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One of the best-kept secrets in golf is Florida's Orange Blossom tour

Orange Blossom
Ben Van Hook
COMING AND GOING At Harder Hall (from left), Semple Thompson, Roig and Gilliland represented three generations of Orange Blossom golfers.

The tour is barreling through the Sunshine State. Lady ams, barnstorming. Last week the gals gathered in Ormond Beach, just up the Florida coastline from Daytona, for the Sally, an 87-year-old event. The week before, they were in Sebring, smack dab in the middle of nowhere, for the Harder Hall tournament, a mere kid, born in '56. This week they will assemble in Fort Lauderdale, at the time-capsule Robert Trent Jones hangout there, Coral Ridge Country Club, for the 81st playing of the Jones/Doherty. The Orange Blossom tour, the original Florida swing, is in full bloom.

Back in the day, the Orange Blossom tour consisted of seven events, crammed with cocktail parties, cheeky song-and-dance revues sometimes starring Alice Dye, dressy dinners. Jordan Baker, Fitzgerald's cheating golfer in The Great Gatsby, would have felt right at home. In the late 1940s, Lady Dye, now 85, wife of Pete and a member of the Indiana Golf Hall of Fame, played all the events, including a hat trick of long-gone stops at swanky resorts: the Biltmore in Miami, the Breakers in Palm Beach and the Ponce de Leon in St. Augustine.

"In the years before the LPGA started, the New York papers used to write up the Orange Blossom tournaments, and it was like free advertising for the hotels," Alice Dye said last week. "The Breakers used to put us up on the sixth floor, in the maids' quarters. We'd have these elegant breakfasts served to us by the maids we had just showered with." There was fondness in her voice as she recalled her years of playing Orange Blossom golf. She remembered a Rollins College teammate going out with Frank Stranahan -- a muscleman, a noted golfer, a Champion Spark Plugs heir -- and staying out late. "I don't remember any drinking," she said. Others do, Mrs. Dye.

Four events survive. (Next month the International Four-Ball will be played for the 66th time, this year at a new home, the Wanderers Club in Wellington, replacing Orangebrook, a public course in Hollywood, Fla.) The events are decidedly less social than they used to be, but that the series has survived at all is a testament to the powerful instinct golfers at every level have to travel some place and beat others at their shared game. The various Blossom tournament organizers -- like the Hall of Fame amateur Carol Semple Thompson, who runs the Harder Hall event -- want others to have what they had: the chance to compete, graciously, in a game that will enrich you immeasurably even if you never make a dime from it. Or maybe especially if you never make a dime from it.

Thompson is not without worry about where the tour is and where it is headed. Among the schoolgirls who play, she sees less joie de golf and more desperate auditioning for scholarship money. The Orange Blossom tournaments are not truly elite, but at times people carry on at them as if lives were at stake. This year Harder Hall forbade caddies for the first time, after a 2012 incident in which the father of one player and the husband of another nearly came to blows. A constant theme among the old guard is that the young players need to learn to think for themselves way more.

The tournament dinners have all but died because younger players prefer to talk by text to faraway friends than to sit at a banquet table and try to find common ground with some random person. At night the players scatter. Well, not the University of Stirling girls, visiting this month from Scotland and on holiday, their sing-song accents flitting through the unusually warm Florida air. But most of them.

The beating heart of the Harder Hall stop was once the digs as much as the course. The Hall in Harder Hall is a pink colossus of a hotel where the players used to stay on the American Plan. (Three meals a day, bring your own range balls.) Today the hotel is encircled by a chain-link fence, waiting for its next savior.

But despite everything, the 72-hole stroke-play tournament is doing well, and so are the other events. The old South Atlantic Ladies Amateur is played at Oceanside Country Club, on a course so sound and beautiful it stirs the blood and ignites the itch.

Harder Hall is played on a simple, flat, pleasant course beside the shuttered hotel. Sebringers come out and watch the action from folding beach chairs they bring themselves, although one man enjoyed the Jan. 6 finale from the saddle of a fat-tire bike he rode right down the firm fairways on a mellow Sunday afternoon.

There won't be anything like that this week at Coral Ridge, where Robert Trent Jones made a country club in his own image: proper, spiffy, American. More than 100 players will be in the field and mah-jongg tiles will await the ladies in the clubhouse, should any of the Jones/Doherty Championship contestants still play mah-jongg.

Hall of Famer JoAnne Carner, who lives in the vicinity, won the Jones/Doherty in 1968. She turned pro two years later, at 30, and last week she played a round at Wanderers with two of her old amateur friends, Thompson and another Hall of Famer, Canadian amateur Marlene Stewart Streit. "When you play amateur golf, the players are really your friends, and when they help you on the practice tee, they're really trying to help you," Big Momma said last week. "On tour the players are kind of your friends, and if they help you, they're kind of trying to help you. Everyone was friendly but not friendly."

Carner and Streit formed a lifelong friendship through amateur golf, and Thompson did the same with Debbie Massey, who turned pro at 27 and went on to win three times on the LPGA tour and twice won the women's British Open. Massey was a ski instructor in Vermont during her amateur days, and she affixed a skirted golfer from one of her amateur trophies to the hood of her Pinto stick-shift wagon. (Great in the snow and the engine never caught fire.) Nothing she did as a pro can quite compare with the three weeks she had as a 23-year-old on the '74 Orange Blossom tour: She won Harder Hall, she won the Sally, she won the Jones/Doherty. She fell just short of completing what the New York papers might have called the Sunkist Slam; Massey and a partner lost in the final of the International Four-Ball, a match-play team event.

"At Ormand Beach, we used to stay in a cinder block motel with no heat called the Anchor-by-the-Sea," Massey said last week from her home in Sheboygan, Mich. "I'd loan out my turtlenecks and my long johns. We stayed together and traveled together. I remember piling into Alice Dye's Cadillac, with our luggage and our clubs, driving up and down Florida. We were a very close group of golfers, trying to figure out life and each other." The Anchor survives only as a postcard on eBay. Massey's memories are faring better.

Like Massey, Patti Rizzo played the amateur circuit hard and well, and then took her talents to the LPGA. In 1981, as an undergraduate at the University of Miami, she won Harder Hall and the Sally. Now she's the coach of the women's golf team at Miami. "I tell my players, 'Try to get your name on the trophies I have my name on,'" she said last week.

Rizzo had two golfers at Harder Hall this year, on their winter break, the players paying the $250 entry fee and traveling independent of the school, in accordance with NCAA rules for out-of-season play. Rizzo likes to see her players going off and doing their own thing. She has a dream about seeing a player pick a club without picking up binoculars first. She thinks there's way too much coddling and overcoaching in women's amateur golf.

But she also sees some significant societal improvements. "When I started traveling, playing away from home, there were parents, coaches, other players, who would say, 'Oh, watch out for those lesbians, they'll attack you in the locker room,'" Rizzo said last week. "They were scared to death." There is no device that can measure the pain such hysteria wrought. Rizzo says such talk is dead. "People are not shy anymore," said Rizzo, a widow and the mother of two teenagers. "Today a kid will say, 'Coach, I'm gay.'"

On the lunch menu last week at the Sally was a sandwich called the Rizzo Reuben, and the only statement the players were trying to make was the age-old one, the same one James Cameron made in that nutty Oscar speech 15 years ago. ("I'm king of the world!") Kelly Shon, a Princeton junior, went birdie-par-birdie-par over the last four holes to win at Oceanside by a shot. She had rounds of 67, 69, 74 and 69. Her dream is to follow Massey and Rizzo and other Sally champions to the LPGA tour.

At Harder Hall the winner was Erica Popson, a senior at Tennessee and a former Curtis Cupper, who buried birdie putts on the last two holes to win by a shot over a 13-year-old, Mika Liu. Youth is often served on the Orange Blossom tour, and future stars often announce themselves. Kyle Roig, now a sophomore at UCLA and already a Harder Hall veteran, won the event in a playoff in 2010, when she was a high school junior and her overtime opponent, Lexi Thompson, was 14. Cristie Kerr won on the Orange Blossom tour. So did Patty Berg. So did Stacy Lewis.

Wilma Gilliland was Semple Thompson's deputy at Harder Hall this year. She's 88 and started playing Orange Blossom golf in the '50s. She remembers Sally events so cold that she wore a fur coat ("not mink!") between shots. She remembers Tom Doak as a Cornell undergraduate, not a middle-aged course architect, unable to get into the Harder Hall dining room with his date because he lacked the required sport coat, until Wilma's husband saved the night. She remembers assessing Natalie Gulbis a two-shot penalty at an Orange Blossom event because her father, serving as her caddie, rode a cart on one hole in violation of the rules. The father pulled his daughter out of that tournament, but Gulbis returned to Orange Blossom golf and won the Jones/Doherty in 2000 and Harder Hall in 2001. "The father and I did not get along," Mrs. Gilliland said, "but Natalie was a lovely young woman."

Mrs. Gilliland comes to Florida each January for a break from the harsh Nebraska winter. As a player and administrator, she has probably been to 200 Orange Blossom events. "These were small things," she said, taking stock of her long ride. "They weren't great big important things. We came together because we enjoyed the game of golf."

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