Final goodbye: Dark clouds, rain threat can’t keep golfers away for this Florida golf course’s last rounds

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — It made sense that on Sunday, Lone Pine’s final day as a public golf course, stormy weather loomed in the late afternoon.

The threat of storms was a painful but perfect symbol of recent life for the course, one threatened by financial difficulty and then closed because of it after decades as a beloved, affordable place to play.

But a couple hours past midday, all that foretold of the bad weather to come were a steady breeze and some puffy clouds, darkened just a bit at their base.

Lone Pine, one of Palm Beach County’s most affordable golf course, didn’t slink into closure. A steady stream of golfers came to bid the course a final goodbye. The popular site coincidentally closed only hours before the grand opening of a more upscale public course only a few miles away in West Palm Beach.

Jeff Simke, who manned the register in the clubhouse and has played the course for 45 years, said golf carts were taken back out just as quickly as they were returned.

Golfers milled about in the shop, reminiscing and enjoying some dark humor about their golf games.

Lone Pine’s last day would see a wide range of players step onto its tee boxes. There was a man in sales, another who described himself as self-employed and a former NFL player who won three Super Bowl.

For them, and for so many others, Lone Pine didn’t offer the luxurious atmosphere of other courses. But the course was just right for beginners and for people whose budgets didn’t allow for a $200 golfing weekend.

It’s where fathers played with their sons, where buddies got in their weekly hacks and it’s where new friendships were formed.

Michigan and Ohio State men pair up

Lou Bautko III met Michael Crabtree of West Palm Beach at Lone Pine about a year and a half ago. Bautko, a 46-year old salesman, and the self-employed Crabtree, 59, wouldn’t ordinarily have a ton in common.

Bautko is a Michigan man, Crabtree bleeds Ohio State’s scarlet and grey.

Golf — and Lone Pine — brought them together.

“Me and him play every Friday afternoon,” Bautko said as they waited for a cart in the clubhouse.

About 15 years ago, Bautko introduced his then-11-year old to the sport. Now, the 26-year old Lou IV is the big hitter of the group — and its peacemaker.

“I’ll tell you what kind of guy he is,” Crabtree said of the younger Bautko. “When Michigan beat Ohio State, instead of rubbing it in, he asked his dad, ‘Is Mike alright?’ ”

The younger Bautko doesn’t brag about his game, either.

“I’m alright,” he allowed.

When the three got their carts and went to the first hole, the elder Bautko and Crabtree hit from the white tee. Lou IV hit from the blue tee, farther back.

Each man boomed out drives. The elder Bautko’s drive faded right, as did his son’s drive.

Crabtree’s blast curled left. He chuckled as he contemplated Lone Pine’s closure.

“The only ones happy out here are these trees,” he said, after his drive curled the ball toward them.

In the clubhouse, Bautko III had depressed any expectations that they’d imitate Jon Rahm, the Masters winner and the world’s No. 1.

“I call us the Mulligan League,” Bautko said. “Mike’s always like, ‘Just take a mulligan.’ ”

No mulligans were needed on the first hole. Bautko III made par. His son and Crabtree missed par putts but, with their balls only inches from the cup, picked up.

Crabtree made par on the second, and it was the Bautko men who picked up after leaving their par putts just short.

Bautko III said he’s not sure where they’ll play going forward.

“I don’t know,” he said. “We talked about Okeeheelee, talked about Sandhill Crane.”

Bautko said he doubts another course will offer the same value as Lone Pine, where green fees were $50.

“Compared to some other courses, it’s like double the price and half the distance,” he said.

Three-time Super Bowl champion tees it up

Value and vibe also brought Eric Mason, 57, and Tim McKyer, 59, to Lone Pine on its last day.

Both men are Riviera Beach residents.

For them, Lone Pine isn’t about high stakes. As a younger man, McKyer knew all about high stakes. He won three Super Bowls as a cornerback in the NFL, two with the San Francisco 49ers and one with the Denver Broncos, recovering a fumble in Super Bowl XXXII.

Now, McKyer enjoys playing Lone Pine with Mason and a pair of other men.

“Us four guys, we normally walk it every Friday,” Mason said.

“I think they should just leave it alone,” McKyer said.

Mason added that he’d be willing to pay a small tax so Riviera Beach could get money to renovate the course.

“I would wish that the city would keep it open,” Mason said.

Owners have tentative deal to sell to builder

The siblings who own Lone Pine have a tentative agreement to sell the land to a builder, who is trying to get approvals from Riviera Beach to build housing on the property.

Joe Gerlach, one of Lone Pine’s co-owners, said he knows what the local golfing community is losing. Lone Pine, he said, simply could not compete with other courses.

West Palm Beach’s rebuild golf facility, The Park, illustrates the higher-end courses Lone Pine would have to do battle with to stay open.

“It’s just throwing good money after bad,” Gerlach said of his family’s effort to continue operating Lone Pine. “It’s not like we didn’t try. We really did try.”