Palm Beach Gardens, Fla. - Having spent the last 15 winters in Jupiter, Fla., I’ve been consistently impressed by the quality of the area's courses and clubs. No wonder so many tour pros, including Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player, Tiger Woods, Dustin Johnson, Nick Price and many others live and belong to clubs in the region. Recently I visited the Old Palm Golf Club that four-time major champion Ray Floyd designed, and where he lives on its luxurious and peaceful grounds. Old Palm impressed me from the moment I stepped into the golfing and living retreat 15 minutes inland from the Atlantic Ocean and about the same amount of time north of the Palm Beach International airport.
Now, it’s one thing to visit a club and play its course, it’s quite another to choose to live there. The best players have the means and opportunity to live and join anywhere, so it’s noteworthy when some of them pick one place in fairly short order. Louis Oosthuizen, the South African with one of the sweetest swings in the game, and the 2010 Open Championship winner, has a home at Old Palm overlooking the third hole. His friend and fellow South African Charl Schwartzel, the 2011 Masters winner, followed him when he purchased a property at Old Palm.
Lee Westwood, the Englishman who has won 39 tournaments around the world and posted five top-three finishes in majors, bought property on the par-four 14th hole. His home was under construction when I played the course recently. He’s going to have quite a view of the course, and, I understand, his home features a fire pit in the swimming pool. Meanwhile, Darren Clarke, the 2011 Open Championship winner, is a member at Old Palm. That’s quite an international foursome and quite an accomplished foursome: Oosthuizen, Schwartzel, Westwood, and Clarke.
Golfers of their quality wouldn’t move to a club only for its peaceful environment, lavish clubhouse, and amenities such as a state of the art spa and fitness centre, though. They want a golf course that they can enjoy with friends and family, and, perhaps above all, a first-rate practice area. I’m a practice area geek. I’ve spent many hours working at the fine practice facilities one finds at Bandon Dunes, Pine Valley, Coppinwood near Toronto, the Dye Preserve, McArthur, The Bear’s Club, and Medalist in the Jupiter area. Old Palm’s practice facility is second to none. Floyd, still a shotmaker at 70 years old, knew that if Old Palm were going to become a golfer’s paradise, it would have to include a tremendous practice area. It has just that.
That’s why I wanted to arrive early for my afternoon with three friends at Old Palm. There was no way I was going to just step on the first tee and try to hit a slight right to left shot to work the dogleg on the par-four opener. I wanted to spend quality time working on my game across from the road at the practice area, with its three holes - a par-three, a par-four, and a par-five; with its double-ended range; its short game area that offers not only flat ground but ground that presents a variety of lies - as on the course itself. There’s also the Golf Studio, as it’s known, with the latest in technology, including V-1 and Trackman. I had trouble tearing myself away to the course.
Given what’s available for practice, I wasn’t surprised to see some young golfers working on their games on the tee and in the short game area. These were members of the University of Kentucky’s boys’ golf team. An Old Palm member and University of Kentucky booster had brought the golfers to the club. They’d already played the course and were back working on their games. Later, on the course, I noticed a group of them behind our group. They weren’t about to leave Old Palm, not when they had a chance to spend all day there.
The course itself was a pleasure to play, and plenty challenging. Some golfers thought the course was perhaps a bit too easy when it opened nearly a decade ago. But even better players came to appreciate that the fairways were generous because of the wind that usually blows here, and to offer the golfer the opportunity to think and move the ball around. Old Palm is a pleasure to play precisely because it’s not a one shot fits all course.
It’s fun, after all, to exercise one’s imagination and use the ground contours to feed the ball off slopes into specific parts of the fairway and into the greens. That’s one way to get at pins tucked behind bunkers in tight areas. Width, as the 2006 U.S. Open champion Geoff Ogilvy, one of the most thoughtful players when it comes to course design, often says, is the hallmark of strategic design. The idea is to hit the right part of the fairway to get the most favourable angle into the greens. The greens, by the way, were re-grassed last summer. They were fast and they were firm. I might add that the course can be played from 4,976 to 7,401 yards. The variety of tees is smart, because a club meaning to appeal to all levels of golfers should include tees that work for everybody.
My caddie, George Slopski, was a definite advantage. George is from Erie, Penn., and caddies at Sebonack Golf Club on Long Island in the summer; the U.S. Women’s Open will be held at Sebonack this summer. George used to compete in long-drive championships and, at 48, is now in the 45 and up division when he goes at it again. He looks like a linebacker. He knows Old Palm, and on the first tee he gave me the line off the tee, some 20 yards inside the sandy waste area to the left. I managed to hit my drive there, and had an open view of the green. George, by the way, had caddied for Floyd the day before, and for Westwood a week earlier.
George not only knew the lines off the tees, but he’s a master greens reader. I was hitting the ball nicely for the most part, and missed birdie putts from the sixth and seventh greens. My fault, not George’s. I didn’t roll the ball where he suggested. The eighth is a short par-four with a waste area on the right side and water further to the right. The pin was at the back of the green, and I was a club short with my approach. I had a long putt that had to run over a ridge about 20-feet short of the hole. George attended the flagstick and told me to aim for his right foot, about three feet outside the hole. The putt looked good and it dropped. George stepped it off: 28 paces. Miss two short putts, and then hole a monster putt. Golf’s a crazy game.
On we went. I was taken with the stream that winds in a jagged way along the ninth and 18th fairways. My three-hybrid carried the stream and found the final green. That felt good. Along with my three fellow golfers, I went to the “bye” hole, the 19th hole where the tee is set on a rise just behind the 18th green. The shot is about 95 yards to a tiny green across water. The idea is to give it a try and then leave the ball there. No putting, just the scary little shot. Good fun.
Then it was off to the clubhouse. We sat in the men’s lounge and bantered with some golfers from New York. I looked at the excellent collection of golf books in the library lounge. Bud Taylor, the club’s accomplished young pro for the last four years, said hello. After-golf consisted of a beer, salad and a burger, and the ever-present popcorn and cookies, PGA Tour golf on one television and an NBA game on another: Suffice it to say we were relaxed. It was just about time to leave. I noticed a barber’s chair and a massage room in the locker room. Old Palm members include Matt Lauer, the anchor of NBC’s Today show. Brian Mulroney, Canada’s Prime Minister from the fall of 1984 to the summer of 1993, is a member.
It was time to leave. If darkness weren’t approaching, I’d have returned to the practice area. Another time, if I’m lucky. Old Palm makes you want to return. And, when it comes to Oosthuizen, Schwartzel, Westwood and Clarke, it made them want to stay. I see why.
RELATED LINK: More blogs from Lorne Rubenstein
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
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