WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — It’s lunchtime on a mid-November Saturday afternoon and the word of the day is eclectic. I’ve just finished my morning round at The Park with a three-putt for par on the forgiving 18th hole, and I saddle up at the cabana, the bar/snack bar strategically located at the front of the property.
A foursome who were a few holes ahead of me headed to their vehicles – while allowing anonymity, let’s just say they can be members wherever they want to be in the golf-rich West Palm Beach/Jupiter area. Making the turn to the back nine are the brothers looking to race their pours with High Noons. Although they represent very different ends of the Saturday golfer spectrum, you recognize both groups as what a golfer “looks like.”
But the cabana occupies a prime spot on the property, and not just for its distance to no. 10 on the main course. At the start of the par-3 course (a collection of putt-and-putt holes lit up at night) are three 20-somethings with a handful of clubs to share. And at the driving range, a couple of kids share the putting green with another group of 20-somethings – three guys, three women and two putters.
Oh, and that building behind the pit lane? It’s The Path, where students from local schools – one of which is just on the other side of the driving range – come in the afternoon for free tuition, academic enrichment and golf lessons. Everything here is ultimately for the benefit of the more than 60 children from five local schools who come here at least a few days a week.
When a group of local leaders took over a failing municipal course and raised $50 million for it—and recruited Gil Hanse, one of the world’s leading working architects, to build a new course in its place—they took designs far above a top -100 golf course.
They wanted change, to use golf to help and to be a vehicle that would support the community around the course, which is far from as affluent as the greater area.
“We define success as saving two to three families,” says Dave Andrews, director of The Path. “If we can just take three or four families and give them the world. We’ve had families come to us who are homeless and struggling with things we can never solve. But we help.”
If it is easy to imagine a future when someone can say they have arrived The Park to sit and sip a cocktail with their friends, graduated from The Lit 9 and finally made a tee time to play the big course, that’s because it’s the dream of many a professional golf industry. Recreational golf’s post-COVID-19 moment continues unabated, and the more ways there are to make that first 18-hole, par-72 round less intimidating, the better. But it won’t be everyone’s journey, and that’s okay.
“The par 3 gives you the enjoyment and intangibles of the game. It’s perfectly fine,” says Brian Conley, general manager of The Park. “Too many times the barriers are to set those finish lines.”
But for those who do—and for those looking for the next cool new course—The Park is a terrific option. It especially stands out in this area, where so much golf is played with a housing development to the left and water to the right. There is no water at all on the course designed by Hanse and partner Jim Wagner, who were drawn to the project by its community aspect. (The two waived their fee, The Fried Egg reports.)
Instead, what they’ve created is a huge ballpark, with spacious fairways and enough waste management areas to keep your attention. The rolling topography is also distinctly un-Florida-esque, and it’s used to great effect. The par-3 seventh plays slightly uphill to an inverted redan green. The dogleg par-4 12th has a blind shot into the green. The three-hole stretch from 15 to 17 is very scoreable with a par 5 that the average player has a chance to reach in two, a drivable par 4 and a par 3 that has the kind of striking greenside bunkers fans of Hanse’s other work contains (including Streamsong Black, another property in Florida) will recognize. But it remains challenging enough – a playing partner and I watched online tee shots on the 17th that were pushed 10 yards to the right of the green by a gust of wind.
The Park is just a great golf course, and when you consider it’s municipal – with a variable pricing model that makes it very reasonable for local residents – the value is sensational.
“If you play well, you will score well,” says Conley. “If you play bad, you’ll know you’re playing bad, but don’t be ashamed.”
You know they’ve got something in the fact that those who belong to the area’s many private clubs still make the trip over, as well as the chance that The Park will host a future rerun of “The Match,” the popular made-for-TV golf special. will present .
All from a piece of land that closed a golf course in 2018 because it was losing too much money for the city.
West Palm Beach was approached several times with different opportunities for what to do with the closed West Palm Beach Golf Course, all centered on the idea of a private company coming in, revitalizing the land and managing it for the city.
Seth Waugh, now the CEO of the PGA of America, and a group of residents had the vision – “Create a first-class facility with world-class resources and give the community of West Palm access to it while still at a very high level, ” says Conley — and was then able to secure the $50 million-plus in donations to make it a reality.
The city bought in — it’s a 50-year, $1-a-year lease — and as Hanse and his crew went to work, so did Andrews. The Path, which is supported by a donation and any profits from the course, was a blank slate when he arrived, and Andrews spent months in the community trying to figure out where the need was. Over time it became clear.
“The Path was created to be the most authentic, inviting and welcoming program to identify the next generation of leaders,” says Andrews. “Not only are we growing the game and introducing these kids to golf, but we’re also pouring in as a mentor and teaching them educationally and helping them with homework.”
There are 63 students from 50 families across five local schools who attend the center, which is staffed with paid teachers who offer academic help and enrichment with art and STEM classes. Acing the readiness tests is a priority for elementary school-aged children, and high school students are looking at internship opportunities in the golf industry.
There is also golf – half of their time on the property is spent each day with a club in their hands. The aim is to introduce the sport as a fun activity and let any passion develop organically. Kids asking for a new glove or a club for Christmas count as wins.
What’s next? They don’t know. Everything is still so new that it all seems possible, as long as they keep getting the foundation right. It’s a good place to be, and that’s because The Park was daring in its origin story.
(Photos courtesy of The Park)