

What’s also interesting is that the replica holes, while a nice feature, don’t dominate the course. The “Garl originals’’ aren’t bad, either. Garl rates the par-4 third hole as his overall favorite on the course and the other non-replica holes fit seamlessly into the rotation.

The “road hole” at Scotland’s St. Andrews has a look-alike in No. 13 at Florida’s Golden Ocala.

Garl returned to Golden Ocala to supervise a major renovation in 2001 and convinced the Roberts family members, owners of the course now, to acquire more land that would facilitate an expansion of the practice facilities. That led to the building of two fullscale practice holes that were a big hit with players from the LPGA in 2015 and 2016.

The LPGA contested the Coates Classic as an early season event for two years, and it has been the biggest competition yet held on the course. The players said crowds resembled those at the U.S. Women’s Open, but the tourney was discontinued after two stagings.

Garl, meanwhile, has emerged as perhaps the most prolific architect in his native state. Based in Lakeland, he opened his first course in 1972 and has designed over 100 in the Sunshine State. The best-known of those, in addition to Golden Ocala, are TPC of Prestancia in Sarasota, Fiddlesticks in Fort Myers and Palm Beach Polo in West Palm Beach.

Moving beyond Florida, Garl has designed or renovated over 250 courses and worked in 10 other countries. He’s completed such award-winning courses as Wooden Sticks in Canada, Alpine in Thailand, Gudymaral in Colombia and Nine Dragons in China and is currently deeply involved in a course for the King of Morocco.

Ron Garl’s favorite hole at Golden Ocala isn’t a replica one. It’s this pleasant-looking par-4 third hole.

HERE AND THERE: No doubt about it: The Loop is Best New Course of 2016

We played The Loop in both directions and felt the experience was well worth the walk.

The Loop, Tom Doak’s 18-hole reversible course in Roscommon, Mich., isn’t just something new. It’s also been declared something very good.

Golf Digest and GOLF Magazine, the golf industry’s two leading publications, both honored The Loop with its top awards. Golf Digest named The Loop as the Best New Public Course of 2016 and GOLF Magazine named it the Best New U.S. Course You Can Play.’’

Forest Dunes owner Lew Thompson wanted “something industry changing’’ when he decided to add a second 18 holes to his facility and he got it with The Loop.

“Tom Doak delivered by providing us some of his best work, and the feedback by our guests has been tremendous,’’ said Thompson. “The genius of the concept is how it looks and plays completely different when you play in the other direction.’’

Doak, who operates out of Traverse City, Mich., had long considered the reversible concept and was able to create the course while working close to home.

The Loop is a walking-only experience, with caddies an available option. The two different layouts alternate directions on a daily basis.

Tom Doak’s bunkering provides a challenge, no matter which direction you play The Loop.

Another Nicklaus redesign

The Banyan Cay Resort in West Palm Beach, FL. Is getting a new Jack Nicklaus Signature Course. Chris Cochran, Nicklaus’ senior design associate, will join Nicklaus in leading the design team. John Sanford, of Sanford Golf Design will also be involved when construction begins in February. Sanford grew up playing the course and his father had been its director of golf.

Formerly known as Presidents Country Club, the Banyan Cay club has been home to 36 holes of golf but one of of the courses is being transformed into a residential development consisting of 100 single family homes, a boutique hotel, new clubhouse, villas and a 20-story condo tower.

Torrey Pines North is open again

Tom Weiskopf has completed his renovation of the North Course at Torrey Pines, in LaJolla, Calif. The $12.6 million project was completed in nine months and the city-owned public course is now considered a rival to the world famous South Course, which hosted the 2008 U.S. Open and will be the venue for that tournament again in 2021.

Weiskopf reduced the number of bunkers from 59 to 41 and the average green size increased from 4,500 square feet to 6,400 as part of the North renovation. The front and back nines were also reversed, allowing golfers some spectacular ocean and canyon views when they finish their rounds.

Bits and pieces

The Major Series of Putting has moved its 2017 championship to the fall. It’ll conclude in Las Vegas beginning on Oct. 27 after a nation-wide series of over 250 qualifying events.

Sean Foley, one-time coach of Tiger Woods, has announced the formation of the Foley Performance Academy at Eagles Dream in Lake Mary, FL. It’s based at Timacuan Golf & Country Club and is a full-time residential program that offers training to all levels of golfers.

Chicago-based KemperSports has been selected to manage the Forest Creek Golf Club in Round Rock, TX. The course will be renovated and re-branded as a top-notch municipal course.

The rugged International Course at Omni Orlando Resort at ChampionsGate, a Greg Norman design, has reopened after undergoing an $860,000 renovation of its greens approaches and bunkers. The reclaiming of 42,000 square feet of greens has added an average of three additional pin positions per green.

Presidio Golf & Concordia Club, in San Francisco, is now undergoing major renovations following the merger of the historic Presidio Golf Club and the Concordia-Argonaut Club. It’s an $8.5 million project. Presidio was founded in 1895 and Concordia-Argonaut has roots dating back to 1864.

Hokuala Resort, a newcomer to Hawaiian island of Kauai, has completed renovations to its Ocean Course. That layout is the home to the longest stretch of consecutive oceanfront holes in all of Hawaii.

Play was limited at The Loop in 2016. That won’t likely be the case once the course opens in 2017.

Jupiter has its big-time clubs — but don’t underestimate Jupiter Dunes

Pleasant clubhouse is in keeping with the atmosphere at Jupiter Dunes.

JUPITER, Florida – This town on Florida’s East Coast, just north of Palm Beach, has long attracted top golfers. It’s home for Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods, Greg Norman, Dustin Johnson, Luke Donald and a host of others.

Those pros have a wide range of championship courses to play, but there’s another course in town that shouldn’t be missed.

Jupiter Dunes is an 18-hole par-3 layout that is owned by two homeowner associations. The holes, ranging from 70 to 178 yards, weave between the housing options. I had lived off arguably the best par-3 course in Illinois, Nickol Knoll, but that Arlington Heights Park District facility had only nine holes.

Not only is Jupiter Dunes at 18-holer, the holes feature all sorts of challenges – water, out of bounds, tricky greens, big bunkers. It’s a real challenge, though definitely a fun one. It may be the best par-3 that I’ve ever seen, though the nine-hole layout at Big Cedar Lodge in Branson, Mo., is hard to ignore. After all, the PGA Champions circuit used it for one of its annual tour stops.

Jupiter Dunes has attracted golfers for 43 years.

Jupiter Dunes is a much different than Big Cedar. We were looking for a course that would provide an upgrade for my 8-year old grandson. He’s also past the First Tee program in North Carolina and been to some low-level camps. Jupiter Dunes represented his first try at an 18-hole course.

The architectural icon Tom Fazio designed the original Jupiter Dunes in 1974. There wasn’t much around it then. In 2005 the original course was re-designed by Florida-based architect Tom Pearson and now it’s surrounded by a variety of private clubs.

Still, Jupiter Dunes won’t get lost in the shuffle. It’s an affordable course that is very suitable for walking with a friendly staff. Unfortunately there’s no practice range – just a few spots for golfers to hit shots into nets — but there is a big putting green and the course itself lends itself to beginners and recreational players of all age levels. Pros have had a 27-hole money event there, as well.

Even in a state rich in golf facilities, that’s not easy to find. American golf overall needs more Jupiter Dunes.

The third hole, one of many with a tee shot over water, falls between the lodging at Jupiter Dunes.

Going public was a big boost for the PGA’s St. Lucie Trail course

No. 5, one of St. Lucie Trail’s toughest holes, starts off with a most demanding tee shot.

Of the four golf courses in PGA Golf Club, one stands out – at least historically.

The winter home of the PGA of America’s 28,000 members includes three 18-hole courses on the grounds of PGA Village – the Wanamaker, the Ryder and the Dye. PGA Golf Club also encompasses one course across Interstate 95 about two miles to the east. That one is now called St. Lucie Trail Golf Club. It didn’t always have that name – in fact, this is the third one since the 18-holer opened for play in 1988. Still it is, at least technically, the start of what is now the PGA Golf Club.

St. Lucie Trail stands apart from its three companion courses under the banner of the resort by more than location. The PGA of America purchased what is now St. Lucie Trail in 1995, before any of the other PGA Golf Club courses were ready for play. Not only is St. Lucie Trail older than the Wanamaker, Ryder and Dye, it also differs in that it has a lengthy history as a private club.

Like the Wanamaker and Ryder, however, St. Lucie Trail also has the benefit of the Fazio touch and the Fazio name means a lot in golf course architectural circles.

Sound confusing? A little history will be helpful.

Port St. Lucie was by no means a golf hotbed in the early 1980s, when PGA Tour player –turned-course architect George Fazio led the way in the creation of a private course called The Reserve near what is now PGA Golf Club. His nephew Jim Fazio was the course designer when the club opened its doors in 1984.

A new sign has been a welcoming site for golfers visiting St. Lucie Trail.

Jim’s work in the area, though, didn’t end there. Four years later he would design the course at St. Lucie West Country Club, also in Port St. Lucie. The Reserve, now called The Legacy, is not part of the PGA Golf Club but it was the first entry in Jim Fazio’s design resume which now numbers about 30 courses in the United States and another 30 in foreign locations like Japan, Spain, Italy and the Caribbean Islands.

The second and third Jim Fazio designs were Hawks Nest, in Vero Beach, which opened in 1986, and St. Lucie West Country Club, which was ready for play in 1988. St. Lucie West was the forerunner to what is now St. Lucie Trail.

The PGA of America already owned St. Lucie West when it started its PGA Golf Club as a resort in 1996. That’s the year the North and South courses (now the Ryder and Wanamaker) opened for play. Both were designed by Tom Fazio, Jim’s younger brother. The Dye course, a Pete Dye creation, was added in 2000 and is the only course in the group not designed by a Fazio.

St. Lucie West Country Club remained private and continued with that title for about 18 months after the purchase. Then the PGA renamed it PGA Country Club and kept it private for nearly two decades.

That changed on Nov. 1, 2014, when general manager Jimmy Terry announced that the club – after an 18-month revitalization program that included work on the tee boxes, fairways and greens and additional landscaping, all supervised by director of agronomy Dick Gray – was going public.

Along with that announcement came the name change, to St. Lucie Trail, and a new logo. The club would also become the national testing ground for player development programs originated by the PGA of America to grow the game both locally and nationally.

A forced carry over vegetation off the tee makes No. 17 a most memorable par-3.

As a private venue, PGA Country Club may have seemed somewhat of an after-thought for the resort facilities. Its change to a public venue, though, triggered a five-year plan to upgrade the entire resort.

“The first year we started working on agronomy and started working on the greens at St. Lucie Trail,’’ Terry said. “The second year we renamed the course, made it semi-private and changed the pricing structure to make it affordable for people to play.’’

Nate Manis, who became St. Lucie Trail’s head professional when the course went public, witnessed the change up close and personal.

“There was a lot of hype around the community, but it took a good solid month before we were rocking and rolling,’’ he recalled. “Still that first year we were very well received. It was a huge boost for us.’’

That showed in the numbers. Rounds played in the first year as a public venue nearly hit 30,000. As a private club the rounds were closer to 15,000 per year.

Major work on the clubhouse and renovation of the Wanamaker and Dye courses would follow the St. Lucie Trail announcement and the Ryder will get a similar facelift this fall to conclude the five-year effort to upgrade the entire four-course facility that also includes a short course and spacious Learning Center.

A waterfall adorns the outside of the clubhouse at St. Lucie Trail.

“At the end of the five-years we will have touched every course and the clubhouse,’’ said Terry. “The response from our members has been very positive. Our private club memberships have been the highest they’ve ever been and the rounds of golf are back to a level where we’re happy with them.’’

Getting more players on what had been its private club is just one of the benefits of the hard work over the last three-plus years. The St. Lucie Trail layout hasn’t yet received the recognition that other Jim Fazio designs in Florida have but that could change as more players experience its challenges.

Best known of Fazio’s other designs is Trump International in West Palm Beach – incoming U.S. President Donald Trump’s first venture into golf. Hawks Nest, in Vero Beach, and El Diablo, in Ocala, have also been recognized in various state rankings and St. Lucie Trail might be next. There is now a growing number of players (myself included) who believe that it may be the best of the PGA Village/PGA Golf Club courses.

After playing all five in the span of a month, St. Lucie Trail seems the most challenging. It is a tighter driving course than the others with some particularly memorable holes.

No. 6, a 418-yard par-4 that well deserves its status as the No. 1 handicap hole, comes to mind first. It has the most demanding tee shot on the layout and that hole follows another good hole. No. 5 is a 415-yard par-4 with a pond on the right and an uphill approach to the green.

The back side isn’t as tough as the front but Nos. 14, 17 and 18 – a par-4, par-3 and par-5 respectively – merit post-round discussion. The 17th may be the prettiest hole on the course and the 18th, at 550 yards, is the longest.

St. Lucie Trail, which plays at 6,901 yards from the back tees, is the only one of the four PGA Golf Club courses under 7,000 yards. Longest is the Dye at 7,221 yards. The Dye also has the highest rating (75.7) while the Wanamaker has the top slope (145). St. Lucie Trail has a 73.4 rating and 142 slope.

Visitors to St. Lucie Trail will find a well-conditioned course that is both challenging and fun.

West Palm Beach muny has retained its relevance as 70th season approaches

West Palm Beach offers golfers one of Florida’s best conditioned municipal courses.

WEST PALM BEACH, Florida – Florida leads the nation with over 1,300 public golf courses, and it also has something that many other states with serious golfers should consider – a trail that pays homage to its older layouts that have best withstood the tests of time.

The Trail hasn’t been heavily promoted but we have made it a must to visit some of its courses every year. There are about 50 of them spread across Florida. They come in varying states of conditioning and popularity but all have welcomed public golfers for at least 50 consecutive years.

These courses aren’t just fun. They reflect the history of the area in which they’re located, and few do that as well as West Palm Beach Municipal Golf Course, which will celebrate its 70th season in 2017.

West Palm was created in 1947 by Dick Wilson, a Florida architect of major stature, but its story really goes back much further than that – to 1921 when it was first known as the West Palm Beach Country Club.. As a private club it couldn’t survive for long, especially after a 1928 hurricane wrecked the place.

Waste bunkers are hazard on both sides of the fairways throughout a round at West Palm.

In 1929 the club’s owners donated it to the city of West Palm Beach with the understanding that it would be operated as a municipal course. It became the forerunner to what is now West Palm Beach Municipal Golf Course.

The federal government took possession of the original course during World War II and a decision was made to move the facility to its present location and rebuild the course. The result was one of Wilson’s first creations. Then a Delray Beach resident, he would later design or renovate about 60 courses, many in partnership with Joe Lee. The best known of those are Bay Hill and Pine Tree in Florida, LaCosta in California and the Dubsdread course at Cog Hill in the Chicago area.

Dubsdread opened in 1964 and would later host the PGA Tour’s Western Open and BMW Championship from 1991 to 2007. Wilson passed on in 1965 at the age of 61.

You’re better off not hitting into this area at West Palm, though you can usually escape from. it.

His West Palm Beach design was a novelty — a course with no water on it – and it was immediately well received. After a clubhouse was opened in 1951 West Palm was ready to host PGA Tour players and from 1956 through 1962 it was the site of an annual tournament, called either the West Palm Beach Open or the West Palm Beach Open Invitational.

The tourney’s highlight playing was in 1959 when Arnold Palmer was the champion. He was 7-under par after rounds of 72, 67, 66 and 76 after the regulation 72 holes and needed four more holes to beat Gay Brewer and Pete Cooper in a playoff to claim the $2,000 winner’s check. Palmer’ victory was the 13th of the 62 he would claim on the PGA Tour.

Cooper (1958) and Brewer (1961) were also winners of the tournament, which usually offered a $20,000 purse. Other champions were Al Balding (1957), Johnny Pott (1960) and Dave Ragan (1962). The tourney ended as a PGA Tour event after Ragan’s win but was revived under the title of West Palm Beach Open 10 years later when Wilf Homenuik won the title.

Though the tour players were gone West Palm remained popular with local players. The wear and tear of daily play, though, eventually took its toll. By 2009 it was due for some updating, and Mark McCumber, a PGA Tour veteran with 10 tour titles to his credit, directed a seven-month restoration project. When the work was done Palmer returned 50 years after his tournament victory on the old course to hit the celebratory first tee shot on the new version.

The halfway house at West Palm is pretty basic, but serves its purpose.

That came in 2009, and players returned in strong numbers. The absence of water hazards has never been a deterrent. Lots of waste areas and big, deep bunkers provide plenty of challenges and they keep your interest. The course gets better as you go along, and the big greens were in excellent condition for our round there. We played in the company of a couple from Ireland who were every bit as impressed as we were.

West Palm is definitely one of the best conditioned courses on the Florida Historic Golf Trail and an excellent golf value, historical significance notwithstanding.

With five sets of tee placements, West Palm can be played as long as 7,002 yards (rating is 73.0 and slope is 128 from the back tees). It’s 5,023 yards from the front markers. The facility also has a full grass driving range and a large practice area overlooking the course.

One thing that is notably missing, however, is a clubhouse. The old one was torn down three years ago when safety concerns surfaced. Since then the staff has operated out of very basic facilities — a small pro shop near the parking lot, which is beside a high school, and a snack shop between the No. 9 green and No. 10 tee.

That look could change in the near future. The board of commissioners that operates the course has studied the possibility of building a new clubhouse for over a year and a decision on whether to go ahead with that project is expected at a formal meeting on Jan. 9, 2017.

PGA’s Wanamaker, Ryder courses have come a long way in 20 years

The clubhouse at PGA Golf Club, which services three 18-hole courses, is usually a busy place.

PORT ST. LUCIE, Florida — The year 2016 has been one of milestones for the PGA of America and its 28,000 members from all parts of the world.

The organization’s various centennial celebrations appropriately drew the bulk of the attention, but there was more to 2016 than that – particularly if you’re a fan of the facilities that are owned and operated by the PGA. Both Valhalla Golf Club, in Louisville, and PGA Golf Club, located here, reached milestones as well.

Valhalla, which opened in 1986, turned 30 years old in 2016. Already the site of two PGA Championships, two Senior PGA Championships, the 2002 PGA Professional National Championship and the 2008 Ryder Cup, Valhalla has long been in the spotlight for its tournament resume.

At PGA Golf Club, it’s a different story, yet a very important one for a wide range of golfers. With four 18-hole courses, the PGA’s flagship property is much bigger than Valhalla and the winter home for the PGA’s far-reaching membership. The general public has gotten to know and love the resort’s courses as well.

PGA Golf Club concludes its 20th season in 2016. Its story isn’t as high profile as that of the organization as a whole or even that of the younger Valhalla, but it is well worth telling. It reflects the overall dedication of the PGA membership, which had a big honor to celebrate this week when the club was among five named in the inaugural “Most Improved Courses of the Year’’ poll conducted by Golf Inc. magazine.

The finishing hole is just part of what makes the Wanamaker one of Florida’s best courses.

The award isn’t the first for PGA Golf Club, but it does serve as a reward for the work put in by its staff and the PGA as a whole over the last few years. A little historical perspective will be helpful.

PGA Golf Club opened its doors on Jan. 1, 1996. The first tee shot was struck on what was then called the North Course. Four months later the South Course was ready for play as well. Both were designed by Tom Fazio, who proved an excellent architectural choice. No designer has more credits on Golf Digest’s prestigious list of America’s Greatest Golf Courses than Fazio. He has designed more than 200 courses in a 40-plus year career.

Port St. Lucie, which is now a mecca for golfers, had a much different look when Fazio did his creative work on the PGA Golf Club’s first two courses. The nearest quality course was a private layout called The Reserve, which was co-designed by his uncle (former PGA Tour player George Fazio) and his older brother (Jim Fazio). The Reserve, now called The Legacy, opened on Jan. 1, 1984.

The area needed more courses at that time, and PGA Golf Club was created to fill that need.

The PGA logo should indicate that a good experience is in the offing for golfers.

“There wasn’t much over there then,’’ said Jeff Hartstine, who built the two courses that Tom Fazio designed. “It was a pretty standard construction endeavor – nothing unusual, no sink holes, no water problems.’’

Hartstine went on to build courses for Arnold Palmer and Greg Norman, then sold his sod farm in 2004 and bought a course, Placid Lakes, in Lake Placid, FL. He isn’t much involved in golf course construction now but did enjoy the “explosion’’ that came around the time the North and South courses opened.

Growth came fast — maybe too fast. Pete Dye designed a third course at PGA Golf Club that had a soft opening in 1999 and an official debut in 2000 and a Learning Center also opened in December of 1999. Another Jim Fazio design, a nearby private facility then called PGA Country Club that had opened in 1988, was also in the mix but the heart of PGA Golf Club remained its original pair of 18-holers.

After enduring 10 years of play both were due for updating and that went beyond work on the courses. Each got a name change as well in 2006. The North became the Ryder Course, in honor of Samuel Ryder – the namesake and founder of the premier team event in golf. The South became the Wanamaker Course, honoring businessman Rodman Wanamaker who was instrumental in the birth of the PGA of America a century ago.

Over the years the Ryder and Wanamaker hosted a wide variety of competitions in addition to public play. The Ryder got the reputation for being the more player-friendly, with its wide fairways and putting surfaces that didn’t have many severe breaks. The Wanamaker became recognized as one of the best – and most beautiful – courses in all of golf-rich Florida.

The No. 16 hole on the Ryder Course may be the prettiest of PGA Golf Club’s par-3s.

In a five-year period after the 2006 renovations both courses took a beating and that led to more soul-searching on the PGA’s part. Play was down and more work needed to be done.

“We saw the challenge we were facing,’’ Jimmy Terry, the club’s general manager, admitted earlier this fall. “We had a five-year plan and had the complete, absolute, ultimate support from the PGA of America on what we wanted to do. We started with a very simple thing. We wanted to make sure our courses were commensurate with what would make the PGA of America members proud to call it their winter home.’’

The five-year plan is more than half over now, and it has already impacted the Wanamaker. Last year that course got new fairways, a project engineered by director of agronomy Dick Gray. The results have been well received, and the Ryder was to be upgraded next.

“That was going to be the next step,’’ said Terry, “but — because we had a couple large events scheduled for this fall – we didn’t want to take a risk. We couldn’t risk that the golf course might not be prepared in time.’’

So, instead of closing the Ryder, the Dye Course got a renovation instead. Like the Wanamaker, it was similarly well received.

“Our final step will be to do the Ryder Course next year,’’ said Terry. “At the end of the five years we will have touched every golf course and clubhouse. The response from our members has been very positive. Our private club memberships have been the highest they’ve ever been and the rounds of golf are back to a level where we’re happy with them.’’

The judges in Golf Inc. magazine’s “Most Improved Course’’ poll were impressed. They appreciated a 10.5 percent membership increase and the multi-million dollar capital improvements required for the first two renovations. Also of note was the 150 percent participation increase in social and golf events at the Wanamaker.

Now the Ryder will get the attention it needs, and that could create changes in the course rankings.

Checking out golf’s four major championship trophies is a must on a PGA Golf Club visit.

Golfweek had the Wanamaker No. 16 and the Dye No. 27 in its latest rankings of Florida public courses and Golf Magazine had the Wanamaker No. 23 and the Dye No. 30. The Ryder wasn’t a factor in either poll, which surprised me after rounds at all three of those courses.

A round at the Wanamaker won’t be forgotten thanks to the backdrop of wetlands and palm trees that give the course its beauty. The Dye’s most creative design makes for a fun round and the Ryder has its charm, too.

Its No. 16 hole may be the most beautiful par-3 on the property. With its ample fairways, the Ryder offers a pleasant, relatively stress-free adventure that gets more interesting as the holes wind down. Nothing wrong with a round like that.

Even without the Ryder redo, we found the conditioning on all three courses excellent – a most noticeable improvement over our last visit to the area four years ago – and that carried over to the clubhouse atmosphere as well. The trophy display near the historic Taplow Pub underscores the better overall display of clubhouse memorabilia and isn’t to be missed.

The Ryder, the first course at PGA Golf Club, provides an honor roll of champions at its first tee.

Want good affordable golf with history mixed in? Give Sebring a try

This Steve Smyers-designed South course at Highlands Ridge is one of the best on the Citrus Trail.

SEBRING, Florida – Now is the time for a golf upsurge in central Florida. At least that’s how Jim Kurtzeborn — spokesman for the newly-created Citrus Golf Trail — sees it, and I agree with him.

The Citrus Trail is a collection of nine courses spread among the communities of Sebring, Avon Park and Lake Placid. They’re roughly 60 miles south of Disney World — Florida’s most popular tourist destination. The golf in the busy Orlando area near Disney is just fine, but the Sebring area may provide a better alternative.

Golf on the Citrus Trail is more than good. It’s also one of the most affordable golf areas in the country – not just in Florida — and for the real devotees of the sport (me, for instance) there’s the added lure of golf history tied in.

Affordable golf, a nice variety of courses within close proximity to each other and a taste of golf history — all a short drive from other vacation attractions. That’s just what golf needs. Ocean-front courses are nice, but hardly a requirement for golfing enjoyment.

I’ve always been reluctant to dwell on price when reporting on golf destinations, given that fees are in a constant state of flux. They don’t just change by season. They can change on an almost daily basis. An inkling of the costs on the Citrus Trail, though, is significantly revealing.

Inn on the Lakes is a hot spot for golfers visiting the Citrus Trail.

The Trail promotes itself as “one of the most affordable golf destinations anywhere in the country, even in peak season, where golfers can stay and play for as little as $99 per person per night including room, golf and complimentary breakfast.’’

One of the courses on the Trail – actually one of my favorites to boot – is Pinecrest Golf Club in Avon Park. Its general manager, Joe Staffieri, addressed the price issue in front of a media crowd in early December.

“There’s a lot of great options for golf here, and all at a great price,’’ said Staffieri “Ours (greens fee) is about $30 today and next month it’ll go up to about $38.’’

Not bad, considering Pinecrest has a Donald Ross-designed course with challenging, well-conditioned greens that are less than a year old.

Architect Ron Garl includes Deer Run as one of the over 100 Florida courses that he has worked on.

Pinecrest has one big edge on the other Citrus Trail courses, and it’s not the price. If for no other reason, Pinecrest is worth a visit for historical reasons. It was the site of the first televised golf event. That was back in December of 1959 when Dr. Cary Middlecoff defeated Pete Cooper in the final of an eight-player match play competition that was broadcast by NBC. The tournament had a then-record $171,000 purse and Middlecoff’s prize was $37,500.

Ross, the legendary architect, was on site at least briefly in 1926 when Pinecrest was built. Now the course is 90 years old, and the area around it admittedly isn’t what it used to be. The facility included a big lakefront hotel until the 1950s when celebrities like Al Capone, Lou Gehrig, Babe Ruth and Franklin Delano Roosevelt were among the visitors.

“It was a very happening place, and the railroad was responsible for that,’’ said Staffieri. “It brought people right from Chicago to central Florida.’’

In the 1960s that started to change, as golf destinations were being built in Florida’s coastal communities. The Pinecrest Hotel eventually struggled financially and was torn down 10 years ago. The course, though, was revived with a renovation last summer in which the greens and bunkers were restored to Ross’ design preferences. There are no homes or condos bordering its fairways, as the course winds through orange groves and natural wooded areas.

False fronts on all 18 greens at Pinecrest are a clear indication that it’s a DonaldRoss design.

Pinecrest isn’t the only Citrus Trail course with a touch of history. Harder Hall, in Sebring proper, has hosted one of the world’s top amateur tournaments. The Harder Hall Women’s Invitational has been played annually since 1956 and its champions include such prominent names as Cristie Kerr, Natalie Gulbis, Brittany Lincicome, Morgan Pressel, Stacy Lewis and Charley Hull. The 2017 version of the tournament will be played Jan. 4-6. Its chairman is Carol Semple Thompson, who was the champion three straight years (1990-92).

Two clubs on the Citrus Trail are 36-holers. The Highlands Ridge facility, in Avon Park, has its North and South courses. While both are championship courses, the South – which opened in 2012 — gives the Trail a taste of one of the current leading designers. Steve Smyers, a former president of the American Society of Golf Course Architects, has a long resume of top layouts that include Isleworth in Florida, Lockenheath in Michgian and Olympia Fields South and Butterfield in the Chicago area.

The North course at Highlands Ridge was designed by Dave Harman, who patterned it after Kauri Cliffs in Zealand – Golf Digest’s Best New International Course in 2001.

This is the view you get of the Sebring Speedway from your hotel room at the Chateau Elan.

Sun N’ Lake, in Sebring, also has two 18-holers – Deer Run and Turtle Run. Deer Run opened in 1976 and popular Florida architect Ron Garl – he’s worked on 100 courses in the Sunshine State and about 250 world-wide – supervised a renovation six years ago. Its rating (73,7) and slope (134) from the back tees have made it a challenging tournament venue.

Turtle Run, designed in 1999 by Charles Ankrom – also a Florida-based architect – provides a different challenge. It demands accuracy over distance. The courses taken together give Sun ‘N Lake a country club setting that pleases both club members and visitors as well.

Placid Lakes, which opened in 1966, looks much newer than that because it underwent a complete renovation after suffering major hurricane damage in 2004.

For lodging and dining there are a variety of options. Cowpokes Watering Hole will appeal to those looking for a nightclub-type atmosphere. Inn on the Lakes, in downtown Sebring, has a lakeside location near Harder Hall and offers gourmet dining at its Chicanes Restaurant.

Chateau Elan, located beside Sebring International Raceway, has even more. In addition to its Esperante Restaurant and Hairpin Lounge, the convention center offers its visitors the chance to see a variety of auto racing events on the 3.7-mile course from the comfort of their hotel rooms.

And yes, Chateau Elan also is offering golf packages. Where else could a visitor mix golf with a prestigious auto event like March’s 12 Hours of Sebring? That’s a combination that would be hard to beat anywhere.