Florida's best 18 holes that you can play

By Derek Duncan, Contributor

There are those that will tell you that the business of ranking golf courses -- or in this case, golf holes -- is a fool's errand. But when have we at TravelGolf.com ever shied away from foolishness?

Indeed, as if the task of ranking golf holes isn't itself foolish enough (or at least daunting), ranking golf holes in Florida, with something in the neighborhood of 1,200 golf courses (that's more than 20,000 golf holes), rates as positively crazy.

Nevertheless, after canvassing the state for the better part of four years I've found it's time to put some things into perspective, namely the best 18 holes that you can play, remaining faithful to the hole numbers (best first hole, best second hole, etc.).

The selection criteria isn't complicated -- my idea was to list the holes available for public play that I felt were either the most memorable, the most strategically rewarding, or the most notable due to difficulty or uniqueness, and hopefully combinations of all the above. I've also disregarded par (hypothetically the list could have been comprised entirely of par-3s if they were the best in their number slot) while striving to be completely objective. If some courses have multiple representations it's because, simply, they deserve it (although I've tried not to list every hole at TPC Sawgrass). Basically, these are the highlights of Florida golf, the holes that the traveling golfer should most want to see personally when in the area.

In compiling this list, certain interesting factors came to light. For instance, Florida possesses an insane number of good to great 15th holes (see below), and an equally unexpected number of outstanding par-3 eighths. Conversely, there were relatively few outstanding second or fifth holes.

My notes also reveal that more notable holes occur on courses' second nines rather than on first nines. Lastly, the ranking is seriously top heavy -- that is, almost every hole listed is located in Central Florida or north. The reason seems to be two-fold: private courses make up the bulk of noteworthy courses in South Florida, while the topography is less diverse (read: flat) than in the northern regions.

Without further ado, here are the Best 18 Holes in Florida That You Can Play (all yardages are from the championship markers unless otherwise stated).

1. Victoria Hills, par-4, 429 yards -- Good and stylish first holes are plentiful in the Sunshine State, but none makes a more powerful impression than the opener at Victoria Hills in Deland (30 miles northeast of Orlando). As is true throughout Victoria Hills, it's the bunkering that makes this hole remarkable. Architect Ron Garl stripped away copious amounts of earth to create a gaping sand wipeout that must be carried to reach a swaying fairway, leaving a long approach to an elevated, crowned green.

Honorable Mention: El Diablo's sexy first in Citrus Springs.

2. Long Point, par-4, 424 yards -- The second at Long Point, a membership course designed by Tom Fazio but available to guests of Amelia Island Plantation, is an evocative hole that skirts the broad, wistful savannahs of the Intracoastal Waterway. The fairway is excessively wide and irregular, but from certain areas the low-level green - abutting the Intracoastal on the left - is virtually invisible. Wind is typically a factor at this strong, scenic hole.

Honorable Mention: Camp Creek's sinewy second outside Destin; the 625-yard par-5 at The Golf Club of North Hampton.

3. ChampionsGate International Course, par-5, 576 yards - It begins with a deliberated tee shot - which part of the wetland area to drive across? The aggressive posturing continues as players decide where and how far to position their second shots as they plow between two rows of scrub-covered dunes while avoiding numerous banked bunkers. The green is slightly elevated and protected by four small bunkers and fairway apron, naked of mounding, angled, and surprisingly difficult to hold.

Honorable Mention: Jack Nicklaus's textbook fade-draw par-4 at Grande Haven in Palm Coast; Southern Dunes' mammoth par-3 in Haines City; Crandon Park's lovely par-3 shot across the salt water on Key Biscayne.

4. Pine Barrens at World Woods Golf Club, par-5, 494 yards - The fourth at Pine Barrens would be a finalist for Florida's best overall hole. This is the prototypical two and a half shot hole that long players can reach if they chose to attack the right section of fairway with a 230-yard carry across a deep, ominous sand crevice. Certainly one of Tom Fazio's best hole designs, the fourth is the highlight of one of the state's most dramatic rounds.

Honorable Mention: the chirpy little fourth at TPC Sawgrass Stadium Course.

5. Panther Lakes at Orange County National, par-4, 405 yards - Those familiar with Orange Country National may find this selection surprising - most players would single out four or five other holes at Panther Lakes as their favorite. Closer inspection reveals this to be one of the most sublimely beguiling par-4s around, beginning with a semi-blind drive to a crowned fairway, followed by a second shot to a deep, narrow green angled atypically along a water/wetland hazard to the right. From every position in the fairway the water comes nervously into play by degrees - without moving it's one of the most amorphous hazards in the state.

Honorable Mention: Pine Barrens' rough and ready par-4 fifth.

6. The New Course, par-5, 496 yards - There's really nothing quite like Nicklaus's homage to The Old Course at Grand Cypress Orlando, and the sixth hole epitomizes the mental/physical dynamic that exists throughout the course. Selecting the appropriate line through a network of seen and unseen pot bunkers littering the limitlessly wide fairway is trouble enough; seeing where the drive ends up is pure suspense. Once safely positioned, the process begins again - go for the well-fortified green or lay up (and where?).

Honorable Mention: the sandy, sweeping dogleg right par-4 at Camp Creek; Mystic Dunes' U-shaped par-5 with the two-tiered green to end all two-tiered greens.

7. The Slammer & The Squire, par-3, 178 yards - No island green, no ocean as a backdrop, just one of golf's most enduring and important hole designs: The Redan. Bobby Weed's recreation of this classic hole at World Golf Village near St. Augustine rates as one of the most conceptually accurate renditions found in modern golf. A back left pin is almost impossible to reach - just as it should be.

Honorable Mention: the double-turn 604-yard par-5 at The Raven at Sandestin Resort.

8. Ocean Hammock, par-3, 185 yards - The Atlantic Ocean does play backdrop to this breezy one-shotter near Palm Coast, but this hole would be lovable even without the exhilarating window dressing. Playing slightly uphill to a green cut against a coastal dune, shots coming up short (typically into a crosswind) end up in either one of two fronting bunkers or ten feet below the putting surface.

Honorable Mention: the par-3 eighth at TPC Sawgrass (Stadium); the postcard par-3 eighth at Rolling Oaks (World Woods); University of Florida's diabolical downhill par-3 eighth; Grand Haven's island green par-3 eighth in Palm Coast; the ledge-to-ledge par-3 eighth at Legends in Claremont; and the long par-3 eighth holes at Grand Cypress' North and South Courses conjoined at the greens.

9. Ocean Hammock, par-4, 468 yards - This long two-shot hole running north along the Atlantic Ocean could very well be the signature hole for the entire state. Though not complicated - it plays from an elevated tee to a huge fairway, then back uphill to a plateau green - the ninth is both ferocious and indomitable when the wind is up (and when isn't it?).

Honorable Mention: the three-shot ninth at TPC Sawgrass; the par-5 ninth at Ravines west of Jacksonville, primarily for it's thrilling drive across the water.

10. Southern Dunes, par-4, 471 yards - A monstrous hole by any standard, this par-4 just fits the eye as it slides naturally downhill between embankments. Big hitters can save some yards by cutting off a little at the inside left corner but the lengthy approach must locate a heavily bunkered green set down in a man-made shell.

Honorable Mention: the downhill, sharply bending par-4 at Lake Jovita near Dade City; the short, quirky, blind, drivable 10th at Diamond Players Club Claremont.

11. TPC at Sawgrass Stadium Course, par-5, 529 yards - The quintessential gambler's hole. Drives must only avoid the sprawling bunker complex on the left to leave a three-fold decision: lay up short and right of the green to set up a short, tricky pitch across the water; lay up on the opposite side of the water perpendicular to the green's left; or try to get home over the water, over the moat of sand, nothing but green. O.K. Tiger.

Honorable Mention: the firmly uphill par-4 11th at El Diablo; Diamond Player 's Club Claremont's roller coaster par-4 where the green is 70 feet below the fairway(!); the tiny, shrouded par-3 jewel at Lost Key on Perdido Key.

12. Fleming Island, par-4, 316 yards - Bobby Weed's hole wins the battle of reachable par-4's for its clear yet tasking simplicity. The choice from is to play to the left of the dominant bunker rising out of the fairway leaving a short pitch to the swervy green, or bust it to the right of the bunker, either power fading it to the green or catching the downslope on the backside of the bunker and rolling it on. In addition to such strategic engagement, the hole is delightfully presented.

Honorable Mention: the short par-4 12th at ChampionsGate International; Long Point's short par-4 12th around the marsh; the long par-3 12th (with long Intracoastal views) at Oak Marsh; the rigorous, uphill, sand-blown 12th at The Dunes near Brooksville.

13. Camp Creek, par-4, 352 yards - This Tom Fazio creation provides v isual entertainment but demands accurate play. As the hole bends right around a lake the question is, how much to bite off? Remember, no matter where the approach is played from - 150 yards or 50 yards - the high pulpit green (with false front) is one of the hardest on the course to hit and hold as it falls away to bunkers left, right, and short.

Honorable Mention: the stout, climbing par-4 13th at Southern Dunes; The Dunes precipitous par-3 13th surfing a tidal wave of sand.

14. Mystic Dunes, par-4, 496 yards - One of the largest par-4's in Florida (behind perhaps only the 508-yard second on the same course), Mystic Dunes' 14th plays third chair in one of Orlando's greatest quartet-runs of two-shot holes. Drivers must pick their Herculean line across a diagonal waste area that runs the length of the hole on the right. Long second shots play to a difficult to visualize green set amid a sea of mown grass with one solitary bunker positioned exactly where you wish it wasn't.

Honorable Mention: the photogenic but potentially disastrous par-3 14th at Burnt Pines (Sandestin Resort) playing over an inlet of Choctawatchee Bay.

15. Ocean Links at Amelia Island Plantation, par-3, 187 yards - Few moments in Florida golf rival the pulse-quickening ascent from the inland oak hammocks up to the 15th green situated in a dune saddle backed against the roiling surf of the Atlantic Ocean. Far more than simply a stunning hole, this Bobby Weed creation is monstrous when the wind is up. Enjoy the view because missing this slightly domed green is real trouble.

Honorable Mention - Where to begin? How about Pine Barrens' drivable par-4 15th with two fairway options; Ocean Hammock's brutal uphill march to the sea at its par-4 15th; El Diablo's sinister par-3 15th complete with its own version of The Devil's A**hole Bunker; Mystic Dunes short par-4 15th culminating one of Florida's most distinctive greens; and ChampionsGate International Course's heroic par-4 15th.

16. Ocean Links at Amelia Island Plantation, par-4, 430 yards - The single most gut wrenching drive in the state. The hero tees set back amid the sand-scape require a long, all or nothing carry over the beach between two dunes. If a harsh wind is blowing in from the shore, tee balls may need to be hung out over the sunning tourists. From there it's a bumpy ride into a low, sleek green, with views along the way for those in their pocket.

Honorable Mention: the Ocean Course's toothy par-3 16th over a canal at Ponte Vedra Inn; the rambling, reachable par-5 through the oaks at Southwood in Tallahassee.

17. TPC at Sawgrass Stadium Course, par-3, 132 yards - Although it's selection here might seem like a foregone conclusion since this hole is regularly nominated for world's best, there is considerable competition for the 17th slot in Florida. In the end, however, the TPC's 17th is one of golf 's true originals, and the peculiar emotional surge the hole creates exists only in a few select places in golf.

Honorable Mention: the cool par-3 17th at Grande Pines in Orlando; the University of Florida's drivable downhill par-4 17th; and the Golf Club of North Hampton's par-3 17th with its 60-yard deep green.

18. TPC at Sawgrass Stadium Course, par-4, 440 yards - Again, temptation is to select another worthy contender, but the world of golf has spoken here. It's hard to argue that the 18th at the TPC isn't the best finishing hole in the state when some consider it among the finest last holes in the country; maybe it's best to point out that while the drive is the shot most feared by the pros, it's the second shot with the water hard along left that makes amateurs (and Adam Scott) pucker.

Honorable Mention: the par-4 18th at the Valley Course on the other side of the TPC clubhouse; the snaking par-5 18th at Rolling Oaks (World Woods); and the par-5 18th along and over the Intracoastal at Oak Marsh (Amelia Island Plantation). Oh, and of course the 18th holes at Bay Hill and Doral.

Derek DuncanDerek Duncan, Contributor

Derek Duncan's writing has appeared in TravelGolf.com, FloridaGolf.com, OrlandoGolf.com, GulfCoastGolf.com, LINKS Magazine and more. He lives in Atlanta with his wife Cynthia and is a graduate of the University of Colorado with interests in wine, literary fiction, and golf course architecture.

Reader Comments / Reviews Leave a comment