Florida certainly isn’t lacking for places to play golf. With over 1,000 golf courses Florida has more places to tee it up than any state in the union. Many destinations are well known to traveling golfers but a special Florida exists on the Nature Coast.
Many other areas of Florida get most of the attention- the Gold Coast of Miami/Ft Lauderdale/Palm Beach has many high-end resorts and is host to several PGA Tour events. The upper East Coast area boasts the famous TPC Sawgrass, the World Golf Hall of Fame and many other fine layouts. Orlando is home to tons of golf courses and is the site of Arnold Palmer’s Bay Hill and the Disney courses that have the season ending PGA Tour event.
The Southwest Florida boasts golf course hot beds like Naples, Marco Island and Venice and the Sarasota/Bradenton area has the highest number of golf courses per capita of any place in the country. The Greater Tampa Bay area has loads of courses and several pro tournaments.
But if you’ve been there and done that or you just want to try something different and a bit more laid back then Florida’s Nature Coast is the place for you.
Located on Florida’s Gulf Coast about 100 miles north of the Tampa Bay area, the Nature Coast offers world class golf without the oppressive development and traffic found in many other areas of the state. It also offers some unique outdoor experiences off the golf course that you won’t find in any other region.
Another feature that differentiates the Nature Coast area from most of the rest of dead flat Florida is its rolling topography. In fact, the locations for a couple of the golf facilities in this article were chosen almost exclusively for their topographical features despite the lack of population in the area. Those elevation changes provide some great opportunities for golf course architects to create some memorable layouts and no architect has taken better advantage of the rolling countryside than Tom Fazio.
Long considered by many as America’s best architect and certainly its most highly compensated, Fazio really cemented that position in the 1980’s with is work in the Nature Coast area.
After early successes as a solo architect at Wild Dunes in South Carolina and Wade Hampton in North Carolina, Fazio secured the assignment in the mid-1980’s at Black Diamond Ranch located in Lecanto halfway between Inverness and Crystal River.
The original developer, Stan Olsen formerly of Laconia, New Hampshire,, handed the 1320 acre pastureland dotted with ancient Live Oaks and a huge limestone quarry to Fazio and told him to build the best 45 holes of golf he could and the houses would be fitted on the remaining land.
Fazio and Olsen debuted the Black Diamond Ranch Quarry Course in 1987 and it immediately shot to the top of the course rankings of every major golf publication. It has remained there ever since.
The Quarry starts off from a high point near the clubhouse and plays down and around the beautiful oaks and spring fed ponds with plenty of room off the tee but a full range of challenges on approach shots and on the greens with their demanding slopes and Tifeagle speeds. The first twelve holes range from good to merely great but the quarry holes, 13 through 17, are otherworldly and like nothing else you ever played.
The par 3- 13th hole, a 180 yard, all carry tee shot across the corner of the giant abandoned limestone quarry is just a warm up for the next four holes. The 14th is a par 5 that again plays across a corner of the quarry to a diagonal fairway that invites you to bite off as much as you can chew. If you clear the quarry far enough up the fairway you can get home in two to the downhill green.
The 15th is a par 4 that plays down into the quarry from a highly elevated tee to a fairway that looks about as wide as a cart path and is bordered on the left by a lake and quarry walls on the right. Back up to the rim for the par 4-16th that again makes you cut off a corner of the quarry to a diagonal fairway that unless you are really brave-and really long, will leave a fairway wood into a tight green.
The 17th is the true coup-de-grace for the Quarry. A par 3 playing 230 yards from the top of the ridge to a green 80 feet below tucked into the corner of the quarry looks like one of those Gary Patterson drawings but actually is reasonably playable. Back on the mainland, the 18th is just a difficult dogleg left, uphill par 5 to a tight and sloping green.
The Ranch Course at Black Diamond, opened in 1997, is another 18 hole par 72 Fazio design that plays in a more traditional, closer to the ground style and includes, in Fazio’s words “the three best finishing holes I’ve ever designed.”
The Highlands is the last of the golf offerings at BDR and was opened in 1999. Normally these nine hole courses tend to be shorter, gentler, pitch and putt layouts but not the Highlands. In fact, it is the most difficult nine on the property with a slope of 147 from the tips. It can be combined with either nine of the Ranch for the truly masochistic.
Although Black Diamond Ranch is private, public access can be obtained through their Stay and Play packages. The Pure Golf Getaway includes two nights’ accommodations in one of Black Diamond Ranch’s homes and two rounds of golf on its celebrated trinity of Fazio layouts. The package begins at $399 per person, based on quad-occupancy. The best deal, The Couples Golf Getaway, begins at $699 per couple. It also includes two nights’ accommodations and two rounds of golf. The homes are elegant and the golf superb so if you like to spring for the good stuff then this is worth the expenditure. For information click- www.blackdiamondranch.com or call (352) 453-5473.
In the early 1990’s Japanese businessman Yukihisa Inoue decided he wanted to create a world class golf facility that would not only provide great public golf courses but the best practice facility in the country. After scouting the world’s finest golf courses and resorts he settled on a 2,100 acre site in the sleepy Florida town of Brooksville and hired who he felt was the preeminent course architect of the day to build 36 holes, Tom Fazio.
After naming the property World Woods Golf Club, Inoue set Fazio loose to create what are arguably the two finest public courses in one place in the US, Pine Barrens and Rolling Oaks.
Although Pine Barrens is allegedly Fazio’s ode to the venerable Pine Valley in New Jersey, the comparison isn’t really fair to either of them. Although they have the rolling terrain and sandy waste areas and scrub oaks and tall pines in common, Pine Barrens can stand on its own as a great golf course and there is really only one Pine Valley.
Rolling Oaks is pitched as Fazio’s tribute to Augusta National and even though Fazio has done some work at the home of the Masters suffice to say that Rolling Oaks may share some design characteristics with Augusta National but that’s where the comparison should end. Rolling Oaks is just fine as it is and Augusta National is without comparison.
As if 36 holes of world class golf weren’t enough, World Woods offers a practice facility that attracts well known professional golfers. The Practice Park features a circular 23 acre practice range, plus a 36 hole, two acre putting course.
Golf packages are available and include the opportunity to play two private courses in the area, Southern Woods and Sugarmill Woods. Click worldwoods.com or call (352) 796-5500, X22. You will not get better golf for the money than at World Woods.
For a change of pace, head towards the coast to Crystal River and the Plantation Golf Resort and Spa. The Plantation sits on 232 acres of lush preserve land and is surrounded by the natural fresh water springs of Kings Bay, part of the Crystal River aquifer.
The resort offers The Championship Course, an 18 hole Mark Mahannah designed par 72 and the shorter nine hole Lagoons layout. It is also home to The Original Golf School run by Jay Morelli, former New England PGA Pro of the Year. Jay runs the school at Plantation in the winter and summers at Mount Snow Country Club in Vermont and has since its inception in 1978. If learning to play the game properly is in your future then Jay Morelli is the guru to see.
Off course, Plantation offers some incredible activities. Most prominently, it is the only place in the world where humans are legally allowed to swim with and interact with West Indian manatees. These giant (up to 13 feet long and up to 3,000 pounds) but gentle mammals are an endangered species but gather to winter in the warm spring fed waters of the Crystal River. The Plantation Dive Shop will hook you up with everything you need including getting scuba certified in just three days and has regularly scheduled diving tours to visit the manatees for both snorkel and scuba.
Aside from the manatees, the crystal clear waters that run at 72 degrees year round, offer views of underwater caverns, dolphins, tarpon, redfish and grouper. If fishing or boating are your things the Plantation Dive Shop offers boat rentals including jon boats, pontoon boats, canoes or kayaks to explore the 25,000 acres of interconnected rivers in the area.
Plantation Golf Resort and Spa recently celebrated their 50th anniversary by embarking on a $3 million restoration project that will modernize the entire property without losing the laid back Southern charm. Packages are available for golf, diving and manatee tours. Click plantationgolfandspa.com or call 800-632-6262.