Each week this season, TravelGolf.com is highlighting a key college football matchup and looking at the golf options around the home team's campus. This Saturday, the Florida Gators and Georgia Bulldogs meet in Jacksonville, Florida. Here's a look at some of the better golf courses in the area, including the Stadium at TPC Sawgrass, the Ocean Course at Ponte Vedra Inn and Club, and Ocean Hammock.
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - I've seriously feared for my life three times: Once when treed by a bear in Alaska; once when cursed by a 90-year-old voodoo high priestess in Trinidad; once after a Florida-Georgia football game.
Saying that passions run high for this annual college football gathering in the "neutral" city of Jacksonville falls into the "Duh" category. Forget, if you can for a moment, that the game usually has serious consequences in the SEC. This is one of those border wars that provokes hostility, animosity and in some cases, downright hatred. It also usually showcases some of the best college football talent in the country.
This one, of course, has Tim Tebow, who will waltz into Jacksonville with a Heisman already under his considerable shoulder pads.
It may not be the ultimate college football rivalry, but you couldn't convince either Gator or Bulldog fans of that, especially when one of the coaches is getting all up in the other team's face.
Like when UF Coach Steve Spurrier ran up the score in 1995, humiliating the Bulldogs in their home stadium (Alltel Stadium was under construction), or when UGA Coach Mark Richt had his whole team run onto the field after the Bulldogs scored their first touchdown last year - as in, from the water boy to the fourth-string kickoff holder.
As exciting as the games have been through the years, most of the excitement takes place before and after. Huge sections of the city, especially the downtown area, are awash in either orange and blue or black and red - and both sides do their part to make this the "World's Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party."
If you want the best Jacksonville golf courses the area has to offer, you'll most likely want to head to the beach - that is, to Ponte Vedra.
The Stadium course at TPC Sawgrass is the track most of us are familiar with from The Players Championship. The course went under the knife two years ago, when they re-did the irrigation and doubled the size of the clubhouse. It's Pete Dye at his best or worst, depending on your opinion of him, where even great shots can produce eventual curses. This is where stadium golf was invented and island greens made famous.
Oddly enough, a lot of people will tell you they like the Valley course at TPC Sawgrass more than its famous big brother, the Stadium course. It's another Dye design with input from Bobby Weed and Jerry Pate, and it has hosted the Senior Players Championship. It is a bit milder than its more famous big brother, but the fairways are more undulating, and like the Stadium, water comes into play on most holes. Valley is only a mile from the ocean so wind can play havoc. Not cheap, it's less expensive than the Stadium: green fees are in the $230 range.
The Ocean Course at Ponte Vedra Inn and Club is a beautiful layout, mostly open with tall stands of palm trees swaying in the Atlantic winds. Most of the holes still run north and south, so the early and late sun, making the water dazzle with reflected sunlight, is seldom in your eyes.
A drive to Palm Coast is worth it if you can tear yourself away from bad-mouthing the other fans. Ocean Hammock was named a modern classic by Links Magazine. It's a Jack Nicklaus design. Nicklaus used bulldozers to build elevation into the tees and greens, lifting them above the dune line. Give credit to the owners for keeping the dunes as the sole obstacle to picture-perfect ocean views.
Possibly the best bet for your money is North Hampton Golf Club in Fernandina Beach. Arnold Palmer and his crew, chiefly lead designer Ed Seay, moved about 1 million cubic yards of northeast Florida dirt to create dramatic hills that line most holes, topped with wild grasses like cord, purple love, muhly and leather fern. It was intended to give a Scottish links feel, and it succeeded.
Most fans will stay in the downtown area, and most of the action will take place at the Jacksonville Landing (www.jacksonvillelanding.com). It's right down the road from the stadium - we old-timers still call it the Gator Bowl - smack-dab by the St. Johns River, which comes rushing through downtown.
The city finally got off its duff in 1987 and took advantage of the river, contributing half of the $43 million price tag to build the Landing, where you can not only gaze out at the water, but also take water taxis to the other side, to the Riverwalk.
The Landing always puts on a show for the Florida-Georgia game, and this year they're having three days of live entertainment, including continuous music on Friday and Saturday. Most of that will take place in the open courtyard. In addition, there are dozens of dining and entertainment options at the nine-acre development. Just stroll around until you find something you like.
If you must go to the beach, drive to the end of Atlantic Blvd., where a variety of bars and restaurants have opened in recent years. It's a jumping place day and night. My favorites: The Sun Dog Diner (www.sundogjax.com) and Pete's (tel. 904-249-9158), a pool hall that, to my horror and shame, has been letting in yuppies for some years now.
October 27, 2008