Ritz-Carlton Grande Lakes Golf Club

Ritz Grand Lakes LogoIf you are on a golf trip to Orlando and playing the usual suspects, Bay Hill, Orange Country National, Grand Cypress to name a few, consider taking an afternoon and adding the Grande Lakes Course at the Ritz-Carlton to your vacation rota. Built on a typical piece of Florida marshland Greg Norman figured out a way to raise from the flood plain a very interesting set of holes that in many ways defies the typical central Florida formula of flat holes hemmed in by acres of sand and water.

The front nine wends through the oaks and cypress trees with some accent from the wetlands. The back nine serious soil was moved to raise topography from the flood plain and create compelling holes among the wetlands. This side is more exposed to the elements and any hint of wind brings the greater presence of the wetlands to front of mind.

The driving areas are generous throughout but having said that there are specific angles of approach to the greens that are advantageous. A yardage book is a great asset to understanding the proper lines of play. There is plenty of sand-some crushed sea shell waste areas as well-but the course is not overbunkered. Bunkers have clean edges which makes for a very tailored presentation.

The most thought was put into the green complexes which have very dramatic topographical interest. Many of the greens are more than 40 yards long and have serious contour so just being on a green is no guarantee of a two-putt. The green conditions were about as perfect as I have seen in Florida and the putting speed they can maintain as a result can be disarming.

The hole sequence on the front is user friendly with two par fives within three holes to allow build up of some par acorns. As you get into the last three on this side the water is closer at hand and the wind influence picks up increasing the challenge accordingly. Making a decent score on the outward nine is a matter of patience and line control.

The distinctive Par 4 11th is the gateway to a fantastic finish

The distinctive Par 4 11th is the gateway to a frenetic finish

Starting at the 11th the character of the course changes dramatically and your focus must heighten as well. Check the hole-by-hole attachment below for the details. The Par 4 11th is one of the most unique holes you play all day with a tree and sand feature in the center of the driving area that forces you to pick a favored line of play right off the tee box. To the chagrin of the Michelob Ultra crowd, a short Par 3 and a short Par 4 follow that favor brains over brawn and will punish overly aggressive play as the course works toward a strong finish down the last five.

The five finishing holes are a wild collection of very unusual holes that demand calculated patience to get to the house with your scorecard in tact. The common theme is adjacent disaster to the charmed line of play on each hole which makes the risk reward calculation on almost every shot of paramount concern. The green complexes down the stretch are some of the most imaginative you see all day so articulate approach shots are required or you can get into some very dicey up-and-down situations.

The finishing hole brings your home with a flourish

The finishing hole brings your home with a flourish

The finishing hole provides a grand view of the Marriott and Ritz-Carlton hotel and play facilities. It seems like an appropriate back drop to what has undoubtedly been a stout and invigorating golf challenge.

Orlando, Florida

Designer: Greg Norman (2003)

Tees      Par    Yardage      Rating        Slope

Gold      72        6708           72.2           135
Blue      72        6324           70.3           127
White    72        5835           68              121
Green   72        5223           69.8           115

(Click to see complete hole-by-hole descriptions of the Ritz-Carlton Grande Lakes Club)

Black Diamond Ranch-Quarry Course

Black Diamond Ranch LogoIt would take celestial intervention to create a golf course with serious topography in Florida and that seems to be what occurred when the golf gods sent a meteor crashing into Florida’s Nature Coast a few eons ago to create the limestone quarry that would eventually dominate the back nine of this very atypical Florida course. Then there was the chutzpah of owner Stan Olsen looking Tom Fazio in the eye and saying can you make playable holes out of this troll sanctuary without us having to add a theme park along side to attract interest. Fazio was up to the task and what he created was probably the most memorable course in the state, something very special that will be retained as an indelible impression in your golf psyche long after you are done.

Looking back from the 15th green you can appreciate the depth of this depression

Looking back from the 15th green you can appreciate the depth of this topographical incursion

(Click on any picture to get an enhanced view of the image)

The wow factor on this course is off the charts. It is almost hard to put the camera down long enough to hit the shots required to play the first 12 holes Fazio has orchestrated before you reach his final crescendo in the quarry. From the opening tee shot until you turn the corner to the 13th tee, entering the gateway to troll heaven, the holes meander down and up the gentle tree lined foothills providing stunning views of naturally appointed landing areas and green complexes, slowly building a sense of excitement of what is to come. It begins on the first tee box staring down a majestic par four unfolding beneath your feet. Throughout the day drive position is critical to getting the proper angle into the crafty green complexes. The first Kodak moment of the day is on the second tee as you look down a pitched fairway split by a deep bunker in the center and a massive sand waste area defining the left. You can just make out the tiny green perched on the hill protected by a lone pot bunker. It won’t occur to you yet but the bunkering throughout this course around the green complexes is very selective. In contrast there are a number of the oversized Fazio waste areas cordoning the holes but the greenside bunkering is very tactical and can be avoided by carefully planning the line of approach.

The Redan-esque 8th hole gives you a feel of the tactical detail on the front nine

The Redan style Par 3 8th sets up for the right-to-left ball flight and roll out

After the stern start, the course takes a decided change in character with a devilishly clever short approach and putt par three at the fourth. From the elevated tee a berm masks the front of the green and makes this a bait and switch pitch since you cannot see the landing surface. Camera time again for the spectacular view off the tee on this next par five. All the three-shot holes at Black Diamond are about shot positioning as the serpentine fairways and the adjacent bunkering and hollows give you plenty of options negotiating a path to the green. What follows is a couple of Irish hide-and-seek par fours where the creative use of the topography will leave you uncomfortable blind tee shots and approaches that require confident visualization. One of my favorites of the day is the Redan par three 8th which characteristically calls for right-to-left ground control of your hybrid or long iron after landing on the front of the green to feed to the day’s pin. This side closes with a dogleg right par five, similar to the fifth, but the addition of water menacing the tee ball landing area makes the penalty for wayward right flight much more definitive. This is one of only two incidents of water in play all day, a rarity at Florida courses that often feel like Venice.

The use of large sand waste area on the 11th obviates the need for a water hazard

The large waste area on the 11th adds intoxicating visual and tactical interest

The inward half starts much like the opening nine with a sweeping downhill tee shot to a generous landing area. The green complex on this par four is very tricky in that it is a wavy low shelf that angles back to the left against your approach line. If you have a soft draw and the confidence to land it short and feed it on this may be the only way to get a ball to stay on this green. The eleventh is one of the coolest holes of the day. A massive ocean of waste sand in the nook of the dogleg suggests you play your tee shot into the wide berth of the left side of the landing area. In reality it is better to hug your tee shot as close to the waste area as you can since there is no angle at the narrow table top green from the left side of the fairway and a deep hollow with two embedded bunkers protects this approach line. One more gentle dogleg right remains. Standing on the 12th green Fazio has lulled you into a sense of nervous security anticipating what is just over the next hill.

The first view across the quarry from the 13th tee box

The first view across the quarry from the 13th tee box is very intimidating

As you climb up the stairs from the cart park and step onto the 13th tee an exhilarating rush followed by a sense of vertigo overwhelms you. Standing on the edge of the canyon peering across an 80-foot chasm the sirens are beckoning you to play across to a safe green haven sprawled on the other side. It becomes very clear that the next five holes will be as much a test of emotional control as golf aptitude. There is no choice but to strap on the seat belt, take the loose change out of your pockets, sing the calming lyrics of the Joni Mitchell song, and focus on the grassy patches called landing areas as the next five holes traverse the deep crevices of the limestone quarry.

The top of the cork screw from the teeing ground on the par 5 14th

The tee shot must skirt the canyon rim on the par 5 14th as the hole corkscrews to the left

Since the rotation around, into, and out of the quarry is counter clockwise it would seem to favor right-to-left ball flight. You can then aim over land and turn the ball back into the approach areas, but overcooking any shot means more fodder for the trolls below so give yourself a wee bit more on the right as you plot your shot lines.

The approach on the 14th requires nerve and control to avoid the evil decree

The approach on the 14th requires nerve and control to avoid the evil decree

The tee shot on the 13th is probably the easiest play you will have to make over these next five holes. The carry should not be more than 150 yards and if you can find the center spine of the hour glass shaped green there is 54 yards of depth to work with. The par five that follows begins a corkscrew path across the top rim of the quarry and drops considerably on the approach shot to a green complex hanging on the edge. Long or left is no good.

Heading down canyon off the 15th tee toward Black Diamond Lake

A confident swing required heading down canyon off the 15th tee-there is little room for error

From the 15th tee you get the full drama of this celestial depression peering down a tapered fairway wending it’s way to the canyon floor where the green seems to shimmer next to crystal blue Black Diamond Lake. There is no room for error on either side of his hole from tee to green. It may occur to you after putting out that the last two holes simulate the reverse flush vortex of toilets from Down Under.

Talk about intimidating, how about this tee shot back up to the 16th fairway

Talk about intimidating, how about this tee shot back up to the 16th fairway

That was the easy part because the last two of the quarry holes are really difficult. Hauled back up to a tee box about two stories below the canyon rim and your task is to bite off as much as you can chew with a drive that must carry across the emptiness and clear the edge of the quarry wall on the other side. From there it is a long tightrope walk approach to a 53-yard sliver of a green dangling over the abyss.

Across a tight rope to the 16th green dangling on the edge

The approach shot on 16 must negotiate a tight rope to a long and narrow target

The last par three is excruciatingly difficult as you carry a fairway metal from a perch tee box across the troll terrarium to an anvil shaped green wedged into a squash court with stone walls about 50 feet below. Any tee shot off line faces an ignominious fate and your scorecard will suffer accordingly. Once you emerge from the canyon to the 18th tee you feel like you exited the decompression chamber. The final challenge of the day is a wrap around par five that requires your full attention. Once your drive is in play carefully consider where the second shot has to land among an array of grass moguls and sandy depressions. Be aggressive, you want a short club in hand for the approach into a tiny green with serious undulations. Putting out for a par will render a deep sigh of relief considering the exhilarating joy ride you have been through the last hour or so. The Quarry Course is not an easy one to get on since it is part of a private 45-hole golf facility, the centerpiece of an expensive housing development. If it takes some arm twisting to get access to the place it is well worth it to get a chance to play one of Tom Fazio’s most original creations described in detail in the hole-by-hole descriptive below. Special thanks to Marcie Winston for her stunning photographic contributions to this posting. Lecanto, Florida Architect: Tom Fazio (1988) Tees            Par    Yardage    Rating    Slope Black           72       7159       75.0       137 Dark Gray    72       6496       72.1       131 Green          72       6050       69.7       125 (Click to see complete Black Diamond Ranch-Quarry Course hole-by-hole descriptions)

Bay Hill Charger Nine

Bay Hill LogoOne of the hidden gems at Bay Hill is the nine hole Charger Course.  Call it an intramural, warm-up, settle-the-bets, or happy-hour nine, but this is a well thought out strand of holes that replicates the challenges of the championship course and stands on it’s own as well as a quality test of your golfing skills.  Find a way to slip this one into the itinerary, your trip to Bay Hill is incomplete without the Charger experience.

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Starts out simple enough with a shortish four par looking for about 220 off the tee straight down the pike.  As you stare at the green you think you are seeing double, which you in fact are since one and eight share a double green in Arnold’s apparent nod to this common sight at St. Andrews.  The green complex is typical of what you see throughout, tiny green raised up from the fairway tightly wedged in between collaring deep bunkers.  Aside from the size of the surface this is in full character with the big course.

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The second is a cold splash of water to the face, a forced carry short par three to a sliver of a green draped across a shoulder of water and sand.  Pins on the left are pure suckers, aiming spot is center over the bunker to the crown point of the green. The technical theme continues with a hopscotch target par four where reason must prevail over temptation or you stand to send your match into arrears.  Something 200 to 220 at the aiming bunker though the fairway will bring your ball to rest left center and take the first water experience on the hole out of play.  The second is a short pitch into a clever green arrangement collared by sand left and the second water experience on the right.  Like the previous hole all pins call for a deep play to the center and putt back from there.  If you walk to the fourth tee one over or better you are in command of your game today.

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The next par five is the least interesting offering of the nine.  This plays as a straight three-shotter into another tight green complex squeezed by sand.  The green is deep so it should contain an aggressive long club that successfully negotiates the narrow opening in the front of the green.

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The par five that follows is  pure thrill ride and may be the pivotal decision making hole of your match.  A strong draw will follow the shape of the hole and leave you adjacent to the fairway bunkers that define the left corner of this dogleg.  From well above the target you are looking down at a stunning green complex.   A long kidney shaped green lies between  a hillside left and boulder trimmed water on the right.  This hole shares the distinctive wharf style look of the sixth from the championship course just to it’s left.  If you choose to take a poke at it on your second aim at the left edge of the green because the contour in front will feed the ball the right.  Taking on the flag directly will leave you a Flintstone lie in the rocks.  Even a lay up needs to favor the left edge of the fairway for a clean look up the angle of the green.  A good score here is great fodder for post round conversations in the bar.

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The sixth is one of those innocuous looking par fours that will have you scratching you head walking off the green wondering what went awry if you don’t maintain focus.  Approach angle is important so hoist a hard one to right center and you leave a short club to a sand nestled green slightly above you.  This green is fairly long by Charger standards but there is a rise in he center that demands a full carry to the back pin positions. Two controlled shots and this is a routine par, anything wandering brings lots of possibilities to you scorecard.

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If they had a postcard hole for this nine this next dramatic par three would be it.  Depending on the tee you play it can be a short pitch to stiff long club from a high tee to an appetizing green arrangement below.  Full forced carry over more boulders and water to a green stuffed into the foot of the slope behind. You have to play the back third of this green to hedge the carry and any putt back down to the pin will be a ripper.  If the wind is blowing at all the club selection is a Donald Trump crap shoot with a significant elevation change just complicating the formula.  Once you send you ball on it’s way just sit back, relax, and enjoy the IMAX view of what will result. This is as fine of a three par as there is on the property.

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The run to the house is a pair of wonderful par fours that continue to emphasize line and distance control.  Tee ball on eight is semi-blind into a landing area above.  Right center off the tee gives the best attack angle into this green.  Double vision again prevails as you may remember that the eighth is a continuation of the first green bisected by a separating bunker.  The approach sets up for a soft draw working at the pin on the left.

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The final hole shadows and replicates to some degree the ninth on the championship course.  As you will find on it’s big brother, you have to turn it over off this tee to follow the line of the hole.  The second is a long shot into a very deep green narrowed by shading bunkers on either side.  The green falls off gently back and right so you can use the ground to assist a low trundling shot to get to a back right pin.

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When you finally settle in for the beer and Bay Chips at the bar with your buds or the wife, you will take great pleasure in replaying in your mind this bonus nine and the shots it required.

Orlando, Florida

Architect: Arnold Palmer
Tee              Par    Yardage    Rating     Slope
Blue             36       3085        35.2        125
Yellow          36       2867        34.1        115
White (L)      36       2278        33.8        118

(Click for a printable version of this course review)

(Click to see the moegolf Bay Hill Championship Course review)

(Click to see Bay Hill photos from the Postcard From Bay Hill)

TPC Sawgrass

As the first iteration of Dean Beman’s stadium course concept and the permanent home of The Players Championship, Pete Dye put together a course that would challenge the best players in the world and create iconic images in the minds of golf fans.  The original design was impossibly difficult and somewhat controversial, but a bottomless well of tour money has allowed them to continuously tinker and improve the layout and get much more unanimous professional approval as a result.  The reconstruction of the fairways and greens in the last decade plus the introduction of Sub-Air technology under the putting surfaces allow the tour to prepare this course as hard and fast as they desire.

Dye’s hazards do not discriminate on whom they inflicted scoring damage

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Make no mistake about it, there is nothing timid about this course.  Pete has a garage full of intimidation factors in his design repetoire and he dipped into that reserve generously in putting this together.  Massive waste bunkers, huge mounding to mask landing areas, plumes of sage grass, and water galore amassed together make for a house of horrors to the average player.  Truth is the intimidation is more psychological than real so the trick is to look beyond the surface veneer and focus on a playable line to each hole which he graciously provides. The combination of intelligent decision making and unwavering focus on a playable line can make for  an enjoyable day.

Looking at the winners of The Players over 30 years you will see the unexpected names like Calvin Peete, Mark McCumber, Tom Kite,  Lee Janzen, Justin Leonard, Fred Funk, and K. J. Choi.  Look at runners up and you have Larry Mize, Mike Reid, Jeff Sluman, Glen Day, Jay Haas, and Scott Verplank.  Occasionally a name guy like Eldrick Woods or Philip Alfred Mickelson has seen success here.The common denominator is accurate driving and competent putting on fast greens.

Tiger has a few of these in his trophy room

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Anything out of the fairway off the tee increases the challenge of hitting greens by a factor of 1.5 and the score goes up accordingly.   This is target golf with serious penalty for missing your intended shot lines.  The fast greens are very segmented and steeply sloped so regularly putting from outside the section that has the flag will have similar deleterious impact on your scoring.

As is recommended by the yardage book, pick a tee marker that is appropriate for you skill level.  If your average drive is 235 or less play white, 235 to 250 play blended blue/white, over 250 play blue.  Don’t consider the back tee unless you have your name embroidered on your golf bag.  The key is to have the driving areas reasonably within your range so you can actually enjoy the challenging approaches into the greens.

At 220 yards plus the Par Three 8th has bedeviled it’s share of scorecards

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The sequence of the golf challenge is carefully architected.  Both sides start a bit easier with scoring opportunities early, but ratchet up considerably around the fourth hole.  The last three holes on both the front and the back make keeping a score in tact a whole lot of work.  The eighth hole is a brutal par 3 7/8ths and the ninth can eat your lunch six ways to Sunday.  Better than the finish at any of regular tour stops, sixteen, seventeen, and eighteen collectively present opportunity for glory or disaster  in equal measure.  This is target golf at it’s most extreme.

Personally I think the par 5 sixteenth is one of the coolest holes out there.  For the long hitting pros going for the green in two is a must but there is a huge penalty for bailing out left to avoid the harrowing water that encroaches on the right.  Any wind at all makes this huge green very elusive.

Sergio has experienced the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat at the 17th

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Nothing more need be said about the iconic island green at 17, you have witnessed a boatload of heartache and misery in HD watching the broadcasts over the years.  The eighteenth is as hard a par to make as you could ever imagine.  Missing your approach into the grassy moguls right of the green can lead to a downright embarrassing sequence of recovery attempts.

In the last renovation they built a clubhouse that is worthy of being the home of the PGA Tour.  You will find an endless offering of tour memorabilia to add to your study.  The locker rooms, eating facilities, and practice areas are something to experience as well.

Playing the course that so adequately bevils the top 50 in the world each year is definitely a thrill.  Just play it at a reasonable yardage and don’t beat yourself up if Pete and Alice have their way with your scorecard.

Ponte Verde, Florida

Architect: Pete Dye (1980)

Tees                 Par            Yardage      Rating     Slope

Blue                 72                6661           73.9        146

White               72               6103            70.9        137

(Click here to review TPC Sawgrass hole-by-hole descriptions)

The Concession Golf Club

The Concession, a collaborative design between Jack Nicklaus and Tony Jacklin, was first opened in 2006 in the Sarasota area to be the centerpiece of  a high end exclusive residential golf development.  It gets it’s name from the fact that these two were the protagonists in a famous concession of a two-foot putt at the final match of 1969 Ryder Cup that resulted in the first tie in the match’s history.  In the annals of golf this goes down as one of the most gracious gestures of sportsmanship we have seen in our sport.  The golf course was designed with match play in mind in hope that some day a Ryder Cup will be contested there.

With the downturn in the economy right after the course opened the residential sales floundered and they only reached about half of the 200 members they had planned on.  Under this economic distress foreclosure loomed for the club and the surrounding residential real estate.  In 2009 Bruce Cassidy, the wealthy owner of a mining construction company, rode in on a white horse and put together an investment group to purchase the golf course and the 520 pristine acres of land it sits on.

He subsequently finished the construction of a planned $15 million dollar clubhouse and brought Nicklaus back in to make some course modifications to soften and make it a bit more playable for it’s members.  The only rooflines you will see are the clubhouse,  Mr. Cassidy’s home, and a couple of palatial guest houses for visiting dignitaries.  The result is an underutilized luxurious golf only facility with about 125 well heeled local, national, and international members.

Everything about the place is top shelf.  The clubhouse is appointed throughout with historical memorabilia to make you stop and stare.  Pro shop, locker room, bar, and dining facility are lavishly appointed and serviced with a casual air you would expect.  From the moment you hand your clubs to the young men at the bag drop to the time you pull away at the end of the day, they provide you with everything you want for a great day of golfing with friends.

The 23 acre practice facility alone is to die for.  Dual ended driving range sporting 10 target greens with full bunkering and Titlest Pro-V1s at every station.  A state of the art short game area where you can practice up to 80 yard shots and a 14,000 sq. ft. pitching green with bunkers and pitching areas that replicate what you will see on the course.  The practice putting green is 10,000 sq. ft. and has the same grasses, speed, and undulations as the course greens.  You could spend a whole day tooling around this practice area working on your game.

With so much ground to work with Jack and Tony designed a course that has unique character for this part of Florida.  The holes are framed with pines and oaks as well as low palmettos and pine straw.  Water comes into play on 15 holes and the bunkering throughout is generous.  Controlling your direction is key to avoiding the high numbers on your scorecard.  Fairways are Tiff Bermuda which can be maintained with minimal watering to keep them firm and fast.  The greens are also Bermuda and have the fancy sub-air system embedded in their understructure to manage ground moisture and temperature to optimize the grass condition and support lightening speeds.  Segmentation and tiering of these green complexes coupled with stimp readings of 12+ put this course in the championship caliber.

There are five sets of tees so it is incumbent upon you to listen carefully to the advice of your caddie and consider the day’s wind condition to pick a set that will allow you to be competitive and enjoy your afternoon.  They made the course eminently playable if you play with proper forethought.  Most holes have distinct challenges presented but, with careful planning,  there are alternative safer routes to play to avoid the dreaded stuff.  Take a page out of the Scottish/Irish playbook-play a match with your golf mates and make the medal score secondary to maximize your enjoyment.

The fairway bunker constellations are enormous and set opposed to most of the water hazards.  Generally the best line of play is close to those constellations but ending up in them can be as penal as the fish habitats.  Take a good look at the yardage book depiction on each tee and plod a route of play that makes the most sense. What is cool about the bunkers is that the sand is imported “Jack” sand which means it is firm, avoiding plug lies, and very playable from the fairway or greenside bunkers as well.  Most of the fairway bunkers have a foxhole character with a raised back edge so you can distinguish them clearly from the direction you are playing.  Once you walk past them they seem to disappear into the greenscape which gives for clean and majestic appearance when you look back down the fairway.

Short Par 4 8th has trouble lurking in the lagoon

 (Click on any picture to get an enhanced view of the image)

There is an equal balance right and left challenges, which for Jack is unusual, so you are required to pick a line of approach and try to shape your shot accordingly.  Fortunately they were generous in the design and provide bail out areas if the shot required is not comfortable and even some collaring bunkers and grassy areas to take some of the harshness off the forced carries required.  Short and long hitters will both find what they like through the day-some of the most challenging holes are the ones where distance is of no advantage and articulate shot execution returns a premium.

Green setting at Par 5 15th requires pure precision

As a collection of holes, the five pars are the coolest holes you play all day.  Every one is a visual delight with protracted segmentation to give you many tactical approaches to playing them.   In most cases your second shot choices  are determined by your first shot result and often the best choice is not the obvious one.  This is not a simple I can go for it in two or I better lay up.  There are good lay ups and better lay ups and you may be abandoning your standard lay up distances depending on circumstance.

The par threes are the least memorable holes but in no way are they without interest.  Fact is the tactical approach to every one of them will change dramatically based on the daily pin position and the prevailing wind.  This is where you have to be careful of how much risk you take because missing on the wrong side will leave you very difficult recovery shots and an opportunity to waste valuable strokes.

Green at the 5th hangs precariously over the water

Many of the par fours are double breakers for me-holes that change direction twice-once on the tee shot and in opposition on the approach to the green.  Proper positioning off the tee makes the second shot considerably more manageable but getting to those spots can entail greater risk.  In match play this really puts pressure on you to play smart based on what your opponent has done.

Great look from the tee on the finishing Par 4 18th

Since you are unlikely to see more than a handful of groups out there taking the time to appreciate the scenery and the wildlife therein makes sense.  Beautiful birds can be seen throughout that compliment the flora and natural vegetation but there are alligators in the water hazards so don’t go mindlessly plodding about if you hit a wayward wet one.

To play here you will have to make an arrangement through your pro or know a member who can host you appearance.  This place is expensive so the beauty comes at a price.  But the value is in the full experience-atmosphere, scenery, and an afternoon of memorable golf.

Lakewood Ranch, Florida

Architect:  Jack Nicklaus & Tony Jacklin (2005)

Tee             Par    Yardage    Rating     Slope
Blue            72      6440        72.7        146
White          72      5909        69.6        137

(Click here to review The Concession hole-by-hole descriptions)

Oakmarsh Golf Course

Oakmarsh was created at Amelia Island by Pete Dye in 1972, around the same time his more famous Harbour Town Golf Links in Hilton Head came on line.  This wonderful layout weaves it’s way through winding salt marshes and old oak trees draped with hanging moss has many of the design features as it’s more famous cousin so be prepared for a day of the full Dye challenge.  Built in the beginning of his “railroad tie period” many of the water hazards you experience on 14 of the 18 holes are framed with this accent.  The native flora and the marsh grasses around the preserved natural wildlife habitats just make this a spectacular visual as well as golfing experience.

Looking for gondoliers on 6 thru 8 (Tom Spousta/Worldgolf.com)

The outward nine is set among the heritage oak trees that frame almost every shot you play.  Anything off line seems to get swatted by their limbs so you have to play position golf off the tee to have any chance to score well.  It begins easily enough with a few routine challenges but when you get to the short par four third you will feel your heartbeat start to pick up rapidly.   It is something out of Merion demanding focused execution on both a position tee ball and the approach into a undulating tight green complex.  Starting at the sixth you enter the Venician part of the course-holes tightly framed by a series of canals that define the playing lines.  Beware on this side that if the wind is blowing the trees may mask it’s effect-so you need to concentrate on your club selection to avoid disappointments.

The inward half is an entirely different tale-the oaks back off but you get the full force of marsh golf and all of it’s exigencies.  Ten is a short hole that will have you shaking your head walking off the green if you do not play carefully.  When you step on the 12th tee and feel the wind off the marsh on your left you will understand what the rest of the day is all about-trajectory control and proper club selection. It is really from fifteen to the end that will define your day because here you can play well or simply toss the scorecard into the rubbish bin if you are careless.

Drive under the canopy on 15th (Tom Spousta/Worldgolf.com)

Standing on back tee on the par three 16th is worth the entire green’s fee.  You will swear there are Sirens calling your name across the marsh.  The last two holes put a premium on sense over bravery but I must admit the approach shots present a risk reward challenge that may be hard to resist.

Listening for voices on the 16th tee (aipfl.com)

These nines are extremely tight-demanding accuracy from the tees and to the greens, but are extremely fair in what he demands of you to score well. You will find each of distinctly different in flavor and trappings.    As is the case with most Dye creations there are real obstacles to deal with and a whole lot of deceptions woven in between.  He is a master of either suckering you into a gamble that is much more stacked against you than it appears or a bit of bravado that is really more intimidation than real threat.  You have to look at each hole carefully for the best line to take for the achievable result-you score will depend on your ability to sort out the strategic choices and consistently make the right one.

On most days play from the Gold tees-the course need that for it’s teeth.  If the wind is howling then pocket your manhood and a step up to the blue tees so you will have a chance to enjoy your day.  If you are a fan of Pete Dye then this is a course you must add to your scrapbook.

Amelia Island Plantation, Florida

Architect: Pete Dye (1972)

Tees     Par      Yardage    Rating    Slope

Gold     72          6580        72.2       136

Blue     72          6019         69.6      122

(Click here to review Oakmarsh hole-by-hole descriptions)

Emerald Dunes

This golf course is a quiet jewel in the middle of the east coast “strip” of Florida it stands out as one of the best tracks I have played in this region.   They spared no expense in presenting first class practice facilities, superb design esthetics, wonderful conditioning, and great support features.  It took guts and vision to put this much into a public course and my hat is off to the developer.

Stunning views begin on the first tee

The practice facilities are top shelf-as good as you will find anywhere.  The double sided driving range has over 8 acres of grass hitting surface in the same 419 Bermuda Grass found on the course.  There are five target greens flanked with bunkers as well as a practice fairway bunker adjacent to the main teeing ground. Fazio developed a separate short game area adjacent to the clubhouse.  It has a 9500 practice putting green as well as bunkered practice pitching greens with Ultradwarf Bermuda built to full USGA spec just like the course.  There is even a 19th hole par three that can be played from 85 to 135 yards.  This area alone is worth the price of admission.

Par 3 4th is a bouquet of visual elements

As with most Florida courses Tom Fazio has generously appointed this one with water-it is in play on 15 out of 18 holes- and sand-there are over 100 bunkers- but it is not so punitive as to be unplayable.  As Tom is apt to do he often buffers the water with long sand hazards to keep you in play-though not out of trouble-and keep up the pace of play.  The strategy required on every hole is not evident at first blush.  There is plenty of visual misdirection going on so you need to take in the information in the yardage book or the deluxe on board computer and think your way around this course.

Short Par 5 11th requires serious tactical consideration

An enormous amount of attention, and money, was spent on the presentation of the holes.  Earth was moved to create visual and tactical interest and the plumes of sage grass, floral plantings, and stonework throughout enhance the beauty of the holes creating holes that will grab your attention.  This is not your typical Florida experience it has a very natural dunes style felling about it.

Approach shot to 17 green can be precarious

The conditioning of the course is superb-lush fairways and some of the best rolling firm greens I have played in Florida.  They even paint the top inside edge of the hole cut to match the cup itself-very professional.  You will have to really pay attention to speed on these greens or you will end up with lots of eight and ten footers coming back.

View from atop the 18th tee is as mesmerizing as the first

This course is worth going out of your way to play if you can arrange it.  A great test of golf and a wonderful visual experience as well.  Fazio was at his best when he did the design work here.

(All photos from Emerald Dunes website http://www.edgclub.com)

West Palm Beach, Florida

Architect: Tom Fazio, 1989

Tees       Par   Rating    Slope    Yardage
Green     72     72          132         6507
White      72     70.1       125         6062

(Click here to review Emerald Dunes hole-by-hole descriptions)

Sara Bay Country Club

Donald Ross only built two golf courses in this region of Florida and this one is a real gem worth seeking out.  Donald Ross once said, “A course that continually offers problems – one with fight in it, if you please – is the one that keeps players keen for the game.” Like a tough little terrier Sara Bay has some fight in her.  The original course was restored and updated over the last two decades by Brian Silva an expert on Ross designs who gave it a lovely new polish with full respect for the original design.

Created in 1926 as the centerpiece of  the Whitfield Estates one of Florida’s first golf course communities, Ross gave it all the design features that Ross courses are known for.  The greens throughout have the full measure of the distinctive precipice design that we know from Pinehurst #2.  The fall offs on most greens are on at least three sides which puts an enormous premium on a player’s decisive intent when pitching and chipping.

Signature Crowned Greens Ross Is Known For

Mature growth trees give the holes tactical framing throughout.  Fairway bunkers are done in constellations-but always on one side of the fairway-generally the premium drive location is just off the bunkers.  Greenside bunkering is very selective but severe-the long holes have free access in front-the shorter ones have hurdles, but in all cases there is a tactical way to play around them if you choose.  The greens are very difficult by virtue of the crowning, but what makes it even more challenging is that the surfaces are awesome pure-probably 11 on the stimpmeter on a daily basis.  Grain direction on every green is crucial because it will determine the relative speed and direction of every putt.  One thing to note is that the two par fives on both sides are in the last three holes so your best scoring opportunities are late in each side.

Driving Areas Well Defined By Creative Bunkering

The club itself has a quiet humility about it.  There is no glitz here at all.  The clubhouse is understated except for the extraordinary vintage pictures in the lobby of Jones, Hagan, Zaharias, Tommy Armour, and others.  The course itself is very simple in it’s presentation.  Short yardage driving range-nothing more than a 160 club-makes for lots of finesse practice time.  Pitching area is a cart ride away off the first hole.  No hole identification markers other than the yardage plate on each tee-so you have to pay attention to the course map to know where you are going.  Everyone from the pro to the starter is a low key understated type who just has a confidence in the quality of this place and why people ought to play it.

Rich History Of The Club On Display In The Clubhouse

This is a private club so you will need to arrange to play it through your club professional.  If you are in the Sarasota areas it is well worth the effort to seek this out-it is a great walk and a distinctive Ross experience.  Playing these greens will be an afternoon to remember all to itself.

(All images from http://www.sarabaycc.org)

Sarasota, Florida

Architect:  Donald Ross (1926)
Brian Silva (restored 1991/2006)

Tees          Par    Yardage    Rating    Slope
Blue          72       7021        73.8        136
White        72       6414        71.0        125

(Click here to review Sara Bay hole-by-hole descriptions)

Isleworth Golf and Country Club

Isleworth is a 600-acre private gated community surrounded by picturesque lakes and about 10 miles of private waterways.  It is ten minutes from the center of booming Orlando and provides these pros everything they are looking for in a residence community.  Except for one infamous middle-of-the-night fire hydrant incident back in November of 2009, there is rarely anything that disrupts the solitude of this place.

The schools are good, income taxes non-existent, major airport a drive and a five iron away,  tolerable weather ten months of the year, and a golf facility fine tuned to their every want and desire.  As a result, it is the home of a plethora of PGA and LPGA pros including John Cook, Stewart Appleby, Darren Clarke, J. B. Holmes, Paula Creamer, Annika Sorenstam, and Yani Tseng.  Other sports and entertainment stars and high worth individuals have purchased homes here as well so there is a real who’s who atmosphere on the property every day.

The Isleworth Golf and Country Club is the centerpiece of the community that was started by a group of investors in the mid 1980s.  The Tavistock Group subsequently took over the development in 1993 and worked to bring it up to a standard that would attract the golf professionals and high worth individuals for their permanent residences.  They built an exquisitely appointed 82,000 square foot club house that blends classic design with casual elegance.   From the locker room to the wellness center everything about this place speaks to daily needs of their members in an informal atmosphere of comfort.  Tavistock even appointed the property with distinguished pieces of lawn sculpture from artists like Henry Moore, Phillip Jackson, Eric Goulder, and Arturo Dimodica.

Charging Bull Greets You At The First Tee

To most guys the Champions Grill is the centerpiece of the Isleworth experience.  This grillroom is something to behold.  You walk down a spiral staircase from men’s locker room surrounded by the golf bags bearing names of the pros who are members at the club.  This leads you to an area with a manly wood appointed  bar and restaurant outfitted with comfortable seating and a flat screen TV everywhere you look.  The walls are covered with captivating memorabilia including plaques for each Major Championship with winners listed who are Isleworth members. Adjacent is a large recreation room with a putting green and a half court basketball court as it’s centerpiece.  Additionally you will see every boy toy ever invented including a pool table, ping pong table, video games, table top shuffleboard, dart boards, air hockey, and a golf swing simulator.  There are cushy spectator chairs horseshoeing each of those so there are lots of ways to settle a push bet on the back nine with your buddies.

The golf facility leaves no pebble unturned.  It includes a massive practice facility with reclusive areas where the pros can practice without disruption.  Tiger Woods got his own secluded pad on the driving range with an extra 50 yards of carry room so he doesn’t bomb any of the other patrons while practicing his stinger.  They have a two-acre short game area with replica bunkering from Augusta National and TPC Sawgrass and an 11,000 square foot putting green.  Plenty of room for the pro, the caddy, and a couple of hundred of their brand of shag balls for the daily practice grind.

The golf course was originally designed by Arnold Palmer and Ed Seay and was subsequently modified extensively under the direction of the very capable architect Steve Smyers.    The course has a distinct Florida target-golf character to it-this was probably intentional to give the professionals a way to simulate the challenges they see during their regular work day.  It is a testing golf course with six sets of tees that can be stretched to as much as 7500 yards for those with masochistic proclivity.  At 6400 yards it is all most amateurs can handle so pick your teeing ground with proper forethought.

The most distinctive characteristic of this course is the very demanding driving areas.  Throughout you see harrowing bunkers hugging the corner of the doglegs adjacent to which is the most advantageous approach angle to the green.  But unlike other courses, the other side of the fairway provides little respite-there is no safe way to play off the tee on most of the holes.  You have to take on the challenge through the day if you want any chance of hitting these greens in regulation.

The course does not have very many stunning holes you will not forget but there are quite a number that will get your competitive attention.  Once you get over the greeting of the Charging Bull on the first tee you have a relatively routine opening hole.  But your heart beat will be prompted by the harrowing challenge of the “Cypress Chute” you have to negotiate on the par 3 second.  Two through four are the three lowest handicap holes on the front so reaching the fifth tee with a scorecard still in tact is your biggest challenge. A little bit of a breather over the next few holes brings you to Champions Point and a view of some really nice boat slips with their matching bungalows.   “Best of Bessie” is a very challenging par four at the eight and you close the opening nine plotting your way “Around the Lake” with another technical par four.

Three Monks Overlook The Front Drive

A bit of a ethereal moment as you leave the cart park next to nine and drive by the Three Monks on the front lawn of the clubhouse driveway.   Seems appropriate to mutter a little deferential prayer on your own behalf before heading to the back nine.

The back nine starts routinely enough but, like the front, you get a sizeable challenge on the next two holes.  The 11th  with its beautiful flower beds behind the green is the Kodak moment of the day.  But this is a full metal challenge with a 150 yard club-especially if the wind is influencing.  The 12th provides another daunting approach with the green wedged between a pond and a side hills on the right.  The par five 13th is a bit of a breather-more lakeside residential eye candy…..these people must have large families or extensive wait staffs.

From here to the end the holes a not bulky in length but they will challenge you constantly to execute well planned shots.  After an interesting short hole on sixteen, the last two are the hardest handicap holes on this side and they well deserve that distinction.  Both green settings are diabolical so the real challenge on each of them is at the end.  The final hole is a bear-this is two booming shots or a deft up and down if you need a par to wrestle away the back nine Nassau.

Challenging Green Arrangement At Par 5 17th

Isleworth, when taken in total,  is quite the golf experience.  If it presents itself as an opportunity just throw caution to the wind,  pay the ticket, and indulge yourself for the day in the life of the rich and famous.

Windermere, Florida

Architect: Arnold Palmer/Ed Seay (1986)
Steve Smyers (renovation)

Tees            Par    Yardage      Rating     Slope
Lewis          72       6765           72.9        139
Chase         72       6409          70.8         134

(Click here to review Isleworth hole-by-hole descriptions)

Pine Barrens At World Woods

Tom Fazio has built a real gem in a very off beat location in Southwest Florida.  Part of a 48-hole extrazaganza with the most elaborate practice and teaching area you have ever seen, this place is golfing nirvana.  The driving range is a full 360 degree spoke facility.  The practice green is about five acres of the most imaginative putting environs on the planet-even has a full terrarium in the center.  Three hole practice/warm-up course.  9 hole par three.  Two full championship caliber eighteens.

Course character estalished on the opening hole (www.tampagolf.com)

The Pine Barrens is clearly the better of the two-though I must say that Rolling Oaks is a fair complement.  Pine Valley-esque without the 165 slope.  Much like Pine Valley there are huge waste areas surrounding the holes in all directions, but the landing areas and greens are much less forboding.  The course has a wonderfully consistent character with plenty of up and down to make it interesting.  Cut out of the pines but plenty of room to move and maneuver.

Devilish Par 3 Third Hole-Trouble Lurks Left (www.floridagolf.com)

The driving areas on most holes are very generous but do not be fooled there is an advantage place to drive on every hole so pay attention.  The bunkers are all treated as waste areas-the advantage there is not so much that you can ground your club but that you can actually take a practice swipe and test out the sand-strongly advise you to keep that in mind.  The greens are really what sets this apart from most of the top quality tracks you play-they are not just undulating they are severely sloped-I mean serious swerve with 10+ stimpy speed.  This makes for real separation between your ball and the hole on pitches, chips, and long putts if you do not carefully consider the slope all the way to the hole.  The complementing difficulty is that many of the greens have sharp shoulders so if they put a cup close to an edge like this rolling five feet past means you are chipping back.  You cannot get this out of your mind when you are pitching at an edged pin location-makes you very defensive.  If the pin location is 3 today it is a house of horrors so put your ego into storage if that is the case.

Harrowing 16th-205 carry over a sand quarry (www.golfatlas.com)

There are so many unusual and interesting holes on this course it would take a photo scrapbook to recount them properly.  Just be extremely open minded when you plot your strategy on an individual hole or an individual shot because creativity will be rewarded and defensive thinking will be punished.  The end result is that this is a round to savor over and over staring at your ceiling in the middle of the night.

If the meatball sub is on the menu for the daily special I highly recommend it-has the Atkins seal of approval.  Chicken Fajita Wrap gets kudos as well.

Brooksfield, Florida

Architect: Tom Fazio (1993)

Tee          Par    Rating    Slope    Yardage
Mens        71     71.4       123        6458

(Click to see complete Pine Barrens hole-by-hole descriptions)