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What exactly is 'Florida Golf?'

By Derek Duncan, Contributor

There's a belief in golf that a course is only as good as the land it's built on. While occasionally there are exceptions to this, such as when feats of engineering and tens of millions of dollars transform a desolate site in the desert into Shadow Creek, it's largely true that good properties yield good, or at least interesting, golf courses and bad properties make for bad or boring ones. And a survey of the landscapes of Cypress Point, Pine Valley, Ballybunion, and the Sand Hills reveals that exceptional properties can beget exceptional golf courses.

Where does this leave a state like Florida, where the highest points are frequently palm trees and homes don't have basements because they'd turn into indoor swimming pools due to the high water table? Handicapped from the beginning it would seem like every course built there is doomed to mediocrity.

Admit it, your idea of Florida golf is flat, of 18 holes through corridors of condos, doglegging around about 15 water hazards and countless bunkers. You wouldn't be completely at fault for believing this, either.

This imagery originated as the state's tourism and winter residence industry grew its roots in the southern end of the state where it's hot and flat as a pancake. For decades most of the golf courses from Miami to Palm Beach, the hub of activity, were built to sell homes and condos. As there was little topographical variance one predominant style of course emerged. It was also, for a time, a popular style since it was different than anything found in New England or Minnesota or wherever most visitors hailed, and it was also virtually the only style of Florida course non-natives ever saw.

Add to this the impressionable effect of the dozen or so courses that have been televised each year as hosts of various professional tour events, such as Doral's Blue Course, Bay Hill, PGA National's Champion's Course, the Stadium Course at the TPC of Sawgrass, etc. - none of which are built on particularly interesting landforms - and it's easy to understand the perception of Florida golf.

Certainly there's no comparison between Florida's limited landscapes and those from more voluptuous places like Hawaii, the mountains of Colorado, northern Michigan, or the hills of eastern Pennsylvania and New Jersey, but the perception can be misleading.

Architects will always struggle to find inspiration in flat places such as Naples (last year Michael Hurdzan and Dana Fry built a 50 foot high sand ridge "feature" at the private Calusa Pines) but at least some of the state' s better geological areas are coming into development. In truth there are some wonderfully rich golf environments that bear no resemblance to the common sites previously used. Many of these have notable elevations and strong natural features, advantageous sandy soil, or an attractive regional flavor, and they all refute the stereotype of "Florida golf."

Brooksville Brooksville is a just small town about an hour north of Tampa that was put on the golf map when World Woods Golf Club opened nearly 10 years ago, but due to its success the entire area extending north to Citrus County and south to the southern border of Pasco County, with its beautifully atypical landforms, is simply called the Brooksville area. This is undoubtedly the most potentially gifted section of Florida from a golf landscape standpoint with long rolling hills, thick forests of pine, and a deep sandy soil beneath.

The stunning courses of this region, and surely those yet to come, have a unique character about them. They are large and profound and vigorously traverse the terrain. Sometimes they're rough and savage and at best they incorporate the raw natural sand base into their features.

Several already enjoy national reputations such as World Woods and Black Diamond Golf Club in Lecanto. Others like El Diablo (Citrus Springs), The Dunes at Seville (just west of Brooksville), and Lake Jovita Country Club (Dade City), featuring 200 feet in elevation changes, are among the state's most favored courses.

Architect and golf course builder Terry LaGree lives in the area and believes in its upside.

"To me it's going to be the Pinehurst of the South someday. What people don't realize (until) they come to Citrus County is that it has a real rolling, beautiful terrain. It's not at all like south Florida."

Ocala Just northeast of the Brooksville is the horse country of Ocala, where the land seems ideally suited to natural, pastoral golf. Like its neighbor the area enjoys a rather undulating topography not found elsewhere in Florida, but as for now its golf potential remains largely unrealized. Only a few of its roughly two-dozen courses are standouts, notably Golden Ocala, LaGree's delightful Royal Oaks, and Steve Newgent's Country Club of Ocala, and these share similarly style of hole that flows elegantly over the hills and pastures.

The Ocala area stirs the imagination of nearly every golfer or architect who passes through. Jason McCoy, Vice President of Greg Norman Golf Course Design, says, "I'd love to work up in the Ocala area. They've got nice rolling hills, big old oak trees - that's an area I'd love to get Greg into."

Lake and Polk Counties Beneath these two counties located just west and southwest of Orlando is a massive sand ridge (the same ridge that extends west into the Brooksville area) that provides the base for some of the most productive citrus groves in Florida. It could also be the base of some of the best golf courses.

The region is more open and rumpled than one might expect and has a decidedly un-Florida country quality about it. Headlined by Southern Dunes, Highlands Reserve, and Diamond Players Club of Clermont, the Highwa y 27 corridor that runs north-south from Leesburg to Lake Wales is already one of the most exciting stretches of golf in the state, and definitely features the most elevation changes. This is Florida's highest region and it makes golfers forget where they are.

Northwest Florida This is an area (don't call it the Panhandle) far too large to generically characterize, and there's currently no shortage of golf courses either. But the soil, landforms, foliage, and unique relationship to the Gulf make it one that stands out against the state's other locales.

Northwest Florida is really several smaller regions - Pensacola, Destin, Panama City, Tallahassee. The steep hills surrounding Tallahassee, for instance, bear no resemblance to the sand and scrub washes of Destin 100 miles west, but are every bit as alluring for golf. SouthWood Golf Club which opened in 2002, is the first course in the region to fully capitalize on the area's topography. Others, such as the Golf Club of Quincy, also hint at the attractive forested nature of the area.

Two recently opened courses nearer the water, Tom Fazio's Camp Creek and Greg Norman's Shark's Tooth, reflect the wild, seaside flavor of the sandy stretch of land between Destin and Panama City. Camp Creek especially, with its linky first nine and stark differentiations between grass, waste areas, and sugar sand surrounds (the result of nearly $20 of construction), actively embodies the water and dunes spirit. Nearby courses such as Kelly Plantation and Regatta Bay, while popular, don't do nearly as well at capturing the salt water, wind, and sand essence of the region.

Other areas that may help to dispel the negative perception of Florida golf include Amelia Island, John's Island near Vero Beach, and the courses built on the sand ridge running through the Jupiter area.

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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