TAMPA, FLORIDA | Like golf itself, Palma Ceia Golf and Country Club is simple in theory and baffling in reality.
The evidence of such a conundrum arrives most every year at the Gasparilla Invitational, a prominent mid-amateur event being played this weekend a few miles from Old Tampa Bay just south of downtown. During the late 18th and early 19th centuries, those waters were reputed to have been terrorized by a conniving band of pirates led by José Gaspar, and it’s now a proud city tradition to honor him as a patron of thievery.
Gaspar the apocryphal figure may not have been familiar with golf, but he would certainly approve of the tournament that bears his nickname. For starters, the once-professional event paid its 1932 champion, two-time major winner Paul Runyan, $962 in gold coins, a booty worth boasting over during the Great Depression. Adding to the lore, Walter Hagen showed up two minutes prior to his first round tee time in 1935 and needed no warm-up of any kind on his way to a 64. That led to his last ever individual pro title.
In modern day, skull-and-cross golf clubs adorn every white and black flagstick while a mock pirate ship sits at the club entrance. Along the 18th green, a prominent flag waves from its crow’s nest position overlooking a course that would make a pirate proud. The scorecard gives no indication of difficulty — it checks in at 6,332 yards and features seven par-4s under 400 yards, making it short enough for mid-amateur and senior amateurs to play the same set of tees — but any false sense of confidence is quickly robbed from players hoping to feast on a shorter layout. The Tom Bendelow design is a tightly packed menace of a track that strikes fear into the heart of competitors with each out-of-bounds stake and tree-lined fairway.
There are big numbers lurking at Palma Ceia for those who drift wayward off the tee, but it’s more than likely to apply a slow, mounting pressure like a tourniquet wrapped tightly around a bicep. If the small greens with subtle breaks don’t wear on a player, the doglegs baiting them to cut off more than necessary often does. It may be short, but the small targets and tree-littered punishment makes even some of the best mid-amateurs in the game uncomfortable.
What makes Palma Ceia so difficult despite its benign yardage is cause for serious consideration during the ongoing distance debate. This is a venue where anyone, regardless of power or age, has a legitimate chance to win the tournament.
“My playing partner started with a triple and he fought for a long time before it fell apart,” said Billy Joe Tolliver. “If you let your guard down at all, it’s going to bite you.”
During Friday’s second round at the Gasparilla, Palma Ceia had its ultimate defense, the gusting wind, firing at all hours. To say the 139-player field was affected by the perpetual gale and mid-50s temperature would be a vast understatement. Not a single player shot under par in the morning wave, and 22 of them failed to break 80. Thursday’s opening round, played in slightly better conditions, garnered a 73.8 stroke average on the par-70 layout. All competitors involved are, at the very least, low single-digit handicaps, but most of them walked off one of the shortest courses they play all year with bruises to their egos.
On the 18th hole, a measly 483-yard par-5 where some of the longer players can be seen hitting short irons in for their approach shots, mid-amateur Frank Alafoginis of Landover, Md., made a mess with a double-bogey 7 to cap his round of 78.
“Man, it is playing so tough today,” Alafoginis said after three-putting. “There were some holes where I hit lob wedge yesterday and today I needed a 5-iron.”
There is a 36-hole cut for the Gasparilla, a mark that the Florida State Golf Association’s Kyle DiGiacobbe said usually falls around 6- or 7-over par. Conditions were so difficult this year that those scores easily earned players a tee time for Saturday’s final round.
“We didn’t get the best wave,” said Brett Cooper of New York City, referring to the tournament’s unique system of sending players off at either an 8 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. shotgun for the first two days. “Anything in the lower 70s today, and you were definitely golfing your ball.”
What makes Palma Ceia so difficult despite its benign yardage is cause for serious consideration during the ongoing distance debate. This is a venue where anyone, regardless of power or age, has a legitimate chance to win the tournament. Senior division contestant Jimmy Jones shot 2-under 138 through the first two days and will be in contention to capture the title. A year ago, senior Mike Finster of nearby St. Petersburg, Fla., captured the main crown by shooting a 6-under 64 in the final round.
In that spirit, is there a better argument against a rollback than events like the Gasparilla? That’s not to suggest all golf courses should be narrow, short and teeming with out of bounds, but it is evidence that some well-crafted venues aren’t being overwhelmed by technology. In the professional game, look no further than this week at the WGC-Mexico Championship where Club de Golf Chapultepec is once again frustrating some of the best players in the game despite playing as, one could argue, effectively the shortest course on the PGA Tour.
“Club De Golf Chapultepec is 7,333 yards from the back plates,” tweeted Paul Tesori, the longtime caddie for Webb Simpson. “At 7,800 feet altitude, the course plays 12.5 percent shorter. That makes the course 6,416 yards effective. (Thursday), the field @WGCMexico was 100+ over par. Also, no rough! Please @USGA @PGATour take notice. Its course design!”
Tesori’s point is one many will make during the discussion, and rightly so. For professionals and high-level amateurs, distance and scoring aren’t directly correlated. Pebble Beach and Riviera, both fairly short by today’s standards, were far from embarrassed in recent weeks. It was the other questions they asked – hitting small, well-guarded greens and managing firm conditions – that posed the biggest and most entertaining challenge.
The rebuttal, and the part that will require far more thinking for golf’s governing bodies, is what should be done for all of the courses that can’t defend against modern technology in the way Palma Ceia, Club de Chapultepec and others can. In the absence of wind, the Old Course at St. Andrews is a shell of its former self. Hitting a short iron for your approach into the par-5 13th at Augusta isn’t within the spirit of the hole. And no, changing the par is not a feasible option. That wasn’t the intention of the design. It’s intrigue rests in providing a dilemma of risk and reward.
Buying more land, which clubs not named Augusta National typically can’t do, seems as silly as reconfiguring every baseball stadium by moving the outfield fence. Similarly, courses that have already stretched out to 7,500 yards and above, which is common in the professional game, often feel damaging on several levels. They are more expensive to maintain and make the Matt Kuchars or Webb Simpsons of the world a dying breed. Length should be an advantage, but it feels wrong that it is a virtual prerequisite for becoming a top-10 player in the world.
It’s a complicated question with many tentacles, but one point to keep in mind is that the players are going to answer the questions on the test. If they played Palma Ceia every day, they would learn to master accuracy and placement off the tee, regardless of how far their driver goes.
And in many ways, that is the beauty of an event like the Gasparilla. Golf is the ultimate meritocracy, and it’s a lot more entertaining when golfers of any style can have success.
The 483-yard, par-5 18th hole at Palma Ceia Golf and Country Club. Photo: Courtesy Palma Ceia Golf and Country Club
We are sorry that this post was not useful for you!
Tell us how we can improve this post?