Golf with a purpose: How The Park dared to be different

Golf with a purpose: How The Park dared to be different

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/small bites stand strategically located at the front of the property.

A foursome that was a few holes ahead of me is heading off to their vehicles — while allowing for their anonymity, let’s just say they can be members anywhere they want to be in the golf-rich West Palm Beach/Jupiter area. Making the turn to the back nine are the bros wanting to chase down their transfusions with High Noons. Though 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. Over at the start of the par-3 course (a collection of wedge-and-putt holes lit up at night) are three 20-somethings with a handful of clubs to share. And at the walk-on putting course, a few children share the green complex with another group of 20-somethings — three guys, three women and two putters.

Oh, and that building behind the putting course? That’s The Path, where students from local schools — one of which is just on the other end of the driving range — come in the afternoon for free tutoring, academic enrichment and golf lessons. Everything here is ultimately to the benefit of the more than 60 kids from five local schools who come here at least a couple of days a week.

When a group of local leaders took over a failed municipal course and raised $50 million for it — and recruited Gil Hanse, one of the leading working architects in the world, to build a new course in its place — they had designs well beyond a top-100 golf course.

They wanted change, to use golf to help and to be a vehicle that would support the community surrounding the course, which is far from as affluent as the larger area.

“We define success as saving two to three families,” Dave Andrews, director of The Path, says. “If we can just take three or four families and give them the world. We’ve had families that have come to us that are homeless and are battling things that we can never solve. But we’re helping.”

If it’s easy to imagine a future when someone can say they came to The Park to putt and sip a cocktail with their friends, graduated to The Lit 9 and eventually made a tee time to play the big course, that’s because that’s the dream of many a golf industry professional. Recreational golf’s post-COVID-19 moment continues unabated, and the more pathways that exist to make that first 18-hole, par-72 round not so intimidating, the better. But it will not be everyone’s journey, and that’s just fine.

“The par 3 gives you the enjoyment and intangibles of the game. That’s perfectly fine,” The Park general manager Brian Conley says. “Too many times setting those finish lines are the barriers.”

But for those who do — and for those who are on the hunt for the next cool new course — The Park is a tremendous option. It stands out especially in this area, where so much golf is played with a housing development to the left and water to the right. There’s no water at all on the course designed by Hanse and partner Jim Wagner, who were attracted to the project by the community aspect of it. (The two waived their fee, The Fried Egg reported.)

The Park’s wide fairways are forgiving, but if you miss left on No. 1, it’s trouble.

Instead, what they created is a big ballpark, with generous fairways and enough waste management areas to keep your attention. The rolling topography is also distinctly un-Florida-like, and it’s used to great effect. The par-3 seventh plays slightly uphill to a reverse redan green. The dogleg par-4 12th features a blind shot into the green. The three-hole stretch from 15 to 17 is very scoreable with a par 5 the average player has a chance to reach in two, a driveable par 4 and a par 3 that features the kind of striking greenside bunkers fans of Hanse’s other work (including Streamsong Black, another Florida property) will recognize. But it remains challenging enough — a playing partner and I watched on-line tee shots on the 17th pushed 10 yards right of the green by a gust of wind.

The Park is just a great golf course, and when you consider that it’s municipal — with a variable pricing model that makes it very reasonable for locals — the value is sensational.

“If you play well, you’ll score well,” Conley says. “If you play bad, you’ll know you play bad but not be embarrassed.”

You know they have something in that those who belong to the area’s many private clubs are still making the journey over, as well as the chance The Park will host a future iteration of “The Match,” the popular made-for-TV golf special.

All from a piece of land a golf course closed in 2018 because it was losing too much money for the city.

West Palm Beach was approached multiple times with different opportunities for what to do with the shuttered West Palm Beach Golf Course, all centered on the idea of a private company coming in, revitalizing the land and running it for the city.

The Park has captured attention since its opening earlier this year.

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 being operated at a very high level,” Conley says — and then were 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 while Hanse and his team were going to work, so was Andrews. The Path, which is being supported by an endowment 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,” Andrews says. “We not only grow the game and introduce these kids to golf but also are pouring into them as a mentor and educationally tutoring them and helping them with homework.”

There are 63 students from 50 families across five local schools who come into the center, which is staffed with paid teachers who provide academic help and enrichment with art and STEM classes. Being above the readiness tests is a priority for elementary school-aged kids, and high schoolers are looking at internship opportunities in the golf industry.

There’s also golf — half of their time on the property each day is spent 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 continue to get the foundation right. That’s a good place to be, and it’s because The Park was daring in its origin story.

(Photos courtesy of The Park)