There aren’t too many better places to play golf in the world than here in North Florida and South Georgia. We can play year-‘round and some of the most desirable golf courses in the country are in our backyard. No matter where you look, north to Sea Island or Amelia, any one of the courses here in town, the places in Ponte Vedra or St. Augustine and even south to Palm Coast and Daytona, you can’t go wrong. Each one better than the next.
The interest in golf here is so high, it’s one of the reasons the PGA Tour has their headquarters here. Then Commissioner Deane Beman saw the support the Greater Jacksonville Open had among the fans and volunteers and along with the Fletcher brothers offer to sell the Tour the land for $1, a whole destination, community and world famous tournament sprung up under our noses.
There’s plenty of history surrounding the game, and not just what has happened at the Stadium Course at the TPC at Sawgrass.
The Jacksonville Open was part of the barnstorming tour of professionals going around the country. Hyde Park on the Westside was it’s home and the top names in golf were playing here for prize money. The 6th hole at Hyde Park is known as “Hogan’s Alley.” It’s a par three where the future Hall of Famer made an eleven. When asked how he made an eleven on the par three, Hogan reportedly looked at the lone reporter there, took a long drag on his cigarette and said, “I missed a five footer for ten.” (It’s a line that parodied in the film “Tin Cup” by Kevin Costner.)
The Ryder Cup was scheduled to be played here at the Ponte Vedra Inn and Club in 1939, but the matches were cancelled because of WWII.
The whole concept of the Greater Jacksonville Open, the GJO, got it’s genesis when local golf pioneers Dick Stratton, John Tucker and others were sitting on stools at Silver’s Drug Store in Jacksonville Beach. Those guys knew Arnold Palmer, Gary Player and Jack Nicklaus personally and figured if they could get the big three to come, the tournament would have a chance.
There’s a plaque in the fairway at Selva Marina’s 18th hole commemorating Jack Nicklaus’ double-eagle on his way to victory. Arnold Palmer owned Hidden Hills and the tournament there and the associated reverie raised a lot of eyebrows in town. And there’s the story of a famous player who played in the afternoon in Thursday’s first round when the GJO was at Deerwood and emerged from the bushes on Friday morning wearing the same clothes for his second round. Apparently the party at Deerwood after hours was pretty good!
Could you imagine a location called the “Swingers Tent” going over in our current politically correct environment? But that was the name of THE place on A1A when fans, players and officials alike left the golf course and headed north from Sawgrass Country Club. That tent had it’s own set of stories. As the home of The Players, the Stadium Course has it’s own share of stories as well, although most are now confined to the course. To clear out underbrush on that island left of 14, a bunch of goats were brought in, (thus the name “Goat Island”). One night when the water was low, the goats made their way to the clubhouse and climbed on the roof, eating away at shingles and causing all kinds of havoc. Beman was not happy.
Most players didn’t care for the course or the tournament early on. From Lee Trevino’s “We shouldn’t have to putt on dirt,” to Nicklaus’ “I don’t think you should have to hit 4-iron into the hood of a car,” Pete Dye’s design was not met with universal acclaim. But Jerry Pate jumped in the water, Fuzzy Zoeller wiped Greg Norman’s brow, Davis Love hooked a 1-iron out of the woods and onto 16 and the legend started to grow.
Although the tournament belongs much more to the PGA Tour now than to us, it’s still part of our history. A rich history of golf that’s exciting, dramatic, and quirky all at the same time.