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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

The updated version of the Dunes is firmer and more muscular. The architect widened the fairways and dug out additional waste bunkers, pulling the sand more directly into play. He elevated and enlarged the putting surfaces, defining them with long, tilting slopes. Many of the holes are Cape-style, demanding drives over waste areas, and the new green complex at the par-three sixth rises from a sea of sand. I confess to being pleasantly mystified by the bizarre Biarritz green at the seventeenth, the first of two closing par fives. It’s set at a forty-five-degree angle and guarded by bunkers.

A third golf club in Brooksville, Southern Hills Plantation, sits on a higher part of the ridge, more than two hundred feet above sea level. “So Hilly,” as the course is called, is private, but nonmembers are welcome to play its robust two-year-old Pete Dye layout provided they stay overnight in the guest villa. The two nines loop around a wooded hillside, punctuated by scattershot pot bunkers and tall oaks strung with Spanish moss. The daring par-five seventh, 618 yards from the tips, directly assaults the highest peak. A strong drive will reach the tree-lined pinnacle, from which the fairway plunges more than eighty feet to a landing area that kicks everything toward the green. Dye did golfers few other favors at Southern Hills; more often than not he used the natural slopes and embankments as primary defenses, including designing many holes so that drives play uphill.

The Lake Wales Ridge

Roughly parallel to the Brooksville Ridge and about forty miles to the east lies the Lake Wales Ridge. A long, thin spine of sand, it runs a hundred-plus miles down the center of the state and is sometimes referred to as Florida’s rooftop. This is citrus country, arid and full of groves and pastures and uncommonly broad horizons, not to mention small-town personalities forged by the boom-and-bust cycles of fruit farming and land prospecting.

Sand-based courses populate the length of the ridge, but its literal and figurative high point can be found at Sugarloaf Mountain Golf Club, part of a private residential community near Lake Apopka, a half hour west of Orlando. The course, which debuted in February and for the time being is open to nonmembers, is the latest work by Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw. It consists of a series of rounded crests that rises more than three hundred feet, essentially making this the tallest pile of sand in peninsular Florida. These hilltops once held orange groves and stands of live oaks, a number of which still flourish on the property. “It was a very pleasant surprise,” says Coore, who had previously turned down opportunities to work in Florida. “I just was not aware that the site was all sand.” As for the topography, he says, “We kind of made light of the name Sugarloaf Mountain—it seemed a bit of an oxymoron. But when we got there we realized that what we had to work with was a pretty darned big hill.”

Though the course is part of a nascent real estate development, Coore and Crenshaw were able to route it exactly as they wanted, draping fairways over the land’s most interesting features. The par-four thirteenth cascades about fifteen stories from apex to green, and the subsequent holes glide gracefully up and down the hills through stands of oaks, exposed sand washes and the deep, lace-edged bunkers that are hallmarks of the architects’ minimalist, made-to-look-old style.

From Sugarloaf Mountain, it’s a forty-five-minute drive south to Haines City, home to two more excellent sand-belt courses: Southern Dunes Golf & Country Club and Diamondback Golf Club. The latter, a thirteen-year-old Joe Lee design six miles south of Southern Dunes, sits on the tapering eastern edge of the ridge. With no development in sight, the course is a serene and elegant showcase for the area’s native vegetation. The routing descends from an elevated, sandy plateau through a scrub oak forest and toward Lake Marion. Diamondback, named for the snakes that were removed from the site during the course’s construction, is more target golf than the slash-and-burn style of Southern Dunes. Narrow fairways, lower wetlands and Lee’s recognizable amoeba-shaped bunkers combine to require a tactical approach to the smallish, segmented greens.

Southern Dunes, designed by Steve Smyers, opened a decade and a half ago on the site of an orange grove that was killed by frost in the mid-1980s. The soil was pure sand, of a distinctive orangish color. The land, says Smyers, “had some nice elevation change to it, and I thought we could do something pretty good there because it was going to be easy material to move around. We were able to stick the bulldozers off to the side and push and push and push to create mounds and hollows and ridges.”

Consequently, Southern Dunes bears a sculpted look. Sections of the course lie below the surrounding land, and there’s a marvelous internal flow to the wide fairways that screams for golfers to play bump-and-run shots. Smyers carved some 180 bunkers—including ten at the par-three eleventh alone—to form a molten, bubbling surface that demands thoughtful navigation. A cluster of seven flashed-face bunkers bisects the fifth hole, creating a split fairway with high and low routes to the green. Professional poker player Dewey Tomko was a founding owner of the club, and the action that’s gone down at Southern Dunes is legendary. As I flail away at the longish par-four eighth, going from bunker to bunker, it’s easy to imagine how serious cheese could be won or lost here.

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