By John Steinbreder
Bottom line, Seminole is one of the best golf courses in the world. Situated some 15 miles up the Atlantic coast from Palm Beach as the pelican flies, it is deftly routed in and around a pair of sand ridges, one of which rises as high as 40 feet. The ocean is occasionally seen and often heard, the bunkering in the fairways and around the greens devilish and the putting surfaces as unforgiving as they are fast. Seminole is best known as a shotmaker’s course for the way it compels players to hit their tee shots and approaches to certain places if they hope to score. Golfers also must be able to handle the wind, for it blows often and in all directions.
Ben Hogan certainly liked and appreciated Seminole, and for roughly three decades, he spent about a month in the Palm Beach area each spring, shaking off the rust after a winter of inactivity and preparing for the Masters with daily rounds and practice sessions at the club. He regularly teed it with members he considered good friends, chief among them George Coleman, the Oklahoman oilman who was an accomplished pilot and motorboat racer as well as a good enough golfer to have won his state amateur championship in 1946. Hogan also spent hours hitting balls at Seminole, on the range behind the stately, Marion Wyeth-designed clubhouse and at spots on the layout that enabled him to work on different shots. He once said Seminole was “the only course I could be perfectly happy playing every single day.” Another time, the Hawk, who was made an honorary member in the mid-1950s, asserted: “If you can play Seminole, you can play well anywhere.”
“You have those ridges, to be sure, the ocean vistas in some places and the wind. But that big basin was totally featureless and would flood constantly in its natural state. Somehow, Mr. Ross made it work, though, and he made excellent use of every interesting element of the property.”
Scotsman Donald Ross created the golf course during a seven-month period in 1929. He employed a crew of some 180 workers who cleared vast swathes of heavy, jungle-like bush and toiled in the muck and mire of the lower section of the 140-acre site in hip boots. When necessary, teams of mules were employed to move earth. There was talk at times of flattening the largest of the sand ridges, which runs east to west, and filling the flat-bottomed basin below with that material. But thankfully, Ross decided against that. The result was a routing in which he used that dune as well as the one running perpendicular to it along the Atlantic on 14 of the 18 holes. Only Nos. 1, 8, 9 and 10 were laid out entirely in the low-lying area, which also featured a trio of ponds when the designer’s work was done.
There was so much to commend Ross’s creation, which officially opened for play on New Year’s Day 1930. The routing forced golfers to deal with the wind from a variety of different angles during a round, and he made sure that the consecutive holes rarely ran in the same direction. False fronts and crowned greens, which were well-contoured back then and came in different sizes and shapes, also made it difficult to get approaches close. The putting surfaces were well-bunkered, as were the fairways, which were canted in some cases due to the slopes of the ridges and occasionally sent tee shots skittering into the rough, or even one of the sandy hazards. They also left players with uneven lies every now and then.
“In many ways, Seminole was not a particularly good site,” says Bill Coore, who with his longtime partner Ben Crenshaw oversaw the latest restoration of the layout. “You have those ridges, to be sure, the ocean vistas in some places and the wind. But that big basin was totally featureless and would flood constantly in its natural state. Somehow, Mr. Ross made it work, though, and he made excellent use of every interesting element of the property.”
Seminole is rightfully regarded as one of Ross’ best works, and the club more or less left the course alone for the first quarter century of its existence. But in the 1950s, it brought in architect Dick Wilson, who also happened to be someone whose work Hogan greatly admired. Wilson’s primary job was to renovate many of the fairway and greenside bunkers. He also was tasked with restoring a course that had become overgrown in places and been battered by a hurricane. The designer also tamed several of the more severe undulations in some of the putting surfaces and built a new 18th green.
It was another 40 years before club leaders initiated another restoration effort, with architect Brian Silva leading that effort. Once again, the focus was on revamping bunkers and fairways and also tending to the encroachment of trees and underbrush in spots. There also was a desire to get the track to play firm and fast, as Ross had hoped it always would.
More recently, Seminole engaged those masters of minimalism, Coore and Crenshaw, to perform a few more nips and tucks, with the three-year effort being performed during the summers of 2016, 2017 and 2018. “All we really did was knock a little dust off a relic,” says Coore. “We tried to restore the original character of the bunkers, not going completely back to what Ross had done, which were very dramatic and rugged in terms of edging and shape and quite different from what Dick Wilson had fashioned in the 1950s, but producing something of a blend that incorporated both styles. We also removed significant areas of turf to try and re-establish the sandy waste areas that had existed before.”
In addition, Coore says, they softened the grades on a handful of greens (Nos. 2, 3 and 11) to accommodate more pin placements and did a bit of work on the bunkers, consolidating a few, making several others a little smaller and adding some in drive zones for bigger-hitting modern players. Today, the total number of bunkers comes to 161, down from the 186 that Ross originally had constructed.
That latest revamping was instigated in many ways after ultra-private Seminole was named host of the 2021 Walker Cup. And the plan was for that competition to be when the Donald Ross classic was revealed to the general golf public for the first time. But thanks to the pandemic and all that it has wrought, Seminole will be showing itself a year earlier, when the TaylorMade Driving Relief event is staged there on Sunday.
The course is more than ready for its close-up.
Top: No. 18 at Seminole Golf Club