WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. – Change is a challenge.
When it comes to golf courses, it can be controversial. People - golfers in particular - tend to prefer things the way they've always been, warts and all. If you’re going to overhaul a property with decades of history in the center of a community packed with golfers, you’d better have a good reason.
In the case of The Park West Palm, there are more than $50 million in reasons.
In The Park’s past life as the West Palm Beach Golf Course, it was an enjoyable muni that gradually declined from benign neglect. I played it twice in the years prior to its 2018 closure and it was clear that the City of West Palm Beach did not know what a strong golf asset they had – anchored by a clever 1940s routing by Dick Wilson – or didn’t care. Sitting at the southern tip of the subterranean sand ridge that runs all the way up the state and encompasses standout courses like Seminole Golf Club, Jupiter Hills Club, John’s Island West and Mountain Lake, WPBGC's 190-acre property was, and is, one of the greatest for golf in the state: windswept, undulating and set on pure sand, dotted with palms, palmettos and oaks.
The disused property languished until the pandemic gave golf a shot in the arm. That’s when PGA of America CEO Seth Waugh and a phalanx of well-heeled donors capitalized on the game’s resurgence and convinced the City of West Palm Beach to let them totally re-envision the property into a local-golf wonderland fit for the 21st century, and America's newest "super-muni" - a high-end public experience on the order of courses like Chambers Bay, Torrey Pines and TPC Harding Park, with green fees to match. The impressive sum of money they gathered together financed the entire project and also established an endowment to fund various community golf and education programs that are expected to come online soon.
Like an increasing number of high-end resorts and private clubs, The Park takes a vertically-integrated approach to cultivating and engaging golfers. There’s an attractively lumpy putting course right next to the outdoor cabana bar. There’s a TopTracer-fitted range. There’s a 9-hole par-3 course beside an incredible short-game practice area. And there’s an 18-hole championship course, where walking is mandatory before noon and caddies are mandatory before 9:00 am.
City residents get preferred rates, as low as $60 to walk 18 holes. For the rest of us, it's a premium-priced experience, with Florida rates in the $130 range and out-of-state rates surging past $200 when demand is high.
The Park is a rare public-access course designed around walking golfers. Carts, at $60 per, are available only after noon. The Park’s caddie corps includes several experienced loopers; my caddie, Mike Graboyes, is a mini-tour pro who was excellent all the way around. Caddies are mandatory before 9 am and optional afterward; a $120 caddie fee is due in the pro shop upon check-in and typical cash gratuities are around $50.
The Park West Palm: golf course review
For The Park’s 7,100-yard centerpiece, its benefactors conscripted Gil Hanse and Jim Wagner. As architects go, they are hotter than the Florida sun in August at the moment. Billionaire Dirk Ziff also receives design credit, as he helped Hanse and Wagner hone in on the all-new routing for the course. It loops outward in clever fashion, returning near the clubhouse/restaurant/bar compound not just at holes 9 and 18, but 3 and 12 as well. The idea is that super-short bursts of as few as three or six holes might appeal to some locals.
Sometimes, these extra returns to the clubhouse can create confusion and awkward hole-to-hole transitions, but The Park is knitted together beautifully, with such minimal green-to-tee distances that I found myself disappointed that so many thousands of modern golf courses are so unnecessarily spread-out.
Blessed with a sandy, rectangular property, Hanse and Wagner and their band of shapers – they call themselves Cavemen – took full advantage, opening up vistas across the property while retaining plenty of palms and oak hammocks to provide texture and occasional shade. Exposed sandy waste areas line almost every single hole, in addition to gnarly, rustic-edged formal fairway and greenside bunkers. There are no water hazards and few expanses of thick grass; lost balls will be an uncommon occurrence at The Park, except around the perimeter of the property. The pure-sand base means the course will stand up better to rain than almost any in the region, and golfers can expect firm, fast turf with rare exceptions.
The putting surfaces range in size from medium-large to huge, with a nice mix of convex and concave exterior features and subtle interior contours that will reward repeated rounds and teach regulars the value of good lag-putting abilities, as well as a deft pitch-and-run touch. While not quite as extreme a putter workout as Hanse’s Streamsong Black, whose surfaces are measured in acres, The Park lets golfers hit more greens in regulation than usual, but will also extract plenty of three-putts.
Hole distance variety is a Hanse m.o., and The Park’s five par 3s, nine 4s and four 5s bring it from all five sets of tees. The par 4s are especially elastic, with a full 216 yards of difference between the teasing 16th (303 yards from the tips) and the terrifying 14th (519 yards). My favorite two-shotter: the 453-yard 10th, which scoots away from the clubhouse and twists to the right, past a nest of fairway bunkers and scrub and downhill to a green that dips from high-right to low-left. The following hole, the par-3 11th, is the early leader for the title of “Most-Instagrammed Hole at The Park,” with its zigzag green tucked into a quiet corner of the property. The par-4 12th, another long one (474 yards from the tips), has a bona fide punchbowl green, totally blind from the fairway. All there is to show golfers where to hit their approach is a statue of a Hanseatic Caveman standing guard behind the bowl. The delayed gratification from peeking over the front of the bowl to see where your approach has settled is an example of how Hanse and his contemporaries bring compelling strategic and aesthetic elements of pre-World War II golf architecture into the modern era.
To pick a couple of nits, first-timers may be taken aback by a relative lack of definition off several tee boxes. I enjoy blind and semi-blind shots and visual deception as much as anyone, but I noticed several times that context-clues as to the proper line off the tee were lacking, to the point where the couple of casual golfers with whom I was paired were completely at a loss for where to aim on certain holes. This made several tee shots uncomfortable despite the width of the landing areas.
Mid- and high-handicap golfers could struggle mightily around some of the more convex greens, like the double-plateau third, when the hole locations are in more challenging spots. The reverse-Redan par-3 7th green, which slopes hard from front-left to back-right and is shaped like a snowboard half-pipe, is a fun challenge but can be terrifying to hold at the medium-fast green speeds I experienced during my round. Any faster and/or firmer and that green could be all but impossible to hit.
Overall, The Park has leapfrogged “The Fort” (Fort Myers Country Club) comfortably as Florida’s best municipal golf course, and is a solid contender for a spot in the state’s top 10 overall accessible courses. I would give all three of Streamsong's courses the nod over it in terms of pure design, but The Park's semi-urban location buoys it. West Palm Beach residents are lucky to have it in their backyards, and even out-of-state visitors who pay winter rack rates will find it a stronger public-golf experience than just about any other in South Florida.