When golf fans tune into the TaylorMade Driving Relief match on Sunday, it will be the first time anyone has been able to watch PGA Tour professionals play live since mid-March, when the Players Championship was canceled after just one round. That is a big deal, even if it is only a charity exhibition.
But what may be even more tectonic for viewers is the first-time look the event will afford of Seminole Golf Club in Juno Beach, Fla. In addition to being one of the most exclusive clubs in the country, it features a top-notch Donald Ross course. The Spanish-style clubhouse is an architectural triumph, and along with the building Stanford White designed at Shinnecock Hills stands as the most celebrated in the game. As for the spacious men’s locker room at Seminole, with its high, cedar-beamed ceiling and knotted pine lockers, it is the gold standard for spaces of that sort.
The golf this weekend will no doubt be good. But it is the glimpse behind the curtain in which Seminole has long cloaked itself that will make this must-see TV.
Seminole is a good place for all of golf to know better.
One of the things that sets Seminole apart is its rich history. The club was the brainchild of New York City financier E.F. Hutton, who started the fabled brokerage house of that name in 1904. By the time the Roaring ’20s kicked in, he had begun wintering in Palm Beach, Fla., with his second wife, the General Foods heiress Marjorie Post, and in 1927 they commissioned architect Marion Sims Wyeth to design and then build the extravagant Gilded Age estate they came to call Mar-a-Lago (because the property on which it was built stretched from the Atlantic Ocean to Lake Worth). An avid sportsman who loved fishing and yachting, Hutton also adored golf and became interested in starting his own club. Eventually, he purchased 140 acres full of swampland and sand dunes some 15 miles north of Palm Beach and then hired Ross to design a golf course on the property. Ross started that job in spring 1929, right after Seminole was incorporated, and the layout officially opened on January 1, 1930. Also ready to go at that time was the clubhouse, which like Mar-a-Lago had been designed by Wyeth.
Hutton’s hope was to make Seminole a place for golfers, and from the very beginning, the royal and ancient game has been the club’s main attraction. As one might expect given the playground Palm Beach had become for the rich and famous, the early rolls at Seminole were populated by A-listers. Walter Chrysler (founder of the car company that still bears his name), Herbert “Tony” Pulitzer (son of newspaperman Joseph Pulitzer) and financier H.C. (for Henry Carnegie) Phipps were founding members, and they were joined in later years by the likes of Joseph P. Kennedy, Henry Ford II and the Duke of Windsor. Ben Hogan and Dwight Eisenhower became honorary members in the 1950s.
Equally as impressive was the group of professionals who have led the golf program at Seminole through the years. A pair of top English golfers in Gil Nicholls and Wilfie Reid were the first to run things, with Claude Harmon coming on board as head professional No. 3 in 1945. Harmon, the patriarch of a family that produced four professionals in sons Butch, Billy, Dick and Craig, worked winters at Seminole until 1957 while also spending his summer seasons at the Winged Foot Golf Club. During his time in Juno Beach, he captured the 1948 Masters and to this day remains the last club professional to prevail in a major championship.
Henry Picard, winner of the 1938 Masters and the 1939 PGA Championship, took over for Harmon, and it seems likely that his hiring was helped by a recommendation by Hogan, whose career was in many ways salvaged in the late 1930s when Picard got him to weaken his grip so he could rid himself of a horrible hook. Later, Picard recommended that Hogan replace him as the head golf professional at the Hershey Country Club, which his old friend was able to do.
Then in 1973, Seminole turned to Jerry Pittman, an Oklahoma native who learned the game as a caddie at Southern Hills Country Club in Tulsa and got to be a good enough player to earn a golf scholarship to Southern Methodist University. He competed on the PGA Tour for a spell before moving to the club world, holding the head job at the Creek Club in Long Island before going to work at Seminole.
Pittman retired in 2000 and was succeeded by Bob Ford, who had established himself as one of the best head professionals in golf history at Oakmont Country Club. He held down the top job at both places for 16 years, at which point he retired from Oakmont and began working exclusively at Seminole. The winner in 2017 of the prestigious Bob Jones Award, the USGA’s highest honor, he has qualified for 24 major championships and been named both the PGA of America’s Professional of the Year and Club Professional of the Year. Ford is also an unparalleled merchandiser and has seen dozens of his former assistants assume head jobs at other clubs.
While Seminole has always been known as a place for golfers, there was growing concern among members in the 1980s that the club and course had lost some luster. They felt that the golf course had become overgrown and overwatered and worried that the membership was aging and needed replenishing. They also fretted that Seminole was no longer held in very high esteem by elite amateur golfers.
It is the glimpse behind the curtain in which Seminole has long cloaked itself that will make this must-see TV.
Those developments compelled former club president Barry van Gerbig to create an annual competition that would be, in his words, “an event for great guys and great amateur players.” Dubbed the George L. Coleman Amateur Invitational Tournament, it was named after the longtime Seminole member who had served as club president from 1981 to 1992, and who hosted Ben and Valerie Hogan for each of their annual visits to the Palm Beach area. The first Coleman was held in 1992, and since that time, it has become one of the most coveted invites in competitive golf – and one of the highlights of the mid-am and senior amateur circuits.
Van Gerbig was thrilled with how well received that tournament was and delighted with how it helped bring the club back into the consciousness of the golf world. It also instigated something of a revival at the retreat, inducing leaders to start a thoughtful and thorough revamping of the course in the mid-1990s by architect Brian Silva. In addition, the Coleman helped club leaders refresh their membership rolls by providing them with a number of solid candidates to consider for election from its field each year.
Now comes the TaylorMade exhibition, and then next year, the Walker Cup, both of which will elevate Seminole’s profile even higher.
It’s a good place for all of golf to know better.