Shaking off some rust at TPC Eagle Trace

My annual trip to the PGA Merchandise Show in Orlando usually yields a few benefits that almost always include an escape from nasty Canadian winters and some off-season golf. This year was no exception although with several days added on either side of the Show dates, I was free to roam farther afield and experience courses in other parts of the Sunshine State.

The research began in Coral Springs, a modern residential community that hugs the edge of the Everglades west of Fort Lauderdale. ClubLink has four golf facilities in the area with a combined total of seven courses. The focus of my first round was TPC Eagle Trace which avid golf fans may recall was the home of the Honda Classic from 1984 to 1991 and then again for an encore performance in 1996.

Since that time, the tournament has enjoyed stints at TPC Heron Bay, another ClubLink course, plus Weston Hills, the Country Club at Mirasol and since 2007, at PGA National – Champions Course. Those courses all exhibit two similar features – slick greens and wind – lots and lots of wind.

TPC Eagle Trace No. 16

Any course that challenges the best players in the world has to be good and TPC Eagle Trace is no exception. It’s a traditional Arthur Hills designed course that has relatively few bunkers but features water on 16 holes and a steady wind – sometimes an east wind off the Atlantic; sometimes a west wind that roars out of the Everglades.

The course can be challenging but it’s also a lot of fun to play. The holes are brilliantly routed around ponds and wetlands with a bit more elevation than usual for a South Florida course. Most of the fairways are tree lined and turn a bit so proper placement of your tee shot is critical to leave a clear approach to the green.

One aspect of Florida courses that always puzzles me until I get used to it is Bermuda grass. The ball can do funny things when you hit it out of Bermuda rough and the grain on the greens can perplex even seasoned Tour pros. The fairways at Eagle Trace have been overseeded with rye grass during the winter months but the rough is still predominantly Bermuda and quite gnarly. Definitely not the place to be.

Eagle Trace isn’t long by Tour standards but given all the water and the ever present wind, a real premium is put on shot-making, especially when you factor in the slippery greens. The putting surfaces are fairly large and well contoured with ponds lurking on the edge to gobble up mis-hit approaches and they definitely put a premium on putting.

The 7th is noteworthy. It’s 193 yards from an elevated tee across the water to a very long narrow green that hugs the shoreline. Legend has it that sometime in the 80’s Greg Norman made a 14 on the hole by hitting the green with six successive tee shots that all spun back into the pond. He swore the hole was unfair and vowed never to play the Honda Classic again until they moved it to another course.

TPC Eagle Trace No. 7

He obviously played it wrong. I banged a hybrid through the green, chipped it close and made par.

My favourite champion from the time the Honda Classic was at Eagle Trace was Kenny Knox – a journeyman pro from Georgia with flowing blond hair and a home-made swing who could putt better than anyone. He still holds the record on Tour for fewest putts in an 18 hole round (18) and for a long time held the record for fewest putts in a 72-hole PGA Tour event at 93, since eclipsed by David Frost (92).

Back in the 80’s, the golf media was always looking for the next Jack Nicklaus and anyone with blond hair automatically had a head start (no pun intended). From Johnny Miller to John Cook, Hal Sutton and Greg Norman, any fair-haired kid that could play was tagged as the next Nicklaus. Knox wasn’t much in the ball striking department and hadn’t accomplished a lot in four years on Tour but during that winter of 1986 his putter turned into liquid gold and he tamed the slippery sloped Eagle Trace greens like no one else.

I wish I could say the same for my rusty game. I was paired with a couple of young bombers from Long Island, one of whom was working on his game to enter a pre-qualifying event to try and get into this year’s Honda Classic. He played the tips and could really manage his game from tee to green. Having never seen the course before, he hit 17 out of 18 greens in regulation but his putting was another story. I’m pretty sure he didn’t break 80.

I didn’t either but I was going back to work the next day, not trying to establish a professional golf career.

There are a few quirky things about Eagle Trace that are notable. The first is that despite its location in South Florida, there isn’t a palm tree anywhere on the property. That’s by design, not by nature.

The second is that all of the water on the front nine is on the left and all of the water on the back is on the right.

Finally, as mentioned earlier, there is water on 16 of 18 holes. The two lone exceptions are the 9th and 18th. Both are brutally long par 4’s that parallel one another and play into the prevailing wind and setting sun. The fairways are overly generous compared to the rest of the course but the massive greens are long and lined with penal bunkers and deep valleys to the side. Par is an excellent score and often bogey would be satisfactory.

TPC Eagle Trace No. 9

The 9th is just a nasty surprise after eight holes where you actually had a chance to make a decent score – a variety of short and medium length holes where birdie was always possible.

But the 18th is less of a surprise, partly because you had a pretty decent glimpse of it from the 9th but also because it follows a great finishing stretch that starts on #15 with a long snaking par 5, followed by a demanding par 4 that heads downhill to a skinny peninsula green, then a long par 3 over water to a very shallow green. The finishing hole is equally challenging and a tough closer to a strong golf course.

I liked TPC Eagle Trace the first time I played it and have only grown fonder of it each succeeding time. It’s one of the courses I always try to play any time I’m in the vicinity because it’s fun, fair and a good test.

For the opening act on my recent Florida swing, it sure shook the rust off quickly too.

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