The northeastern corner of Florida may be less than a day's drive from Miami, Orlando and Tampa, but to golfers, you may as well be traveling to Pinehurst or another course farther north. That's the beauty of Amelia Island - Florida's trademark soft, Appalachian Quartz-sand beaches and oceanfront fairways blend effortlessly with thick stands of live oaks and pines characteristic of courses farther north.
At Omni Amelia Island Plantation, a sprawling full-service resort boasting shopping, dining and a variety of lodging options, three distinctive 18-hole courses combine the best of north and south. The result is the perfect golfing destination, whether you're in need of a weeklong escape or, like me, just an easy weekend getaway.
Oak Marsh Course
My first afternoon at Omni Amelia Island Plantation, I joined a pair of Michigan natives enjoying their second 18 of the day on the resort's venerable Oak Marsh course. While I tried to keep warm in pants, a light sweater and a fleece cap, my northern partners sported shorts and polo shirts, basking in the sunny, 55-degree February weather.
Designed by Pete Dye and constructed in 1972, Oak Marsh's name says it all. The course begins in the center of the resort, the lush rolling fairways lined by gnarled live oaks, towering pines and the occasional palm tree. It's classic Florida design at its most classic. Dye used deceptive sight lines and subtle elevation changes to create a layout that appears short and narrow, but plays just the opposite.
After two tough par 4s, the par 3 seventh opens to stunning marsh views across the Intracoastal. Palms begin to dominate the landscape and the course flattens out. Hawks and herons cast shadows across the generous fairways as twilight approached. Reaching the par 3 17th tee, our threesome stared down the 200-yard carry over the marsh to the bunker-protected green.
I'd like to blame Dye's clever design (or my playing partners' glaringly white legs) for my poor play, but in reality I struggled with the pristine bent grass greens that seemed to roll smoother and faster than the bumpy Bermuda putting surfaces I was accustomed to. Still, better to struggle on the golf course than excel at work.
Ocean Links Course
Morning came, bringing warmer temperatures and a visit to the Marsh View Bar and Grill for a pre-round eggs benedict and a few cups of coffee (just to make my putting stroke that much worse). Joining a retired Rhodesian couple, I teed it up on Amelia's famous Ocean Links course.
The 6,300-yard, par 70 Ocean Links course opens similar to the heavily wooded Oak Marsh. Several shorter, gently rolling par 4s take you east into the ocean breezes. Following the signs to the fourth tee, I put the pedal to the metal to climb the steep dunes.
Cresting the summit, I felt like Lewis and Clark discovering the Pacific. The glimmering Atlantic stretched to the horizon, while three breathtaking oceanfront holes lay to the north. The dunes provided dramatic elevation changes, mesmerizing the eyes and confusing the portion of the brain responsible for distance perception.
This trio of oceanfront holes presented true links-style golf - no rough, just natural grasses, sandy dunes and the expanse of beach and ocean beyond. The holes offered no mercy to the slice, but did not require heroic lengths off the tee. However, some level of bravery was required on the greens, which featured significantly more pitch than those tucked away in the woods.
Heading back into the island's forested fairways on the seventh gave me a chance to catch my breath before returning to the sea on the picturesque 15th. The 187-yard par 3 faced dead east, the small, hilltop green framed by the blues hues of sky and water. An intimidating blind tee shot follows on the 430-yard par 4 16th, the chute-like fairway obscured by the grass covered dunes. I would be lying if I didn't admit surprise in seeing my ball sitting happily at the 150-yard marker.
Long Point Course
Alas, there was no time to play Amelia Island Plantation's third course, Long Point, widely acclaimed as one of Florida's best. Tom Fazio designed the 6,775-yard par 72 track, which takes full advantage of Amelia's natural beauty. In addition to the tight oak- and marsh-lined fairways and natural waste bunkers, Long Point boasts its own pair of oceanfront holes, back-to-back par 3s. Something to look forward to in a return visit.