Palm Beach County, on the Atlantic Coast in South Florida, is so thick with Tour players these days, they can’t keep track of each other. A few years ago, young Steve Marino met the great Ernie Els at Yard House, a watering hole–eatery off PGA Boulevard, just down the road from where the Honda Classic is played. The fellas started chatting.
“And what do you do?” Els asked Marino.
“I’m a touring pro,” Marino answered.
“Oh,” Els said, slightly embarrassed. “What tour do you play?” You know: Nationwide, Hooters, maybe in Europe or Asia.
“I play the PGA Tour,” Marino said, “and next week I’m going to pass your a– on the money list!”
It was the start of a beautiful friendship, PB-style.
Not every Tour player likes to play on his off weeks, but Marino and Els do. Their problems are deciding where to play and with whom. Nice problems to have.
Palm Beach County, along with Martin County to the north, has dozens of courses. Many, like the Everglades Club and Seminole and the Palm Beach Country Club, are bastions of old, genteel wealth. If you do it right, a Tour player will leave these places with lessons in the vagaries of business and life. They’re lovely. Palm Beach C.C., for instance, has an old Donald Ross course with good grass, the whiff of the ocean and scrumptious food, but it’s 6,200 yards and the range is teeny-tiny. For an Ernie Els and a Steve Marino and their brethren, spots like that are nice places to visit, but they wouldn’t want to live there.
Els lives at the Bear’s Club, a sparkly development in the town of Jupiter. Michael Jordan is building his newest personal Taj Mahal there, on a beautiful but way hard course designed by Jack Nicklaus where downhill putts can roll off greens and onto the heads of various lagoon creatures. Luke Donald and Rory McIlroy and Camilo Villegas are all paying members of the Bear’s Club, which has a driving range big enough to accommodate a Learjet, although the nearby North County Airport is more set up for that. At North County you might bump into Nicklaus, Greg Norman, Gary Player or Nick Price, among other Hall of Famers. Have jet, will travel.
Els plays a lot of his golf not in his backyard but at the nearby Tequesta Country Club, an unpretentious family club where you can carry your own bag to the driving range and nobody will turn you in to the house committee. Despite his fancy wine collection, Els is working class at his core, like a lot of touring pros are, and he doesn’t like being fussed over. On the rolls at Tequesta are Marino and Will MacKenzie, Champions tour players Olin Browne and Russ Cochran, and a scad of other good sticks. The golf course architect Tommy Fazio, Tom’s nephew, is a member, as is the business-development manager of Els’s course-design firm, Piet Pieters. To get a game at Tequesta, all you have to do is show up. That is, if you’re a plus-four.
Marino could well be there. Unless he’s at Medalist or Dye Preserve, his other clubs. One place you won’t find him is at PGA National, where the Honda was played last week. There are 61 current or former PGA, Nationwide and Champions tour players living in Palm Beach and Martin counties. None of the 61 hang at PGA National. It’s too crowded, too public and too difficult. One of the things Els likes about Tequesta is that he sees a lot of birdie putts there. “Good for the confidence,” he said the other day. Tour golf can beat you up. You go home to recuperate.
The 61 number comes from a recent story in The Palm Beach Post, which followed a similar story in The Orlando Sentinel, which counted 60 pros from various tours residing within that city’s limits. (Shout-out for newspapers! Who else is going to do this kind of painstaking add-’em-up work?) In the interest of bragging rights, maybe Orlando can find two more guys.
Tiger Woods, as every student of modern American history knows, lived for years in Isleworth, a golf course development on the outskirts of Orlando, and last year he moved to a 12-acre oceanfront estate on Jupiter Island, where he has a backyard practice field with a bunch of bunkers and several greens where the stimp speed is adjusted to wherever Tiger is teeing it up next on Tour. The other day he was asked to size up a fantasy match of greater Jupiter versus greater Orlando. (The Match: Florida Edition. Mark Frost, Golf Channel reality-show producers, have at it.) Woods took the question home and later bragged about the 26 touring pros who play out of his club, Medalist, founded by Norman. Price was a founder of a club next door, McArthur. Raymond Floyd designed the course at Old Palm, an outrageously spiffy development between Yard House and PGA National. The NBC crew stayed there last week, and Charl Schwartzel, the Masters champion from South Africa, is based at Old Palm when he’s Stateside. Don’t ask him about the course. He has only played two holes, but he digs the range there, just as Ben Hogan, back in the day, dug holes at the range at Seminole, the granddaddy of the Palm Beach courses. Schwartzel’s manager, Chubby Chandler, was looking to buy Old Palm last year, but Florida golf real estate is a funky business these days, and for now he’s still kicking the tires there.
The great 2012 Orlando Sentinel–Palm Beach Post count-your-pros rivalry is rooted in a much older rivalry: Jack versus Arnold. In the mid-1960s Arnold Palmer of Latrobe, Pa., started making a winter home for himself and his family in Orlando, at the Bay Hill Club, which he later bought. Jack Nicklaus of Columbus, Ohio, also looking to get out of the cold, did the same at a development called Lost Tree, in North Palm Beach. Neither has moved since. Arnold was drawn to Orlando by its airport. Jack was drawn to North Palm Beach by the Atlantic. Touring pros looking for good weather and no state income tax have been setting up shop in Palm Beach County and Orlando ever since. Price in the 1980s moved to Orlando, then later migrated to the so-called Treasure Coast. Norman did the same. As did Els. Part of the attraction of Orlando, an airport from which you can fly commercial most anywhere, loses its appeal when you’re on a first-name basis with your pilot.
When the Nicklauses, in their 20s, moved to Lost Tree, it was a wilderness. Tour veterans Cary Middlecoff, Dow Finsterwald and Gardner Dickinson were nearby, but Jack and Barbara were mostly surrounded by people old enough to be their parents or grandparents. The Lost Tree elders wanted to give Jack an honorary membership, but he insisted on paying. He didn’t want to give up the right to complain about the speed of the greens. His father got the freebie instead. In their pioneering days the Nicklauses found that you couldn’t even get UPS delivery at Lost Tree. Now UPS trucks wear out the driveways of Rickie Fowler and Keegan Bradley (bachelors who live with buddies) and Dustin Johnson and Mark Calcavecchia, packing wedges swaddled in bubble wrap.
As Palmer, Nicklaus and Player, who has a home on Jupiter Island, dominated the Tour as the Big Three in the ’60s, modern-day Palm Beach County has its own Big Three: Marino, Hiroshi Matsuo and Lance Ten Broeck. Marino was your 36-hole coleader at the 2009 British Open. Ten Broeck is a former Tour player who caddied for years for Jesper Parnevik and more recently for Tim Herron. And Matsuo? Well, if you’re one of the 61, you know Hiroshi Matsuo. He’s a teaching pro at the Dye Preserve loaded with game. If you’re playing with one of those three, you’re in the sanctum sanctorum of PB County golf. Better hit the ATM first.
Richard S. Johnson, a native of Sweden and a Tour player, is a regular at Dye, a Pete Dye course in the horse country west of Florida’s Turnpike that’s even more difficult than the Bear’s Club. Johnson has played a lot with Matsuo. “It’s not very nice when the touring pro gets beat by the teaching pro,” Johnson said last week. He was playing in the Honda and sleeping in his own bed, as were about 20 other players, including Tiger, McIlroy and Tom Gillis. (Locals not playing Honda last week included Marino, nursing an injured right knee; and Donald and Dustin Johnson, who were cooling their heels in the week between two big-bucks World Golf Championships, the Match Play and Doral.)
“Hiroshi is the perfect better-ball partner because he makes two quads per round, but eight birdies,” Johnson says. A regular game at Dye is called Wolf, in which on each hole the player with the honor chooses a playing partner after hitting his tee shot. Or her tee shot. Nicole Hage, a young LPGA player, is a member at Dye, and Palm Beach County is loaded with LPGA players, including Karrie Webb, Meg Mallon and Beth Daniel, all of whom play at Pine Tree, in Boynton Beach, where Sam Snead spent his winters.
Richard Johnson often plays at Dye with two other Swedes, Parnevik and Fredrik Jacobson. They don’t play Wolf, and they don’t play $5 Nassaus with two-down automatics. Nothing like that. They play for push-ups. The loser of each hole has to do a certain number of push-ups, right there on the green.
The Swedes do their own thing. The Johnson, Jacobson and Parnevik families—the golfers and their wives and their many blond children—all live within 10 minutes of each other and dine together two or three times a week, always in one of their homes. They eat American barbecue and speak Swedish, and often invite another expat, the Parneviks’ former nanny, Elin Nordegren, and her two children, daughter Sam and son Charlie.
Charlie was at the Honda Classic last week, rooting for his father. Woods, playing in the Honda for the first time as a pro, was cheered enthusiastically through his rounds of 71, 68, 69 and 62. Nothing like a home game. McIlroy will tell you that. His parents, Gerry and Rosie, stayed with him last week in the house he’s renting across the Loxahatchee River from Fowler, and Rosie made her Irish chili. You may make yours with Guinness, or not.
One of the things about living in Palm Beach County is that you have more access to Nicklaus. Schwartzel got an Augusta tip sheet from him last year, and McIlroy had a broader talk about the golfing life with the Golden Bear, and Bradley’s making an appointment to do the same. Tiger’s thing is to study Jack from afar.
Part of impetus for Tiger’s move to Jupiter Island, which was first planned about five years ago, was because Elin, then his wife, wanted to be near her Swedish friends. Medalist is only a 15-minute drive from his house if the toll bridge isn’t up, and he’s there regularly, practicing and playing. Medalist is a place for serious golfers, and nobody there gawks at Woods. “He’s one of the guys,” Marino says, although Woods has not joined the occasional impromptu sixsome games there, in which a half-dozen Tour players in three carts will play 18 holes in three hours, with Marc (Tuna) Turnesa of the Titleist Turnesas keeping track of who owes what to whom. Fowler is often in these games, as is Browne, the father of Rickie’s girlfriend, Alexandra. For now Woods comes to the club with a prearranged game, but he chats up everybody on the range, talking about swing speeds and green speeds and other less nerdy subjects, like who closed the Square Grouper on a recent weeknight, a nearby sandy-floored tiki bar where on any night you’ll see broken tees and BMW keys next to coasters holding tall glasses of Magic Hat.
Yard House is still a golfer’s hangout, and last week Joe LaCava was wearing a Yard House golf shirt underneath his caddie bib bearing the name Woods. But things change in golf as in life, and these days you’re more likely to see Els and Marino at the Square Grouper than the Yard House. By this time next year, who knows? Everything could be different. Last year at this time Bradley was another skinny kid on the range at Dye, working on his knock-down trap draws, and now look at him. He’s a young guy with a major who’s on a first-name basis with Jack Nicklaus and has a favorite spot on the Bear’s Club range. Bradley says that living in South Florida is like being on vacation 24/7, but you’ve seen him play. That can’t possibly be true.