Designed in 1925 by legendary golf course architect Donald Ross, the Palatka Municipal Golf Course is getting better with age.
It isn’t any bigger (which is part of its appeal), but as some 215 players will find as the 63rd Florida Azalea Amateur tournament unfolds this weekend, it is absolutely better.
Ponder that for a moment. This is will be the 63rd Azalea without a pause for any reason from unpredictable spring weather to the coronavirus pandemic.
“They’ve never missed a year, even in this crazy time,” said Andy Heartz, general manager for the municipal course.
They keep coming back to the classic course because it is in such great shape, thanks to Heartz among many others.
“The golf course is in the best playing shape it’s been in over two decades,” said Palatka Mayor Terrill Hill.
It is also in the best financial shape.
“I’ve made a profit every year – not a huge one – but last year was the first year we hit the amount of money to pay the city a revenue share on top of the rent,” said Heartz, who has been involved with course management for 11 years. The monthly rent is $4,500; the revenue share turned over to the city amounted to $8,000.
“Just the fact that we’re getting checks back from the franchise shows its value,” Hill said. “We’re not taking money out of our general fund to deal with the golf course. When they give us a check back at the end of the year, we can take the resources that were committed to the golf course and use them for other aspects of the city.”
It all goes back to making the Muni an attractive place to play, according to Heartz. The course has long been popular with locals, but the Donald Ross design and comparatively low green and cart fees have made it a destination for snowbirds, many of them commuting from Crescent Beach.
“The biggest thing the last two years has just been keeping out the nematodes – just good course practices we’ve employed,” Heartz said. “Our greenskeeper (David Pleier) has done a good job and it wasn’t bad before. He’s made it more attractive for guys that come over here.
“It’s a shorter course (just under 6,000 yards), which a lot of older guys like. No houses. And it’s a Donald Ross. That’s kind of like the Ferrari of golf courses. We’ve got a lot of guys that come in an play because of that.”
It challenges the average player without demanding the ability to drive 300 yards. Some of the greatest challenges are on the shortest holes. Heartz, for one, likes the 150-yard, par-three 16th hole. Others comment favorably on the nearby third hole, also a par three.
But the design is nothing without conditioning.
“The course, when I got here, was in really, really rough shape,” Heartz said. “Bobby (Weed, president of Weed Golf Management) just scraped and put things together. A lot of it was his own money – Bobby and a guy named Ronnie Tumlin (the six-time Azalea champion and father of the increasingly popular Senior Azalea tournament). And the Palatka Men’s Association has raised a lot of money over the years to help.”
Thus the amount of rounds played annually at the municipal course has doubled in the past 10-11 years, from 13,000 to 26,000, according to Heartz. To keep that number on the uptick, more improvements are in the works, including the upgrading of the greens – six a year over the next three years.
Heartz figures this weekend’s tournament will offer a $500,000 boost to the local economy. Hill said the value of the golf course goes beyond heads in beds.
“It is the best fundraising venue that we have in Putnam County right now in relation to nonprofits – the fire department, the Police Athletic League, St. Johns River State College,” he said. “It also provides a source of recreation and leisure and networking for local citizens.”
The course has attracted some big names over the years. Past Azalea champions include former PGA Tour greats Dan Sikes and Bob Murphy and current players Peter Uihlen and Ruyji Imada. Tour luminaries that came here for other events include John Daly, Fuzzy Zoeller and Greg Norman. Babe Ruth played golf here, too.
“Over the years, a lot of people have come through here,” Heartz said.
The goal is to keep them coming to a place getting better with age.
Andy Hall is sports editor of the Palatka Daily News.