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All Fazio, All the Time

Ten minutes west is Ballantrae Golf & Yacht Club, a watery Jack Nicklaus design of 7,022 yards through a luxury housing development. Jack seems to have started the layout feeling generous--the 348-yard first hole is a gimme, flat, short and virtually defenseless--but he got over it. The 552-yard par-five second crosses one lagoon off the tee and turns left along a lake for the last two hundred or so yards to the green. The par-three third is 170 yards and at least one gator over water to a slender, bulkheaded green.

Although the site is largely open and flat, Nicklaus used stands of pine to frame several green sites, and extensive waste areas to shape some fairways. Notwithstanding the zany, only-in-Florida par-five fifth, which crosses the water off the tee and again to a faux-island green, the most memorable holes are the par fours, notably numbers seven, eight, eleven, fifteen and eighteen (the only hole that adjoins the St. Lucie River). A tip: The pace at Ballantrae can get bogged down by the many hazards, so in winter, play it early in the morning if you plan to fit in another eighteen later the same day.

The Champions Club at Summerfield, down Route 1 on the south side of Stuart, was the first public course in America to earn the Audubon Society's imprimatur for environmentally sensitive design. Tom Fazio made it both pretty and playable--contrary to what appears from the tee, there is surprising room in the landing areas and around the quick, well-kept greens. Aesthetically, the 6,809-yard layout is at its best through the wetlands, especially at the gorgeous sixth, a brief (148 yards) but tricky par three over marsh to a multi-tiered green. Since it opened five years ago, Champions has become popular among good local players, who know they can drop by anytime and get a game.

Good play seems to be an area trait. I was never paired with anyone who couldn't at least play bogey golf, and the pace was excellent--only once did a round take longer than four hours, and usually it took far less. At the Country Club at St. Lucie West, a once-private club now owned and run as a semiprivate facility by the PGA of America, my group included a fifty-ish couple from New Jersey who were crafty low-handicappers and helped point out targets off the tees and when to leave the driver in the bag.

The directions helped. Designed to 6,906 yards, St. Lucie West has some narrow fairways, and the greens are small and quick. (You'll see ballplayers out for rounds during spring training--the New York Mets's complex is only five minutes away.) Though tough, the routing and conditions are excellent, and my playing partners were outstanding. On the West nine's fifth, a 409-yard par four with OB left and water right, the woman from Jersey drilled a drive into the wind to a tight fairway that slopes toward the hazard. She then lofted a seven-wood over the lake and a gaping front bunker onto a raised green and sunk her twelve-footer for birdie. We clapped.

The Legacy Golf & Tennis Club is a private club in a posh gated community next door to the Reserve. When asked, pros at other clubs raved about the course, and one suggested I call the pro shop--the Legacy staff occasionally allow nonmember play. The call was certainly worth it. Given a late-afternoon tee time, I found George and Jim's design to be strikingly different from most Florida courses. Take away the Bermuda grass and palmettos and a player can easily imagine this layout behind some private club's cedar hedge up north. It is understated rather than flashy, with holes rising and falling gently over rolling fairways bordered by pine. It is beautiful but tough--7,002 yards, with a slope of 142 from the way-backs, and major-championship rough lining the fairways and girding the greens. You are playing well if you make it in two to the brutish 479-yard sixth, a dogleg-left par four, and even then, you'll need nifty work around the large, open-in-front green. And you are absolutely on fire if you make four at eighteen, 460 yards to a raised and undulating green. Whatever your score, you will want to play the Legacy again. It is a wonderfully straightforward test of golf, with no gimmicks.

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