Even if your locker is the trunk of a rental car, you can enjoy golf in Florida’s playground.
This story begins with two objects: Elvis Presley’s Army hat and a squeaky, two-wheeled pull cart. Together they represent the alpha and omega of Palm Beach County, Florida, a place where Maseratis glide through the gates of clubs like Seminole and Mar-a-Lago and where anybody can afford to play highly enjoyable golf, even if their locker is the trunk of a rental car.
Elvis’s hat came up over dinner at the Leopard Lounge on Cocoanut Row, three blocks from the ocean in the town of Palm Beach. The lounge, with its black walls, leopard-patterned carpet and hand-painted ceiling depicting sylphs gliding among the clouds, is to Palm Beach what the Polo Lounge is to Beverly Hills.
My wife and I got to talking with a slim, silver-haired man with a manicured mustache and a German accent, sitting at the next banquette with his wife and another couple. His name was Helmut Woelki, and at one point he told us that he had bought Presley’s Army hat at auction in the early 1980s for $25,000.
Growing up in Frankfurt, Germany, he explained, he had been a Presley fan and was about Presley’s age when the king of rock and roll turned up at the U.S. Army base there. Woelki could afford the hat, it turned out, because he had made his fortune building Lufthansa’s Sky Chefs group into the world’s largest airline catering operation. “I sold out in 2000—just in time, as it turned out,” he said with a satisfied smile.
Presley’s Army hat, he reckoned, is worth many times what he paid for it. “I tell my wife, ‘If there is ever a fire, forget all the antiques and artworks. Just grab the hat.’”
The Leopard Lounge is worth the splurge for the atmosphere alone. But since this is a story about the affordable Palm Beach, let me recommend the $12 bowl of Chasen’s chili on the menu. According to Mark, the well-tanned maitre d’, it’s the old Hollywood hangout’s famous pork-and-beef recipe, the one Elizabeth Taylor liked so much she had it delivered when she couldn’t get to the restaurant.
It turns out there are plenty of fine options for golfers not on Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago guest list. Summer rates at public courses start as low as $20 and rise in high season (January-April), topping out at $105 at the Jack Nicklaus Signature North Palm Beach Country Club.
For me, the pursuit of the affordable 18 began a few days earlier, about 30 miles down the coast from the town of Palm Beach, in Boca Raton, at the southern end of the county. I normally avoid courses with the word “executive” in the name, but a local had hipped me to the 9-hole Red Reef Executive Course, run by the town. I showed up there in late afternoon, threw my bag on one of those wobbly pull carts and for $11 proceeded to enjoy 1,327 yards of golf all about position and finesse.
On the seventh tee—86 yards uphill to a shallow, hidden green, with a sliver of ocean visible to the left—I caught up with a tall gent with a gray goatee. “Don’t go long,” he advised me, “or you’ll wind up in the Spanish bayonets,” a bristly, impenetrable form of yucca. “I’m 83, and I usually shoot my age,” he added. “I love this course, because it sharpens my short game.”
That night, staying at the Waterstone Resort (above) on the Boca inlet, I plotted my coming rounds over a tangy tequila Siesta on the patio. The knock on South Florida golf is that the courses are basically billiard tables punctured by water hazards and the occasional loitering armadillo. In such a realm, boasting rights go to any layout that offers a 360. That’s not yardage, it’s degrees of unobstructed view from the high point of the property. Don’t snicker, you Rocky Mountain types. While it’s true South Florida has no nosebleeds, in my trip I encountered three bona fide 360s, each exhilarating and unexpected.
The first came on the eighth green of the Falcon 9 at Osprey Point. Palm Beach County has an enviable parks and rec system that includes 90 holes of golf plus a separate learning center. For golfers, the Audubon-certified jewels in the crown are Osprey Point in Boca Raton and Okeeheelee in West Palm Beach. Each has three nines with extensive practice areas around a central lake and not a residence in sight except little red ones for finches and purple martins or bigger ones for larger birds and, on Osprey Point, high crossbars for the titular bird of prey.
Whichever two nines you play, on either course, there are five sets of tees. From the back ones, you can grab as much as 6,900 yards of golf with ratings up to 73.6 and slopes up to 137. What you have to beware are less the bunkers (only 47 on the 27 holes at Osprey Point) but firing a ball into the many untended natural areas. As Ken Smythe, Osprey’s assistant golf course manager, told me, “You don’t want to go in there. It’s their world.”
Falcon was my favorite nine at Osprey Point. A pretty finger of the Everglades slides along the par 4 second, with forced carries between tee and fairway and fairway and green. The par 4 fourth is short but nasty in a fun way, with the green tucked so far left behind thick vegetation that it has a 10-foot-high flagstick just so you can see where to aim. The dogleg sixth goes uphill, the par 3 seventh downhill, then it’s 434 yards uphill to the high point, the eighth green.
The elevation is only about 40 feet, but congratulate yourself if you get there in two. It’s the longest and toughest par four on the course, with water on both sides. The green is 40 yards deep. You might need to really whack that putter. Do the 360 after you putt out. It’s wet and tropical wherever you look.
Osprey plays fast and firm thanks to its low-maintenance grass, all paspalum. You will want to work on your 40- to 60-yard pitch-and-run before you get here. It’ll come in handy.
Next stop was Okeeheelee (above), which holds the world’s record for most repetitions of a single vowel in a single word. (The name means “Quiet Waters” in Seminole.) The 360 here comes on the eighth green of the Heron 9. Again you’re about 40 feet above level ground, but in context it’s meaningful. The view ranges across huge Okeeheelee Park, with its ballfields, equestrian center, BMX track and other facilities.
The Heron Nine is open, with many rolling hills. The Eagle Nine is tighter and densely wooded. The Osprey Nine has some of both. The grass is Bermuda; the water, in squiggles and ponds, seems to be everywhere, but much of it is not in play. I fell in love with Heron, especially its last three holes, which dogleg left around the lake, presenting several risk/reward decisions. The ninth is a 209-yard par three, all uphill, with the only safe miss being short.
The towns on the mainland side of the Intracoastal Waterway, across from the Beverly Hills of the East, have their own sets of contrast. One extreme is represented by an illuminated sign I passed outside a shop on one of the long, straight, north-south thoroughfares. It read, in all caps, PAWN GUNS & JEWELRY. I never connected those two things before, but they both create a kind of force field around the bearer or wearer. Opposing that type of commerce you have the new City Place shopping and entertainment mall, which replaced a slum and is the pride of West Palm Beach.
The pride of North Palm Beach, in golf at least, is Nicklaus’ North Palm Beach Country Club (above). Nicklaus, a long-time resident of the town, took the bedraggled remains of a 1920s Seth Raynor course, with a footprint of just 125 acres, and transformed it into a remarkably varied and interesting layout with six sets of tees, from 3,603 to 7,071 yards. The back tees (74.8/140) are no vacation. It reopened in 2006. Nicklaus’s fee, according to director of golf Casey Mitchell, was $1.
“It’s built on the same sand ridge as Seminole and Jupiter Hills,” she told me. Nicklaus found four kinds of sand on the property, including an orange sand which he describes on his website as “some of the best bunker sand we have found in the state of Florida.” He used it to create 84 bunkers, which aren’t there for aesthetics alone.
Interestingly, the signature hole, the 447-yard fourth, has only one bunker, near the mouth of the green. The hole, a dogleg left, is tight, especially after the turn, making it the No. 1 handicap on the front side.
The greens are planted with an ultra-dwarf form of Bermuda that Mitchell says is “not very grainy,” so that’s one less thing to worry about. On the other hand, they’re fast (10-11 on the stimpmeter), with tiers and mounds to contend with.
North Palm Beach has its own scenic 360. From the high point, the 11th tee, at the south end of the course, you see most of the back nine, plus woods and, in the distance, cylindrical white apartment towers. It’s not the best 360, but it’s one of the best affordable rounds of golf in the county.
Wherever I went in my brief visit to PBC, I asked players what courses they would recommend. Aside from the ones I’ve already described, the course most often called a must-play was the 18-hole Palm Beach Par 3.
It has several things going for it, from its location on a pretty strip of land between the ocean and the Intracoastal Waterway to its 19th hole, the truly fine Italian restaurant, al Fresco, on the second floor of the new clubhouse. Eat indoors or on the shaded, wrap-around balcony that overlooks the ocean side of the course. And with only 2,572 yards to traverse, from the back tees, you reach the 19th hole in about two and a half hours.
Designed by Dick Wilson and Joe Lee, the Par 3 opened in 1961 and was private until the town of Palm Beach bought it in 1973. In 2009, short game master Raymond Floyd was brought in to redesign it and crank up the challenge. He did a fine job, lengthening and tightening the course and roughly doubling the size of the greens, adding slope to them as well. Floyd also combined four small lakes on the ocean side of the course into one big one, bringing it into play (or into one’s cranium) on one, fifteen and sixteen. If you fly the green or miss to the wrong side, expect a splash.
Golfers being a perverse lot, toughening the course has made it more popular. In the last five years, rounds played on the Par 3 have increased from 26,000 to 36,000. The pro shop is doing even better. “Three years ago,” Tony Chateauvert, the PGA head pro and manager told me, “we were doing $69,000 a year. This year we’re looking at $220,000. My biggest seller is a $90 shirt. All the talk golf is dying? Not down here.”
WHERE TO PLAY:
North Palm Beach Country Club
951 US Highway One
North Palm Beach, FL, 33408
Okeeheelee Golf Course
7715 Forest Hill Blvd
West Palm Beach, FL
Osprey Point Golf Course
12551 Glades Road, Boca Raton, FL 33498
Palm Beach Par 3 (18 holes)
2345 S Ocean Blvd, Palm Beach, FL 33480
Red Reef Park Executive Course
221 N Ocean Blvd, Boca Raton, FL 33432
WHERE TO STAY:
Waterstone Resort & Marina
999 E. Camino Real
Boca Raton, FL 33432
Palm Beach Marriott Singer Island Beach Resort & Spa
3800 North Ocean Drive, Singer Island-Riviera Beach, FL 33404
The Palm Beach Historic Inn
365 S County Rd, Palm Beach, FL 33480
Eric Levin is the deputy editor of New Jersey Monthly.