Unless you're a member at Augusta National, or know someone who is, you have only one chance to try your hand at a short, tricky par three that Tiger, Phil and Ernie play every spring. You can go to Florida's northeast coast and book a tee time at the TPC at Sawgrass Stadium course, site of the Players Championship. Make your way to number seventeen, and match yourself against the best.
Pete Dye's island green is just one of the attractions in the area that spans Jacksonville and St. Augustine. The region has blossomed with courses since the PGA Tour moved its headquarters to Ponte Vedra Beach in 1979, and it's even waiting to welcome visitors to Jacksonville's first Super Bowl this winter. "It's unbelievable how Jacksonville golf has grown," says Billy Maxwell, a Tour pro from the 1950s and '60s. Maxwell took his winnings from seven tournament victories and in 1971 invested them in an old Donald Ross course in Jacksonville called Hyde Park. He still runs the register there on Sunday mornings, collecting the thirty-six-dollar greens fee. "When I moved here there wasn't a course worth a damn. Now we must have thirty courses, and every one is perfect."
Well, maybe not perfect. But there are a lot of very good ones. Vijay Singh, Jim Furyk, Fred Funk and a host of other pros live in the area. They must know something, right?
The coast from Jacksonville to St. Augustine is a lot closer to south Georgia than it is to South Beach, both in latitude and in attitude. You'll see far more F-150s on the roads than you will C320s. If you forget to pack your new Armani threads, don't fret about finding a place to eat. In northeast Florida, you won't be turned away by a sneering doorman. There are no sneering doormen. There are no doormen.
To get to the golf, fly to Jacksonville International Airport and rent a car, preferably one with unlimited mileage. The better courses are strung out along some seventy-five miles of the I-95 corridor. It's a godforsaken stretch of road, but at least it gets you to the next course fast.
The seventeenth at TPC Sawgrass isn't the only island green in northeast Florida, nor even the first. A visitor would do well to start with the home of the original, the Ocean Course at the Ponte Vedra Inn & Club. It's private, so to get on you'll need to stay at the inn or be the guest of a member, but it's worth it. Designed by Herbert Strong in 1928, redone by Robert Trent Jones Sr. in 1947 and lovingly renovated by Bobby Weed in 1998, today's Ocean course is vaguely reminiscent of Seminole in that it's laid out parallel to the Atlantic on a tract featuring a sand ridge. That gives it elevation changes. The course also has more playing space than many modern layouts, which probably reflects the (low) land prices and (lack of) environmental regulations in the 1920s. The island green is the ninth, a short-iron par three that has a lot more margin for error than Sawgrass's seventeenth.
Up the coast at Amelia Island there are three courses, and the best of them is Long Point, designed by Tom Fazio in 1987. It's a stern test, particularly if the wind blows, because nearly every hole is hemmed in by woods, marsh or both. The greens are heavily contoured and firm, and the penalty for missing them can be steep. Downwind, even a short-iron shot can hit the green, bounce over it and be lost forever.
The best set of oceanside holes in the region belongs to a new course south of St. Augustine called Ocean Hammock Golf Club. It's a Jack Nicklaus design, but in contrast to other seaside courses he's done, where he got just a few pinched acres of beachfront property to work with, at Ocean Hammock Nicklaus had space for two long par fours parallel to the beach and a couple of good par threes that play out to the water. The rest of the course is solid.
To get a glimpse of Jacksonville golf as it once was, try Hyde Park Golf Club, which Donald Ross designed in 1925. The course, owned by Maxwell and fellow former PGA Tour player Chris Blocker, was the site of the old Jacksonville Open. According to Maxwell, Ben Hogan made an eleven on the sixth hole, a 151-yard par three, in the 1947 tournament. Hogan's expression, legend has it, never changed.
The World Golf Village, outside St. Augustine, has two courses: The Slammer & Squire was designed by Bobby Weed in consultation (brief though it was) with Sam Snead and Gene Sarazen before they died. The King & Bear is a 2001 collaboration between Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer. A look at the swampy pastureland that surrounds the site suggests the limitations of the land both courses are built on. The King & Bear is the better of the two, making good use of several lakes that were likely built for drainage. It's still a bit raw but should mature nicely.
The TPC at Sawgrass Stadium course is, deservedly, the centerpiece of northeast Florida golf. When it opened in 1980, it was greeted by many players the way James Joyce's Ulysses was greeted by censors in 1922. But time and some tweaking have proven its merit. The course never lets up; almost every shot requires thought and precision, and the sixteenth hole, a short(ish) par five, is the best example. The green is perched on a small peninsula jutting into a lake. But even if a player opts not to challenge the green with his second shot, he has to contend with the water. A strategically placed tree forces the layup second to flirt with trouble or there's no clear shot to the green.
The sixteenth is a fitting prologue to number seventeen, which ought to be an easy hole. The day I was here, it was playing only 120 yards from the whites, but as at the twelfth at Augusta, it's the wind that makes this hole difficult. It's set at a low point on the course, ringed by trees and spectator mounds that make it hard to gauge the breeze at treetop level. I figured there was a one-club wind over my shoulder. The pin was back right, for a total distance of some 125 yards—normally for me a stock nine-iron. I hesitated, then decided to go with my 110-yard club, a pitching wedge. I pushed from my mind the lurking fear of seeing the ball splash short of the green. I pured the shot. It rose like a dream and headed for the middle of the green. I had about two seconds to enjoy the sight. Then the ball lit about a foot from the back edge, maybe 130 yards from the tee, took a big bounce and disappeared.