Haines City, FL - This is a strange, unordinary place in Polk County, Florida. Because of its relative hilliness and uncluttered views, it bears little resemblance to other parts of the state. The obscure stretch of State Road 544 southeast of Haines City just seems a little, well, off.
Then again, if you're from out of state, you're probably not traveling on this quiet two-laner unless you're a golfer. You'll be heading either to Grenelefe, a staple Florida resort for some 30 years, or to Diamondback Golf Club, directly across the street.
Though only a half-hour southwest of the multi-multi-million dollar expanse of Disney World, the feeling this sprawling countryside affects is one of disengagement. For all of its featureless expanse, it might be Kansas, it might be Indiana. The only telling signs of Florida are the randomly occurring citrus groves, and even here they are spread less dependently than in western Orange County to the north.
Having passed numerous small houses, a church, a stripped quarry, and plenty of farmland on 544, Diamondback appears suddenly on the left, verdant and brilliant. To the right is another golf course, the West Course at Grenelefe, but the oasis of Diamondback's sixteenth hole, with its silvery lake and waterfall, and stone buoyed eighteenth green overlooked by the clubhouse veranda, pulls the eye suddenly and strongly in its direction. The greenery is unexpected.
Diamondback, opened in January of 1995, is billed as Central Florida's most preserved 18 holes, or as General Manager Lyle Beaver says, it's "240 acres of virgin forest." While it's true that the course is routed through a shallow forest of twisting oaks and pines, the golf course overall is spacious and easy to digest.
240 acres for golf is not large by modern standards, but the course is routed tightly within its boundaries. Most holes are separated from each other by only a thin strip of trees, perhaps ten or fifteen feet across. But more often than not, that vegetation is so thick as to completely seal off adjacent holes. Such is the richness of the foliage that though the holes frequently play parallel; each feels insular, lost in the woods.
The space in between these stripes of oak and scrub however, is not nearly as untamed as the surrounding thicket might indicate. Diamondback, for all its wild insinuation, is a very clean and organized course where great effort seems to be given to conditioning.
It is composed of holes of balanced length and order that turn back and forth inside and outside each other, constantly switching in direction. At its farthest distance it measures a quite manageable 6,805 yards with most men playing the middle marker of 6,359 yards. Sight lines off the tee are distinct so that the entire course is framed, defined foremost by the forest edges and then by large fairway bunkers or singular trees, while the sizable greens provide clear, attractive targets.
This is the work of Joe Lee, the prolific golf course architect whose portfolio size rivals that of Donald Ross and Robert Trent Jones. As with most of Lee's courses, including his numerous Florida designs, there is no intention of pure punishment. Solid shots are asked for but spectacular play is not required for decent scoring. And whereas the penalty for straying too far from the wide corridors is severe, there is plenty of green to aim at before the trees interfere.
That said, the round does begin in a rather exciting, although unsettling, manner. Iron nerves and a steady ball flight are demanded for the first three holes, the most cinching on the course.
The first shot of the day on the par five, number one is played from a wonderfully encouraging elevated tee down to an island of fairway guarded left by a large sand trap. From the trap, the hole bends left over a wetlands to another fairway collared by trees all the way to the green calling for an acute second shot.
The second is an underrated hole, particularly from the tournament tees of 388 yards. This set is tucked alone in a nook near the first green and requires a drive over the wetlands to a severely angled fairway.
The fairway itself falls away left and right into the trees to make this perhaps the most demanding tee shot on the course. From the solitary mid-point bunker on the right, the hole is redirected sharply to the left into a large, rolling green. As with many of the greens at Diamondback, the putting surface is influenced by a large brow in its middle right-hand portion.
The third is less intriguing, a rather penal, un-strategic par four of 395 yards where even slightly errant shots lead to a ball in the woods and an automatic 5 or 6. Nothing but accuracy and nerve are required at the third, but its effect is powerful.
By the time the fourth tee is gained, a level of paralysis may have set in. Diamondback thus far has shown itself to be exacting and unforgiving.
As skinny and exacting as one through three have been however, the fairways broaden beginning with the yawning, par five fifth. From this point forward the greens appear ever larger and inviting. With this accommodation, Diamondback misses deliberately. A treacherous, clenching course in this unique setting would certainly distinguish itself amongst its rivals.
The course has plenty of highlights, enough so that Golf Digest readers have rated Diamondback a four-star (out of five) course. Eleven, twelve, and thirteen are a wonderful trio of holes that begins with a beautiful uphill tee shot that must bank off a trap and pines on the left to clear the corner of trees on the right, followed by an uphill medium iron to a swerving green fronted center, left, and right by bunkers.
The 413-yard 12th is the most intriguing par four on the course calling for a powerful driver to be struck up the left at two framing bunkers. The fairway tilts and bends to the right allowing plenty of room to slice, but because of trees, this sandy area leaves little chance for the green. The proper angle is from the high, or left side, with a mid-iron struck purely to the angled, pinched green. The 13th then is a straightforward one-shotter downhill but earns high points for beauty.
The complexion of the course changes in the last three holes, a 5-3-4 combination that plays over a manicured field under the watchful eye of the elevated clubhouse. For the bold, 16 is a true chance for bird if a masculine drive challenges the waterfall at the inside corner of the dogleg. If all goes well, the ball will catch a down slope and gain valuable roll. From there it's 200 to 230 yards into an attractive green heavily guarded by no less than five nebulous bunkers.
Seventeen is a 207-yard par three down to a green in an arbor setting, and then the mighty 441-yard 18th travels back up and over a crown toward the clubhouse on the right. The massive green waits against the lake on the left, but only severely pulled long-irons and fairway woods will find water here. All in all, these make for a picturesque finish.
The playing fields of Diamondback are quiet and private, and ultimately this is the course's overwhelming appeal. Of Diamondback's natural state, Beaver says, "It's our biggest selling point. You'll never see any homes on the course, and that's not normally found in Florida." One needs only looks across the street to the condo-lined fairways of Grenelefe to be reminded of how the integrity of a golf course can be compromised in the most gaudy, and unfortunately, common, of ways.
Despite the great contrast from the popular resort next door, Diamondback enjoys comfortable camaraderie with Grenelefe. "We have a great relationship with them," Beaver says, noting that the two entities readily feed off each other. They share a common tie, in fact. Diamondback was conceived by 39 individuals with ties to Grenelefe - owners and proprietors who wanted a diversion and relief from their own crowded tracks. Aware that the sandy soil of the property across the street was potentially suitable for a golf course, the investors purchased the land and shopped the idea around to several architects. In the end, they were most impressed by Lee's rather minimal plan that called primarily for the removal of trees and little earth moving.
The club's ownership has since grown to 56 equity members. It's a unique setup and it seems to be working well, if the presentation and upkeep of the course are any indications. Diamondback however, has yet to find its way to the lists of most Central Florida residents and visitors, and many who venture to the better-known Grenelefe will be pleasantly surprised to discover it there.
It ought to change, for what they'll find when they venture across the street is a course that is substantively different from the resort's three rather dated offerings, and for Florida, achieves a rare closeness to nature. Without offending its residents, it's probably the best reason to come to Haines City.
Diamondback is one of Joe Lee's better Florida designs and should attract those who wish to eschew the glitzier, busier golf courses in this vast center of Disney-oriented tourism. The pull of golf without residence should be enough to attract a wide range of visitors who are staying in Orlando and Tampa. Sometimes the more interesting courses are found in tiny places like this.
Fees at Diamondback range from a low of $40 weekdays from June 1 to September 30, with weekends at $50. High season (October to May) ranges from $50 to $60. Call the pro shop for exact rates.
Diamondback is 6 miles east of Highway 27 on State Road 544, approximately 13 miles south of I-4.
Diamondback Golf Club
6501 S.R. 544 E.
Haines City, FL 33844
Phone: 800 222-5629