South Florida's Friendly Weather And Top Golf Courses Produce Strong Crop Of Homegrown Players
Ever since air conditioning was invented, Florida has been a refuge for top golfers. The list, including some for whom the game is now exercise rather than a full-time occupation, begins with Jack Nicklaus and goes around the course several times. Greg Norman, Tiger Woods and Jesper Parnevik are notable among the active players who live here full or part time. Retired stars include Nicklaus in North Palm Beach and Gary Player in Tequesta. Almost all the senior players began their careers elsewhere but found Florida's year-round playing weather a strong lure. Not to mention that Florida's lack of an income tax appeals to athletes who often make serious money.
Not surprisingly, the friendly weather and the abundance of good courses have also produced a crop of homegrown players of distinction, all of whom will be playing in next month's Honda Classic, within driving distance from where they grew up and first swung a club.
The most successful of the South Floridians is the winner of the 2013 PGA Championship. Jason Dufner finished high in several other majors, including second place in a PGA playoff in 2011, and has won other important tournaments. He moved to South Florida when he was 14 and began playing golf at Fort Lauderdale's St. Thomas Aquinas High School. His family later moved to Jupiter. He was a walk-on at Auburn University where he earned an honorable mention All-American. He still lives in that Alabama city.
The youngest of our homegrowns at 22, Daniel Berger has athletic genes, but not in his chosen game. His father, Jay Berger, is widely known in tennis circles as a former pro, coach and head of men's tennis for the United States Tennis Association. As the younger Berger, Daniel was born in Plantation, and lived in Miami for a decade before moving to Jupiter, where he still lives. He began playing golf seriously at William T. Dwyer High School in Jupiter and turned pro after his sophomore year at Florida State University. He has yet to win on the PGA Tour, although he came close at last year's Honda Classic when he lost a playoff to Padraig Harrington after thrilling the crowd by making up an incredible nine strokes on the final round.
There is no one about to question this man's heart when it comes to competition. He's literally had three of them. Born with a defect, he had his first transplant at age 12, and a second in 2008. Compton grew up in Miami and attended Palmetto Senior High School and the University of Georgia before turning pro in 2001. His progress has been slow but steady, and recent years have been his best. In 2013 he finished tied for fourth at The Honda Classic, and in 2014 he was tied for second at the U.S. Open, earning him his first invitation to the Masters last year. He has won The Ben Hogan Award, given annually to a golfer who has overcome a physical handicap or serious illness. He lives in Miami with his wife, Barbara, and daughter, Petra.
Another young player, 25, Koepka attracted attention when he finished fourth in the U.S. Open two years ago. He followed with his first PGA Tour win last February at the Waste Management Phoenix Open.
He grew up in Wellington in Palm Beach County and attended Cardinal Newman High School before playing golf at Florida State University, where he was a three-time All-American. He turned pro in 2012, playing on the Challenge Tour in Europe. This past year, Koepka improved his consistency, making him a contender in a number of tournaments in what is sure to be a promising career.
You don't have to win a lot of big tournaments to make a living, saving wage as a professional golfer. This Coral Springs resident has been playing for money for 10 years, has won only once, but managed to earn more than $5 million. He was a member of the winning U.S. Walker Cup team in 2005. Thompson attended Stoneman Douglas High School and Georgia Tech, where he earned a useful degree in business. Despite his success, he is not his family's most famous athlete. His sister, Lexi Thompson, became the youngest player in the the U.S. Women's Open in 2007, and remains among the more prominent women golfers.
Not yet as well known as the other players in this story, this man has a unique distinction. He has a twin brother, Daryl. They grew up in Stuart and started playing together. “No one in our immediate family played,” he says, “but our grandmother played golf and gave us a set of clubs. We were about 11.” The brothers played together at Martin County High School and the University of Louisville. They also teamed up in the Ginn sur Mer Classic in 2007, the year Fathauer turned pro. They were the first twins to do so in a PGA tour event. Daryl is not on the tour, but is in the golf business with R2 in Wellington, a company that offers technical support to the sport. Fathauer will play in his fourth Honda Classic next month. He has made the cut each time.
The Honda Classic
Feb. 22-28; PGA National Golf Course, Palm Beach Gardens
The Honda Classic had an auspicious celebrity-driven birth in 1972 as the Jackie Gleason Inverrary Classic, but after serving its purpose as a promotion for the new west Broward development, it suffered through a troubled and sometimes homeless childhood. It adopted the name of a not-so-well known (at the time) Japanese car. It then blossomed into a comfortable maturity when it found a permanent home in 2007 at PGA National in Palm Beach Gardens.
Thanks to the support of golf legend Jack Nicklaus, whose Children's Health Care Foundation benefits from the event, the Honda Classic is now established as an important date in the early season Florida PGA circuit. It attracts the top players competing for $6.1 million, and enjoys media coverage to match the best tournaments. Fan support has grown accordingly, with this year's tournament expected to draw in the 200,000 range.