Florida's First Coast of golf is a perfect pit stop on the way to Daytona

By Shane Sharp, Contributor

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - Tens of thousands of race fans will descend upon Daytona this weekend to watch Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jimmy Spencer and NASCAR's other top drivers "trade some paint" at the Daytona 500. The vast majority will make their way south on I-95 in minivans, SUVs and 4x4s, proudly displaying the numbers of their favorite drivers. As they blaze a trail through the palmetto packed dunes of Northeast Florida, one of the most golf rich regions in the U.S. passes by, unnoticed.

Florida's "First Coast" - the swath of Sunshine State running from Amelia Island to Palm Coast - is home to over 70 daily fee and resort golf courses, the World Golf Hall of Fame, and the PGA and Champions Tours headquarters. The region boasts more sunny days and balmier temperatures than Myrtle Beach or the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail. It is less congested and more pristine than Orlando. With America's oldest city, St. Augustine, anchoring its midsection, the First Coast even has the historical wares to appeal to today's ecogolf travelers.

All this, and the First Coast still escapes the radar of many avid golf travelers. Maybe it's the national misconception of Florida as one big, fat golf destination. Perhaps it's geographically challenged: the First Coast covers over 120 miles of coastline and it's a tough sell convincing golfers that a fairway on Amelia Island and a green on the Palm Coast are part of the same marketable region.

Whatever the case, the First Coast sets up perfectly for those road tripping along the concrete ribbon that is I-95. Miami, Naples, and even Orlando rely heavily on the fly-market for their golf biz. But the First Coast is a rubber-tire destination for many of the East Coast's population centers.

Enough already. Gentlemen, start your golf carts.

Amelia Island Plantation

Amelia Island Plantation is the First Coast's pride and joy; the crown jewel, as they like to say. The simple fact is that AIP would do any golf destination in any part of the world proud. With three unforgettable resort courses, a setting smack dab on the shores of the Atlantic and slew of upscale lodging and dining options, AIP is widely considered one of the top five golf resorts in the state.

The resort got its start back in 1974 as a 27-hole Pete Dye designed golf retreat for Jacksonville's landed gentry. Tom Fazio changed the face and direction of the resort in 1987 with the completion of the 18-hole Long Point course. Bobby Weed returned in 1998 to round out Dye's original 27 with nine new holes. The resulting 36-hole complex goes by the moniker "Amelia Links" and includes the Ocean Links and Oak Marsh Courses.

Other recent additions include the 249-room, oceanfront Amelia Inn, a 13,200-square foot spa, upscale shops and a hootin' tootin' local watering hole called the Falcon's Nest. The 1,300 acre campus also offers three miles of pristine beaches, plenty of pools for the kiddies and free golf for kids under age 15 who play with a parent.

World Golf Village and World Golf Hall of Fame

The World Golf Hall of Fame doesn't receive as much ink as its more established HOF siblings. It's newer, a bit more sterile (the grounds have an outlet mall vibe) and simply hasn't been engrained into American sports culture - yet. But if you really love the game, a visit isn't optional.

"We get golfers from Germany, Scotland, and all over the world who come here just to see the Hall of Fame," said Val Elord, a longtime volunteer from Indiana. "It is such a global game. I think that is what's so special about it."

Special, like the chance to test your mettle against the famed 17th hole at the TPC Sawgrass Stadium Course. Most diehards can't help but take a shot at the "challenge hole" before ducking into the actual hall of fame. The 132-yard par-3 is set up on the pond just behind the main building. A $5 donation is good for two shots at the island green. A couple greenies nets a commemorative poster and even a round of applause from the small groups of rubberneckers who typically congregate around the tee.

Posters and pride in tow, the next stop is the hall of fame. The entire experience is arranged (gasp) as an 18-hole golf course. The front nine covers the history of the game, the back nine presents the modern game as most of us know it. Along the way are compelling exhibits detailing the evolution of equipment, architecture, agronomy and golf on television. The golf writers exhibit, displaying the works of the game's finest scribes, is highly recommended.

In addition to its 18-hole setup, the World Golf Hall of Fame typically has a special collections on display. At the time of this writing it was Ben Hogan's historic season, 1953. Hogan was the first pro golfer to win three professional majors in one season.

The exhibit features photographs and memorabilia from 1953, when he won five of the six four-round tournaments he entered that year-the three majors, plus the Colonial and the Pan-American. The tribute doesn't shy away from Hogan's near-fatal car crash that almost ended his career, and it also covers the inception of the Hogan's equipment company.

"It is a very complete experience and it's well worth the price of admission," said Dennis Craven, visiting from Parkersburg, Wva. with his wife Maralu "We've been to Canton (to the Pro Football Hall of Fame) and this is just as good if not better."

Those who just can't get enough can roll it around the 18-hole putting course or check out the IMAX theater. And what would a golf hall of fame be without, well, golf. The World Golf Village is home to two excellent, commemorative layouts - the Slammer and Squire and the King and Bear. Slammer and Squire (named for Sam Snead and Gene Sarazen and designed by Bobby Weed) was the village's first course and is conveniently located onsite. King and Bear (named for and designed by Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus), opened in 2000 and is just a smooth 3-wood away.

After 18 holes in the hall of fame or on one of the two courses, the place to be is Murray Bros. Caddyshack. "Eat, drink and be Murray," the sign outside the watering hole proclaims. Here, here. The entrance is a faux caddy barn door replete with weeds and a wrecked golf cart. Inside, the walls are covered with whimsical golf memorabilia and shrines to Caddyshack, the movie. For a more upscale experience (what, you too good to hang with caddies?), head to Sam Snead's Tavern and hunker down with a juicy Angus steak.

Ocean Hammock Golf Resort

The resort formerly known as Palm Coast has changed its name, and rightly so, to reflect the property's main draw - Ocean Hammock Golf Club. OHGC, aNicklaus signature course, is only the second oceanfront track to open in Florida in the past 70 years. Eight holes play along the dunes of the Atlantic, including the tortuous finishing stretch Nicklaus dubbed "Bear's Claw."

OHGC's 10 inland holes are just as solid, if not as dramatic. Case in point, holes 10-14. The par-5, 552-yard 10th, plays downhill from a tee box perched on a coastal dune. The par-4 11th is Nicklaus' rendition of a classic Cape Hole. Water is in play down the entire left side of the hole and the green complex is set off to the left to bring the drink back into play on the approach. Thirteen requires the longest forced carry (from the 433-yard tips), and 14 is the longest three-shotter at 551-yards.

For the money, holes nine and 18 battle for true supremacy at OHGC. Both measure about 466 yards from the cranks and both are stripped right along the Atlantic. The only thing separating golfers and sunbathers is a thick hammock of native grasses and shrubs. Similar settings; very different holes. The ninth almost always plays into the teeth of the wind (and oh what a wind it can be), and reaching the green in two is an accomplishment. The 18th, routed north to south, almost always plays downwind and usually calls for a short iron or wedge on the approach.

While the ninth may be the better finishing hole, the nod goes to the 468-yard 18th, if only for timely dramatics. Michelle Wie won the 2003 Women's Pub Links Championship on this hole by carding par to Virada Nirapathpongporn's bogie to win 1-up. The 18th also has the "ornate clubhouse in plain view at all times" thing going for it, not to mention a dastardly two-tiered green with "good" and "evil" pin placement options.

Alas, great golf resorts were not built on one course alone, even if it is a course with the chops of OHGC. The four respectable 18-hole layouts sprinkled around the town of Palm Coast are actually part of the Ocean Hammock Golf Resort, proper. Matanzas Woods and Pine Lakes come courtesy of Arnold Palmer and Ed Seay, Cypress Knoll was designed by Gary Player's crew, and Palm Harbor - the resort's original course - is a Bill Amick design that still holds its own with the other three.

One word of caution - the drop off in quality, conditioning and drama from OHGC to the resort's older quartet is considerable. Warm-up at one of the inland courses, get the juices flowing, and then culminate your stay with a round at OHGC. Kudos to resort officials - they recognize that OHGC and the recently opened (and unapologetically swank) 20-room Lodge at Ocean Hammock are a cut above and charge accordingly.

In fact, one of the resort's drawing cards is its sensitivity to a wide variety of price points. Golfers can max out the credit card with a stay and play package featuring the Lodge and the OHGC, or they can stay in budget with a guest room at the resort hotel and a couple of rounds on the more experienced courses. Guy-golf-gorges are also accommodated via the "Villas," which feature two and three bedrooms, full kitchens, washer/dryer and patios overlooking the Intracoastal Waterway.

Fast facts

Ocean Hammock Golf Club hosted the Women's 2003 Pub Links Championship, won by Michelle Wie.

Shane SharpShane Sharp, Contributor

Shane Sharp is vice president of Buffalo Communications, a golf and lifestyle media agency. He was a writer, senior writer and managing editor of TravelGolf.com from 1997 to 2003.

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