Golf loves nothing so much as its own history, and no doubt there is much to love: Please insert your favorite dewy-eyed, sepia-toned memory here. (I'll take Hale Irwin's ecstatic high-five-the-entire-crowd lap around Medinah's 18th green in the 1990 U.S. Open.)
For golf resorts, however, the past isn't necessarily a leading indicator; glory days of yore can mean lazy mediocrity in the here and now.
I suspect I first conceived these thoughts several years ago, on my maiden trip to PGA National Resort & Spa in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla.
Its tournament pedigree was spotless: its Champion course (one of five here) hosted the 1983 Ryder Cup matches (so long ago now that the U.S. actually
), the 1987 PGA Championship and 18 Senior PGA Championships.
The resort is home to the
PGA of America, which manages all three events, so these facts didn't perhaps carry all the apparent gravitas. Still, at that time, even graded as a legacy the place disappointed, frayed around the edges like an old leather staff bag.
A corporate retreat recently sent me back for a second look, and times have changed -- it's gone from tired to top shelf.
I might have suspected as much, given that the PGA Tour now will be coming to town each March for the Honda Classic. As the Tour's ad campaign says, "These guys are good," but they are also picky. After a multimillion-dollar, multiyear overhaul, PGA National's guests, professional and amateur alike, should all be satisfied.
A total of $4.1 million alone went into the Champion Course, renamed (someone call Rick Schroder) the Champ.
The face-lift includes all-new grass, a bigger practice range, bunker renovations, tree removal and replacement, a whiz-bang irrigation system and more. Forecaddies now come standard with every group, so your only lost balls will be O.B. or U.W. (under water).
Much of the latter danger can be found on the infamous stretch of difficult water holes from the 15th through the 17th, known as "the Bear Trap," in honor of designer Jack "The Golden Bear" Nicklaus.
For would-be walkers, the Champ also has added bag-carrying caddies for an additional fee -- always a welcome option.
The Outstanding Others
If the Champ remains the resort's show pony, the other four courses certainly aren't dogs, although they are less pricey.
The Squire, honoring Gene "The Squire" Sarazen, was built a quarter-century ago by Tom Fazio and his uncle, George Fazio. It's the shortest and tightest of the fivesome, emphasizing accuracy and brains over brawn.
The Fazios also designed The Haig (dubbed in homage to the pioneering great Walter Hagen), notable for a lack of forced carries, and thus more playable for shorter hitters and less-accomplished golfers.
The General -- from the nickname of its designer Arnold Palmer -- is a links-like layout with nods to Scotland, including rippled fairways, grass bunkers and even a double green (in which two holes share a green, though each has its own flag and cup -- it's a U.K. thing).
Finally, there's the Estate course, purchased by the resort in 1988 and named for no one, near as I can tell, but a challenging test nonetheless.
In sum, there's something for every golfer.
And if you're unhappy with your game before or after you've arrived, there's a
Golf Digest Academy on site, named for the magazine that founded this nationwide chain of instructional schools.
Clearly, golf is covered.
But then, that wasn't the issue so much as the rest of the resort: the 339 guest rooms, 50 two-bedroom cottages, nine restaurants and lounges, a 40,000-square-foot spa, 19 tennis court health and racquet club, pool and, yes, croquet complex. (There's also 34,000 square feet of conference facilities and a helicopter pad for those impressive entrances.)
Obviously, breadth wasn't the issue either -- just age and fatigue.
Upon arrival, however, it was clear that an infusion of cash had brought about a burst of vitality.
The guest rooms have all been completely refurbished, each now with a flat-screen TV, as well as custom carpeting, new furnishings, window treatments, linens and decorations.
The pool deck has a new poolside cafe (serving Starbucks coffee), as well as terraces overlooking the pool and lake.
There is now wireless Internet access at the resort and improvements throughout the spa (which offers massages and treatments using pretty much every fruit and vegetable known to man -- no animals, thankfully -- with minerals covered, too, in "waters of the world": mineral pools with salts imported from "the world's most renowned water sources").
Resort restaurant Shula's Steak House didn't appear to have changed, but then it didn't needed to, long ranked among the country's top providers of Angus beef, as well as a quasi-museum celebrating coach Don Shula's undefeated 1972 Miami Dolphins.
The fare is worth the steep prices it commands, although look before you leap if you attempt to conquer the 48-ounce porterhouse steak -- you're gonna need a doggie bag, trust me.
Arezzo, the southern Italian restaurant that's also open for dinner only, is a solid backup, just like Don Strock was to Bob Griese. Among the other on-site eateries, only the Bear Trap Bar & Grille lacked energy among the servers, but in fairness my visit was toward evening's end.
The resort changed hands in August, with Walton Street Capital, LLC, purchasing it from E. Llwyd Ecclestone, the original owner and developer. Walton clearly bought a property on the upswing. It's a worthwhile place to play where the pros do and see how they travel -- and to enjoy the experience.
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Evan Rothman is a freelance writer living in Staatsburg, N.Y. A former executive editor at Golf Magazine, his work has appeared in The New York Times, Sports Illustrated, Esquire, Men's Journal and other leading publications.