Hyde Park Golf Club: Golf the Way it Ought to Be
JACKSONVILLE, FL -- Golf courses built during the Golden Age of golf design, the period of classic course construction between World War I and the onset of the Great Depression, sometimes are revered simply because they're old. True, some demand study and praise of the highest order, particularly if the name Ross, Tillinghast, MacDonald, or MacKenzie is attached to it, but far too many of these require exclusive connections to play. Just as many more have been bastardized over the years so that the true vintage and character of design is muddled beyond clarity.
What's left over are frequently worn out and run down golf free-for-alls urgently in need of face-lifts-which are then likely to fall victim to egregious self-serving alterations-or goat tracks of such low quality that few discerning players wish to visit them. Simply put, most classic era courses have lost their value to the majority of the playing public.
Rare is the Golden Age course that has maintained both its design integrity and it's popular playability, but when one is happened upon it can provide a strangely affectionate glimpse into the past, while in the process revealing all that is pure and simple about the game of golf. Hyde Park Golf Club in central Jacksonville is the kind of a course that inspires golfers for just these reasons. This 1925 Donald Ross design has anchored the city's golfing identity though several eras without bowing too steeply to changes in technology or modern thinking.
Much of the credit for this relative preservation goes to Chris Blocker and Billy Maxwell, PGA Professionals and co-owners of Hyde Park for over 30 years. Through their management, they have achieved the delicate balance between maintaining the club's historic attributes without sacrificing the very thing that has made it so central to the soul of Jacksonville golf.
Far from treating Hyde Park as a relic, Blocker and Maxwell embrace the grass roots culture of their course and welcome all players. This is golf for the people in the sporty and unceremonial way it was meant to be played, taken on over holes sketched out by the old Scotsman himself. Yes, it's a museum of sorts but one that is welcoming to everyone willing to see it.
On any given day, the golfer will witness at Hyde Park a range of player and class as great as at any course in the land. Young and old, advanced and novice, tee it up together and trod (or ride) around the parkland layout just as they have for ¾ of a century. Though the course hosted a PGA Tour event in the 1940's and '50's, its greater boast is how for generations it's helped everyone from duffers to such luminaries as PGA Tour professional and architect Mark McCumber learn the game.
Blocker and Maxwell came to know the course during their own professional playing days when the Tour swung through northern Florida. "Billy and I were both tour players…and we always played in the Jacksonville Open here in the '60's and early '70's," Blocker remembers. "We met this fellow, Kayo Bowman, who was interested in buying Hyde Park for a few years and he finally talked the old boy who owned it into selling. So Billy and I wound down our playing days on the Tour to come in and take over Hyde Park after we bought it. Billy and I kind of set up here and have been running Hyde Park since the early '70's."
The course has been lovingly owned and operated ever since, with Blocker handling most of the course maintenance and Maxwell running the golf shop before he retired.
"I think we both wanted to stay in golf," Blocker explains. "Back then we weren't playing for that much money and we both had families and when this opportunity came along we thought we might want to look for something a little more stable instead of grinding it out (on the Tour) for minimum wage."
"It's just the kind of course that the first time we came down and played it we found some very interesting holes and every hole seemed to have its own character. Being a Donald Ross design, we hopped on it. The guy who owned it had really let it run down and deteriorate, but we thought this was the kind of course we'd really love to be a part of."
Hyde Park is an enjoyable core golf course with definite Ross characteristics, though it's doubtful the architect ever visited the site. A fair portion of his design work was done from his office using topographical maps to lay out the holes before sending the plans off to the construction crew, and it seems Hyde Park fall into this category. Nevertheless, the routing, as one would expect, is tight and economical, coiling smoothly over 75% of the flat site for 13 holes before attacking the ravine-cut southwest corner for the thrilling five-hole finish.
Ross's penchant for using the highest points of a property for tees and greens is evidenced here. The third, fifth, fourteenth, fifteenth, and sixteenth greens are all perched on benches above water hazards and call for tricky approaches often from uneven lies. The 17th and 18th holes also travel from high tees down to sunken fairways before ascending toward the greens.
Other expected Ross design features include holes with wide fairways so the player can maneuver freely and aggressively from the tee before playing into small, often canted greens that roll off on one or more sides away from bunkers.
As far as alterations go, Blocker says, "We've basically left it alone since we've been here. When we regrassed (the greens) 20 years ago we put in (some) different little contours out of the bunkers, but other than that the original design hasn't changed." Blocker estimates the course is about 80% similar to the 1925 version, with the most significant change being the removal of most fairway bunkers due to speed of play issues, believed to have been done in the 1950's.
What is still intact is the sense of tradition and age. From the slightly dilapidated clubhouse and locker rooms to the oval putting green next to the first tee inconvenienced by a large transformer tower anchor bulging from it, Hyde Park brims with rich history and common appearance.
"When we go down to the Legends (Liberty Mutual Legends of Golf held in St. Augustine) half the field remembers playing here," Blocker says. "They'll get to reminiscing about what they did back in '47 or when Hogan made that 11 on number six."
What? Oh yes, no Hyde Park recollection would be complete without a mention of Ben Hogan's famed 11 on the short 151-yard 6th over 50 years ago during a Jacksonville Open.
A high, fearsome flashed up bunker guards the entire right side here forcing shots to aim uncomfortably toward a small pond to the green's left. Anything missed to this side of the green invites the tortuous possibility of the ball dribbling down a slope and into the hazard, leaving an equally quirky chip back up. Hogan found this out the hard way.
"He's got a Hogan's Alley everywhere he played, but that's our Hogan's Alley," Blocker quips.
Rare indeed is the course that can boast a hole where Hogan was once eight over par, an author in Donald Ross, and owners who see supreme value in its humble connection to the community, playability geared toward all-comers, and the preservation of a classic era design.
"Twenty years ago it was one of the top courses in the area but [so many of] the new ones with bigger pockets that can build them a little prettier (are) a little bit more appealing to the new players," says Blocker. "But if I hear it once, I hear it nearly everyday, someone will come in and say 'I haven't been here in years and I remember when we used to pay 50 cents to play!' Everybody just loves old Hyde Park."
"If we ever tire of it it's going to take a very special person or group to take over because it's a part of Jacksonville."
Architect: Donald Ross
Yards: 6,468; 6,153; 5,558 yards
Hyde Park is located in central Jacksonville west of the St. John's River. From 1-295 exit Wilson Blvd. east to Lane Ave. Go north on Lane approximately one mile to Hyde Grove and turn right. The course is on the left.
Monday through Friday rates are $25, with Senior and Military discounts to $22. Weekend rates are $35 until 11am, $29 from 11 until 2pm, and $25 after 2pm.
Naturally this is a supremely walkable course, with tees and greens set nicely near each other. Hyde Park's walking policy is more lenient than most in this part of the state so take advantage of this rare treat.