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The Secrets of Seminole

Seminole Golf Club in Juno Beach, Florida, is a very private club with just over 300 members. Ben Hogan was an honorary member, presidents and foreign royalty have been frequent guests, and Claude Harmon was head pro there from 1945 to 1957 and still holds the course record of sixty. Seminole doesn't host PGA Tour events, celebrity charity classics or any other tournaments with TV crews. So it is not widely known among golfers what this 1930 Donald Ross course, which is frequently ranked among the top ten in the country, in fact looks like. Fortunately, I know a couple members and I've been blessed with the opportunity to play there quite a few times. I live in Lakeland, Florida, three hours from Seminole—but a three-hour drive is nothing to play a course like this.

The American financier E.F. Hutton founded Seminole in 1929 and commissioned Ross, who had already forged Pinehurst No. 2, Oakland Hills and dozens of other courses, to be the architect of a top-caliber course for the extremely wealthy few of Palm Beach, which lies just to the club's south. The 100-acre property was magnificent, featuring distinctive dunes along the Atlantic Ocean and to the west a massive sand ridge that extended from the northernmost boundary to the southernmost. Between the two ridges was a valley, in which Ross would add several strategic lakes. The look of the property reminds me of Shinnecock Hills or Prairie Dunes. Like those courses, outside the immaculate fairways is a small band of rough and then just dunes and whatever grows in there. In this case, there are sable palms, Australian pines, banyon trees and sea grapes, four-foot-tall native plants that swallow golf balls, on the otherwise links-like layout.

Ross carefully and harmoniously placed hazards at Seminole, including 182 dunesy bunkers, all in that windswept, flashed style—clean on the side where balls enter but blending into the terrain on the other. These, along with his utilization of all natural elements and how they intertwine, would develop the strategy of the course, and in my book strategy is the heart and soul of the game. I owe much of my own design technique to the golf courses of this era, and a particular debt to this one.

The 6,787-yard, par-seventy-two Seminole is all about angles and how the hazards and angles interact with the wind conditions at the moment. 0And I stress "at the moment." You can't be 150 yards out and just pull out your 150-yard club. The course opens in the valley with a slight-dogleg-right par four that's only about 340 yards long. If you are downwind, you'll want to aim over the fairway bunkers on the right because there's a difficult bunker guarding the left-hand side of the green; but into the wind, with no chance of carrying the right fairway bunkers, you have to hit out to the left, a position that demands a more difficult approach shot. That's what I mean about the wind—the invisible hazard—dictating a golfer's strategy.

Hogan's favorite hole was the sixth, a very strong par four that plays about 420 yards. It's part of a stretch of four holes alongside and on top of the western ridge that each offer breathtaking views of the entire course and the Atlantic. It's a straightaway hole, but a huge bunker stretches from about 240 to 270 yards out along the left side of the fairway, which slopes from the golfer's left to right, thus creating a very demanding tee shot. Like many of the greens at Seminole, the sixth is naturally elevated about ten feet on a ridge. A deep bunker guards this one on the right, and there are bunkers back left and ten yards short and left. The best angle in is, of course, from the difficult-to hold left side of the fairway.

The eighth, a 243-yard par three with a huge forty-three-yard-deep green, is the first of a group of three holes down in the valley. Bunker left, two bunkers right and a twenty-yardlong bunker that stops ten yards short of the green's left side. Ross intended two options here: an aerial route that carries all the bunkers and lands on the front of the green, or a run-up hit between the bunkers to the right-center of the green. Of course, much of Ross's intention would be for naught were this course not maintained as he imagined. And it is. I would be remiss without giving Seminole superintendent Hal Hicks his due. With the sandy soils and wind conditions making the ground game critical, approaches and greens here, much like at Shinnecock, must be kept on the firm side. They don't mind brown grass here, and Hicks maintains the course to world-class standards every day of the year.

One of the obvious things that my design firm does is develop double fairways, which is right out of the fifteenth hole at Seminole. This 550- yard par five features a tricky-to-hit right fairway that is guarded by a lake on the right and a series of bunkers and palm trees on the left (which separate it from the left fairway). The reward is a second shot to the green, which not only is reachable from here but is also designed to be best attacked from that side. But if you take this option off the tee, you've got to judge the wind right, because if it's coming from the northeast it will move your ball left to right and that lake will sneak up on you fast. It's a brilliant hole.

The hole that the members at Seminole probably talk most about is the 175-yard par-three seventeenth. It's in the dunes, slightly downhill to a long, narrow green surrounded by bunkers. The wind is always quartering left to right off the ocean. You can hang it out over the left bunker and hope the wind brings it in, or play to the center and try to hold the wind. The late Dave Marr, who served a season as assistant pro under Claude Harmon there, called this one of the most demanding shots in golf, and I would certainly agree.

The irony is that if you are successful on seventeen, the tee shot on eighteen is just as challenging, if not more so. The finisher, a harrowing 420- yard par four, plays from the dunes along the Atlantic down into the valley and back to an elevated green. The fairway is protected by a series of cross-bunkers that run down the left side and one bunker on the right. The key is to challenge those on the left and let the wind bring your ball to the middle of the fairway. Some players will hit three-wood to the fat part of the fairway, but that leaves an extremely long second shot to a green whose entire right side is guarded by a ten- to twelve-foot-deep bunker and two more intimidating ones on the left. From many of the bunkers, here and elsewhere on the course, you have a downwind, downhill shot, requiring a cotton-soft touch, which many members of Seminole have developed.

The eighteenth is the only hole that has been altered from Ross's original routing. Dick Wilson modified it in 1947, moving the green, which he made deeper and narrower, up into the dunes a bit more and making the hole a slight dogleg. Wilson may have tinkered, but he wisely knew what very few golfers have had the privilege to discover firsthand: This Donald Ross creation is near perfect.

STEVE SMYERS
AGE: 51
COMPANY: Steve Smyers Golf Course Architects; Lakeland, FL
NOTABLE DESIGNS: Wolf Run Golf Club; Zionsville, IN (1989)
Cypress Lakes Resort; Australia (1992)
Chart Hills Golf Club; England (1993, with Nick Faldo)
Southern Dunes Golf & Country Club; Haines City, FL (1993)
Old Memorial Golf Club; Tampa, FL (1997)
East Course at Blue Heron Pines Golf Club; Cologne, NJ (2000)
Isleworth Country Club; Windermere, FL (2003, complete renovation)

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