The first morning is everything the folks at the University of Florida had hoped for, 14 months ago, when they gave their tired old course to strangers and said, "Make it new again." The sky is a flawless blue. The sun looks as if it just came out of the wrapper. Golf carts are lined up in ranks for a shotgun start, and golfers are strolling down the hill to the practice range, where brand-new Nitro range balls are stacked in little pyramids on the soft green grass. "It's weird," says Florida's assistant athletic director, Chip Howard, standing in the doorway of the pro shop. "Golf carts? Players? What's this all about?" Howard, as always, is in a shirt and tie. You dress like a funeral director when you've spent 29 weeks watching men with shovels put $4 million into the ground.
It's Friday, Nov. 30, and thousands of Gators boosters are pouring into Gainesville for tomorrow's football showdown between second-ranked Florida and fourth-ranked Tennessee. Some have come here to the course for the 32nd edition of Gator Golf Day, a fund-raiser for the men's and women's golf programs. I spot 11-time PGA Tour winner Andy Bean talking with old friends. "I'll do anything to help the team," he says. Here comes Tour regular Chris DiMarco, who first set foot on This Old Course in 1986, when he was a Florida freshman. "It's nice to see grass all over the place," DiMarco says. "We had mostly hardpan."
Steve Melnyk, the TV golf analyst and former touring pro, is president of Gators Boosters, Inc. "We're so proud of our course," he says, showing no signs of fatigue from months of fund-raising. "We think it's the best on-campus facility in the country."
Joining in the euphoria is the women's golf coach, Jill Briles-Hinton, who describes the new layout as "awesome." Men's coach Buddy Alexander, who recently added a couple of top prospects to his NCAA championship team, looks almost embarrassed by his riches. "Glorious day," he says, "and we deserve it! We battled through rain and drought, and now the faithful are being rewarded for their patience." When asked what feature of the new course he likes best, he gropes for specifics. "It's not one thing," he says. "I love the overall appearance of the course, the old-fashioned look, the added length, the additional bunkering." What he really likes is the impact the renovations will have on his program: "If you look at our recruiting this year, you get an indication of what this course will mean to us. We're excited."
When praise for a course is this universal, it can mean only one thing: The place hasn't opened yet. Over time golfers will find things to fault in architect Bobby Weed's design—a tree that swats down their tee shots, a green that seems unputtable or that flat ribbon-bunker on the 5th hole that resembles a 10-foot-wide divot filled with sand. "We already know that the 6th hole is evil," says psychology professor Marc Branch, adding quickly, "but in that wonderful golf sort of way we all like." (The green at the 6th, a 207-yard par-3, is banked so steeply that a club hurled in anger from the high back edge will sail over the head of a golfer on the 7th tee.) Another par-3, the 191-yard 8th, has a left-front pin position at water's edge that looks attackable, but only DiMarco and touring pro Chris Couch hit the green in an eight-player, nine-hole skins game played on Nov. 17 before several hundred spectators. Florida junior Bubba Dickerson, the reigning U.S. Amateur champion, watched shot after shot, including his own, cover the flag before splashing in the pond or disappearing over the back. "Yup," he said, "this is a little harder course now."
Friday's field is less expert, but each fivesome in the 135-player tournament is anchored by a member of the men's or women's team or a former letter winner. Group 1-B drew freshman Butler Melnyk, one of Steve's two offspring on the Gators' squad. Butler has played the front nine twice but never the whole 18. "So don't ask me where to hit it," he says with a laugh.
As it happens, Melnyk's partners don't need a guide. Tom Weber, a four handicapper, supervised the course construction for MacCurrach Golf, and Scot Sherman of Weed Golf Course Design was the senior designer. As recently as two days ago the two men were here with flags, paint guns, shovels and rakes, supervising last-minute changes. "We had to drain and adjust the retention basin behind the 15th green," Sherman says, taking a practice swing with his driver and checking his reflection in a tinted clubhouse window. "We moved some big trees that were awful."
The final member of the group is Weed, who demonstrates the value of local knowledge by sinking a 30-foot birdie putt on the 1st hole. Then Weed puts his game on automatic pilot and concentrates on the course. "That water oak needs to come out," he says on the 9th tee, glaring at a tall tree that is casting too much shade. "Top dressing!" he pleads on the bumpy 12th green, watching a putt hop five times on its way to the hole. On the 17th tee Weed stares downhill at his now-lovely-and-diabolical drivable par-4 of 336 yards ...and stares...and stares. He tells Sherman he wants to add another bunker to the minefield of difficulties arrayed at the other end of the fairway. "The course designer should not walk away and never return," Weed says. "There's always tweaking to be done, and that tweaking should be done by a trained professional, not by a greens committee. Greens committees have destroyed some great courses."
"So you'll be back?" Weed is asked on the clubhouse steps, as he and his wife, Leslie, get ready to leave. He smiles and says, "You hire me, you've got me for life."
Gator Golf Day ends with a buffet dinner and prize presentations on the clubhouse deck. Those who can't find a table perch their plastic plates on the brick wall and eat standing up, watching the sun go down. Chris Tuten, the assistant coach for the men's team, surprises me by asking what I think of the course. "I like practically everything that Weed has added," I say, choosing my words carefully, "but I particularly like what he preserved—the intimacy, the charm of the small course. You look around and see students, professors and staff having fun together. You can hear them, too, laughing, calling to friends on other holes, banging balls off trees. I love that."