Amelia Island, Fla. -- The motto on the yardage book at Royal Amelia Golf Links proclaims "Royal Amelia is the most talked about golf course in northern Florida." It's uncertain whether that's true or not-there is some difficulty in measuring these things-but certainly there is plenty to speak of concerning this new course in the heart of Amelia Island, twenty minutes north of Jacksonville.
Royal Amelia Golf Links hasn't had much of an opportunity to develop its aforementioned reputation, having only been open for play since September of 2000, and thus far the marketing outside the Amelia Island area has been conservative. To make a name for itself among its island peers, let alone Northern Florida, Royal Amelia will have to find a way to compete with or tie into the popularity of the established names: Amelia Island Plantation (54 holes by Pete Dye, Bobby Weed, and Tom Fazio) and The Golf Club of Amelia Island (Mark McCumber) at the Ritz-Carlton.
It shouldn't be too severe a problem, based on the club's merits. Though it lacks the rare ocean holes of Amelia Island Plantation, this elegant 6,823-yard track has plenty of its own appeal.
Royal Amelia Golf Links is a scenic composition of golf holes molded into the thick indigenous vegetation of the island. The park-like course, highlighted by several small lakes and a creek that influences play on numbers one, two, nine, ten, and eighteen, is a unique illustration of balance and natural consistency.
North Carolina-based architect Tom Jackson drew up the plans for Royal Amelia for friend Jim Stoffel (who owns the course along with partner Don Hite), routing it through the wooded flatlands between the Intracoastal Waterway to the west and open space near the Fernandina Beach airport on the north and east.
Though the published credit for the design will go to Jackson, whose fluid and economical routing is refreshing for this region, Royal Amelia is really Stoffel's affair, a project into which he's immersed himself for over two years to wonderful effects.
"We broke ground in February of 1999 and I've been here ever since we started," he says.
Royal Amelia is Stoffel's idea and it has become the expression of his golf vision. "I've kind of always wanted to develop my own golf course and do it the way I thought it should be done," he proclaims. "I knew what I wanted and everybody, the contractor, the shaper, the architect, really helped out with that."
Stoffel, a golf professional most of his life at various locales in South Carolina and a previous owner and operator of several courses (including Carolina Shores in North Carolina from 1979 to 1986, and Chickasaw Point in western South Carolina), had been out of the golf business for some time and often doubted whether he would ever get back into it. If he were to re-enter the field he wanted to build a course from scratch, his way.
When Tom Jackson informed him of the land's availability he was immediately impressed with its potential, and eventually signed a 70-year lease with the city of Fernandina Beach. "I liked the area, I liked the island, loved the people, and it was such a good property it looked like a good opportunity."
After drawing up the initial plans, Jackson visited the site six or seven times, but it was Stoffel who oversaw the day-to-day construction. "I worked very closely with the contractor and particularly the shaper," he says, to whom he gives particular credit-"He was an artist with the bulldozer, and he was very conscientious."
The attention to detail and the personalized touch is evident in the movements of nearly every green complex. "I wanted a rolling golf course with a lot of contour, and contour on the greens...and not a terribly long golf course," Stoffel admits.
"I'm a big fan of Tom Fazio-I love his golf courses. He does a great job working with the natural beauty that is there and builds around it, and that's what we did here. The problem is we couldn't afford him."
The results are indeed Fazio-esque as Royal Amelia is a beautiful golf course to look at. The contours are graceful, though not in the extreme that Fazio is wont to create, and the neat, compact course twists and bounds freely within itself.
The holes are packed tightly, crumpled as if a long out-and-back links were compressed by hands into a ball, folded in on each other. No two back-to-back holes run in the same direction so the course continually alternates its flow against the winds that coast in from the northeast and southwest. The spaces between the holes are narrow, outlined by native pine and oak, yet at nearly every occasion they seem distinct and separate. It is within these spaces that Royal Amelia gives the impression it has room to breath despite the density of its organs.
Each tee, with perhaps three minor exceptions, is merely a matter of paces from the previous green, therefore Royal Amelia is an ideal walking course. It is to be strongly hoped for that their walking privileges be expanded. Rare is the Florida course that is so accessible by foot as this.
The angles of entry into the greens, as well as the tie-ins of the fairway contours to the slope of the putting surfaces and bunkering, create thoughtful approaches. The second hole, for instance, is a 365-yard dogleg right with a series of small trees protecting the left side of the fairway 75 to 100 yards from the green. These force the drive to favor the right side where forest and the creek threaten, and brings into play the yawning bunker in the front right of a green canted in a left-to-right orientation.
Similarly angled approaches, approaches in which the greens are protected by interior bunkers and extreme slopes, are found at the sixth and seventh, a 379-yard par four and 217-yard par three respectively. These greens wrap around and behind bunkers short and left, hiding rear pins. The ninth hole, at 416 yards, requires a mid-to-long iron approach over the creek into a plateau green that is open on the right but blocked long and left by two bunkers.
Among the succession of these attractive holes, two stand out for their heroic invitations.
The 14th is a frank, in-your-face par four that challenges your man- or womanliness. The green sits directly across a lake, asking for a 279-yard carry to the pin from the tips, but an even more tempting 248 yards to 170 yards for non-professionals. A stripe bunker guards the green short so the carry into this, a viable option, is approximately 15 yards less. It's such a brazen offering that players will likely be tempted into slugging it over the water despite the safe alternative of fairway that doglegs 90º to the left around the lake and into the green's right side. The 14th is an exciting hole that captures the essence of the do-or-die golf shot.
The slightly less conspicuous par five 18th, at 550 yards, also offers a chance for the heroic provided the drive is placed safely in the fairway (no small feat as trees crowd narrowly on each side). The creek cuts the fairway 140 yards shy of the green to complicate the lay-up, but the bold move is to take the second over the tops of the trees on the left and into the well bunkered green, which is set back from the fairway at an intriguing angle with the Intracoastal Waterway as backdrop. Though cutting the corner shortens the hole, the shot is partially blind. There is both excitement and risk involved in it, and the results of the effort aren't known until the green is neared.
For the better or worse the seventeenth, a 164-yard carry into a ¾ island green, is also a memorable hole. The bulkheading that lines the lake and the green seems out of place on such a polished course, but this touch can be forgiven due to the effort made to create a rousing finish.
Despite the nearby competition, Stoffel isn't overly concerned that his golf course will struggle against the resorts. "We think we have as good a golf course as there is on the island. We [already] get a lot of play from the Ritz-Carlton, and we get a lot of play from Amelia Island Plantation, as well as the condominiums and rentals," he says.
"Just like good restaurants complement each other, good golf courses compliment each other, too." He can also boast of something the others cannot-freedom from development. "There will never be a house built on this golf course," he says.
Royal Amelia is located on Amelia Island just off Buccaneer Trail on Old Amelia Road, at the south side of Fernandina Beach Airport.
As Stoffel points out, there are literally dozens of lodging accommodations on the island, beginning with the big three-Amelia Island Plantation, the Ritz-Carlton, and Summer Beach. Condominium rentals are also popular, and the course is only 30 minutes from downtown Jacksonville.
The addition of Royal Amelia Golf Links to Amelia Island only enhances the area's already stellar golf profile. With this golf course and others, Amelia Island can truly brag about being one of the premier golf destinations in the South.