Finch's good works as much as course give Emerald Dunes Florida golf course of year

By Tim McDonald, Contributor

It's trendy right now for decision-makers to talk about helping juniors, women and minorities into the game of golf, especially with the dire numbers facing the sport.

With numbers showing declining rounds the last few years, and concerns about bringing in non-players to help the game grow, a lot of people talk about it for the sake of public relations, but it's a different matter when it comes to putting their money where their mouths are.

Ray Finch, owner of Emerald Dunes Palm Beach County, is one of those who is actually doing something about it. For that reason, as well as the fact Emerald Dunes more than holds its own as a course, the course was named Florida Golf Course Association's course of the year for 2004.

"It's one of the finest facilities down there," said Mark Farrow of the FGCOA. "It boils down to what Ray has done in the community down there. He's done a lot with junior golf and the Chamber of Commerce and he's done a lot growing the game with girls, and women, in the last several years."

Finch said he started working to lure new players into the game as soon as he opened the course in January 1990 in Palm Beach County, Florida.

"Way back when we first built the golf course, we recognized that the game needed some help in continuing to grow, as far as a player base," Finch said. "We identified young golfers and felt like we needed a kind of little league."

Finch contacted the National Youth Sports Coaches Association in West Palm about starting a golf program.

"There's a weakness in a lot of junior programs," Finch said. "There's a lack of parental involvement. Golf is more difficult to watch for parents and we wanted to come up with ways and programs to get parents more involved. They have to drive them to practice and things like that."

That turned into the Hook a Kid on Golf program. It is now a national program, part of the National Youth Alliance and a USGA sponsored program.

Then he turned his attention to women.

"You have to start young with golf, and women at that time were fast moving into more executive type positions in business and were kind of left out using golf as a social environment," Finch said.

Finch said he challenged Nancy Oliver, who was working for him at the time, to figure out why women were not becoming golfers.

"It turned out there were a lot of obstacles to learning to play golf," Finch said. "A lot of people have trouble with keeping score in bowling when they first start out, and it was the same with golf. We found out women didn't like surprises, didn't like the feeling that they didn't know what they were doing."

They introduced a program teaching not only the golf swing, but the rules, etiquette and lifestyle of golf as well. That turned into the Executive Women's Golf League, which is also now a national program.

The course itself would have been considered even if not for Finch's involvement in the community. The Tom Fazio-designed course has been named in the "top 10 you can play in Florida" by Golf Digest, and was named one of the top five courses in Florida" by readers of Florida Golf News, as well as making various other lists.

The dominant feature is the "super dune," which rises about 50 feet and gives a panoramic view of the whole course. It features three greens and a waterfall.

"It serves as the hub of the wheel," Finch said. "It's kind of the center of the golf course. You play into and away from this hub three times. All during the day, you approach and leave this elevated area. We get a lot of mileage out of it."

The wide fairways are contoured with mounds and there is quite a bit of water that comes into play.

"It's very playable," Finch said. "People really enjoy playing it for a multitude of reasons. It has a natural feel, and you never see the same look - every hole is memorable in its own way. It looks hard and plays easy, and people like that."

The course will be Florida's entry when the National Golf Course Owners Association awards its national course of the year during its meetings Feb. 8-12 in Orlando.

Fast Fact

Fazio is not only the architect at Emerald Dunes, he is also Finch's partner.

Tim McDonaldTim McDonald, Contributor

Veteran golf writer Tim McDonald keeps one eye on the PGA Tour and another watching golf vacation hotspots and letting travelers in on the best place to vacation.

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