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The tour is barreling through the Sunshine State. Lady ams, barnstorming. Last week the gals gathered in Ormond Beach, just up the Florida coastline from Daytona, for the Sally, an 87-year-old event. The week before, they were in Sebring, smack dab in the middle of nowhere, for the Harder Hall tournament, a mere kid, born in '56. This week they will assemble in Fort Lauderdale, at the time-capsule Robert Trent Jones hangout there, Coral Ridge Country Club, for the 81st playing of the Jones/Doherty. The Orange Blossom tour, the original Florida swing, is in full bloom.
Back in the day, the Orange Blossom tour consisted of seven events, crammed with cocktail parties, cheeky song-and-dance revues sometimes starring Alice Dye, dressy dinners. Jordan Baker, Fitzgerald's cheating golfer in The Great Gatsby, would have felt right at home. In the late 1940s, Lady Dye, now 85, wife of Pete and a member of the Indiana Golf Hall of Fame, played all the events, including a hat trick of long-gone stops at swanky resorts: the Biltmore in Miami, the Breakers in Palm Beach and the Ponce de Leon in St. Augustine.
"In the years before the LPGA started, the New York papers used to write up the Orange Blossom tournaments, and it was like free advertising for the hotels," Alice Dye said last week. "The Breakers used to put us up on the sixth floor, in the maids' quarters. We'd have these elegant breakfasts served to us by the maids we had just showered with." There was fondness in her voice as she recalled her years of playing Orange Blossom golf. She remembered a Rollins College teammate going out with Frank Stranahan—a muscleman, a noted golfer, a Champion Spark Plugs heir—and staying out late. "I don't remember any drinking," she said. Others do, Mrs. Dye.
Four events survive. (Next month the International Four-Ball will be played for the 66th time, this year at a new home, the Wanderers Club in Wellington, replacing Orangebrook, a public course in Hollywood, Fla.) The events are decidedly less social than they used to be, but that the series has survived at all is a testament to the powerful instinct golfers at every level have to travel some place and beat others at their shared game. The various Blossom tournament organizers—like the Hall of Fame amateur Carol Semple Thompson, who runs the Harder Hall event—want others to have what they had: the chance to compete, graciously, in a game that will enrich you immeasurably even if you never make a dime from it. Or maybe especially if you never make a dime from it.
Thompson is not without worry about where the tour is and where it is headed. Among the schoolgirls who play, she sees less joie de golf and more desperate auditioning for scholarship money. The Orange Blossom tournaments are not truly elite, but at times people carry on at them as if lives were at stake. This year Harder Hall forbade caddies for the first time, after a 2012 incident in which the father of one player and the husband of another nearly came to blows. A constant theme among the old guard is that the young players need to learn to think for themselves way more.
The tournament dinners have all but died because younger players prefer to talk by text to faraway friends than to sit at a banquet table and try to find common ground with some random person. At night the players scatter. Well, not the University of Stirling girls, visiting this month from Scotland and on holiday, their sing-song accents flitting through the unusually warm Florida air. But most of them.
The beating heart of the Harder Hall stop was once the digs as much as the course. The Hall in Harder Hall is a pink colossus of a hotel where the players used to stay on the American Plan. (Three meals a day, bring your own range balls.) Today the hotel is encircled by a chain-link fence, waiting for its next savior.
But despite everything, the 72-hole stroke-play tournament is doing well, and so are the other events. The old South Atlantic Ladies Amateur is played at Oceanside Country Club, on a course so sound and beautiful it stirs the blood and ignites the itch.
Harder Hall is played on a simple, flat, pleasant course beside the shuttered hotel. Sebringers come out and watch the action from folding beach chairs they bring themselves, although one man enjoyed the Jan. 6 finale from the saddle of a fat-tire bike he rode right down the firm fairways on a mellow Sunday afternoon.
There won't be anything like that this week at Coral Ridge, where Robert Trent Jones made a country club in his own image: proper, spiffy, American. More than 100 players will be in the field and mah-jongg tiles will await the ladies in the clubhouse, should any of the Jones/Doherty Championship contestants still play mah-jongg.