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Best Florida golf experiences include TPC Sawgrass, Ocean Hammock, Blue Monster at Doral

By Jason Scott Deegan, Senior Staff Writer

PALM COAST, Fla. -- Boasting more courses than any other state in the country, there's enough golf in Florida to make your head spin.

TPC Sawgrass - Players Stadium Course - 17th green
The Players Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass has to be the no. 1 Florida golf destination.
TPC Sawgrass - Players Stadium Course - 17th greenWorld Woods Golf Club - Pine Barrens Course - 7thBay Hill Club & Lodge - no. 18

The Sunshine State has more courses -- more than 1,100 and growing -- than most states have restaurants. Okay, that's an exaggeration, but the point is, Florida will always reign as one the golf capitals of the country.

But with so many courses, where to play becomes a difficult choice. Do you choose by price? Is convenience your No. 1 priority, picking the course closest to your hotel or home? Do you stick with your favorite designer?

To help find that once-in-a-lifetime golf experience, here's a list of eight courses unlike any other in Florida. For one reason or another, they break the mold of traditional "Florida golf."

Most critics of Florida golf courses moan they're generally flat tracks with an overabundance of bunkers, lakes and intrusive housing developments. There are many good golf courses in the state designed by world-class architects with strategic layouts that can befuddle even the most talented players, but these eight courses take golf to another level. Playing them isn't just another round. It's a pure golf experience.

Players Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass

This 6,974-yard dynamo has to be the no. 1 Florida golf destination.

The highlight isn't limited to the most exhilarating par-3 in golf, the 137-yard shot to the famous island green at No. 17. It starts on the driving range, where you'll likely see a crowd gathering around pros like Vijah Singh or Jim Furyk hitting buckets of balls.

Pete Dye built a thrill ride for players and set the standard for every modern design. There are demanding carries over waste bunkers off the tee, dangerous greens and more water than Sea World. Staying at the nearby swanky Sawgrass Marriott Resort will complete any magical golf trip.

Sawgrass, home of the PGA Tour headquarters and the annual host of the Players Championship (the so-called fifth major), always will be a siren beckoning serious traveling golfers.

Ocean Hammock Golf Club

The first Florida course built on the Atlantic Ocean in more than 70 years, this Jack Nicklaus-design in Palm Coast, just north of Daytona Beach, doesn't quite live up to the "Pebble Beach of the East" label its been given. It's an outstanding resort track at 7,201 yards, but its ocean views are not as prevalent as Pebble. Still, it's truly surreal hearing the waves crash into the shore in your back swing and realizing that you're knocking on the door of the Atlantic.

Most ocean views are blocked by the sand dunes, but there are glimpses of some gorgeous Kodak moments at the elevated greens of No. 8, 9, 15, 17 and 18.

The two finishing holes, No. 9 and No. 18, play out majestically 466 yards right along the coast. Ocean Hammock, which opened in 2001, complements the ritzy 20-room Lodge, which opened in March, 2003.

Ocean Links at Amelia Island Plantation

Call this Pete Dye-Bobby Weed collaboration at Amelia Island Plantation whatever you want -- too tough, too quirky or too short at 6,108 yards -- but don't knock its waterfront appeal. The five ocean holes are just too stimulating to describe. You're so close to the sandy dunes and the Atlantic, you could jump in for a quick dip and make it back in time to watch your partners tee off.

Several scary tee shots, the oceanside par-4s at No. 4 and No. 16 come to mind, and several architectural anomalies keep the links from being considered a true championship course. An awkward number of par-3s (six) dot the par-70 design, including back-to-back on No. 5 and No. 6 along the ocean. But those minor complaints don't offset the unforgettable scenery that's sure to stick in your head forever.

Pine Barrens at World Woods Golf Club

Think of all the great Tom Fazio courses sprinkled throughout the world. Some consider Pine Barrens, which opened in 1993 more than an hour north of Tampa Bay, one of his best. The par-71, 6,902-yard design is as close to the ultra-private Pine Valley Golf Club as most of us will get.

Pine Barrens' flowing sandy waste areas demand strategic shotmaking, yet provide scenic contrasts to the luscious green fairways. Personally, this is my favorite.

Bay Hill Golf Club

A chance to play where the pros play is always a thrill, but visiting Bay Hill has an even greater allure -- the chance to meet the King himself, Arnold Palmer. When he's not flying around the world, the King acts like a regular guy at Bay Hill, chatting it up with the golfers in the 64-room lodge and proving he is golf's greatest ambassador.

Bay Hill's Championship Course, a vintage Dick Wilson circa 1961, is traditional Florida at its best. It has hosted the PGA Tour's Bay Hill Invitational every March since 1979. The pro shop's hall of fame celebrating past champions like Ernie Els (1998), Phil Mickelson (1997), Fred Couples (1992) and four-time champion Tiger Woods is worth the trip alone.

New Course at Grand Cypress Resort

One of my faithful golf journalist comrades called this Orlando course "the most faithful approximation of the Old Course at St. Andrews there is, bermuda grass notwithstanding."

Believe it or not, this Jack Nicklaus design in the land of Mickey Mouse has more characteristics of the birthplace of golf than many courses in Scotland. There's no rough to speak of, and only two water hazards, burns that front greens No. 1 and 10. Hidden pot bunkers sprinkled in the fairway, some as deep as 12 feet, and double greens protect the course's reputation. The only unScotland-like feature is the GPS computers in the carts.

TPC Blue Monster at Doral Golf Resort and Spa

Like Bay Hill and the TPC of Sawgrass Stadium course, the Blue Monster lives on the marketing mantra, "Tee it up where the pros play." Every year since 1962, the Dick Wilson design has hosted the PGA Tour in Miami, making it the third-oldest event on tour.

The course is Florida-flat, but a unique balance and some gnarly rough gives the Monster its famed teeth. For every bruising 415-yard hole from the blue tees, like No. 6, 14 and the famous 18th, there's a challenging hole under 350 yards to provide hope of a birdie (see holes No. 2, 11 and 16).

Sanctuary Ridge Golf Club

Formerly known as Diamond Players Club Clermont, this par-71, 6,911-yard layout west of Orlando will never be considered one of Florida's best, but it might be the most unique. Terry LaGree crafted more than 190 feet of elevation change into "Florida's Mountain Golf Course." Some might consider the blind approach shots on No. 1, 10 and 11 to be too cruel to be fun, but most players will enjoy the change from the Florida norm.

Jason Scott DeeganJason Scott Deegan, Senior Staff Writer

Jason Scott Deegan has reviewed more than 700 courses and golf destinations for some of the industry's biggest publications. His work has been honored by the Golf Writer's Association of America and the Michigan Press Association. Follow him on Twitter at @WorldGolfer.

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