In the heart of West Palm Beach is a club where the focus is golf and only golf, where the game’s simple and enduring virtues are embraced and nurtured, and where the privileged members enjoy one of the very finest courses in the nation. That club is Emerald Dunes.
When Tom Fazio unveiled this course in 1990 it was hailed instantly as one of the top five in the state and the top 100 in the U.S. Today, thanks to a just-completed multi-million-dollar renovation supervised by Fazio himself, it is better than ever.
What sets Emerald Dunes apart? The same qualities that distinguish other great courses. Like Pine Valley, it looks hard but plays easier than it looks. Like the Old Course at St Andrews, there is always a way—often several ways—to navigate a hole, but some routes are decidedly better than others. And like Augusta National (and in the words of Bobby Jones), “there isn’t a hole that can’t be birdied if you just think, but there isn’t one that can’t be double-bogeyed if you stop thinking.”
Fazio was given a superb site blessed with a collection of dunes. He still moved much earth but the result looks as natural as it does beautiful, a series of holes that sweep dramatically left and right and occasionally up and down en route to beguilingly contoured greens.
Flash-faced bunkers and native ornamental grasses add to the charm and challenge, while 60 acres of lakes ensure there is plenty to engage the golfer’s attention. That is the key word here—engage—rather than intimidate. Rarely is there a call for an all-carry shot. Instead, the water lurks to the side: More dazzling than daunting, it dares us to skirt it, outflank it, and when we succeed, the satisfaction is sublime.
From the first hole, a gently bending par five, there’s a sense of splendid isolation. Despite—or perhaps because of—its central location, Emerald Dunes has a strong commitment to providing a sanctuary from the outside world, a resolve reinforced recently with the planting of 2,000 trees along the club’s perimeter.
The hub of the course is a massive dune, rising 50 feet, where several holes converge. It is first encountered at No. 4, which plays from 125 to 183 yards depending on which of the five sets of tees one chooses. There’s a bail-out area front-left and framing the green back-right is a rocky ledge with a gently splashing waterfall. Par threes don’t come more captivating than this.
And par fives don’t come more fun than No. 5, a double-dogleg that winds around a lake. A power fade off the tee followed by a controlled draw will leave a short iron, for long hitters maybe even a putt. And this is one southern-clime course where putting is a good option, even from well off the green. Fazio’s design encourages imaginative links-type shots and the immaculately conditioned Bermuda fairways roll fast and smooth.
The front side crescendos at the 9th, a brute of a par four that plays 464 yards from the back tee. The hole doglegs almost 90 degrees around a lake on the right, but to the left is relative safety, the only difficulty provided by a stretch of the mounds and ridges that give Emerald Dunes its name.
It’s back to the central dune at 11, where even short hitters should make the climb to the elevated back tee to savor the panoramic view of the course. This is a short par five—
approximately 500 yards from the tips—but once again water menaces the entire right side, and anyone who wants to get home in two will have to be both strong and brave.
Fazio built plenty of risk-reward golf into these holes, nowhere more markedly than at the par-four 15th, a Cape hole that can be shortened considerably with a tee shot cut boldly across the lake. Those less aggressive or accurate will have their hands full making par. The same will be true of the tee shot at the par three that follows—this time there’s no getting around the water; the only way is over it—but the hole is just 180 from the back tees and the two-tier green is ample with just one fronting bunker.
The 18th tee brings a final visit to the central dune and a splendid view of the home hole and clubhouse. Playing into the prevailing breeze this big par four can feel like 500 yards, and with water and sand right, trees left, and a green that is 47 yards deep, no matter which way the wind blows a closing par will be well earned.
If the design and challenge of the Emerald Dunes course set it apart, the same is true of the overall tenor of the club. There are no tee times: With a limited membership and an attentive golf staff, none are needed. The caddies are not mere bag carriers; most are avid, accomplished golfers who know the game as well as they know the course. For those who prefer to ride, carts may be driven virtually everywhere except the tees and greens.
Many members enjoy practicing almost as much as playing, and with the suite of facilities available to them that’s no surprise. The eight-acre range is equipped with Titleist Pro V1s. Five target greens, designed by Fazio, mimic those on the course. There’s even a shallow-faced bunker for working on fairway-bunker shots.
At the back end of the double-sided range is a learning center equipped with two teaching bays and a club-fitting and repair area where Director of Golf Lee Rinker (a veteran of the PGA Tour, now on the Champions Tour) and his staff use video and computer training tools to help members improve.
The latest addition to the facilities, opened last year, is a short-game practice area that ranks among the finest in the game. It begins with a tie-breaking 19th hole that can be played from 85 to 135 yards. There are also several target and chipping greens (all built to USGA specifications to perfectly mirror playing conditions on the course), sand and grass bunkers, and a 9,500-square-foot putting green.
Alongside the short-game area, and overlooking the 18th hole, is a brand-new verandah. In keeping with the European flavor of the clubhouse architecture, it’s paved with limestone reclaimed from the chateaux of Burgundy and landscaped with a variety of specimen trees and plants.
The verandah is attached to the Tuscan-style clubhouse, where are found the pro shop, fitness room, and spacious men’s and women’s locker rooms. The main gathering point is the grill room, where a bar adorned with vintage black-and-white photos flows into a dining area set on wide-plank French oak floors. One look at the menu confirms that this club for golfers is also a haven for foodies, as the daily offering of classic dishes is complemented by a constantly changing array of creative specials.
Unique among America’s top private clubs is the approach Emerald Dunes takes to its yearly dues. Put simply, everything is included. Not just the golf fees, but all food and beverages, as well. That’s right, you may use the club every day, enjoy lunch and whatever you’d like to drink, at no extra charge. And this privilege is extended not just to members but to their spouses as well, at a cost in keeping with the nation’s other top clubs.
It all adds up to a very special experience—pure golf on a stunning course at a club that is one of a kind, not just in southern Florida but the world.