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Ocala's Golden Hills golf club: Florida golf at its hardest

Tim McDonaldBy Tim McDonald,
Golden Hills Golf and Turf Club - Elevation
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Golden Hills has some of the best elevation changes in the Ocala area. (Tim McDonald/GolfPublisher.com)

Golden Hills Golf and Turf Club in Ocala, Florida is a golf course that low-handicappers will love and high-handicappers are likely to hate. Still, sometimes you want a little challenge on a Florida golf vacation.

OCALA, Fla. - Most golf course people will almost always utter the cliché their course is "challenging for all levels" at some point.

But, at the Golden Hills Golf and Turf Club here in the middle of horse country, they don't make any bones about what their course is. They shun marketing double-speak.

"The low-handicappers love it," said head pro Darren Robinson. "The high-handicappers hate it."

In fact, touring pros like Brendan Pappas, Grant Wade and Teddy Potter all like to practice here, because of its difficulty. The layout measures over 7,300 yards from the back tees, and if you can bring the doglegs to their knees here, you're a driver of the golf ball.

The high-handicappers, after taking some hard body shots for 17 holes, sometimes land in the deep bunker to the left of the 18th green and after a few, futile hacks, resort to the old hand wedge.

"By the time they make it to their car, they're really pissed off and don't come back," Robinson said.

Still, Robinson said he wouldn't trade this course for another.

"I think it's the best design in Ocala," he said. "It was designed to bring in a tournament, and those kinds of courses are always good."

And to think, it used to be much more difficult.

The club was founded as a private club back in the 1960s, making it the oldest private club in Ocala, and was once one of the most popular meeting places in town. Eventually, it fell on hard times and it wasn't until 2002 that Bernadette Castro family, the daughter of Bernard and Theresa Castro, the couple who founded it, helped buy it back.

"My mom and dad carved out the best 500 acres of their land to make Golden Hills the absolute cream," Castro told the Ocala Star Banner in 2002. "They would have bought it again in a heartbeat. This decision was a family decision. It was a good decision and a heartfelt one."

Rees Jones, the "U.S. Open doctor," was brought in to soften the rough spots and make it more playable. He flattened some of the table-top greens and eased some of the more difficult playing corridors.

"The greens on 10 and 11 couldn't hold the ball," Robinson said. "He came in and flattened them and made the greens more receptive to good golf shots. It was kind if a brutal golf course, to be honest with you."

It's now a semi-private club, with members getting preferred tee times, and the members themselves sometimes complain about the difficulty.

That being said, it can be a very fun course to play if you're on your game or want a challenge. Golden Hills is a parkland course, with tree-lined fairways, and many of the trees are mammoth, centuries-old oaks. They're great at blocking routes to the green if your driver is pouting.

But, perhaps its best selling point is the elevation. The course sits on top of some of the highest land in this part of the state; the tee box at No. 4, for example, is the highest point in Marion County, and you can see the horse farms for miles around. That hole is a long, serpentine par-5 with a downhill tee shot.

Golden Hills: The Verdict

Golden Hills is a difficult course from the back tees, but not overwhelming from the blue or middle tees. It has some long par-4s, and because of the many bunkers around the elevated greens, it demands accurate approach shots of the aerial variety; very few bump-and-runs here.

Still, there are no forced carries and only a few blind landing areas off the tee, and water isn't a huge obstacle. If you hit the shots, you can score here and feel like you've earned it.

The course was designed for hosting tournaments, and Golden Hills landed the 2008 U.S. Women's Mid-Amateur, scheduled for October.

Course officials plan to spruce up the course this summer in time for the event, which includes cutting back some of the big, overhanging oak limbs.

Green fees are in the $50 range, $40 for twilight play.

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Golden Hills Golf and Turf Club - GreensGolden Hills Golf and Turf Club - No.3

Veteran golf writer Tim McDonald keeps one eye on the PGA Tour and another watching golf vacation hotspots and letting travelers in on the best place to vacation.

Any opinions expressed above are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of the management.

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