STREAMSONG, Fla. -- It’s a good day in January when you get 36 holes in.
Good? Make that a great day.
Never mind that it was so dark even Clark Kent would’ve had a tough time seeing the cup on the final green. And ignore that part about it being too dim to play 16 and 17 if not for a glorious sky of streaked clouds ablaze in assorted pink, orange and violet hues. Where’s an easel and an artist when you need one?
There’s no better time than sunset to be on a golf course and in central Florida, there aren’t any better courses to be on than the Red Course at Streamsong. Unless it’s the Blue Course at Streamsong, where we played the day’s opening 18.
You may have heard of Streamsong a year ago when the two spectacular courses -- the Red by Ben Crenshaw and Bill Coore and the Blue by Tom Doak -- opened for play. They’re part of an ambitious and luxurious resort package that is now complete, more or less.
A year ago, there were two courses and a sleek golf clubhouse. As of this week, there are two courses, a sleek clubhouse and just up the road, an actual resort. The scent of freshly sawed wood and new stone lingers in the entrance at the resort, which has 216 rooms, an ultra-modern look and a spacious, impressive lobby. They’re open for business, just barely, and there are a few small kinks to work out. For example, take the shuttle driver chauffeuring a pack of golfers from the lodge to the course in a big Mercedes van early in the morning. The vehicle was puttering along at a snail-like couple of miles an hour because it was stuck in idle mode and the driver didn’t know how to flip it back into drive. The passengers, some of whom had pending tee times, were not thrilled when he turned around and returned to the lodge for further instructions. It was funny stuff unless you had the 7:45 tee time.
I didn’t spend the night at the lodge but I checked out the room of a guy who did, a radio host named Chuck from Waukesha, Wis. “You’ve gotta see the room,” he had crowed. He was right. It had pretty much everything, from a giant glass walk-in shower to a two-way TV in the middle of the room. Two-way TV? I don’t know how else to describe it. Half of the large room featured two double beds facing a dresser with a large TV in a frame. Another TV on the dresser faced the other half of the room, which had a couch, counters, a refrigerator, shelf space and a coffeemaker. It was like a hotel room with its own family room. Very cool. And that’s without mentioning the floor-to-ceiling custom window louvers, which were probably made from something elegant like mahogany or teak or, I don’t know, Iron Man’s costume.
The resort has a spa, I’m told, and we opted for a second 18 on the Red in the afternoon (after A-plus burgers and an avalanche of fries in the golf clubhouse’s Restaurant 59) in lieu of other options such as fishing or shooting skeet. This place is not for the faint of wallet. I looked online and was offered a price of $575 per night, per person, double occupancy required, and that included 36 holes of golf and free breakfast. When the courses first opened a year ago, the rate for golf was $335, so based on that, it’s a deal.
The courses themselves are not for the faint of talent. They’re big, sprawling brutes of infinite undulation. There are sand dunes and hills and ridges. This does not look like Florida. When we teed off just after 8 a.m., it was overcast and misting and the dunes had the feel of Scotland or Ireland. When the sun burst through later, it might have been Wisconsin or Pennsylvania or Oregon. But definitely not Florida.
There will be debates about which course is better. I enjoyed Doak’s Blue Course much more the second time around. The first time, its bowls and slopes and gaping bunkers were intimidating. This was my first time around the Red, and like that opening tour of the Blue, it was also challenging and intimidating. I’d give the Blue a slight edge but a second tour of the Red and a little familiarity might well change that. Let’s just say there is no wrong choice.
It’s not outlandish to say that both courses could host a major championship tomorrow. They’re that good, they’re that difficult, they’re that resistant to scoring. That said, I don’t see a U.S. Open or a PGA or any serious competition being held here -- practically in the middle of nowhere and without significant infrastructure -- in June, July or August. Plus there’s the Florida summer heat, and these courses have the links-like flavor of nearly tree-less holes. The record for fans being treated for heat exhaustion would be put out of reach if either course held a PGA in August.
Just finding Streamsong is no small feat. It’s a solid 90 minutes from Orlando -- 83.6 miles according to my GPS unit. It’s got to be over an hour from Tampa. If you look on a map, it’s just about due east of Bradenton or St. Petersburg in a vacant quadrant of central Florida. Yes, you can get there, but only if you’re good at puzzles.
The weird part about Streamsong is its location. Bandon Dunes works even in an isolated part of Oregon because the courses are spectacular and its season is the summer, when there’s easily enough daylight to play 36 or even 54 holes. Prime time for Streamsong will be the winter months, November through March, when there’s the least amount of daylight available. And, oh yeah, the natural Bermuda grass is dormant. Who’s going to play in the wilting heat and humidity of summer?
The other minor glitch is that like most courses capable of holding an elite-level event, they’re awfully difficult for Joe Hacker. Isn’t the average golfer’s handicap something like 17? That golfer won’t break 100 here. Carts weren’t allowed on the fairways when we played, which slowed things down a bit, but the difficulty of the courses, especially those yawning, rough-hewn bunkers everywhere and the at-times challenging undulations on the greens don’t help the pace of play.
As rusty Northerners who hadn’t played golf in a month, we made the decision to move up to the Silver tees, which put both courses into the 6,200-yard range and resulted in three words: way more fun. I scored my first eagle of the year. Also my first double bogeys.
We still found plenty of trouble around the greens. Doak has a bunker that must be two stories deep next to the green on a drivable par-4 on the Blue, and some of us conducted excavations there. The fairways are generous, though, and we spent no time on safari looking for balls in the higher grass because we never hit it there.
Doak’s finishing hole is a long, manly par-4 where you hit from an elevated fairway to a green down below in front of the clubhouse. It’s an exhilarating second shot.
I can’t comment on Crenshaw and Coore’s 18th, a shortish par-5, because it was too dark. The 16th hole is the Red’s highlight, in my book. It reminded me of the par-3 9th hole at the Yale Golf Club, where I used to play. Yale’s 9th is a shot from an elevated tee over a lake to a monstrous 70-yard-deep green that is divided by a 15-foot deep swale where you could hide a parked SUV. The Red’s 16th is similar, a shot over a lake -- you get a scenic view of the clubhouse to your right -- to another massive green with assorted false fronts, but not a Yale Death Swale. It’s one of those holes where you simply have to suck it up and hit a good shot.
Miss it left and your ball likely will bound down a steep slope and leave you with a lengthy and intimidating pitch. I missed left but got lucky and my ball somehow didn’t careen down the hill. My chip caught just enough fringe to slow it down and I holed an eight-footer for par. Don’t ask me to do it again, though.
The Red and the Blue are more than golf courses. They are golfing experiences. At the conclusion of a 36-hole day, you’re guaranteed to have plenty of shots and situations to rehash, and that’s good.
Good? No, that’s great.