Swing Time in the Hammock
South of Jacksonville lies a blossoming golf fantasia, where a spectacular oceanside Jack Nicklaus course has just been joined by an exquisite new gem from Tom Watson
A hammock isn’t just a rope bed that hangs on your porch. In the southeastern United States there’s an alternate meaning for the word, one derived from the Native American hamaca, meaning "shady place." This type of hammock is a grove of hardwoods that grows in a marsh or on a coastal island. The biggest trees in these hammocks are usually gnarled old oaks whose sprawling arms and thick trunks provide just the kind of cool, airy environment that any self-respecting mammal would like to hang out in. And that’s just what I was planning to do. I was headed to Ginn Hammock Beach, a golf resort and residential community on a barrier island off Palm Coast, Florida, in an area known to locals simply as the Hammock.
I approached from the south on Florida’s scenic Route A1A. After the bluff in Flagler Beach, where I’d begun to lose myself in the ocean vistas, the road turned inland and disappeared into the Hammock. I found myself peering down shady lanes at little houses and trailers tucked in among the trees. It was as if I’d been transported thirty years back in time.
From the local road there’s little evidence of the resort, hidden as it is behind a segment of the original oak hammock, but when it appears, it is substantial: three residential towers, two hundred single-family homes, a pool and water park, a marina across the street, three restaurants, a full spa and a pair of championship golf courses. The place has every conceivable amenity. You will not go wanting.
But it’s all a bit startling, given that just a short drive up the road at the Washington Oaks Gardens State Park, you can traverse the rare ecosystem that is a north Florida ocean hammock, moving from the glowing orange coquina-shell beach on the Atlantic through a low rise of prickly, saw palmetto–covered dunes and finally ending in the embrace of a giant oak grove on the banks of the Matanzas River. I wish the nearby golf resort had better integrated itself into its environment and left more of this special feel intact, but then I’m just a sentimental tree hugger who went to school in Boulder. Let’s get to the golf.
The Club at Hammock Beach has two courses: the Jack Nicklaus–designed Ocean, which, as its name suggests, is on the ocean, and the new Tom Watson–designed Conservatory. Both are excellent. But let me just say this: When it comes to the Ocean course, it had better be excellent. The original developer gave Nicklaus the last large (and absolutely beautiful) piece of oceanfront property in the state of Florida, so anything less than spectacular would’ve been criminal. Taking full advantage of his allotted fifteen-hundred-plus yards of coastline, Nicklaus built at least part of six holes right on the beach, and two of them, the ninth and eighteenth, run entirely along it. They play toward each other to greens situated on either side of the clubhouse. The afternoon I tackled them, the 437-yard ninth was downwind, allowing a brave drive over a beachside bunker and then a finicky wedge into an elevated green, and the 464-yard eighteenth was into the wind, demanding a well-struck three-iron approach. Obviously, they can play exactly the opposite and to varying degrees in between.
There are three other holes with oceanfront greens, and two of them are one-shotters that play straight toward the beach: the 184-yard eighth and the 174-yard seventeenth. Again, both are excellent holes. However, don’t expect Pebble Beach. The course is relatively flat, and the bank of dunes between it and the beach all but obscures the water views. Still, the ocean is ever present in the gusty, humid tropical air, in the delicious infusion of brine and Bermuda grass and in the roar of waves breaking on the boulders. And the little peeks you get here and there of the glowing orange-tinged sand and gray-green water are enough to stir the soul. I could stare at that beach forever.
Overall, the course is fair and challenging, with wide fairways and large, undulating greens—exactly what you’d expect from a seaside course where the wind almost always blows. But Nicklaus mixes it up, especially down the stretch, challenging golfers with a pair of small, severe greens at the drivable par-four sixteenth and the short par-three seventeenth. These holes are at the heart of the difficult four-hole finish known, with much justification, as the Bear Claw.
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.
Ginn Hammock Beach Resort
200 Ocean Crest Drive, Palm Coast, Florida. Rooms: from $289. Contact: 866-502-6228, hammockbeach.com.
Architect: Tom Watson, 2006. Yardage: 7,776. Par: 72. Slope: 155. Greens Fees: $99–$189.
Architect: Jack Nicklaus, 2000. Yardage: 7,201. Par: 72. Slope: 147. Greens Fees: $99–$189.