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The Florida Sand Belt

Courtesy of Victoria Hills Golf Club Victoria Hills Golf Club- A swirl of Native sand on the par-four Thirteenth.

Photo: Courtesy of Victoria Hills Golf Club

I’m standing on the fourth tee of the Pine Barrens Course at World Woods Golf Club near Brooksville, Florida, and half of everything I see is sand. To the right of the fairway, a vast wasteland juts into the grass, as if the entire hole has suffered a violent rupture and begun to sink into some sort of netherworld. It’s striking to behold and clearly hazardous to play from—yet I’m aiming my drive right over the heart of it.

From centuries-old British links to modern-day masterpieces such as Sand Hills and Pacific Dunes, sand is the secret ingredient of great courses. Entire regions have become synonymous with golf simply because they possess the kind of deep, sandy soil that is ideally suited to the game. When we think of sand in Florida, we think of beaches or bleached white bunkers, not entire eighteens created on canvases of sand. But when I lived in the state I was surprised to discover that many of its most interesting courses are located in the central part of the peninsula, away from the seaside resorts and often in small towns or other out-of-the-way spots. The reason, I came to conclude, is simple: These courses are built on sand.

Central Florida is ridged by a series of dunes that two to three million years ago were islands of scrub surrounded by ocean. These spines extend for miles, from north to south, and crest at more than three hundred feet above sea level—serious elevation by Florida standards. They retain distinct local ecosystems and bottomless amounts of sand. Compared with all of the loamy, two-dimensional courses scattered across the state, these sandy layouts make for an adventurous brand of golf. Three ridges in particular—moving from west to east, the Brooksville, Lake Wales and DeLand Ridges—feature the kind of firm, fast-drying terrain that has produced some of Florida’s most exhilarating courses.

The Brooksville Ridge

Located an hour’s drive north of Tampa, Brooksville is a quiet town known for its limestone quarries and its proximity to some of the state’s best river and Gulf Coast fishing. It became a hotbed of golf in 1993, when the thirty-six-hole Tom Fazio–designed World Woods complex opened about ten miles outside town. The two eighteens, Pine Barrens and the parkland-style Rolling Oaks, lie near the southwestern end of the Brooksville Ridge, a trail of ancient sand hills that stretches for more than thirty miles. Pristine forests of longleaf pine and live oak surround the courses. The aforementioned fourth hole at Pine Barrens demonstrates how ubiquitous sand is to the area. The option from the tee of this 494-yard par five is either to play safely left of the gaping waste bunker or drive over it, setting up a shorter approach to the green. Each time I’ve played this hole, however, I’ve pulled my drive to the fat of the fairway, an almost autonomic bailout in the face of a harrowing hazard.

Pine Barrens is Fazio at his stylistic best—playing the course is an exercise in living on the edge. Here, the architect, who is sometimes criticized for creating postcardlike holes that place more emphasis on aesthetics than on strategy, slashed open the earth and created multiple angles of attack. Drives that hug the long waste area right of the fairway on the par-four eighth, for example, set up a short, clear view of a shallow green that fishhooks into the barrens; drives played more conservatively to the left yield a longer approach that must carry a deep tongue of sand protecting the front of the green. Both the par-five fourteenth and the par-four fifteenth have split fairways divided by scrub depressions, the latter offering a chance to carry the chasm and drive the partially hidden green.

Just two miles west of World Woods and possessing similar terrain is the Dunes Golf Club. Apart from the sand, the most striking thing about the routing is that it features more than fifty feet of elevation change. Arthur Hills, who designed the Dunes in 1988 and returned earlier this year to renovate it, once told me this was one of the best inland sites he’d ever worked with, and in the last two decades blessedly little about the surrounding property has changed. Plans for houses to be built around the course never materialized—this is a remote part of Florida—so it remains an isolated trek through an unspoiled landscape of longleaf pines, turkey oaks and blowout bunkers (which, despite rumors that they were caused by practice bombing missions during World War II, were created naturally and in some cases enhanced by Hills). “It’s always been one of my favorite courses,” Hills says. “I try not to have favorites, but that site is so gorgeous—the sand and the dunes. The course pretty much lies on the terrain.” Hills’s fondness for the Dunes is so strong that he even tried to purchase it in the mid-1990s. “We were thinking that we wanted to develop a kind of Pine Valley of the South,” he explains, “a place where people from all over would come and stay and play.”

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