Panther National – Jack Nicklaus/Justin Thomas Design (Palm Beach Gardens)

About 15 miles due west of Nicklaus HQ on US1 in North Palm Beach, Florida, the Golden Bear along with design associate Chris Cochran (and PGA Tour player Justin Thomas) crafted a rollicking and stout layout at Panther National. Founder Dominik Senn (a former Swiss ski racer who started a sports management agency in 1995 that is now based in Jupiter), chose a 450 acre parcel about 5 miles west of PGA National for his first foray into becoming a developer in the golf club industry. He wanted a big ball park that stood out from the rest of the mostly uninspiring 120 golf courses that reside in Palm Beach County. Since the topography of the site wasn’t remarkable, but the soil material was (sand), Nicklaus and company created the antithesis of a minimalist design, perhaps taking a page from Pete Dye’s book – creating something big and bold out of nothing. They moved massive amounts of land to create meandering hills, dunes and swales to thrill and challenge the members at what is the first new private club to open in Palm Beach County in 25 years.

The only golf in the local area that offers this much land movement is North Palm Beach Country Club (also a Nicklaus design) on the intracoastal waterway, Park Ridge in Lantana (built atop a vacated county landfill), and two of the most elite coastal clubs – Seminole and Jupiter Hills that are up on the elevated sandridge that runs from North Palm Beach all the way into Martin County along the intracoastal and Atlantic Ocean. Panther National already has a 66,000-square-ft clubhouse in the works that will round out Senn’s private enclave.

This is Justin Thomas’ maiden voyage into golf course design, and apparently the Bear and Cochran trusted the two-time major champion to have authentic input. Thomas was much more than a token name added to the marquis, and was very involved in some of the design and strategy elements at Panther National. The “JT tees” are a robust 7,864 yards – Rating: 78.7/Slope: 147. Is there plan to host a PGA Tour event or something even bigger there? Senn is open to hosting meaningful competitions, but will let the membership decide for the club. At nearly 8000 yards, one would think this is a pre-emptive move preparing for the future. Thomas plans on visiting Panther National often as one of his regular practice spots of choice. He currently does most of his practicing at the Bear’s Club and Michael Jordan’s Grove XXXII in Hobe Sound.

“There’s nothing like this in Florida,” Thomas said. “These characteristics aren’t really a thing here and Jack said: ‘We can do it, it’s going to be tough. But if that’s what Senn wants that’s what we can do.’ That’s what the team did.”

The golf course plays firm n fast with the wind being a consistent factor in South Florida, especially during winter months when it often comes out of the west, a distinct change from how the course will play for the majority of the year (the prevailing wind comes out of the south east). On the day we were there (Jason Lusk from Golfweek joined me) the winds buffeted the large areas of plantings of Muhly and Fountain Grasses that dot the landscape along the borders of many holes, giving Panther National a prairie-like feel, especially early on where water isn’t in play. Elevated tees, contouring and slopes that funnel tee shots towards the center of the wide landing areas, combined with the firm and fast conditions provided by Master Agronomist Steve Ehrbar (formerly of Jupiter Hills and Old Marsh) make many of the holes play shorter than the yardage. For those members who need relief from forced carries, the forward tees measure a mere 4500 yards.