Oh beautiful for spacious skies! Florida is perfect for a coast-to-coast golf trip – just as long as you can dodge the thunderstorms, as Peter Ellegard discovers.
For most Brits, a Florida holiday means theme parks or beaches. But how about packing your golf clubs as well? Take a coast-to-coast golfing trip from its historic, Atlantic-facing north-east to the balmy Gulf of Mexico shores in the south-west, stopping off in central Florida, and you can play some notable golf courses – with plenty of time for fun off the fairways.
Arriving at Orlando Sanford Airport, five of us, including two non-golfers, set off on a rollercoaster road trip up and down Florida’s highways and byways in a rental minivan. We take it in turns driving, covering some 900 miles in seven days (Florida is larger than England and Wales combined) and manage to play eight rounds, all on different courses.
With no traffic nightmares, it is effortless burning up the miles on Florida’s roads. Our first destination is Ponte Vedra Beach, close to the Georgia border, to stay at the Sawgrass Marriott Golf Resort & Spa after sunset cocktails and dinner overlooking the ocean at the resort’s Cabana Beach Club.
HOME OF PGA. Next morning, we head over to the adjacent TPC Sawgrass – home to golf’s unofficial “fifth major”, the Players Championship, and headquarters for the PGA Tour. Timing is everything in golf, though, and unfortunately our visit coincides with major renovations that have closed both Pete Dye’s celebrated Stadium Course and its unsung sibling, Dye’s Valley Course.
However, we get a guided tour of the palatial clubhouse followed by a buggy ride to see the three finishing holes of the Stadium
Course that have delivered so much drama over the years. Among them, the intimidating par-3 17th, with its island green buttressed by railway sleepers. There is no bail out. You make the green or you’re wet. Close up and without the baying, beer-fuelled crowds, it looks short and innocuous. But having played Sawgrass on a previous visit, I vividly remember the fear factor building steadily through the round.
Finally reaching the 17th tee, I was such a bag of nerves that I dunked two balls straight in the lake – and promptly swapped my wedge for my camera. Each year, divers retrieve more than 120,000 balls from the lake, and during the 2005 Players Championship, Bob Tway recorded a 12 there after hitting four balls in the water.
PONTE VEDRA. Although we cannot play, we are given an hour’s lesson at the PGA TOUR Academy where the tour pros polish their techniques. No wonder those guys are good; a simple fix transforms my golf swing in minutes.
We transfer to the Ponte Vedra Inn & Club’s venerable Ocean Course, just behind the beach. Selected to host the 1939 Ryder Cup, it never hosted it as the onset of World War II resulted in its cancellation. The course has water on 14 holes, including the first island green ever built on its par-3 9th (which I par!), but it is the stuff that starts falling like stair rods from the sky accompanied by lightning bolts that sends us seeking refuge under the roof of a luxury villa being built alongside. It is a theme set to dog us repeatedly.
We tee up the following day on the King & Bear, one of two collaborative creations by golfing legends at the World Golf Village. A joint design by Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus, the King & Bear is a tour de force that seamlessly combines the best of both styles, with their individual influences evident throughout.
A variety of trees border the fairways and you have to negotiate coquina waste areas, and left and right doglegs edged by lakes. The Slammer & Squire is named after its co-consultants, multiple major winners Sam Snead and Gene Sarazen, and is a testing challenge through native flatwoods, hardwood hammocks and wetland preserves.
HALL OF FAME. The World Golf Village includes the World Golf Hall of Fame & Museum, a shrine to golf and its greats housed in a tower resembling a Mormon temple. There is also a lake with a replica of the TPC Stadium’s 17th, where a big cash prize rewards anyone acing the hole. At least I make that green within a couple of attempts.
This corner of the state is known as Florida’s First Coast of Golf after historic St Augustine, the oldest city in the US, founded by Spanish conquistadors in 1565. We visit the ancient, seafront Castillo de San Marcos, America’s oldest masonry fortification, moving on to the St Augustine Distillery, newly opened in Florida’s first ice manufacturing plant. A tour is followed by tastings of Florida Mule, the distillery’s Floridian slant on the traditional Moscow Mule, mixing soda water, syrup, lime juice and ginger juice with its own cane vodka and served over crushed ice. A great way to forget the day’s poor shots and putts.
It seems a shame not to stay longer in St Augustine. But we need to press on and hit the road for Orlando’s neighbour, Kissimmee, where we will be staying at Reunion Resort.
Although right on the doorstep of Walt Disney World, Kissimmee also offers a taste of Florida’s wilder side. An hour’s drive east the next day takes us to Harmony Golf Preserve, a Johnny Miller signature course managed by Troon Golf that is a certified Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary and incorporates wildlife-rich natural wetlands. Every hole is edged by ponds, most with resident alligators. Besides the course’s signature bird, the red-capped sand crane, you can also see many other species, including red-shouldered hawks, wild turkeys and vultures, as well as the footprints of deer, bobcats and raccoons. The bat house, near the 250-yard mark on the par-5 8th hole, is home to 500 bats which stream out at dusk to feast on mosquitoes. But slap on the insect repellent anyway.
THE EVERGLADES. Wild Florida, our next stop, is a wildlife park on the edge of a large lake forming part of the Everglades headwaters. After getting up close and personal with a baby gator and watching feeding time for some of its huge adult cousins, a storm breaks as we are about to board an airboat and we take cover. When the rain eases, we are welcomed aboard by our skipper, the aptly named Captain Kirk! And for the next hour, he takes us on an exhilarating ride through the lake-edge marshes, boldly going where -- it feels -- no man has gone before, and showing us sights including an alligator nest with baby gators and a swimming snake.
Dinner, in the Reunion Grande’s rooftop Eleven restaurant, gives a glorious panorama of Reunion Resort and great views of the fireworks display at Disney’s Epcot park.
Dawn sees us teeing off on Reunion’s Nicklaus Course. One of the three by golf giants at Reunion – the others being by Tom Watson and Arnold Palmer – it is parkland-style and designed to be a players’ course rather than a tame resort facility. It tempts you to take on risky shots that, if they come off, bring reward. You can almost hear Jack whispering as you ponder your line on the par-4 2nd tee, “well, punk, do you feel lucky…?” The signature 16th hole is a daunting par-3 with a long carry over water to a shallow green flanked by deep bunkers.
Before leaving Kissimmee, we head to neighbouring resort ChampionsGate, World HQ for the Leadbetter Golf Academy. Featuring two Greg Norman courses, the International feels like an Australian coastal links and I have played it before. We play the National, a Florida-style layout set amidst mature native trees with small, tricky greens. Both are equally enjoyable.
HISTORIC PLACE. Another 250 miles later, we check in to the majestic, 100-year-old Gasparilla Inn & Club on Gasparilla Island, on Florida’s Gulf Coast. Listed on America’s National Register of Historic Places, it has been host to presidents, movie stars and other rich and famous guests over the years.
Its genteel atmosphere is like stepping back in time, and it even has croquet. But we forego that to play its Pete Dye golf course, a beauty with all but two holes laid out on a barrier island and holes 12-17 playing directly along scenic Charlotte Harbour. Having pelicans fly overhead or boats cruise right past as you are putting or teeing off is somewhat distracting, but what an experience. Only residents of the 137-room hotel and golf club members can play so, like us, you may well have the course to yourself.
While our hosts drive the minivan with our bags on the circuitous, 100-mile road journey to the laid-back South Seas Island Resort on the tip of Captiva Island, we hop on a catamaran for a leisurely 90-minute cruise from Boca Grande Marina, right by the hotel, watching golfers as we sail past the Dye course.
There’s time for golf on the resort’s nine-hole Captiva Course, which skirts a white-sand beach and the clear, blue Gulf of Mexico waters. It may only be a par 3 course, but it’s a stunner – and we even spot manatees just offshore. The day is capped by an amazing sunset from the beach and harbourside dinner.
Nature calls once more the next day. Driving to Sanibel Island, we play The Dunes course. At just 5,500 yards, it is short. But the ever-present water makes for tactical golf on the front nine while the back nine plays through an Audubon-certified wildlife preserve, with alligators, nesting bald eagles and hunting ospreys among the resident wildlife.
A MUST PLAY COURSE. Our final golfing stop is another natural wilderness – Old Corkscrew Golf Club, a signature Jack Nicklaus course set in 275 acres of thickly-wooded natural preserve. I had turned up to play the course on a previous visit, only to find it flooded from torrential overnight rain. So I am excited about finally playing it.
For 13 holes, Old Corkscrew lives up to its billing as one of Florida’s must-play courses, with sculpted fairways, subtle greens and challenging hazards. Until a storm that has been brewing suddenly erupts with Armageddon-like fury. We shelter for almost two hours as torrents of rain turn buggy paths into rivers and forked lightning strikes nearby trees. After it passes, we return to the clubhouse, the course now unplayable. One day I will play all 18 holes!
More drama unfolds after I take the wheel for the return journey to Sanford Airport, when a front tyre punctures on Interstate 4. We discover there is no jack for the spare wheel so we are marooned, with trucks thundering past dangerously close. Thankfully, a Road Ranger patrolman comes to our rescue after an hour and we are soon on our way, making our flight home just in time.
STREAMSONG. On our final leg, we pass agonisingly close to Streamsong, a luxury golf resort carved out of a long-derelict phosphate mine, but have no time to divert. Returning to Florida several months later, this time I fit in a visit. Ultra-modern hotel and clubhouse buildings look out over two top-rated courses that are like Scottish links draped over pock-marked dunes – but transplanted to Florida with lakes teeming with turtles and huge, cruising alligators.
I play the Tom Doak-designed Blue Course (the Red Course is by Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw while a third, by Olympic course architect Gil Hanse, opens in late 2017) and am having one of the rounds of my life on a truly magnificent layout, when ominous black clouds appear. After driving off on the 13th, the lightning hooter sounds and my caddy tells me we have to return to the clubhouse. Once again, a round is thwarted by the weather.
If planning my own Florida coast-to-coast golf trip, I would include Streamsong, with time to play both courses. I would also make it 10 days or longer, and I would tee off in the mornings to avoid Florida’s frequent afternoon thunderstorms…
Good to know
GETTING THERE/GETTING AROUND
Direct daily flights are operated from London and regional UK airports to Orlando International and Orlando Sanford airports by several airlines. Rental cars from all the major companies are available at both airports.
WHERE TO STAY AND PLAY
Sawgrass Marriott Golf Resort and Spa http://www.marriott.com/hotels/travel/jaxsw-sawgrass-marriott-golf-resort-and-spa/
Ponte Vedra Inn & Club http://www.pontevedra.com/inn_and_club/
World Golf Village www.golfwgv.com
Reunion Resort www.reunionresort.com
Harmony Golf Preserve www.harmonygolfpreserve.com
Gasparilla Inn & Club www.gasparillainn.com
South Seas Island Resort www.southseas.com
The Dunes Golf & Tennis Club www.dunesgolfsanibel.com
Old Corkscrew Golf Club www.oldcorkscrew.com
Streamsong Resort www.streamsongresort.com
WHAT TO DO
Castillo de San Marcos, St Augustine www.npc.gov/casa
St Augustine Distillery www.staugustinedistillery.com
Wild Florida Airboat & Wildlife Park http://wildfloridairboats.com
Captiva Cruises www.captivacruises.com
Mucky Duck pub, Captiva www.muckyduck.com
Doc Ford’s Rum Bar and Grille www.docfordscaptiva.com
Visit Florida www.visitflorida.com
St Augustine, Ponte Vedra & The Beaches VCB www.floridashistoriccoast.com
Florida’s First Coast of Golf www.florida-golf.org
Experience Kissimmee www.experiencekissimmee.com
The Beaches of Fort Myers & Sanibel www.fortmyers-sanibel.com
Visit Central Florida https://visitcentralflorida.org