Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Seminole Golf Club



Seminole Golf Club (ranked #22 in the world) is located just north of Palm Beach, Florida in the town of Juno Beach. In the interest of full disclosure, I have never been a big fan of Florida golf. I find Bermuda grass difficult to play on, and the flat terrain in Florida, coupled with the omnipresent water hazards, have never left me enamored of golf in the Sunshine State. I was able to play Seminole this past winter and my expectations were high, as they should be when playing a course consistently ranked in the top 25 in the world.

History

Seminole, founded by E.F. Hutton, has a rich history of being a golf club for the corporate elite. Donald Ross designed it in 1929. Seminole’s history runs deep. The course has hosted kings and presidents: Eisenhower was an honorary member; Ford and JFK played it often; and the Duke of Windsor was a member. To give a sense of the level of prominence of its membership, in 1947 members included Joseph P. Kennedy, Henry Ford II, Jack Chrysler, Paul Mellon, Phillip Armour, John Pillsbury and Robert Vanderbilt. Seminole’s membership has always included titans of industry, politics and golf. Henry Picard, the 1938 Masters winner, was the professional at Seminole for 26 years and Ben Hogan spent a significant amount of time here playing and practicing.


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Seminole's Clubhouse

Arrival

Arriving at Seminole, you feel like royalty. It is a golfer’s equivalent of being king (or queen) for a day. It has all the buildup and regalia of the State Opening of Parliament. This annual ritual is full of pageantry and pomp, as is arriving at Seminole. During the State Opening, the Queen arrives in her gilded carriage, while at Seminole we arrived in a rented PT Cruiser. Although she does not have to have her credentials checked to make the royal procession, we did our requisite stop at the front guard gate. Her ride is from Buckingham to Westminster, ours was down Seminole Blvd, the long entry road lined on the left with high bushes, which ensures Seminole’s privacy. At the end of the road, we made a sharp left through the hedges and turned into the club with the beautifully proportioned pink stucco clubhouse in front of us.

The drive in is enticing, because you can catch glimpses of the golf course through the hedges occasionally, raising your sense of anticipation. The Queen’s footmen help her dismount when she reaches Parliament. At Seminole, you drive into the gravel rock courtyard, and while you don’t have to dismount, you are greeted by a staff member who takes your clubs and parks your car. Since Her Majesty brings along her own cavalry, she is let in without hassle. We had to stop and check in again at the clubhouse foyer. She then walks up the steps to Parliament under a covered portico. After checking in, the golfer has the privilege of walking up an enclosed covered stairway through the Spanish style clubhouse, leading to the second level.

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When you re-emerge in sunlight, a short walk leads you past what must be the least used swimming pool in America, situated right next to the clubhouse. The Sovereign proceeds through a series of corridors to approach The Lords Chamber. Your final turn down the walkway brings you into the locker room. Just as the House of Lords is the apex of parliamentary chambers, the Seminole locker room is equally as revered and respected. It is one of the most exciting golf clubs in the world to arrive at. The only things missing on our arrival were the trumpeters and beefeaters, although we would have our share of the latter after the round.

The Locker Room


The massive locker room is double-height and has a beautiful Cypress-beamed ceiling. Around the top of the room are animal-head hunting trophies and wooden boards listing the names of past champions. The room is ringed with polished pine lockers, and there is a big fireplace at one end of the room. There is a bar at the far end of the room and comfortable seating throughout. Enter the locker room here and you begin to see why Seminole is one of America’s hallowed golfing grounds that commands reverential treatment. It is one of only a handful of places in America where you get this feeling. The others are Oakmont, Merion, Chicago, Baltusrol, Winged Foot and Shinnecock (my educated guess is Augusta and Cypress are as well, but I haven’t played them yet).

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Seminole Locker Room

The names on the boards around the locker room are a who’s who of golf history – Snead, Nelson, Palmer, Els, with an occasional celebrity name thrown in such as Sean Connery. This is a function of an annual Amateur-Professional tournament that Seminole hosts each year (The Coleman) where an amateur is teamed with a professional. It sounds like one hell of a tournament and as the names on the boards attest, it attracts some of the best in the world at both the amateur and pro level.

The Layout and Routing

I had not heard universal praise about Seminole prior to my visit. The thing I heard often about Seminole from those who have played it was: Great locker room, but the course is mediocre. On the other end of the spectrum, the éminence grise of golf architecture critique, Tom Doak, uses some of his strongest language in his Confidential Guide when he warns the reader “… if anybody tries to tell you it isn't a great course, either they've been treated like riffraff, or they don't know what good is.”

So which is it: Is Seminole over-rated or does the riffraff factor come into play? Is the locker room better than the course?

The course is set on sand ridges near the Atlantic Ocean and has changed very little since Ross designed it. Dick Wilson made some changes after the Second World War and Brian Silva restored the bunkers more recently. The course is built between high dunes along the Atlantic and an inland set of dunes along the back of the property that are about forty feet high. At the time the course was built, the marshland between the dunes was drained to create a compact area for Ross to build the course. What you see is what you get at Seminole. Standing on the first tee, you can more-or-less see all eighteen holes. Ross made economical use of the small piece of land to build the golf course. There are very short walks tee to green and very few trees.

Although the course is right along the Atlantic, it only has water views in a limited number of places, which tells you something about the height of the sand dunes. You can see water off the 12th tee, 13th green, 14th tee and only in a couple of other places. The front nine is away from the water and the back nearer the water. It is a classic links layout of two loops of nine. The front nine run counter-clockwise from the clubhouse and the back nine run clockwise and finish parallel to the ocean.

The course is not lush, does not have beautiful landscaping and is not over-watered. It is wide open and plays firm and fast, like a classic links course. To appreciate Seminole you have to look beyond the conditioning and see the artfulness of its design.

The Golf Course

The first hole, as is standard on Ross designs, is a relatively easy hole to start the round. You pay for this easy start on the second hole, which has a forced carry over water. The golfer’s second shot is to an elevated green that is tilted and repels balls. As I was to learn, this is one of the essential elements of Seminole: Fast, elevated greens that are hard to hold unless you hit the perfect shot.

Rees Jones, who is a member, says in the club history, “Seminole is probably the best bunkered course in America. A shot that hasn’t hit the proper portion of the green is likely to wind up in one of the greenside bunkers.” The crowned greens that are Ross’s signature at Pinehurst are also present here, but not as pronounced, which in some ways make them more difficult. It is a very subtle design that fools the golfer into thinking they can attack pins.

#2 green

2nd green

The third hole, a par five of 504 yards, is a dogleg right. It also plays uphill to a green that is tilted front to back.

#4 green

4th green

The fourth hole, a 450 yard par four is the #1 handicap hole at Seminole. Your long second shot is to an oblong narrow green that is crowned and tilts to the side. Welcome to Seminole!

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Par three 5th green

Ben Hogan, who was a member, used to practice at Seminole during the month of March each year, in anticipation of playing at The Masters. Hogan's favorite hole was the 6th. A short par four at 388 yards and a slight dogleg to the left, it plays to an elevated, well bunkered-green. Apparently, Hogan used to play the hole by hitting a draw tee shot and a cut into the green. I was happy with my two straight shots and a par.

#6 fairway

6th fairway from the tee

#6 green


6th green

The course winds its way back to the clubhouse at #9. The first few holes on the back are delightfully similar to the first several holes on the front, but looping in the opposite direction. Eleven is a difficult hole and is one of my favorites. It is a par four of 420 yards with a forced carry over water off the tee. The second shot is up-hill to a green that slopes front to back and left to right severely. Putting off this green is not uncommon.


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12th hole from the tee

Twelve was my favorite hole. A 367 par four that plays from an elevated tee box into a prevailing wind with a hedgerow down the entire left side. The green is the best bunkered on the course and is tilted sideways and oblong, making for a very narrow landing area. Even though you are hitting a short iron, the green looks so small and un-receptive that it is very hard to hit.

13 green

13th green

Thirteen is a beautiful up-hill par three nestled within the dunes, with the Atlantic Ocean behind.

The par five fifteenth is Arnold Palmer’s favorite hole. It is a 497 yard hole and asks the player to hit risk-reward shots twice. The first decision off the tee is how much of the lake to cut off on your tee shot. The dogleg runs to the right, so if you hit far enough right you have a shot at going for the green in two. The safer play is to the left and a pussy shot is to play the alternate fairway, which is far left behind a row of palm trees, but well away from the water. Your second shot is again over water, so you have two forced carries in a row. The green is elevated, well-bunkered and fast. Like all the greens at Seminole, it repels shots that are not hit perfectly.

16 green


16th green

Seventeen and eighteen parallel the Atlantic Ocean, and the prevailing wind is off the ocean. The eighteenth must be an impossible hole in a strong wind. The 417 yard par four is a dogleg left and has a fairway that slopes uphill and at an angle toward the beach. If the wind is blowing, you have to hit your shot over the sand dunes along the ocean and hope the wind blows it back to the correct spot on the small fairway. Architect Brian Silva, who restored the bunkers at Seminole, describes it perfectly: “the strongest feature of the golf course is its angles in relation to the wind.” The eighteenth is the perfect example of this. Although it looks relatively benign when you see the routing on paper, in reality it is very difficult. These subtleties make Ross’s design such a treat. The way the fairway is shaped is counter to the way the wind blows.

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18th green from the side

Seminole is the exception to typical Florida golf. Although you have to look beyond the conditioning and wide open feel, if you judge it like a links course that plays firm and fast, you will appreciate that it is a great course. The elevation changes make it interesting, as do the difficult to hold crowned and tilted greens. The fact is, it has a great routing and is one of the best risk/reward courses ever built.

In many ways, I liken Seminole to The Old Course at St. Andrews and Shinnecock, both of which do not bowl you over upon first sight. Their greatness is in their subtlety, variety and the degree to which the course changes depending upon the wind direction and speed.

Seminole Locker Room



The Club

Despite my tattoo, cutoff shorts, surly manner and earring, I was treated well at Seminole and liked the course. Seminole has figured out how to be respectful of the past without being stuffy. They are on the right side of that fine line between guarding their privacy and being pricks or impressed with themselves. The attitude of everyone at the club was the same – friendly and accommodating. The caddies were the best I have personally seen in the United States. Seminole is upper crust without being uptight.

Seminole is a private club with a high percentage of members who do not live locally and has many similarities to Augusta National. It is only open from November through May. Consistent with its history, many of Seminole's members are of the corporate elite. It is one of those clubs that is coveted by the select group of über-golfers who collect high-end golf clubs in the same way your average golfer might collect balls or scorecards. Five ex-USGA presidents are members. I found it amazing that Hogan played there until 1980 – members still recount first hand playing with him.

Strictly speaking, Seminole has a great locker room – although it really is more of a combination of a locker room and bar. While it is world class, I personally think the locker room at San Francisco Golf Club and the clubhouse sitting area at Garden City Mens Club are just as good.

Does the overall atmosphere, exclusivity and the locker room influence Seminole's place in the world rankings? You would be naïve to think differently. So the course might be a tad over-rated, but when you throw in the whole package, it remains one of golf's standard-bearer’s. As Doak says, it is one of golf's aristocrats.

32 comments:

MacBoube said...

My experience at Seminole was similar to yours, albeit I think it does not belong as highly ranked as it is. I feel that Pinehurst 2 is the penultimate Ross track, not Seminole. Yes, the class of the club is almighty, but the golf course itself is not even close to my top 25 list. I would render it much lower. The locker room is way cool, and for once, I fully agree with Mr. Top 100 that SFGC easily has the best locker room in the world. Many other clubs, such as The Country Club, Oakmont, Pine Valley and So. Cal.'s Lakeside & Bel-Air are on par to Seminoles. Where I think Seminole bests all others, is their logo. The Seminole Indian logo is just a classic! Anyway, the course disappoints in being seaside without views. The bunkering, routing, green complexes, and shot values are all extremely good, but not asexceptional as Seminole's world ranking calls for. I can easily recall about 30 -40 courses in the world that I think are better. I can honestly say I feel the entire Seminole experience is not totally, but only mildly over rated.

Anonymous said...

I have played Seminole more than 2 dozen times.Each time reveals more of its greatness.I have played most of the top 50 golf clubs.And without a doubt Seminole is in the top 5.Along with Cypress Point,Shinnecock,Pinehurst No. 2 and Country Club of North Carolina,the PGA tournament course at Tanglewood,Augusta National and the Country Club of Sapphire Valley.I can't forget an exquisite short course that booby Jones lived at and played frequently.Highlands C.C.You will never play more enjoyable golf courses in the world.

RT said...

Interesting -- I was told directly -- and know this to be the case with others -- that Seminole doesn't allow photos of the course. Have you had any feedback on posting them?

Top 100 Golfer said...

I had heard they don't allow photographs also. On the course it was not problem, we played with a member and he was fine with us taking pictures. The locker room I did when no one was looking!

Anonymous said...

For a course which is so wide open off the tee , you will not find a better test of golf.
The greens must be respected or disaster lurks.It is a thinking mans's course. If can tame Seminole your a player.

Anonymous said...

Having played Seminole many times, I can say it is a top 5 course. I have played the top 20 in the US, and Seminole is a top 5 course. The thing that makes the course so great is that it plays differently every day. One day I would hit a 9 iron on a hole, and the next day, I would be hitting 4 iron on that same hole. The greens are lightning quick and a true test once on there. There is not a bad hole on the course, and number 18 may be one of the greatest finishing holes in the game.

Anonymous said...

Seminole is truly a wonderful place. One point of clarification; The Amateur-Professional tournament goes by this name. The Coleman is their mid-amateur event held in the spring.

Anonymous said...

What is the best way to go about getting a round at Seminole?

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed your review of Seminole . I was wondering if you have ever played Indian Creek Golf Club in Miami. It is a course that you really don't hear much about. I have been lucky enough to play it a couple of times and I have to say that the mens locker room probably rivals any locker room in the country. It looks very similar to the seminole locker room picture that you posted.You get the feeling that the locker room has not changed much since 1928, the year the club was founded. As for the course, it is a William Flynn design with small, well bunkered, elevated greens. It's a great course that I really enjoyed. Perhaps you have played it.

Top 100 Golfer said...

thanks for the heads up. I will be in Miami next month and will see if I can play it

www.mrpgolf.com said...

Seminole is a wonderfully, brutal test of golf. Anyone who has played it knows what I am saying. Walking off the course, I felt like I just got my brains bashed in and then 45 minutes later I wanted to play it again.

Anonymous said...

Seminole was the first top tier golf course that I had ever played, eventhough I had played great courses all over the hemisphere. It was by far the best test of golf that I had ever experienced and I am now excited to play as many of this country's top golf courses. At Seminole, every shot from your your first tee shot to your final putt requires thought and skill. Simply amazing!

Kingward said...

Thank you so much for this wonderful site and especially for including the pictures.

Is Seminole as burnt up as it appears are can you actually get a good lie on the brown spots?

Top 100 Golfer said...

There are brown areas throughout in keeping with the "fast and firm" philosophy of golf. It's a nice change to having everthing manicured like Augusta and easier to maintain like in Great Britain, thanks for the comment

Kingward said...

I guess my question about the brown spots has to do with playability. Does the ball sit up nicely, or is it more like hardpan?

Top 100 Golfer said...

They are playable for sure and not like hardpan. The scrub/sandy areas if you are off the fairway are another story.

Anonymous said...

how do i get a round a Seminole, have played 31 of top 100 courses and would like to add Seminole.thx

Rusty said...

As a younger member who waited a long time to get in, I concur that the course is much more than initial impression. It is more subtle and demanding than any first-time player thinks...and his score usually shows it! To play Seminole well, you have to think, something far too few courses demand. Just stepping out and bashing drivers will lead to a long and frustrating day. I keep a 1-iron in my locker and use it every time...and I haven't carried that club regularly in many years.

The Big Kahuna said...

I have played Seminole several times and it is wonderful golf course and an ok club. It is very much over-rated. What they do best at Seminole is marketing and packaging themselves.

Indian Creek Country Club in Miami Beach is better from start to finish.

An amazing experience.

Toni Macaroni said...

Simply put....anyone that feels this course is overrated doesn't have a clue about golf course architecture!

Anonymous said...

As someone who has worked at the golf course for over a decade and seen it play in every condition imaginable, I think that Seminole Golf Club is one of the best tests of golf in the country. Come play Seminole under the same conditions that competitors play in the Coleman Cup and you'll see exactly what the course is made of. It is undoubtedly one of the most elite and exclusive in the country as well. Like I read on another post, it plays differently almost every day. Every hole is truly unique and the set of par 3's is arguably the best in the country, only to be compared to Shinnecock's. Not only is the golf course a wonderful test and layout, the aura of the club is outstanding and the membership is made-up of the classiest and most respectful people I've ever worked for at a golf course. Never have I ever been mistreated or felt like I was not truly respected. I can't possibly provide a compliment that will surmount to the way I feel about this golf club. I take pride in caddying at the golf course and in providing members and guests with the best experience possible. What other top ten golf course in the country can caddies play seven days a week? I sure don't know of any other. It is a true reflection of what level of class this golf club is made up of. I need not say more.

Anonymous said...

If you were in Pittsburgh to play Oakmont and didn't try to get on a gem called Nevillewood, shame on you. Ask anyone in the region... if you take away the history of Oakmont, Nevillewood just blows it away. Do yourself a favor next time and called their pro, Jim Antkiewicz, who was just inducted in the PGA Hall of Fame. He'd be happy to accommodate you.

Anonymous said...

Doak says the same in the Confidential Guide to Golf...overrated.

Anonymous said...

I played Seminole for the first time today. It is anything but overrated. It was a wonderful experience and having pllayed all over Florida i can say nothing touches it. I would also add that my caddie was far and above any caddie i have had anywhere in the world.

Anonymous said...

Calusa Pines in Naples, FL should be ranked higher than Seminole GC IMO. Have played most of all the best courses in Fla and Calusa is by far my favorite Fla course.

Anonymous said...

I recently played Seminole and really did not know what to expect. In a word it was "wonderful". Great people, great locker room, and a truly great golf course. Flew from Seminole to play Augusta for 2 days and it doesn't get any better than that. Not enough words to describe my week of golf at two of the greatest courses in the world.

Brick Tuke said...

Seminole is at the very least a course in constant change.. that is if the wind is off the ocean then most shots are cross shots or into on #4-7-9-11-13-16 and trust one's suggestion that with cross winds.. and Seminole greens, one never has the right club out..the other constant is that Seminole is ready for golfers daily.. just the same as yesterday and will be the same tomorrow..that is why the passion to tee it at Seminole is also constant..the locker room, i.e sittin room for the lads who have teed it up is certainly in line with Garden City, The Golf Club, Winged Foot, Sunningdale, Walton Heath, Merion and perhaps 25 others.. but again it is constant.. always waitin for the lads to enjoy the sobs stories of the day on Seminole.....

GOsocaLF said...

Somebody mentioned best collection of Par 3's...

The Kittansett Club in Marion Ma, has the best collection of one-shotters.

Bobby Jones once said that, and I agree with him.

Steven Riley said...

I have played most of the current Top 100 in the US and I don't rank SEMINOLE as highly as most people! It truly has great history and ambience but I find the course to be average at best. Windy conditions make it more difficlt but in the 6 rounds I have played there, I have found it less challenging than many other lower ranked Top 100 courses.

Thom Pantazi said...

I am so glad you did post the photos. I am not a golfer but in 1983 I was a consultant to the club and got to write their handicapping and scoring system. Seeing to clubhouse brings back some memories. That circular driveway had the club manager's Ferrari parked there all the time. By the way he ran the club as an adjunct to his real job. I think his name was William Douce and he used is office there to also run Philips Petroleum!

Anonymous said...

Someone should tell MacBoube that "penultimate" means second-to-last, ya jackwagon. Thanks for your mindless rant though.

Anonymous said...

My experience with Seminole was with a member and Sam Snead. I have played most of the courses mentioned in the other comments. As a former member of Southern Hills and Pinehurst No.2, I can tell that Seminole on a windy day is as good as they come. Snead birdied 13 thru 18 that day. We then went over to Lost Tree for a non serious game.

R. Fields