Oak Marsh at Amelia Island Plantation
AMELIA ISLAND, FL - Of the three golf venues at Amelia Island Plantation, Oak Marsh appears to be the most complete, the most likely course to have been designed as a comprehensive, harmonious eighteen holes. It wasn’t.
What is now the Oak Marsh course was formerly two separate nines known as Oak Marsh (first nine) and Oyster Bay (second nine). Both were designed by Pete Dye and part of the resort’s original 27 holes (along with the Oceanside nine which is now part of the Ocean Links course) in 1974.
Pete Dye would eventually become the most influential golf course architect of this generation, but in 1974 he was only beginning to establish his reputation. He had several remarkable courses to his credit, most notably the Teeth of the Dog Course at Casa de Campo in the Dominican Republic, The Golf Club in Columbus, Ohio, and Harbor Town on Hilton Head Island, but many of his ideas from that period were considered radical and not widely accepted in the world of architecture.
Those feelings about Dye have changed in the last 25 years (as most of the nay saying architects from that era have faded into oblivion along with their out-dated courses) and he has continued to evolve his style. He hasn’t, for almost two decades, seemed to be interested in making the smaller, shot-placement golf courses that brought him renown, but Oak Marsh remains a remnant of the time when he did, a time when Dye was revolutionizing the field of golf course architecture with these types of designs.
The course is a preserved historical example of change. In the 1960’s and into the 1970’s, at the height of the Robert Trent Jones 7,000-yard “hard par, easy bogey” monster courses, Dye was building gems like Harbor Town that reintroduced the elements of shot-making, flair, variety, and the short par four. These elements are still found at Oak Marsh.
Indeed there is an anachronistic feel to this course. Even though Bobby Weed renovated many of the greens and bunkers in 1998, no substantial changes have occurred since its opening and Oak Marsh remains a quintessential Pete Dye course from that beginning era of his career.
Golf course architecture has turned back away from efficient, tightly designed courses of this style, which is why Oak Marsh continues to stand out as a fascinating anomaly among the grand, resort-scale courses that now proliferate Florida.
Oak Marsh is patterned very much in the mold of Harbor Town. It’s a low-profile design marked by narrow fairways that are bordered by trees and resort homes. Bunkers and water are used stylishly, yet efficiently to add visual punch as much as strategic interest. Five holes border and fade into the marshes and afford sweeping vistas of the Intracoastal Waterway. Unlike Harbor Town, however, the greens at Oak Marsh show considerably more variation and are marked by significant movements. While not quite small, each one is just large enough to offer two or three strategic pins.
Oak Marsh measures a modest 6,580 yards from the back tees. Whereas Ocean Links demands precise approach shots and an acute short game, driving the ball between the lines is the prerogative at Oak Marsh. Several holes demand commanding drives and those in control off the tee will often have straightforward mid- and short-iron approaches into the open, sloping greens.
Despite originally being two distinct nines, Oak Marsh comes off now as a highly composed course, one that achieves a greater design balance than either Ocean Links or Long Point. The first nine is probably a little more understated and basic overall, particularly the first five holes, and the second nine (formerly Oyster Bay) shows a bit more panache with four marsh holes, more assertive bunkering, and larger greens.
Each nine begins inland near the Amelia Links clubhouse and gradually loops its way out to the far reaches of the property near the marshes. The sides begin rather modestly, with naked, straightforward holes through the trees and homes, but each builds toward a rousing three-hole finish.
There are three, good short par fours here. The first is the third, 317 yards from the back tees. A bunker jutting into the right side of the fairway must be cleared to get near the green with the drive, and two bunkers short right and left must be threaded. The opportunity for a short pitch for birdie is a strong temptation, and being bunkered is not a horrible result either.
The eighth, a 342-yard par four bisected twice by a canal is the ultimate expression of target golf, a term frequently used to describe Dye courses from this era. The middle tees are set at only 309 yards, but there is no way to drive this green. The water must be cleared off the tee and it runs down the right side of the fairway before cutting back in front of the green at an angle from the right. The fairway is basically an island to the left and the key is to advance the drive, for most, an iron or fairway metal, to a point that affords the best angle back over the hazard to a green that is sloped liberally from back to front.
Ten is a wonderful short par four, only 307 yards at its longest. Bunkers cut into the fairway at the landing area from both sides and a small pond sits short of the green to the right. It takes courage and accuracy to attempt to get home from the tee, and the green is a cool shape, really two tiny compartments connected through a narrow waist. A back right pin position over the water is tricky.
The par threes at Oak Marsh are all excellent. On the second nine, Dye routed the course so as to use the areas near the marsh for his short holes, while on the first nine he created two solid inland holes. The fourth is 169 yards but the shot must be played over a flashed up bunker that fronts the center of the green. The seventh is a treacherous hole, 184 yards from the tips over water to a bulk-headed green angled sharply away from the tee right to left. Anything short is wet, bunkers surround the green, and there is little room to bail out to the right. The 13th at Ocean Links is almost an exact replica.
Twelve is a straightaway, picturesque 193 yards with the sprawling waterway on the left. From the rear tees the 16th plays 171 yards directly over the marsh, although the regular tees are set at an angle where no carry is required.
The final holes on each nine are quite impressionable and are the types of holes that make resorts famous. Nine is a satisfying par five of 527 yards with plenty of room in the fairway. The hole is flat and broad and the marsh runs all the way up the right, eventually crowding the green on that side.
Seventeen is a big, difficult par four, 441 yards long, where the drive from the championship tees must heroically carry the marsh to find part of the fairway. From the landing area, the hole bends to the left around the marsh and the direct line to the green is over the corner of it again, although there is plenty of room to miss short and right.
Eighteen, playing opposite the ninth in its reverse image, also requires a drive that must clear a portion of the marsh that accompanies the fairway along the left all the way to the clubhouse. The third shot on this 523-yard hole (or the second for the truly mighty player) will be flown over the marsh one last time to reach one of the largest greens on the course.
Oak Marsh is probably the least visceral of Amelia Island Plantation’s three courses, yet it satisfies in a pure and wholesome way. There are few flaws here, and the course plays steady and interesting, if not exciting, until it can bring the player to the edges of solid land, where the views of the Intracoastal and the shot demands suddenly kick up. This course is the most prototypically Pete Dye, so those wishing to experience his golf ideas from this point in his career will not want to miss it.
Low-season rates (November through January, July through September) are $90. In the high season the charge is $130.
Oak Marsh is the most accessible course by foot and walking is permitted after 4pm.