PALM BEACH GARDENS, FL – At first, Jane Broderick, longtime golf coach and former pro golfer at the PGA National Resort in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, couldn’t believe her ears. Now she can’t believe her eyes.
When architect Andy Staples introduced the resort’s ownership team to a somewhat drastic makeover of the current PGA National’s Square—an 18-hole layout built specifically for game play—Broderick hesitated.
“I was probably one of those who said, ‘Wait a minute,'” she says. “But once Andy finished the whole thought process, he made me hook, hook, and diver. He was pretty cool. People tried to make other changes, like golf, speed golf, etc., but a lot of it didn’t go very far. I think we can really make that We fully achieve that.”
In Ireland or the UK, the match is preferred. But in the United States, stroke play is standard. Touring professionals in the United States play only three game events – the Ryder Cup (played at the PGA National in 1983), the Presidents Cup and the WGC-Dell Technologies event in Austin, Texas. But the PGA National, home to four other 18-hole courses, including the Champion Course, which is hosting the Honda Classic on this week’s PGA Tour, rolled the dice with something different.
This was the basis for Staples’ January 2020 bid for resort property, Brookfield Asset Management of Toronto, after it was set to create a new short course.
“I said I’ve been in the field and know what the courses look like,” Staples recalls. “I look at your scorecards and see ratings and slopes. I had a hard time covering, so I want to give you an option that gives you the ability for clients to say I really enjoyed this golf course. At this point, I didn’t know we were going to be fully on a match course. And a Class III course. All I said was it should be fun, relaxed, open to the ground, have wide fairways and fewer bunkers, and sustainability should be our mantra.”
Dubbed The Match, the attractive 5,841-yard design debuted last year with no defined tees (channel markings mark the back and front of the general tee area), no per-hole par and no track rating. The bare tee areas are a little worrisome at first, but it soon outweighs the fun of shrinking or lengthening the holes depending on the state of the match.
“We recently had a meeting of the golf committee and the committee voted not to discuss The Match’s rating for one year,” says Broderick, who was named director of the PGA National Members Club in 2019. Seeing a little bit, we’ll get more and more people, and they’ll realize it’s okay to be different. We even allow fives and sixs outside due to the formula.”
Seasonal green fees for the buggy are high: $217 from June through September and peak at $302 from January through April. But it’s still short of the Champion Course, which peaks at $491 for green and cart fees and offered January through April.
Built on land formerly occupied by the 2nd through 17th slots of Square, The Match features just 19 sand bunkers, with plenty of hills and winding fairways providing some strategic elements. “I stress that golfers prefer four-strokes to losing balls from a tee all day,” Staples says. The first is a distinct possibility given the fire he lit in and around the iconic green pools.
“This is where The Match will show its fangs,” he says. “The greens are crouched with a big roll. But recovery shots aren’t just a standard wedge you have to get up in the air; you can hit a bat or a 7-bar or a wedge. That’s part of the fun factor.”
The match-play tournament design provides Staples with creative freedom absent when the primary focus is on playing strokes.
He says, “This basically comes around the green and the length of the holes. The all-day fair police will go out into the greens on The Match because these are designed to challenge your short game. If you’re playing a match I don’t really care if the green is too steep or anything else; it’s Just a matter of getting the ball into the hole.”
Golfers can get a card describing all the different playing formats possible in The Match. “We had a lot of interest from our female members who told us they had no clue but wanted to learn about playing matches,” Broderick says. “With our regular Thursday groups for Women’s Day, they play the first Monday of the month just to learn to play matches because they want to learn. So that was kind of neat.”
So is The Staple Course, which also featured last year with nine holes ranging from 48 to 135 yards. Green fees range from $53 to $64 to play Guide Walk only. But this is a game that Broderick says is as much a course for the golf industry as snowboarding is for the ski industry.
“I think we’re really at a tipping point to make an impact,” she says. “Even among our members, we have some people who say, ‘We want to rank it, we want to be able to publish our results.’ And then you have this larger cohort of young people and even my colleagues in the industry who reach out and say you guys are very lucky to be able to do something different.”
Staples points out that coordination skeptics are likely already playing some form of match play. “I tell them that because you shouldn’t score if you’re going to catch the ball after eight,” he says. “The hole is lost. But the golf industry is driven by the idea of a legitimate golf course or championship, around a series of rules and standards. Not all courses need to change, but at least there can be enough to promote that style of golf. If we did. So more people will enjoy the game. It’s OK to play a match and not to worry about scoring.”
If the Match concept turns off more golfers than they attract, the PGA National Resort fix is simple: just add tee marks, create pars for each hole, and grade the course. Staples maintains an optimistic but realistic stance about the future of the concept.
“As much as I’d like to see game play become the norm in our country, I’m not going to hold my breath,” Staples says. “But I will keep trying.”
The new courses are part of an ongoing $100 million resort-wide renovation, which includes a new spa, several new restaurants, and updated rooms. All of this makes up for the biggest series of changes yet during Broderick’s 36-year tenure at the PGA National Resort.
“People in my career have said to me, ‘She’s too busy out there. Why she keeps saying: “You work hard. And I’ve always said I want to be here when the PGA National reaches its fullest potential and I think we’ll finally get there.”