Seminole: Does it Measure Up?

Donald Ross’s Seminole Golf Course in Juno Beach, Florida, is universally recognized as one of the great architect’s true masterpieces, and is a fixture in every list of the world’s top courses. I first visited Seminole about two years ago and spent upwards of five hours walking and studying what is widely considered to be a perennial fit within the top 15 courses in the US. So when I returned again in May to actually play it for the first time, I was anxious to see how valid my initial impressions were.

The first thing about Seminole… the arrival sequence is subdued.  A small sign (you have to be looking for it) marks the entry lane.  Then once through a gate, it’s pretty low key but a steady build until you turn into the gravel circle in front of the clubhouse.  Then you know… this is Seminole.  It wreaks of tradition and prestige.

At first sight, the course does not blow you away visually – it’s not inherently beautiful by comparison to some other greats… like Cypress Point or Augusta, for example.  The turf is not vibrant… the vegetation is not majestic… and the views, well, are completely inwardly focused, despite being only a few yards from the Atlantic.  You can sneak a peek at the beach when on the 14th tee… and as our caddy said, “The scenery can be pretty good there sometimes!”  And it was.

So what, then, is it that gains all the praise for Seminole?  From an architects’ perspective I find the routing (the arrangement of holes) to be among the best in golf.  Really, it’s not a great site… in fact it was primarily a swamp before being cleared for golf… so much of the central core of the property is low and flat and difficult to drain.  But when Donald Ross situated 18 holes on this ground, he did so with great focus by making incredibly varied and efficient use of two dune ridges.  The holes don’t repetitively go up and down on those landforms (unlike nearby Jupiter Hills does). Rather, they traverse the grades in varied succession…along, up and down, atop and through in the most imaginative of ways.  In fact, those two dunes (ridges) have at least some impact on all but four holes, to my recollection… but none of them in repetitive fashion… amazing.

Along with the strength of routing is the varied directions.  When you play Seminole, you never feel as if you’re facing the same wind influence (which is almost always present), always beckoning the player to counter the wind in different ways with varied shot shapes and trajectories.  Now if that’s not masterful, I don’t know what is!

All of the holes fit comfortably – a great course to walk.  Just stay out of the newly exposed sand areas – they’ll wear you out!  One of my observations several years ago was that it seemed that there were expanses of open area between holes that were burdened with weeds and overgrowth.  I understand that the club is now working with Messers Coore and Crenshaw to address vegetation, use of native sand areas, and the eroded bunkering.  We should give them time to execute their vision with the Club before making much of their current progress – I know it is well intended, and, if executed successfully, will undoubtedly raise the course a few notches. 

Clearly, I appreciate the bones of this course – it’s that good!  And if you’re playing the course, it is a stern examination of ball control… the greens are firm and slick and the wind tends to play a major impact on most shots… lots of quartering winds.  And if you just miss a little, there are nearly 130 bunkers and adjacent native sand areas to catch you.  In fact, I can’t recall ever being in more sand on any course in my life.  I shot 40-52, playing the back nine first.  Needless to say, I began to tire after the turn and found my way into the sand and some of those newly exposed native sand areas are more like beach volleyball pits – you just can’t get out! And while that’s on me, not the course, if some of those sand areas can be formed up a bit, I think the course will still have plenty of grit.  Thinking about the holes… the stretch between #3 and #6 is particularly memorable, as are holes 12 and 13 and the finish of #16-18 are as strong as any.

I think the place is absolutely brilliant, even though it’s not all that photogenic.  It’s about the golf, after all – and Seminole is one of the best there is.


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