The Palm Beach Kennel Club County Amateur is not your average local golf tournament.
Not when you consider past winners include a major champion (Mark Calcavecchia), two PGA Tour members (Steve Hart and Gary Nicklaus) and an Irishman who once halved a match with Phil Mickelson to help Great Britain-Ireland win the Walker Cup (Eoghan O’Connell, of Palm City).
Daniel Berger, 20th in the world rankings, didn’t win the County Am, but he finished second to Nicklaus in 2008.
As a 15-year-old. Brooks Koepka, runaway winner in last month’s U.S. Open, also played in the County Amateur, which was first held in 1976.
This highly regarded event isn’t just about Palm Beach County anymore. This weekend, for the first time, the PBCGA’s signature tournament will be held in Martin County at spectacular Sailfish Point Golf Club in Stuart. The 54-hole event runs Friday through Sunday.
That’s a victory for Treasure Coast golfers before the first drive has been struck.
“I think it’s a great thing for Martin County,” said Lenny Loyd, a Port St. Lucie resident who, at 68, is the PBCGA’s reigning Super Senior of the Year. “We’ve had other Palm Beach County events here in Martin County, but never the County Am.
"This has been our marquee event for years.”
Loyd is among the players the PBCGA was hoping to lure when the association expanded into Martin and St. Lucie counties more than a decade ago. Top amateurs like Loyd, and top venues like Sailfish Point were targets of the PBCGA.
Sailfish Point’s golf course was built by Jack Nicklaus in 1981. Nicklaus took advantage of the premier location — the club is situated on the Atlantic Ocean and St. Lucie inlet, on the southern tip of Hutchinson Island — that provided more beautiful views than a well-struck 5-iron.
Sailfish Point co-hosted last year’s 40th Florida Senior Open (with Willoughby Golf Club) and has opened its doors for South Florida PGA sectional championships and the Florida State Senior Open.
“We know all about the history of the Palm Beach County Amateur,” said Victor Tortorici, Sailfish Point’s director of golf. “We’ve hosted some good events lately, but we hadn’t hosted an amateur event.
"This is a great fit.”
Sailfish Point actually hosted the Martin County Amateur when that event was around. Tortorici, at 28 years the longest-tenured PGA Professional on the Treasure Coast, said the club benefits from the exposure.
“As a membership, we never understood why this course wasn’t receiving the recognition it should,” Tortorici said. “But that has changed. When guys show up here, they all say, ‘Oh, my God, I can’t believe how beautiful this place is.’ It’s a great course in that it changes every day based on the wind.”
Like many golf associations, the PBCGA saw its membership decrease in recent years because of the recession and society’s ever-changing ways. Most golfers don’t have the time — or money — they used to have.
But getting tournaments on first-class venues in pristine conditions — the PBCGA’s contract stipulates no maintenance work can be done within a month of their events — had helped increase the membership to almost 400. About 15 percent of them come from Martin County.
“So many guys down here haven’t heard of Sailfish Point,” said Mike Blum, a Palm Beach Gardens-based lawyer who recently took over as chairman of the PBCGA’s board. “It might be an hour away, but let me tell you, it’s a special place. What a treat this is going to be for our members.”
Not many golf associations can boast of having tournaments sponsored by legends such as Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods and Nick Price. Or can claim they get to play at premier places such as the Bear’s Club, Lost Tree, BallenIsles, the Loxahatchee Club, etc.
Golfers will travel to play a great course, no matter how far.
“Quail Valley in Vero Beach hosted an event last year,” Blum said, “and the field sold out in one day.”
The PBCGA has given back, donating more than $350,000 in college scholarships since it started operating four decades ago. Blum points out the association is now open to anyone at any skill level.
“It’s not just about the guy who shoots 67-68 and takes home the trophy,” he said. “I can tell you that some of my best connections have been made on the course, whether you win or finish dead last.”
Seems like there will be a lot of winners this weekend in Martin County.
Craig Dolch is a TCPalm correspondent with more than 30 years of golf writing experience.