Seminole is a golf course that stirs quite a bit of debate as to how high it should be ranked. There are several people I know who proclaim it to be the most over-rated course they have played. I have met another person who says it is the only golf course worth playing in the state of Florida and that all of the other “very good” courses are merely existing in its shadow. For those saying it is over-rated, they simply say it does not belong in the top fifteen in the USA; somewhere around 50 to 75 makes more sense.
Whenever I was asked what is the best golf course designed by Donald Ross, my answer was typically Oakland Hills South or Pinehurst #2. I compared it more to Scioto, Oak Hill East, Essex CC, and Inverness. But then I would look at my own rating scale and I would find I ranked Seminole higher than all but Pinehurst #2. According to my own scale, it is ranked very highly; among the best in the world. One could argue that Pinehurst #2 is no longer a Donald Ross after the Bill Coore/Ben Crenshaw refurbishment, which would put Seminole back at the top of the Ross designed courses. It is a close debate either way.
I was eager to see Seminole after the Bill Coore/Ben Crenshaw refurbishment. I had played Seminole a few times before and did not think it really need any touch-ups. What I found was a course that had eliminated some trees, freshened the bunkers, re-shaped a few areas of the greens, and perhaps changed a bit of the water.
Seminole is brilliant in its routing, taking advantage of the high dune ridge on the far side of the course and a smaller ridge near the beach. Much like Muirfield, it moves in all directions. On a windy day, a hole can either play slightly easier than expected or very difficult. In the absence of wind, it is a stiff challenge due to the excellent placement of bunkers and angles which can remind one of Merion East,
As it happened when we returned to Floridian National after the round, we joined Butch Harmon, whose father Claude continues to hold the course record at Seminole scoring a 60 back in 1947 when the length of the course was over 6800 yards. We were able to get some additional insight about Seminole such as Raymond Floyd saying it is the most difficult course in the USA from 150 yards in and which holes have sections of the greens that one simply must avoid in order to stay on the green. There are a handful of courses in the USA one could put in that category of requiring a superb chipping/sand wedge game, but certainly Seminole belongs in the discussion.
There are several outstanding views of the golf course, from the second green, fourth green, twelfth tee, and from the fourteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth greens. On a clear, sunny day, looking across the golf course or catching a bit of the ocean and looking back up to the holes on the higher ground, it is beautiful. Coming down nine with the pinkish clubhouse behind the green is also a terrific view.
The condition of the course is always outstanding. One will not get a bad lie in the fairway, will likely not get a plugged lie in a bunker, and the greens are smooth.
The greens have slopes, tilts, and a few mounds. They are not overly undulated and often break less than one sees from a closer putt, but often break more than one sees from a lengthy putt. There is only one green I thought lacked true interest and that is the seventh. In terms of picking the holes with the best greens there are too many to list.
Most of the fairway bunkers offer an excellent chance to reach one’s target as most are not raised. However, several of the greenside bunkers can be very deep. Depending on one’s pin location for the day, it can require a delicate touch to get a ball close. The safe play is to get back onto the green and try to hole the putt no matter the length.
If you miss the fairway on some holes, such as the sixth, one is likely to end up in a footprint in the waste area and you simply have to get back to the fairway and not be greedy.
In essence, Seminole has all of the attributes of a great course. It requires a deft, soft touch around the magnificent green complexes. You have holes where the green sites are high above you, you have tee shots downhill, you have flat holes but with raised greens, you have doglegs going right and left. You have water on a few holes. You have to think your way around the golf course in terms of where to try to land your ball on the correct side of the fairway and on the green to avoid running through, running off a side, or coming back off the front.
There are three sections of the golf course that truly stand out. After a gentle opening par 4 of 405/370 to a slightly tilted green, you play the very good second, a dogleg left with the green located about halfway up the dune. For the better players it is 480, but we choose the blue tees (total yardage 6600 for us, back tees are now 7305), so it is 380. It is a marvelous hole followed by the downhill dogleg right par 5 back up to another elevated tee. Two and three are good holes, but the stretch of four to six is brilliant.
Four is a longer par 4 of 495/440 with a slightly raised green with excellent placement of bunkers throughout the hole and waste area on both sides. Five is a tremendous par 3 of 205/190 to a raised green with seven bunkers. The green is relatively small and can be difficult to hole a shot lacking the required height. Six is a short par 4 of 395/360 bending to the left. A longer hitter who cannot find the left side of the fairway can be blocked by the trees. A waste area is down the entire right side of the fairway with several bunkers added, while the left side picks up a combination of waste area and bunkers near the green. This is the hole Ben Hogan famously loved to come play in preparation for the Masters.
The course loses a bit from holes seven to nine with seven being one of the few holes requiring a forced carry over water to the green. It is not that these are “average” holes, it is simply that one has just played two very good and three excellent holes. One appreciates the chance to catch one’s breath.
The back nine kicks off a par 4 bringing water into play a bit for the second shot. This is the third green in a row where one can run their ball onto the green as an option. I like that every hole does not require a shot to fly onto the green.
Then there is another great stretch of holes from eleven to thirteen with eleven as a par 4 of 465/390 climbing the dunes again to an elevated green fronted by deep bunkers. The safe play is to the left of the green but good luck stopping your ball with a chip or putt.
The twelfth plays down the hill to a wide fairway with a hidden ditch on the left side of the fairway. This is one of the more difficult greens to hit and hold if the pin is on the right. A huge set of bunkers front the green and are behind it. The hole plays at 370/360 and Claude told us the pros simply hit their tee shots out to the right in the alternate fairway to take the bunkers out of play. The green on twelve is shaped a bit like an apostrophe with that right side being quite small and running towards a back bunker.
Thirteen might be the par 3 on the golf course at 170/165 playing uphill and surrounded by nine bunkers. The green looks small from the tee but actually is fairly large but it is angled diagonally away from you.
Fourteen and fifteen are back-to-back par 5’s that some say are weak holes. However, the raised green on fourteen is long and can result in one-two extra clubs. A front pin on fourteen might be the most difficult because one has to clear the deep bunkers fronting it yet not get so far up the green due to the speed of the putt on this back-to-front sloped green.
Fifteen is a dogleg right required one to twice go over water. One can play safe to the left of the four fairway bunkers and trees but will have to contend more with the water on the second shot and likely have a bad angle to a small green on this 555/475 hole. Or one can try to play to the right off the tee and hope to avoid the bunkers, leaving a good chance to get to the hole with one’s second. If one catches one of those four bunkers, then they have three options: play a lengthy shot to the left of the trees, play short of the water leaving a long shot in to another raised green, or try for it. The previous times I played fifteen I felt it to be a weaker hole, but I do not have that opinion anymore. I like it a lot.
The final three holes are very good. My caddie, an assistant pro from a famous course on Long Island, told me the second shot into sixteen is his favorite shot on the golf course. This dogleg right of 410/395 requires one not to go into the waste area that does have some trees in it. The raised green is surrounded by bunkers although one of the flatter greens on the course with more subtle breaks.
Seventeen is the final par 3 playing parallel to the beach. One could argue this is the best par 3 on the golf course playing over waste area with eight bunkers surrounding the green. It is an excellent par 3.
Eighteen is a dogleg left to a large fairway with waste area and bunkers down the left side. For the longer hitters this 445/400 yard hole is pretty straightforward – hit it as far as they like. But the placement of those bunkers on the left leaves the shorter hitter thinking they cannot clear the final one and the result is pushing one’s ball to the right leaving a very long second into a final raised green surrounded by four bunkers.
Seminole has a requirement for four balls to finish in 3 hours 40 minutes. Despite some very poor play on fifteen, seventeen and a search for a ball on eighteen, we finished in 3:25. All clubs should have this as a goal if the next tee is close to the previous green. One advantage of this is that more rounds can be scheduled and played. Also, one can spend the extra time after the round discussing the golf course, the round, or whatever subject one wants. That should be the essence of golf.
After the round, despite the beauty and the temptation to be outside overlooking the large swimming pool, the best place to be is in the locker room enjoying a cocktail and marveling at the names of the past winners of the various club tournaments. The lockers are the finest and most interesting ones I have seen.
The highest compliment I can give to Seminole is that the members have deep affection and admiration for the golf course, the facilities, the maintenance staff, and the employees. They love their club.
Date: February 20, 2020