Course: In West Palm Beach, Florida, the Champion course at PGA National is home of regular PGA tour stop the Honda Classic, as well as more recently the 2014 THP Bridgestone Championship. It is ranked as the Ninth best public course in Florida and hosted the 1983 Ryder Cup, the 1987 PGA Championship and the Senior PGA Championship from 1982 – 2000. Designed by Tom and George Fazio in 1981, Jack Nicklaus redesigned the course in 1990. On the redesign, Nicklaus claims that he basically designed an entirely new course, but decided to keep the original routing and direction of the holes. Interestingly, Nicklaus also claims that he focused on making the course more, “player friendly,” although the fame of this course comes from its difficulty. The world renown “Bear Trap,” which consists of the series of holes 15 – 17, is the toughest series of closing holes on the PGA Tour. Just like Amen Corner, the Snake Pit and the Train Wreck (I only made one of those up), the Bear Trap has grown a persona of its own, which only increases the pressure one feels when stepping up to the tee of the Fifteenth, as the growling bear statue looks on.
Having played a number of Fazio and Nicklaus courses, I was interested to see how their designs interacted with each other and just how much I could see of each designer in the course. While George Fazio is a Philadelphia native and is known for classic, straightforward courses, his nephew Tom has specialized in “framing” courses, or focusing on their scenery and how photogenic they are while play can get a bit one dimensional. To be fair, however, Tom Fazio has designed a number of very good courses. Although Nicklaus is known for favoring the fade and being a bit tone deaf with the difficulty of his designs, these hasty notions belie the fact that Nicklaus actually has pretty good range with his designs and puts a good amount of thought into his courses. Considering the distinct design tendencies of each architect, I was interested to see how it all came together on what is known as the toughest course on the PGA tour. I’ll get into the design of the course in more detail below, but the Champion course does a great job ensuring that golfers of all skill levels face a difficult challenge that tests all facets of the game while being accessible and enjoyable through the well thought out tee set up. The Champion course is one of several courses at the PGA National resort. The resort clearly understands that many, if not most, of the guests are there are the golf. As such, you can tell that the resort strives to provide a first rate golf experience. Based on my time at the resort and my round at the Champion course, there is certainly a lot to like here.
The Champion course is set on wetland terrain, woven through lakes, ponds and other bodies of water to set up a number of forced carries and water hazards. Trees are used to shape holes, as well as to protect or allow wind to become a factor. Bunkers are well placed for the most part while steeply sloped bail out areas on one side of the green were used sparingly yet effectively. There is effective contouring, usually to create raised greens or elevated tee shots.
I played the Champion course as part of a tournament and to spice things up, we played the Bear trap from the Champion tees, which killed my score card, but was more fun and memorable nevertheless. But one of the highlights of the day came on my first swing, when I was finally able to stripe a tee shot in front of a crowd, getting the proverbial monkey off my back in that regard. Alas, with my ball in the fairway and a sense of relief, my round began.
The First is a 345 yard par 4 (from the Blues). The elevated tee shot to a semi generous fairway is nice enough, but anything too far off the sides blocks out the green. Although the hole is straight for the most part, the green is set on the right side and is a little elevated from the fairway, with bunkers hugging it from the sides. It’s certainly the gentle handshake to get you in the groove for what’s to come.
Looking back at the fairway from the green
The Second is a 393 yard par 4. The fairway is deceiving, as it looks to be nice and wide, but the fairway bunkers narrow things considerably. Also note the groups of trees on either side. There are a bunch of them, with pine straw in between, which gives you a playable lie, but you are almost certainly punching out without a shot to the green. Going up the right side is preferred because that’s where the opening of the green is, but then you’re gambling with the fairway bunker on the right off the tee. If up the left side, you’re dealing with green side bunkers. So either way, you’re like dealing with bunkers on this hole in some shape or form. Still a very playable hole, with just a little more to deal with than the First.
Up the fairway on the right side, green in view
The Third is a 495 yard par 5. There really isn’t much to this hole. It’s straight and long, with fairway bunkers pinching the fairway on either side, then trees come into the picture closer to the green. The green itself gets a little more interesting, as water on the far left side can come into play, especially if you’re hitting out of a green side bunker. Still, part of the warm up phase as far as I’m concerned.
Moving up the fairway
My putt for birdie, from a punch shot out of the trees. I gotta savor the good ones, folks; they don’t happen often enough.
The Fourth is a 336 yard par 4. Things start to pick up at this point and this shorter par 4 has a lot going for it. It dog legs to the left and it’s length makes you think of a short approach shot, yet the bunkers you see of the tee make you consider where to place your shot safely. The green itself is raised, surrounded by bunkers and is narrow and deep. So sticking your approach shot is necessary, or you’ll end up in some form of trouble pretty quickly.
Approach shot territory
The Fifth is a 138 yard par 3. It’s a forced carry over water, with a wide but shallow green awaiting. There is minimal bail out room on the right while any pin placement towards the left side would be brutal, as the green slopes downhill and left, towards a couple bunkers. A simple yet effectively challenging shorter par 3.
The Sixth is a 468 yard par 5. The screws certainly tighten here with the number one handicapped hole. Water lines virtually the entire left side, trees and rough are along the right, while the fairway is considerably narrower than the prior holes. The green is elevated and adequately protected with bunkers and rough. When this course wants you to execute your shots, it lets you know, which is apparent here, with very little room for error.
Moving up the fairway
Approach shot territory
The Seventh is a 186 yard par 3. It’s a forced carry tee shot to an elevated green surrounded on all sides by bunkers. The green is fairly deep, so going long can leave you putting, albeit downhill if the pin is in the front. It’s yet another hole forcing you to execute fairly well just to have a chance at par.
The Eighth is a 381 par 4. Driver may be too much off the tee, as the fairway ends and is separated by water, with the elevated green on the other side and a slope running from the front of the green back towards the water. Mis hits just aren’t tolerated, as your tee shot needs to be far enough out and straight to leave you with a nice lie for the second shot over the water and to the green. I was ecstatic when I hit my 4W off of pine straw in the trees off to the right on my second shot to carry the water and leave myself short of the green. Not a GIR, but any time you don’t lose a stroke due to water on some of the holes, it’s a cause for celebration.
Approach shot territory
The Ninth is a 360 yard par 4. The fairway darts left off the tee, with trees on the left making sure you can’t cut too much off the hole from the tee. Trees and a fairway bunker on the right also make sure too much in that direction will makes things tougher. The green is fairly elevated, but you have a clear look at it without any bunkers. The green itself is one of the more challenging on the course, with a sharp ridge on the far side making and a substantial pull from back to front.
Looking back at the fairway from just off the green
The front nine is certainly good, with a few warm up non memorable holes leading up to the more interesting and challenging ones. It’s still a fair test, but I really liked the pattern of the routing, presenting the challenging holes in fits. I’d rank them 6, 7, 4, 5, 9, 8, 2, 1, 3.
The back nine starts with the 508 yard par 5. The fairway is wide as it dog legs right, when straightens out a good distance from the hole. Kind of a ho hum hole, but more of a reprieve form the tougher stretch encountered on the later holes of the front nine.
Moving up the fairway
A look at the green from the left side
The Eleventh is a 395 yard par 4. Scattered trees are on both sides of the fairway while the approach shot is a nice little test, with water surrounding the front and right of the green. Attacking the hole from the right side elves you with a better angle to the green, but the fairway actually curves left, leaving you to deal with rough if you press to the right too much. Two well struck shots are necessary here to even think about par.
In the fairway
The Twelfth is a 387 yard par 4. It’s a dog leg right, but again the fairway looks deceivingly inviting when in reality there’s plenty to contend with. Bunkers on the right side collect tee shots with too much on them while a group of trees on the right blocks out shots too far over that side. And then you have the rough. The green is shallow and wide, just asking for a nice fade into it. Another well designed hole, maintaining the theme of providing little room for error, yet remaining fairly playable by allowing short shots to remain in very good position.
Approach shot territory
The Thirteenth is a 335 yard par 4. Th screws start tightening again as you near the Bear Trap, starting here, with a fairway narrowed considerably by bunkers on the left and trees on the right. I actually enjoyed the green quite a bit here, as bunkers picked the front of the deep narrow green, making things interesting if you were off to the sides. The tee shot though, is not a pushover and puts you in trouble if you don’t belt it out there. The margin of error starts closing down and really, doesn’t open back up again.
Moving up the fairway on the left side
The green, from the left side
The green, from the right side
The Fourteenth is a 420 yard par 4. I wish I took more photos of the hole, particularly the green, but the wheels were falling off and I was scrambling to get to the green from the get go. The hole dog legs left, with water alone the right side all the way up the green. The green itself was probably the most interesting on the course for me, as it was multi tiered, yet also curved almost 180 degrees towards the water. The locations for pin placements here could exponentially crank up the difficulty of this hole. Even though it’s challenging from tee to green, you get no break with the putting either. Certainly a fitting prelude to reaching the Bear Trap.
And before we know it, here we were, standing before the Bear Trap, one of the renown places to give pros fits. Playing from the championship tees ourselves, we wondered how we would fare as mere mortals.
The Trap starts with the 153 yard par 3 (176 yards from the tips). It’s all carry over water to the peninsula green. There really isn’t any bail out room, unless you want to aim for the bunker or rough above the hole, which leaves you with a shot risking water if hit too far, so the hole demands precision from you one way or another. And with a stiff cross wind complicating matters as far as club selection and where to aim, it’s a very stern test. I made things simple by slicing hard into the water, then slicing again into the water from the drop area. Not the ideal start to these holes.
The Fifteenth. Note someone in the group ahead hitting from the drop zone. It’s a common theme here.
The Sixteenth is a 391 yard par 4 (434 yards from the tips). The stiff cross wind continues to berate you as you figure out what you need to hit off the tee, as driver is out of play from the break in the fairway. Hitting the correct tee shot is essential because the approach shot is the most difficult on the course, with a forced carry over water, most likely with a mid or long iron, to a green that is shallow and wide, with bunkers on all sides. The hole essentially dictates the shots you need to hit, with no room for error at all. And yes, I was slaughtered on this hole too.
Moving up the fairway
Approach shot territory
Approach shot territory
The Seventeenth is a 155 yard par 3 (172 yards from the tips). It’s another forced carry over water to another peninsula green, with less bail out room than the Fifteenth, and instead of a cross wind, you get a nice head wind to complicate matters. After getting mauled by the Bear on the the Fifteenth and Sixteenth, I had a now or never feeling on the tee. I relaxed and just wanted to put a nice tempo swing on it. It was a sense of overwhelming elation to get my tee shot over the water and on the fringe of the Seventeenth, leaving myself a niece look at birdie. And that’s the thing about this course; it has an aura of difficulty and straddles the line between playability of challenge nicely. When you execute and end up with a scoring opportunity, it’s a great feeling of accomplishment. Alas, some times it’s fun to play tough courses.
The alligator that was kind enough to keep quiet during our putting
It was nice of him to show off for the camera
The Eighteenth is a 527 yard par 5. All of the stops are pulled out on the closing hole, as it’s a double dog leg with a nice wide fairway, yet is over bunkered along the right side, especially as you get closer to the green. The bunkers on the left and water on the right eventually bottleneck the fairway, with any shot too far right in danger of getting wet and anything left being on an uphill slope, with a dangerous downhill chip shot to the green with water coming into play as well. The green does provide a nice platform to end the round, proving scenery over the water and horizon towards the fairway. Walking off, I felt a sense of enjoyment in being tested for the majority of the holes, and even relished the thrashing I took on the Fifteenth and Sixteenth. It was a terrific experience.
Moving down the fairway
Approach shot territory
The back nine follows a similar theme, with the beginning holes some what easier and the difficulty culminating with the Bear Trap. The BT does not disappoint in its challenge, but at no point did I scoff at it being unfair. The tail end of the back nine was where the character and memories were. Ranking them, I’d go 17, 15, 14, 16, 18, 11, 12, 13, 10.
Generally, I thought the layout was very well done. The routing was good, while well balanced between challenge and fun. Despite being the toughest course on the PGA tour, it remains fair. Pine straw and waste areas reside along the sides of most fairways with scattered trees, which provide an opportunity to recover from bad shots and are pretty receptive to the punch shot. Yet when the course wants to turn the screws and ramp up the difficulty, it does so rather effectively. The tees are also well thought out, ensuring that all skill levels are able to manage said forced carries and most bad bounces or rolls will stay in play as opposed to jail. There are also enough holes providing scoring opportunities and serving as a reprieve from the tougher holes.
Make no mistake, however. The Champion course commands consistent execution. While there are impressive features to make sure the course is fair in its demands, it will also expose the weaknesses in your game. Indeed, finishing the round comes with a terrific sense of accomplishment.
The Champion is the flagship course for the PGA National resort and it does not disappoint in terms of providing a memorable golfing experience. The course is difficult but not tortuous, interesting at times and is a thorough test of one’s game. There are a few standard fare holes here, but some times that can be refreshing and is a welcome scoring opportunity, which was the case here. Aside from the design, the facilities, service and practice areas are top notch. Course conditions were pretty good, especially considering what the greens staff faced recently. Generally, the Champion course sets itself apart from many other Florida courses with its effective contouring, cleverly placed forced carries, use of wind, routing and well distributed difficulty. The most revealing question I can ask myself to figure out how I truly feel about a course or resort is if I would return, or did I enjoy myself yet would rather roll the dice with some where different in the future? For the Champion course and PGA National in general, the answer is yes, I would return. For the lodging, for the service, for the golf, but most of all, for another tussle with the Bear Trap.
Gripes: This is some where I’d like to see a drink cart more often than I did. With the heat, length of the rounds, and some times the need for a beer after getting roughed up on an especially difficult hole, it is a must. They took on a lot of rain in the days prior to our round, but it could have drained a little better. Drop areas were not marked; we had to come up with our own. Be prepared for the high prices of everything, yet it’s too be expected. Bar/Grill: There are several to choose from at the resort and all of them were nice places to hang out. The food is terrific and the drink selection is great.
Clubhouse: Very large with just about anything you can think of. The wood paneled locker room was furnished with leather chairs, a plasma and everything you need to polish up after a round. It was nice enough that I was going to plop down and watch some of the Ryder Cup, but I had golf skills to sharpen. There are restrooms and water stations throughout the course, which are definitely needed with the high heat and humidity of the area. There was a cart on the course selling food and drinks that was well stocked, but my gripe here is it didn’t come around as much as I would prefer. Just keep that in mind and load up when you see one. There is a restaurant with a fully stocked bar directly next to the pro shop that had a pretty good menu. There are also various restaurants and bars throughout the resort very close by if you want to hang out elsewhere. The bottom line is if you’re looking for some where with quality food, drinks and ambiance after the round, you have a ton of options.
Me enjoying the clubhouse, and someone’s thumb
Practice Area: There is a large range directly next to the First hole of the course, which is at least two hundred yards wide and houses the club fitting lab on the far side. The range is so long that you’re able to hit balls on the back side, where a lot of the pros warm up during the Honda Classic. There are targets at various distances to aim at as well as palm trees, which serve the dual purpose of adding ambiance and being a pretty good aiming marker. The range was on grass when I was there, but I noticed mats nearby, ready to be used if necessary.
There is a good sized putting green directly next to the First tee where you are also allowed to chip. About a hundred yards away from that one, there is the extremely large main putting green directly outside the clubhouse, if you feel like mixing it up. There is also a full short game practice area next to the back side of the range, complete with bunkers.
The practice facilities are comprehensive, large and in a nice setting. The question I always ask myself when evaluating practice areas is whether I would show up here just to practice. The answer in this case is undoubtedly, yes.
In case you prefer the extra large holes, the putting green accommodates
Nearby: There are actually a number of nice restaurants and stores nearby. It’s West Palm Beach for sure. Getting there: About 25 minutes from West Palm Beach airport. Not bad at all.