Streamsong won't appeal to everyone, but the Florida facility is golf in its purest form

Streamsong
Larry Lambrecht
The 16th on the Red course is a daunting par-3 framed by sand, fescue and one of Streamsong's signature dunes.

To start, I offer you some neutral, Wiki-style boilerplate: Streamsong is a new central Florida golf complex with two public courses on a remote stretch of neo-linksland in Polk County, about 80 miles south of Disney World, with a Blue course designed by Tom Doak and a Red one designed by Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw.

Yes, you say: But are they good?

Well, if $370 for 36 holes is in your golf budget, I urge you to get there and decide for yourself. (Resort public, but public.) Given the people behind the place, the dearth of American introductions in recent years, and Streamsong's open-door policy, you owe it to yourself. Plus, everybody seems to be shouting an opinion about something these days, giving out grades, handing out numbers. I'm on strike.

That the courses are spectacular is not a question. They are Thomas Hart Bentons, big-armed manly grotesques, with, like the Benton murals, a peculiar beauty. They are sui generis. The guys, Doak and Coore-Crenshaw, were surely showing off for each other all through construction and here we are a couple years later, losing track as we count up our three-putt greens. One downhill putt of mine finished in the water. In fact, over two days and 45 holes, I lost more balls than I made pars. (It is a place of wide fairways and wider ponds.) But it's all good. Really. You're playing golf, right? Even better, you're playing golf in the wilderness. Three miles of dirt road were paved over so you could get your unlimited-mileage rental to the clubhouse. The speed limit signs are marked 18.

Arnold Palmer said recently that he thought about building courses on drives through this stretch of armadillo country years ago. The Mosaic Company, miners of phosphate for fertilizer, beat him to it. The Mosaic bosses backed the project on a vast sandy tract the company already owned. Many of the holes are defined by man-made dunes, the detritus of long-dead mining operations. These are massive, windblown, living things covered with vegetation and rising more than 200 feet above sea level in places, powerful reminders of how tiny we are in the face of nature and our machines.

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Mosaic is now building a 216-room spa hotel, a draw for the ladies in somebody's optimistic business plan. As for Streamsong, the actual name, it's a marketing department invention meant to appeal to the gals. The company name conjures up way more. It sounds like it was plucked from the script of Chinatown, doesn't it? I hear the Mosaic people are coming and you know what that means. So meaty. Palmer did some guesswork accounting for me — 10 million for this, 10 for that, another five for something else — and concluded, "That's nothing for a company like Mosaic." The bold attitude that made this country great.

Streamsong is Ballybunion with brownish Bermuda fairways, caddies who sound like Delta pilots and alligators in the excavation lakes. During a solo emergency nine on the Blue, I was held up for 20 minutes by a napping 10-footer just off 14 tee. Lake left, lake right. There was nowhere for a singleton golfer to go.

It is not Bandon East. People like to say that Bandon Dunes, on the Oregon coast, was the first North American if-you-build-it-they-will-come golf destination. Say what? Have you heard of Pinehurst? Anyway, you could say Cabot Links, in a way-out nook of Nova Scotia, with 18 in and 18 coming, is Bandon East. By that logic, Streamsong is more like Bandon South.

People were actually having conversations like that on the Sunday and Monday after the PGA Merchandise Show last month, when Doak had his annual Renaissance Cup, this year at Streamsong. What a confab. The first person you saw was Linn (Growler) Strickler, the veteran Tour caddie, working Streamsong these days when the tide is right. (The man is golf.) Crenshaw was there for a while, and so was Coore. Doak, of course. Scottish architect David McLay Kidd. Mike Keiser, the golf impresario who hired those four for Bandon, was there. People were debating whether it was the first time Crenshaw, Coore, Doak and Kidd were all in the same place at the same time. (It was.) It was super golfy. It was a celebration.

It was also a congregation of persimmonheads for whom Hootie Johnson's 1999 decision to grow that backyardish "second cut" at Augusta is a scandal they cannot give up. (I'm sympathetic.) John Paul Newport, the golf writer from The Wall Street Journal, was in the house. (When John Paul is around, you got a happening.) Also Bob McCoy, who once played the GOLF MAGAZINE list of the top 100 courses in the world in 100 consecutive days. Bill Shean Jr., a highly accomplished senior amateur from Chicago, went deep in the competition. Ben Cowan-Dewar, Keiser's partner at Cabot Links and one of the big mahoffs behind golfclubatlas.com, was digging the scene with a gangsta lean, as the old song goes. BCD told me later that the Renaissance Cup at Streamsong generated a notable spike in GCA traffic and hundreds of online comments. The sandy hillock to the right of the 7th green on the Red, people are going wild about that thing.

I met a man at Streamsong with long white shorts and an unhurried gait named Ric Kayne, a private investor from Los Angeles who has hired Doak to build him an oceanfront course in New Zealand. Kayne considered nobody else for the job, and he figured out for me what the Renaissance Cup really is: a Star Trek convention for the green-acres crowd, populated by Doakies. Not that there weren't BC-ophiles there too. For instance, for the second course at Cabot, Cowan-Dewar hired the original revolutionaries, Coore and Crenshaw. Crenshaw found the Star Trek analogy amusing. He reminded me that Mark James, his counterpart at the '99 Ryder Cup, was a Trekkie.

When I talked to Brad Klein, the architecture critic for Golfweek, he compared Doak with John Coltrane and Coore-Crenshaw with Artie Shaw, references I am beginning to understand after a visit to iTunes. Coltrane seems to be making stuff up as he goes, and Shaw seems to have thought about the music every which way before deciding on a route.

Klein's main point about Doak and Coore-Crenshaw is that they got into the business in the 1980s committed to certain unmanicured principles rooted in golf's wasteland past. (Doak cannot even feign interest in overwatered country-club golf.) They stayed true to their mission statements even as others got far more work. And now they have seen the pendulum make a swing in their rugged direction.

Coore and Doak did the routing of the 36 holes together and because of that Doak refers to the Red as "Bill's course." Tact is not his strong suit. (Authenticity is.) Crenshaw, the most humane of elite golfers, has known and admired Doak for decades, and he accepts the whole package.

"Tom is fierce in his views," Crenshaw said the other day. "It stems from his wonderful knowledge. He has softened his edges a bit over the years, but artists can be a little difficult to get along with. It can't have all been smooth sailing with Alister MacKenzie, either."

MacKenzie, designer of Cypress Point, is a hero to both of them.

"We had a friendly competition at Streamsong," Crenshaw said. "Our crew would peer over a hill and see what they were doing, and they would do the same with us. It was fun. His bunkers — my God, they're beautiful."

We'll see what Ben says after he actually plays out of them.

Crenshaw is social by nature and Doak is not, but the Renaissance Cup is a home game for Doak and therefore different. At a communal Sunday night dinner in the beautiful, modern rectangle of a clubhouse, Doak spoke to his people, maybe 200 of them, about his admiration for Streamsong and the men and women who built it. He laughed at things I didn't understand and urged us to play the Himalayan Golf Course in Nepal. I sat with one of my favorite people in all of golf, my colleague John Garrity. The room could not have been warmer.

The Renaissance Cup is played as a series of nine-hole, two-man better-ball matches. My partner, Mike Donald, and I lost our first match to Garrity and his partner, Jim O'Neal, the head pro from the Meadow Club, near San Francisco. Through the happenstance of loss and fate, Mike and I then played 18 holes with two people we did not know, the guy in the white shorts (Kayne) and his partner, a superb golfer from Los Angeles named Terry Quinn. Over the course of our four or five hours together, we shared stories, dreams, histories, observations. It was intimate.

I told Doak about our unexpected experience. He wasn't surprised. "You all love golf," he said. "That's the first thing. You love golf in cool places, that's the second. You were in a place where you could relax, where you could let your guard down."

I asked Doak if there were places where he could do that. He thought about it. "At Ballybunion. Lahinch. Bandon Dunes." This kind of conversation doesn't come easily to him. "You know: places that bring out your emotion."

Emotional impact of golf experience. That's not a category course raters are required to summarize with a number, not that I've heard. Should it be? I don't know. I will defer to those who study these matters. You, maybe. In the meantime, I'm planning a return trip to Polk County.

 

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