Ponte Vedra Inn and Club: Bobby Weed Dives into the Ocean Course with a Passion
PONTE VEDRA BEACH, FL -- In 1928, the Ponte Vedra Inns 18-hole course was the singular definition of golf in Ponte Vedra Beach. Its original holes (now called the Ocean Course), designed by British architect Herbert Strong, were among the first in Florida to garner national attention. Since then everything has changed.
Imagine visiting the site on numerous occasions throughout its lifetime, beginning in 1914. At this time, the land appears inhospitable for golf. A mining camp exists between swamp and the Diego Plains to the west and the rugged Atlantic Ocean dunes. Theyre digging deep trenches into the earth to excavate rutile and ilmenite. Later, these long canals will be filled with water and become the central hazard for the golf course. It was all called Mineral City back then.
Golf course architect and Ponte Vedra Beach resident Bobby Weed (at right), who revamped the Ocean Course in 1998, explains that, Those canals were dug as part of the mining operation and the deposited material was used in the making of the golf course. It was all sand.
On a 1927 visit you see the sand put to use. Strong is stalking about, overseeing construction and examining his routing plan that has holes running primarily north-south around the canal (a topographical map would hardly be necessarythe site is about as flat as they come). You think hes crazy for building in the middle of the trench, but the complex of sand will be the island green for the par three ninth, a first of its kind.
When the course opens a year later you see what all the fuss was about. Golfers in knickerbockers are slashing low mashies around the newly grassed fairways. You sense Strongs British influences where the course rises here and there above the dunes to glimpse the ocean. The waves are breaking only yards off and you can lick the salt out of the air. Unfortunately, your score is rapidly multiplyingthe course is brutal, especially when the wind is up, and it almost always is. The greens are big and severe and bunkers abound. But luxury accommodations and a fine meal at the Inn await, perhaps followed by a dip in the ocean. Life is good.
In 1938 you return to Ponte Vedra Inn, where big things are on the horizon. The Ryder Cup will be played here next year and you want another crack at the Strong course, this time with your steel-shafted clubs. Golf Magazine has just rated it one of the four Hardest Courses in America, along with a trio of no-names called Pine Valley, Oakmont, and Pebble Beach. Later, Bobby Jones will visit and so much as admit the course may be too hard, even for professionals.
On your next visit in 1947, things are changing. The Ryder Cup never happened because of World War IIa missed chance at international fameand many members are grumbling about the courses severity. Its nice to be honored nationally for having a tough golf course, but try playing it everyday. So, at the recommendation of Bobby Jones, a young architect named Robert Trent Jones (no relation), is hired to soften the course.
Soften indeed. Jones has flattened the wild greens so three putts occur less frequently, and most of the bunkers are shifted from the line of play, removed completely, or otherwise modified. The wind, he can do nothing about.
They took all the bite out of it and made it much more user-friendly, Weed says of the initial modifications. After that its just taken on a lot of changes by other architects and superintendents.
The changes are widely applauded since the golf is much easier now, although you cant help but notice that some of the intrigue and strategy has been stripped away as well. Over the years, you hear the old Inn course mentioned less and less, although the resort does receive a nice bit of publicity in 1961. Masters champion Gary Player is named the clubs head touring pro and Jones has returned to add a new nine called the Lagoon Course (the old course is now called the Ocean Course), but no one is mentioning it alongside Pebble Beach or talking Ryder Cups anymore.
In 1977 you drop in to see the second Lagoon nine, this one put there by Joe Lee. The town around the Inn is really filling in and homes and condominiums crowd Ponte Vedra Boulevard, blocking the view of the ocean completely. Stately homes now encircle the interior canal on the Ocean Course as well.
By the early 1980s, Ponte Vedra Beach is a veritable Mecca for golf and leisure, but the Ponte Vedra Inn no longer dominates its own market, much less the state. All the talk is about the new Tournament Players Club down the road, about the island green and how they transformed the swamp into a golf course. Everybody seems to forget that the Ponte Vedra Inn and Herbert Strong did all that 50 years ago. Sadly, when the name Ponte Vedra is mentioned, its no longer Ponte Vedra Inn people think of first.
Thats why when you finally see the Ocean Course after Weeds 1998 renovation, you cant help but think, Its back.
Back are the spacious and undulating greens. Most are elevated, sometimes dramatically, and they are the real character of the golf course now. The back pin placements on the second and fourteenth greens are perhaps the most adventurous youve come across. Back also are the recurring elements of strategy, sharpened by the placement of several keynote cross-bunkers.
It was Weed and his staff that suggested the club consider going back to the Herbert Strong influence, in addition to upgrading the conditions, which included reworking the drainage and regrassing the entire course.
They didnt really give us the ultimate direction to take it back to Herbert Strong, he remembers. That was something we recommended and ushered in. We told them theyd still recognize their golf course but we wanted to bring back a little of the Herbert Strong design.
For the longest time, sixteen, seventeen, eighteen, ten tee, one, a little bit of twoyou could see the ocean playing those holes, Weed says. We tried to bring a little of that element back by planting beach grass down (the dunes) on sixteen, seventeen, and eighteen. Instead of putting exotic landscaping down Ponte Vedra Boulevard we just put what was naturally there at one time.
You notice how the course reflects the best aspects of Weeds work while remaining true to the original Strong concepts. The 547-yard third and the 404-yard 17th successfully replicate what they must have looked and played like in the early years. Both holes feature large and windswept plateau greens, while the fairways are wide and studded with cross-bunkers that create optional lines of attack.
Number three and number seventeenthose are huge fairways and you dont get that opportunity anymore, says Weed, so we just left those central bunkers and those cross bunkers there and the secondary dunes to make sure you knew that you were still in close proximity to the ocean.
Another brilliant hole that owes its success to both Strong and Weed is the 16th, a short one-shotter that plays directly over water toward the Atlantic with one of the most diabolical, three-level greens waiting at the other end.
That was a very severe green by Herbert Strong, Weed explains. It was more of a two-level green (when we saw it) with a very steep slope back-to-front. So we juiced it up and said why not?
Its 130 yards from the back tee and we just decided the defense of the hole would be the green. Its a pretty demanding little golf hole. Its really exciting to get on that hole, to see what the winds doing and where the pin is, and try to work that ball to the pin. For a short hole, it strikes a lot of fear and gets a tremendous amount of respect.
Of course any return to the original Strong principles would mean an overall toughening of the course.
It is a totally different golf course, its much harder than it was before, says Head Professional Bruce Mohler. You have to learn to hit different shots into these greens. Chipping with one club (every hole) will not work out here.
Mohler also notes that after the renovation, the course can be set up to be as difficult as needed.
(The greens) used to roll about 8 on the stimpmeter throughout the year, and for special events, roll about 9 or so. It seems now they roll about 9½ consistently and for special events we can get it to whatever we want. When we first reopened the course, we had it about 11½ for a senior event and scores were tremendously high. We havent touched that number since then.
So youre delighted to see that the grit and fight of the old course is back, which also means that some members and visitors will grouse about the increased difficulty. Seems like old times. Weed for one, doesnt mind.
That (Ocean) course, with a little more teeth in it, makes people talk about it. And if they dont, they can step back and play the Lagoon course. They have a good mix now. Thats a good sister course.
Architect: Herbert Strong, Robert Trent Jones (1947), Bobby Weed (1998)
Yardage: 6,811; 6,498; 6,066; 5,618; 4,967