JUNO BEACH, FLORIDA | With the wind whipping across the sacred grounds of Seminole Golf Club, Phil Mickelson settled over his last practice ball. For his final effort, the five-time major champion aimed well right of the range and sent a drive towering over the 18th hole, sailing past the dunes and splashing into the Atlantic Ocean.
As Mickelson walked off to the putting green, he passed a slew of the game’s best players. Brooks Koepka. Jon Rahm. Rickie Fowler. All of them in shorts, hitting balls to prepare for an event with no world ranking points, no TV crew and no one announcing their names on the first tee. Rather than having thousands of fans watching them from outside the ropes, there are but a handful of observers with each group roaming freely in the fairway.
This is the Seminole Pro-Member, a star-studded and exclusive affair the average fan will never witness. It started in 1937 as the “Amateur-Professional” and carried on through 1961 with Ben Hogan, Byron Nelson, Arnold Palmer, Sam Snead and Jack Nicklaus among the winners. The event was played as a Calcutta – for those not familiar, that is an auction-style event where players bid on who they think will win the tournament – until the USGA put an end to that style of tournament in the early 1960s.
In 2004, the tournament came back as the Pro-Member. For many years it was played the Monday prior to the PGA Tour stop at Doral outside Miami, but this year’s edition took place in between the Honda Classic and Arnold Palmer Invitational. Only three of the top 10 players in the world showed up to the Honda, while six of them came to Seminole to play in a field that also boasted Nicklaus, Mickelson, Greg Norman, Jim Furyk, Paul Azinger and Nick Price. Among many other notables in the field were Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman and PGA of America CEO Seth Waugh.
What is everyone doing here? They come for many reasons, the most obvious being the allure of one of America’s most historic courses. Donald Ross created a mesmerizing layout with slick greens and masterful bunkering, the kind of course that demands as much mentally as it does physically. The routing moves in different directions, making each hole play with a completely different wind. There is meaningful elevation change, which is not anything you would expect from a Florida course bordering the sea. From the first tee, you can more or less see all 18 holes staring at you with a longing in their eyes. There’s also a mystique to Seminole captured by its pink stucco clubhouse and the names who have passed through it. They include virtually every golf legend of the past century and many Americans of great magnitude, among them Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy and several titans of industry.
The Seminole experience is the backdrop to its Pro-Member, and to see it in person is to be whisked away quietly into a strange dream. It’s a treat to stand yards away from Koepka and Rahm as they exchange gargantuan drives off the first tee, but it’s another to walk alongside them in the midst of conversation with football player Larry Fitzgerald. There have been many comments about how Koepka has the size of an NFL player, but Fitzgerald is clearly the larger of the two. And at least for this hole, he has the better story when he recounts making an ace while playing with President Obama earlier this year.
Because the property is small and without many trees, you can watch several groups at the same time. The stars come to you from all directions in this tournament.
Take the tee for the par-4 second, which on this day was directly adjacent to the tee for the par-3 eighth. The professionals had to hit tee shots over the green of the par-4 seventh to a fairway guarded by water and bunkers – if they could make it to the fairway in the first place. Playing with the long-hitting Cameron Champ, Zac Blair looked up at his caddie and mentioned he might not have the firepower to carry the lake. He pulled it left into the water, so we’ll never know if he was right.
Amid all the star power, the overwhelming feeling was that this all felt weirdly normal. The layers that make up a professional golfer were mostly gone. … Nobody had a green reading book and there was no studying of a yardage book.
From that intersection, you could watch players attempt that challenging tee shot, hit to what Mickelson described as “a drivable par-3” at the eighth, see them putt on the tricky seventh green, watch as balls inevitably rolled off the cupcake-shaped green at the first, witness approach shots to the dangerous par-4 10th and see players challenge the par-5 ninth in two strokes. If you were fortunate enough to be looking at the right times, you would have seen seven-time LPGA Tour winner Michelle McGann hole out her second shot at the 10th or PGA Tour player William McGirt make his first albatross by holing a 4-iron from 238 yards at the ninth.
But it wasn’t really about the shots being hit. It was more about the convergence of such star power, having Norman in his pink shorts and white hat just across the way from Nicklaus scooting along in a golf cart as he traded friendly barbs with Price. If you are wondering if Jack can still play, he ripped a beautiful drive down the middle of No. 2 and then mentioned to his playing partners that he’s due to move up from the white tees once he turns 80 next year. We’ll see about that.
There was Keith Mitchell teeing it up about 14 hours after he had won the Honda Classic in dramatic fashion. Pat Perez promised to call him Kevin from now as an ode to the multiple times announcers and others have addressed him with the incorrect first name. As long as his winner’s check was made out to Keith – and he did double check – Mitchell didn’t mind being Kevin to some who came up to congratulate him.
Amid all the star power, the overwhelming feeling was that this all felt weirdly normal. The layers that make up a professional golfer were mostly gone. Fowler, Bud Cauley and Kevin Tway were a few to bring their college bags with them. Nobody had a green reading book and there was no studying of a yardage book.
We’re so accustomed to seeing the best players in the world taking a painstakingly detailed approach to the game, which means we often forget that it’s their job. Some are more comfortable financially than others, but everyone is preparing and playing for the competition. The Seminole Pro-Member stripped away all of those elements and simply left a group of the most talented players in the world enjoying one of the greatest courses in the world.
That may be the rarest and purest thing in golf.
The 18th hole at venerable Seminole Golf Club. Photo: Fred Vuich, Copyright USGA
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