St. Johns Golf and Country Club: Johnston Does it Again
In fact, the three Florida properties that he has designed to date have been anything but special, just typical flat, wooded stretches of land, common everywhere around Jacksonville. With much of his work existing in the South Carolina Low Country, this Hilton Head-based architect, who is also the Treasurer of the American Society of Golf Course Architects, has seen his share of challenging sites, and it must be said that he knows what to do with flat earth when he sees it. St. Johns Golf Club is Johnston's newest opening (summer 2001) and a textbook example of how to craft a beautiful, lively golf course from a basically mundane palate.
St. Johns is also the latest addition to a suddenly golf-rich stretch of I-95 between Jacksonville and St. Augustine. The I-95 corridor currently boasts seven public courses, five of which are new since 1998, along a twenty-mile stretch. None of the courses have interesting topography, but all are well made and interesting in their own right, with Johnston's St. Johns an elegant standout.
So no, it wasn't the great site that lured Johnston back to Florida, but rather an ongoing relationship with a trusted owner and developer, Arvida/St. Joe. "I became involved with the St. Johns project due to my previous involvement with Arvida on the Jacksonville Golf and Country Club project," Johnston says. "They liked the course there and felt that a similar design would be what they wanted at St. Johns."
Johnston's return to Florida must have felt like déjà vu. Not only was he working with the same client as before, he was working on similar terrain (not only to Jacksonville Country Club but to that of his Eagle Harbor design in nearby Orange Park as well). So the level property at St. Johns was nothing that Johnston hadn't seen before. The trick would be to come up with new ideas without much natural help.
"Well, (the site's) not entirely flat," he insists. "There is a sand hill where 1, 10 and the range are located but, other than that, it is quite flat, mostly pines and some hardwoods. My reaction was that I would have to 'design' most of the entire golf course rather than use what Mother Nature had to offer. The sand hill offered a chance to do some creative grading while saving some of the wiregrass in the rough areas. Also, there was a borrow pit lake that became the focal point of holes 13 and 14."
The end product is a par 72, 7,236-yard golf course that epitomizes balance. St. Johns fits comfortably in its secluded environment (at least until the 799-unit Arvida development surrounding it is complete, but even then a handful of holes will remain away from the housing) and finds a niche amongst its nearby rivals. While it's similar in appearance to many of them (particularly neighbors Cimarrone and South Hampton), Johnston has imbued St. Johns with just enough of his own touches that it makes a noteworthy statement.
"I looked at several of the new courses in that area with the client to see what the competition had done so I would not repeat something they had done. I wanted the look and feel of the course to be different and I wanted several of the holes to be as dramatic as possible: 4, 9, 13, 17 & 18, for example," Johnston remembers.
St. Johns is a mix of natural minimalism in places and man-made engineering in others. When there is evidence of construction, Johnston and crew have done their shaping softly and roundly; the course blends gracefully into the surrounding environment and there are few abrupt movements except for the bulkheads that transition land and water near several of the greens.
As expected with such a low profile, wetland style course, these water hazards appear frequently, often fronting greens. The numerous bunkers are generally cut low and into the sides of the built-up greens to add definition and yield playable recovery shots. The number of straightforward holes is offset by just enough gutsy, challenging holes.
"I do strive for balance and variety in my designs," Johnston says. "I am designing the course for the average golfer and resident of St. Johns while also trying to make it a challenge from the back tees as well as pleasing to the eye. I plan for easy holes, hard holes, and a range of difficulty in between."
If the course lacks anything it is a truly reachable par five and a good short par four. What it doesn't lack is a strong finish to both nines, capped off by the 9th and 18th holes that each wrap around a large lake on the far side of the clubhouse to create a marvelous (and dangerous) stage for late-round drama.
"The old axiom of 'start easy, finish hard' has always been something I strive for," says Johnston. "I also sometimes throw a hard hole in the middle of the pack and vary the difficulty so that it is not a progression from easy to hard on each nine."
One of these "hard" holes is the 382-yard (championship tees) 4th that features a unique green that fishhooks sharply to the right around a pond. Approaches from the right side of the fairway, especially those to a lower front pin, must directly carry with the water.
Other holes of note include the most picturesque one-shotter of the round, the 210-yard par three 3rd faced by a reflection lake. The two second nine par threes are also serious challenges at 194 and 212 yards respectively, and are more susceptible to wind (the former, hole 13, also requires a significant poke over water).
Johnston and his crew are deserving of much credit for their work here. It's no simple task to create a beautiful, stylish golf course from an ordinary piece of land without overly manipulating the site. Though there was a good deal of bulldozing at St. Johns, the architect says most of it had to do with storm water and wetland issues and "the golf features/design did not take that much dirt (moving)." In regards to the lack of topography, he resisted "planting" a golf course here replete with ready-made features.
"Flat land has its challenges, especially if the vegetation does not give you anything to work with," Johnston says. "I try not to overlook any natural feature that I can use in the design. Moving a lot of dirt is [sometimes] necessary to create some character, but I try to move only what is necessary to achieve a good result."
"Moving a lot of dirt just for the sake of moving dirt does not appeal to me."
Johnston is now three-for-three in Florida, each of his courses a success for his client and for those who live and play there. St. Johns might be his most stylish work in the area as well, and its location along this hot strip should begin to draw golfers to it from beyond St. Johns and Duval counties. They'll like what they find.
St. Johns is located just two miles west of I-95 on County Road 210, fifteen miles south of Jacksonville.
Current rates are $45 Monday, Wednesday, and Thursday, $35 after 3pm. Weekend rates are $52 and $42 after 3pm. The course is closed on Tuesdays and rates are subject to seasonal change. Call the pro-shop for exact rates.
The flat site makes St. Johns a suitable walking course. The distance between greens and tees is very reasonable for a North Florida course. At the time of the article, a walking policy had not yet been determined, but the feeling here is that it may be, and should be, permitted.
November 28, 2001