By Mike May

Come for the golf and stay for the wildlife and lakeside scenery.  That’s the slogan for the refurbished Okeeheelee Golf Course in suburban West Palm Beach, Florida.  Today, Okeeheelee – one of five county owned and operated public golf facilities in Palm Beach County — features three very well-maintained nine-hole courses, a well-manicured practice chipping/pitching area, a spacious driving range, and a 30,000-square-foot practice putting green.  It’s truly a joy to spend the day practicing and/or playing golf at the Okeeheelee Golf Course (7715 Forest Hill Blvd., West Palm Beach, Florida;  561-964-4653; www.pbcokeeheeleegolf.com), originally designed by English-born golf course architect Roy Case.

This 27-hole golf complex, which first opened in 1995, was also the practice playground for two brothers who now make a living playing professional golf, Brooks and Chase Koepka.

If Okeeheelee was a good enough place to practice and play golf for the Koepka brothers, it certainly is good enough for all other golfers, especially now.  After visiting and playing golf at Okeeheelee, there’s no guarantee that you’ll emerge as good as the Koepka brothers.  But, you will have had a good time and will have received a great bang for your buck, so to speak.

As young boys, the Koepka brothers spent countless days at the Okeeheelee Golf Course practicing their chipping, pitching, putting, driving, and dreaming about playing golf for a living.  Well, their dreams came true and they are still living that dream.  Nowadays, getting the chance to play Okeeheelee is a dream-come-true experience for any golfer, 12 months a year.

“Growing up at Okeeheelee was a blast!” remembered Brooks.  “We would get dropped off at 7:30 every morning and we would get picked up at dark.  I learned how to play the game there and it will always hold a special place in my heart.”

In recent years, Okeeheelee has been refurbished, restored, and revitalized but it didn’t happen overnight.  Instead, it has taken three years to get the greens, greenside bunkers and some tee boxes of all three courses – Eagle, Osprey, and Heron — back to the standards which area golfers were used to seeing on a daily basis.

According to Rich Smolen, the golf course manager at the Okeeheelee Golf Course, it’s been a gradual re-opening of each nine-hole course.

“Each nine opened in November – the Eagle in 2019, Osprey in 2020, and Heron in 2021,” said Smolen.  “The greens all are Tif Eagle, collars are Tif Grand,  and the approach and cut-out areas are Tif Tuff.”  

The restoration of Eagle, Osprey, and Heron was anything but cosmetic.  Instead, it was a major effort that involved removal, replacement, and revival.  And, lots of nurturing and TLC.

“The greens and surrounds were stripped and re-grassed, bunkers renovated and drainage was installed in wet areas of the course,” added Smolen.  “The Heron tees were all resurfaced with celebration Bermuda, as were a select few holes on Eagle and Osprey.   Increased attention to resurfacing the tees has greatly improved turf quality.”

And, now the grounds crew at the Okeeheelee Golf Course is making sure the 27-holes stay in tip-top shape for years to come.

“Since 2021, we have implemented a more intense and sound agronomic program with regular culture practices,” added Smolen.  “With increased attention to detail, weed control, turf implements, water management and mow practices, we have greatly improved turf quality and playing conditions with these steps.”

Of the 27 holes at Okeeheelee, many of them would fare well on any south Florida golf course, especially now that all 27 greens have been replaced.  Three holes worth highlighting at Okeeheelee are the closing holes at each course. 

At Eagle, the 9th is a left-to-right dogleg par four where Clear Lake borders the hole from tee-to-green, on the right.  The fairway is a spacious, undulating gateway to the green.  When the wind is in the golfer’s face, it may require a long iron or a hybrid to reach the green in regulation.  Here, pars are precious.

At Osprey, the 9th is a three-shot, zig-zag par five where water is a concern on every shot, until you reach the green.  After a straightaway tee shot, with water along the left side of the fairway, the second shot is struck to the golfer’s left over a pond to a mound-filled landing zone in the fairway. What remains is a manageable distance to a wide, raised green.  In match play, you’ll rarely lose the hole with a par. 

At Heron, the 9th is an uphill par-three to a wide, deep green.  Because the prevailing winds can’t always be felt on the tee box, picking the right club to go pin-seeking is not easy.  Here, don’t be upset with a bogey four.

The reactions from visiting golfers indicate that the course restoration and green revival efforts at Okeeheelee deserve an A+.

“In recent years, I have played Okeeheelee on trips to south Florida and the course looked solid.  Now, it’s spectacular,” said Kurt Wieneke of Indianapolis, Indiana.  “The course looks great and the greens are wonderful for putting and chipping.  It’s a joy to return to Okeeheelee.” 

“I remember playing Okeeheelee when it first opened,” said Geoff Solomon of Boca Raton, Florida.  “It was such a pleasure to have a first-class facility that was so affordable.  Palm Beach County has done a great job with all of its public golf courses, but it all started with Okeeheelee and it’s great to see that it was its turn for these course enhancements.”

When you play golf at Okeeheelee, you’ll agree that the restoration and revival of this golf course have helped return the entire 27-hole complex to where it should be.  And, to a standard that the Koepka brothers enjoyed, as well, not too many years ago.

The Okeeheelee Golf Course is proud to participate in the Audubon International Cooperative Sanctuary Program (ACSP) for golf courses and is committed to environmental stewardship. The ACSP is an award-winning education and certification program that helps golf courses protect the environment and preserve the natural heritage of the game of golf.  The ACSP helps golf courses and their golfers enhance the valuable natural areas and wildlife habitats that golf courses provide, improve efficiency, minimize potentially harmful impacts of golf operations, and serves as vital resource for golf courses.

Okeeheelee Golf Course became the 88th golf course in Florida and the 663rd in the world to earn ACSP certification when it was originally certified in November 2008. The golf course was re-certified in September 2014.  Bird houses, butterfly gardens, and natural areas are some of the visible signs of designed wildlife habitats you will see throughout the Okeeheelee Golf Course. These wildlife and habitat management areas are intended to attract and preserve wildlife.

The Okeeheelee Golf Course awaits your arrival.

P.S.:  Okeeheelee means “quiet waters,” a name that comes from its unique setting in the surrounding Okeeheelee Park and the beautiful views across Clear Lake which borders the golf course.