It is hard to imagine Seminole Golf Club was anything other than what it is today, which is one of the most revered places in the game. But go back a few decades and you’ll find that the club had somewhat lost its way. The fabulous Donald Ross course was overgrown and overwatered, and wasn’t playing anything like the links-style layout it was intended to be. The membership was aging and needed replenishing. And people in the greater game of golf were no longer talking about Seminole the way they did, say, in the 1960s, when Ben Hogan famously practiced there in the weeks leading up to The Masters.
Former club president Barry van Gerbig remembers those points being driven home when he played in Pine Valley’s illustrious Crump Cup in 1988. “That tournament attracts great amateur golfers, and I remember listening to people like Vinny Giles, Jim Holtgrieve and Downing Gray ask questions about Seminole and what it was really like,” he says. “I was shocked they didn’t know, and it made me realize that although guys like them had grown up hearing about Seminole, they had never been there.”
That encounter led van Gerbig to conceive of an annual invitational tournament. It would be, in his words, “an event for great guys and great amateur players.” Dubbed the George L. Coleman Amateur Invitational Tournament, it was named after the one-time Seminole president and Oklahoma oilman who was the man with whom Hogan stayed whenever he came to that Juno Beach retreat.
The first Coleman was held in 1992, and it boasted a formidable field of 96 players that included Bill Campbell, Dick Siderowf and Billy Joe Patton as well as Giles, Holtgrieve and Gray. Over the years, it evolved into one of the most coveted invites in tournament golf and became, in many ways, the amateur equivalent of The Masters, luring amateur A-listers like Mike McCoy, David Abell, Pat Tallent and Jack Vardaman there for one fine week each spring.
But the Coleman turned out to be more than a simple golf competition for Seminole. It also brought the club back into the consciousness of the competitive golfing elite as it inspired something of a revival at the retreat. The mere concept of hosting a tournament for the best amateurs in golf was one of the things that induced club leaders to start a thoughtful and thorough re-vamping of the superb Ross track back that thinned out trees and other vegetation and made the course play fast and firm again. They also found the event helped their efforts to refresh the club’s membership rolls, for they got to know a number of solid candidates from the golfers who came to play in the Coleman each year. And those golfers got to know the club.
Last week, Seminole staged the Coleman for the 20th time, and it continues to be highly regarded not only for the talented field of players it attracts but the pleasing ambiance it fosters and the efficient way it is run. Some of the best Mid-Am and Senior golfers in the game teed it up in the 54-hole, stroke play event that included a rare dinner at a place that hosts only two of them a year (and otherwise closes its doors at 6 p.m. sharp each evening). Those competitors who were not club members enjoyed the privilege of being one for several days as practice rounds were played prior to the start of the actual event. And members and guest alike shared that rare pleasure of being on one of the great courses – and at one of the best clubs – in the country, and doing so in competition with similarly golf-obsessed individuals who also happen to be a lot of fun to be around.
Van Gerbig works each year with a committee that includes Giles, Abell and Vardaman as well as former Walker Cup captain and U.S. Senior Amateur winner Buddy Marucci to decide on an invitation list. The idea, of course, is to get top golfers, but a heavy mandate is placed on competitors being quality individuals, too. It used to be that Seminole members who carried handicap indexes of two or less were allowed into the field. But that qualification has been changed so only those who have made it to the top eight of the Seminole club championship, or the semifinals of the senior club championship.
In many ways, the Coleman signifies the start of the amateur golf circuit for many players each year, and the excitement for them is palpable. It is that same way for the club and its members. “I love seeing these guys,” says van Gerbig, who succeeded Coleman as Seminole president and has run the Invitational since its inception. “We give them the club for a week. There is no fee, and they are only responsible for their food and drink (which they can charge to a temporary account) and their caddies. Everyone seems to have a great time, and the letters I get every year after the Coleman is over really speaks to how much they enjoy the event. It makes me extremely happy.”
Current Seminole president Tim Neher feels much the same way. “I love golf, I love this course and club, and I love how we are able to share them both with others and show them what we have,” says Neher, who qualified to play in this year’s edition of the Coleman. “We also enjoy the opportunity to give something back to the amateur game.”
It’s a gift that keeps on giving. To the competitors. To golf. And to the grand club itself, which is so much the better for starting – and continuing – the Coleman.