Golf's Hot Spot
For a who's who of tour pros -- Rory McIlroy, Tiger Woods, Ernie Els Luke Donald, Lee Westwood and more -- a 30-mile stretch of Florida's southern Martin County and northern Palm Beach County is a happening place to live, practice and just plain hang
Whether sitting behind the Nicklaus family for Christmas Eve services at Christ Fellowship, seeing Ernie Els playing with his kids at Juno Beach or awaiting a table on a January night outside the Reef Grill with Luke Donald, chances are you're going to bump into a tour player living in or around Jupiter, Fla. If you're lucky, you might even be in the Hobe Sound Deli when Tiger Woods is grabbing a sandwich on his way home from Medalist GC.
My local knowledge comes from decades of living in this sweet spot of the golf world -- a period that dates to the late-1980s when Greg Norman and Nick Price left Orlando and eventually made Jupiter Island their home. More recently Woods arrived in 2011, Rory McIlroy has closed on a compound along the Intracoastal in Palm Beach Gardens and Lee Westwood is awaiting completion of his mansion at Old Palm GC, where 2010 British Open champion Louis Oosthuizen is a neighbor.
There has been such an influx of tour pros over the past five years into the Jupiter area that Isleworth (Woods' former community in greater Orlando) and Lake Nona (Els' old U.S. base) have been replaced by Medalist (Tiger's new club) and The Bear's Club (home course for Els, McIlroy and Donald) as stomping grounds for the world's best golfers. There is even talk of a Tavistock Cup-like competition between Medalist and Bear's Club or, on a less public level, a home-and-away series between Tiger and Rory -- loser buys at the Capital Grille. "I think having [McIlroy] down there, I'm sure we'll have a few dinners together and certainly hang out a bit more," Woods says.
Further validation for the area as golf's hot spot came last month when President Obama chose the Floridian in Palm City for a weekend golf vacation. The avid left-hander played 27 holes then met with Butch Harmon at the instructor's learning center at the club for an extended lesson. The next day, after some consideration of whether to drive 30 minutes to meet at Medalist, the president stayed at the Floridian, where he and Woods played their first round together.
Why Jupiter? Well, it's about more than no state income tax, although that is a contributing factor for those relocating from outside the Sunshine State. Northern Palm Beach and neighboring Martin counties, about 150 miles southeast of Orlando, simply have better weather, less traffic, the ocean and what transplanted Rhode Islander Brett Quigley calls, "the Jupiter lifestyle of shorts, golf shirts and flip flops."
The lifestyle includes paddle-boarding (Stacy Lewis), surfing (Fredrik Jacobson has his own coach), cycling (Camilo Villegas is known to make 100-plus mile rides to Miami and back), weekend boat runs to the Bahamas (Robert Allenby) and dining at laid-back restaurants such as Guanabanas, The Food Shack, The Dive Bar and Hog Snappers with their fresh, flavorful seafood. If Price isn't hitting balls at McArthur GC, he's having lunch at the Lazy Loggerhead Cafe or sitting three miles off the Jupiter pier on his boat Caddyshack, fishing for pompano or whatever might be biting at the spot where the gulfstream comes closest to shore.
The vibe and the weather -- the January average low in Jupiter is a not-so-cruel 57 degrees -- put the pros in a good frame of mind. "In Chicago, it's a quicker lifestyle. In Florida, I can relax," says Donald, whose family splits time between the two locales. "The weather does have an effect on your attitude. When you see blue skies nearly every day and are able to pull on your shorts to practice, it's definitely a more serene atmosphere when I'm in Florida. I don't worry about things so much."
This Land of the Tour Pros starts at PGA Boulevard in Palm Beach Gardens and extends approximately 20 miles north to Hobe Sound, from the Atlantic Ocean on the east to the backwaters of the Loxahatchee River a few miles inland. I was playing with Tom Fazio at Jupiter Hills recently, and the golf course architect recalled the pre-boom period in the 1970s, when there was concern the club's name wouldn't be recognizable because nobody had heard of Jupiter, and when the mega-resort and golf community known as PGA National was populated by wild boar and bobcat. Fazio told me he recently counted 33 courses from McArthur (which he co-designed with Price) to PGA National, where he and Uncle George originally designed the Haig and Squire courses that opened in 1980. I told him we had almost that many pros as members at Medalist.
The irony is that PGA National, with its "Bear Trap" and history of holding a Ryder Cup, a PGA Championship and several Senior PGA Championships, had little connection to the golf community until the Honda Classic made it a permanent home in 2007 and Els blessed it internationally with a one-stroke victory over Donald in 2008. Even today you won't find tour pros on the PGA National tee sheet with the resort guests other than during Els' Autism benefit, but this is the one week of the year that seems to connect everybody, starting with the Nicklaus family (Barbara's foundation is benefactor; Jack redesigned the Champion), to the Woods-McIlroy rivalry that took off in last year's shootout.
"I'd like to think the new Honda Classic has played a vital role in this," says tournament chairman Ken Kennerly, who came to North Palm Beach in 1994 to work for Nicklaus and cried at the event's media day in 2012 announcing that Woods had committed to the field. Kennerly has been around long enough now to say, "It's hard to find a better quality of life than Palm Beach County, and slowly it's become a haven for tour pros. What we have down here is the perfect blend of all worlds. A lot of guys saw that they could feel right at home."
Jack and Barbara were among the original settlers, moving from Columbus, Ohio, to Lost Tree Village in 1965 at the behest of Dr. Cary Middlecoff. Back then Jack would hit balls at Frenchman's Creek under the watchful eye of Jack Grout, while a young apprentice named Jim Flick observed and took notes. Among the range rats at Frenchman's was Gardner Dickinson, the devoted disciple of Ben Hogan. It was actually Hogan who migrated first to the Palm Beach area, getting ready for the Masters for many years at Seminole GC (see page 40).
The Nicklauses had two of their five children (sons Jack II and Steve) when they moved 47 years ago. Now, at 73 with 22 grandchildren, Jack doesn't play much golf but still competes against his friends in tennis -- hosting the Golden Bear Sports Camp on the grass courts behind his house every year. (He won this past Christmas with playing partner Bob Bryan, a two-time Wimbledon doubles champion.) He is still readily available for golf advice, coaching Charl Schwartzel on how to play Augusta National before the South African's 2011 Masters victory and McIlroy (whom he first met at the Gardens Mall) before his win at the 2011 U.S. Open.
Friends say Jack's as crotchety as ever at times, but I keep catching him in good moods, whether it's hosting a dinner at his house in a benefit for Bear Lakes member Dana Quigley, whose son Devon suffered a traumatic brain injury, or doing a Q&A with Jack and Bill Belichick at last year's Honda Classic pro-am draw party. I don't know what was better: catching Jack, Arnold Palmer and Gary Player hanging out in his kitchen or seeing Belichick so animated in Nicklaus' company.