Where To Golf Next

The good shepherd

Opened in the early 1950s, New Smyrna Golf Club still excels because of its Donald Ross design, which feature the architect's trademark greens complexes. (Photo: City of New Smyrna)

Sitting down with Gary Wintz, it’s tough to tell which has more character – the man himself or the 62-year-old public golf course he oversees. 

There’s really nothing Wintz, 69, hasn’t done in golf, so it feels appropriate that he’s the man stewarding New Smyrna Golf Club forward while still preserving its unique history. The 18-hole course is believed to be one of Donald Ross’ final designs before his death in 1948. As with many of his courses, Ross probably never saw this property. It opened in 1953.

On an early January day that’s biting cold with sideways rain (and a rare freeze expected overnight), Wintz, the golf course manager and PGA professional here, takes refuge in a spacious office next to the cart barn to talk about this historic property that’s close to home.

He was born and raised in Daytona Beach (15 miles north on I-95) before attending the University of South Florida in Tampa on a golf scholarship. His dream was always to play competitively, so he bounced around mini tours and made the cut in 36 of 56 PGA Tour starts from 1975-81. Eventually, Wintz landed a job as a golf professional at Disney World, but when he turned 50, the competitive itch returned. He traveled overseas to play the European Senior Tour from 2003-08 – winning once in Belgium – and has been at New Smyrna Golf Club ever since.

Even on the crummiest Florida-winter day, New Smyrna’s fairways and greens practically glow with health. That can be attributed to a 2016 update that focused heavily on the drainage system. 

“It drains so well you could go and play right now,” Wintz said.

When Wintz opens his office door a few minutes later for a better look at the nearby ninth green and a surrounding bunker, cold rain whistles in. But this is the part of the course’s 21st century facelift that has his fingerprint. After several years of research, Wintz oversaw the 2016 installation of platinum paspalum – a hearty, salt water-tolerant grass – on the greens.

“It’s just like a pool table-top,” he said.

This wasn’t the first green renovation Wintz participated in, and that architecture-and-design element of Wintz’s resume is maybe the most surprising. Wintz wasn’t formally trained in agronomy (he got his degree in Geology), but picked up the basics through various classes and on-course work. Most interestingly, he tagged along with friend Ed Connor in the early 1990s as Connor rebuilt the greens at Seminole Golf Club in Juno Beach, Fla., another Ross design.

“I knew how to build a green when I left,” Wintz said, and he put that knowledge to use when he tackled New Smyrna’s greens. He believes some of the renovations he helped complete make this course more attractive to the snowbirds who frequent it, as well as a younger crowd of “surfers and what-not.”

In terms of location, New Smyrna has two variables on top of its warm-weather climate that you don’t often see: prime viewing of rocket launches from Kennedy Space Center (sure to stop play and turn heads) and close proximity to Canaveral National Seashore, a 24-mile stretch of undeveloped beach access.

Add Ross’ legacy to that, and you get a wholly attractive bucket-list course for anyone playing his way through the Sunshine State. New Smyrna Golf Club made an appearance on a Donald Ross Society itinerary this March. The society, made up of roughly 500 Ross followers and enthusiasts, organizes a handful of events each year to bring together members and explore Ross designs.

“Some would say that we’re mostly all golf geeks,” explained Steve MacQuarrie, the society’s vice president. 

Ross courses tend to draw crowds anyway for their playability. They’re simply fun.

“Other architects get so interested in making the course challenging that the challenge takes some of the fun out of it,” ­­­­­ MacQuarrie said. “Ross has designed some of the most fascinating green complexes. They have rolls and swales and humps, it really challenges your imagination how those putts are going to break.”