Palm Beach County Florida is widely regarded as the “Golf Capital of the World” due to the more than 170 golf courses, the headquarters of the PGA of America in Palm Beach Gardens, and the tremendous number of golfing legends, past and present, that maintain a residence in one of the county’s many golf-centric communities. The Wife and I were able to getaway to the beautiful beaches of North Palm Beach the last week of April. The prospect of so many golf choices meant I began counting down the days before the 2013 RTJ Golf Trail trip had concluded.
Late April must be an “off-season” for tourists in south Florida, as a simple GolfNow search yielded available tee times, even for singles, at dozens of golf courses within a 20-30 minute drive. The most promising lead on my first full golfing day was a tremendously discounted tee time available at the Ironhorse Country Club in West Palm Beach, which was allowing limited public play for a short time. A little online digging revealed rave reviews for the course and a feeling that this was an opportunity that shouldn’t be wasted, despite the fact that Ironhorse’s greens had recently been airified and top dressed.
Ironhorse Country Club is laid out in the flatland of central Palm Beach County, just south of the Palm Beach Gardens community. To the west, the property abuts the Grassy Waters Preserve, which helps account for the incredibly natural setting surrounding the course and the remarkable wildlife displays on almost every hole. There were alligators easily visible in every water hazard, and I lost count of the different varieties of stunningly beautiful birds that traversed the course without any apparent concern for the golf games around them. The native grasses, flora, and flowers that dotted the landscape on and around the course were simply stunning, as foreign to my Kentucky eyes as they were beautiful.
Ironhorse’s course, which opened in 1989, is an Arthur Hills designed golf course set on 113 acres that wind through a wonderful combination of wetlands and homesites. The course is a relatively lengthy, by West Palm Beach standards, par 72 tract that includes five sets of tees for play. I played the black tees, which were one peg below the championship tees, which played to 6,502 yards and to a slope and course rating of 71.6/138.
A mosaic of wetlands, tree islands, and forested hammocks, Grassy Waters Preserve is home to a variety of native wildlife. Commonly sighted species including the everglades snail kite, wood stork, white ibis, great blue heron, white tailed deer, otter, bobcat, and alligator. – http://www.wpb.org/grassywaters/preserve.php
Even before stepping on the first tee at Ironhorse C.C., it is obvious that one is playing a Florida golf course. Palm trees dot the horizon in all directions, and all the holes visible from the practice range and the first tee are completely flat, which conceals a lot of the skill and subtle difficulty that the course presents. The bunkers and wetlands proved the primary defenders of the golf course, and the race against the impending south Florida afternoon thunderstorm would prove an omnipresent distraction. I was bound to the golf course until The Wife returned with the car to pick me up, so the prospect of an abrupt and premature end to the round, drenched and stranded, was a very real possibility that I desperately wanted to avoid. Fortunately, the unfriendly forecast kept a lot of the other golfers away, so I would play the entire front nine without seeing another golfer.
The course itself was a joy to play. The dogleg right opening hole was a sufficient announcement that one has to think their way around Ironhorse’s golf course. The front nine offered plenty of scoring opportunities, as evidenced by my five fairways hit and three pars recorded. On the other hand, the front nine also presented plenty of opportunities to wreck a scorecard if iron play isn’t spot on. The upside of all the wayward approach shots was that I got to witness of lot of the local wildlife more up close and personal than one who played the course from the fairways and greens.
The darkening storm clouds meant there was no time to waste on a hotdog at the turn. I joined up with three East Coast snowbirds on the 10th tee, as we had both apparently caught up to the morning play remaining on the course. My new friends ranged in age from probably 25 to 50, and were a fun-loving group that didn’t take their golf too seriously and played nearly as fast as I do.
After impressing the group with pars on holes 10 and 11, we reached what many may consider Ironhorse’s iconic 12th hole. Designer Arthur Hills described the 12th hole, “The view from the tee, with a giant pine in the fairway and a big lake bordering the left side of the hole, is beautiful. At 392 yards to a green which stands at the end of a long rise, the 12th hole is one of the best.” By this point, our round had turned directly into the winds of the impending storm front, and with so much trouble left and out of bounds right, the 12th hole provided a great test of golf. After bombing a drive down the right side of the fairway and sticking an approach on the front of the green, I promptly revealed my true self to my playing companions and three-putted for bogey.
The rest of the back nine was a race against the rain. The course winds away from the clubhouse until what felt like the last three holes, an uneasy reality as lightning crept closer from the western horizon. The remaining highlight of the round was getting up and down for par on No. 15, a short par 4 that Hills describes as his favorite hole on the course, as is quoted below.
Our favorite hole. Only 317 yards from the middle tee but quite an exhilarating little beauty! It’s narrow off the tee but what makes the hole is the green setting. The green surface is a simple, little circle of about 3500 square feet, raised above the fairway several feet and partially hidden by a steep mound which rises 6’-8’ above the green. – Course Designer Arthur Hills http://www.ironhorsecountryclub.com/golf-course/hole-descriptions
The skies finally opened up and unleashed what would be an hour long downpour as I stepped upon the 18th tee box. My new compatriots gave up the fight and immediately headed in for shelter, leaving me to finish my round on my own like the Bishop in Caddyshack. As I made my way back to Ironhorse’s massive clubhouse, I found the entire complex was basically deserted for the afternoon except for the poor fella that was waiting for me to bring my cart in.
Since The Wife would be held up at least another half an hour at her pedicure (plus traffic) before she could rescue me, what remained of the staff let me dry off and take refuge in the enormous men’s locker room on the ground level, with its limitless supply of dry towels, cushy chairs, newspapers, coffee, and a giant HD television. I could not have been made to feel more comfortable or at home while I waited to leave.
I realize there is an overabundance of public courses and private golf clubs in the West Palm Beach area. I’m sure each club caters to a certain niche, and each golf course has its gems and warts. I know there are more famous courses, pricier residential communities, tonier clubhouses, and more exclusive memberships lists sprinkled throughout south Florida. But for a course that strikes the right balance of fun, relaxation, and challenge in a round of golf in a beautiful, natural setting, I have a hard time imagining there are many better values in the area than Ironhorse Country Club.