PALATKA GOLF CLUB:  IT’S WORTH THE JOURNEY

Story by: Mike May

The leadership of the Palatka Golf Club (1715 Moseley Avenue, Palatka, Florida) has discovered the three keys to building and maintaining a healthy, thriving golf course.  The green fees must be “reasonably priced,” the course must feature “interesting holes,” and the pro shop must be filled with “a pleasant staff that loves golf as much as you do.”  That’s what you’ll find when you play golf at this north-central Florida golf destination.

To post a good score at the Palatka Golf Club (palatkagolfclub.com), it takes more mental discipline than muscular power.  In other words, to conquer Old Man Par in Palatka, it requires a strategic and cerebral approach rather than raw, brute strength.  On paper, this golf course lacks overall length, but it’s no pushover.  It’s a golf course that might best be described as smooth, steady, syrupy and strong.

According to head golf professional Andrew Heartz, the late, great Scottish architect Donald Ross oversaw the design and construction of all 18 holes.  Funding for the course was approved in late 1923.  Construction started soon thereafter.  This course opened in January 1925.  In the beginning, annual dues were just $50.  Monetary inflation has negatively impacted the annual dues since those early days.

The 5th hole back in the 1930's of the Palatka Golf Club.

Over the years, the Palatka Golf Club has been labeled by some as “the most historic public (golf) course in Florida.”  That popularly held belief is one of the reasons why this course is one of the 53 golf courses on the Florida Historic Golf Trail.

The actual course -- a par 70 layout -- has three sets of tees.  From the tips, the course measures just under 5,900 yards.  There is only one par four which is more than 400 yards -- the 18th hole, 411 yards from the back tees.  All three par fives are less than 500 yards. 

The physical layout of the course is influenced by sandy ridges which are common parts of the local topography.  The decision to put the golf course on this specific piece of property was a pragmatic one.

According to Heartz, in 1922, Ross picked this course’s location for its drainage. Since this course sits on a sandhill, it never gets too wet.   And, cart path-only conditions never exist at Palatka.

“As the holes gently tumble over sandy ridges and wrap the tranquil woods of Ravine Gardens State Park, the experience reveals its character,” says Heartz.  “This hidden jewel of Palatka is an experience you won’t want to miss. Palatka Golf Club has evolved over the years and currently prides itself in its’ historical cornerstones.”

Heartz’s comments are echoed by Dave Pleier, the superintendent at the Palatka Golf Club.

The 5th hole today of the Palataka Golf Course.

“The course has many elevation changes and tilt to the fairways, leading you to small targets requiring precision shot making into these greens,” says Pleier.  “Palatka gives you a nice feeling of comfort as the scenery around the course has a pleasant walk-in-the-park atmosphere.  All skill levels can enjoy this type of old-fashioned golf facility. Those attributes are what make the Palatka Golf Club a success.”

Keeping a public golf course like this in tip-top shape is not easy, since budgetary restrictions impact the big-picture decisions made by the superintendent.

“The golf business these days doesn’t have the financial resources we once had,” admits Pleier.  “This leads to very creative turf management programs with a few people wearing many hats. The maintenance staff at the Palatka GC, although small, is very well adapted to accomplishing the needed tasks. One example is that we mow fairways the old-fashioned way with a ground-driven pull behind a reel mower. Since our Bermuda grass lines are basically tees and fairways, we are able to rotary mow everything considered rough. With only about 30 acres of Bermuda grass we can control costs much more efficiently.”

Since the growing season is year-round in Palatka, it’s necessary to anticipate the impact of the weather on the golf course.

“We try to do most pesticide applications on a preventive basis to stay ahead of what Mother Nature gives us,” adds Pleier.  “Planning is the most positive aspect to success, but with small budgets and staff, you have to have foresight to make any plan effective with on-the-go changes, as they arise.  Our situation is unique as there is total freedom to make the adjustments we need without interruption. This type of facility allows me to use my 30 plus years as a golf course superintendent to the fullest, yet there are always things to learn.”

The 11th hole of this Donald Ross course at Palatka Golf Club.

If Donald Ross were alive today, he would be praised by the players at Palatka.

“A lot of players enjoy the shorter layout, and better players still have a challenge dealing with the domed greens,” states Heartz.  Domed greens are commonly seen on Ross’ courses around the U.S.

According to Heartz, a few of golf’s major champions have visited this course over the years.  They include Jack Nicklaus, Greg Norman, Fred Couples, David Toms, and John Daly.  One of the great sports figures in the annals of U.S. history, Babe Ruth, was also a frequent visitor to the Palatka Golf Club, back in the day.

When you visit this club’s driving range, it’s a little different.  It’s an aqua driving range where balls are hit into a pond, which also serves as a water retention pond for the course.

Two of this golf club’s annual tournaments are open to the general public and they represent a great reason to make the journey to Palatka.  Firstly, there’s the annual Florida Azalea Amateur.  This three-day tournament is held in mid-March and has been an annual fixture since 1958.  The field is limited to 220 entrants and has six different handicap flights.  Past Azalea winners include current touring pros Ryuji Imada and Peter Uihlein and past PGA Tour players Tommy Aaron, Dan Sikes, and Bob Murphy.  As an aside, both Aaron and Murphy graduated from the University of Florida – located less than 60 miles away in nearby Gainesville, Florida.

One of the great sports figures in the annals of U.S. history, Babe Ruth, was also a frequent visitor to the Palatka Golf Club, back in the day.

Secondly, the week before the Azalea Amateur is the Senior Azalea Amateur, which is for players aged 55+.  This three-day tournament features 36 players in three different age brackets.  It was first held in 2009.

“The excitement surrounding both of these tournaments spreads into the entire Palatka area,” adds Heartz.

Beginning in March 2018, the Palatka Golf Club will host the inaugural Junior Azalea. Top finishers will receive a free entry into the Azalea Amateur.

Prior to your round or immediately afterwards, make a point of stopping at the restaurant/grill on site.  It’s open seven days a week.  Breakfast is served beginning at 8:00 am.  It closes at 3:00 pm.  The PGC BLT is a popular lunch item.  Since Palatka has strong southern roots, grits are available for purchase at breakfast.

It’s now time to go play golf in Palatka.  Call the pro shop (386-329-0141) and book your tee time.  It will be worth the journey.

For more information: www.palatkagolfclub.com

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The author of this story is Mike May, a south Florida-based golf writer, who can be reached at mmaymarketing@gmail.com