Seminole Golf Club
‘A good golf course . . . is not necessarily a course which appeals the first time one plays it, but one which grows on the player the more frequently he visits it,’ proclaimed Alister MacKenzie. This principle holds particularly true to seaside courses, as no assessment of the design is complete without experiencing the course in all directions and strengths of wind. If the architect has done his job, the course will be a joy and challenge to play in the various conditions.
Bob Jones once said of St. Andrews, ‘ The more I studied the Old Course, the more I loved it; and the more I loved it the more I studied it.’ The same could be said for David Eger, the 1988 U.S. Mid-Amateur champion, and Seminole. Eger first played Seminole in the late 1970s and thought the course to be just fair, but his dozens of subsequent rounds have him now convinced of the course’s greatness. As Jones might have added, the sure test of one’s fondness of a course is to play it in competition. Eger has done just that at Seminole, capturing the Club’s George Coleman Invitational (reserved for the country’s leading mid-amateurs and senior amateurs) twice in the 1990s.
Seminole provides further testament to Donald Ross’s talent. As many have observed, the genius behind Seminole lies in its routing. The course occupies a flat-bottomed bowl set between a high ridge of dunes to the west and the dunes along the Atlantic Ocean to the east. In the middle lie the necessary ponds to handle the drainage. Somehow Ross managed to have 14 holes touch these two lines of dunes (the 1st, 8th, 9th and 10th do not). Like Merion, Seminole is a course where one would be hard pressed to come up with a superior routing.
To design a course that reflected and complimented the sweep of this sandy property, Ross used bunkering that was not typical of his other work. Instead of the more standard low-profile bunkering, Ross used flashed-face bunkers that look like they belong more on a George Thomas course than on a Donald Ross work. Some have speculated that the different look of the bunkers is largely the 1960s work of Dick Wilson, but a recently unearthed photograph by Geoff Shackelford of the fifth hole from the 1920s disproves this theory (once and for all!).
Unlike some architects, Ross was not hell-bent on pulling Hole 44C from his desk drawer and forcing it onto the property. A player does not walk around here saying ‘Oh, here is where Ross borrowed the so-and-so concept from this-and-that club.’ True, the 18th hugs the land in a similar fashion to 3-5 at Royal Dornoch, but one of Seminole’s most enduring aspects is that it is an original. Much in the same manner as a Pine Valley or National Golf Links of America, it reminds you of no other course.
Holes to Note
4th hole, 450 yards: This strong two-shotter runs along the crest of the dunes on the western part of the property and in that regard is reminiscent of the 4th at Rye. Aside from its length, the primary feature of the hole is the cross bunker that juts out into the fairway some 30 yards short of the green and is the start of a series of bunkers that works its way up to the left side of the green. Eger calls this first bunker one of the greatest in the game as it plays so well regardless of the wind direction. But how could a bunker a full 30 yards shy of the green be so important? Into the wind, the hole plays like a gambling par five, as the player is confronted with the decision of whether he can carry this bunker with his second. If he decides not to do so, he must lay back a full 100 yards, providing just further incentive to risk a bold second. With the wind helping, the player needs to land his approach well short of the green, not too far over the bunker. An eclectic list of the world’s best 18 holes is remiss in not including this one.
6th hole, 385 yards: Perhaps the mystery of this hole is what appealed to Mr. Hogan so much. The left-to-right angle of the green and its bunkering would suggest that the left side of the fairway is the best way to attack the green. The player is foiled, though, as the left side slopes to the right, making it quite difficult to position the drive there and perhaps undesirable because of the awkward stance. The alternative is to play the hole down the right, which affords one a level stance for his approach. However, there is little margin for error from that side as the green is set at such a diagonal that it is quite shallow from that angle of attack. Eger notes its similarity to the 14th at Muirfield Village in that it is that rare approach where distance and direction carry equal importance. With the hole in the back of the green, the player in the right half of the fairway wonders if the hole is indeed on the green as all he can see is a flagstick in a sea of sand.
12th hole, 365 yards: After averaging roughly four and one-half strokes on this hole in his competitive rounds at Seminole, David Eger has come to view this innocuous-looking hole as the best ‘sleeper’ he has come across. The tee shot is inviting from the elevated tee in the north-west corner of the property as it plays toward the Atlantic. The fun begins with the approach. The green is a mild shape of an ‘L,’ with its key defense being the bunker at the crook of the L that has caught many good-looking approaches (not that the other bunkers are necessarily less penal). This hole is a prime example of the benefit/need to take the time to get to know a course in order to fully appreciate her.
16th hole, 410 yards: The most strategic hole on the course, the 16th is a textbook dog-leg. This one bends to the right after the tee shot, with a large bunker at the inside corner and plenty of room to the left, away from the direction of the hole. The farther left one plays, away from the trouble, the longer approach he has and the worse his angle. It can be quite frustrating how much club one has to use to reach the green from the left side of the fairway – it is often a long-iron on this moderate length two-shotter – but such is the price for a cautious play from the tee. The back to front pitch of the green off the sand dune encourages the need to come into the green with a shorter iron. Otherwise, a long iron approach will invariably find the back of the green and the resulting sad three putt will do little to help the golfer with the next two superlative holes.
17th hole, 175 yards: The authors know of no more challenging medium-length one-shotter. Aside from the narrow green and the bunkers surrounding it, the wind will typically attack the player at the one angle that right-handers find the most difficult and awkward: against and from the left. Furthermore, the green plays even smaller as balls landing on the right side will likely finish in a bunker. A three is always a handsome score.
18th hole, 415 yards: A finishing hole with no clear superior. The tee shot requires the player to assess how much of the sandy corner he can tackle from the tee. From there it is a mid-iron up the hill to a narrow green with a pit of a bunker to the right, dug into the hillside. The green provides an elegant place to finish the round as the player, perhaps after spending some time and strokes in the dunes left of the green, leaves the green and the course with the memory of the Atlantic Ocean.
David Eger’s learned appreciation of Seminole can be best described in a revelation during the 1995 Coleman. In the first round Eger was seven under par through 16 holes, and, full of confidence, he attacked a rear hole location on the 17th. He found the bunker just past the hole and made five. On the 18th, he again went after a rear hole location, found the sand dunes and had to work hard for a five.
That night he was pondering what went wrong, when it suddenly struck him (after more than 30 rounds there) that most of the trouble at Seminole lies past the center of the greens. The greens (such as the 1st, 2nd, 5th, 6th, 11th, 12th, 14th, 17th and 18th) become progressively narrow toward the back, plus the back-to-front tilt of many greens leaves nothing good from being long. Eger changed his strategy for playing the course and decided not to play his approaches past the center of the green. If the hole is in the rear, he will just two-putt for his par. With this new, simple game plan, he went on to win his first Coleman.
Ross took special pride in getting this course right. No wonder that Seminole and Pinehurst, which received the most of his undivided time, are considered by all to be his two masterpieces. As for the authors, one of us prefers Pinehurst and the other Seminole as a place to play. Regardless, the design of Seminole exceeds the Club’s unmatched locker room as being the real lasting draw card.