This article, first published in Global Golf Post in 2011, has been updated.
It is hard to imagine Seminole was anything other than what it is today, which is one of the most revered clubs in golf. But go back a few decades, and you’ll find a place that had somewhat lost its way. The fabulous Donald Ross course was overgrown and overwatered and not playing anything like the windswept, links-style layout it was supposed 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 and elite amateur golfer Barry van Gerbig remembers those points being driven home when he played in Pine Valley’s illustrious Crump Cup in 1988. “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 legends Bill Campbell, Dick Siderowf and Billy Joe Patton as well as Giles, Holtgrieve and Gray. Over the years, it has evolved into one of the most coveted invitations in amateur golf and become in many ways the amateur equivalent of the Masters, continuing to lure amateur A-listers for one week each spring.
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.
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 golf elite and surely helped induce the USGA to select Seminole as the host venue of the 2021 Walker Cup. The Coleman also inspired something of a revival at the club, which was founded nearly a century ago by financier E.F. Hutton. The mere concept of hosting a tournament for the best amateurs in golf was one of the things that compelled club leaders to initiate a thoughtful and thorough revamping of the superb Ross track that thinned out trees and other vegetation and made the course play fast and firm again. They also found the tournament 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.
This week, Seminole will stage the Coleman for the 28th time, and it continues to be highly regarded not only for the talented field of mid-amateur and senior amateur players it attracts but the pleasing ambience it fosters and the efficient way it is run. In addition to teeing it up in the 54-hole, stroke-play event, competitors are treated to a sumptuous 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 who are not club members enjoy the privilege of being one for several days as practice rounds are played prior to the start of the actual event. And members and guests alike share 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.
For many years, van Gerbig worked with a committee that included other elite amateurs from Seminole to decide on an invitation list. The idea, of course, was to attract top golfers, but a heavy mandate was also placed on competitors being quality individuals – and being able to play in four hours or less.
In many ways, the Coleman signifies the start of the amateur golf circuit, and the excitement for those fortunate enough to be invited 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 ran the invitational from its inception through the 2017 event, after which he turned things over to Alan Fadel, a fellow club member and leading senior amateur golfer in his own right.
“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.”
Former 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,” Neher says. “We also enjoy the opportunity to give something back to the amateur game.”
Under Fadel’s leadership, the Coleman is looking to build fields that include more international players, with this year’s tournament featuring players from Argentina, Japan, Canada, Germany and Norway, among other lands.
“We want to make the Coleman an important event for mid- and senior ams all over the world and not just those in the States,” Fadel says.
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.
Seminole Golf Club’s famous sixth hole is considered one of the great holes anywhere. Photo: Fred Vuich, Copyright USGA
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