“The thing that’s interesting about these places on the ridge,” notes Smyers, “is that during the prime season you’ve got a pretty nice breeze. And with the wind and the nice firm ground—which we utilized at Southern Dunes, and Sugarloaf’s done it as well—you want to play the ball along the ground.” Try doing that in Jacksonville or Miami.
The Deland Ridge
Well removed from the Remote rural landscapes of the Brooksville and Lake Wales Ridges, the DeLand Ridge runs through the densely settled communities of Deltona and DeLand, on the northern outskirts of greater Orlando. This ridge is actually two smaller pockets of dunes that extend on either side of Interstate 4. Don’t let all the development fool you: Two of Florida’s best sand-belt courses—the Deltona Club and Victoria Hills Golf Club—are enclaves within these urban areas, much as Australia’s sand-belt masterpieces, Royal Melbourne and Kingston Heath, are engulfed by the city of Melbourne.
The Deltona Club sports abundant sand and heaving turf— a stark contrast to the plain 1960s-era neighborhood that borders it. Bobby Weed overhauled what had been a lackluster layout by digging out nearly all of the dated areas of rough to build canals of natural sand that twist through the property. The course reopened to raves in January 2008.
Weed devised an ingenious routing in which no consecutive holes have the same par except for the first two and the closing two. Although the layout’s appearance can be daunting, there’s more fairway than there appears to be and the real trouble doesn’t begin on most holes until about 280 yards off the tee. The 244-yard eleventh, with its wavy green benched into a hill, begins a stretch of six showstoppers, including the par-five thirteenth, which climbs thirty feet through husky fields of sand, and the short, uphill par-four fifteenth, with a delicate, semiblind approach over a bunker.
A similar if slightly less exuberant experience awaits twenty minutes north at Victoria Hills in DeLand (which has a historic downtown that includes the campus of Stetson University). The course, designed by Ron Garl, doesn’t make use of the sand underfoot to the same effect as the Deltona Club does. The setting reminds me more of an old club in the Northeast than just about anything I’ve seen in Florida. There are long, natural hills outlined by towering sections of oak and pine. Holes flow up narrow ridges, around wetlands and over cresting hills, the scenery always changing. The fairways sweep around deep-set bunkers that bleed into slopes and wispy border grasses. Drives must be shaped accordingly. In some spots Garl used the soil to build up features and mold voluptuously crowned greens.
All of the above serve to make the short third and seventeenth holes two of my favorite par fours in the state. Each is framed by pines and bends left around a bunker complex that requires players either to lay up short of the corner or to try to blast their drives over it. Both approach shots play uphill to pedestal greens that are cut into hillsides and defended by billowy bunkers set below the putting surfaces.
As I replay all of these holes in my mind, I’m reminded of one of Bill Coore’s observations about the Florida sand belt. “It’s fascinating,” he told me, “how integral sand is to all of our concepts, not just about golf architecture but also about playing the game itself.” It seems like an understatement.