Florida's top, bottom halves differ greatly in golf, style, topography
Despite being the southernmost state in the continental U.S., if you ask most Southerners, Florida isn't really a part of the South at all.
If you spend much time in this part of the country it doesn't take long to realize there's a gentle animosity that exists between Florida and the rest of Dixie. You can travel through the northwest portion of the state and swear you're in Alabama, but to most of us, and to them, Florida conjures up images of corporate amusement parks or of palm trees, high-rise condominiums, gators, swamps, ethnic diversity, scantily clad women on beaches - basically Miami.
At the risk of grossly overstating the case, it is fair to say that while portions of Florida resemble many other parts of the South in topography and temperament, south Florida is a different country altogether.
If you're planning on taking a Florida golf trip, it might be important to keep this in mind; the two halves of the state couldn't be less alike.
This article we'll take a look at some of the major differences between north and south Florida, why they're different, and ultimately how it affects the golf.
Geography and Climate
Florida is comprised of at least five distinct zones, including northwest Florida (Tallahassee and west), north or northeast Florida, Central Florida (a coast-to-coast swath thirty miles north of Orlando to about 50 miles south), south Florida (with could also be broken into the southeast and southwest), and the Keys.
For the purposes of this article we are going to consider the greater Orlando area and everything north to be north Florida, since these regions have various factors in common, and every to the south of that (where the Southern touches begin to intensify) to be south Florida.
Temperature-wise, Florida is hot not matter where you are. North or south, the ideal season to play golf is in the early spring or late fall. Northwest and north central Florida are the most humid regions but can also get quite chilly in the winter months; the farther south you travel the hotter it is year round. If you aren't within a mile or so of the beaches during the summer months, forget it - you're going be baking.
Just about everywhere you can play golf year round, but the south has more preferable days overall.
Speaking of beaches, for a state that borders ocean on roughly three-fourths of its perimeter, Florida hardly has a bad one.
The beaches in the northwest, from Panama City Beach to Pensacola, are some of the loveliest in the country consisting of white, fluffy sugar sand offset by the emerald Gulf of Mexico. Those from Naples up through Tampa are slightly more grainy, narrow and calm - at certain times of year the Gulf laps the shores like a lake. Of course the beaches in the Southwest are energetic, enormous and hot - think South Beach.
The author's favorite beach, however, is the area 10 miles south of St. Augustine near Crescent Beach. The sand there is amazingly powdery but firm, with no trace of pebbles as they rise into dunes. The beaches are wide and relatively quiet and the dramatic roll of the Atlantic Ocean is mesmerizing.
Winner: Tie - they're beaches, how can you go wrong?
There are two major influencing factors on golf in the Sunshine state: topography and economics.
To comment in detail here on the relative economies would be inadequate, other than to note they are largely driven by different engines: both certainly depend on tourism, but other variables such as the wealth of south Florida, the rural nature of north Florida, retired vs. working demographics, population, agriculture vs. professional careers, etc., all dictate the types of golf in each region. More on that later.
Topography is less complicated. To put it succinctly, it's interesting and varied in the north and miserably flat and wet in the south.
While much of the state possesses a water table just a handful of feet below the surface (complicating drainage, irrigation, construction, etc.), there are numerous places in Central Florida with unexpected elevations, rolling hills, and deep sandy soil. The advantageous topography beginning west of Orlando and running northwest toward Tampa and north into the Ocala region has only begun to be discovered in golf terms.
Couple the better soil with pine forests and hardwood forests (running up the west coast of the state into Tallahassee), the central region's open spaces, citrus groves and elevation changes, and north Florida is much more diverse than its southern competition. What does south Florida have, other than wetlands, cypress groves, and tomato farms? A distinct and intriguing sand ridge area near Jupiter on which are built some of the state's best private courses.
Florida features golf resorts at every turn. The largest and most popular in the north half are Sandestin outside Destin, Amelia Island Plantation, Marriott Sawgrass Resort, Innisbrook near Tampa, and Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando. Most of these are sprawling campus style resorts geared toward families with numerous golf options.
If Doral were in the north instead of Miami it would fit right in with these. Most of south Florida's complexes, however, are slightly more posh, catering to a more discerning, possibly older clientele, including The Breakers, The Boca Raton Resort, and The Ritz-Carlton Key Biscayne on the Gold Coast. Others are more golf-centrist, like PGA Village in Port St. Lucie and PGA National in Palm Beach Gardens. Combining the best of both worlds are The Ritz-Carlton and The Ritz-Carlton Golf Resort (adjacent to Tiburon Golf Club) in Naples.
Several new golf resorts have recently burst onto the scene, combining outstanding golf and luxury accommodations: WaterColor Inn in Seagrove (near Destin), Ocean Hammock in Palm Coast, ChampionsGate in Orlando with its new Omni Hotel, and The Ritz-Carlton at Grande Lakes in Orlando. It is these newest additions that tip the scales slightly.
Public and Semi-Private Golf
This too is a no-brain category. Because south Florida is so thoroughly dominated by private and exclusive residential courses, there is a relative dearth of exciting public golf, especially considering the population. After Emerald Dunes in West Palm Beach there are few courses that would stand out in the north.
Conversely, Orlando is one of the great public golf areas in American, for both diversity and affordability (see: Victoria Hills, Southern Dunes, Mystic Dunes). The collection of outstanding courses near Brooksville and Citrus Springs an hour north of Tampa (World Woods, Dunes Golf Club, El Diablo Golf & Country Club), a strong showing from Jacksonville and its outlying areas (Ocean Hammock, Fleming Island, The Golf Club at North Hampton), and most of the broad Emerald Coast area (in particular Camp Creek) gives north Florida a resounding victory.
Private Golf Courses
As convincing a victory as is the north's for public courses, the south pulls off a similar rout for private courses.
In north Florida there are solid, if far-flung, private choices: Timuquana in Jacksonville, Old Memorial in Tampa, Black Diamond near Lecanto, Mountain Lake in Lake Wales, Lake Nona and Islesworth near Orlando.
In south Florida you can hardly back your car out without bumping the gates of an exclusive club. Start with Seminole and work your way back from there: Pine Tree, Boca Rio, The Medalist, RedStick, The Bear's Club, Jupiter Hills, John's Island West, Indian Creek, Loblolly Pines, Old Marsh, etc, in the southwest. Then hit the new breed across Alligator Alley around Naples: Calusa Pines, Collier's Reserve, Golf Club of the Everglades, Old Naples, Naples National, and the courses at Bonita Bay.
How you decide which region to play golf in depends on what you're looking for. There's no doubt that Florida has enough different golf and styles and atmospheres to satisfy almost every taste. We'll leave it up to readers to determine the overall victor between the North and the South.
November 3, 2004