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Playing at PGA Village

Port St. Lucie, FL

PGA Learning Center

On the way to the West Palm Beach airport, the driver tells an acquaintance and me that Port St. Lucie, the town we are leaving to return to New York, was ranked the third best place in the U.S. to play golf. "We have 24 different golf courses," he boasts with a slight trace of a Staten Island accent he developed while living in the northeast before "getting sick of shoveling snow." This seems like an astounding number of holes - 432 to be exact, or roughly one for every 300 residents - but vacationers
come from all around to hit the links.

The jewel of the Port St. Lucie golf kingdom is the three-course PGA Village. Used as both a teaching venue for golf professionals from around the country and a destination for golf addicts worldwide, the complex is a sprawling mass of links-related perfection. Duffers, hackers and professionals alike can hit as many balls as they please on one of two driving ranges. Designers of the center wanted to allow golfers to be able to practice every shot they might encounter on the course, and they succeeded admirably. There are bunkers worthy of St. Andrews and greens that rival Augusta on the Stimp Meter.

And we haven't even gotten to the courses yet. The Village may be open to anyone, but it's not your typical public links. The grounds are beautiful, a delightful combination of lush fairways, perfectly manicured greens and scenery that wouldn't be out of place in the Serengeti-- except, of course, for the alligators.

Fifty-four majestic holes play out over hundreds of acres. Tom Fazio designed two of the 18-hole beauties, while Pete Dye was the architectural brain behind the third. While enough water and hazards abound to challenge even the most skilled golfers, the courses are forgiving enough for duffers - this author included - to enjoy themselves to the fullest. Even if the game gets you down and your spirit needs a lift, a friendly woman driving the drink cart is always nearby to deliver some spirits.

Our little group started out with a lesson taught by a PGA Village pro. Perhaps sensing our collective inability to drive a ball straight, he set us up in the furthest reaches of the driving range. The position was perfectly suited to minimize both our embarrassment and the danger of our errant drives. Although I hadn't hit a ball in at least six months, the muscle memory remained and the club didn't feel as foreign as it should have in my hands. The pro gave me an approving "that looks pretty good," and moved down the line. The best advice came from Al Clark, the 80-year old father of Greg Clark, who runs Scratch Golf Marketing, the company in charge of organizing the Great Golf Giveaway. (More on this later). The elder Clark suggested I move the ball up in my stance. Despite his age, the man plays three times a week, so I took it to heart. My irons play improved immediately. Butch Harmon, Tiger Wood's swing coach, doesn't have anything on the senior Clark.

PGA Country Club

After a half an hour of practicing, a quick lunch back at the Clubhouse, and 10 minutes on the resplendent putting green, it was time to hit the links. The round began beautifully. On an intimidating tee shot that featured out of bounds on the left and a wasteland on the right, I ripped my drive on the first tee about 210 yards straight down the fairway, past the black and white striped stake in the ground at which the starter told me to aim. "Those video games sure are helping," said Agnes Sibal, from Hilton Garden Inns, smiling and hinting at my previously stated preference for Nintendo Wii golf. I got back into the cart and drove away. When you hit a ball that well, getting away as quickly as possible is the only option. As former Dallas Cowboys coach Tom Landry once said, "Act like you've been there before."

I shared my cart with Heather Wilkins, a PR rep, who had played even less golf than I. Al, who regularly shoots in the 80s, and Greg, at 10 handicap, rounded out our foursome. Quite the mismatch of skills, but we managed.

After the killer drive, I managed to par the first hole. Heather didn't fare as well. Walking off the green, Greg said, "I'm not sure if this game is a blessing or a curse." On a lovely 75-degree day, playing in sunny Florida while my roommates languished in the freezing northeast, I'd say it's without a doubt a blessing. Then again, I'd just played one of the top 20 best holes of my life.

Aside from the weather playing with Al was the most enjoyable thing about the round. He is a true virtuoso of the game. On the 6th tee, he disagreed with the distance to the flag that was written on the scorecard.

"You can't tell me that ain't more than 120 yards," he remarked after surveying the scene for no more than five seconds. He proceeded to drop his ball within eight feet, a shot that would win
the closest to the pin competition. Perhaps PGA Village should consider remeasuring the yardage.

At the turn, Heather and I tracked down the drink lady for a much needed cocktail. Playing nine holes, even with a cart, is hard work. On the 10th tee, I hooked my first two drives badly and decided to skip the hole. But as Greg said, we were playing "corporate golf."

Sometimes you have to rest on your laurels - two pars on the front nine, not bad - and celebrate for a hole or two with a vodkacran. This was one of those times; I didn't hit another ball on the 10th.

In the end, I shot a respectable 51 on the front nine, and had an excellent time on the back. Al protested over Greg's refusal to keep his score over the final half, claiming he shot a 40. I choose to believe him. Heather, for her part, improved more than any of us. After a few more rounds, she might consider quitting her PR gig to challenge Michelle Wie and company on the LPGA.

We retired to the lounge in the PGA Village to compare battle stories. Jon Higgins of Globetrotter TV regaled us with tales of his golf cart experiences. A native New Yorker, Jon can't drive, but this didn't stop him from tearing around the course on the electric cart, terrifying the three other players in his foursome. Safely in the lounge, they all claimed to have had a great time, but I'm not so sure. Jon, for one, enjoyed every moment of it. Next stop: the Daytona 500.

There’s tons of places to play golf, but for our money, you can't go wrong at Port St. Lucie. To this end, the Hilton Garden Inns teamed up for a third year with Scratch Golf Marketing and American Express to bring guests the "Great Golf Giveaway" offering every golfer who stays on a Thursday, Friday, Saturday or Sunday night from June 1 until October 21 a booklet of golf tips from Golf Digest, along with a voucher good for complimentary greens fees on one of over 300 courses around the country.

PGA Village, 1916 Perfect Drive, Port St Lucie, FL Tel. 800-800-GOLF, 772-467-1300. http://www.pgavillage.com

Noah Davis

Spring, 2007