13 Oct 2020 | Clubs & Facilities | Feature stories |

Seminole: a great golfing experience

by Contributor

Seminole image
Seminole in Florida is a Donald Ross classic. Photo: Getty

By Richard Allen

On any given afternoon during Seminole’s short golf season – from around Christmas through to April – an elderly gentleman in neatly pressed trousers can be seen coaxing his ball about the putting green, or playing a few holes in a cart.

The gentleman is 79-year-old Barry van Gerbig, the club’s 10th president. No living member has had a bigger impact on this exclusive Florida club, or better reflects the place that Seminole occupies in American golf. Born in New York, van Gerbig attended Princeton University, where his chosen sport was ice hockey. After graduating he worked on Wall Street and briefly played minor league hockey for the Charlotte Checkers and Des Moines Oak Leafs. But it was golf, not ice hockey, in which van Gerbig eventually made his name, in particular his affiliation with, and affection for, Seminole, the highly-exclusive club in Florida’s Juno Beach, 120 kilometres north of Miami and 20 kilometres north of Palm Beach. The course was laid out in the 1920s by Donald Ross – the carpenter’s son from Dornoch in Scotland and former apprentice to Old Tom Morris – after a land-clearing exercise that had him trudging through mangrove swamps in hip-high snake boots with machetes, bow saws and brush hooks. Eventually Seminole, with its 186 bunkers, would rank with Pinehurst No. 2 as Ross’s crowning achievement. And there was plenty of competition – in a glittering career during which he was credited with the design of around 400 courses, Ross also produced Aronimink (Philadelphia), East Lake (Atlanta), Oak Hill (New York), Inverness (Ohio) and Oakland Hills (Michigan). From the moment it was opened on New Year’s Day in 1930 – nine weeks after Wall Street had crashed, when one-third of American corporate wealth disappeared overnight – the club developed a glittering and rakish persona, displaying a “cultured air of formal informality". The Palm Beach set would habitually sleep in, wander into the club around noon for lunch, and then play golf in the afternoon. Morning golf was unheard of. Seminole’s much-loved professional, Claude Harmon, fondly recalled that he was able to practise so much in the mornings at Seminole because the place was deserted.

Notably, in March 1947, Harmon set a course-record 60 playing with three members. The next Spring he won the Masters, a rare achievement for a club professional. The club would close at 6pm sharp – and still does – when the members would leave for home and dress for cocktails at one or other of the Palm Beach seaside mansions. During Seminole’s golden years Ben Hogan would spend 30 days there each year preparing for the Masters (typically playing matches against member Bobby Sweeny, who would later win the 1956 British Amateur), an Irishman named Christopher Dunphy ran the club, Harmon was the head professional, and guests included President Eisenhower and the Duke of Windsor. JFK was often seen at Seminole, as were Bing Crosby and Gary Cooper. The club’s key event during this golden period was the Latham Reed Invitational Amateur-Professional tournament, a two-ball organised by Dunphy in which a member teamed up with a tour pro, and where the Calcutta pool often went north of $250,000. The professional winner could make as much that weekend as he could winning a normal tour event.

The event’s past winners are a roll-call of American golfing royalty: Hogan, Snead, Nelson, Middlecoff, Boros, Demaret, Palmer. The tournament eventually died in the early 1960s because the US Tour found it couldn’t organise a decent tournament that weekend because all the great pros were at Seminole. After the Latham Reed ended, tournament and guest play dwindled and Seminole’s place in US golf seemed to wane a little. Enter van Gerbig. In 1988, two years after he was appointed head of Seminole’s greens committee under club president George Coleman, he travelled to Pine Valley in Philadelphia to play in a prestigious amateur tournament, the Crump Cup, and was shocked by the number of great amateurs who asked him about Seminole, and who clearly hadn’t played it. In the early 1990s van Gerbig oversaw the removal of much unwanted vegetation, and restored the course to it original ‘firm and fast’ links character. He launched the Seminole Invitational – later renamed the George Coleman Invitational – an elite tournament for America’s best senior amateurs. The event brought back the great amateurs to Seminole, and restored the club’s reputation. Visitors to Seminole today experience American golf at its exclusive low-key best. The pink stucco Spanish-style clubhouse, designed by Marion Wyeth, is a classic. The graceful and unpretentious dining room overlooks a swimming pool that no-one can recall anyone actually swimming in.

The pro shop is one of the best stocked in the country. The large and airy locker room is the heart of the club, with its comfortable sofas, bar, and wood panelled walls which display large honour boards of past competition winners (and no TV). The caddies are exceptional. Author James Dodson, who wrote The Story of Seminole, quotes van Gerbig, “From the beginning a powerful feeling that less is really more prevailed here at Seminole. You could always get a game with someone. If five guys are in the dining room having lunch, five guys can go out and play a fivesome. Nobody who comes here, even alone, goes without a game.” In the end, Seminole is all about the golf. ‘Play well, play fast; play badly, play faster,’ urges a sign on the first tee. The genius of the course lies in its routing. The course occupies a flat bottomed bowl set between a high ridge of dunes to the west and another set of dunes along the Atlantic Ocean. Fourteen of the holes play into, or from, these dunes. Much of the course sits nearly a metre below sea level, so sprinkled around the course is a collection of ponds and lakes to handle the drainage (a hurricane flooded the course in 1948). The winds come in regularly off the Atlantic Ocean (the beach is just 20 metres from the back of the 14th and 18th tees), which puts a premium on distance judgement. The green complexes are fascinating, generally sloping from back to front and narrowing at the back, requiring precise irons. Most of the trouble lies at the back of Seminole’s heavily bunkered greens. Course designer Rees Jones says, “Seminole is probably the best bunkered golf course in America.” James Dodson says the course provides “not only a stern examination of one’s nerve and shot-making skills but is also an ever-changing Chinese puzzle of angles and options.” “Seminole is the only course I could be perfectly happy playing every single day…If you can play well there you can play well anywhere,” Hogan said. He also reputedly told Clifford Roberts and Bobby Jones that Seminole was “five shots harder than Augusta.” Hogan’s favourite hole was the 350-metre sixth, with its options off the tee and fiendishly difficult green. The collection of par threes – five, eight, 13 and 17 – are as good as any in America and the 16th and 18th are world-class dog-leg par fours. The course, not long by today’s standards, is definitely no pushover. In early 1955, not long after he had turned professional (he had beaten Bobby Sweeny 1 up in the final of the US Amateur in Detroit the previous year), Arnold Palmer turned up for Seminole’s amateur-professional event, having driven all night in a motor home with his wife Winnie. In the first round he shot 87. “I remember thinking it was one of the toughest golf courses I’d ever played and went back to our little trailer and told Winnie I probably wouldn’t play the second day of the tournament,” he told Dodson. “She got very concerned and said to me ‘Oh, no, Arnie, you have to play, your partner is counting on you.’ So I went back and played the second day at Seminole, figuring I couldn’t do any worse. I shot 88.” Palmer would win the event in 1961. Seminole, with its 300-odd members, is unquestionably one of the great American golfing experiences. It is firmly entrenched in Golf Digest’s top 30 world courses, and is probably in the top five most exclusive courses in the USA. Next year Seminole will open its doors to the world’s best amateurs when it hosts the Walker Cup.

Richard Allen is a Golf Australia board member and author.

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