Golf in Port Jacksonville, Florida

Wednesday February 21st, 2007
The 16th at the TPC at Sawgrass
Evan Schiller

Most pilgrims to Rome pay homage at the Vatican and little attention to the venerable churches in its shadow. If golf in the U.S. has an equivalent, it is Florida's First Coast, which stretches from just north of Jacksonville to Daytona Beach 75 miles south, where NASCAR and Spring Break collide.

The Vatican here is the Stadium Course at the TPC at Sawgrass, home of The Players Championship and headquarters of the PGA Tour. Pete Dye's celebrated course might be the best in the Jacksonville area; it is indisputably the best known. But visitors to northeast Florida will also find the work of other great architects, as well as championship lore that bridges the generations from Hogan to Nicklaus to Woods.

A half-hour's drive north of Jacksonville International Airport you'll find Amelia Island Plantation, a sprawling GOLF MAGAZINE Silver Medal resort. Amelia has three courses, two of which -- Oak Marsh and Ocean Links -- were designed by Dye and Bobby Weed, respectively. The more popular Oak Marsh opened in 1972 and showcases the Dye characteristics that send middle handicappers reaching for the Seconal.

It is often Dye's short holes that can mar an otherwise spotless round, and there are several such testers at Oak Marsh, where the tips measure just 6,580 yards. Take the 342-yard 8th. The tee shot must flirt with a pond that guards the right side of the fairway as well as the front, left and rear of the green. A narrow, crescent-shaped bunker rings the back of the green, and two more bunkers on the right await those who bail out to the "safe" side, leaving an explosion shot back toward the water. This is Dye at his best (or worst): Opting for the timid approach often makes the next shot more difficult.

Accuracy is also key at the 307-yard 10th hole, where water lurks unseen beyond the right fairway bunker and again on the approach to a huge hourglass-shaped green that is pinched like a supermodel's waist. Land on the wrong side and you might have to trade your putter for a wedge.

The usual rap against Florida courses is that the terrain is too flat and the houses are too close. That's true at Oak Marsh, where more than a few garden gnomes might seem to be in play. The situation is a bit different at Long Point Golf Course (6,702 yards, par 72), a beautiful Tom Fazio layout a couple of miles south on Highway A1A and the primary course for members of Amelia Island Plantation. This wonderfully schizophrenic design wanders from high dunes into marshland and back through forests. It reopened in October after an extensive renovation of its greens.

If Oak Marsh is Judge Judy, Long Point is Judge Wapner: no pushover, but more forgiving of human frailty. The large mounds that line the fairways are more apt to keep the ball in play than to kick it out of bounds, and the numerous waste bunkers are generally shallower than a Joe Millionaire contestant. Yet Long Point is not without bite. The 424-yard 2nd hole invites a pin-seeking approach to a deep green, but the hole plays downwind and anything long or left belongs to the marsh critters. Welcome to the biggest hazards at Long Point: the wind and your own hubris, as Fazio constantly tempts you to bite off just enough to choke on.

A benign view from the tee at the 438-yard 4th beckons aggressive golfers to cut the corner of the dogleg-left over the marsh, but it's actually a 275-yard carry to safety. The smarter line is toward the fairway bunker (don't worry, it's 290 to get there), leaving a lengthy approach. Long-ballers are baited again at the 522-yard 6th, a tremendous risk-reward par 5 that is quite manageable for shorter -- or smarter -- hitters.

Long Point's signature hole is the 166-yard 15th, which precedes the eerily similar 158-yard 16th. The Atlantic Ocean to the right of both holes enters play only if you slice wildly. More distracting are the well-appointed condos so close on the left that one can almost hear the jewelry rattling inside. Both holes are segregated from the rest of the course, and having to navigate through the development feels like goofy golf. This clear triumph of real estate over golf is Long Point's loss, but it's really the only weakness on a beautiful layout. (Resort guests can make tee times a day in advance.)

From Amelia Island to Ponte Vedra Beach it's an hour's drive south on Interstate 95 or 50 minutes down coastal Highway A1A (add half an hour if you just miss the short ride on the St. John's River Ferry). Ponte Vedra is golf's answer to Malibu, California. Vijay Singh, David Duval, Jim Furyk, Rocco Mediate and Fred Funk are just a few of the Tour stars who live here. Their home club is the TPC, where the Stadium Course is the most prized -- and expensive -- tee time on the First Coast.

Ranked 5th on GOLF MAGAZINE's Top 100 You Can Play, the Stadium Course (6,954 yards, par 72) boasts one of the most notable closing stretches on Tour. The 497-yard, par-5 16th is where Craig Perks chipped in en route to an unlikely win at the Players Championship in 2002. On the cusp of victory in 1998, Len Mattiace made a snowman at the famed island-green 17th. (That's not the only reason this is the longest 132 yards in Florida -- most golfers hit at least two balls, a tradition overlooked by rangers even if it does cause gridlock.) The 440-yard 18th, with the most daunting tee shot on the course, was the scene of Jerry Pate's widely applauded dunking of Dye after winning the first Players here in 1982.

For all the flash bulbs going off on the final holes, the rest of the Stadium Course is a more-than-adequate test. The best hole of all may be the 4th, a 380-yarder that demands a carefully placed tee shot between water and mounds, then an approach over water to a tiny, rippled green built atop Dye's signature railroad ties. The 529-yard 11th is a par 5 that calls for a drive to a fairway cinched by a large oak tree and a devilish approach to a green cowering behind water and a large bunker.

From the tips, the Stadium is too much course for most of us, but the second set of tees (6,514 yards) makes it an enjoyable facsimile of the Tour-pro experience, even if you don't have Johnny Miller second-guessing your shots. Of course, the pros don't shell out the $322 greens fee.

The Valley Course at the TPC opened in 1987 and still struggles for recognition in the long shadow of its older sibling. Those who tend to miss left get hammered here, with water in play on that side at almost every hole from the 3rd through the 14th. But Dye's cruelty is equal opportunity: Those who drift to the right off the tee get socked on the four closing holes.

The clearest echo of the Stadium comes at the Valley Course's 153-yard 14th, with its peninsula green. It may not be an island, but it claims its fair share of victims.

Back at the clubhouse, peer into the distance at the far end of the driving range and you might see Singh toiling away in the Tour pros' private practice area. Access to the Stadium and Valley Courses is limited to members and guests of the Sawgrass Marriott, but buying a $200 associate membership for the year will save you money if you bring buddies.

Staying at the Marriott also opens the gates of the private Sawgrass Country Club across Highway A1A. This was the venue for the Players Championship from 1977 to 1981, when winners included Jack Nicklaus, Lanny Wadkins, Raymond Floyd and Lee Trevino. There are three nines at Sawgrass. I played the South and West combination (6,922 yards, par 72). The South reopened in October after a five-month renovation by its original architect, Ed Seay, Arnold Palmer's longtime design consigliere. Sawgrass relies less on traditional hazards than on the wind, which seems to come from every direction at once. This is no fun on the 6th, a 528-yard par 5 that snakes around a pond on the right and poses a ferociously tough approach over water to a green with a Himalayan ridge in the middle. The par-5 9th hole is just 509 yards, but the lay-up area is a skeletal stretch of fairway between two ponds. The back-right corner of the green falls off into a deep swale.

The opening holes on the West are drier than the South nine, but the wind is no less troublesome, and even shots into short par 4s can play several clubs longer. The 7th is just 377 yards but water flanks both sides like Britney Spears's bodyguards. The approach plays to an elevated green perched on a crown of sheer-faced bunkers.

Crib Sheet: Jacksonville
AMELIA ISLAND PLANTATION
Greens fees $120-$140 (Oak Marsh/Ocean Links); $140-$160 (Long Point)
888-261-6161; aipfl.com

TPC AT SAWGRASS
Greens fees $322 (Stadium Course); $187 (Valley Course)
800-457-4653; tpc.com

SAWGRASS COUNTRY CLUB
Greens fee $240
904-285-2261; sawgrasscountryclub.com

WINDSOR PARKE GOLF CLUB
Greens fees $50-$70
904-223-4653; windsorparke.com

HYDE PARK GOLF CLUB
Greens fees $22-$36
904-786-5410; hydeparkgolf.com

For more information call 800-733-2668 or go to visitjacksonville.com. Packages are available at florida-golf.org.

Just as at Amelia Island, luxury homes form a mute gallery along the fairways at Sawgrass, and the patios encased in steel-screen cages begin to resemble a millionaires' death row. Still, the fried-chicken sandwich in the clubhouse is a fine end to a challenging round.

A 10-minute drive west from Ponte Vedra Beach on J. Turner Butler Boulevard is Windsor Parke Golf Club (6,765 yards, par 72), an Arthur Hills design that opened in 1990. Fairly forgiving overall, the course still places occasional demands on accuracy. At the 363-yard 6th, the generous fairway sets up a nervy approach over water. The second shot at the 387-yard 9th hole appears to be all carry over a marsh, but there is actually a sizeable collection area short of the green. Beware a back-right hole location at the 141-yard 12th: A massive ridge bisects the green, and you'll need a parachute to stop your ball on the back.

Windsor Parke has no holes that will remain seared in your memory, but it's an enjoyable respite from the draining experience of battling Mr. Dye.

Fifteen minutes north on I-95 are downtown Jacksonville and the River City Brewing Company, a great joint for beer and American fare with a large outdoor deck on the St. John's River. Stroll out on the river walk and you might see dolphins at play -- the real thing, not the NFL team.

If you want to squeeze in one more round before leaving town, Hyde Park Golf Club is just 20 minutes south of the airport. It's also one of the least expensive Donald Ross courses you'll find anywhere. A weekday round costs just $26, which is a fair indication that this isn't a high-end facility.

However, you do get an opportunity to best Ben Hogan, for one hole at least. The 151-yard 6th, known as Hogan's Alley, is the most storied hole at Hyde Park, which hosted the Jacksonville Open in the 1950s. One year, Hogan ran up an 11 here. Exactly how is lost to history, but one assumes he visited both the gaping bunker on the right and the pond on the left, although the water is tougher to hit than the green. Perhaps Hogan's infamous yips led to a four-jack on the severely sloping green. However he did it, that 11 might have been as human as he ever got.

What Hyde Park lacks in frills and length -- the tips measure just 6,468 yards -- it makes up for in history. Winners of the Jax Open here include major champions Cary Middlecoff, Doug Ford, Jim Ferrier and Lew Worsham. Besides, there are enough good holes to warrant a quick visit. And it will be quick: I walked 18 in three hours on a Saturday afternoon.

Hyde Park is as good a place as any to end your lesson in the great architects and storied tournament history of the First Coast. Class dismissed.

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