Master golf course architects turn Florida's landscape into works of art.

By James Y. Bartlett

Picture the state of Florida as one gigantic canvas, stretched between Floribama and Key West, and imagine that all the world's artistic Masters – Michelangelo, daVinci, Van Gogh, Monet, Picasso and Pollock – had been invited to work their magic somewhere on that easel.

It's not that great a leap to realize that, in the world of golf, Florida contains as great a collection of modern masterpieces – created in green grass, blue water and white sandy bunkers.

All of the world's great golf course architects have designed courses in Florida, and many of them have chosen to live here as well. The reasons are obvious: Florida's warm, sunny climate is made-to-order for growing lush, green grass, the game can be played all year, and the terrain – from oceanfront dunes to the rolling, oak- and citrus-lined central hills – is made to order for great golf holes. Here are some of the top golf designers in Florida.

Pete Dye

This longtime resident of Delray Beach is now one of the Grand Old Men of the architecture game, having turned out dozens of great golf courses around the world since the early 1960s. In Florida, some of his most Dye-abolical designs can be found at the early courses at Omni Amelia Island Resort north of Jacksonville; one of the two courses at the Palm Beach Polo Club; and the Dye course at the PGA Golf Club in Port St. Lucie.

But Dye's most famous Florida track has to be THE PLAYERS Stadium course at the Tournament Players Club in Ponte Vedra Beach. Commissioned by then-PGA Tour commissioner Deane Beman to be the permanent home for the Player's Championship, Dye carved out the ultimate test of target-style golf. Adding subtle movement to the fairways, sometimes splitting them with water or waste bunkers, tucking greens behind grassy mounds or fronting them with water edged by wooden walls, and partitioning those greens with severe mounds, Dye created a golf course that demands strategic thinking and precision shot-making.

The piece de resistance, of course, is the island-green 17th, a tremendous tournament hole, but one that is just as knee knocking for a 20-handicapper. And the beauty of the course is accessible to all; THE PLAYERS Stadium course is a daily-fee facility (tee times are often booked weeks in advance), with discounts available to guests of the adjacent Sawgrass Marriott Resort & Spa.

Jack Nicklaus

Is Jack Nicklaus one of the greatest tournament golfers who ever played the game or one of the best golf course architects who ever lived? He's both.

Some of Jack's private course designs in Florida are among the most sought-after addresses in the state. His roster of public-access courses is just as good. Nicklaus has designed courses such as the Champion course at PGA National (which underwent a second Nicklaus-supervised tweaking in 2002) and the King & Bear course at the World Golf Village near St. Augustine, designed in tandem with Jack's longtime rival and friend, Arnold Palmer.

But his best work can be seen at the Ocean course at the Hammock Beach Resort north of Daytona Beach. Not only is this likely to be one of the last Florida golf courses ever built with ocean frontage (there are five holes that border the wave-tossed Atlantic Ocean beach), but it's hard to imagine how Nicklaus could route a better golf course. Both nines loop inland through a piney woodland well laced with dark, foreboding lagoons before finishing dramatically alongside the beach.

The last four holes have been termed "the Bear Claw," and if the wind is blowing more than a gentle zephyr, which it usually does, these four will shred anyone's scorecard.

Arnold Palmer

Another golfing great-turned-designer, Arnie, who spends his winters at his beloved Arnold Palmer's Bay Hill Club & Lodge in Orlando, has given Florida golfers many lasting keepsakes. His resort and public courses all have the same kind of swagger and bravado that won Palmer so many tournaments, especially at the Masters. He has designed the watery tracks at the Saddlebrook Resort, the Palmer course at PGA National, and Lost Key on Perdido Key, among many others.

His pride and joy remains, however, his "home" course at Bay Hill, home to his annual PGA Tour stop, the Arnold Palmer Invitational Presented by MasterCard. The Championship Course underwent a huge renovation in 2009. Palmer and his team at Arnold Palmer Design Company headed the project which primarily focused on the re-grassing of all the greens with Emerald Dwarf and the redesign of all bunkers.

And the finish is spectacular. The long, par-four 18th demands a long, straight drive, followed by a scary iron shot over the lake that fronts the green. Many hopefuls coming down the stretch at Arnie's annual clambake have found disaster at the 18th.

Tom Fazio

Although his home has long been in tiny Hendersonville, North Carolina, Tom Fazio is responsible for some of Florida's most popular tracks. Among his gems: Long Point Club at Amelia Island, two fine courses at the PGA Village at Port St. Lucie, and Black Diamond Ranch in Lecanto.

But nowhere can a better example of Fazio's ability to marry a creative design with the natural terrain be found than at the World Woods golf complex in Brooksville. His Pine Barrens course winds across a mostly open plain, broken by natural sandy pits and collections of scrub pines, across which Fazio laid a series of fairways and greens.

Next door, the Rolling Oaks course is more traditional in scope, with oak-lined fairways covering the undulating terrain, and greens protected by upsweeping bunkers. The entire facility, which includes a massive practice area, a nine-hole executive course and even three "warm-up" holes, has become a Florida mecca for the golf-crazy, a place to arrive at early and leave at dusk, entirely sated with golf.

Ron Garl

Based in Lakeland, Garl has quietly amassed an impressive portfolio of Florida golf courses over his 30-year career as an architect. Some of his most notable work includes the Indian River Club in Vero Beach, Fiddlesticks in Fort Myers, the Bloomingdale Golfers Club near Tampa and a total renovation of the Naples Beach Hotel and Golf Club course. Victoria Hills, his new daily-fee course in DeLand, is an attractive combination of sandy wastelands and towering, mature hardwoods. Garl routed his fairways through this perfect golf setting, adding even more strategic bunkering and the occasional water hazard for emphasis. The course has already begun climbing rapidly up the list of Florida's top tracks.

Greg Norman

In addition to his status as one of the marquee players on the world stage over the last decade and more, Australian Greg Norman, the "Great White Shark," has branched out.

From his U.S. base at Hobe Sound, Norman has designed top public-access courses in Florida that include the two brawny tracks at ChampionsGate Golf Resort near Orlando, the Great White course at Doral Golf Resort and Spa in Miami (Raymond Floyd, a past champion of the Masters and the U.S. Open, also tackled a much-needed renovation of Doral's famed Blue Monster course, recreating some of the bite that the course had once had), and the 36 holes of the Tiburon Golf Club in Naples.

Tiburon (Spanish for "shark") is an unusual mix. Built in a typical southwest Florida wetland, Norman decided not to use tall-grass rough to define his fairways, and instead installed long swaths of crushed coquina shells and natural pine needles, as well as canals and lagoons.

It all makes for an unusual, but enthralling round of golf, and something quite out of the ordinary for Florida golfers. The Tiburon Golf Club has been divided into the Black and Gold courses, which are alternated between private and Resort play. Guests of The Ritz-Carlton Golf Resort Naples can play the Tiburon Golf Club Black or Gold courses.

Places to Remember