Must-play golf courses in Northern Florida

TPC Sawgrass
A round at TPC Sawgrass should be at the top of your list when visiting Jacksonville, Florida.

There are a handful of contenders for the title of "Florida's Golf Capital," but since the creation of golf's most infamous island green 32 years ago, the undisputed holder is Northern Florida.

The Northeast area was the site of the state's (as well as the nation's) first settlements, thus earning its nickname "The First Coast," so it's no surprise that it's first in golf. From historic St. Augustine, to the World Golf Hall of Fame, to the incredible 17th at the Players Stadium course at TPC Sawgrass, Northeast Florida is as good as it gets when it comes to blending public golf and the game's history.

That said, Northern Florida does boast one of America's great undiscovered golf playgrounds: the Panhandle region of northwest Florida. Also called the Emerald Coast because of its striking water color, this relatively small stretch of land that separates Georgia and Alabama from the Gulf of Mexico features stunning white sand beaches and terrific golf.

It's also the place that produced 2012 Masters champion Bubba Watson and two-time PGA Tour winner Boo Weekley, so you know it's got to be full of low-key, aw-shucks fun.

Must Play Courses
TPC Sawgrass (tpc.com/tpc-sawgrass, 904-273-3235, $245-$410) The region's top must-play course remains the Players Stadium course at TPC Sawgrass in Ponte Vedra, Golf Magazine's top public course in Florida.

At least once in your life -- or better yet, twice -- you need to tackle the 137-yard, island-green 17th, second to none in stomach-churning, bucket-list drama.

The remaining holes aren't exactly hamburger helper. Pete Dye's amazing 1981 design, drawn up on a cocktail napkin, is full of strategic, yet target-oriented challenges, turf-covered spectator mounds, reachable par 5s and water everywhere.

Anywhere else, the Dye's Valley course ($130-$195) would be the star of the show. Here it's an overlooked sibling. Bobby Weed ably assisted Dye the first time around and did a later re-do himself. While it's still chock full of Pete, and water edges nearly every hole, it's more forgiving than many of the master's more sinister designs.

World Golf Village (worldgolfvillage.com, 877-888-2002, $79-$169)
It's hard to drag yourself away from the amazing memorabilia and cool interactive exhibits at the World Golf Hall of Fame in St. Augustine, but with two terrific courses mere steps away from its doors, you should.

Which course is better? Bobby Weed's Slammer & Squire, named for consultants Sam Snead and Gene Sarazen, or the Arnold Palmer/Jack Nicklaus co-design, King & Bear? You can't lose no matter which you pick. Holes such as the Redan-style, par-3 7th and the option-laden, short par-4 14th illustrate the former's fun and playability. The Palmer/Nicklaus effort features plenty of holes that bend left (favoring Arnie) and plenty that turn to the right (favoring Jack).

Raven at Sandestin (sandestinraven.com, 850-267-8211, $47-$135)
This Robert Trent Jones Jr. creation has hosted Champions Tour events and set the standard in service levels for northwest Florida-area courses, complete with mango-scented iced towels on hot days.

Jones' design is pretty strong, too. Huge, heaving greens, massive bunkers, avenues of pine trees and a healthy amount of lakes and wetlands keep Tour pros and resort guests equally engaged. Rees Jones' Burnt Pine is private, except to resort guests, but checking in gets you access to holes like 13 through 15, which spill out onto Choctawatchee Bay.

Baytowne is Sandestin's all-ages course, a good test in its own right, but provides kids tees, rental clubs and even a separate scorecard and yardage book for the wee ones.

The Links course is Sandestin's original track and sports slender fairways, plenty of lakes and a terrific pub where burgers, beverages and the views make for a satisfying finish.

Ponte Vedra Inn & Club (pontevedra.com, 888-839-9145, $125-$135)
The Ocean Course is a classic Herbert Strong design from 1932, but its chief claim to fame -- for trivia buffs, anyway -- is that it was slated to host the 1939 Ryder Cup, until World War II intervened. It's also known for its tiny par-3 9th, perhaps golf's original island green.

Construction over the years has limited many of the Atlantic views, but both hotel (you must stay to play here) and course are worth exploring. Always the red-headed stepchild to its sister Ocean course, the Lagoon Course was redesigned by Bobby Weed, who added another 450 yards, stretching the layout to a sufficiently testing 6,022 yards from the tips. With clever bunkering, water in play on 12 holes and Atlantic breezes always a factor, the sporty Lagoon is short but sweet.

Camp Creek Golf Club (campcreekgolfclub.com, 850-231-7600, $69-$145)
Camp Creek is a pristine 2001 Tom Fazio design in Panama City Beach that's free of homes and any other clutter -- just tough, gorgeous holes sculpted from pines, dunes and wetlands. It has been open to public play for the past three years, and guests of the WaterColor Inn & Resort (watercolorresort.com) get a discount on the green fee. It's worth the tariff to tackle the huge, undulating greens and rugged, yet beautiful par 3s, such as the lake-guarded 16th.

Shark's Tooth Golf Club (sharkstoothgolfclub.com, $850-249-3041, $55-$115)
This striking Greg Norman creation is also accessible to WaterColor Inn guests. A pair of back-to-nature, back-nine stunners, the par-5 13th and the par-3 14th, boasts outstanding views of massive Lake Powell, and the low-profile green entrances and lack of rough throughout place a premium on creative shotmaking.

Hammock Beach (hammockbeach.com, Ocean Course: 386-447-4611, $85-$169; Conservatory Course: 386-246-6710, $65-$129)
The Jack Nicklaus-designed Ocean Course has six holes along the Atlantic, one of the few courses in the state bordering its namesake. The Tom Watson-designed Conservatory Course is one of the toughest tracks in Florida, complete with an island green and an 18th hole tee box that looms almost 100 feet above the fairway. Both course are open to Hammock Beach Resort guests only. FYI - the Conservatory Course will be closed for a maintenance project this June through mid-September.

Best of the Rest
Amelia Island Plantation (omnihotels.com, 904-277-5907, $90-$160)
This resort has always brimmed with family-friendly fun, including its golf offerings. Long Point is the best, thanks to its back-to-back oceanside par 3s that appear down the closing stretch at 15 and 16.

Resort guests can try contacting the otherwise private Long Point one day in advance for a crack at this 1987 Tom Fazio layout. Pete Dye crafted the Oak Marsh track 40 years ago and its overhanging, Spanish moss-drenched oak limbs and Intracoastal wetlands have kept the course relevant and interesting ever since.

Dye's Ocean Links, where Bobby Weed added nine holes a few years back, is similarly compelling. Though 400 yards shorter than Oak Marsh from the tips, its five breeze-fueled holes along the Atlantic will truly captivate. Leave the big stick at home however. Houses, marsh and trees will get in the way of any wayward shot.

Southwood (southwoodgolf.com, 850-942-4653, $39-69)
Tallahassee is home to the State Capital, Florida State football and this delightful Gene Bates/Fred Couples test. The 7,172-yard layout features huge, moss-festooned live oaks, rolling, hardwood-studded terrain that exudes more of a Georgia feel than Florida and an interesting set of par 5s.

Best Bargain
Donald Ross crafted the Hyde Park Golf Club (hydeparkgolfclub.com, 904-786-5410, $24-$40) in 1925, and this classic muni in the heart of Jacksonville is still going strong. At 6,468 yards, it's no Pinehurst No. 2, either in challenge or conditioning, but it's good, cheap fun. On a mature site loaded with tall pines and oaks, the layout is mostly flat, before finishing off with a series of ravine-influenced holes.

Ben Hogan, Byron Nelson, Sam Snead and Babe Zaharias are among the legends that once teed it up at Hyde Park. Most memorably, Hogan made an 11 at the par-3 6th during a PGA Tour event in 1947.

Worth the Money
At least once in your golfing life, you absolutely, positively must make the pilgrimage to the greater Jacksonville area, to the town of Ponte Vedra Beach. That's where golf's ultimate gut-check resides -- the par-3 17th hole at the Players Stadium course at the TPC Sawgrass. As soon as you get off the phone confirming your tee time, your face starts grinning -- and your insides start flip-flopping -- at the prospect of tackling the island green.

It's a ridiculously pricey proposition at a peak season price of $410, but to experience Pete Dye's amazing design innovations that changed golf course architecture forever, as well to encounter golf's greatest risk/reward finish -- to say nothing of following in the modern game's most heralded footsteps -- well, it will be a round you won't soon forget.

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