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First on the First Coast: Top-10 golf courses in Jacksonville, Fla.

By Tim McDonald, Contributor

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - The First Coast, that stretch of northeast Florida that starts just south of the Georgia border and runs to Palm Coast, should probably be a better-known golf destination, what with PGA Tour and so many of its players calling it home, not to mention the fact that it hosts The Players Championship.

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Ocean Hammock: TravelGolf's choice as the best course on First Coast.
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Marketing aside, the area has some of the best courses in a state known for its sheer volume of golf. Here then are the Jacksonville area's top courses, culled from personal observation and input from golf pros and other industry experts.

* No. 1 - Ocean Hammock Golf Club, Palm Coast: Ocean Hammock was named a modern classic by Links Magazine. It's designed by Jack Nicklaus, who used bulldozers to build elevation into the tees and greens, lifting them above the dune line to provide picture-perfect ocean views, and lifting Ocean Hammock into the realm of the sublime.

To play this course on a perfect Florida winter day - jet contrails lacerating the clear, blue sky, perfect little waves barreling in from the bright, blue ocean - is to know God and Donald Ross are in heaven and all is right with the world.

* No. 2 - Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass, Ponte Vedra Beach: The track we're all familiar with from The Players Championship will be closed for seven or eight months after the 2006 tournament. Not to worry - most of the work will involve improving drainage, with only minor tweaking to the course itself.

The PGA Tour, owners and operators of TPC, are also building a new, 80,000-square-foot clubhouse (double the current size) that will face the 18th green. Construction will take about a year. They're also raising the level of the parking lot - no more climbs up the twisting flights of stairs to get to the clubhouse. The Stadium Course is Pete Dye at his best or worst, depending on your opinion of him. Even great shots can produce eventual curses. This is where stadium golf was invented and island greens made famous.

* No. 3 - Pablo Creek Country Club, Jacksonville: A very exclusive private course set in the marshes of the Intracoastal Waterway. Pablo Creek measures 7,026 yards from the back tees with a slope rating of 137. Players rave about its pristine setting and lack of houses - rare for a Jacksonville course - as well as its undulating bentgrass greens and fairways.

* No. 4 - Golf Club at North Hampton, Fernandina Beach: Arnold Palmer and his crew, chiefly lead designer Ed Seay, moved about a million cubic yards of northeast Florida dirt to create the 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.

The Golf Club at North Hampton is a very beautiful course, with the 10 spring-fed lakes, frequently held back by boulders, and the wild grasses whipping in the wind. It has a natural feel, with dirt cart paths that take you through waste areas and natural vegetation. The fairways twist and shimmy like young colts, and an even lie is a rare find. The sheer variety of holes and imaginative flair that have gone into the design are impressive, even spectacular. Palmer and Seay have created a course that requires an amazing arsenal of shots and a fair amount of cognitive work. For $55 green fees, a remarkable golf experience

* No. 5 - Creek Course at Hammock Dunes Club, Palm Coast: This is a Rees Jones layout, routed through cypress and slash pine with marsh and creek views and a wide-porched, low-country-style clubhouse. There are 10 lakes forming 40 acres in all, bringing water into play on much of the course, and 13 wood bridges take you over the wetlands. It's on 450 acres of pristine conservation zone -- not a house on the site. The 7,355-yard course opened in 2003 and immediately outshined its Tom Fazio-designed sister course.

* No. 6 - Ocean Course at Ponte Vedra Inn and Club, Ponte Vedra Beach: A beautiful course, mostly open with tall stands of palm trees swaying in the Atlantic winds. Most of the holes run north and south, so the early and late sun make the water dazzle with reflected light without getting in your eyes.

Many of the greens have their old, treacherous slope back, especially No. 16, a little par 3 that has probably seen its share of three- and even four-putts. During the course's late-1920s construction famed British architect Herbert Bertram Strong used 100 mules dragging "slip pans" to shape contours, dredge lagoons and build up a series of earthen mounds that dot the fairways, creating dramatic undulations.

* No. 7 - The Palencia Club, St. Augustine: The big modern buildings of moneyed Palencia Village look down on The Palencia Club from on high, but the course itself is a naturalistic delight. Designer Arthur Hills is a 40-year veteran with a reputation for incorporating natural elements in his work. Read: Keep those keys to the bulldozers - if God wanted elevation in his celestial golf course, he'd have put it there.

The conditioning is immaculate, the fairways the very definition of "lush." It's a beautiful layout, winding through the low country just to the west of the Intracoastal Waterway, with elevated tee boxes and greens affording views of gnarled, centuries-old oaks and, on some holes, the waterway itself and its surrounding marshes.

* No. 8 - Valley Course at TPC Sawgrass, Ponte Vedra Beach: A lot of people will tell you they like this course more than its famous TPC Sawgrass sibling. 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 the Stadium Course, but the fairways are more undulating. Water comes into play on most holes, and it's only a mile from the ocean so wind can play havoc. If it's cheaper than the Stadium, it's still steep, with green fees in the $230 range.

* No. 9 - The King and the Bear, St. Augustine: By all accounts, The King and the Bear at World Golf Village was a true collaboration between two of the most revered names in golf, Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus. They walked the layout together, consulted one another, even played the course together. Unusual, since they are almost as competitive as course architects as they were as players.

Some critics have called the course overrated, but it's still a top-notch track. Palmer's design team did the original routing, and then Nicklaus came in and worked on the strategic aspects. Course officials say Palmer's influence is the most obvious, but both designers' trademarks are here: Palmer's beach bunkers; Nicklaus' wide-open fairways with multiple routes to the green. There are holes here each of them must love.

* No. 10 - Deerwood Country Club, Jacksonville: A Jacksonville stalwart, Deerwood was built in 1963 in the city's oldest gated community from a George Cobb design. It went through some rough times before a 2004 renovation led by Brian Silva that improved drainage and reworked many of the holes (some of the fairways that led to the Greater Jacksonville Open being dubbed the "Dogleg Open" when it was held here were straightened. The 7,270-yard layout is dominated by Lake Deerwood. Green fees are in the $180 range.

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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