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Old Marsh Golf Club

Time stands still at this Palm Beach purist’s retreat built around a challenging Pete Dye course, comfortably elegant clubhouse, and close-knit membership

By: Tom Cunneff

Appeared in 2012 LINKS Premier Clubs

There are many golf communities in South Florida, but not many true golf clubs where the emphasis is on the game and all the camaraderie, competition, and good cheer it fosters. Old Marsh Golf Club is unique in that respect.

The tone is set from the moment you walk in the foyer of the elegant clubhouse and see the collection of rare golf clubs—some dating to the 1700s—that line the walls. It continues with the exceptionally attentive staff, which is focused on getting members together, and right onto the naturally beautiful and challenging course.

Current President Michael Walsdorf joined the club in 2000 after learning of the club’s small membership, no tee times, and excellent caddie program. “I was down in Florida, so I decided to pay a visit,” says the Chicago native. “They sent us out with a caddie and that was it. I did not want a typical real estate development golf factory. Old Marsh has the real feel of a golf club. It really has to do with the whole nature and structure of the club.”

The setting couldn’t be more ideal or special. Not only do untouchable wetlands edge the club on three sides, but 20 percent of the community’s 456 acres are marshland, so the wildlife found here—including bobcats, endangered wood storks, and sandhill cranes (also found on the club logo)—is beguiling.

A site this special called for a hands-on architect with a unique feel for the land, which is why visionary Bob Whitley tapped Pete Dye to build the course in the mid-1980s. “I won’t name names but I had people just fly over it in a helicopter and that was about all the time they wanted to spend on it,” says Whitley, who makes his home here. “Pete actually got out there and was walking in the water trying to figure out drainage. He knew the technical part of it, not just the beauty part of it. I knew instantly this is a guy who gets it.”

When Dye first visited the property, which is located in Palm Beach Gardens, just 20 minutes from Palm Beach International and 10 minutes from the beach, the marsh’s rich vegetation and abundant species reminded him of Africa. “I love the scenery, especially on the backside, and they’ve done a good job with the houses, setting them back,” says Dye, who devised a simple but ingenious system of drains and sump pumps to keep water from running off the course into the marsh. “It’s a close drive to PGA Boulevard with all the shops and restaurants. But when you’re there, you feel like you’re in the Florida Everglades.”

With the wetlands dictating much of the routing and strategy, Dye’s course is as visually intimidating as it is visually stunning. Many of the tee shots are scary at first, but after a few rounds golfers realize that the fairways are a lot wider than they appear. The greens—natural extensions of the fairways—are also very receptive and allow run-up shots like the great Scottish courses that are Dye’s inspiration.

“A lot of people say it’s a difficult golf course but it isn’t if you play from the right tees,” says green committee chair and longtime member Bob Capazzi, who belongs to a number of other clubs. “It’s the one place that I play with my wife. The match always comes down to the last hole because she’s not hitting woods into the greens. Alice [Dye] did a wonderful job of making it a ladies’ golf course also with two sets of forward tees,” which start at 4,959 yards.

Like a good wine, the course improves with age as members uncover its wonderful subtleties with repeated playings—easy to do, too, since there aren’t any tee times. They’re helped along by a knowledgeable starter who blends people in an effortless fashion and a group of caddies who are the best in the area—more than 25 are mini-tour players or assistant pros up north. White gravel paths rather than concrete, close greens and tees, and lack of hills make the course very walkable.

The first two holes—a short par four and wide-open par five—ease players into the round. Marsh comes into play both left and right of the green on the 200-yard 3rd (“the shortest par five in Palm Beach County,” members joke), while the 362-yard 5th is one only Dye could have designed, an Alps hole modeled after the 17th at Prestwick that requires a blind approach over a two-story mound—with a bunker on top, no less. Fortunately, a rock depicts each day’s hole position, just like the Dell hole at Lahinch.

The front nine finishes with a flourish with a dramatic par five that plays downwind in season, a par three with a peninsular green that juts out into the marsh, and a long par four with a large lake that separates 9 and 18 coming into play on the left.

After the clockwise rotation of the front side holes, those on the back run counterclockwise, with wetlands bordering the left side of most of the holes. The natural settings are among the game’s most spectacular with some tees on islands in the marsh and flocks of snowy egrets congregating in the trees every afternoon. It’s no surprise that the course became an Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary in 1998.

The 313-yard 10th is a Cape-style hole from the tips where the smart play is a fairway metal; however, big hitters have been known to take a rip at the green, like the caddie who had a hole-in-one a couple of years ago. The club’s poster hole is the scenic 16th, a medium-length par three fronted by water and flanked by a cypress hammock that provides sanctuary to migrating and indigenous birds. The most difficult hole is the long par-five 17th, which typically plays into the wind: The lay-up to a narrow area constricted by marsh on the left and a canal on the right is the hardest shot on the property.

Overlooking the 18th green (as well as the 9th) is the 22,000-square-foot clubhouse, which underwent a major renovation in 2005, enhancing both the men’s and women’s locker rooms along with the kitchen, main dining room, and mixed grill. Inclusion is the modus operandi, whether it’s General Manager Michael Gibson pairing up parties for dinner, Director of Golf Tom Dyer pairing up golfers for a round, or the guys’ golf group welcoming a new member at the big table they all sit around in the afternoon in the men’s locker room.

“I’ve belonged to a lot of clubs and it’s the best combination ever put together from a facilities point of view and staffing point of view,” says Capazzi. “If I had to give up all my clubs and could only keep one, Old Marsh is the one I’m going to hang onto, even when I can’t play golf anymore.”

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