LAKELAND, FL - The name Polk County may not be heard in a reading of Florida's greatest golf counties, but it's golf roots stretch into the state's sandy soil deeper than almost any.
Today Polk County is a sprawling agricultural and mining territory larger than the state of Rhode Island. It's at once folksy and anachronistic, it's landscape riddled with bass-laden lakes and uncountable acres of citrus groves.
Two sizable towns - Lakeland and Winter Haven - account for the majority of its population (500,000 residents) but often get overlooked due to their situation halfway between Orlando and Tampa. The county produces more citrus crop than the entire state of California, it's the water ski capital of the world, and what leaves the greatest impression to visitors is probably not the golf but rather the quiet, very rural character.
What it was over 80 years ago was something entirely different. The Polk County of the 1920's was a serious player in the state's economy, with both its vast citrus groves and warm weather pulling in more than its share of Northerners and their winter dollars. The formerly wealthy heritage is evident in Polk's concentration of vintage era golf courses.
Mountain Lake (1917), Lake Wales (1925), and Highland Park (now called LekaricA, 1927) in Lake Wales, as well as Cleveland Heights (1925) in Lakeland, all trace their roots not only to the Golden Age of golf design but to that era's greatest names: Seth Raynor, Donald Ross, Wayne Stiles & John Van Kleek, and William Flynn & Howard Toomey respectively.
All four of these tradition-rich courses (which might also include Bartow Golf Course, a layout that is sometimes attributed to Ross) continue to exist as historically relevant attractions. Mountain Lake, a highly exclusive club, recently underwent a restoration by Brian Silva. Cleveland Heights refinished all 27 greens last year and is one of the finest conditioned municipally operated courses in Florida. LekaricA is now owned and run from onsite by the Weaver family who recognize and respect its heritage.
The rich golf history has carried over into the latest generation. Polk County is chock full of affordable golf courses (55) of greatly differing styles.
The area's most recognized layout is Lakeland-based architect Steve Smyers' Southern Dunes, a course that has regularly been regarded as one of America's best modern courses according to GolfWeek. Southern Dunes epitomizes Smyers' style of ebullient (and immodest) bunkering and strategic confrontation. With only one water hazard, the course is defended by a cavalcade of ornate cross bunkering and large greens studded with knobs, ridges, and humps.
A close second to Southern Dunes is Mike Dasher's Highlands Reserve, located several miles north of I-4 off Highway 27.
Highlands Reserve enjoys a variety of elevation changes and is notable for both its large sandy waste areas and a tremendous set of highly contoured greens. It's a player-friendly course that allows walking, and though several holes are lined on one side by homes, a peaceful, natural atmosphere pervades the course. Pay close attention to the fascinating Biarritz green at #16.
The king of golf course architecture in Polk County is Lakeland resident Ron Garl. Garl's courses are found in every nook and cranny in the county, and many area residents believe his design at The Club at Eaglebrooke is the finest in the region.
Eaglebrooke is the quintessential modern Florida course, an advanced take on the water hazard and big bunker design for which the state has always been known. Where the club diverges from the stereotype is in the glittery presentation. Eaglebrooke is a sleek-looking layout that utilizes sweeping waste bunkers and pockets of attractive natural vegetation where it finds it. It's not above gimmickry (see: the island fairway at #13), but many will enjoy the landscaping on holes such as the par 5 17th.
More Polk County designs from Garl include Wedgewood Country Club, Schalamar Creek, and Big Cypress Golf & Country Club. He also designed the South Course at Grenelefe Resort, formerly the county's number one golf attraction. In early 2002, however, Grenelefe went bankrupt and closed its resort and three golf courses. It has since found a buyer but it remains uncertain when, or in what capacity, it will reopen.
Another notable Polk County course is Joe Lee's Diamondback Golf Club south of Haines City. Diamondback is appealing for its isolated location and lack of homes on the course, but can be excruciatingly penal for the average player. Cut through a thick swath of Florida oak, pine, and underbrush (it's said over 80 rattlesnakes were killed or removed during the construction phase), golf balls that miss the fairway by mere feet will disappear into the thicket forever.
Bok Tower Gardens and Sanctuary, Lake Wales (863-680-4118) - The highest point in the Florida peninsula is landmarked by the striking architecture of the Bok bell tower, a gift given to the state in 1929 by publisher and editor Edward Bok. Surrounding the tower is a historical center and a beautiful 128-acre botanical garden. See www.boksanctuary.org.
Cypress Gardens, Winter Haven (800-282-2123) - Opened in 1936, Cypress Gardens was the state's original theme park. Daily water ski shows, magic shows, ice skating productions, live animals, rides, and 200-acres of walk-through gardens have entertained visitors for decades.
Flight of Fantasy, Polk City (863-984-3500) - Local aviation historian and enthusiast Kermit Weeks has dedicated his life to flying and buying airplanes. Flight of Fantasy is his museum and incredible personal collection of some of the more famous and historical air vessels dating back to the origins of flight. Not just for display, Weeks flies these birds as well. If you think that was a B-17 Flying Fortress you saw buzzing overhead, you're not imagining things - that's just Weeks out for a Sunday "drive."
For more information on these and other Polk County attractions, call 1-800-828-POLK, or visit www.sunsational.org.
The historic Lakeland Terrace Hotel in downtown Lakeland has recently been purchased and refurbished. With its stately foyer, marble and tile lobby, and upscale rooms this hotel is once again the cream of the crop in Polk County. Located at Main St. and Massachusetts Ave, the Terrace is only 45 minutes from the Tampa airport and one hour from Orlando International. Rates range from $129 to $169 per night. Call 863-688-0800 for reservations.
The Terrace Grille in the Lakeland Terrace Hotel, serving new American cuisine in a classic atmosphere, is a good place to start. The restaurant at LekaricA Restaurant, Golf & Inn in Lake Wales (888-676-8281) also specializes in classic dishes with modern sauces and presentation. The lakeside dining room has both a country inn and old South charm and the wine and spirits list is well chosen.
On the (very) casual side, don't miss one of the county's guilty pleasures, Cherry Pockets Fishing Resort outside of Dundee. Cherry Pockets specializes in blackened and grilled fish, and lots of beer. The joint is jumping nearly every night of the week as all cuts of Polk County folk show up for food and fun. Ask the locals how to get there.
One of the South's most famous barbecue shacks is Peebles (863-967-3085) located in Auburndale, where you order off a chicken-scratch paper menu hanging on the wall and there's really no division between the coal pits and the tables.
2888 Southern Dunes Blvd.
Haines City, FL 33834
Highlands Reserve Golf Club
500 Highlands Reserve Blvd.
Davenport, FL 33897
The Club at Eaglebrooke
1300 Eaglebrooke Blvd.
Lakeland, FL 33813
Cleveland Heights Golf Course
2900 Buckingham Ave.
Lakeland, FL 33803
LekaricA Restaurant, Golf & Country Inn
1650 S. Highland Park Dr.
Lake Wales, FL 33898
Lake Wales Country Club
Highway 60 East
Lake Wales, FL 33853
Diamondback Golf Club
6501 S.R. 544 E.
Haines City, FL 33844
$35 to $85
October 9, 2002
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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