PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. — When your name is on the business, as any owner surely would attest, the stakes become personal. Reputations hang in the balance, and the accountability is clear.
And so it is with PGA Golf Club.
“When people see ‘PGA,’ there’s an expectation with that,” said Jimmy Terry, the club’s general manager. “And we embrace it.”
The home club to the PGA of America recently completed a five-year, $10 million series of capital improvements, including wall-to-wall renovations to PGA Village Golf Resort's three semi-private onsite courses: Dye, Ryder and Wanamaker. The goal, Terry said at the December reopening of the Ryder Course, was to “re-establish” the 21-year-old property.
On the Atlantic coast of southeast Florida, about midway between Orlando and Miami, quality golf dots the landscape like the native palms. The private-club market teems with competition. Resort play, such as the offerings at PGA National Resort and Spa, site of this week’s PGA Tour Honda Classic in Palm Beach Gardens, stands out. For PGA Golf Club to compete, the golf must be memorable.
Enter superintendent Dick Gray.
Gray, 74, wiry and gently weathered from a life spent tending golf courses, wears closely cropped gray hair under a ball cap in his work clothes. He is a disciple of designer Pete Dye, a fellow Indianan. Although the Ryder Course is Tom Fazio’s design work, the place has Gray’s fingerprints all over it.
Gray oversaw the improvements – he called them “adjustments,’’ in a nod to Fazio’s original vision – in directing his 75-man maintenance crew for the in-house job.
“We didn’t change the way it plays a lick,” Gray said in his no-nonsense, down-home demeanor, “but we did change the look and feel. It’s a much friendlier-looking golf course from the tee.”
As if to underscore that point minutes later, Jason Bruno, a travel writer and agronomy instructor from West Palm Beach, stands a few yards short of the green at the par-4 first hole, where his second shot into a cool, stiff early-morning breeze stopped short of the putting surface.
On many other Florida courses, a front bunker or water hazard might have swallowed the approach. Playing from the Celebration Bermudagrass that unfurls from tee to green, Bruno ponders his options for the front hole location. He opts for a bump-and-run that hops onto the TifEagle putting surface and drops for an opening birdie.
That’s the sort of shot that a member – PGA Golf Club has about 1,000 of them, officials say, and the number is growing – or a visitor is more likely to try and perhaps even master, if given the chance.
The Ryder Course offers six sets of tees, all grassed in Sea Isle Paspalum and ranging from 5,038 to 7,000 yards. Its playability is evident in the generous fairway corridors and the aforementioned run-up options to the putting surfaces. Clumps of ornamental native grasses help define the fairways and add visual context to the layout, without being so intrusive that a visitor spends too much time sifting through the 2- to 3-foot obstacles looking for lost balls. They’re set back to help navigate the routing rather than ruin it.
The ubiquitous bunkers, with glistening white Florida sand – you might have heard that there’s a ready supply of the stuff down here – were reshaped with the player in mind.
“We redesigned them for convenience in getting out,” Gray said.
Left unsaid is that they’re fairly easy for a ball to find its way in, too. But the sand’s consistency and playability are what you might be expected from a destination golf course.
The green complexes stand out as the Ryder Course’s primary defense. With the firmness of the new putting surfaces, approach shots often bounce before any spin can grab the ball. For our round, they were running firm and fast — close to 12 on the Stimpmeter, Terry said — after having been double cut. That’s probably too quick for a group of 80s-shooters and impedes faster play, but that putting speed should slow a bit as the greens mature, he said.
The improvements also extend to the inside of PGA Golf Club. The Tom Hoch-designed contemporary clubhouse has been updated and expanded, to 20,000 square feet. With the adjacent 35-acre PGA Learning Center up for sale, memorabilia from the attached museum has migrated to the clubhouse atrium, where visitors can experience a century of PGA of America lore. Allow some extra time after your round to browse the displays of Ryder Cup and PGA Championship artifacts.
All of that golf and history is sure to work up an appetite, so grab a bite from the Taplow Pub and enjoy the al fresco dining option on the patio overlooking the Wanamaker Course. And remember: the PGA of America anticipates your high expectations.
Steve Harmon is the editor of Morning Read. He lives in Longwood, Fla.