Home of golf: PGA of America celebrates 50 years in Palm Beach County

Palm Beach Gardens was little more than a sleepy rural village when John D. MacArthur invited the PGA of America to move its headquarters to what is now BallenIsles Country Club back in 1965.

(MORE: Photo timeline of PGA of America's 50 years in Palm Beach County)

I-95 ended at PGA Boulevard, then known as Monet Road. Northlake Boulevard was a gravel road west of US 1. And other than MacArthur’s PGA National Golf Club, the area was largely undeveloped.

“When we came down for the 1971 PGA Championship we had to stay on Singer Island and drive over, because there was nothing in that area,” recalled Jim Awtrey, who would become the organization’s first executive director in 1987 and served as CEO from 1993-2005.

Even as northern Palm Beach County has blossomed into an upscale community that dozens of PGA and LPGA Tour players call home, the PGA of America has also enjoyed remarkable growth, joining the USGA, Royal & Ancient and PGA Tour as key players in a billion-dollar industry as it celebrates its 50th anniversary in Palm Beach County this week.

And Palm Beach County has been a chief benefactor.

“Palm Beach County has always been perceived as a center of golf, but prior to the PGA of America coming here, there wasn’t much in the way of golf courses here,” said Jack Nicklaus, who also moved to Lost Tree Village in 1965. “Since then golf has become the spirit of the area, a catalyst to making things grow. And the PGA of America has had a lot to do with it.”

The impetus for the move began in 1961, when the PGA of America had the late Harry Pezzullo lead a task force to find a permanent home for the organization, which began in New York City in 1916 but was located in Dunedin at the time. Intrigued by the prospect of a union with the PGA brand, MacArthur found office space in his clubhouse.

Former PGA of America staffer Ken Anderson recalled that what would in 1969 become the PGA Tour was run by 40-50 employees out of those offices. Another initiative at that time was a golf merchandise show that moved from PGA National to Miami to Port St. Lucie before finding a home in Orlando.

In 1971 the PGA Championship came to town and, despite the fact its top three finishers were Nicklaus, Billy Casper and Tommy Bolt, drew only about 40,000 customers, less than one-fourth of what the storm-plagued Honda Classic did last month.

“Golf just wasn’t that big a draw yet,” Anderson said.

Ryder Cup rescue and growth

Negotiations for an extension on the 10-year lease PGA of America officials had signed in 1965 were under way when MacArthur demanded cost-of-living increases in the fees members would pay.

“Our PGA pros would pay $3 to play and $5 for a two-person cart, which came out to $5.50 for a round of golf,” Anderson said. “Our officers wanted that extended and he said no. We couldn’t iron it out.”

That was the basis for the split that occurred in 1973, when offices were moved to a two-story building on US 1 in Lake Park. While visiting PGA pros were sent to Port St. Lucie and even as far away as Orlando to play, the search for a permanent building began immediately.

After taking a long look at Wellington, PGA officials were approached by Llwyd Ecclestone Jr., who offered a 100-year lease for $1 on his property in return for being able to use the PGA name on the complex he was building west of the Florida Turnpike that became PGA National Resort and Spa.

The two-story building was completed in 1981 and soon after major events started coming: the Ryder Cup in 1983, then another PGA Championship in 1987. But the PGA brand was short on resources, prompting the organization to hire former Amana executive Lou King as executive director in 1982.

King, who served until 1987, would become the first in a series of strong, resourceful leaders.

“We had so little money we were struggling to make the payments on the building,” King recalled. “The PGA Tour was in its infancy, but (commissioner) Deane Beman was very dynamic and we got along well.”

During his Amana days, King had begun sticking Amana caps on the heads of players such as Julius Boros and Bob Goalby, and once he got to the PGA he turned the practice into a commercial opportunity. Soon enough the building was paid off.

Next to come was Mickey Powell, who served as PGA of America President from 1985-86 but has been involved in one way or another much of his adult life. His initiatives have included turning the Senior PGA from a club pro event into a major; establishing a scholarship program that last year was responsible for $3.5 million in grants, and selling the merchandise show for a $120 million profit.

But his biggest accomplishment may have been the resuscitation of the Ryder Cup in 1987.

“It had come to Palm Beach Gardens in 1983, and afterward there were discussions about doing away with it,” Powell recalled. “It was non-competitive, and was costing us more money than we were making.

“Jack Nicklaus was captain that year and I told him, ‘When it comes back to the U.S. I’d like to have it at Muirfield Village (Nicklaus’ course in Ohio) and have you be captain again,’ ” Powell recalled.

“He said, ‘Are you crazy? I’ve already got one of the best events on the Tour with the Memorial.’

“A couple of weeks later he called me and said, ‘I’ve been thinking about it, and it’s a great idea.’ We did it up first-class, and we got our butts beat for the first time at home. But after that it became a patriotic thing and really took off.”

Honda Classic part of success

That same year Awtrey became the first PGA professional to be named executive director, and in 1993 he became the body’s first CEO, a job he held for 12 years. As he recalled, the golf industry underwent a metamorphosis during his tenure.

“There was a tremendous growth in the number of courses being built,” he said. “In the early ‘90s the push was on to build a course a day until 2000. At the same time there was an explosion in teaching, which had always been a part of the club pro’s skill set but was now a separate career path. Two or three additional PGA professionals were needed everywhere, so we needed to produce them through education.”

Dr. Gary Wiren was hired as Education Director to help address that need, and did so in variety of ways including incorporating USGA/PGA rules workshops that have been in place for more than 40 years, and launching the PGA Golf University program that has now expanded to 20 schools.

“For 15 years we also had the PGA Junior Golf Academy in Boca Raton,” Wiren said, “where we utilized some of our best role models — Tom Kite, Ben Crenshaw, Larry Nelson, Hubert Green — to spend a day with the kids and show our PGA members how to be teachers.”

Honda Classic Executive Director Ken Kennerly credits the presence of the PGA of America over the past 50 years as having a role in Palm Beach County becoming a golf hotbed.

“And the county continues to grow because of it,” Kennerly added. “The Honda is just another spoke in the wheel. But it’s become a must-see destination for much of the golf world.”

Joe Beditz, CEO of the Jupiter-based National Golf Federation, agreed.

“We’ll have been here 40 years next year and been working with the PGA for that long,” Beditz said. “Our organizations go a long way back, and the PGA of America over that time has evolved and grown in scope in ways I’d never have imagined.”

Current PGA of America CEO Pete Bevacqua, whose staff recently spent a year-and-a-half putting together a long-term strategic plan for the organization, said it revolves around two critical areas: serving its 28,000 members and growing the game.

“Our goal is to have a tangible connection between the PGA professional and everybody who plays it, whether it’s a private club in Palm Beach or a public course in Wichita,” Bevacqua said. “It’s about doing what we need to do in formulating our global footprint.”

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