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 28 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 a golf mecca.
That said, Northern Florida also boasts 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 Boo Weekley, so you know it's got to be full of low-key, aw-shucks fun.
What's New in Town
New course construction in northeast Florida has dwindled to virtually nothing, but that doesn't mean there aren't new opportunities for visitors to play. A stay at the Sawgrass Marriott not only provides unsurpassed access to the PLAYERS Stadium course and its sibling, Dye's Valley, but also allows you further private club access as well. Palencia Country Club is a handsome, members-only 2002 Arthur Hills design that does accept play from Sawgrass Marriott guests. Hardwoods, marshes, views of the Intracoastal and a memorable quartet of par-5s are among the highlights. Deerwood Country Club, site of multiple PGA Tour events in the 1960s and 1970s, where winners included Raymond Floyd, Hubert Green and Tony Jacklin, is another private tract that caters to Sawgrass Marriott guests.
If you haven't been back to the region in awhile and are craving a supreme value as well as a supreme challenge, perhaps check out Panther Creek Golf Club. Carved out of flat farmland nine miles west of downtown Jacksonville, Panther Creek is a 2005 Andy Dye wetlands-splashed design that sports a brutal 149 slope from its 7,526-yard back tees. Dye borrowed only a few tricks from his Uncle Pete's diabolical bag, notably the wildly undulating greens that on several occasions make mere three-putting a respectable achievement.
On the other hand, old and petite can make for an unforgettable round as well. Take the Lagoon course at the venerable Ponte Vedra Inn & Club. Always the red-headed stepchild to its sister Ocean course, the Lagoon now features a complete redesign from architect Bobby Weed, who moved enough dirt to create mounds, improve drainage and add another 450 yards, stretching the layout to a sufficiently testing 6,022 yards from the tips. With new and clever bunkering, water in play on 12 holes and Atlantic breezes always a factor, the sporty, now challenging Lagoon may still be short, but it's vastly improved in every way.
Out in the Panhandle, the biggest news is the improved public access to two of the area's greatest courses, Camp Creek Golf Club in Panama City Beach and Shark's Tooth Golf Club in Lake Powell. Both are St. Joe's properties and both are spectacular. Camp Creek is a pristine 2001 Tom Fazio design that's free of homes and any other clutter — just tough, gorgeous holes sculpted from pines, dunes and wetlands. As of March 1, 2009, it's open for off-the-street play, though property owners and guests of the WaterColor Inn get a discount. Either way, 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 remains more private — but this striking Greg Norman creation is now 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.
The Trophy Collection
Make no mistake — the region's one "must-play" remains the PLAYERS Stadium course at TPC Sawgrass. At least once in your life — or better yet, twice — you need to tackle the 137-yard island-green 17th. The sweaty-palms, pulse-racing moment at the 17th tee is second to none in stomach-churning, bucket-list drama. Of course, the remaining holes aren't exactly hamburger helper. Pete Dye's amazing 1981 design, drawn up on a cocktail napkin, oozes strategic, yet target-oriented challenges, replete with turf-covered spectator mounds, reachable par-5s and water everywhere. Some purists will moan that it's too much and too artificial, but for the rest of us, PLAYERS Stadium remains one of the most exciting, influential designs of the modern era.
Anywhere else, the Dye's Valley course would be star of the show. At the TPC Sawgrass, however, it's second fiddle. Nonetheless, resin up your bow, because this fiddle needs to be played. Bobby Weed ably assisted Dye the first time around and did a later re-do himself. While it's still chock full 'o Pete, it's more forgiving than many of the master's more sinister designs. Water edges nearly every hole, but there are far fewer forced carries than on its Stadium sister. True, there's not as much drama, either, but it's a more playable alternative — especially with the positioning last year of a new set of Family tees.
It's hard to drag yourself away from the amazing memorabilia and cool interactive exhibits at the World Golf Village in St. Augustine, but with two terrific courses mere steps away, it's time to make a little Hall-of-Fame magic of your own. There's healthy debate as to 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. When Lee Trevino and Gary Player dueled at Slammer & Squire in a 1998 Shell's Wonderful World of Golf match, they both praised the layout for its fun and playability. Holes such as the Redan-style, par-3 7th and the option-laden, short par-4 14th illustrate why. The Palmer/Nicklaus effort features plenty of holes that bend left (favoring Arnie) and plenty that turn to the right (favoring Jack). No matter how your draws or fades turn out, you'll warm to this well-conditioned test.
Out in the Panhandle, there's more terrific golf to be had besides just Camp Creek and Shark's Tooth. Best of the bunch is the Raven at Sandestin, a nine-year-old Robert Trent Jones Jr. creation that played host to the Champions Tour in 2006 and 2007. Service levels have set the standard in the area, complete with mango-scented iced towels on hot days, a Raven specialty, but 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 one-round-a-month resort guests equally engaged.
Best of the Rest
Environmentally friendly Amelia Island Plantation has always brimmed with family-friendly fun, including its golf offerings, which recently swelled from three courses to four. Many count Long Point as the best, thanks to its back-to-back oceanside par-3s. A recent switch of the nines means these holes now appear down the 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 in 1973 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. Not long ago, the resort added the Amelia River Golf Club to its stable, a sturdy Tom Jackson design that twists through palms, pines, oaks and wax myrtles.
Ponte Vedra Inn & Club's 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 vistas, but both hotel and course (especially after Bobby Weed's 1998 re-do) are worth exploring.
Moving west, towards the Emerald Coast, stop off first in Tallahassee for a dose of the State Capitol, Florida State football and a delightful Gene Bates/Fred Couples test called Southwood. 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.
On the Panhandle itself, Sandestin throws three other courses at you besides the Raven, all worth the green fees and all for different reasons. Rees Jones' Burnt Pine is private, except to resort guests, but checking in gets you access to holes 13-15, which spill out onto Choctawatchee Bay. Baytowne is Sandestin's all-ages course, a good test in its own right, but provides kids tees, kids rental clubs and even a separate kids 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 views make for a satisfying finish.
The region's best value is definitely the Moors, a pseudo-Scottish design, complete with mounds, pot bunkers and native grasses. Raymond Floyd, Gil Morgan and Lee Trevino all won Senior Tour events here.
Finally, for a solid combination of beauty and brawn, check out Kelly Plantation and Regatta Bay. Regatta Bay is a true brute from the back with its 149 slope and a watery par-5 18th that sets the tone for the course. Fred Couples and Gene Bates sculpted Kelly Plantation along the shores of Choctawatchee Bay, but it's the woods and wetlands that will force most of the re-loads.