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Florida golf in 2003 continues to evolve

By Derek Duncan, Contributor

If you live in Maine or Arkansas, or maybe Wyoming, a best-of article suchas this might only be necessary once every three or four years, or aboutaslong as it takes to get a few new golf courses built. However inFlorida, aplace that never met a piece of land it couldn't turn into 18 holes,updatesare needed with more frequency.

One ramification of the perpetual golf growth is a constant turnover intheso-called "top courses" listings, something most other states don't havetojustify. In Golf Digest's semi-annual state rankings, for example, 12 ofthecurrent top-30 courses have been built within the past 10 years, sevenofthose in the past five. That might be interpreted as an indictment ofFlorida's lack of tradition and legendary courses, but it's also acompliment to the flexibility and freshness it provides; visitors couldspend every annual trip playing only new courses.

Here's the State of the State Address for Florida for 2003, and a lookaheadto 2004.

And Still Heavyweight Champion.

A person granted a single round at any Florida venue would either befoolishor iconoclastic to not select Seminole Golf Club in North Palm Beach.The1929 vintage Donald Ross (and Dick Wilson, and now Brian Silva) seaside slice ofheaven isby virtually every expert account one of the South's two or three bestcourses (and a fine club too). Of course most of us will have to taketheirword for it - you're likely to meet more people that have teed it up atAugusta National than at Seminole.

Speaking of Private Clubs

Many of Florida's finest courses are, alas, private. If we were loaded,however, these are the places where we'd most love to play our dailyrounds:Steve Smyers' Old Memorial in Tampa; Tom Fazio's John's Island West, Black Diamond Quarry Course, orJupiterHills (with uncle George); Bobby Weed's renovated Ross design atTimuquanain Jacksonville; Seth Raynor's Mountain Lake (2003 Brian Silvarestoration)in Lake Wales; or Pete Dye's Old Marsh in West Palm Beach.

This, However, Does Pertain to You

Plenty of criticisms can be launched at the whole of golf in Florida,butthe state's variety and multiplicity of courses is severely underrated.Thefollowing list of courses, all available to the public, demonstrates anarray of golf experiences from vastly differing settings to vastlydifferentshot and thinking demands.

There are very few courses that every serious golfer must play at leastoncein her life, but Pete Dye's Stadium Course at the TPC at Sawgrass near Jacksonvilleisone of them. Perhaps no other course outside Augusta National and PebbleBeach is as recognizable to the average player, and the experience ofdumping balls into the lake on the par-3 17th is priceless. For studentsofarchitecture, a visit to the Stadium Course is a pilgrimage to the mostinfluential design of the past 60 years.

The rest of the best

World Woods Golf Club, Pine Barrens Course, 45 minutes north of Tampa - There's alsothe less-interesting Rolling Oaks course, but the rugged and isolatedPineBarrens might be Fazio's best work.

Ocean Hammock between Jacksonville and Daytona Beach - Florida's most visceral golf experience with six holes along the Atlantic Dunes.

Victoria Hills in Deland (between Orlando and Daytona) ­ Wonderfully expressive topography, risqué greens, and a captivating Ron Garl design.

El Diablo nearCitrusSprings (30 minutes from Brooksville) - An elegant Jim Fazio's designroaming the secluded hardwood forests of west central Florida.

Southern Dunes,southwest of Orlando - There's more strategic punch in this Smyersdesignthan almost any other course in the state - just ignore themiddle-incomedevelopment surrounding it.

Mystic Dunes in Kissimmee - Bolder and even more adventurous than the courses at the big amusement park a few miles north.

Camp Creek outside Destin - One of Fazio's most under appreciated and unheralded works (now that's something you don't often hear).

The Golf Club atNorthHampton north of Jacksonville - Arguably Palmer Course Design'swildestand most thrilling layout.

Amelia IslandPlantation - Stunning courses by Dye, Weed, and Fazio, and sevenholeson the Atlantic Ocean (and numerous more on the Intracoastal Waterway) -what more is there?

Toto, I Don't Think

For a very not-so Florida feeling, head to the hills west of OrlandowhereDiamond Players Club Clermont and Highlands Reservemove upand down over the area's surprisingly elevated and sandy terrain.

The Eddie Albert Award for Greenness Goes To: Want ultra-fine conditioning? It's hard to beat Ocean Hammock, Tiburon Golf Club (Naples), The Golden Bear Club at Keane's Point (Orlando), the courses at PGA Village, and the new Grand Lakes in Orlando.

Off the Beaten Path: Courses worth seeking out, or driving a little farther to find: the University of Florida course in Gainesville; Lost Key in Perdido Key; Rock Springs Ridge in Apopka; The Dunes at Seville near World Woods, and Lake Jovita in Dade City.

Grass + Roots = Some of the most interesting, inexpensive, and entertaining courses in Florida are community courses that few traveling players ever see. Among them are St. Cloud Golf Course with it's wall to wall fairway cut, Swiss Fairways in Clermont with hazards ranging from rough hewn bunkers to water-skiers, the nine quaint and untouched Donald Ross holes at Keystone Heights near Gainesville, and Hyde Park, another old and charming Ross layout in the center of Jacksonville.

The Ernie Banks Award: Excellent El Diablo is so inexpensive you'll want to go around twice("Let'splay two!"). Current rates are $30, $40 on weekends.

Thou Art More Lovely: Among all the magnificent scenery in Florida, nothing compares to thethrillof emerging from the oak hammocks surrounding the third green at AmeliaIsland Plantation's Ocean Links course and descending toward thebeachfrontand ocean roar at the fourth - unless it's the spectacular rise towardthedunes-set green at the par-3 15th later in the same round.

A Milton Bradley Game: Looking for a strategic challenge? Your first stop should be the newlyredesigned Grande Pines in Orlando (formerly International Golf Club),whereSteve Smyers has transformed a formerly flat and rather mundane course into a course with dynamic green complexes that provide for an endless variety of approach shots. Also test your wits and shots at The New Course at Grand Cypress, Nicklaus' ode to the ultimate strategic course (St. Andrews), the Stadium Course at the TPC at Sawgrass, and the University of Florida course.

Vertigo: The ambitiousness in greens design award goes to Mystic Dunes, whereseveralputting surfaces seem to come from an era when the grass was cut at halfaninch. Other notable greens can be found at Grande Pines, The Raven atSandestin Resort, and the Ocean Course at Ponte Vedra Resort.

What's Next

Just a few of the things to look for in 2004: the opening of the Greg Norman/Dye collaboration at Tuscany Reserve in Naples; the continuing boom in Orlando that included Eagle Dunes and Grand Lakes in 2003 and Grande Pines, Shingle Creek, Eagle Pines, and the courses at Reunion in 2004; a new private Norman course called Parkland Golf & Country Club in Broward County; and the groundbreaking for Pete Dye's course at Southern Hills Plantation in Brooksville.

Southern Hills Plantation hopefully will continue to elevate theprestige ofFlorida's most promising and under-appreciated golf region. The areabetweenOcala and Brooksville - horse country to most - is ideally suited togolfwith a rich sandy soil, hardwood forests, and endlessly rollingtopography.It's already home to the state's most unique courses - World Woods, ElDiablo, Golden Ocala, Black Diamond, Dunes of Seville, County Club ofOcala,etc. - and in the future it could help redefine the country's opinion ofFlorida golf.

The state's other great natural hope lies in the Northwest, the regionformerly known at the Panhandle. Though too massive to categorize easily(it's a three-hour drive between Tallahassee and Pensacola), the hillcountrynorth and west of Tallahassee is largely virgin territory for golf andthecoastal dunesland around Destin and Ft. Walton Beach has yet to be fullyexpressed.

Derek DuncanDerek Duncan, Contributor

Derek Duncan's writing has appeared in TravelGolf.com, FloridaGolf.com, OrlandoGolf.com, GulfCoastGolf.com, LINKS Magazine and more. He lives in Atlanta with his wife Cynthia and is a graduate of the University of Colorado with interests in wine, literary fiction, and golf course architecture.

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