Now that my beloved Jets have bitten the dust, it’s time to start thinking about my equally beloved New York Mets, who will start playing Grapefruit League games in four short weeks.
For as long as I can remember, the Mets have made their winter home in Port St. Lucie, Fla., a laid-back, citrus-growing area an hour’s drive north of Palm Beach. Here’s the place to savor the rituals of spring training: the athletes limbering up on the field, the thud of the ball into a mitt, the sudden crack of the bat, the whole joyful spectacle of the greatest team sport ever invented. Oh, and the chance to smell the orange blossoms in the groves along the Indian River, which flows into the St. Lucie Inlet. Tangelos, mandarin and navel oranges, tangerines–the region yields the sweetest crop in the state. If there’s a more ambrosial fragrance in heaven, I don’t need to sniff it.
When I’m not sizing up the rookies and taking stock of the veterans at Digital Domain Park, or hanging around the lobby of the Holiday Inn Port St. Lucie to see if I can have a word with one of the Mets’ coaches, I’m playing golf at one of the best-developed golf facilities in the state.
It may come as a hard knock, but except for accrediting golf professionals and setting them loose upon the land to sell us stuff from their carpeted shops and show us how the game was meant to be played, the Professional Golfers Association of America (PGA) hasn’t done much for the average public golfer.
That changed in the mid-1990s, when Tom Fazio was charged with fulfilling the association’s long-held dream of owning and operating a facility where its 28,000 members could tee it up year-round. With a “Home to the Pros, Open to the Public” tagline, the PGA Golf Club represents the organization’s finest and most enduring contribution to a game it has fostered for nearly a century.
Thanks to its competitive stay-and-play packages and an 18-hole high-season rate of $62 after 2 PM, the club promotes the cause of affordable public golf, a cause rarely pursued in south Florida. The facility has grown significantly since its debut in 1996 and now encompasses three 18-hole courses (two by Tom Fazio, one by Pete Dye), a Six-Hole Short Course, a 35-acre Center for Learning and Performance, and the museum-like PGA Historical Center. In sum, everything a true golfer could hope for.
Understanding the needs of golfers from an insider’s perspective prompted the PGA to devise an efficient, user-friendly operation. After motoring down a wide boulevard encouragingly dubbed Perfect Drive, players arrive at a welcome pavilion below a stately 57-foot clock tower that marks the entrance to an airy, Victorian-style clubhouse. The practice putting greens are in full view, not hidden away. The message is clear: This is a place for golf. The curbside greeting is warm and friendly. Everyone is accommodated. At least one tee on every hole is readily accessible by disabled golfers, as are all putting surfaces.
Knowing his pair of courses would be played by club pros on vacation as well as happy-go-lucky holidaymakers, Fazio considered all the angles in his routings, which occupy 430 acres of developer-donated land wedged between Lake Okeechobee and the ocean. With very little fanfare, the club’s walker-friendly Ryder and Wanamaker courses are in my opinion two of the finest public-access layouts in the state.
Fazio, who updated and refurbished his creations in 2006, carved two completely different courses from the verdant subtropics. Both layouts feature five sets of genderless tees as well as “graduated penalties,” i.e., better players must contend with bigger challenges. The psychological barrier is quite different from each set of markers, a tribute to Fazio’s strategic imperative.
The Ryder Course, named for Samuel Ryder, who donated the golden chalice trophy for the biennial competition, is a gently rolling, Carolina Sandhills-style creation sculpted from slash pines and palmetto scrub. Seventy acres of preserved wetlands and created marshes buffer the holes from the site’s perimeter development. There are houses here, yes, but also lots of birdhouses built from recycled plastic that attract bluebirds, cardinals, woodpeckers and mockingbirds.
The wide driving zones on the Ryder accommodate all styles of play, aces to duffers. Greens are large, but they’re liberally contoured and well-defended by bunkers. Reaching a green in regulation is no guarantee of par. Approach shots must be pinpointed to get within shouting distance of the hole.
The Wanamaker Course, named for Rodman Wanamaker, one of the movers and shakers behind the formation of the PGA of America, is by contrast a sprawling subtropical links with a bold, swashbuckling personality. Fazio pulled out all stops on this 7,123-yard behemoth, creating massive, multi-fingered bunker complexes, several of which bleed into lakes that border the fairways and greens. If you’re not playing from the correct set of tees for your ability level, the Wanamaker will let you know right away. From the tips, this colossal track was intended to melt every dreamer’s favorite piece of graphite or titanium. But the beast is also a beauty: Marked by palms, lakes and sand, the Wanamaker is one of Florida’s prettiest courses.
With a 74.7 course rating (par 72) and a 140 slope from the tips, the Wanamaker presents the firmest challenge of the three courses at PGA Golf Club. It’s rare for Pete Dye to be low man on the totem pole when its comes to course difficulty, but the Dye Course, opened in 1999 and refurbished by the master in 2007, offers a kinder, gentler Pete—sort of.
A breezy, links-style design stretching to 7,279 yards, the Dye Course is marked by pine straw roughs, vast coquina waste bunkers and a 100-acre marsh known as the “Big Mamu” Wetlands. A housing-free, out-and-back layout, the course is a counterpuncher that keeps players off balance with its variety of looks and challenges. One hole, the par-four 14th, has no bunkers. Others, like the brutal par-five seventh, appear to have more sand than grass in play.
The undulating, low-profile greens, a Dye trademark, are well-defended by pot bunkers and grassy swales. Subtle dips and swales in the fairways emulate the rumpled look of a Scottish links. Man-made dunes and bunker-pocked moguls line several holes and will grab a first-timer’s attention, but there’s usually more room for the drive than can be seen from the tee. Pete doesn’t make ’em easy, but the course relies heavily on visual intimidation for its challenge. Then again, when wind, the “unseen hazard,” sweeps the links, the Dye Course can be as testing as any in the state.
All three courses at PGA Golf Club are at their best in spring, when chilly winds still chase across the nation’s northern tier. All three should be walked in late afternoon, when the play of light and shadow on the mounds and swales reveals each designer’s artistry. All three should be played, period, because there are no throwaway holes on any of them.
Even practice-averse players need to experience the PGA Center for Learning and Performance. As a place to groove what’s right or figure out what’s wrong, or even as a place to contemplate the prospect of hitting unlimited range balls all day (and nearly all night), the lighted complex has it all, from more than 100 all-grass practice stations arranged in a semi-circle around an array of targets, to nine different bunkers that simulate play from around the world. Expert instruction and club-fitting are also available.
The PGA Historical Center is a must-see for players smoked in the traditions of the game. Within the museum can be viewed the trophies of golf’s major championships, a gallery of golf art and more than 6,000 books devoted to the sport, including several rare tomes dating back to the 1600s. Admission is free.
Affordable Florida golf at a top-notch facility in the dead of winter is about as rare as a Mets pennant. Unlike the Amazin’ Mets, there are no disappointments at PGA Golf Club.
Details: 800-800-4653; www.pgavillage.com.