Real estate, golf courses and Florida sunshine have long gone together, but not always happily. It is to a golf complex in Florida (the wonderfully-named Valhalla Village) that novelist John Updike, with his keen eye for the underlying dynamics of American society, as well as for its surface details, sends his fictional protagonist, the former high school basketball star ‘Rabbit’ Angstrom, to die. In 2009, a non-fictional Florida golf complex impacted briefly on the global public’s consciousness when, at Seminole Landing (named after the Native Americans from whom the original real estate was liberated), Tiger Woods met his marital Waterloo, being chased down his ultra-exclusive driveway by his enraged, golf-club-wielding wife.
It would be an understatement to dub adjacent Seminole Golf Club ‘exclusive’. To appreciate its precise degree of exclusivity, consider the fact that Seminole turned Jack Nicklaus down for membership in the late 60s. An indication that, even in this particular milieu, society was changing – albeit at a glacial pace – is the fact that the club’s decision to blackball a Midwestern boy who happened to be the world’s greatest golfer caused at least one committee member to resign (from the committee, that is, not the club; it would have been too much to expect a full member of Seminole to cut his mooring-rope completely, and – as it were – leave himself adrift in the Florida swamplands).
Another golfing legend, Ben Hogan, who practised at Seminole at the start of every season, received better treatment, in the sense that the club made him an honorary member. In my view, the explanation for the disparity lies in the difference between an aura and a mystique: people respected Nicklaus but they weren’t curious about him; everyone was curious about Hogan. In 2018, a technological indicator of Seminole’s continuing remoteness from the mass of humanity is its comparatively tiny internet footprint (Google it, if you don’t believe me: the club puts almost nothing out there; almost all of what is written about it consists of peering-over-the-wall articles by the permanently excluded).
As is well known, Nicklaus and Woods stand first and second respectively in the rankings of major winners. Third on the list, with eleven victories, is the somewhat forgotten ‘Sir’ Walter Hagen. Yet he, too, had a brush with real estate and golf in Florida. Indeed, ‘The Haig’ was in at the beginning of things, which is what makes his story worth telling in this, the first of a series of articles on the real estate decisions of famous people. Hagen once observed of himself: “I never wanted to be a millionaire; I just wanted to live like one.” In post-war America, he wasn’t the only one. In the ‘Age of Excess’, aspiration and exploitation intersected in the Florida land boom.
That was where Hagen came in: the bidding war for his services which saw his salary escalate to $30,000 dollars a year, plus an acre to build a house in Bear Creek Country Club (soon re-branded Pasadena on the Gulf), was the inevitable outcome of the fact that the men-who-make-things-happen saw Hagen as the key figure at the end of a well-conceived sales pitch designed to sandbag visitors into buying holiday homes or even permanent ones in Florida. The pitch would run: sunshine, a grand gateway at the entrance to the complex, a golf course with the magic words ‘Country Club’ attached, Spanish-style housing to suggest gracious living (such was the white picket fence dream for the Age of Unreality), and, waiting to greet them in the driveway, Sir Walter himself, with his plus fours and his argyle socks and his berry-brown, smiling face. They would trust the Haig, especially when they learned that he was building a house on the site.