Florida Takes a Dip in Golf Magazine's "Top Places You Can Play" 2002 List

By Derek Duncan, Contributor

ORLANDO, FL - When Golf Magazine issued its 2002 "Top 100 You Can Play" list last month it came as little surprise that Florida, a state with over 1,100 golf courses, was better represented than most.

The Sunshine State weighed in with six courses in the top 100, tied for fifth most with Michigan behind only Arizona (10 courses), California (10), and Hawaii (8).

The real news for the state, however, isn't who made the list but who didn't.

For the first time since 1996, the debut year of the "Top 100 You Can Play" list, four stalwart Florida golf courses failed to make the grade while only one newcomer, Ocean Hammock, was added.

Westin Innisbrook's Copperhead Course, once rated as high as the 43rd course on the list (in 1996; 85th in 2000), Sawgrass Country Club's East-West Course (68th in 1996; 96th in 200), and Grand Cypress Resort's New Course (73rd in 1998; 88th in 2002) all fell from the graces of Golf Magazine raters.

Most shocking of all was the utter freefall of Emerald Dunes in West Palm Beach, a Tom Fazio design long considered the premier public course in South Florida, from 39th on the list just two years ago to completely off 2002.

If the list can be viewed as a barometer of public access golf across the country, it may be an indication that Florida's stock as a golf capital might be waning. At the very least, the competition has stepped up.

In 1996 Florida claimed 10 courses among the top 100 (including PGA National, off the list since 1998), second only to California's 13. That year, California and Florida comprised 23 percent of the list, while in 2002 the two states make up only 16 percent. In six years, Florida has seen its rankings decline as the distribution of courses on the list has become more evenly spread among all 50 states.

Of the six courses that did make the 2002 survey, five are four-time veterans, beginning with the state's traditionally highest rated course, the TPC at Sawgrass Stadium Course in Ponte Vedra Beach.

This year the Stadium Course checks in at number 5, its highest position to date. Twenty years after it revolutionized television and spectator golf, the Stadium Course has still got it, abusing players from all over the world and remaining arguably the biggest draw in Florida golf. The PLAYERS CHAMPIONSHIP undoubtedly keeps it fresh in the public's mind, and the more that golf course architecture moves away from the Stadium Course model, the more genius Pete Dye's voodoo seems. The course will always possess enough twists and turns and terror to keep players aching to test themselves against it.

Another perennial Top 10 heavyweight is the Pine Barrens course at World Woods Golf Club near Brooksville. This year it comes in at number 10, a slot it never moves very far from (10th in 1996; 11th in 1998; and 9th in 2000).

Tom Fazio unearthed Pine Barrens from the rugged, naturally sandy forests of West Florida to create what many consider his finest work next to Shadow Creek (7th). Much of Pine Barren's appeal stems from its utterly isolated, golf only profile, but its spiraling routing and massive, tumultuous sand caverns are sure to leave players absolutely dizzy. Two of the best strategic holes in the country are at Pine Barrens, the monumental par 5 4th with distinct (and frightening) driving options, and the short, drivable par 4 15th over a quarry.

The irony regarding its position on the list is that, if you ask those who have played at World Woods, roughly half or more will tell you that they actually prefer the more docile sister course, Rolling Oaks, to the more dramatic Pine Barrens. This year Rolling Oaks comes in at number 46, up from 56 in 2000 after peaking at 33 in both 1996 and 1998.

Where Pine Barrens is unpredictable and aggressive, Rolling Oaks is a suave as the name suggests: a true southern course with clean edged bunkers that peaceably rolls through the site's clusters of oak groves. Together they make an ideal one-two punch, which is why World Woods has to be considered among the top public golf courses in the country.

Of course, any Florida list would seem incomplete without a mention of Bay Hill Club & Lodge, perhaps the most recognized course in the state. Like the Stadium Course, Bay Hill's placement is aided by the luxury of annual television exposure. It's always near the top of the Orlando visitor's golf agenda, and Arnold Palmer and crew continually do their best to keep the course up-to-date and challenging.

Some speculate, however, that were it not for the PGA tournament, Bay Hill would disappear from the radar screen of desirable Florida golf courses. True or not, it seems Bay Hill will merely continue its gradual slide down in the rankings, checking in at 33 this year, down from its high of 15 in 1996.

Falling down the list at a more alarming rate is The Doral Golf Resort & Spa's Blue Course. Since beginning at the lofty perch of number 20 in 1996, the Blue Monster has tumbled each year to 29, 41, and now 62.

The Blue Course has undergone considerable on again/off again renovation work in the last several years. When Ray Floyd redesigned the course in 1997, his work was immediately lambasted. Resident celebrity golf instructor Jim McLean has since ameliorated the design, but in reality it's unlikely the alterations are the cause of the course's downward trend. Doral enjoys a considerable reputation and its decline in the ranking is more the result of heightened competition than any internal problems. Nevertheless, it's entirely possible The Blue Course could be Florida's next "Top 100 You Can Play" casualty.

The bright news for the state is the appearance on the list of Ocean Hammock (70), the gorgeous Jack Nicklaus-designed course south of St. Augustine in Palm Coast. One of Palm Coast Resort's five golf courses, Ocean Hammock is not only the star of that lineup but certainly a wunderkind among all courses in the south and a soon-to-be national destination.

Set directly against the dunes of the Atlantic shore, the routing manages to bring six holes within spitting distance of the surf. Not only is Ocean Hammock possibly the most beautiful golf course in the state, but it also represents a near ideal confluence of setting and popular golf design. The combination of wide fairways and large greens, superlative conditioning and presentation, and accelerated service could very well be the model for upscale public and resort golf in the 21st century. Ocean, however, is not included.

The Courses

Sawgrass Marriott Resort
1000 PGA Tour Blvd.
Ponte Vedra Beach, FL 32082
Phone: 800-457-4653
Golf and room packages from $218 to $342

World Woods Golf Club
17590 Ponce DeLeon Blvd.
Brooksville, FL 34614
Phone: (352)796-5500
$40 to $85 per course, with 36-hole specials

Bay Hill Club & Lodge
9000 Bay Hill Boulevard
Orlando, Florida 32819
Phone: 800-523-5999

Doral Golf Resort & Spa
4400 NW 87th Ave
Miami, Florida 33178
Phone: (305)592-2000

Ocean Hammock Golf Club
The Ocean & 16th Rd.
Palm Coast, FL 32137
Tee Times: (904)447-4653
Clubhouse: (904)447-4600

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