They played one of the grand old amateur events of the year last week, the Gasparilla Invitational, at the recently redesigned Palma Ceia Golf & Country Club in Tampa, Fla. This is a tournament rich in history, with a “who’s who” of winners and played on a spectacular venue. And because that venue was wonderfully restored recently, the tournament got a shot in the arm and a new sense of vitality.
The Gasparilla Open was how the event began, and it is part of a month-long celebration in Tampa called the Gasparilla Pirate Festival. This festival is a city-wide celebration of the legend of Jose Gaspar, a mythical Spanish pirate, who called southwest Florida his home. Until 1935, the Gasparilla Open was a big-time PGA Tour event with the then huge purse of $4,000. Walter Hagen won in 1935, his last professional victory in a long and colorful career. By 1956, the Gasparilla had become an amateur event, an almost mandatory stop for the top amateurs of the day, who used the event as a tune-up for The Masters. Over time, it morphed into a mid-amateur event, which it is now.
Palma Ceia is a demanding track, as evidenced by the fact that par has been broken just six times by the winner of the 54-hole event. In 1967, former U.S. Amateur champion and local favorite Bob Murphy shot 5-under 205 in a walkover. That record was broken by Peter Dachisen in 2005 when he shot 204, fueled by an 8-under 62, the low round in tournament history.
Palma Ceia is thought by many to be a Donald Ross design, but it is in fact a Tom Bendelow course built in 1916. Records are scarce, but Ross did visit years later and rerouted the course. The club engaged course designer Bobby Weed to implement a restoration project last spring, and it was unveiled months later in October.
As Dachisen pointed out, the only thing that remained untouched was the routing. New state-of-the-art irrigation and drainage was installed, the fairways were sodded, the greens were enlarged and rebuilt with TifEagle, and the surrounds were seeded with the new TifGrand. Many bunkers were rebuilt and repositioned, trees were both trimmed and removed, and a bit more than 100 yards was added. The “new” Palma Ceia is designed to play fast and firm, and it now has more Ross characteristics than before the restoration.
Early reviews have been overwhelmingly positive. Many locals feel that this course has more character than most Florida courses; in fact, with its tree-lined fairways and older homes ringing the course, it has more of a northern or Midwestern feel. It is a par-70, 6,300-yard test, with emphasis on the word “test.” It’s a position course, and it may be the toughest 6,300 yards in American golf.
The Invitational has a southern picnic vibe; droves of members attend and loiter around the 18th hole. It is part golf tournament, part golf festival. Over the years, some of the most prominent names in amateur golf have won here, including Buddy Alexander, Downing Gray, Dick Siderowf, Nathan Smith and Tim Jackson.
Dachisen is a Gasparilla favorite son, having won the title five times. What is unusual about him is that this is the only individual competitive event he plays in all year long. As a senior administrator of the Florida State Golf Association, his day job of running tournaments all year long across the state gets in the way of being a frequent competitor. Too bad, because he can clearly play.
His favorite memory of the many tournaments he has played in is the 62, but not for the obvious reason. It is because his mother, suffering from ALS, was there to witness it. She was pushed along in a wheelchair by her husband, and she got to see him play one last time before passing away weeks later.
Another Gasparilla favorite son is former USGA president Fred Ridley, a member at Palma Ceia and the 1975 U.S. Amateur champion. Ridley never finished better than third in his playing days, and one memory of those days had a bit of a scary moment.
“One year, I was in the hunt on Sunday playing with Dick Siderowf, who was leading the tournament. Dick birdied six of the first seven holes. On the eighth green, a guy from the third hole sliced his second shot. It took one bounce and hit Dick, who was lining up a birdie putt, just under the brim of his visor. It was scary for a few minutes. Dick continued, albeit a little ‘wobbly,’ and finished with 68 to win.”
Gasparilla is the perfect season-starter for northern players. There are no schoolboys in sight, the weather almost always cooperates, and you don’t have to begin the year at 7,000-plus yards. Here’s hoping more of them rediscover this gem of a tournament.