In Palm Beach, a 95-year-old classic on 80 acres represents the best hope for the future of golf

Friday March 16th, 2012
Palm Beach Country Club is a 95-year-old Donald Ross original.
David Walberg / SI

PALM BEACH, Fla. -- A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about golf in Palm Beach County for Sports Illustrated. (Nice work if you can get it.) The story ran with a gull’s-eye view of the Palm Beach Country Club, which is reproduced above. Raymond Floyd’s mansion was cropped out of it, but other grand manses made it.
 
I’d driven, jogged and biked by the course many times, but I had never played it. The PBCC course is a 95-year-old Donald Ross original bordered by the Atlantic Ocean to the east and the Intracoastal Waterway to the west. Talk about your sweet spots. After the story ran, I was invited to play it.
 
You don’t park-and-carry at PBCC. Oh, no. You valet. A young guy in a golf shirt took my clubs. A man in a coat and tie took my floral plastic Marshalls tote bag to the locker room. My host took me to the dining room.
 
The carpeting was so plush it felt like I was walking in brand-new socks. The multi-leveled dessert table was an embarrassment of riches. The table’s breadbasket included cinnamon toast, caramelized and crunchy. At another Jewish club, Hillcrest in Los Angeles, where the comedian George Burns used to hang out, they serve matzo year-round. One week’s enough for me. I’ll take the cinnamon toast.
 
Poor Bernie Madoff, now a former member. He’ll never enjoy the lean PBCC corned beef again. I was relieved to learn that his regular caddie had never invested with him. Some of his fellow members were not so fortunate. But that’s all in the past. The members have better things to do than discuss that shande. (Yiddish for disgrace.)
 
I played with three delightful guys. My host was Arthur Loring, the club president, a refined Bostonian and formerly the general counsel at Fidelity. He brought along Mark Lederman, the club’s golf chairman and a retired New York clothing manufacturer, and Matthew Tacilauskas, the club’s young Australian superintendent. We all found our way to golf, and to that foursome, in different ways and in different eras, but there we were. Part of golf’s odd magic.
 
In the men’s grill, I met a man dressed for croquet and knowledgeable about a legendary Philadelphia men’s club where the $100 Nassau is an icebreaker, the sixsome is common and shirts are optional. He nodded at Lederman, looked at me and said, “You got a game?” The point being, if you’re playing with Mark Lederman, you better be able to golf your ball.
 
Lederman drilled his first, 230 with a helping ocean breeze. He’s 70 and looks like Don Rickles. He works clean, though. Lederman, spotting me 19 years, said, “You let this old man outdrive you?” He had me by a yard, tops. No, he wasn’t exactly Al Czervik, but he was alive. The game’s characters are not all dead yet.
 
Lederman said he got out of the clothing business when it stopped being fun. “It used to be about relationships,” he said. “We’d go to the Orient!” Now the swatches come over the Internet and you touch a keystroke to place an order. He was dressed beautifully, by the way, wearing a woven navy polo shirt, pressed gabardine trousers and a Daytona 500 hat with many miles on it. He races cars.
 
“For the member guest, I used to make the greens ridiculously fast and the pin positions impossible,” Lederman said. “But not anymore. Who wants to get all beat up?” Only Tom Watson and Ben Hogan, and Hogan is dead. I certainly don’t.
 
Arthur Loring once played golf with Barney Adams, and I am becoming a big believer in Barney’s Tee It Forward movement. PBCC is 6,200 yards, all stretched out, a par-70 on 80 soft acres. The 10th fairway doubles as the driving range, and the practice balls are taxicab yellow. When you’re coming off the 10th tee you sound a horn, and the two or three people hitting balls will hold their fire.
 
“When I first got here, I was like, 'There’s no way this is gonna work,'” said Tacilauskas, the superintendent, with that Aussie accent that just screams golf. He’s got a lot of game, by the way. “But it works.”
 
It works in part because PBCC is not a dig-it-out-of-the-dirt kind of place. Nobody at PBCC is trying to get rich through golf. They did that with other things.
 
“It’s an older membership,” said Loring, who is in his mid-60s himself, a fit man and a course-walker. PBCC is not a place for climbers. In fact, to get in you have to show a serious long-term commitment to philanthropy. United Jewish Appeal is a popular cause, but only one of many. The club has its own charitable foundation that gives to all manner of good works.
 
The course was originally built for a long-vanished hotel. It began life as a Jewish country club in 1953 when its founders could not get into other local clubs, like the Everglades Club, a WASP preserve on Worth Avenue in the heart of the island of Palm Beach’s main shopping drag. Nearly 60 years later, not that much has changed on the island. The late, great Dom DiMaggio -- an Old World gent if ever there was one -- tried to get into Everglades. He got dinged and never looked back. “F--- 'em if they don’t want me,” he told me once. I’m sure they would have welcomed him at PBCC, where there are beautiful old-time black-and-white baseball photographs in the clubhouse. The club is Jewish today only by tradition, and it’s not exclusively Jewish.
 
Maybe you don’t care about this stuff, but I happen to think that the social history of golf is as important and interesting as its other histories, even though it’s not easy to talk about. If you want to understand Tiger Woods, you had better understand what his father endured as a black man playing golf -- and college baseball and serving in the army -- way back when.
 
Still, the main draw to golf for me is the game and its playing fields (along with the people you play with), and this is the main point: the golf course of the Palm Beach Country Club represents all the solutions to the game’s ailments. For starters, most fourball play at PBCC is played at well under four hours. We played in a little over three.
 
Mr. Arthur (as his Jamaican caddie, Winston Ferguson, calls him) is in his third and last year as club president. He’s been busy. Loring hired Tacilauskas, who mowed down the rough but left some fluffy grass that will stop your ball from going out-of-bounds or into a water hazard. (Thank you, sir.) He oversaw a thorough renovation of the course. And he hired an architect, Brian Silva, who came up with the renovation game plan. Silva is a Rossophile if ever there was one. He has restored Ross touches to the Everglades course and Seminole, 10 miles up the beach, among other places.
 
Merion, an exquisite par-70, is on only 126 cozy acres, and somehow it’s going to host the U.S. Open next year. But what Ross did on 80 acres of drained swampland in Palm Beach is almost unimaginable. The holes do not feel shoehorned in, even though they are, and they do not feel parallel to one another, even though they’re that, too. What Ross did, and what Silva restored, was give each hole just enough shape so that the course never feels back-and-forth. Parts of at least six holes use a natural coral ridge that gives the course movement, elevation and beautiful views. Another hillside was manmade, but you’d never know it.
 
Having six par-3 holes is excellent. What hole represents the best chance for the ordinary golfer to make a par? The reachable par-3! And check out this range of lengths (from the back tees): 216, 120, 207, 180, 212, 150. And two of the four par-5s are 528 and 552. So what’s short about any of that? Nothing. You could easily take 150 yards off those eight holes and make the course only more playable for more people.
 
The fact is, 6,200 yards is plenty long for most people, certainly when a course is configured like PBCC is. The mental hurdle is really 6,000 yards, but there’s nothing wrong with a regulation course that measures less than 6,000. For everyday play at Palm Beach, many male members play a mix of forward and back tees that total 5,940 yards. This is known there as the Donald J. Ross Course. It’s 5,300 yards for women.
 
To repeat: the par-70, 6,000-yard course with six par-3s and four par-5s on 80 acres is the future of golf.  It’s faster to play and much less expensive to maintain. It certainly has had a good past. The greens are magic carpet rides at Palm Beach, often elevated, in the Ross tradition, with a front door that’s always open, even when there’s water in play. It’s the kind of course where Arthur Loring, a nice mid-80s shooter, will finish all 18 holes, or close to it, and can have a real game with a fellow member like Joel Hirsch, who twice won the Senior British Amateur. The genius of the Palm Beach Country Club doesn’t come from its sweet-spot location, although that’s nice. It comes from how it was first considered. It’s a pleasure to play it, and to work it, too.
 
When he came in from our game the other day, Ferguson saw two of his fellow caddies going out for a round of their own. In that two-ball was his ride home. I gave Winston a ride home, over the bridge that connects the island of Palm Beach to the city of West Palm Beach. Winston winters in West Palm and summers in New York. (Mark Lederman does the same thing.) We started talking about music, and he gave me a list of reggae singers to investigate: Alton Ellis, Dennis Brown, Gregory Isaacs and Beres Hammond. He said he spent his Sunday nights at the reggae night at the Waterways Café, on PGA Boulevard. A caddie with all sorts of tips.
 
Winston, kindly, said I should ask for him if I ever got to Old Oaks, an old-line Jewish country club in Westchester, N.Y., where he works in summer. He said the course is very good, and I know it is. (I’ve caddied there.) Old Oaks has a course designed by A.W. Tillinghast. Tillinghast, Ross, Alister MacKenzie -- that whole Golden Age crowd -- it’s amazing how they did so much more with so much less. I learned the game as a teenager at the Bellport Golf Course, a muni on the South Shore of Long Island, par-71, 6,200 yards, designed by Seth Raynor, another Golden Age icon. True fun.
 
The chasm between us and the Tour player has never been greater. They need their own courses, not just longer versions of our tracks. The Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass should be marked on the first tee with a sign with two black diamonds. We need more PBCCs.
 
Mark Lederman told me more than once that his winter golfing home, where he was once club champ, is the best course on 80 acres anywhere. I know what he’s saying, and why he’s saying it, but he doesn’t need any qualifiers.  What he has is a course where you can breathe, make pars, have fun, finish holes, have a match. And the caddies, still fresh after going 18, want to go out and play in the afternoon.

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