Palatka Golf Club: Saving a Donald Ross Gem

Palatka Golf Club (Photo courtesy of Andrew Heartz)
Palatka Golf Club (Photo courtesy of Andrew Heartz)
Palatka Golf Club (Photo courtesy of Andrew Heartz)

Palatka, Fla.

The grand old sport of golf has always been a little different at Palatka Golf Club, the municipal course that is 92 years old and counting.

During World War II, The U.S. Army took over the back nine. However, golf was not forgotten. Army Jeeps were used as golf cars. Big money games were commonplace. One of the Jeeps would carry a large wooden box with all the cash. The players paid off after every hole.

Today some of the golf course maintenance is done by convicts who are part of a chain gang. There are no wooden boxes full of cash.

The dress code for golfers? No holes in their denim jeans.

The driving range is a pond that accommodates floating golf balls. The preferred health-food delicacy is the All-American hot dog.

Palatka Golf Club (Photo courtesy of Andrew Heartz)
Palatka Golf Club (Photo courtesy of Andrew Heartz)

There is no confusing Palatka Golf Club with Augusta National Golf Club, although Palatka has done one thing better than just about any golf facility in the United States: Because money was tight, focusing on its own rich history was one way to attract new golfers and keep the course alive.

The layout was designed by legendary golf course architect Donald Ross in 1925. Time and again, Palatka has used this distinction to appeal to modern-day golfers who seek a taste of golf from another era. Thus Palatka is a fixture on the Florida Historic Golf Trail.

By today’s standards, Ross courses tend to be short, many of them a little more than 6,000 yards from the back tees. Still, they retain the characteristic earmarks of their brilliant creator. Clear, strategic thinking is an absolute necessity at any authentic Ross course. Proper golf course management is the primary key to a low score.

So how many golfers broke par for 54 holes in the 2016 edition of the Azalea Senior Amateur at Palatka GC?

Palatka Golf Club (Photo courtesy of Andrew Heartz)
Palatka Golf Club (Photo courtesy of Andrew Heartz)

The correct answer would be one — former U.S. Senior Amateur champion Doug Hanzel. At 209 for 54 holes, Hanzel won the event with a 1-under-par total.

Celebrating Municipal Courses

The Moot Thomas Invitational at Ocala Golf Club (March 3-5) and the Azalea Senior at Palatka (March 10-12) are among the best tournaments in senior amateur competitive golf. Why? Both courses are historic (1930 for Ocala). Both are relatively short in total length, yet require a multitude of well-struck shots. Both are pure municipal courses, owned by the cities of Ocala and Palatka. Both have never been in better condition than right now. 

Andy Heartz, the Palatka GC general manager and a PGA Professional, fits perfectly into this diverse framework at Palatka. He took a job with former PGA of America president M.G. Orender, then moved to Spain to supervise the renovation of the home course of five-time major champion Seve Ballesteros. It helped that his wife, Ana, is from Spain and also is a golf teaching pro.

Eight years ago, Heartz was brought to Palatka by golf course designer Bobby Weed, who made it his mission to save the golf course from possible closure.

It was Weed, along with hometown hero Ronnie Tumlin, who orchestrated the renovation of Palatka Golf Club.

ronnie tumlin-use
Ronnie Tumlin (Photo courtesy of Ronnie Tumlin)

Golf-Crazy Ronnie Tumlin

A short time before his 65th birthday in 2014, Ronnie Tumlin won the Florida Senior Azalea. Keep in mind that his primary rivals were closer to 55 (the minimum age for senior eligibility) than 65.

Tumlin, a member of a prominent north Florida ranching family, is a golfer supreme. Over his 50-year golf career, Tumlin became something of a legend by winning more than 150 tournaments in seven states, by his count. Included in that victory total was the 1985 Florida State Mid-Amateur Championship.

What Tumlin does best, though, is spread the golf gospel and remain loyal to the course where he learned to play the game. And he clearly doesn’t seek publicity for his good deeds.

After Tumlin personally paid the bills for three new tees at Palatka GC, he said to Heartz, “Don’t tell anybody. Just leave my name out of it.”

The wise-cracking Tumlin has an unforgettable personality, but he remains quiet about many of his greatest contributions to golf. The Palatka course essentially was rescued by Tumlin, Weed and several of their friends when the city was considering its closure.

Said longtime Palatka golfer Douglas Miller, issuing a huge compliment to Tumlin: “No question about it. They saved the course. Ronnie was right in the middle of it. How many of us can say we prevented a golf course from closing?”

Although Tumlin likes to joke about his A average from the School of Hard Knocks, he earned a degree from the University of South Florida in 1971, the same year he married his high school sweetheart, Suzanne Mangum. Today they own and operate Crescent Beach Realty in Crescent Beach, Fla.

Bobby Weed use
Bobby Weed (photo courtesy of Bobby Weed Golf Design)

Golf Course Designer Bobby Weed

As much as anyone else, Weed had his personal reasons for helping to save Palatka Golf Club. He was motivated by the demise of another Ross design, Ponce de Leon Golf Course in St. Augustine. Opened in 1916, it closed in 2003.

“i have deep regrets about Ponce de Leon Golf Course,” Weed said. “I watched it shut down, and I didn’t do anything. When I heard Palatka was in trouble and might shut down, I knew I had to do something. These old classic golf courses need to be saved.”

Palatka, thank goodness, fell into the saved category. Revealed Tumlin friend John Benson: “I was ready to buy the course, but I said to them (city officials), ‘You people are crazy if you don’t keep it and have Bobby Weed refurbish it and run it.’ That sealed the deal. They turned it over to Bobby.”

Today, thanks to the fulfillment of Weed’s seven-year commitment to Palatka, the course is in excellent shape. Weed remains an advisor to the golf course staff while tending to his busy architectural business.

“Bobby Weed is a remarkable man,” Heartz said. “He made up his mind that Palatka would remain the home of a Donald Ross golf course, and nothing was going to stop him from accomplishing that goal.”

May the Ronnie Tumlins and Bobby Weeds of the senior amateur world get the recognition they deserve. Golfers can indeed be a wonderful bunch.

—Jim Achenbach                  
achenslice@aol.com