The first morning is everything the folks at the University of
Florida had hoped for, 14 months ago, when they gave their tired
old course to strangers and said, "Make it new again." The sky
is a flawless blue. The sun looks as if it just came out of the
wrapper. Golf carts are lined up in ranks for a shotgun start,
and golfers are strolling down the hill to the practice range,
where brand-new Nitro range balls are stacked in little pyramids
on the soft green grass. "It's weird," says Florida's assistant
athletic director, Chip Howard, standing in the doorway of the
pro shop. "Golf carts? Players? What's this all about?" Howard,
as always, is in a shirt and tie. You dress like a funeral
director when you've spent 29 weeks watching men with shovels
put $4 million into the ground.
It's Friday, Nov. 30, and thousands of Gators boosters are
pouring into Gainesville for tomorrow's football showdown
between second-ranked Florida and fourth-ranked Tennessee. Some
have come here to the course for the 32nd edition of Gator Golf
Day, a fund-raiser for the men's and women's golf programs. I
spot 11-time PGA Tour winner Andy Bean talking with old friends.
"I'll do anything to help the team," he says. Here comes Tour
regular Chris DiMarco, who first set foot on This Old Course in
1986, when he was a Florida freshman. "It's nice to see grass
all over the place," DiMarco says. "We had mostly hardpan."
Steve Melnyk, the TV golf analyst and former touring pro, is
president of Gators Boosters, Inc. "We're so proud of our
course," he says, showing no signs of fatigue from months of
fund-raising. "We think it's the best on-campus facility in the
Joining in the euphoria is the women's golf coach, Jill
Briles-Hinton, who describes the new layout as "awesome." Men's
coach Buddy Alexander, who recently added a couple of top
prospects to his NCAA championship team, looks almost
embarrassed by his riches. "Glorious day," he says, "and we
deserve it! We battled through rain and drought, and now the
faithful are being rewarded for their patience." When asked what
feature of the new course he likes best, he gropes for
specifics. "It's not one thing," he says. "I love the overall
appearance of the course, the old-fashioned look, the added
length, the additional bunkering." What he really likes is the
impact the renovations will have on his program: "If you look at
our recruiting this year, you get an indication of what this
course will mean to us. We're excited."
When praise for a course is this universal, it can mean only one
thing: The place hasn't opened yet. Over time golfers will find
things to fault in architect Bobby Weed's design--a tree that
swats down their tee shots, a green that seems unputtable or
that flat ribbon-bunker on the 5th hole that resembles a
10-foot-wide divot filled with sand. "We already know that the
6th hole is evil," says psychology professor Marc Branch, adding
quickly, "but in that wonderful golf sort of way we all like."
(The green at the 6th, a 207-yard par-3, is banked so steeply
that a club hurled in anger from the high back edge will sail
over the head of a golfer on the 7th tee.) Another par-3, the
191-yard 8th, has a left-front pin position at water's edge that
looks attackable, but only DiMarco and touring pro Chris Couch
hit the green in an eight-player, nine-hole skins game played on
Nov. 17 before several hundred spectators. Florida junior Bubba
Dickerson, the reigning U.S. Amateur champion, watched shot
after shot, including his own, cover the flag before splashing
in the pond or disappearing over the back. "Yup," he said, "this
is a little harder course now."
Friday's field is less expert, but each fivesome in the
135-player tournament is anchored by a member of the men's or
women's team or a former letter winner. Group 1-B drew freshman
Butler Melnyk, one of Steve's two offspring on the Gators'
squad. Butler has played the front nine twice but never the
whole 18. "So don't ask me where to hit it," he says with a laugh.
As it happens, Melnyk's partners don't need a guide. Tom Weber,
a four handicapper, supervised the course construction for
MacCurrach Golf, and Scot Sherman of Weed Golf Course Design was
the senior designer. As recently as two days ago the two men
were here with flags, paint guns, shovels and rakes, supervising
last-minute changes. "We had to drain and adjust the retention
basin behind the 15th green," Sherman says, taking a practice
swing with his driver and checking his reflection in a tinted
clubhouse window. "We moved some big trees that were awful."
The final member of the group is Weed, who demonstrates the
value of local knowledge by sinking a 30-foot birdie putt on the
1st hole. Then Weed puts his game on automatic pilot and
concentrates on the course. "That water oak needs to come out,"
he says on the 9th tee, glaring at a tall tree that is casting
too much shade. "Top dressing!" he pleads on the bumpy 12th
green, watching a putt hop five times on its way to the hole. On
the 17th tee Weed stares downhill at his
now-lovely-and-diabolical drivable par-4 of 336 yards...and
stares...and stares. He tells Sherman he wants to add another
bunker to the minefield of difficulties arrayed at the other end
of the fairway. "The course designer should not walk away and
never return," Weed says. "There's always tweaking to be done,
and that tweaking should be done by a trained professional, not
by a greens committee. Greens committees have destroyed some
"So you'll be back?" Weed is asked on the clubhouse steps, as he
and his wife, Leslie, get ready to leave. He smiles and says,
"You hire me, you've got me for life."
Gator Golf Day ends with a buffet dinner and prize presentations
on the clubhouse deck. Those who can't find a table perch their
plastic plates on the brick wall and eat standing up, watching
the sun go down. Chris Tuten, the assistant coach for the men's
team, surprises me by asking what I think of the course. "I like
practically everything that Weed has added," I say, choosing my
words carefully, "but I particularly like what he preserved--the
intimacy, the charm of the small course. You look around and see
students, professors and staff having fun together. You can hear
them, too, laughing, calling to friends on other holes, banging
balls off trees. I love that."
"It's traditional golf," Tuten says. "It's not golf built around
a community to sell houses. It is a community." He nods. "This
is a special little place."
Twelve hours later, at 7 a.m., the University of Florida Golf
Course opens again, to paying customers. John Earhart, a
Jacksonville-area realtor, had arrived at 5 a.m. and paid the
standard visitor's fee of $58 to get into the first foursome.
The other three trailblazers, who hail from Fort Lauderdale and
pay the alumni rate of $50, are John Stone, a management
consultant; Will McCamy, a sales rep; and Connie Mack IV, a
Florida state legislator. When I catch up with them on the 17th
tee, Stone proudly announces that he took the first public divot
on the new course--on the 1st tee, no less. "Here's the divot,"
says Mack, holding up a scraggly piece of fumigated-certified
TifSport sod a little smaller than a punch-card ballot. McCamy,
sounding more like a lawyer than a salesman, says, "Let the
record show that the 1st tee box was scarred by John Stone."
When four more golfers roll up to the tee in electric carts, I
walk back to apologize for the short delay caused by my
interview. "They took the first divot," I explain.
One of the golfers guffaws. "They've taken lots of divots," he
says. "We've been watching them."
That's how the renovation ends. No matter how much thought goes
into the design, and no matter how much sweat goes into the
soil, you don't have your course back until golfers have
top-dressed it with laughter.
For previous installments of This Old Course go to
psychology professor at the university, "but in that wonderful
golf sort of way we all like."