A hammock isn’t just a rope bed that hangs on your porch. In the southeastern United States there’s an alternate meaning for the word, one derived from the Native American hamaca, meaning "shady place." This type of hammock is a grove of hardwoods that grows in a marsh or on a coastal island. The biggest trees in these hammocks are usually gnarled old oaks whose sprawling arms and thick trunks provide just the kind of cool, airy environment that any self-respecting mammal would like to hang out in. And that’s just what I was planning to do. I was headed to Ginn Hammock Beach, a golf resort and residential community on a barrier island off Palm Coast, Florida, in an area known to locals simply as the Hammock.
I approached from the south on Florida’s scenic Route A1A. After the bluff in Flagler Beach, where I’d begun to lose myself in the ocean vistas, the road turned inland and disappeared into the Hammock. I found myself peering down shady lanes at little houses and trailers tucked in among the trees. It was as if I’d been transported thirty years back in time.
From the local road there’s little evidence of the resort, hidden as it is behind a segment of the original oak hammock, but when it appears, it is substantial: three residential towers, two hundred single-family homes, a pool and water park, a marina across the street, three restaurants, a full spa and a pair of championship golf courses. The place has every conceivable amenity. You will not go wanting.
But it’s all a bit startling, given that just a short drive up the road at the Washington Oaks Gardens State Park, you can traverse the rare ecosystem that is a north Florida ocean hammock, moving from the glowing orange coquina-shell beach on the Atlantic through a low rise of prickly, saw palmetto–covered dunes and finally ending in the embrace of a giant oak grove on the banks of the Matanzas River. I wish the nearby golf resort had better integrated itself into its environment and left more of this special feel intact, but then I’m just a sentimental tree hugger who went to school in Boulder. Let’s get to the golf.
The Club at Hammock Beach has two courses: the Jack Nicklaus–designed Ocean, which, as its name suggests, is on the ocean, and the new Tom Watson–designed Conservatory. Both are excellent. But let me just say this: When it comes to the Ocean course, it had better be excellent. The original developer gave Nicklaus the last large (and absolutely beautiful) piece of oceanfront property in the state of Florida, so anything less than spectacular would’ve been criminal. Taking full advantage of his allotted fifteen-hundred-plus yards of coastline, Nicklaus built at least part of six holes right on the beach, and two of them, the ninth and eighteenth, run entirely along it. They play toward each other to greens situated on either side of the clubhouse. The afternoon I tackled them, the 437-yard ninth was downwind, allowing a brave drive over a beachside bunker and then a finicky wedge into an elevated green, and the 464-yard eighteenth was into the wind, demanding a well-struck three-iron approach. Obviously, they can play exactly the opposite and to varying degrees in between.
There are three other holes with oceanfront greens, and two of them are one-shotters that play straight toward the beach: the 184-yard eighth and the 174-yard seventeenth. Again, both are excellent holes. However, don’t expect Pebble Beach. The course is relatively flat, and the bank of dunes between it and the beach all but obscures the water views. Still, the ocean is ever present in the gusty, humid tropical air, in the delicious infusion of brine and Bermuda grass and in the roar of waves breaking on the boulders. And the little peeks you get here and there of the glowing orange-tinged sand and gray-green water are enough to stir the soul. I could stare at that beach forever.
Overall, the course is fair and challenging, with wide fairways and large, undulating greens—exactly what you’d expect from a seaside course where the wind almost always blows. But Nicklaus mixes it up, especially down the stretch, challenging golfers with a pair of small, severe greens at the drivable par-four sixteenth and the short par-three seventeenth. These holes are at the heart of the difficult four-hole finish known, with much justification, as the Bear Claw.