Seaside Swinging

By: Nate Huff

ADD TO FAVORITES
Florida golf courses with a special seaside appeal - dozens of holes within clear view of the ocean.

Golfers have always endured a complicated relationship with water. Sure, it's the essence of life. Agreed, its the very basis of existence. But since the early days of the game, played along the windswept Scottish shoreline, this liquid master has boasted a special psychological power over us.

Born of equal parts fear and contempt, awe and inspiration, the power water commands can lead the golfer to ruin or redemption. We sing its praises for creating lush fairways while cursing its willingness to swallow an entire round in a single melancholy splash.

Water boasts a power that can make the greatest tournament players shank a seemingly simple 132-yard wedge into a lake. Yet it also has the power to motivate, its tranquil beauty the ability to calm and its expansiveness the capacity to challenge the most unsteady weekend duffers to swing with all their might in hopes of sailing the watery void to make it home in two.

Raised from strands of prehistoric swampland, it's no surprise that Florida courses are awash with the wet stuff. But the Sunshine State's unique peninsular location provides a watery bonus (or curse, some would say): Dozens of holes within clear view of the shores, bays and inlets of the greatest water hazards in the east - the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean.

Armed with a cache of moderately priced balls and an ailing but eager swing, I set my course for these sirens of the seas.


ATLANTIC BREEZES

The stately Ritz-Carlton Amelia Island rises above the dunes, looking out over the infinity of the Atlantic in one direction and toward The Golf Club of Amelia Island in the other. Officially part of the neighboring Summer Beach development, the Ritz has partnered with The Golf Club to offer guests full access to the immaculate par 72 layout.

Arriving late in the night, I had just enough time to put my golf shoes out for complimentary shining (cut me some slack - I don't make it to the Ritz that often) before climbing in luxurious linens and drifting off, dreaming about Rolls Royce golf carts.

Next morning the always-accommodating folks at the Ritz arranged a lesson for me with The Golf Club at Amelia Island's head professional and LPGA instructor David DeMay. Considering the watery challenges ahead, the long-overdue swing tune-up was just what the doctor ordered.

Designed by PGA Tour veterans Mark McCumber and Gene Littler, The Golf Club of Amelia Island stretches a relatively tame 6,692 yards from the back tees. However, with towering pines and oaks framing the front nine and those dastardly creeping marshes prevalent on the back, its 72.9 rating is well-earned.

Hole 15, for example, is a 490-yard par 5 playing into stiff ocean breezes. Golfers must clear two marsh areas before hitting a blind, uphill third shot to an elevated green, fronted by what very well could be a bottomless bunker. Reach the well-groomed green and you're greeted with a beautiful view of the shimmering Atlantic, visible from several other holes on the undulating layout.

The afternoon and evening brought more therapy for the golfer's soul. I soaked up rays by the pool, contemplating the day's lesson; soaked up steam in the sauna, contemplating some more; then headed for Salt, where I stopped contemplating long enough to savor the incomparable cuisine of the Ritz's restaurant. Nothing fuels the serious golfer as effectively as a perfectly seared rib-eye.

My mind and body in the utmost state of preparedness, we fueled up the car and headed south down I-95 to Palm Coast. Our ninth-floor suite at Hammock Beach Resort could have come straight out of a Tommy Bahamas' catalogue. Dark, hardwood accents and a spacious island-themed bedroom gave way to a stunning balcony view of the resort's own waterpark and, just beyond, one of Florida's best oceanfront courses. Jack Nicklaus' Ocean Golf Course reaches 7,201 yards from the tips and carries a beastly 75.5 rating. Relaxed and prepared as I may have been, I elected to protect my delicate ego and tee it up from the Blues, which still boast an impressive 71.7 rating.

With children playing on boogie boards in the gentle surf behind the elevated first tee, I put my recent lesson to the test, driving the ball down into the valley.

Perhaps distracted by the sweeping elevation changes and gusting sea breezes, I played the first few holes scared. Water seemed to pop up out of nowhere, stealing balls off the fairway and testing my commitment to swing change.

But as the round bore on and I navigated the soft, pine tree- and marsh-lined doglegs, everything began to click. On the tenth I challenged the water, hitting my second shot on the 495-yard par 5 over the great expanse of H2O and onto the green for a thrilling two-putt birdie.

Standing a sandwedge from the waves on the green of the signature 18th, I looked back at the tee box some 415 yards away (466 from the ungodly championship tees) and tasted a glimpse of golf nirvana. A spectacular course, equally spectacular oceanfront setting and, dare I say, half-way decent golf game - who could ask for more?


GOLF ON THE GULF

Resort golf courses are often maligned by golfing aficionados for being too easy. The fairways are too wide, the greens too big and flat and the hazards meaningless. Such criticisms are sometimes valid, but they fail to take into account that, while we all enjoy a challenge, vacation is meant to be fun, not painful.

Located just off the coast of Sarasota, Longboat Key Club & Resort's 45 holes of championship golf offer just the right combination of waterfront excitement and serenity. The 27-hole Harbourside Course meanders directly along Sarasota Bay, offering distant views of the city's skyline.

The oaks, sabal palms and palmettos lining the fairways of the Red, White and Blue Harbourside nines give the course the feel of a tropical garden, while designer William Byrd's liberal use of sand and water hazards keeps golfers honest. Each of the three tracks stretch more than 3,300 yards, which can feel much longer when the Gulf breeze kicks up.

I teed it up at the Islandside Course with my partner, a visitor from California who was eager to help in my research. Once an acceptable wager was agreed upon, our round was under way.

Ironically, while the Harbourside boasts more direct saltwater views, Islandside's par 72 layout offers many more water challenges. All 18 holes of the 6,792-yard course are surrounded by lakes and waterways, many of which my partner and I decided to experience. Raised greens and a number of blind approaches add intrigue to the Old Florida-style layout.

When we were able to keep the ball dry (and out of an interesting mix of fine quartz-sand and crushed coquina shell bunkers), we were rewarded with receptive, over-sized greens. The course offered us both what we were looking for - a traditional resort course experience with a challenging twist, culminating with the par 5 18th, a classic do-or-die shot over water to an elevated green.

A few hours south on Captiva, another resort course offers up its own mix of Gulf-front mystery and pleasure. Located at the South Seas Island Resort on the extreme northern peninsula of the narrow barrier island, The Captiva Course offers postcard views of both the Gulf and bay.

Although the original layout was damaged in Hurricane Charlie, the new executive course is still a short, exciting play. The longest hole is a par 3 at 207 yards long. Visitors should be aware, though, that this resort is private so only guests at the resort can play.


BRAVING NORTHERN WATERS

Duffers and handicappers alike visiting Wyndham Bay Point Resort in Panama City Beach will find a destination with a growing reputation as a haven for golfers with two outstanding 18-hole championship golf courses from which to choose.

The Nicklaus Course at Bay Point premiered in fall 2005, as Northwest Florida’s only Nicklaus-designed course. Travel + Leisure Golf named it one of the most worthy redesigns and notable debuts in the state. The par-72 course measures more than 7,100 yards. The new course offers a dramatic and enjoyable challenge for novice and avid golfers. It incorporates the natural terrain of scrub oaks, pines and salt-water marshes and offers panoramic views of St. Andrew's Bay.

The Meadows Course at Bay Point is pure country club, the kind of golf course you’ll enjoy playing day after day and one for which visitors return to year after year. Its occasionally tight fairways, numerous bunkers and lakes all provide an ever-changing landscape for golfers of all skill levels. Boasting 6,913 yards, it has the length to test the best golfer's distance. Even its advanced tees offer challenge as seen in handicap ratings which range from a 73 at the Ladies' Tees to a 73.3 at the Championship tees.

Just an hour or so west from Panama City is Sandestin Golf & Beach Resort, where golfers have four top-notch tracks from which to choose, several boasting picture-perfect Gulf and bay views. Rees Jones' Burnt Pine Golf Club is carved out of the natural pine forests and woodlands, offering 7,001 yards of meticulously maintained fairways and stunning views of the ball-hungry Choctawhatchee Bay.

Architect Tom Jackson can lay claim to two of Sandestin's famed waterfront courses. The Links Course, boasting its own views of Choctawhatchee Bay, is noted for its preponderance of risk/reward holes, the ones that always seem to clear up unresolved wagers between golfing buddies.

However popular The Links Course, most people believe Jackson's best design work can be found at the resort's Baytowne Golf Club. Wide, reasonably forgiving fairways are countered by greens demanding strategic placement to score, creating an ideal mix for the novice and scratch golfer alike.

Throw in a healthy helping of bunkers, plenty of tree-lined fairways and some shockingly dramatic elevation changes and you get the best of all worlds - a challenging, rewarding round of golf framed by sugar-white sands and emerald waters.


MAY AS WELL BE WET

Defining which Florida courses qualify as "waterfront" is no easy task, and all of the following courses are either on the water or a short chip away.

Omni Amelia Island Plantation is one of the state's most unique oceanfront links, and when we say oceanfront, we mean your wayward tee shot could ruin some happy child's sandcastle.

The venerable Naples Beach Hotel and Golf Club is almost as close to the water and boasts a classic Old Florida layout.

Ponte Vedra Inn & Club is within a club's toss of the Atlantic and features two 18-hole layouts, including a 155-yard par-3, claimed to be the first-ever island green design.

Of course, no mention of "island greens" can pass without referencing the 17th at Tournament Players Club at Sawgrass. Perhaps it's not technically, but those 132 yards provide more drama than any hole in golf. Guests of the Sawgrass Marriott Golf Resort & Beach Club have access.

Among the most prestigious courses in Florida, The Links at Fisher Island sits just off Miami. The nine-hole Pete B. Dye layout is a popular spot, which is no surprise given its opulent waterfront location. Again, resort guests only.

In the opposite end of the state, Lost Key Golf Course offers a stunning Arnold Palmer layout set in the woods and wetlands of Perdido Key near Pensacola. The Audubon International-certified course is open to the public.


GETTING SCHOOLED

With the high price of balls and abundance of danger on Florida courses, it's imperative that your game be in tip-top shape to avoid sending too many balls to a watery grave. Tune up your game at the following schools.

The Original Golf School at The Plantation Golf Resort and Spa on the scenic Crystal River has more than 40 years of combined experience in helping golfers cure those pesky swing flaws.

Golf guru David Leadbetter oversees several of his world-famous Golf Academies in Florida, including PGA National in Palm Beach Gardens, ChampionsGate in Orlando and La Playa Beach & Golf Resort in Naples. Leadbetter's schools don't come cheap, but then, self-improvement never does.

Fellow professor-to-the-stars Jim McLean offers a number of programs at Doral Golf Resort & Spa, including programs aimed at the junior set. For golf school Miami-style.


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