Would you rather play TPC Sawgrass — or this Jacksonville Beach muni?

March 9, 2020

This is the latest in our Muni Monday series, spotlighting stories from the world of city- and county-owned golf courses around the world. Michael Bamberger is manning the Muni Monday helm for the Florida Swing, which is good news for us all. Below is his latest dispatch.

OK, people, it’s Players week. You know what that means — a chance to see one of the most unplayable courses in the world for a 90-shooter (TPC Sawgrass) and the chance to play one of the most playable (the Jax Beach Muni). Leave the course, go past the gate house and the Marriott. Make a left at A1A. Go about four miles, straight shot. Make a series of turns in a suburbanish neighborhood and there she is, in all her modest glory.

The Jacksonville Beach Municipal Golf Course is the home course to a variety of Tour aspirants, Tour caddies, various assorted locals, golf bums of every stripe. It’s a good course. The afternoon weekday walking greens fee can be as low as $16. It never gets north of $50, with a cart and tax. Hot dogs extra.

On Sunday afternoon, I asked Big Randy, one of the founders of the website No Laying Up and a Jax Beach regular, the question to end all questions: You have only one round left in your life, you’re not paying, you can play either TPC Sawgrass (aka The Stadium Course) or Jax Beach, which one is it going to be?

“It’s not even a debate,” Randy said. (His stage name. His mother calls him Phil Landes.) This was on Sunday afternoon and he was doing his laundry at a no-name laundromat near his apartment, which is near the golf course. (Darks and whites together, in cold water. “My mother would not be pleased,” he said.) Big Randy, 36, former college basketball player and child of the Midwest, was keeping half an eye on the final round of the Bay Hill tournament, but not with any particular intensity.) “I’m playing—”

We interrupt this important response with a breaking text message, just in from one of our Chicago correspondent on the CTA Red Line, heading in the Wrigley direction. Beck, the polymath musician and golf buff, was seen busking in a CTA train, playing variations on a theme and singing the anthem of this space! You likely know it: “Public golf. (It’s where it’s at!) I got two lob wedges and a microphone.” Beck, doing it Muni Monday style—amazing!

Sorry, we live in distracting times. Not sure where I was, but did I mention that Furyk played the course recently? Yep, Gentleman Jim, showing up for a quick nine, taped by the NLU guys for a podcast. Yes, the good people at Callaway — Arnold’s last golf company! — kind of pushed Jim, a local, to the Jax Beach course, but the point is he got there and had the time of his life! It’s all good.

Poor Fluff. Furyk will be playing Riviera or wherever, trying to make a living in his chosen profession, and he’ll say things like, “How ‘bout that fourth at Jax Beach? Itty-bitty par-3 but with that green, it’s all the hole you could possibly want.” Focus, Jim — focus!

Eighteen, by the way, is the real deal. At Riviera, yes, but the reference here is to JBGC: it’s par-5 with a lake, firm turf, a sloping green and real traps. Muni traps tend to be real traps. Tougher sand, fewer rakes, more footprints, etc. What a trap is supposed to be.

Fluff doesn’t need his boss to tell him about the Jax Beach. Many of the old-time Tour caddies with stick have played in the Thursday pass-the-hat games. The late Bruce Edwards (Tom Watson), the late Greg Rita (Curtis Strange and others) and the late Johnny Buchna (Joey Sindelar) were all regulars there. The most prominent Tour caddie there these days is Paul Tesori, who has serious stick and a good bag (Webb Simpson). Whether he’s in therapy from his Vijay years is not known. Among the pros you’ll sometimes see in the Thursday skins game are these gents: Russell Knox, David Lingmerth, Jonas Blixt, Tyler McCumber, Fred Funk, Steve Wheatcroft, Julian Suri, Cam Smith, Luke Guthrie.

The course is flat. The fairway turf is thin and tight, with Bermuda grass. The greens have nice shape with Paspalum grass. Sticky and not my favorite but a hearty grass in brackish conditions that can withstand 250 or more players a day. The course is not exciting or gorgeous. It’s just a good, playable, affordable, open-to-all course and the thing that makes it is one simple thing: the holes have shape. They have shape and they make sense.

Plus, the place is loaded with golf heart. The Thursday game draws about 40 players, all different levels. To get in the Thursday game you have to pay a $200 annual fee to the Jax Beach Golf Association. The money raised allows kid golfers to play the course free a half-dozen or so times a year.

There’s no signature hole, no signature hot dog in the grill. The pros in the shop (in my experience) are pros, not Central Casting golf characters. But the driving range has decent-enough balls (mats only, says the sign), there’s a practice putting green and you can play the course at any length you like. In my experience, the course moves well.

Over all, the course, dating back to 1960, is better now than it’s ever been, after a renovation by Harrison Minchew a couple years ago. Harrison grew up in Augusta, where there are some good courses, public and private, and worked for Arnold’s design company for years. Some of Arnold’s courses were way over the top, but he did have a great sense of the ordinary golfer and was always thinking about us. By the way, you can always carry your own sack at Jax Beach.

Big Randy, from NLU, shot 80 percent from the line in his high school and college basketball days. He has eye-hand (and he’s four inches shy of seven feet). He once shot 74 at Jax Beach. “That’s my best round there,” he said. He thought for a nano second and added, “That’s my best round anywhere.”

So, which course would he play, if he could only play Sawgrass or the Jax Beach?

Isn’t it obvious?

Michael Bamberger may be reached at Michael_Bamberger@Golf.com.

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