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On a better course? Ongoing improvements at West Palm Beach GC aimed at winning back players

Herb Liberman has run out of patience with West Palm Beach Golf Course. And he’s not alone.

Liberman has been a permit-holder at the city-owned public facility on Parker Ave. for more than 15 years but doesn’t plan to renew. He has become increasingly frustrated at the copious amount of sand and otherwise unplayable areas that remain four years after Mark McCumber finished renovating the course in 2009.

“I have to go somewhere else or give up golf,” said Liberman, a West Palm Beach resident. “I can’t play here; it’s not fun anymore.”

Sharon Painter understands — and hopes Liberman and others like him will opt to stick around a little longer. Painter, president and CEO of the JCD Sports Group that manages the course, said things are getting better.

“People who come to us for the first time don’t see the problems that those who have been around for a long time see,” Painter said, noting that rounds played are up this year over last. “Improvements have been made, there’s room for more and that’s our plan. I think it will be OK.”

When city officials decided to re-do the course, which opened in 1947, they removed many trees, such as Australian pine, Brazilian pepper and carrotwood, that not only weren’t native to the area but crowded out native plants while consuming too much water.

While some patrons believe that several of the holes have become much more attractive and enjoyable to play, McCumber left behind huge expanses of sand on either side of many fairways. That became a major problem.

“Right away we had so much sand blowing around we had to put up snow fences,” Painter said. “Our fairways were covered in sand, and nobody anticipated that. When we went back to McCumber, he said, ‘It’s got to mature, it’ll be fine.’ ”

Head golf pro Judy Dickinson arrived about that time and said the problems were exacerbated by an unusually cold 2009-10 winter that killed much of the grass and made the fairways rock hard.

Weary of waiting for McCumber’s prediction to come true, Painter last year reached out to turf expert Dr. Ron Duncan, who taught agronomy at the University of Georgia for 26 years. He launched a program of aerification — turning over the soil to enable the roots of the grass to grow more lushly — that Painter and Dickinson contend has made a big difference. Recent rains also have helped.

“The grass has really started to grow out,” Dickinson said. “It’s beautiful now.”

Plans call for bahiagrass to be planted along the sides of the fairways, but the biggest problem — the sand in the waste areas outside the rough on several holes — will remain until the course further matures.

Some regular players, such as Bill Liguori of West Palm Beach, had the impression back in 2009 that the plan was to put coquina, a lightweight coral stone, on top of the sand.

“That would have made it easier,” he said. “You could hit off it and it would give the carts somewhere to drive other than down the middle of the fairway.”

But Painter said coquina was never in the plans and would be exorbitantly expensive for a public course, meaning players will have to deal with the sand for the time being. Both Painter and Dickinson suggest that, at least for now, players should consider a free drop under many circumstances.

“When we play tournaments you’re allowed relief in a heel print or tire mark,” Dickinson said. “Sometimes we allow a drop over on the grass, (and) we’ve discussed putting stakes there to make it a lateral hazard. But the fairways are getting fairly generous now, so it’s not as easy to hit there as it once was.”

Painter said that while she would love to speed the improvements, doing so becomes a “money issue,” and the course gets no endowment from the city.

Added Dickinson: “I’ve only been at West Palm for three years, and people that don’t have the emotional attachment love the course. From what it was then to now, we’re on the right track.”

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