Tour players used to say that their season doesn't start in a big way until the Florida swing. Well, the Florida swing is upon us, with the Honda Classic set to begin on March 1 at the PGA National Resort & Spa in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla. It's a home game for many of the players, including Tiger Woods, Keegan Bradley, Dustin Johnson, Ernie Els, and Canada's David Hearn, who has a home in nearby Delray Beach.
The area within an hour of the tournament has become the most popular place for tour golfers to live, either full-time or part-time. The Palm Beach Post's Dave George wrote a feature on this subject on Feb. 26th. Referring to the fact that older golfers such as Jack Nicklaus, Greg Norman, Nick Price and Gary Player have long had homes in the area, George goes on to say, "Mix in the long list of PGA Tour regulars who, like Tiger, will commute from their area homes to play in the Honda Classic and it's not enough to call this a boom market for the game's greatest names. Kaboom is more like it."
I've lived in the area for the last 16 winters, a period during which there's been continuing and even accelerating tour player movement. It's not unusual to run into tour players here. One day I was having lunch at the Hurricane Cafe just down the road from Donald Ross Rd. (of course there's a street named after the famous architect), and Ernie Els was sitting at an adjacent table. I played at the Medalist Golf Club in Hobe Sound a few weeks ago and ran into Tiger Woods in the small, cozy halfway house when I went in with my foursome for a bite. He's a member at the Medalist, as are some two dozen tour players. Rickie Fowler and Hank Kuehne were hitting off the first tee when my group came out to start the back nine.
It's no big deal to run into tour players here. They're part of the furniture. That's life in and around the area. They're drawn here because of the laid-back lifestyle, the proximity to Palm Beach International Airport, a much easier place to negotiate than the bigger airports in Ft. Lauderdale and Orlando, the beach, and, needless to say, the many top-notch courses. Seminole, which Donald Ross designed, and where Ben Hogan and George Knudson liked to practice before the Masters, and where they also played some golf together, is the crème de la crème.
Other superb courses include the aforementioned Medalist, the Pete Dye/Greg Norman layout that sits close to the ground a la the fascinating sand belt courses in Melbourne, Australia; The Bear's Club that Jack Nicklaus designed and which opened in 1999, and where he plays - when he plays, which is rarely - the outstanding Ritz-Carlton course next door that he also designed; McArthur Golf Club (Tom Fazio and Nick Price) which is immediately north of the Medalist and which has more land movement than Medalist, which speaks to the variety of the golf in the area; Jupiter Hills' two superb courses that Fazio's uncle George designed and that Tom has worked on and which is where he belongs (he has an office across the street); The Dye Preserve, which Pete Dye did and which is where many tour players work on their games (excellent practice facilities and the course is always in fantastic shape) and on and on.
Along these lines, I want to mention three other private clubs in the area. (I'll post a piece later this week on the many enjoyable public courses here). The first is Quail Ridge, about 30 minutes south of the Honda Classic site in Boynton Beach. I played the North course there recently, having played the South last year. The best kinds of clubs are those where the members are obviously happy, and that's the sense I get at Quail Ridge. Members over the years have played in 21 U.S. Opens, 12 Masters, 70 U.S. Senior Amateurs, and 19 U.S. Senior Opens. The club is the home of the Society of Seniors, an organization that's a veritable who's who of top senior amateurs. Quail Ridge members founded the organization.
Then there's the Eastpointe Country Club in Palm Beach Gardens. I'd heard of the course over the years but had never played it. I'd been told it was a sleeper that didn't get the attention it deserved. I finally played it when a Toronto friend who has rented at the club for the winter invited me, and I learned that the rumours were true. Eastpointe is indeed a sleeper. George and Tom Fazi designed it; I believe it was George's last course in the area. The entire course is a pleasure to play, but the greens complexes really bring it up a few notches. Just when you think your ball is doing to finish near the hole, it takes a slope and slips away and sometimes runs away from the green. This doesn't mean the greens have too much contour; not at all. It means only that you'd better be careful around the greens.
Finally, there's Jupiter's Loxahatchee Club, one of my favourites. There's a strong Canadian presence; Canadians Gordon Gray and Brian Magee developed the course and club in the mid-1980s, and it's a beauty. Gray and Nicklaus are long-time fishing buddies who visit the Restigouche River in New Brunswick to enjoy the world-renowned salmon fishing there. Nicklaus designed Lox, as it's known in the area, and it's always been important to him. Jack Grout, his swing coach from boyhood through his career, had a home near the first tee. Lox is a special place. The pro there, Wilson Zehner helps set the tone. He can really play, although he spends most of his time on the lesson tee helping his members. He defines "personable."
I've played Loxahatchee a number of times over the years. The course is challenging but always fair and impeccably maintained; what I like about it is that you have to think where to drive the ball to get the best approach into wherever the holes are cut on the day. It's not a bombs away course, although, as everywhere, length is an asset. There's no attitude around the place - just a terrific course and club that the members enjoy. Maybe it's because I've visited the club for so many years, but I always feel Nicklaus's presence. I'm sure Gordon Gray will feature his role in the club history he's been researching and writing. It's a labour of love from a man who cares deeply about the club.
There you have it, a quick look at some of the private clubs within a short drive of this week's Honda Classic. I haven't come close to touching on all of them, and, as I say, I'll take a look at some of the public courses in the area later this week. Trust me: For a golf writer, and for golfers - especially those who want to escape even what I understand has been a mild winter up north - there's no better spot than right here. That's obviously especially the case this week during the Honda Classic. But it's also true every other week.
Lorne Rubenstein has written a golf column for The Globe and Mail since 1980. He has played golf since the early 1960s and was the Royal Canadian Golf Association's first curator of its museum and library at the Glen Abbey Golf Club in Oakville, Ontario and the first editor of Score, Canada's Golf Magazine, where he continues to write a column and features. He has won four first-place awards from the Golf Writers Association of America, one National Magazine Award in Canada, and he won the award for the best feature in 2009 from the Golf Journalists Association of Canada. Lorne has written 12 books, including Mike Weir: The Road to the Masters (2003); A Disorderly Compendium of Golf, with Jeff Neuman (2006); This Round's on Me (2009); and the latest Moe & Me: Encounters with Moe Norman, Golf's Mysterious Genius (2012). He is a member of the Ontario Golf Hall of Fame and the Canadian Golf Hall of Fame. Lorne can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org . You can now follow him on Twitter @lornerubenstein