Appeared in January/February 1993 Southern LINKS
During the golden years of Seminole Golf Club, Ben Hogan spent 30 days there each year preparing for the Masters, an Irishman named Christopher Dunphy ran the club, Claude Harmon was the head professional, and the guests included President Eisenhower and the Duke of Windsor.
As time passed, the club changed. The days ended when you could walk into the locker room and see JFK changing his spikes with Reverand Billy Graham, Bing Crosby whistling a song, or Gary Cooper waiting to take a lesson from Harmon. The jars of ginger snaps were still in the locker room and the ocean breezes were still blowing across the open fairways, but it wasn’t quite the same.
A shade was pulled down over Seminole.
The prestigious Latham Reed Invitational Pro-Am was canceled in 1961. Hogan stopped showing up. Crosby and Dunphy passed away. Tournaments and guest play dwindled. The atmosphere that had once made Seminole one of the world’s great golf clubs was vanishing.
Club president Barry Van Gerbig realized this when he traveled to Pine Valley in 1991 to play in the Crump Cup. He was shocked by the number of top amateurs who asked him, “Hey Barry, what’s Seminole like, anyway?”
He returned to his club vowing to make a change. If nothing else, he owed it to golf. Seminole was a landmark, a course that many consider to be Donald Ross’ greatest. “Let’s get back in the golf world and let’s do it right,” he said to the board.
As the club’s green chairman, Van Gerbig had overseen a monumental restoration of the golf course. The greens were rebuilt to the original specifications, and he directed maintenance crews to clear out the noxious vegetation that had overrun the course. Now he wanted to open up Seminole in other ways. His proposal was a Seminole Invitational, an elite amateur tournament that would attract 80 of the best mid-amateurs and senior amateurs in the country. When it was passed by the board and played at the end of the 1992 season, it became the first non-member tournament staged at Seminole in 31 years.
The event harkened back to the early days Seminole, in the 1920s, when E.F. Hutton and Martin Sweeny set out to build the finest course in Florida on a site along the coast in Palm Beach County. Ross campaigned hard for the job, and he laid out the course after a land-clearing project that included trudging through a vast mangrove swamp with hip-high snake boots and machetes.
These 140 acres were unique in that they had both ocean frontage and elevation. The primary dune line, 45 feet above sea level, was used by Ross as a site for six greens (2, 4, 5, 6, 11, 14) on the northeast side of the property. From the 4th green you can see every hole on the course.
Ross’ brilliant routing plan utilized the constantly changing trade winds as Seminole’s primary hazard, and took full advantage of them with each nine moving in different directions—the front nine running primarily counterclockwise and the home nine clockwise. A strategic style design, Seminole requires well-placed tee shots and precise approaches. Anything short of this results in a difficult pitch or bunker shot or a treacherous side hill or downhill putt on the slick, crowned greens.
At a time when many of the Golden Era’s classic venues are being remodeled and lengthened to accommodate major championships and “keep up the times,” Seminole is holding fast to its heritage and traditions.
“If you can play Seminole, you can play any course,” said Hogan, who always arrived from Texas in March to prepare for the Masters. He would go out to the field between the first and 9th holes and beat balls all day to caddies who would shag for him. Hogan was so precise, the caddies hardly had to move.
When Hogan’s game was ready, his usual match was with Bob Sweeny, the 1956 British Amateur champion. Hogan demanded one stroke the first day. Thereafter they played $100 Nassaus, and it wasn’t unusual for Sweeny to collect the money.
It was during this era that the often charming and irascible Dunphy presided over the club. He was Mr. Seminole. You could always find him at the men’s table in the dining room. He made up all the game. But Dunphy didn’t always win the money. He and Sweeny once were hustled out of $25,000 on a day when Sweeny set the amateur course record by shooting 65.
Dunphy’s pride and joy was organizing the Latham Reed, a two-ball in which a Seminole member teamed up with a tour pro—highlighted by a Calcutta that could reach $275,000. Some of the biggest names in golf turned out. The names of the winners include Hogan, Sam Snead, Cary Middlecoff, Jimmy Demaret, Byron Nelson, Peter Thomson and Arnold Palmer.
The tournament died in the early ’60s because of a falling out between Dunphy and Ed Carter, who in those days ran the PGA Tour. Carter couldn’t field an event because all the stars were at Seminole playing the Latham Reed.
Despite its return to golf prominence, Seminole will never be overexposed. There may never be another big pro-am, but he legends of days gone by will live on and new tales will be spun by today’s—and tomorrow’s—great amateur players, passing on the history and mystique that is Seminole to golf’s future generations.
The true reflection of the mood of the club is the legendary locker room, where cameras are off limits to preserve the privacy of the members. It’s a large, airy, comfortable room with a high-beamed ceiling, fireplaces at either end, cedar lockers, mounted animal heads, a well-stocked bar, and tournament champion boards hung from the walls—dripping with history and tradition.