By John Coyne
Special to ARMCHAIR GOLF
PRESIDENT HARRY S. TRUMAN is the only U.S. president who vacationed regularly in Key West. He spent 175 days at the Key West Naval Station Commandant’s house from 1946 to 1952. In the Keys, Truman wrote his State of the Union addresses, drafted legislation, fine tuned the national budget and issued an Executive Order on Civil Rights. He loved the weather and late night poker games at this winter White House which was cheek by jowl to Mallory Square, about as far south as you can get on U.S. 1.
What Truman didn’t do was play golf, not that there was much golf to be played on an old nine-hole course located five miles up U.S. 1 on Stock Island.
There is the story told that when Truman assigned General Dwight David Eisenhower to perform a series of military tasks around 1948-49 and the General came down with ileitis, the doctors suggested Ike get some rest. So Truman put the General on the Presidential plane and sent him to Key West. After a week Ike had had enough of the hot weather and no golf. An aide to the General called Clifford Roberts at Augusta National and asked if Ike could rest up in Georgia. Thus began Eisenhower’s long love affair with Augusta National.
The lack of a good golf course in Key West lost a presidential visitor to Margaritaville, though President Eisenhower would return once again to Key West in 1955 while recovering from his heart attack.
It is a shame that Augusta National’s most famous member didn’t have a chance to play the new Key West Golf Club on Stock Island. It is the southernmost golf course in the United States, the first of what we might call a Caribbean course which favors dense mangroves, lakes, nesting egrets and the trade winds of the Gulf of Mexico.
Redesigned in 1983 by Rees Jones, the course is 18 holes, 6,531 yards long and from the back tees plays to a par 70. It has 51 bunkers, greens seeded with SeaDwarf Seashore Paspalum, and water just about everywhere.
The public club is owned by William Smith, who also owns Deer Creek in Monee and Rail Golf Course in Springfield, both in Illinois. The course is run by the head pro Eric Favier with Matt Harris as his teaching assistant. And it is open 365 days a year. Last year over 50,000 rounds were played by tourists and club members.
Hemingway, Azinger and Howell III
True, most people don’t go to Key West for the golf. It is famous more for fishing and sunsets, Hemingway’s home, and bar hopping down Duval Street in Old Town, but according to Eric Favier when the winds blow and fishing is put on hold the players flock, like the egrets, out to Stock Island for a round of golf.
Paul Azinger turned up one day at the club. He had come south to go fishing but when the winds picked up, he stopped by the pro shop, not to play but to say hello, and spent a few hours talking golf with Eric and Matt. He even answered the phone and booked tee times for the members. PGA Tour pro Charles Howell III, in town for a friend’s wedding, was another golfer to stop by the club. He played twice in his long week in Key West, just like any other snowbird who traveled south to the Keys for the warm weather.
Unlike the more famous Central Florida courses in Brooksville, Lake Wales, and Deland Ridges (Southern Hills, Diamondback and Sugarloaf, to name three) the Keys offer limited places to play golf. The next closest to Key West is north on Highway 1, at Marathon, this big town in the stretch of Florida Keys which has a private club.
But, in Key West, the Key West Golf Club has clubs to rent, a pro shop, lockers and a short, but challenging 18 holes. The two toughest holes are No. 8, a 143-yard par-3 that is a tee shot over thickly intertwined tropical mangroves, and No. 6, a par-4 that is 434 yards in length, but has mangroves left and right down the fairway for 250 yards. Anything off line is a lost ball.
So, the next time you are down in the Keys, or off one of those cruise ships that dock near the Westin Marina, grab a Friendly Cab and head out to Stock Island. There are 200 acres of foliage and wildlife and always an available tee time.
John Coyne is the author of The Caddie Who Knew Ben Hogan and The Caddie Who Played with Hickory. Learn more at John Coyne Books.