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Amateur Golf Jacksonville

Charity Golf In Town

If you’ve played any golf in North Florida you’ve probably played in a charity golf tournament. Big or small, golf tournaments raising money for charity are among the biggest fundraising sources for charities in our part of the country.

“Before Covid, we held as many as twenty fund-raising events every year,” Chet Stokes, General Manager at Marsh Landing Country Club in Ponte Vedra revealed. “We want to be a part of the community and give back when we can. This is a way we can do that.”

Golf clubs have to strike a balance between maintenance, member play and supporting charitable initiatives.

“Typically, the club industry is a key player in helping charities throughout the state of Florida,” Leon Crimmins the former President of the Florida Club Managers Association of America explained.

There are some big charity tournaments, like Tom Coughlin’s Jay Fund event at the TPC at Sawgrass that’s been around since 1996, and there are some small ones, like the one my friend Frank Hughes started last year on Amelia Island to benefit the local Set Free By The Sea ministry.

“We know people like to play golf and we have some great golf courses, so it just made sense,” Hughes explained. “It doesn’t have to cost a lot of money to get people together, share some fellowship and have some fun. We raised a little money but more importantly we raised a lot of awareness of who we are.”

Last weekend I was invited again to play in the Funk-Zitiello, Champions for Hope golf tournament at the TPC Stadium Course. It includes a banquet Friday night and golf Saturday morning. In the past forty years, I’ve probably played in close to a thousand charity golf tournaments, but few have rivaled the Champions for Hope.

They raise a bunch of money; they create great fellowship and awareness, but it feels like nothing but pure fun while you’re there.

There are plenty of ways to raise money, but Champions for Hope picked a golf tournament. And not by accident.

“I thought about throwing an Italian wedding feast and making it a charity event,” Tommy Zitiello, the tournament’s founder explained this week. “Who doesn’t have a good time at an Italian wedding?”

They started out raising money for the J.T. Townsend Foundation with a few parties but then Zitiello’s wife Judy was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer seven years ago

Zitiello, affectionately known as ‘Tommy Z’ wasn’t sure which way to turn. The survival rate for pancreatic cancer is the lowest among all cancers. Just around nine percent.

“I thought, everything we built together was gone,” Tommy added quietly. “I listened to all of the statistics about beating cancer and the research dollars needed and found that the survival rate for about every other cancer had grown by fifty per cent or more. Except this one.”

Zitiello decided to ‘go big’ and started a golf tournament to raise money for both the JT Townsend Foundation and for research into early detection for pancreatic cancer. It was an ambitious effort, but Tommy believes through faith, he was able to create something special.

“I made my money in sales,” he explained. “My only talent was speaking and selling. And I’m convinced that I made money because God knew I was going to give it back.”

Champions for Hope has raised millions of dollars in its five years, including $700,000 this year coming out of the pandemic. They’ve helped 672 families here in Jacksonville who have adaptive equipment needs. Judy has beaten the odds and is a seven-year cancer survivor.

“You can’t just sit back, you have to get involved,” Tommy added. “It’s grass roots, friends and family and every bodies fully invested. Not one person makes a nickel working at our event. Our CPA, lawyers, our restaurants, our liquor, our family, all of our volunteers, they’re there for nothing. If you’re not working at it and taking your time, it’s not really charity.”

I heard that over and over this week. Giving, of time and money on a grass roots level here in town, is the key.

“Champions for Hope is the message,” he concluded. “A doctor once told me ‘When you give someone love you give them hope.’ Giving people hope is the message.”

While Tommy’s tournament is one of the best I’ve ever played in, the first “Back to Camp” tournament is the craziest.

In the mid-80’s it was popular to bring former professional athletes to town to play and entertain, as well as entice fans to plunk down some money to play with their now-retired heroes. It followed the Miller Lite and the Bud Light promotions at the time, celebrating how much fun it would be to hang out with retired ballplayers.

That first year was a rousing success in the fun category, especially when one player was found asleep under a bench in the locker room, and another was able to make his plane heading out of town by leaving his rental car on the curb at arrivals at JIA. Running.

Because of the expense of bringing the former players to town and putting them up for three nights, the tournament didn’t raise much money, but it did bring the charity a lot of notoriety.

“We’re trying to get the message out,” Tommy Z added about the Champions for Hope golf event. “I see new people each year at our tournament who heard about it from a friend. We just need to get lucky with a big philanthropist or a big corporation to help get to the next level.”

For twenty-five years I was honored and flattered to have my name on charity golf tournaments here in town raising nearly $10 Million. The first was to raise money for housing downtown and then to help kids in life-threatening medical situations have a little fun.

“We went from not having a golf tournament to it being our number one fundraiser,” one of the chief administrators of the charity told me after we got started. “It’s such a natural here and with the generosity of people donating things to us, we’re able to put that money directly to benefit the kids.”

Yes, generosity. That’s a hallmark of what happens here in the golf community and the people and companies who get involved.

Whether you’re asking for a restaurant to donate lunch or a big golf retailer to provide some ‘hole prizes’ the answer is almost never ‘no.’ And they get hit up every week.

“The donation of the club’s facilities is what drives charity’s ability to raise significant funds,” Crimmins added, noting how most clubs help out. “Some clubs donate the golf course and charge for food and beverage at cost and absorb the cost of brining the staff in on a Monday. Different clubs do it different ways.”

There were over one-hundred twenty-five charity golf tournaments held every year in North Florida in the late nineties. That grew to over three hundred in the next ten years, following the golf boom. While that number has settled somewhat, all of those tournaments need prizes and oftentimes the golf courses themselves are helping out.

“Every week we get asked a few times to provide a four-some as a prize and we always say yes to that,” Stokes explained. “But we also try and play in tournaments around town to support the different causes. It’s important.”

Charity tournaments are not money-makers for local courses. The off-day revenue (most tournaments are played on Monday’s when courses are generally closed) comes from corporate outings.

“Clubs are very generous and charitable,” Crimmins added. “Club managers try to provide a balance of not sacrificing time for golf course maintenance while supporting charitable initiatives.”

And this doesn’t happen everywhere. I’ve got plenty of friends from around the country who are constantly amazed by the generosity and the money raised by golf tournaments here in North Florida. While the World Giving Index has listed the United States as the most generous country in the world for the last ten years, if there was a measure for golf giving, we’d rank near, if not at the top.

So, when you see one of those license plates that says “Florida, Golf Capital of the World,” which is debatable, add “Giving” to that phrase and smile, knowing that’s true.

The Masters

Masters Memories Last

Most of golf’s memories seem to come from The Masters. The other majors have had their drama. The Open Championship has the famous “Duel in the Sun” between Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson and Van de Velde’s meltdown at Carnoustie. The U.S. Open has Ben Hogan’s one-iron at Merion, Arnold Palmer driving the green at Cherry Hills in 1960 and Watson’s chip in at seventeen at Pebble Beach. Golf aficionados all have their favorites.

But even the casual golf fan has their favorite Masters memories. Perhaps it’s because the tournament is the only Major played over the same venue for the past eighty-five editions, or maybe it’s the beautiful setting Augusta National presents for some of the toughest competition each year. No matter. Even non-sports fans can tell you something about The Masters.

“The azaleas’ in bloom,” my favorite non-sports fan said. “That shot on TV they show with the triple-arch bridge and the azaleas in the background. That’s really pretty.”

“Pimento cheese sandwiches,” was another favorite among the ‘non-golf’ crowd. That was a surprise. At what other event does something at the concession stand available for $1.50 make the ‘memories’ list? Hot Dogs at the Super Bowl? Beer at Daytona? Cracker Jack at the World Series? Hardly.

This weekend’s Masters’ broadcasts will be the highest rated golf telecasts of the year, by far. You could call it a rite of spring, especially for those who are in the Mid-Atlantic, Northeast and Mid-West where they’re more likely to see snow out the window than green grass.

“That’s for sure,” my friend ‘Keeter,’ who still lives up north told me. “When you see that green grass at Augusta, you know it’s the first week of April and The Masters.”

Among the sports crowd, and especially golf fans, there’s a definite split in their favorite Masters moment. For the plus fifty-five crowd, without exception they say, “Nicklaus in ’86.” Jack’s birdie putt on seventeen, punctuated by Verne Lundquist’s “Yes, sir!” call is a memory they can conjure up instantly.

For the under fifty-five crowd there’s a generational shift, as you might expect.

“Tiger in ’97,” is the answer my forty-nine-year-old friend ‘Pineapple’ instantly said when asked about his favorite Masters memory. “I was on my honeymoon in Hawaii with my first wife watching that. It really had a big effect on me. She wasn’t happy that I spent time watching TV.”

He mentioned later that might have been a hint why she was his first wife.

Checking with most of my over-55 friends, they can recite where they were when Jack made his charge and won in ’86. All had different moments that made a mark on their memory bank after that.

“I really liked it when Jordan Spieth won,” ‘Big Beef’ said recalling Spieth’s win in 2015 after a runner up finish the previous year. “Just the way he handled himself.”

Big Beef is a big sports fan and although he doesn’t play any longer, thoroughly enjoys watching golf. A player’s demeanor, winning or losing, makes a difference.

“He played the right way, did the right things,” he added. “He really confirmed to me what a gentleman I think he is. His dedication to his sister and his family, that really sticks in my mind.”

The “BQ” still plays a lot of golf, better than ever with a new knee. He quickly rattled off Jack’s victory in ’86 but followed that quickly with Larry Mize’s win in 1987.

“I happened to be at The Masters that year with you,” he recalled. “And the tension coming down the stretch with everybody there was amazing.”

Often forgotten about the ’87 finish is the fact that Mize had tied with Greg Norman and Seve Ballesteros at -3 after seventy-two holes. Ballesteros missed a short putt on the first playoff hole to be eliminated in the sudden death playoff. Norman looked to have the advantage after he and Mize hit their approach shots on eleven. Then Mize famously chipped in from off the right of the green to take the Green Jacket.

“We didn’t walk down to ten or eleven for the playoff, so we saw Seve walking back up ten and knew he was out,” BQ explained. “We went over to the clubhouse and looked in the window to watch what happened on eleven. When Mize chipped in, the place erupted.”

Then he added, “But what was most memorable was that evening I got invited to play Augusta the next morning. And that’s a whole other story.”

My friend “Ghost of Chuck” and I also have attended The Masters a few times together. Ghost picked Tiger’s win in 1997 as his most memorable, but for a very different reason.

“April 14th is my wife’s birthday, and we were in Big Sur to celebrate that year,” he began. “We stopped in a little bar on the road to get something to eat and asked the bartender if we could watch The Masters. Turns out she was from England, moved to Haight-Ashbury in the sixties and was still a self-proclaimed ‘hippie’ now working in a bar. She said to us, “The Masters? What’s that?”

“I explained about the golf tournament and Tiger and she turned it on and really got into it. Then all of the sudden the power in the whole bar went out. And the bartender said, ‘We need to finish watching, come with me.’”

The three of them went outside, the bartender getting in, how Ghost described it, her ‘Magic Bus’ and said, ‘Follow me!’

“We started driving and my wife looked at me and asked, ‘What are we doing?’ I just said, ‘We’re going to watch The Masters!’ And we ended up at some guys’ house down the road and watched Tiger’s historic win. And that was different.”
I’ve been covering The Masters since 1979, missing only 1982 when my oldest daughter was born that weekend. Thirty-nine years ago, yesterday. I’ve got plenty of memories over those forty-two years and every one of them great. The most special are the times I’ve had the chance to take my family and friends to see Augusta National and The Masters as a place and a golf tournament. It’s a time, I hope, if they’re like me, they’ll never forget.

Past and Present on Display at The Masters

It was always former PGA Tour Commissioner Deane Beman’s idea that The Players Championship would be the first “significant” golf tournament of the year. Playing the tournament in March in Florida would kick off the golf season and eventually The Players would be the “first major” on the calendar.

Although it is showcased as the first big test of the best players in the world, The Players hasn’t received “Major” status. The TPC Stadium Course at Sawgrass showed magnificently just three weeks ago with a fitting champion in Justin Thomas but it’s still not considered a Major.

The “First Major” title still belongs to The Masters.

Because of the pandemic, The Masters was the last Major played in 2020 and will be the first played in 2021. Less than five months separate last year’s tournament from this week’s competition at Augusta National. Dustin Johnson has reigned as the current Masters champion for the shortest period in the tournament’s history. Compare that to The (British) Open Championship, where Shane Lowry will have been known as the “Champion Golfer of the Year” for two full years because of last year’s cancellation.

Johnson and Lowry are among the ninety players invited for the Masters, although it’s unclear how many will actually tee it up on Thursday. Johnson won the tournament in November with a record 20-under finish. The conditions this week most likely won’t allow this year’s winner to approach that number.

“Yeah, I think it will be back to feeling like a normal Masters. Obviously last year, there was nothing normal about last year, for the whole year, really,” Johnson said. “I think this year in April, the Masters will feel like it’s back, and it will feel the same. I’m definitely looking forward to that.”

Fans will be back at The Masters in a limited capacity this year. The par-three tournament will be back on Wednesday with patrons. Masks required.

And while there are protests scheduled for outside the gates of Augusta National, eighty-six year old Lee Elder, the first Black man to play in The Masters will join former champions Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player hitting a ceremonial initial shot at the first tee Thursday opening the tournament.

The 85th installment of The Masters will mark the 60th anniversary of Gary Player’s first Green Jacket in 1961. Player competed in fifty-two Masters, the most ever, finishing his competitive rounds at Augusta in 2009.

That’s why watching The Masters each April can be so interesting on two fronts. There aren’t any other sporting events where the prize is so coveted but the past is still on display.

Arnold Palmer played in fifty Masters, the most consecutive ever. Palmer had said he’d play Augusta National “As long as I can hit fifteen in two.” He stopped in 2004. Jack Nicklaus stopped the next year after forty-five appearances and six Green Jackets.

I remember walking with Sam Snead from the 18th green to the clubhouse in 1983 when he said, “I think that’s it for me.” And with that he was done after 44 appearances and three victories at Augusta National. I was dumbfounded.

Media coverage was very different then and especially for golf, pre-Tiger. No big announcement, Snead just said to three or four of us walking with him, “I’m done.”

“I can still play this golf course,” 1992 champion Fred Couples told me during a practice round with Tiger Woods and Adam Scott last November.

Standing on the tenth tee, Scott and Woods hit three-woods down the hill on the long, 495 yard, par four.
Couples, who’s length off the tee contributed to his “Boom Boom” nickname, hit driver.

“The key is to hit the right clubs into these greens,” he explained. “I’m long enough that I can still do that. Some guys can’t.”
Fred uses the 18th hole as a prime example of his ability to still play Augusta National. How he plays that hole will determine how long he’ll continue to compete at the Masters every April.

“I used to hit driver and a short iron in there,” he said of the 465-yard uphill par 4 known as “Holly.” “Even though it’s longer now, I can still hit a short iron in there with how long I still hit it,’ alluding to the distance gained through new equipment technology. “Once guys start having to hit hybrid into that green, they don’t have much of a chance.”

Adding length to the golf course has made a test for players in the modern game, but for others, it’s eliminated them as actual competitors. As an example, Augusta National played at 6,925 yards in 1994. This year it will be 550 yards longer.

And confounding that theory, Bernhard Langer made the cut last year at 63-years old, the oldest player to ever do so.
“I am hitting a lot of 2- and 3-hybrids on holes where the younger guys are hitting 8- and 9-irons into the greens,” Langer told Golf Digest. “So, it’s a big challenge for me.”

Langer admitted to hitting 3-wood into the par four fifth hole each day last November. No matter. Paired with Bryson DeChambeau, the longest hitter in the game, Langer bested him by two strokes in the final round.

“There’s a definite advantage from playing that course 100 times or more,” Langer explained. Sometimes it is better to be 20 yards short than three feet long. When I was paired with Bryson he missed in the wrong places. It often comes down to a matter of inches. He’d almost hit a good shot, but it wasn’t.”

Figuring out how to play Augusta National under tournament conditions is nothing new. Dustin Johnson carrying a 7-wood in his bag in November was much discussed as a key to his victory. Years earlier, Raymond Floyd famously carried a 5-wood during his 1976 victory, putting the club in play for that week to try and tame the par-5’s.

It’s one of the things that makes The Masters so compelling. The history of the game is often written there. Or is it because it happened at The Masters, it becomes part of history?

Tiger Woods’ famous chip in on sixteen in 2005 on his way to victory is one of the most celebrated golf shots ever. Barely anybody remembers Davis Love III making almost the exact same shot three years earlier on sixteen. Because he didn’t go on to win. And he’s not Tiger.

Is Gene Sarazen’s double-eagle in the 1935 Masters on fifteen bigger than Harris English’s same score on eleven at last year’s Players? We have only O.B. Keeler’s newspaper account of Sarazen’s feat, written in the daily paper while there’s very clear video of English and his two.

Of course it is. Sarazen went on to win.

And it happened at The Masters.

The Players Championship

From GJO to TPC and Beyond

It’s hard to put a finger on exactly what The Players Championship is because it’s actually so many things at once.

It’s a premier golf tournament that the best players in the world want to win. Adam Scott said so when he won in 2004. Rory McIlroy reiterated that saying, “I don’t think my career would be complete without winning The Players.”

For golf fans, especially those from North Florida, it might be the best party, and probably the best social opportunity of the year. Just ask anybody who’s been to the tournament on a sunny Friday afternoon.

If those fans are serious about watching golf, it’s the best venue to see live golf, and the best field of players assembled, just about anywhere in the world. The Stadium Course was built as just that, a ‘Stadium’ to provide the best sight lines for fans.

For corporations, local, national and international, it’s the best client entertainment opportunity anywhere. There aren’t many places where you can treat your clients to a breakfast on the beach and a surf lesson in the morning and head across the street to watch the best players in the world the same afternoon.

And for North Florida, Jacksonville, Ponte Vedra and just about everywhere else nearby, images sent all over the world of what we have here you just can’t buy. The St. Johns, the beaches, boating, golf courses, natural spaces and everything else are showcased like no other event can.

The Players is all of those things and strives to be the best at all of those at once. And usually succeeds.

“I didn’t envision all of those things at the very beginning,” former PGA Tour Commissioner Deane Beman, who developed the concept of The Players Championship, said this week from his home in Ponte Vedra. “When I was a player on the policy board, (then-Commissioner) Joe Dey asked if I thought we should have a special tournament. I thought the Tour should have a very special event that represented the organization.”

Beman succeeded Dey as the PGA Tour Commissioner in 1974 and said creating the TPC became one of his ‘chores.’

“As of March 1st, the tournament had been scheduled for Atlanta, but the whole schedule hadn’t been made yet,” he explained. “We wanted to make it something that was more than ‘just another event in Atlanta.’”

“All we could do was make it the best of everything it could be,” he continued. “The best prize money, the best field, the best competition and the best community support. When it started, Joe’s concept was to move it around like the US Open and the PGA. But I became convinced after Ft. Worth (site of the second TPC) that the tournament needed to be in one place. It would have the best chance to be the best of what we could make it if it was played in the same place.”

Much has been written about Beman’s quest to find a home for The Players and the one dollar deal he made with the Fletcher brothers for the property as a home for the PGA Tour headquarters and the new Stadium Course. Originally, Beman contacted the owners of Bay Hill in Orlando, but Arnold Palmer was looking there as well and eventually acquired the club.

“We just happened on Sawgrass,” Beman said of Sawgrass Country Club, the tournament’s home from 1977-1981. “My son was out of school on spring vacation, and I took him with me when I visited a couple of events as Commissioner. I was at Deerwood at the GJO and asked if there was a place we could go play. They said, ‘Go to Sawgrass nobody plays there.’ After nine holes we quit because I told him we had found the place and we needed to play our tournament there.”

He didn’t waste any time making the decision.

“I drove right back to Deerwood and met with John Tucker and said, “How about we do a deal?” he said.

It didn’t take long for Tucker and the other Red Coats, the past volunteer chairmen of the Greater Jacksonville Open, to say yes. The Tour, through Beman, said they could increase the charity contributions to over $100,000 if the GJO expanded their scope and embraced he TPC as a national event.

“He was talking about an international event that would compete with the Majors,” Tucker recalled this week. “He was very expressive and wanted something beyond what anybody else had.”

Beman tried to buy Sawgrass for the Tour and even looked at property off of Hecksher Drive and on the Northside. But the deal with the Fletchers proved to be the right one to get things started.

“I don’t know of any other business enterprise that has gotten things going like that for nothing,” Beman said with a laugh. “And I mean for nothing.”

Tucker and company took what they had learned by running the GJO and expanded it for the new TPC.

“It’s the highest performance in the world by the best players in the world,” John explained. “We tried to match the people in attendance with the level of play. We raised the level of watching the tournament in interest and convenience. We had provided childcare for the players at the GJO and did the same at the TPC. We arranged shopping trips for the wives. The GJO gave the top 60 players a courtesy car. We gave all 144 players cars for the TPC.”

Tucker and Beman were on the same page when it came to their vision of the new Tournament Players Championship.

“How can we make this better,” they both told me on separate occasions.

“Every staff member at the time, and it was much smaller than now,” Beman said. “They were dedicated to make this the best event in the world. How it was run, the spectators, the charity money, how to accommodate the players, the commercial interests, all of it.”

“We put packages together. We had client entertainment, sky chalets, offered visitors to play golf at various courses around the area,” Tucker, who became the Tournament Director in 1983 said. “They looked at our tournament as a model of what all the other tournaments should be.”

John made a reference to the old GJO days that some of you will remember and sums up the growth of the tournament outside the ropes.

“As much funs as it was, we didn’t want a Swingers Tent any longer,” he said in between laughs. “There are a lot of companies that their first view of the Jacksonville was the golf tournament, so I got the chamber involved. We were looking to offer the entertainment level high enough and commensurate with the quality of the golf.”

“These assets in our community that we know so well are things we want to promote,” current Players Executive Director Jared Rice said this week. “They are big contributors to how we promote this championship nationally and internationally. For that week, we’re the concierge for everybody who comes to visit the tournament.”

Beman points to four things that pushed The Players forward during his tenure that are part of the historical lore of the tournament that couldn’t have been planned.

“The first Players Championship was won by Jack Nicklaus,” he said of the best player in the world reigning as The Players champion. “He was the super, world-class player at that moment, and he won the tournament. Then we went to Sawgrass, and we had horrendous weather the second year we played. That was disruptive but gave the tournament notoriety.”

When the tournament moved to Sawgrass Country Club in 1977, the windy weather in the second round that year led to a tournament record eleven over par as the cut for the first thirty-six holes. The next year, Nicklaus won for the third time in five years of the ‘TPC’ posting a one-over score after a 75 in the final round.

“When we came over to the Players Club,” he continued.” The fact that the golf course was too difficult gave it more notoriety. The greens were on the other side of unfair. There was a huge controversy about it.”

While the greens and the course have been softened a bit, the golf course itself and the ‘Stadium’ concept became a celebrity.

“Just the brand name of ‘Stadium Golf,” Beman added. “That was new to golf, nobody had ever even thought of that. And the public interest in the 17th hole was different. A simple hole, a little shot, just a wedge or a nine iron, and all the of the sudden this simple shot became the toughest shot in the world. All of that helped it become a unique and special tournament.”

“One of the greatest things was Deane’s concept that it would always be played on one course,” Tucker added. It’s was a course built just for spectator golf. It was a course that didn’t offer any relief for two or three holes for the players. It was a real championship golf course.”

Tucker continued, “What he said he wanted was, ‘A community that wants us, where our players feel at home and the GJO has all of those prerequisites. The players come here because they love how they’re treated here. They love coming here.’ And everybody admired what had been accomplished here. Plus the acceptance by the R and A and the USGA, they all admired what Deane had done.”

“It’s one of one,” Rice answered when I asked about the uniqueness of the current Players Championship. “Our guests and fans can be out here for business development or just to see friends. They can be sports fans and want to see a big sporting event.

Rice agreed when I said I thought The Players has separated itself in the pantheon of sporting events, not just golf tournaments.

“Our expectation is to deliver it for our players, fans and volunteers at the highest level, if not perfectly,” he said. “As we go forward, it’s the signature event within our community and in our sport. We want to use our event to showcase how great our community is to live work and play and show how Northeast Florida is supportive of this event. We want people from around the world to come here and see how great this community is.”

Noting that no other tournament has been played in one place longer than the Players except the Masters, Rice added, “Our community is a big part of what our tournament is about. We want to promote the tournament nationally and internationally to have people to see how great the restaurants are here, that there are great places to rent or buy on the beach. To see the active lifestyle we have. It’s all the things we know are great that we want to promote.”

When I asked Beman if The Players is now everything he envisioned, he said it would be impossible to have seen what it has become.

“It’s hard to answer whether this was my vision because nobody could think of all the things that were done to make it what it is today,” he explained. “From day one I was dedicated to make it the best tournament in the world. But I didn’t do it alone, the people around me did the work. Everybody on my staff, the volunteers, the tournament chairmen, they came up with the individual ideas that make it what it is today. I was personally dedicated to making this the finest tournament in the world, whatever the big and the small things were that needed to get done to do that. They all were dedicated to the same thing. And they’ve done it.”

Can Fun Save Golf

Can Fun Save Golf?

Driving down Ponte Vedra Boulevard you can see the Ocean Course at the Ponte Vedra Inn and Club is starting to come back after being torn up for renovation. Same thing in town when you drive down San Jose. San Jose Country Club is re-doing their fairways and greens and changing one of their par threes nobody liked anyway. You can’t see it from the road but Pablo Creek off Butler Boulevard has also been taken down to the dirt and being rebuilt. And driving down A1A in Ponte Vedra you might notice the part of the Oak Bridge golf course you could see from the road is gone. Leveled to make way for an expansion of the Vicars Landing assisted living facility.

The Ocean Course, San Jose and Pablo Creek are going through the kind of renovation maintenance any golf course needs for long-term viability.

But at Oak Bridge, they’re doing something completely different.

“We’re looking to change the golf experience,” Oak Bridge Head Professional and General Manage Mike Miles said this week.

Miles is a former PGA Tour player who still has plenty of game, playing in the Senior PGA last year in Rochester. He shot 69 in the opening round at Oak Hill and played well enough to be paired with Bernhard Langer on Sunday. He hit it past Langer off the first tee but said he didn’t play well alongside the former Masters champion.

“He shot 67 and when I took my hat off to shake his hand on 18 I told him what an honor it was to play with him,” Miles recalled. “And I joked that I hoped my playing wouldn’t hinder his game in the future. He looked right at me and said, ‘I don’t think so.’”

Ponte Vedra resident David Miller is the developer of the project and brought Miles in to make it happen. They met through golf when they both lived in Southern California and have a big vision when it comes to what Oak Bridge will become when it’s opened under it’s new name, “The Yards.”

The “Front Yard” is an update of the front nine at Oak Bridge.

“It’ll be plenty of a challenge for what I like to call the ‘Big G’ golfer,” Miles explained. “But we’ll also have it set up so just about anybody can play here.”

Miles oversaw the re-construction and redesign of the new/old nine holes, with MacCurrach Golf giving it plenty of “playability” with only ten bunkers in the loop. He recreated the holes with a nod throughout to famed golf course architects like Jack Nicklaus, Pete Dye, Arnold Palmer and others.

“We want people to have fun while they’re here,” he said pointing to a spot on the ninth hole where there used to be a bunker that everybody seemed to hit into. “I want guys to come in and have a beer and a hamburger when they’re done. Not stomp over to their car, throw their clubs in the trunk and drive off.”

I heard the word “fun” a lot talking to Miles this week, especially when we moved to the “Backyard.” What used to be the back nine on the old golf course is now unrecognizable. A beautiful new lake, stately oaks, practice greens, a huge putting green and a walking three-hole short par three course called the “beer loop” fill your vision as soon as you clear the back of the clubhouse.

“We want people to have options,” Miles said. “You can come over here from the Front Yard and play 12, 15 or 18 holes. Or just come straight here sit on the patio with your friends, enjoy the view, laugh, walk the beer loop, whatever.”

That’s a far cry from the rules-laden, stiff upper lip image that golf has in a country club setting.

Is this where golf is going? Judge Smails probably would not approve.

“I call it ‘fun golf,’” golf course architect Erik Larsen said when I asked him about the concept. Larsen is a past president of the American Society of Golf Course Architects and was the Executive Vice President of Palmer Course Design in Ponte Vedra. He redesigned Selva Marina into today’s Atlantic Beach Country Club. He’s seen plenty of hidden entrances and stuffy locker rooms but thinks there’s a change in the game on the horizon.

“There will always be a demand for traditional 18-hole golf courses,” he explained. “But golf play has reduced because of the time it takes. Time is a valuable commodity. Want to play less? Just go play three, four, six and come back. No big deal. We don’t have to recreate the wheel, there’s a practicality to all of it.”

When Larsen’s former colleague and fellow golf course architect Harrison Minchew did the redesign at the Jacksonville Beach Golf Course he specifically was thinking about giving players a chance to play, but play in less time.

“There are some scenarios at Jax Beach where they could play six or nine or twelve holes,” he said noting that the operator of any golf course has to be willing to create that scenario “Part of the design philosophy is to allow clubs to have players play less than 18 holes. You bring them back to the clubhouse not just at nine and eighteen. There are ways to do that if that’s part of your market.”

The popularity of Top Golf facilities around the country (there’s one you can see from I-295 at the Town Center) has brought a lot of new people to the game, somewhat unexpectedly.

“More than 70% of the people who go to Top Golf have never touched a club before,” former TPC at Sawgrass General Manager Bill Hughes explained. Hughes is now the GM and CEO at the Country Club of the Rockies outside of Vail, Colorado but while in Ponte Vedra was an early advocate for a new kind of facility for Miles and Miller at Oak Bridge.

“You can’t just be another golf course,” he explained. “I love the ‘fun golf’ thing. Ponte Vedra already has world-class golf courses. You have to build something that fits the population. An aging community along with a lot of young people you want to bring to the game.”

Nobody is going from Top Golf to the first tee at the Stadium Course. But that’s where the new Yards and places like Jax Beach get involved.

“Top Golf is that kind of phenomenon,” Larsen added. “It’s fun, and that’s what a practice facility can be. Light it, put some targets out there, play some music, have a bar and make it fun. That experience is fun and successful, so some resorts are looking into that.”

“Fun golf has to be beautiful,” he continued. “Lighting and landscaping will be the key. It’s on top of what the game is built on. Will it bring people to the game? Maybe. But it’s an interim step to bring non-players eventually to the first tee of a golf course.”

“Oak Bridge is going to fill a void, introducing people to golf,” Minchew added. “They’re playing music at Jax Beach outside the clubhouse. There’s room for them to expand the putting green to a putting course. They’re covering the practice tee. There’s a Top Golf feel going on there. I think most places are going in that direction. Golf needs to be fun, if that’s part of it, they should have at it.”

And Minchew added an important part of the equation.

“They made money in their first year and that’s unheard of these days. That’s a success story, making it fun, playing music. Just being there is fun, that’s what it’s all about.”

Larsen agreed that the new Yards is a perfect fit for the shifting demographics in Ponte Vedra and golf in general.

“The location makes it popular because Oak Bridge is in a community with a young population. It fits what’s going on there. If they promote things for kids, evening play, take two clubs, walk a few holes, they’ll hit a home run.”

Hughes believes The Yards will be the start of a trend in the golf business.

“The game has to figure out how to get people over to the ‘green grass,’” he said. “Building a facility like this can become the epicenter of health and wellness, a hub of activity for an entire community.”

In addition to the golf, The Yards will have a state-of-the-art pickle ball facility starting with twelve courts. A new grill with an outdoor patio as an adjunct to the Three Palms restaurant that’s in there now and they’ve even planned a spot for weddings under the oaks and alongside the lake.

“That’s exactly what we’re looking for,” Miles said with a smile. “We’ll have members but we’ll be open to the public. We’ll make it affordable. We want people to come out and enjoy themselves. There’s no better place to do this than right here.”

Stats Can Make You Better

Each September my brother Gust invites me to play in the fall Member-Guest golf tournament at his club in Detroit. It usually happens near the middle of the month and I’ve always been amused at the conversations we have with our competitors.

It’s one of their final tournaments of the year so much of the banter is about the hockey and bowling leagues that are forming that week. They’re lacing up their skates on Sunday following the final round to get ready for the winter season. Their golf clubs are going in the deep freeze for the cold weather.

Here, we’re on the opposite schedule. It might be the middle of the NFL and the College Football seasons, but most local golfers are also working on their golf games to enjoy the weather over the next nine to ten months

With a six to eight month golf season up north, ours can be year around, especially if you’re willing to play in the heat of July, August and September. They don’t have that option in the snow and cold of much of October through April.

My brother recently won the Senior Championship at his club. So how has he maintained his near scratch status when he has to quit playing half the year because of weather?

These days it’s simple. Technology has allowed us to take the game indoors to small spaces. Players up north can keep their games sharp through data and information.

Two companies, FlightScope and TRACKMAN have developed computer generated data that analyzes your swing, equipment and shot selection and can make you a better player.

“People love the technology,” says former professional golfer John Schroeder who’s the owner and an instructor/fitter at MasterFit Golf in Orange Park. “It makes it so easy for people to understand why the ball flies the way it does.”

Schroeder and MasterFit have been in business for 25 years both on Phillips Highway and in Orange Park. But nothing has accelerated his ability to do his job like the technology explosion. MasterFit was an early adopter of Flight Scope. Fifteen years ago they were the first practice range to have the technology in the state of Florida and have partnered with them ever since.
“There’s a fine line between the artistry of golf and the advancements in technology,” Sea Island Golf Performance Center Manger Craig Allan said from his teaching and fitting spot overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. “We walk very carefully along that fence.”

Sea Island and Allan use TRACKMAN technology developed by a Dutch company that’s been in the swing data business from the beginning.
It used to be that an instructor told you to “keep your head down,” or “get to your left side.” With the modern technology how the equipment performs is part of the equations. Spin rates and launch angles are a big part of the conversation when it comes to the equipment they choose.
“I can push a player toward game improvement technology in clubs but the player has to like the club they’re looking at on good days and bad,” Allan explained.
“We can look at 28 different parameters of your swing and ball flight,” Schroeder, who played college golf at UNF, added. “Ball, flight and swing parameters. Launch, landing, smash factor, spin rate swing speed, angle of attack, club path, face to path they all are invaluable from a teaching standpoint.”

Instruction has come a long way even from the time when a video camera and a radar gun seemed advanced. While the technology can help instructors improve your golf game, it can also match your game with the right equipment.

“We’re building a shaft that matches your swing speed,” Schroeder said. “You want to get your driver from 50 feet to 80 feet in the air? We can measure the data, we know what different shafts can do so we match those two things up.”

With over 40,000 shafts to choose from onsite at their 8,000 square foot facility on Wells Road, Schroeder says the data from FlightScope and watching your swing allows him to improve your game almost instantly.

“We’re looking at launch, spin and landing angle when it comes to optimizing your ball flight. FlightScope measures the shaft how it’s loading and unloading. That helps me build a shaft for you.”

With the right equipment in your hands, you can be a better player. It also allows instructors to develop your game the way you play it.

“Much easier,” Schroeder said when asked if his job as an instructor has gotten easier or more complicated.

“We’re not going to focus on all 28 data points. We’ll focus on one or two and when people see that, they can understand it much easier. ‘Why did I slice it 30 yards to the right?’ It shows your clubface was 13 degrees open at impact. And that’s easy to understand.”
Allan said he and tries not to rely just on the equipment to make better players. The combination of the “hands-on” traditional instruction combined with the technology takes learning the game to a new level with the right equipment.
“Some great players have gotten away from the artistry of the game and relying on technology,” Allan said about the blend he tries to use in his work. “But it’ll always remain a game that relies on feel and athleticism. We’re just trying to enhance that.”

David Duval, Best Analyst On TV

I’ve always liked David Duval. I know people have said he’s aloof and distant. He’s described himself as “quiet and reserved.” That might have been his personality as a golfer and it worked for him.

Not anymore.

Working for the Golf Channel, Duval is the best analyst on television. Not just the best golf analyst, the best analyst, period. John Smoltz is good on baseball. Eddie Olczyk is good on hockey. Troy Aikman is good on football. Duval is really good on golf.

Much like his heyday as a player, being #1 in the world and the only player who Tiger Woods admitted got his attention on the leaderboard, David is fearless as a broadcaster.

And that’s not easy to do.

As a player you can insulate yourself inside the ropes. You can be distant with fans and the media. You can wear Oakley wraparounds to help keep everybody out. And you can lose yourself in the game. (BTW those glasses originally were used to cut down the pollen in his eyes when he wore hard contacts in college.)

If you want to be any good at television though you have to be willing to expose yourself. Unless you’re authentic, actually yourself, not acting like yourself, you look like an actor or a phony on TV.

We see it every day when we watch television. Some people have it, others don’t. Duval is fearless on TV in a way that’s rare: He’s prepared, he has an opinion, and if you disagree with him, it’s OK. You’re not going to change his mind.

If you’re authentic on television, when you walk into a room full of people, only you know that all of those people in the room know the real you. And all of those people watching on TV know the real you. And without a certain level of confidence and preparedness, that can be terrifying. Duval never revealed that as a player. Now, he does it every time he appears on television.

While he still thinks of himself as a golfer and a player who can compete, Duval is a television analyst of the best kind.

“I think it’s the rare person who is 40 to 55 years old who doesn’t think of themselves as a golfer still. That’s how I view it. That’s how I go about it when I analyze something.”

Unlike with golf, he was good almost immediately on television. It took him two years to win his first tournament in college, but then he was dominant. It took him a while to get used to the week-to-week grind of professional golf. But once he did, he was dominant. We texted a few times when he started on the Golf Channel, just exchanging some ideas and a few tips I had picked up over the years in front of the camera. But it was easy to see he was going to be great.

“There is a difference in being critical and being mean. Critical is fine. Mean is not,” Duval told Global Golf Post about being on television

One thing Duval has always seemed to have is perspective. Even at a young age he looked at things differently. Some of that came from the loss of his older brother Brett. That tragedy for the Duval family has been well documented. But David has always seen things from a different angle.

As comfortable with Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged” as he would be with a beer and a sports magazine in his playing days, Duval’s smarts go beyond just golf. And that’s essential to be able to sit there and talk without a script (ad-lib is the term in TV). A view from 30,000 feet as well as an intimate knowledge of the subject allows David to speak with authority. Not act like an authority, but be an authority.

“He’s good because he has good knowledge,” Nick Faldo a six-time major champion and now the lead analyst on CBS has said about Duval. “Players who have really felt it, not just played it or walked the walk, the players who have really felt it – and he’s felt both the big climb to get to No. 1 and that story and that phenomenal run of wins and gets a major and then for whatever reason went on a different walk of life – he can add an awful lot of golf life experience to it.”

I first met David before he got to high school. His dad Bob was the pro at Plantation and invited me out to play with the two of them. Needless to say, even that young, David was an impressive player. Long, straight, great touch, it was clear he was going to be something special

He got to the top of the game and instead of enjoying it, he found it isolating.

“Some guy asked me about Bosnia,” he once said to me after a press conference. “Just because I’m ranked #1. They didn’t care what I thought when I was #2,” he said shaking his head.

Now 46-years old, he played in The Open Championship this week at Carnoustie as a past Champion Golfer of the Year. Once you win The Open, you can play there each year until you’re sixty.

I will admit David gave me the sporting thrill of a lifetime ten years ago at the Masters.

“Who’s caddying for you in the Par 3 at Augusta,” I said to David one day at his house when he was near the top of his game.

“You are,” he answered with a laugh. And sure enough that year I was on the bag Wednesday of Masters week.

(There’s a full accounting of that day on samsportsline.com)

We had two memorable exchanges that day; one was on the first tee.

“Two rules,” David said as he pulled a club from his bag. “Keep up and don’t lean on the putter.”

On the 8th tee David grabbed 9-iron out of the bag. “It’s wedge,” I said. “I don’t think so, the pin is all the way back,” he quickly responded. And promptly hit the ball in the water behind the green.

“I guess it was wedge,” he said with an easy laugh and a bow to the crowd. That gave everybody a glimpse of the David Duval we now see on golf broadcasts.

When he left Episcopal for Georgia Tech, it was a surprise move to play college golf where nobody expected him to go. “Where’d you want me to play?” he asked me when I wondered why he was going to Atlanta. He was a four-time All-American for the Yellow Jackets.

He made a splash as an amateur, leading the BellSouth Classic by a couple of shots at the 54-hole mark in 1992. But it took him a while to figure out how to be a pro. “You have to get used to it,” he said of the traveling circus the tour can be, week after week. “The travel, eating, sleeping, playing, you need to figure it out.”

And once he did, Duval fulfilled his awesome potential, ascending to number one in the world. He won 11 of 34 tournaments he played in just over a one-year period. He shot 59 in the last round at the 1999 Bob Hope Chrysler Classic, making an eagle on the final hole for a come from behind win.

He was on the cover of Sports Illustrated behind his Oakley sunglasses. He contended in the Masters and the US Open, and he won The Open Championship at Royal Lytham & St. Annes in 2001. He was the #1 golfer in the world. He won in Japan later that year.

At some point Duval is going to move off the Golf Channel and into Johnny Miller’s chair as the lead analyst on NBC’s coverage of golf.

I’ve seen Duval first-hand play golf as the best player in the world. Now we all get to see David as the best analyst on television.