DESTIN, FL - Golf has changed quite a bit in the last 15 years.
Remember lifting the bag out of the trunk yourself, walking 18 holes, feet never touching anything but grass, and swinging persimmon woods? How did we ever score when all we had to rely upon for distances was the 150-yard stake or shrub and intuition? Sometimes the greens on our favorite course were a little choppy or dry, the grass on the fringe of the course looked like fringe, and the ball occasionally took funny bounces. That was golf.
For better or worse these seemingly simple and natural endeavors are no longer acceptable as the standard. In many places, particularly Florida, it 's downright frowned upon to lack curbside service and have occasionally firm turf. At clubs where exemplary conditioning and service are the rule, anything less than conspicuous perfection is considered ammunition for the competition.
When and why this started is topic for debate, but the fact remains that what currently commands the attention and dollar of the Southern golfer is not what it was before.
Well-to-do contemporary players apparently demand an idealized golf excursion no matter where they are. With this in mind, hundreds of courses throughout the country have responded, effectively ushering in a new mode of golf, one that leaves the player with no need unfulfilled and nothing, not even the golf, left to chance. Few courses could better represent the current trends than Kelly Plantation in Destin.
Call it "Country Club for a Day" or "Member for a Day" programming, but Kelly Plantation is at the forefront of the catering movement. By stressing the highest level of attention - exceeding the wants of its patrons if it can - Kelly Plantation symbolizes the modern golf experience.
Golfers from throughout the area have noticed and identified the club as one of the best in its class. Golf Digest's Places to Play list has just rated Kelly Plantation 4 ½ stars out of a possible five, with the highest marks coming in two categories, Conditioning and Service.
"I'm extremely proud of that because our mission statement emphasizes two things particularly, service and conditioning, and those are the areas we were singled out in," says Director of Golf Steve Wright.
Since golfers, rather than a panel, award stars on the Places to Play list, Wright adds "We were rated without anyone giving us forewarning or a chance to prepare for them, so it's really an indication of how we do things on a day to day basis."
Kelly Plantation is a 1998 Gene Bates/Fred Couples design, one that upon opening, spurred Couples to boast "I think it's an unbelievable golf course.my best yet." Like the mission statement, the course design is also reflective of current trends and features large greens with evident contour, soft mounding along fairways and behind greens, and high-definition hazards. It's a style that attempts to encourage the player while minimizing on-course surprise and unpredictability.
And, as expected of a club rated so highly in the service and conditioning departments, it's brimming with cart and bag attendants, a full-service clubhouse and restaurant, GPS satellite link in the carts, a friendly first tee "host", impeccably manicured fairways and greens (one double green to boot), and iced towels and iced apples on the first and tenth tees.
"Our goal is to provide a memorable experience and our credo is we'll treat you like a member for a day," Wright explains. "I think what's most important to today's golfer is course condition first, because if you don't have that, then no matter what else happens, they aren't going to enjoy their round and come back. You need the product and then you have to provide the service."
"We realize that's a big part of the industry right now," he continues. "The current trend is to provide a member-quality experience, and we're leaders in that trend."
While Kelly Plantation offers up the service as well as any course in the Panhandle - come on, iced apples! - what seems to get overlooked among all the talk of perfect grass and every need tended to is the golf itself. After all, the better part of four and a half hours is going to be spent driving and putting the golf ball around a golf course. What's that like?
Wright says that Kelly Plantation is exciting golf as well.
"Couples and his design team did an incredible job here. It's a top notch challenge for the skilled player, but the high handicap player can also come out and enjoy playing because it's a fun course."
From the "Couples" tees, Kelly Plantation measures 7,099 yards and can be a serious driving test. From any of the forward markers, however, many of the long carries are eliminated and the course appears rather welcoming in all but a few spots.
Wright insists that it's the subtle nuances Couples instilled that makes the course great. He notes that the strategies mainly consist of mapping out playing angles to the targets and deciding how daring to be. Playing boldly toward the fairway hazards from the tee will generally open up the greens.
Most players will cite the 4th hole, a 401-yard par four along Choctawhatchee Bay, as Kelly Plantation's best. As Wright says, "That hole is just lost in the beauty of the Bay. With the Bay as the backdrop of the entire hole, the view is spectacular, and it's not uncommon to see porpoise jumping out there."
Though the 4th might be picturesque, the 165-yard 3rd, with a carry over wetlands to a green running away from the player behind an oval bunker, and the wild up-and-down par five 13th, offer more in the way of strategy and risk. The same can be said for the 18th, a brutish par five from the tips at 590-yards with a green suspended on a peninsula over a lake. Wright believes this hole is one of the most vexing on the course, particularly at the end of a serious match or championship. "We've had eagles, birdies, and 8's on that hole."
The superb 17th also deserves mention, a 207-yard one-shotter to a green set in a bowl. A large bunker is built up some 20 yards shy of the green's left front and shots that carry this and catch the backside will funnel onto the subtly canted putting surface.
If modern golf is now about service, conditioning and fairness, then Kelly Plantation epitomizes golf in the 21st century. Only time will tell if the trend lasts, but there's little doubt the paying public is willing to support it now. Fortunately Kelly Plantation delivers it better than most.
"A lot of courses can say it, but can they do it?" asks Wright. "When you come to Kelly Plantation we want you to feel like you're a member and have the perfect golf experience from the attendees at the bag drop, to the clubhouse service, the food and beverage, and the pace of play. Anyone can brag about it but we actually do it."
307 Kelly Plantation Dr.
Destin, FL 32541
Kelly Plantation is for the player with disposable income who wants to feel well taken care of; those who demand a golf course groomed with the utmost of care; those vacationing in Destin who want one of the higher end golf outings in the area.
The course is on the north side of Highway 98 just east of Destin major. Look for the large Kelly Plantation entrance.
Green fees are roughly $85 from November to February and $104 from March to October. Please call the pro shop as rates are subject to change.
Kelly Plantation could separate from the pack if it allowed players to carry their bag because the course is flat and not entirely spread out as most in the area are. Unfortunately walking is not permitted.
Conditions:4 (out of 5)
Par 3's: 3.5
Par 4's: 2.5
Par 5's: 3
Practice Facilities: 2.5
Club House/Pro Shop: 4
Pace of Play: 3.5
Overall Rating: 3
July 15, 2002