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Ocala, Florida not just about horses: Marion County has excellent golf

By Tim McDonald, Contributor

Ocala is one of the country's hotspots for thoroughbreds, but golf courses such as the Golden Ocala Golf and Equestrian Center and Golden Hills Golf and Turf Club make it an excellent destination for a week-long golf trip.

Golden Ocala
Golden Ocala has eight replica holes and 10 original.
Golden OcalaGolden Hills - No. 4Rainbow Springs - No. 10

OCALA, Fla. - If you're headed to Ocala, chances are you have business with horses, bass fishing or the bible.

Golf might come in fairly low on the recreational list, and that's a shame because Ocala and Marion County have some excellent golf courses.

Though Ocala is a proud member of the Bible Belt, there are those who would say the true religion in this part of the state is horses

The area is widely known as thoroughbred country, and there are horse farms large and small spread throughout the area's mildly rolling hills, as well as tack shops seemingly on every corner.

At last count, Marion County had roughly 1,200 horse farms, about half of which are thoroughbred enterprises. The area got a huge boost in 1956 when Ocala-born and bred Needles won the Kentucky Derby. The area's reputation was sealed in 1978 when Affirmed won the Triple Crown.

Like any city in central Florida, Ocala has felt the growth ripples from Disney World. In fact, Marion County is one of the fastest growing areas in a fast growing state, experiencing twice the growth rate as the state average from 2000-2007.

Many of the area's new residents are retirees, drawn by the climate and the fact an hour's drive will take them to either coast or south to Disney World.

Still, the area has managed its growth better than many. Ocala has a beautiful historic district, with a lovely town square surrounded by shops and restaurants, and it's managed to keep many of its trees, being named a Tree City USA.

That includes many of the golf courses and their tree-lined fairways. Golf is not the first thing that pops into your head when you hear the word Ocala, but the area is definitely worth a stop and could easily support a week-long golf trip.

The beauty of the area, combined with some gently rolling terrain, harbors some excellent courses. Here are some of our recommendations:

Ocala golf must plays

Golden Ocala Golf and Equestrian Center is the most-well-known track in Ocala, and for good reason.

Architect Ron Garl came up with a very satisfying compromise between replica and original design, incorporating eight replica holes with 10 original works.

It is testimony to the quality of the course that the holes designed by Garl, a well-known Florida architect, are every bit as interesting and challenging as the replicas, for the most part.

It's a superb layout, through fairways lined with moss-draped oaks and risky, interesting green complexes. The conditioning is superb throughout.

This is a private course, but check into reciprocal arrangements with your own club, or simply call and ask if you can get on. The day I played it, there were hardly any other golfers on the course.

• The semi-private Golden Hills Golf and Turf Club can be a very fun course to play if you're on your game or want a challenge. It's a parkland course, with tree-lined fairways, and many of the trees are mammoth, centuries-old oaks. They're great at blocking routes to the green if your driver is pouting.

But perhaps its best selling point is the elevation. The course sits on top of some of the highest land in this part of the state; the tee box at No. 4, for example, is the highest point in Marion County, and you can see the horse farms for miles around. That hole is a long, serpentine par 5 with a downhill tee shot.

It's a difficult course, but not overwhelming. It has some long par 4s, and because of the many bunkers around the elevated greens, demands accurate approach shots of the aerial variety- very few bump and runs here.

Rainbow Springs Golf and Country Club is a semi-private course, practically the next-door neighbor of the Rainbow River state park, which showcases the six-mile long Rainbow River.

Despite not being flavored by the lovely river, it's still a beauty. It plays through the semi-rolling hills in this part of the state, 20 miles south of Ocala in the southwest part of Marion County. It's surrounded by rivers and the Gulf farther to the west, but the course itself is water-free.

It's a Joe Lee design, 6,721 yards from the back tees, and the lack of water is made up for with plenty of bunkers and trees.

Rainbow Springs is a very pretty course with some awkward and difficult holes, though that shouldn't scare you off. Most of the challenge comes from the dense trees, particularly the oaks, whose limbs sometimes cover nearly half the fairways. Some of the doglegs are sharp and well guarded by the towering oaks. The greens are big and well conditioned, with good slope, but not much undulation.

Solid seconds

What big swinger wouldn't like Candler Hills Golf Club? It measures a whopping 7,333 yards from the back tees, including what course officials claim is the longest par 5 in Florida, the 669-yard fourth hole. It's also slightly uphill and often into the wind.

Don't let that scare you. The five sets of tees go down to 4,877 yards and besides, the course is nearly as big sideways as it is lengthwise.

The Ocala Golf Club opened in 1912, making it one of the oldest golf courses in Florida.

The old course has been modernized nicely. Like most municipal courses, it isn't long, around 6,300 yards from the back tees, but it's no pushover.

The fairways are tree-lined, and many of the trees are ancient oaks, with spreading limbs that form continuous hazards. One oak, in fact, is said to be the third-oldest in the state, a gnarled, old fella that stands stolidly by the 18th tee box.

Ocala hotels

The Fairfield Inn Marriott in Ocala is in a great spot to enjoy the golf the area has to offer. It's right off I-75, on State Road 200.

The hotel has all the amenities you expect from a Marriott property, including large guest rooms with in-room, high-speed Internet access, an outdoor swimming pool with a whirlpool and fitness center.

The three-story building has nearly 100 rooms. The Fairfield has a free continental breakfast. There is no restaurant, but several are nearby.

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.

Reader Comments / Reviews Leave a comment
Dates: August 14, 2017 - June 30, 2018
With a fresh new look and luxurious bedding that reminds you of home, this hotel is convenient to many of the area's top golf courses. Your golf group is sure to appreciate all the comforts of home offered by the Courtyard by Marriott Orange Park.
Price range: $314