Jacksonville lives up to its reputation as a golf town
As a golf town Jacksonville has it all. You want Old South golf, with a big Tara clubhouse and tiny bermuda greens? We point you to Timuquana Country Club, if you can weasel your way on, nestled in the lovely Ortega neighborhood on the St. John's River. David Duval learned the game there when his father, Bob, was the club's pro. You're looking for something more down-home? Get yourself to the par-29 nine-holer called the Palm Valley Golf Course in Ponte Vedra (not Ponte Vedra Beach), where the greens fee is $7.88, the driving range is real grass and O.B. is a neighboring horse farm. Fred Funk plays at Marsh Landing, the gated community where he lives; some of the Tour caddies who live in Jacksonville play the municipal course in Jacksonville (Jax) Beach; and Tim Finchem plays the Stadium course at TPC Sawgrass whenever the urge comes on.
The commissioner has about a one-minute drive from his PGA Tour office — located in a low-slung brownish building that makes you look for the drive-through ATM — to the 1st tee of the Stadium course, the Tour-owned torture chamber where the Players is held each year. Finchem doesn't play often, but if he has a tournament coming up, he grinds away at the game like Vijay Singh. At Tour headquarters the other day, all the men in the office were wearing button-down shirts with ties, but not the commissioner. He said he was on his way to a Presidents Cup meeting and was wearing a hard-collar golf shirt and carrying a long-shafted putter. Whatever you say, boss.
Regarding Vijay and those outrageous stories about his all-day, back-of-the-range sessions at the Stadium course: They're true. Funk, a transplanted Marylander who moved to Jacksonville in 1991, says that when he goes to the Stadium course range, if Singh is in town he will see him there 100% of the time, carrying on like the Energizer bunny.
The three best-known players who live in Greater Jacksonville are Funk, Singh and Jim Furyk. (Duval has moved to Colorado; the other Double D — Dunkin' Donuts — can be found about every three stoplights along the hypersprawl of Beach Boulevard, Butler Boulevard and Atlantic Boulevard, all roads to the beach.) "Funk is three times more active in town than Furyk and 10 times more active than Singh," says Fred Seely, the editor of golfnewsjax.com.
In addition to Finchem and his predecessor, Deane Beman, prominent Jacksonville golf figures include Mark McCumber, who won the 1988 Players Championship; Steve Melnyk, a U.S. and British Amateur winner; Calvin Peete, winner of the '85 Players, whose wife, Pepper, runs the Jacksonville First Tee program; Greg Rita, who caddied for Curtis Strange when he won his two U.S. Opens; and the late Bruce Edwards, who caddied for Tom Watson. Other local loopers include Mark (Funk) Long, Johnny (Joey Sindelar) Buchna and Terry (Bernhard Langer) Holt. Also Disco, Smiley and Hymer, et al. There are nearly as many working Tour caddies as there are touring pros in Jacksonville.
Whole bunches of Nationwide, Champions, LPGA and Hooters tour players live in town. PGA Tour rookie Jeff Klauk, who is 31, lives down the road in St. Augustine. His father, Fred, was the longtime superintendent at the Stadium course. Sandy Lyle — who won the '85 British Open, the '87 Players and the '88 Masters — lives part of the year in Ponte Vedra Beach.
Lyle is 51 and plays on the Champions tour. A couple of days after this year's Masters, in which he finished 20th, Lyle and his family were eating at Murray Bros. Caddyshack, a restaurant next to the World Golf Hall of Fame, off I-95 and about 25 miles from the PGA Tour headquarters. There's a bunch of pictures of Furyk's caddie, Mike (Fluff) Cowan, on the restaurant walls, along with all manner of memorabilia from Caddyshack, the movie. Lyle was looking at a Rodney Dangerfield/Al Czervik hat in a display case the way another person might study a dinosaur egg at the Smithsonian.
If you take the back roads from the Hall of Fame to the Tour offices, you will pass near the Palm Valley Golf Course, where Andy North, the lanky ESPN announcer and two-time U.S. Open winner, will sometimes stop to hit balls during the week of the Players. From there, it's only a few miles and a few turns to TPC Sawgrass. You can get past the security gate if you're heading to the Taj Mahal clubhouse for lunch or some other legitimate purpose, and after lunch nobody's going to cart you away if you take a few putts on the velvet-carpet putting green. You only live once, right?
It would be hard to estimate, or overstate, what the PGA Tour has done to promote local growth. The town's golf vibe helped spark the building of Panther Creek and Deercreek and other golf-and-housing developments that avoid the word Olde. Fancy doesn't sell in Jacksonville.
The thing is, the whole enterprise could have been in Orlando, according to Seely. That's where Beman was looking to move the Tour headquarters from Washington, D.C., in the late 1970s. Beman, not a tall man, is still regarded as a towering figure in town. As for Finchem, Seely, who was the longtime sports editor of The Florida Times-Union, says, "Nobody knows him. I don't know if he's shy or haughty, although he did once say hello to me by name when we stood at neighboring urinals. But the Tour's done well by him, and people here are grateful to him for what he's brought to the area and what he's kept here."
In the past quarter century or so Jacksonville has gone from a horse-and-timber town to an NFL city with a skyline. But it's had golf forever (by Florida standards of forever). Timuquana has a Donald Ross course that dates to 1923, and the Jacksonville Open was a regular stop for Hogan and Snead and Nelson. For some years in the '40s and '50s, the tournament was played at Hyde Park, a simple and enjoyable public course now co-owned by two former Tour players, Billy Maxwell and Chris Blocker. Hyde Park is thought to be a Ross course, and it is surely the course where Hogan once made an 11 on the par-3 6th. There's a sign at Hyde Park that reads no personal coolers, but it doesn't seem to be much of a deterrent. "I don't even think it's legal, bringing in your own like that," says Maxwell, now 79. "Geesh — we only charge $2.25 for a beer."
Cheap beer and cheap digs were the two main draws for caddies to Jacksonville Beach and its neighbor, Atlantic Beach, years ago. A motel in the latter, the Atlantic Shores, was always friendly to Tour caddies, and there were some who would take rooms there for weeks or months at a time. The all-caddie basketball games at the Shores are part of the Tour's caddie lore. For some years the Tour caddies favored a Jax Beach bar called the Monkey's Uncle Tavern, and there are people who remember excellent karaoke versions of Louis Armstrong's What a Wonderful World by Jeff Dolf, Craig Stadler's longtime caddie.
The caddie Terry Holt, an Englishman, began renting in Jacksonville Beach as a young bachelor in the early 1980s while working for Andy Bean. It was the perfect spot, he said, because within an eight-hour drive you could get to at least a dozen Tour events. "We didn't fly much then, and if your player wasn't playing, you picked up another bag if you could," he says. Holt talked while sitting in his van with Florida plates parked in front of the Saint John the Baptist cathedral in Savannah. He was there to work the Liberty Mutual Legends of Golf. There was a baby seat behind the driver's seat. Now he has an American wife and four children and owns a house in Jacksonville Beach. He still drives to tournaments when he can.
If you live in Jacksonville, you're more likely to see players shopping than playing. Singh is often at the GNC vitamin store on A1A in Ponte Vedra Beach. Furyk is a semiregular at Publix in Ponte Vedra Beach, picking up groceries with his wife, Tabitha. (You'll see shoppers in soft spikes at that Publix.) Funk drops in at the Target near Marsh Landing to get Wiffle ball bats and other essentials. You'll almost never see any of them play the crowded Stadium course, even though they can play for free. Even Tour employees, who can play the course at certain times of the year for cart fees only, don't often take advantage of it: A regular diet of the Stadium course will rob you of golf balls and steal your soul. Holt has caddied plenty of times in the Players, and he has caddied for Finchem on the Stadium course, but he's never played it. The high greens fee ($375) offends his caddie sensibilities.
Buchna, who has caddied for Sindelar for 26 years and lived in Jacksonville Beach nearly as long, feels about the same. He prefers his Thursday game at the Jax Beach municipal, which draws 40 or 50 people each week, Tour caddies almost always among them. Everybody throws in $20, and you play for points — one for a bogey, two for a par, three for a birdie, four for an eagle. One time Johnny made $150. Some people simply know how to live: house near the ocean, outdoor job that lets you see the world, regular Thursday game at home.
A few years ago Funk was flying back to Jacksonville from the Tour stop in New Orleans on a chartered jet, and he was giving his caddie, Long, and Johnny Buck a lift. Fred was chatting with some folks on the tarmac, and it was going on for a while, and finally Buchna had had enough. He called out the plane's open door, "C'mon, can we get going here? I got to get home!"
So Funk boarded his plane, and the golfer and the two caddies flew home, back to Jacksonville, whence they came.