Jacksonville: From sleepy outpost to Florida golf hot bed

By Tim McDonald,

The PGA Tour and World Golf Village have helped turn the Jacksonville area, epicenter of "Florida's First Coast" into a legitimate, big-time golf destination, with area golf courses like the Stadium course at TPC Sawgrass and The King and The Bear, designed with input from Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus.

Jacksonville, Florida used to simply call itself Jacksonville. When it really wanted to puff out its chest, it called itself "The Bold New City of the South."

But, ever since the PGA Tour boys came to town, Jacksonville has taken to calling itself "The First Coast," at least in marketing terms.

That's mostly because the PGA Tour set up headquarters in ritzy Ponte Vedra, a little south of Jacksonville proper, in the part of St. Johns County that parallels the Atlantic Ocean. It's also partly because the area has grown like wild sawgrass, mostly in a southerly direction along its beaches, but also inland, along Interstate-95 south.

Jacksonville had been a decent little golf destination for some time, but with the PGA Tour's arrival, and the explosion of golf course construction that followed, it bloomed into a serious golf hot bed.

The World Golf Village, spread conspicuously off I-95 in St. Augustine and sporting a Golf Hall of Fame and two beautiful courses attached to names like Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Sam Snead, ignited even more golf construction.

Through all the boom times, Jacksonville-area golf courses have tried to retain their down-home services, if they don't always succeed at some of the busier courses.

"It's a different philosophy here," said Mary Hafeman, a founding member of Florida's First Coast Golf, the marketing arm of the city. "We don't want people to feel like they're ushered in and ushered out. It's all about the quality of the experience. This isn't a golf factory."

The First Coast stretches on a curve from the southeast tip of Georgia, to northeast Florida and south through Palm Coast. Sometimes even Daytona Beach will horn in on the action. But, most traveling golfers, despite what the marketers say, would hardly call Daytona Beach a part of the greater Jacksonville area, since it's an hour and a half drive away.

Laurel Island Links in Kingsland, Georgia is generally acknowledged as the northernmost course on the First Coast. Other courses have sprung up in the once golf-barren north, like North Hampton Golf Club in Fernandina Beach, one of the most underrated courses anywhere.

The excellent Ocean Course at Hammock Beach in Palm Coast is one of the southernmost. The Ocean course, a Jack Nicklaus work, was named a modern classic by Links Magazine. Nicklaus used bulldozers to build elevation into the tees and greens, lifting them above the dune line to show off picture-perfect ocean views.

The Stadium Course at TPC SawgrassAnother Palm Coast course, Hammock Dunes, Creek course, has drawn raves. This is a Rees Jones layout, routed through wooded surroundings, through cypress and slash pine, with marsh and creek views.

In between, there are dozens of excellent courses. The Stadium course at TPC Sawgrass in Ponte Vedra is the track most of us are familiar with from The Players Championship. It's Pete Dye at his best or worst, depending on your opinion of him, where even great shots can produce eventual curses.

Oddly enough, a lot of people will tell you they like the Valley course more than the Stadium.

Slammer and SquireBy all accounts, the King and the Bear at the World Golf Village near St. Augustine was a true collaboration of two of the most revered names in golf, Palmer and Nicklaus. It is a beautiful layout, though - again, some say the less famous Slammer and Squire at the village is more challenging to hard-core golfers.

The Ocean Course at Ponte Vedra Inn and Club is a beautiful layout, mostly open with tall stands of palm trees swaying in the Atlantic winds, giving it a south Florida feel.

Jacksonville has more than its share of private courses, the best of which is Pablo Creek. Players rave about its pristine setting and lack of houses - rare for a Jacksonville golf course - as well as its bentgrass greens and fairways.

Some of the older Jacksonville-area courses have managed to hold their own against the modern onslaught. The Deerwood Country Club was built in 1963. It's been through some rough times, until 2004 when it underwent an eight-month renovation that improved drainage and re-worked many of the existing holes.

And, of course, golfers still pay homage to the Donald Ross-designed Hyde Park on the west side of town, with its elevated, crowned greens, artfully-placed bunkers and old-school emphasis on strategy over strength. Not to mention green fees a fraction of the more famous facilities.

Other courses definitely worth a visit include the golf courses on Amelia Island, Bent Creek, Eagle Landing, Panther Creek, Queen's Harbor and Windsor Parke.

For more on golf and travel options in Jacksonville, see www.JacksonvilleGolf.com.

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