FLA’s Eastern Coast: Worth Seeking Out

Writer’s Note: I wrote the piece below in 2003. I’d suggest little has changed in Florida. The World Golf Hall of Fame is still underwhelming, and I’d still recommend that you open your wallet and play Ocean Hammock. Bay Hill is still a great deal of fun, and you always have the chance of meeting Arnold Palmer there. Beats -20 degree weather in Canada, that’s for sure…

Drama on the Ocean: Jack Nicklaus' Ocean Hammock demonstrates great attention to detail on a fantastic site.

Drama on the Ocean: Jack Nicklaus' Ocean Hammock demonstrates great attention to detail on a fantastic site.

Pete Dye has a sadistic streak in him, as any golfer that has stood on the tees in front of the 17th hole at the TPC’s stadium course at Sawgrass, Fla., can tell you.

One of the most famous island holes in all of golf, a casual glance at a score card would seem to indicate a benign par-3, only 132-yards long.

But the reality is much different when a player tees it up in front of Mr. Dye’s creation, with its green surrounded by water. Only my playing partners — golf architect Ian Andrew and his father Gerry — know the fate that befell me at Sawgrass’ famed 17th hole. Regardless of the pain the hole brought me, the TPC at Sawgrass is part of a stretch of Florida golf that is sure to bring pleasure to Canadian golfers looking to find their way to the links after an icy winter.

In fact, for those willing to fork over some cash, a trip starting at Orlando and heading toward the state’s Palm Coast, on the Atlantic side, offers some of the best golf in the southern United States. And for those willing to do some driving, many of Florida’s best courses can be covered in a week or less.

Start with the previously mentioned TPC at Sawgrass, home of the PGA Tour and the Players’ Championship, golf’s unofficial fifth major tournament. Located just outside Jacksonville, the course was created by Mr. Dye to host the best players in the world. But Sawgrass is a public course, open to all willing to plunk down US$270 in peak season for a round.

That means players can tackle the same tough fairways and small greens that regularly confound the game’s best players. Conditioning at Sawgrass is immaculate and even the holes not regularly shown on telecasts of the Players’ Championship prove to be tremendously challenging. By the time players hit the 17th, where PGA Tour star Fred Couples once made an improbable par after hitting his first ball in the water, the course may have sapped a golfer’s strength — and many of his golf balls as well.

Is it worth the pricey green fee? With most of professional golf’s best-known tournaments held on exclusive private courses, Sawgrass offers recreational players a sense of the atmosphere and difficulty that comes with the best the game can offer.

Half an hour south of Sawgrass is the World Golf Village, featuring the World Golf Hall of Fame, and two courses, the Slammer and the Squire, and the King and the Bear. The King and the Bear has generated the most attention, generally because it is the only collaboration to date of golf’s Golden Bear, Jack Nicklaus, and the king, Arnold Palmer.

With fees in peak season ranging from US$125 to US$175, the King and the Bear is a resort course with a little extra. One of the most interesting parts of the course is attempting to guess which golf great created each hole. It would seem to make sense that the holes that force players to hit a draw — the patented shot of Palmer — belong to the king. But the reality is, the course was a true collaboration, with both architects working together on the unique project.

Perhaps the best layout on Florida’s Palm Coast is Ocean Hammock. The course garnered headlines since its construction was announced, mainly because it was the only new seaside course in Florida since the famed private Seminole Golf Club was constructed in North Palm Beach in 1929.

A half-hour south of the World Golf Village, Ocean Hammock opened in 2000, and immediately drew attention as it features five holes that play toward or along the ocean. While it starts subtly, by the end, Nicklaus’ Ocean Hammock proves to be a breathtaking wonder of modern golf architecture.

At first glance, the course may appear to be a traditional Florida layout, with the opening holes providing the standard fare of sand and water. Yet, with the wind blowing off the ocean, even the starting holes can be tricky. It is the eighth hole where Ocean Hammock demonstrates its world-class characteristics. A mid-length par-3, the hole plays toward a green that rests in front of a large coastal dune. Beyond the dune is the open ocean and a well-struck ball could disappear in a mix of blue sky and water.

The course does not let up from there, and the tremendous ninth hole, a 468-yard par-4 that plays directly alongside the ocean, demands a strong approach for even a glimpse of par.

The ocean reappears in the final stretch. The 16th, another remarkable par-4 with a green that sits in front of the ocean, is one of the best golf holes I have encountered, while the short par-3 17th and the long, final par-4 offer a finish nothing short of spectacular. Ocean Hammock is one of the best courses developed in North America in the past few years.

While Ocean Hammock may cost up to US$175 per round, the PGA Village, two hours south in Port St. Lucie, offers some of the best golfing value in Florida. With three courses — a unique wasteland layout by Mr. Dye and two designs by Tom Fazio — the PGA Village offers a variety of golf in a concentrated setting. Peak season fees are about US$100 per round.

At the PGA Learning Center, created by the PGA of America, golfers can pay US$15 and practise as much as they want. It offers a circular range that allows players to hit from a variety of angles, a massive putting and chipping green, and a multitude of bunkers. Sheraton’s PGA Vacation Resort has condominiums for rent directly adjacent to the golf courses.

Before calling it a day, the avid golfer should make the pilgrimage to Bay Hill, host of a PGA Tour stop next month. Owned by Palmer, everything is first class, from the clubhouse attendants to the Callaway balls. Golfers regularly encounter PGA stars such as Charles Howell, and it is common to see Palmer himself.

Though non-members have to stay at Bay Hill’s lodge to gain access to the course (stay-and-play packages can run as high as US$700 in peak season), the course is a terrific Dick Wilson layout that Palmer has tinkered with over the years.

Opening with a three-hole combo, Bay Hill is full of history and good golf. Take, for instance, the par-5 sixth, a hole where John Daly once took an 18 after hitting six balls into the water (mandatory forecaddies keep players abreast of events). The hole provides players with a risk/reward scenario. Cut off the water that runs along the left of the fairway and you might get home in two shots — or in a watery grave.

Though I didn’t encounter golf’s king, it is the challenge of the course that will bring avid golfers back time and again.

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Robert Thompson

A bestselling author and award-winning columnist, Robert Thompson has been writing about business and sports, and particularly golf, for almost two decades. His reporting and commentary on golf has appeared in Golf Magazine, the Globe and Mail, T&L Golf and many other media outlets. Currently Robert is a columnist with Global Golf Post, golf analyst for Global News and Shaw Communications, and Senior Writer to ScoreGolf. The Going for the Green blog was launched in 2004.

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