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Joe Lee's Legacy

One day early in 1962, Ben Hogan opted out of his usual round at Seminole Golf Club in North Palm Beach, Florida, to try a new course located a few Sunshine State Parkway exits to the south called Pine Tree. Word had spread that this Dick Wilson-Joe Lee design was something special, but final judgment would have to wait until golf's purest shot maker had had his turn. The verdict?Hogan scraped it around in seventy-three, one over par, then wrote in the club's guest book, "The best course I have ever seen."

So, whatever happened to Pine Tree?

A young Jack Nicklaus played Pine Tree and called it "a truly great course." Sam Snead called it "the best golf course in the South" and became a dues-paying member, as did fellow Hall of Famers Mickey Wright and Louise Suggs. Indeed, Pine Tree was the "it" course of 1962, the Pacific Dunes of its day. Golf Digest ranked Pine Tree in the top ten in the U.S. in 1969, and it remained in the top thirty through 1984. By 1993, however, it had plummeted out of the top 100.

So what the heck happened?

For that matter, what happened to other landmark Wilson-Lee Florida layouts that met similar fates, such as Bay Hill in Orlando and Doral (Blue) in Miami?Each was consistently ranked in the U.S. top fifty well into the 1980s, and although they still host Tour events, they skidded off the charts, and not because of the renovations they have undergone.

No, the reason all these courses dropped in esteem is because the quality they have above all others—straightforward shot options—fell out of favor. They are undeniably strong tests of golf, but critics began to view them as flat and boring.

In golf, however, what goes around comes around, and a new appreciation of the Wilson-Lee aesthetic is brewing. Unfortunately, Joe Lee, until last spring the surviving member of the duo, died just weeks before the world's number-one player made this assessment of Cog Hill No. 4, a 1964 Wilson-Lee design and the site of this year's Western Open: "There aren't too many golf courses that you come to that you absolutely love the layout," Tiger Woods said. "I want to play here every year. I love this golf course. The holes look and fit my eye."

Among golf course connoisseurs, gently rolling terrain is often considered a prerequisite for greatness. On Alister Mackenzie's ideal golf course, "The greens and fairways should be sufficiently undulating. . . . There are few things more monotonous than playing every shot from a flat fairway."

Tom Doak goes the good doctor one further. In The Confidential Guide to Golf Courses, Doak writes: "Undulating topography is the soul of great golf courses. . . . [I]t follows, then, that the golf courses of Florida are anathema to my own tastes."

Doak actually admires several Florida courses, but bereft of an assortment of lies and stances, precious few of the state's tracks rise to his definition of greatness. Then again, there are different views of greatness. How published critics define superior golf is often very different from how my fourteen-handicap father and his equally modest playing buddies do. Shot values?To most of Dad's pals, that term applies strictly to post-round libations. It's not important to them how many par fives dogleg left versus right, or whether the green complexes on the par threes are sufficiently varied. All Dad really wants is a challenging, scenic course in good condition where he can smack his new driver and make a few putts. He simply enjoys being able to see what's in front of him. That's what Joe Lee courses let you do.

Remember the 1980s?The excitement spearheaded by innovative Pete Dye designs morphed into gimmickry in the hands of those less talented. Double-island greens; one-hundred-yard-long bunkers; split and terraced fairways; huge, pseudo-Scottish conical mounds; waterscaped, four-level greens in the desert. Some innovations were brilliant, some were overkill, and most have gone the way of big hair and new-wave music.

In the 1990s, short attention spans and little appreciation for subtlety led to more in-your-face golf playgrounds—obstacle courses that assault rather than soothe the senses. The majority were still too hard, too tricked up, too maintenance intensive and took too long to play. But by the late 1990s, the tide started to turn, and some superb, strategic, playable courses—such as Ocean Forest, Cuscowilla and Bandon Dunes—emerged. And now—thanks in part, possibly, to the sobering 9/11 aftermath—a craving for the comfort of old favorites is back in style. Many golfers are recognizing that the timeless, straightforward qualities of Joe Lee designs are worth savoring.

Joe Lee passed away in April 2003 at the age of eighty-one, following fifty-plus years as a course architect. A dapper, fit man with a wispy mustache, he was described by everyone who knew him as the epitome of a Southern gentleman. He possessed a calm air and an easy smile. Almost unique among men in his profession, he exhibited little trace of ego. Ben Wright described him as "modest to the extent of self-effacement."

Lee was that rare bird who was actually born in Florida. He grew up working in his family's citrus business, and it was there that he nurtured his love and knowledge of soil and trees. Following active World War II duty in the Navy, Lee enrolled at the University of Miami, where the former standout baseball player competed on the swimming team. Eventually he took up golf, and it wasn't long before he was scoring in the eighties.

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