Would I like to know what Tom Doak might have done with this property?Or Gil Hanse, or Crenshaw and Coore?Perhaps. But I’m not one of those architecture snobs who love to criticize Nicklaus, and even they cannot deny that some of his work (Sherwood, Muirfield Village) is outstanding. The Bear can proudly place Ocean Hammock in that category.
Before I visited the Conservatory, where a massive clubhouse and a residential community are also in the works, I happened upon a book in my hotel room that described the latter project, known as the Gardens. This book was most entertaining. Part fairy tale, part community blueprint, part sales manual, it enthusiastically envisioned a place that doesn’t yet exist. Accompanied by ornate drawings of the buildings-to-be and photographs of the real structures that inspired them (all in Italy), its language was flowery and hypnotic, inviting you to imagine yourself in just such a place. In short order, I imagined developer Bobby Ginn (a plainspoken good ol’ boy from South Carolina who once owned a stock car team) as a child, sitting quietly, reading picture books like Aladdin and Sleeping Beauty, daydreaming of a world of shining turrets, towers, bridges and moats—a place where architecture itself is as boundless as the human spirit. And then the boy becomes a man, travels to Italy on holiday, sees the bridges, piazzas and canals of Venice, and thinks, "That’s it!" If you’ve got the money, and Ginn surely does, you can rush home and bring the fantasy to life. People do it all the time. Look at San Simeon. Look at Las Vegas. Look at Hammock Beach.
Just like the Gardens has been, the Conservatory was visualized down to the final, most exacting detail. But what precisely was that vision?The word "conservatory" has two definitions. The first is a glassed-in garden that, rather than being utilitarian in nature, is more scientific or artistic—a place to display rare species or foster a contemplative state of mind. This has to be the definition Ginn was after, because he has built a glass dome on top of the clubhouse and put a fifty-foot palm tree under it. And the course itself is such an exquisite creation, so perfectly manicured and neatly contained within its symmetrical clear-cut of loblolly pine, that a giant glass dome over the entire thing wouldn’t be out of character.
Yet I think the second definition—an institution where students are groomed to perform drama or music at the highest level—better captures the spirit behind the project. I’m thinking specifically of classical music, the rich array of instruments that combine to form an orchestra and are suited perfectly to soar with the imagination. I picture Ginn acquiring the sorcerer’s cap and conductor’s baton and finding the world responding to his every command. As he and Tom Watson wave their hands, walking broomsticks dig up buckets of sand and pile them high into mountainous dunes. The deep holes become lakes and the shallow ones become bunkers that swoop this way and that, like whitecaps on the sea.
Watson’s course, which opened last year, beautifully captures that feeling. Indeed, the holes look like something a sorcerer might conjure up: cresting waves flowing eerily in opposite directions on the surface of a smooth sea. Thus his architectural style, on this course at least, is somewhere between the Augusta-smooth contouring of Tom Fazio and the links chaos of Tom Doak, which makes perfect sense for a soft-spoken gentleman from Kansas City who also happened to win five British Opens.
It’s all counterintuitive enough as to feel almost natural. In this regard, the Conservatory reminds me a little of a Pete Dye course, and indeed it is already being compared to Dye’s Stadium course at Sawgrass. I think that comparison has more to do with the fact that Dye’s Stadium is the standard by which all good courses in Florida are judged rather than any overt architectural similarities. Still, it’s high praise to be mentioned in the same breath as the Dye masterpiece, and the Conservatory certainly deserves it. Like the residential community that will blossom around it, it is the pitch-perfect execution of a man’s dream. It’s in this context that I’ve come to understand, even admire, Bobby Ginn’s entire creation at Hammock Beach. And every single person I talked to while staying there enjoyed it, as well: the conventioneers, the families with kids, the couples on a romantic holiday. There’s something for everybody. Even the grudging, tree-hugging journalist went away impressed.