Florida's best new courses of 2002

By Derek Duncan, Contributor

GAINESVILLE, Fla. - If the golf course construction industry is in the slowdown it claims to be, you couldn't tell it by looking at Florida. In 2002 the state that already harbors nearly 1,300 courses, the most in the United States, added roughly two dozen more.

Several of the openings from the past 12 months prove that the range and styles of Florida golf is beginning to catch up to the nation's other hot spots. Rather than continuing to mimic banal archetypes of the past a new brand of course is steadily emerging, helped along by owners and developers extending to architects better, less stereotypical pieces of property.

Another trend worth watching is where the courses are being built. In the overdeveloped southeast, land - good land at least - has become difficult to find; construction of new clubs may become increasingly limited to industrial endeavors such as Trump National in Palm Beach and Quail Valley Golf Club in Vero Beach. Meanwhile, Orlando and its outlying areas continue to boom regardless of need; there are exciting landscapes to explore north and southwest of the city, but can the market sustain them? The Naples/Ft. Myers strip expands at a steady pace, as does the First Coast (Jacksonville to Daytona Beach), and the Tampa/Sarasota area seems to be spinning its wheels. Conversely, northwest Florida (it's no longer PC to call it the Panhandle) is arguably where the most exciting courses in Florida are being built.

Here's the yearly round-up of the best new courses of Florida that opened in 2002:

Best Public-Access Courses

Victoria Hills in Deland, 20 minutes north of Orlando on Interstate 4, appeared to have this category locked up the minute it opened in April, but the November debut of SouthWood Golf Club in Tallahassee made this a fierce competition. In the end, however, Victoria Hills, with its sweeping scale and visceral indulgence, prevailed.

When architect Ron Garl first walked through the hills and hardwoods of the Victoria Hills property he told the prospective owners, Arvida/St. Joe, that if they didn't buy the land he would: one way or another the land demanded golf. The Florida-based architect nailed the design, digging into the earth to expose vast expanses of sand and vegetation and installing eclectic bunkering that punctuates the course. Victoria Hills has a bit of everything: ruggedness and elegance, greens contoured both brazenly and subtly, powerful holes and wonderful short par-4's. If there's a criticism it's that the course is too varied - it doesn't settle on one personality. It's a problem hundreds of courses wish they had.

In the end Victoria Hills is simply a beautiful and joyous course. Holes such as the intense par-4 first, with its drive over a yawning pit to a tumultuously shaped fairway, and the sporty short two shot 17th around a corner of bunkers and pine, are among the best of their kind and not likely to become repetitious.

First Runner-Up: SouthWood. Where Victoria Hills is scraped and sculpted, SouthWood is tenderly placed upon the sloping grounds of a former plantation. Its creators, Gene Bates and Fred Couples, gush over the property's outlandishly large oaks and they're not wrong in assuming that these trees create the course's pastoral persona.

Honorable Mention: North Shore Golf Club. North Shore, just minutes southeast of Orlando International Airport, officially opened in December 2001 but play didn't begin in earnest until January. At any rate this Mike Dasher-designed course is a splendid addition to the region mixing holes with broad, option-laden fairways with those lined by oak and wetlands.

Private Courses

2002 was a banner year for Greg Norman Golf Course Design as the firm opened three major courses internationally including Doonbeg Golf Club in Ireland, Oldfield in Hilton Head, and Shark's Tooth Golf Club at Wild Heron in Lake Powell, Florida. Golf Digest recently named Shark's Tooth the second best new private course in America and it's our top new private course for Florida.

Shark's Tooth borders on Lake Powell, an inlet from the Gulf of Mexico located between Panama City and Destin, encountering the shore five times throughout the routing. Silkily weaving first through landscapes cut by wetlands before making a surprising turn through inland hills and a hardwood forest (holes 10-13), the course is tight and thematic, unified by its consistent, low profile features. Jason McCoy, Vice President of GNGCD, says the Shark's Tooth site is by far the best property that the firm has worked with in Florida.

"It's just a gorgeous piece of land. It has rolling topo and it's sugar sand," he says. "When we can work in sand it makes all the difference in the world in how it's going to come out."

Norman's affinity for rolling the ball is evident in most of his designs and Shark's Tooth, with wide, closely mown aprons surrounding the greens, is a fine expression. The sexy, molded greens are slightly crowned, with bunkering generally placed away from the putting surfaces. They are more extensions of the fairway than they are of the prefab armchair green variety, with as much danger and playability behind as left, right, or short.

Runner-Up

Palencia Golf Club. With several holes venturing near the marshes of the Intracoastal Waterway just north of St. Augustine, Palencia enjoys a fine setting rarely seen in northeast Florida. Designed by Arthur Hills and Steve Forrest, this new private course anchors an upscale development and typifies the firm's penchant for employing natural elements - wetlands and overhanging trees - to the extreme, creating dangerous golf shots into dramatically enhanced green complexes.

Best Renovation/Restoration/Reopening

2002 was a big year for Ron Garl, who, in addition to designing Victoria Hills, also completed his ongoing renovation work at RLR Golden Ocala Golf and Country Club. It's not often that an architect gets to go back and refurbish one of his own courses that had fallen into disrepair, but that's what Garl has done to his original 1986 course in Ocala.

With copies of holes from Muirfield, Augusta National, Royal Troon, and Baltusrol, Golden Ocala was one of the original replica courses in the United States and, in the eyes of many, one of the most faithful. In 1999 Garl began installing new turf, building new cart paths, one new hole, and generally tightening up the gorgeous property. The course reopened in May and has never looked better - under its new ownership Golden Ocala promises to regain its lost glory.

A Look Ahead

There doesn't appear to be a dearth of golf course construction on the horizon, either. Projects slated to open in 2003 include courses from Garl (Orlando, among others), Hills (Ft. Myers, North Port), Pete Dye (Brooksville area and Naples), Greg Norman's firm (Naples, Ft. Lauderdale, and Orlando), Steve Smyers (Lakeland and a renovation of International Golf Club in Orlando), Mike Dasher (Sorento), Michael Hurdzan and Dana Fry (Naples), Rees Jones (Palm Coast), and David Harman (Orlando).

Is it possible that 2003 could be even bigger than 2002?

Victoria Hills Golf Club
(863) 738-6000
www.arvida.com/victoriapark/vp_hill_golf.asp

SouthWood Golf Club
(850) 942-4653
www.southwoodflorida.com

North Shore Golf Club
(407) 277-9277
www.northshore-golfclub.com

Shark's Tooth Golf Club
(850) 236-4672
www.wildheron.com

PalenciaGolf Club
(904) 810-0500
www.vivapalencia.com

RLR Golden Ocala Golf & Country Club
(352) 629-6229
www.goldenocala.com

Derek DuncanDerek Duncan, Contributor

Derek Duncan's writing has appeared in TravelGolf.com, FloridaGolf.com, OrlandoGolf.com, GulfCoastGolf.com, LINKS Magazine and more. He lives in Atlanta with his wife Cynthia and is a graduate of the University of Colorado with interests in wine, literary fiction, and golf course architecture.


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