Reprinted with permission from Golf Odyssey.
If we asked you to name a handful of Florida's top golf complexes, PGA Village in Port St. Lucie would probably not be on your list. Yet for golfers looking for multiple courses with different playing characteristics, affordable green fees, and a world-class practice facility, the first golf complex owned and operated by the PGA merits consideration. Ever since opening in 1996, the resort's mission has been to grow the game by offering affordable first-rate golf, inviting practice facilities, and expert instruction. PGA Village provides golfers with a choice of three PGA National courses on site—two fine Tom Fazio layouts and an intriguing Pete Dye design—as well as access to a private George and Jim Fazio eighteen four miles away. Green fees never top $135 in peak season, and in summer they're under $50. An equally prominent feature is a PGA Learning Center, the PGA Center for Golf Learning and Performance, which is a 35-acre state-of-the-art practice and teaching facility staffed by some of the PGA's leading instructors. (Note: The PGA also certifies its new pros at PGA Village.)
We've thought highly of the golf experience at PGA Village ever since our initial visit in 2001. It's not a retreat for everyone, however. Those who choose Florida for more than golf are apt to be disappointed. PGA Village lies inland, a good 20 minutes from the nearest beach. You won't find a full-service activity- or spa-oriented resort in the Village, just budget and mid-priced hotels. Beyond the resort, Port St. Lucie isn't much of a draw either. Until the 1960s it was nothing but marsh and pine scrub. Developers originally envisioned it as a more affordable retirement option to West Palm Beach (55 miles away). A decade ago it actually became one of the fastest growing places in the country, but it lacks a downtown core, memorable attractions, and dining. The sprawling city sports a suburban look with its strip malls, chain restaurants, and gated communities.
None of this should deter anyone looking for a well-priced, golf-centric experience. The two most prominent lodging options—the Hilton Garden Inn and the Perfect Drive Fairway Villas—make for convenient home bases. Ultimately, it's the courses, the practice facilities, and the instructional programs that lend PGA Village its appeal. We should note that a more prominent full-service golf resort, PGA National Resort in Palm Beach Gardens, is 45 miles away. It's not inconceivable for guests of the latter, the host the PGA Tour's Honda Classic, to play at PGA Village. In a comparison of the golf at these two multi-course complexes, PGA Village fares quite well. Although PGA National's Champion Course stands alone for drama and history, the three on-site eighteens of PGA Village are much more interesting and aesthetically appealing than the second and third layouts at PGA National.
Given its south Florida locale, PGA Village makes for a comfortable winter destination. In late February and March, Port St. Lucie is the spring training home of the New York Mets. Come summer, the local climate is a few degrees more comfortable than Miami, which can make the green fees even more enticing. Just keep an eye out for hurricanes from June through November.
The two Fazio eighteens and the Dye Course at PGA Golf Club share one clubhouse. All three layouts are fun to play and notably different. Thanks to some significant earth moving, Fazio's designs incorporate surprising elevation changes.
Ryder Course (Rating: B): The most heavily played eighteen at PGA Golf Club is billed as a “North Carolina-style” layout for its rolling fairways and abundance of tall pine trees. It's the club's most forgiving and picturesque layout. Large bunkers, native scrub vegetation, a reasonable amount of water, and some gigantic greens provide defense again par. Overall, wide playing corridors embolden players to grip it and rip it off the tee. From the tips, the Ryder Course measures 7,037 yards with a 134 slope rating. The penultimate tees play 6,580 yards (128 slope).
The layout's number one handicap hole and the first memorable test is the 4th. This reachable par five boomerangs around a lake. From the tee, you must decide how much of the water to bite off. Aim sufficiently left as the sloping terrain funnels balls toward a deep bunker complex alongside the water.
When the PGA Golf Club renovated its courses a few years ago, the most significant revisions occurred on the Ryder Course. The original rollicking multi-tiered greens now exhibit much tamer contours, though their size still induces plenty of three putts.
Wanamaker Course (Rating: B+): Fazio ratcheted up the pressure on the swing on the Wanamaker, the course that typically hosts tournament play at PGA Village. While the fairways are generous, players encounter some sizable forced carries, deeper bunkers, and more imminent threats from water or thick vegetation that instantly consume errant shots.
The front nine represents the scenic and strategic highlight of the course with its stunning par threes and water-lined holes. The first two par threes are beauties. On the 4th, which stretches from 152 to 222 yards with a pond to the left of the putting surface, the tee boxes sit amidst native grasses and marshland to maximize variety and accommodate varying skill levels. On six, a shorter one-shotter, a bunker looms off the higher right side of the putting surface while the terrain cants toward water immediately to the left. Our favorite par five is the 7th, whose fairway falls away toward beach-style bunkers and a lagoon all down the left. The hazard then wraps around behind the green.
Plank bridges and wildflower-covered wetlands add to the aesthetic appeal of this well-groomed layout, though villas and condominiums become more prevalent on the back nine. The round finishes strongly with a long par four. The right side is guarded first by a mammoth fairway bunker and then by a lake that infringes onto the fairway before wrapping its way to the back right edge of the green.
Dye Course (Rating: B+): Although it receives much less play than the Ryder and Wanamaker layouts, the Dye Course is the most intriguing design at PGA Village. Working with the flat, exposed landscape, Dye created a links-style layout that doesn't return until the conclusion of the round. While water hazards are less prevalent than at most Florida tracks, the dominant landscape feature is “Big Mamu” Wetlands. Several holes weave through this marsh. But it's Pete and Alice Dye's design talents that give the Dye Course its interest. At one point, the Dye Course earned a reputation as a top-50 women-friendly layout. Alice Dye exerted considerable influence over the design and ensured that golfers using the forward tees would not face forced carries. Pete Dye still comes by from time to time to tweak the course.
Pete Dye, ever the bunker lover, crafted 313 at PGA Village. Many are no larger than an automobile tire. Still more bunkers are grass-based. In the absence of formal cart paths, hard-packed coquina sand doubles as waste bunkers and cart paths.
Although the one-shot 6th, which wraps around a lake, is Dye's signature hole, the par-four 4th is our favorite test on the opening nine. A lagoon trails all the way down the right side, the turf canting toward the hazard. Thankfully, a waste bunker at the edge of the water saves many an errant shot from a watery grave.
After a ho-hum stretch in the middle of the round (especially the “noisy” 9th and 10th holes near I-95), the Dye Course roars to a rousing finish. Fourteen, a par four with a tee shot over wetlands, is an anomaly with no bunkers. Fifteen, one of our favorite holes, is a long dogleg left that wraps around the marsh with a minefield of bunkers on the right.
With a 73.1 par rating and 141 slope from the 6,639-yard penultimate markers, the Dye Course is the resort's toughest test. Very small greens make precise iron play a must, and to score well you must position your ball for a propitious angle into the greens. Otherwise, the humpity-bumpity mogul- and bunker-strewn terrain can cause havoc.
Note: The six-hole Short Course is neat for families with young children. You can show up anytime. Play is complimentary. The longest test is 60 yards. Each hole features an artificial teeing area and a tiny green. A couple of the putting surfaces are crowned and defended by pesky sand traps, so pars aren't a cinch.
PGA Country Club (Rating: C+): This Jim Fazio design, located four miles from PGA Village, is the resort's private layout. Guests can access it on a space-available basis in the afternoon, although we see no reason to do so. In contrast to the other layouts, PGA Country Club is a traditional Florida track with minimal elevation change and abundant water. Almost every hole brings lagoons, lakes, or ponds into play. Several holes are tight with small greens. The back nine features sporty short par fours situated amidst wetlands. The 35-acre PGA Learning Center for Golf Performance, located a mile and a half from the main clubhouse, is a dreamland for those wishing to practice, enroll in golf school, or benefit from expert instruction. For $15 ($25 when the days are longer), you can hit balls all day on a vast grass range, covered in parts by a canopy. You will also find uneven lie areas, putting greens, and practice bunkers comprising nine different types of sand to simulate conditions wherever you might play. The instructors at the learning center aim to help you become a well-rounded golfer. Individualized sessions will address your needs through video swing analysis, stretching and exercise regimens (bring your workout gear), computerized swing and putting data, and custom club fitting.
EDITOR'S NOTE: The courses have all been renovated recently since this article originally published.
PGA Village is home to several chain hotels. The Hilton Garden Inn (Rating: B) sits just across the street from the PGA Center for Learning, ideal for those who want to fit in some morning or twilight practice.
The Garden Inn's pleasant ambiance stems from its Palm Beachstyle decorative motif, on-site amenities, and friendly staff. Guest rooms come with one king- or two queen-size beds, a microwave, refrigerator, and complimentary (but frustratingly slow) Internet access. A hotel-wide upgrade to flat-screen televisions is underway.
The hotel has a nice outdoor pool and hot tub. There's also a workout room with an array of cardio machines, weight machines, and dumbbells. A small Business Center features complimentary computer use and printing. Sam Snead's Oak Grill & Tavern, located just off the lobby, serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Finally, after 5 p.m., be sure to stop by the front desk for freshly baked cookies.
While the PGA Village reservationists offer stay-and-play options at the Hilton Garden Inn, you can also book tee times and golf packages directly with the hotel. Of special note to Hilton HHonors members, guests making purchases in the PGA Village pro shop can earn points by having their charges billed back to their room.
We divided our time at PGA Village between the Hilton Garden Inn and a villa near the Dye Course. Perfect Drive Villas (Rating: B-) partners with PGA Village to offer golf packages in one- and two-bedroom villas as well as three-bedroom townhouses. (Hotelstyle guestrooms are also available.) Since the villas beside the Ryder and Wanamaker courses are older, we advise requesting one of the newer accommodations in the Castle Pines neighborhood. We stayed on Mulligan Circle and found the villa clean and satisfactory. The one-bedroom villas come with a fully equipped kitchen, living room, dining room, screened-in porch, a bedroom with two queen beds and a master bath (some with whirlpool tubs), and wired Internet access. Two-bedroom villas have four beds (two queens and two fulls) and two full baths. Daily maid service is provided in the bedrooms. Each villa neighborhood has a heated pool and hot tub. Since the villas are part of a gated community, a pass card allows entry into the neighborhood. The villas are well suited for groups.
The PGA Village-Port St. Lucie area is a dining wasteland. Sam Snead's Tavern (Rating: C+; tel: 772-293-0726) at the Hilton Garden Inn offers a lackluster breakfast buffet but rebounds a bit with its dinner menu. The crab cakes are your best bet.
We normally tend to stay away from chain restaurants, but that's hard to do in Port St. Lucie. If you're in the mood for barbeque, try Park Avenue BBQ, a small South Florida rib chain that runs attractive nightly specials. Among independent restaurants, Palm City Grill (Rating: B-; tel: 772-343-8180) serves good clam chowder and fresh fish. At West End Grill (Rating: B-; tel: 772- 343-1146), we enjoyed the tomato and artichoke soup and the Tuscany Chicken. All three establishments are within a couple miles of PGA Village. Better options exist in Stuart, but that is 30 minutes away.
You won't find much other than golf at PGA Village. Be sure to visit the Historical Center, which is full of memorabilia from the erstwhile PGA Hall of Fame in Pinehurst. Donald Ross's workbench and golf 's major trophies are on display. While the Claret Jug and US Open and Master's trophies are replicas, the Wanamaker Trophy and the Ryder Cup are real. Alas, the Ryder Cup won't be displayed again for at least another two years.
Port St. Lucie's main attraction is its ballpark. The New York Mets call it home during spring training, and the minor league St. Lucie Mets use it during the regular season. Those looking for a beach should head to Jensen Beach, some 20 minutes east. The offshore waters offer fine deep-sea fishing. Historic Stuart is the most interesting town between Port St. Lucie and West Palm Beach.