A Tour of Florida's Unlikely Stretch of Rough and Tumble Golf

By Derek Duncan, Contributor

Southern DunesDestination: Highway 27

LAKE COUNTY, FL - You’d never know you were in Florida.

First of all, there are hills here. Yes, you’d heard that Florida was flat, and it is. But in this vast and interesting confluence of Lake and Polk Counties, southern Marion County, and the far western regions of Orange, the land is rippled and rolling and dry. Its uncluttered exposures and prominent elevations make it prime citrus country, but lo and behold, there’s also golf in them thar hills.

The sandy soil here is ideally suited for orange and grapefruit trees because it drains well, but it’s equally advantageous as a base for traditional golf courses. It’s only been in the last decade, however, and really just in the last few years, that anyone has thought enough to exploit it.

Highlands Reserve The types of courses found here are unlike those that have forged Florida’s long lasting golf reputation. These aren’t your typically flat, water-hazard strewn, palm tree-and-big bunker courses. These are open-vista, prairie-style tracks that explore the tops and sides of the tumbling, rural landscape.

A 35-mile stretch of Highway 27 between Clermont in the north and Haines City in the south is home to a series of courses that offer some of the most adventurous and uncharacteristic golf in all the South. And the surface is only being scratched.

Orlando must expand invariably west and as it does, more topographical courses will emerge in these hills. Once word about these relatively new courses—and those yet to be built—escapes beyond the knowing few who already marvel at the region’s riches, Florida’s reputation as a one-dimensional golf state will be in serious jeopardy.

The Highway 27 stretch begins 10 miles south of the Florida Turnpike at a little course called Palisades.

Palisades
16510 Palisades Blvd.
Clermont, FL 34711
Phone: (352) 394-0085

PalisadesPalisades is located just north of Clermont and two miles west of Highway 27 in a sleepy development near Lake Minneola. The course is the oldest in our lineup, designed in 1992 by globetrotter Joe Lee. It is significant for two reasons, the first being that it represents one of Lee’s most original regional works. There are features at Palisades that none of his other numerous Central Florida courses have, particularly the microscopic greens. Secondly there is a splendid slow and rustic feel to the course (this, despite the presence of homes on and around parts of the layout) as well as some nice elevation changes that are a harbinger of what’s to be found further south.

Palisades is not a spectacular course, but it’s honest, challenging and varied. Most of all it typifies the difference between these country courses and those of the Orlando school.

Diamond Players Club Clermont
2601 Diamond Club Drive
Clermont, FL 34711
Phone: (352) 243-1729

Highlands Reserve Just south of Palisades and a few miles east of the town of Clermont on Highway 50 is Diamond Players Club, a course that might provide the most visceral golf experience in Florida. It’s not just that the course is routed on and over one of the highest points in the state, it’s how it’s routed. This is a speed course that doesn’t settle simply for elevation changes, panoramic views, and heart-pounding drop-shots (although there are plenty of these)—this course plays tilted and angled. Though it’s easy to get caught up in watching the ball hang in the air forever from the numerous elevated tees, at DPC it absolutely matters how you approach holes and play these shots—the course favors the ground-game as much as the aerial game (how many Florida courses can you say that about?).

The contours of the fairway and particularly those around the green, paired with some nice strategic bunkering and the added elevation changes, create a venue where creative shotmaking is at a premium. There are several ways to attack each hole and numerous places to get into trouble. Shots slung off the sides of hills and banks work just as well or better than high, softly struck irons. DPC rewards the intellectual player as much as the power player, and, oh yeah, did we mention those breathtaking drop-shots?

If they ever get their conditioning problems squared away this could be the next great course in Central Florida.

Legends Golf & Country Club of Clermont
1700 Legendary Blvd.
Clermont, FL 34711
Phone: (352) 243-1118

Highlands ReserveContinuing south we next come to a real sleeper, Legends Golf Club, opened in Spring 2001. Due to its high visibility on Highway 27, with its par three 15th signature hole standing guard at the entrance and seemingly on the road itself, it may not appear to fit into the “sleeper” category, but the feeling here is that the course has an uphill road to climb to make a name for itself. This isn’t right because the course is better than 75% of the public and daily-fee courses in Orlando, but such is the nature of marketing and location.

Like the other courses on this strip, Legends has plenty of elevation and wonderful views. It’s not the most inventive or demanding course on the circuit—in fact it’s utterly approachable and playable—but it is every bit as invigorating and un-Florida as the others. It’s modern, fresh, and in excellent condition. The first tee offers one of the best views of any in the region, and a number of its holes would find places on a “Best of …” list, including the difficult par three 4th over a valley and the wonderful downhill par four 5th.

Highlands Reserve
500 Highlands Reserve Boulevard
Davenport, FL 33837
Phone: (407) 629-6767
877-508-4653 toll free

Highlands ReserveArchitect Mike Dasher, who worked with Arthur Hills before hanging out his own shingle, made his debut with this 1999 design. Highlands Reserve is blessed with the same type of elevation shifts that influence the other courses along Highway 27, but makes its impression in a decidedly minimalist fashion. The course is rugged to be sure, but in a way reflective of the surrounding environment. There are homes on the course, and a wooded area, but it all seems serene and very complimentary toward nature.

Its principle obstacles are its svelte, multi-leveled greens and a style of expansive and persistent bunkering. The routing rides vigorously along the ridges and elevations and in places the scenery is simply delicious. There are no water hazards on the course and Highlands Reserve should be lauded for that if nothing else. Located just southwest of Disney’s back door, this course is one of the true unsung jewels of the area and gives us great reason to look forward to upcoming Dasher designs.

Southern Dunes
2888 Southern Dunes Blvd.
Haines City, FL
Phone: (863) 421-4653

Highlands Reserve At the southern end of this Highway 27 stretch, Southern Dunes awaits. Don’t be put off by the entry though the strip mall or the development surrounding the course; Southern Dunes is a wild ride, a course with presence, and a magnificent piece of craftsmanship.

This 1993 Steve Smyers design is the only Highway 27 course with a national reputation, and for good reason. This is serious, dynamic golf. Smyers’ talent for creative and inventive bunkering is on full display here and nearly every shot played at Southern Dunes must consider in one way or another these irregular and omnipresent hazards.

The course has the least amount of elevation change amongst the Highway 27 gang but the up-and-down is nevertheless appreciable. Like Diamond Players Club, great stress is placed on thoughtful shotmaking and the player’s ability to read the topography and layout of each hole. Southern Dunes is easily one of the most scintillating rounds of golf to be found in Florida and the highlight of Highway 27.

In addition to these five courses, there are a number of other spectacular options slightly beyond the principal Highway 27 corridor.

Five or so miles farther south of Southern Dunes and five more miles east on Road 544 is Diamondback, another Joe Lee design. Diamondback is secluded and free of any housing, and seems like an oasis amid the strange environs of this part of Polk County.

Mystic Dunes at The Palms ResortBy turning east from 27 onto Highway 192, three miles north of Highlands Reserve, two more notable courses await, The Legends Course at Orange Lake Resort, and Mystic Dunes at The Palms Resort.

The Legends is a 1998 Arnold Palmer/Ed Seay design built in a lush, preserved environment just south of Disney World. Those who say that Palmer courses are either dull or repetitive have not kept up on what he and Seay are doing these days. Legends is a vibrant, challenging and engaging course. Through there is little elevation, hole-for-hole it’s as memorable as any in southern Orlando.

Mystic Dunes is simply a special course. Gary Koch threw in every possible contour and slope he could dream up when he designed this gem. The greens and green complexes are nothing short of cosmic, and these, mixed with a variety of hole styles and minor elevation changes, make for an utterly unique course.

Orange County NationalLastly, the great Orange County National is a can’t-miss golf treat. Halfway between Orlando and the Highway 27 stretch on Country Road 545, it shares much of the same type of citrus grove/sloping land character that makes these other layouts so worthy. With its two David Harmon-designed courses, Panther Lake and Crooked Cat, and excellent practice and teaching facility, OCN is one of the two or three premier golf compounds in Central Florida.

It’s clear to this writer that the progress and future of Central Florida golf design is to the west and the south of Orlando, the farther away the better. These are some of the most relevant courses to hit the state ever.

As far as lodging is concerned, the good and bad of it is that the most comfortable places to stay are still in Orlando. It’s bad because the best hotels are a solid 30 minutes or more from Highway 27, but good in that there’s not too much metropolitan build-up around the courses. For the most part they are still raw and rural and have little in the way of a packaged resort atmosphere. There are, of course, numerous motels and overnight accommodations up and down Highway 27 that would suffice the hardcore player on the authentic golf trek.

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.


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