April 26, 2023 By: Andy Johnson — Most golfers looking to get into the game start at a local affordable golf course. You can generally characterize these courses as mundane, shaggy, and unapproachable for beginners. Despite these hurdles that work against golf, the sport is able to win over new players. It’s the magic of golf, but it has often left me wondering: what if beginners had the opportunity to play one of the best courses in the area? Would that draw more people into the game?
In the U.S., we will get to watch this experiment play out at The Park, a new Gil Hanse design in West Palm Beach.
In recent years, there has been a growing movement with a handful of localities investing to improve their courses. A few examples of this include Winter Park 9 and Charleston Municipal. These projects have been smash hits with both locals and tourists. They have turned annual losers on the budget into winners. The Park is taking what Winter Park and Charleston have done and pouring gas onto the flame. The Park isn’t just a golf course overhaul. It’s a brand new facility and concept. It pairs one of the most sought-after golf architects, Gil Hanse, with a stellar property and a forward-thinking golf concept.
The Park includes 18 holes designed by Hanse, Jim Wagner, and Dirk Ziff; a lighted short course and driving range; and extensive community programming for local youth. It is a potential model for what larger metropolitan golf projects can be.
In 2018, the situation was dire at West Palm Beach Golf Course. The course lost the city over $60,000 per month and playing conditions were declining. Despite this, the course had built up a loyal following thanks to its unique rolling topography and lack of water hazards, a rarity in South Florida public golf. That year the city decided to close The Park, and the course’s future became uncertain.
Shortly after closing, locals came to the forefront with big dreams of resuscitating the defunct golf course. Led by Seth Waugh and Dirk Ziff, a group was able to come to an agreement with the city, taking over the course on a long-term lease. Waugh and Ziff raised over $55 million from 130-plus donors with the intention of completely overhauling the facility. Hanse signed on to lead the construction of the golf course and waived his design fee. With that, the West Palm Beach Golf Course was reborn as The Park.
“He said the property was a 10,” Waugh said on The Fried Egg Podcast, referring to what Hanse told him after touring the site. With 60 feet of elevation change and 10 feet of sugar sand, and mature vegetation—not to mention a location a mere 10-minute drive from West Palm Beach Airport—the site has a lot of advantages.
This is representative of a larger opportunity that public golf has. There are almost no more great sites for golf extremely close or convenient to significant population centers. Those opportunities don’t exist, with the exception of already-existing golf courses like West Palm Beach. If Waugh and Ziff had sought to build a public course from scratch in the area, they would have been cast out to the featureless swamp in Hobe Sound where all the other new courses are being built.
With an extraordinary property on their hands, Hanse’s team, along with Waugh and Ziff, set out with a singular design goal in mind: fun. In the lead-up to the project, Waugh and Ziff created a survey for their well-traveled friends to uncover the characteristics of “fun golf courses.”
The survey included these questions:
- From a design and maintenance standpoint, what makes a golf course really fun to play?
- What qualities and design elements contribute to you playing a course for the first time or a familiar one yet again where you walk off the 18th green and think “that was really fun and enjoyable, can’t wait to come back and do it again”?
- What specifically are the most fun holes you have played and why?
- What are the most fun courses you have ever played, and why? (Feel free to include less well-known and even totally obscure courses.)
- What makes it possible for a course to be both challenging and really fun at the same time?
Ziff and Waugh received a wide range of responses. They synthesized a few common themes:
- Width and scale with bold and memorable features
- Half-par holes
- Short grass and contouring around the greens
- Greens with hole locations of varying difficulty
- The opportunity to use a wide range of shots approaching and around the green
- A friendly start and gettable finish
- Stellar par 3s
- A great walk
- No lost golf balls
- Frequent and relevant use of angles to define the preferred shot both off the tee and into the green
These themes became the guiding focus of The Park, and Hanse’s crew delivered.
Immediately upon arriving at the first green at The Park, a player will know that this is not your normal local public golf course. The reachable par 5 boasts a green with the scale and features of one you might encounter at Augusta National or the Old Course. A cascading false front about six feet tall greets golfers. Here you see the balance of playability for all with challenge and strategic interest for the first time. The wide open nature of the first green makes it playable for any type of shot shape. The false front in particular is effective at slowing down a low-running shot that can be a common play of beginners. With just short grass, a miss gobbled up by the front makes it relatively easy to get down in three. For the skilled golfer, the first screams birdie opportunity on the scorecard. What stands in the way of that is the devilish green. Get just a bit out of position and making a four becomes difficult. This is the theme of the course: nearly every green is approachable with a putter, but to pile up birdie looks, great play is required.
Accentuating fascinating greens like at the first are The Park’s wide fairways and well-placed hazards. These combine to create strategic lines and angles. Take the fourth hole as an example. It’s a par 4 with one of the course’s more understated greens. Off the tee, players are greeted with two distinct options: a left side guarded by a diagonal line of bunkers, and a wide-open right side. The inviting right side eventually runs into a large mound of bunkers that obscures the view to the green. Playing up the left gives a full view of the green and a more advantageous angle. It presents a question: play left, take on risk, and earn a better angle; or play safe and face a more challenging second shot.
How The Park’s sublime property was used matches its creative greens and thoughtful strategy. Most South Florida courses sit in swamps. Ponds are a necessity at these places, both for drainage and to obtain dirt during the construction process to create course features. The Park, however, is in the sandy uplands. There are no ponds, just rolling sand that you would find at a links course or nearby Seminole.
Land movement and a lack of water give The Park two unique advantages. It’s tough to lose golf balls, and the natural land can act as a hazard. In order to maximize the property’s features, the routing had to excel—and its origin is an interesting story in itself. The routing is actually the creation of donor Dirk Ziff. He is a golf architecture nut and has had a longstanding relationship with Hanse. He was a member at one of Hanse’s first consulting clients, Fenway Golf Club in Westchester County, New York. Their relationship grew as Ziff served as the club contact and consultant for Hanse’s redesign of the Vineyard Golf Club.
At The Park, Ziff’s role expanded again, evolving from liaison to integral member of the Hanse design team. Hanse and Wagner asked Ziff to take a shot at the routing. Ziff pored over topographical maps and walked the property countless times before he submitted his final routing to the Hanse team. In two different iterations, with two different clubhouse locations, three holes stood out as must keeps: 15, 16, and 17—a par 5, 4,and 3 that sit on the most dramatic portions of the property. Ziff waited as Hanse and Wagner went over the routing and attempted to find a better solution. They were unable to, and Ziff’s routing is what was put in the ground.
The routing tells a compelling story, navigating the property’s more subtle ground early and slowly ramping up to bolder terrain on the back nine. Ziff uses natural features masterfully. An example that sticks out is the par-4 sixth. It plays to a natural hollow, and the standout landform is a knob in the center of the fairway, which creates excellent strategy. Playing left is a riskier option that can deliver an unobstructed view of the green from a good angle. Play more safely to the right and you’ll have to deal with the mound, which creates a semi-blind approach to the green from a weaker angle.
Most importantly for The Park, Ziff’s routing makes for a manageable, engaging walk, and indeed the facility will encourage players to walk when they can.
In the current era of searching for the next great destination-golf property in far-flung places, we tend to forget that many of America’s best sites for golf exist at the municipal level, at distressed and neglected courses like the old West Palm Beach muni. Waugh and Ziff hope that The Park can serve as a “how to” manual for improving local, accessible golf, and their guiding principles should be studied by any municipality looking to upgrade its courses. The Park emphasizes fun golf,without watering down the sophistication of the product. It will hopefully prove that public golf can and should achieve the same quality and sophistication of design as high-end resorts and private clubs.