Streamsong: The Bandon Dunes of Florida
Florida golf is over-developed and hyper-commercialized. Houses line most courses, and at many resorts, golf plays a supporting role to beaches or spas or amusement parks. But this has changed with the opening of Streamsong in Polk County.
Streamsong is the brainchild of Mosaic, a company that has been mining phosphorous from the Florida backlands for over 100 years. The land upon which Streamsong lies was mined in the 1960s and 1970s, and this upheaval lends an other-worldly look and feel to the property, including massive dunes that would look more at home in Ireland than in central Florida.
Streamsong is not easy to get to or to find, being over an hour south of both Orlando and Tampa. The drive takes you through some grim, grim places where trailer homes apparently go to die. To say that Streamsong is “remote” is like saying Scarlett Johansson is “cute.”
But when you finally arrive, you are rewarded with two simply brilliant courses, Streamsong Blue by Tom Doak, and Streamsong Red by Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw. This is only one of a few places in the world where golfers can find courses by these architects. One of the others is the famed Bandon Dunes in Oregon. Streamsong has drawn comparisons to Bandon, the ultimate American golf destination. As of yet, there’s minimal housing on site, but a 216-room lodge is scheduled to open in November, 2013.
I was fortunate enough to be invited to the grand opening of Streamsong, to visit with Doak, Coor, and Crenshaw, and to play the Red course, which has been ranked by many publications as the best new course in the U.S. in the past several years.
Both Doak and Coore/Crenshaw are minimalists when it comes to course design, and the rugged dunes and zigzagging ravines left behind by the phosphorous mining provided a fascinating landscape upon which to lay out courses. Doak’s Blue course is more forgiving off the tee, but with wildly undulating greens. Coore and Crenshaw’s Red course challenges off the tee with a considerable number of forced carries and a predilection for fairway bunkers set directly in the center of many fairways. On both courses, the greens are lightning fast, running around 12 on the Stimp meter.
Countless superlatives have already been offered up to both of these courses–and the stunning modernist clubhouse–and rightfully so. The golf here is pure, and it is almost breathtakingly beautiful. Nevertheless, let me add a few criticisms, just to keep us all honest.
First, the Red course is difficult, especially if you choose the wrong tees or if the wind is howling. I played it during the grand opening media scramble, and we began on the driveable par-4 9th, which I parred. Considering that my playing partners insisted on playing from the tips (7,148 yards), I felt pretty good about this. But these guys weren’t ready to play from the tips, and neither was I. After struggling around the subsequent back nine, which included 5 three-putts for me on the glass-like greens, we made the turn (still from the tips), where I proceeded to shoot a tidy 1-over 37. After the round, I realized that the two nines are a bit unbalanced, with the front only 3,387 yards and the back a more substantial 3,761. In fact, the regular tees on the back nine are longer overall than the tips on the front. This feature makes it difficult for average golfers to decide which tees to play, as they might be tempted to play too far back on the front, and then bog down on the back.
Second, I was surprised to notice a disconcerting design feature on the Red: the forward ("ladies") tees are often just sort of stuck in the end of the fairways of many par 4s and par 5s. I know several women golfers who resent it when their tee boxes appear to be afterthoughts like this. Importantly, it diminishes the visual appeal of the course for golfers playing from the forward tees.
Finally, there is the price: $175 for 18 holes with cart, and a $90 replay rate, or $320 for unlimited golf, or add $80 for breakfast, lunch, and a replay within 90 days. This is a lot of money, and whether Florida golfers – not to mention visitors from other states or abroad – will pony up that kind of cash more than once (or even once) is an open question, no matter how great the courses. As a journalist from Europe pointed out, golfers on the other side of the pond can play all the courses at St. Andrews for less, and travel a far shorter distance to do so. Don’t forget the mandatory caddy fees, too, which add $25-$35+ per round. (Even if they do a poor job, as ours did at the grand opening, e.g., “I guess I should have told you about the bunker behind the green before you hit your shot.")
These reservations notwithstanding, Streamsong is ambitious and, in the tradition of Bandon Dunes, The Prairie Club (Nebraska), and Cabot Links (Nova Scotia, Canada), a refreshingly pristine golf destination. Enjoy the photos below from the grand opening.
Tom Doak, Bill Coore, and Ben Crenshaw answer questions about designing Streamsong’s courses.
Masters Champion Ben Crenshaw hits a ceremonial first shot on Streamsong Red
The 474-yard par-4 first hole on Streamsong Red requires a long carry over a pond that is home to a 9-foot gator.
The par-3 7th hole on Streamsong Blue is already being called one of the best short holes in Florida
Streamsong’s modernist clubhouse is impressive in its own right.
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