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Florida's best new courses pique interest

By Brendan McEvoy, Contributor

According to the National Golf Foundation, 15.7 million fewer rounds were played in the United States in 2002 than in 2001. And yet, NGF also estimates that 194 new courses will open this year. The end result is an oversupply of golf courses and a revenue pie sliced a little thinner.

Who in their right mind would want to build a new golf course these days?

Welcome to the bizarre world of the golf industry. New courses today sometimes serve a different purpose than generating revenue. They are often used to sell real estate or as a resort amenity. In those cases, profitability is a secondary priority.

In other words, "If you build it, they will come" - and spend money on homes, condos, hotel rooms, spa treatments, and on and on.

And that's just fine with us - the golfing public. More courses mean lower rates and more variety. Often, a well-designed new course will open with lush conditions and a low green fee to get the hook in us. This year, Florida had six meaty lines in the water and we took the bait.

Built on 738 acres of forests and wetlands formerly inhabited by the Anneewakee Psychiatric Camp, St. James Bay in Carrebelle will drive its fair share of golfers certifiably nuts. The course is only 6,730 yards from the tips, but it plays to a 72.9 course and 142 slope rating. Negotiating the tight, tree-lined fairways and fast greens make this course a challenge.

St. James Bay opened in September, but building it wasn't easy. Franklin County, Fla., turned down two other golf course projects because they feared storm water would carry golf course chemicals into the oyster beds, destroying the areas major source of income.

Franklin County approved St. James Bay because of its commitment to preserve the environment. Course designer Robert Walker built lakes and ponds to trap storm water. He also arranged the greens so they'd drain into "dry sumps," which filter the contaminants out of the storm water before the ground absorbs them.

St. James Bay has also applied for a Silver Signature from Audubon International, meaning there aren't many places to land your ball - 70 acres of grass to be precise. The challenge is yours for a cart-included green fee of $55.

As part of a 622-acre, gated residential community, Hernando Oaks Golf and Country Club is cut out of wooded preserves just north of Tampa. The community will have two town centers with shops, services and cafes in an effort to mesh country charm with modern day amenities.

The course is a Scott Pate design featuring fairways lined with Spanish-moss-laden oak trees. The tees and fairways are Bermuda grass; Hernando has large, undulating TifEagle ultra-dwarf greens. The rough features native grass, a measure to help preserve the natural environment.

Water is featured on seven holes and there are five sets of tees to choose from. Distances range from 5,099 to 6,905 yards, and the front tees eliminate 95 percent of the forced carries. The secluded country forest setting is a welcomed contrast to the hustle and bustle of city life to the south. Easy on the eyes and on the wallet, green fees range from $33 to $49 - cart and GPS included.

The Ritz Carlton Golf Club is a low-end course for Bill Gates and Donald Trump. The Orlando hotel targets business groups, weddings and splurging vacationers. Any way you slice it, the Ritz is a great choice if you've got the dough. The golf course, a Greg Norman design, features plenty of water hazards and well-place bunkers.

The conditions are near-perfect, with closely cropped fairways and rough (to ensure fairness to the recreational golfer). And in the tradition of Ritz pampering, every group has a "caddie concierge" that does everything from repair ball marks to supplying course advice and refreshments. But it'll cost you - stay-and-play packages start at $449 a night, per person.

Walkabout Golf and Country Club in Mims - 30 minutes outside of Orlando - is the centerpiece of residential golf community. This Perry Dye/Jan Stephenson collaboration takes advantage of the undulating landscape. Walkabout plays 7,115 yards from the tips and 5,595 yards from the forward tees and has a course and slope rating of 74.0/143 and 66.9/116, respectively. All 18 holes meander through hardwood wetlands. It was recently named the home course of the Senior Ladies Professional Golf Tour.

Walkabout features an unusual twist. The 19th is not a watering hole; it's a par-3 hole with a green shaped like the continent of Australia. Through November, green fees are $40, cart included. But they jump to $50 in December.

Other top newcomers include Eagle Dunes Golf Club just north of Orlando, which claims to have Florida's truest greens. Venetian Golf and River Club in North Venice also opened to rave reviews earlier this year. It's generous fairways are framed by mounds, bunkers and grass hollows.

Brendan McEvoy, Contributor

Brendan McEvoy spent five years with Times Community Newspapers, a Reston, Va.-based chain of 18 weekly newspapers covering the suburbs of Washington, D.C.

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