Though millions of people travel to Florida each year to play golf on vacation, and tens of thousands more move to the state permanently to enjoy the game year-round, the actual phrase "Florida golf" sometimes conjures up more negative images than positive ones. The typical complaints are that Florida golf is flat, boring and hemmed in by housing. Clearly, there's something to these criticisms. Florida is flat, at least in its southern half, and housing built around courses has been a major force behind the state's uncanny economic growth over the past few decades. But it's unfair to stigmatize all of Florida golf. Moreover, we architects are getting better budgets to design around these limitations.
First of all, let me point out that many of the state's oldest courses are absolute gems. The earliest course developers were able to acquire generous, prime parcels of golf-course terrain and build challenging layouts that have matured magnificently. The problem for visiting golfers, of course, is that they usually cannot get on these private classics. But they are there: Seminole Golf Club in North Palm Beach; the Palm Beach Polo Golf & Country Club in Wellington; Gulfstream Golf Club in Delray Beach; Coral Ridge Country Club in Ft. Lauderdale; Indian Creek Country Club in Miami Beach; Mountain Lake in Lake Wales; and Timuquana Country Club in Jacksonville. No one playing this lineup would ever think of Florida golf as mundane.
As for public golf, Florida lacks any one superlative destination comparable to Pinehurst in North Carolina, with its eight great accessible courses, or the numerous courses at Kiawah Island or Hilton Head in South Carolina and the Monterey Peninsula in California. But there certainly are many wonderful public-access courses in Florida, from Tom Fazio's undulating World Woods Golf Club courses at Brooksville to my TPC Stadium course at Ponte Vedra Beach to Dick Wilson's Blue Monster at Doral Golf Resort and Spa in Miami.
People sometimes point out to me that St. Andrews in Scotland is built on flat, sandy terrain alongside the sea and ask why Florida can't have courses like that. The answer is the water table, the number-one problem that every golf architect working in Florida has to deal with. St. Andrews sits on at least twelve feet of sand. It can rain for days there and you won't find a puddle on the course. The same is true at Pinehurst, which I've been told sits on thirty to sixty feet of sand. So all those little humps and valleys in the fairways and other elevation changes—which Ben Crenshaw, referring to Pinehurst, calls "subtleties"—are gifts of nature that course designers on sites like these are smart enough to leave as they are.
For my relatively new course at the PGA Golf Club in Port St. Lucie, I tried to produce a Scottish links feel by creating, in addition to sand features like pot bunkers, dunes and waste areas, lots of little dips and swales in the fairways—essentially, to imitate the natural fairway features you find on true links courses in Scotland. But it wasn't easy, because I also had to use many of the lowest places in the fairways for drainage, and the last thing I wanted was for players to always find their balls collecting around the French drains. To accomplish this I had to make my best guess about which directions players would be hitting from and fashion the contours so that water, whose direction you can change, will flow one way while balls, propelled by momentum, would roll in another. This is an imprecise science at best, because balls fly around a golf course every which way. Starting from the tee, some players slice, some players hook, others hit it straight. But on each hole I made the best guesses I could, and I think the results are pretty good. Most players during a round will find themselves with many interesting lies and creative shots to hit—and seldom face the same shot twice.
Dealing with housing is another challenge, and I won't try to deny that homes or condos next to a course are less appealing than, say, windswept dunes, forests or an ocean. Views and ambience make a great golf course, I don't care what people say. Imagine the eighteenth at Pebble Beach doglegging around a man-made lake instead of the Pacific, with apartment complexes on both sides. It just wouldn't be the same.