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Jacksonville, Florida's an under-rated gem when it comes to golf destinations

By Tim McDonald, Contributor

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Myrtle Beach is the undisputed king of golf destinations in the U.S., but there are quite a few golfers who believe there are other, equal destinations out there not as famous, simply because they don't have the marketing prowess of the Grand Strand.

Stadium golf course at TPC Sawgrass
The Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass is one of Jacksonville area's marquee golf courses.
Stadium golf course at TPC SawgrassQueen's Harbor G.C.

Jacksonville, Fla., to give one example. If Jacksonville put more money and effort into marketing efforts, it could surpass Myrtle Beach.

Myrtle Beach didn't get to be the colossus it is by accident. People who know the history of the Grand Strand know it took an unprecedented amount of cooperation among rivals to make it that way. The vast majority of the 110 or so courses united in the marketing giant known as Golf Holiday, which stamped the area onto golfers' consciousness world-wide. They don't always agree, but for the most part they have stuck together.

Jacksonville, in my mind, is a better golf destination than Myrtle Beach, and that by no means is meant to denigrate the Grand Strand, with its amazing variety of courses. There are similarities between the two areas, one of them being geography. The Grand Strand follows, roughly, a coastal curve from southern North Carolina to Georgetown, S.C. Florida's First Coast stretches on a coastal curve from the tip of northeast Florida south to Palm Coast.

As anyone who has ever driven to Myrtle Beach knows, it isn't easy to get there, which makes their marketing all the more impressive. Jacksonville is easy to get to, seeing that both Interstate-95 and Interstate-10 conjoin there, and many of the courses are short drives off I-95.

Myrtle Beach beckons golfers from northern points, as well as the Midwest and South, and as far away as Europe. Jacksonville's top market is the South -- Atlanta is only a 45-minute flight away, and the area attracts other golfers from Florida, as well as those from the Northeast, the Atlantic states and the Midwest.

The First Coast has about 20 or 25 fewer courses than Myrtle Beach, but the top courses along Jacksonville are as good and/or better than Myrtle Beach's best. The Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass, Pablo Creek, Ocean Hammock, North Hampton, Palencia, to name just a few.

The First Coast has become a hotbed of golf ever since the PGA Tour re-located its headquarters to Ponte Vedra Beach, the tony area just to the south of Jacksonville Beach. No fewer than nine PGA Tour and Champions Tour pros live there now, including Vijay Singh, Fred Funk and Jim Furyk. It is, of course, home to the prestigious Players Championship at the TPC. Myrtle Beach does not have a PGA Tour stop.

There's more to do in Jacksonville, including an NFL team, the Jaguars. Like Myrtle Beach, the First Coast has some terrific beaches, especially those to the north, like Amelia Island, and south, like St. Augustine and Palm Coast. The First Coast has the Golf Hall of Fame. The fishing is better. There are more restaurants. More nightlife. More people. The airport is better. It's warmer in the winter, when the northern hordes, like lemmings, flock to the sun.

Golf officials on the First Coast say the hospitality is top-notch, something golfers visiting Myrtle Beach often complain about.

"It's a different philosophy here," said Mary Hafeman, a founding member of First Coast Golf, the marketing arm of the city, and director of golf at Ocean Hammock, a superb course in Palm Coast. "We don't want people to feel like they're ushered in and ushered out. It's all about the quality of the experience. This isn't a golf factory."

True, Myrtle Beach does have many courses with a "herd them in, herd them out" mentality, but there are still a few courses where you can play a relaxed round. Thistle comes to mind.

So why not Jax?

In any case, with all this in mind, why isn't Jacksonville a better-known golf destination? As it is, Jacksonville is pretty much an after-thought when it comes to traveling golfers.

The city has several factors going against it. The first is, oddly, one of its strengths. It's in Florida, though barely. A lot of tourists, when they cross the Florida border, whether it's from Georgia, Alabama or Mississippi -- or even those who fly in -- think: "Well, we made it to Florida, why not just head on to Orlando, Tampa or Miami?" All those destinations have higher glitz factors.

"The hardest thing to sell in Jacksonville is to break the habits of people for generations," said John McElreath of First Coast Golf.

The marketing is under-funded and doesn't enjoy the unity Myrtle Beach has enjoyed. Jacksonville's marketing budget is a fraction of what Golf Holiday gets to work with. And of all the First Coast courses, only 30 are part of First Coast Golf. That's not bad, and probably better than many other areas with similar numbers, but it doesn't come close to equaling Myrtle Beach numbers.

Another possible factor is the lethargy of city officials. Jacksonville basically lucked into an NFL team -- I know, because I covered the whole expansion story as a sportswriter there. Jacksonville has never exactly been known as a "can-do" city, though the Jaguars and landing Super Bowls have added tremendously to its clout.

And the city seems to have an unusually high number of private courses, and most others are tied to real estate -- it isn't easy finding a core golf experience in Jacksonville.

All that being said, if Jacksonville would get off its duff and promote golf better, I'm betting it could become a major golf destination. Maybe it thinks getting an NFL team is enough, but it's missing out on a tremendous opportunity. Note to Jacksonville's mayor: Check the spending habits of NFL fans vs. traveling golfers. It's like the difference between the Broncos and the Falcons.

Tim McDonaldTim McDonald, Contributor

Veteran golf writer Tim McDonald keeps one eye on the PGA Tour and another watching golf vacation hotspots and letting travelers in on the best place to vacation.

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