Summer on the Suwannee: Life is easy and so is the golf
LIVE OAK, Fla. - They don't play much golf way down upon the Suwannee, at least in that part of north Florida just south of the Georgia state line.
This is one of the few parts of Florida left that isn't lousy with golf courses. To the south are the courses of Orlando, central Florida and the Nature Coast, to the east are Jacksonville and the First Coast and to the west is Tallahassee. Beyond that is the Panhandle and its galaxy of courses. To the north is, well, Georgia.
The builders have mostly shied away from the area, with its large, sparsely populated - some would say backwater - counties and good ol' boy ways.
Cities are few and far between, as are anything resembling culture or excitement. You come here to fish, have an iced tea on the porch, listen to the crickets and frogs, maybe watch the dogs fight in the backyard.
It probably won't be long, though, before developers cast their eyes to the area, with its low real estate prices and wide-open, mildly hilly and sandy terrain, so conducive to golf course construction. It is still Florida, after all.
Interstate 75 cuts through the east end of the Suwannee-Hamilton-Madison county triangle, and I-10 runs right through it. Already, there are signs - waterfront land is being snapped up, real estate prices are rising and a jai-lai fronton is planned for Hamilton County in an effort to lure more business and people.
So it has easy access for the tourists to go with its easy way of living. It also has one other major, natural attraction: the Suwannee River, made famous in the song by Stephen Foster, who earned a park in his name in nearby White Springs.
Starting in Georgia's Okeefenokee Swamp, the clear, spring-fed river flows 207 slow miles through north-central Florida and doesn't let up until it hits the salty Gulf of Mexico in the town of Suwannee.
In between, it occasionally rears up and floods anything and anybody in its wake. Strange, then, that none of the following courses has even a glimpse of the river, although you will criss-cross it several times by road if you play the courses below.
Chances are, though, if you're in the area for any length of time, you're here for reasons other than golf. You may be looking for lunker bass, you may be canoeing through, you may be looking for old-time music or maybe just looking for a place to stare at a river and do nothing.
"There's not too much to do around here except go down to the river," said Todd Carter, superintendent of the Suwannee River Valley Golf and Country Club.
But, if you're a golfer and you somehow find yourself trapped in the area - say an interstate chemical spill or a nuclear holocaust - you will be able to find at least 27 holes on which to temporarily quench your golf thirst.
People here are big on history - note Elmer's Genealogy, one of the bigger buildings around - so it's odd that not much is known about the history of the Suwannee Country Club in Live Oak.
"I think some farmers built it," said head pro Roger Spiwak.
Well, the old fellas did a heck of a job; the semi-private course is clearly the class of the area. It actually shows some imagination and strategy, with its rolling fairways, sloping greens, geometric-shaped bunkers, strategic mounding and other varied obstacles.
No. 1, for example, has a fairway that slopes right to left, mounds on both sides and geometric bunkers near the green.
No. 2 is a downhill, 413-yard par-4 over brush, with a blind approach shot if your tee shot doesn't carry far enough. The par-4 fourth has a 90-degree dogleg right. The fairway slopes left to right, with a big hump on the right side of the small green.
The short, par-3 fifth has oaks and marsh to the right, pines on the left and a small, sloping green protected by a large bunker.
On No. 6, a 357-yard par-4, you have to hit around or between two oaks in front of the tee box . No. 7 is a 505-yard, straightaway par -5, but the fairway drops off dramatically and features a blind landing area, with pines and oaks on both sides.
The closing hole is a 330-yard, downhill par 4. Hit too far and trees come into play. The elevated green, which slopes back to front, is a right angle to the fairway.
"This is about the only course I play around here," said Bobby Hiethaus, a 10-handicapper. "I don't even fool with the other ones."
The Madison Country Club's main attraction is Pat Thompson, the friendly general manager and superintendent whose wife runs the pro shop. Built in 1953, the course offers a moderate challenge. Again - architect unknown.
"No big-time designer," Thompson said. "It's an old throwback, I reckon, to older-style golf courses. It's not like a more modern course, where you've got a lot of mounding, bunkers and sand traps. There's a few elevation changes, but it's not like you have a lot of carries over trouble, as far as water or big fairway bunkers."
The club has 160 members, but rounds vary drastically according to the season.
"Just like other courses around here, when football and hunting season starts, we're in trouble," Thompson said.
Still, it's a scenic course, with alligators, deer and turkey routinely spotted.
The 191-yard, par-3 eighth features a carry over a swamp, and there is water along the right and in front of the green on No. 2.
"The par-3s are difficult here," Thompson said. "I can stretch them out to 200 yards."
There are a number of short par-4s, easily reachable in two, which is typical of the short, 6,141-yard layout.
The Suwanee River Valley Golf and Country Club's main advantage is that it sits in Hamilton County, which sells the hard liquor as opposed to the surrounding "dry" counties, which only sell beer, and not even that on Sundays.
Right down the road is the Spirit of the Suwannnee music park, where you can hear country music, rent a canoe or a horse and camp to your heart's content.
The public course itself has seen better days. Designed by Joe Lee in the early 1960s, the club has an empty, dilapidated swimming pool, and the owners have struggled to maintain it.
"I guess it was a thriving and happening place at one time in Jasper," said Carl St. Marie, one of the two brothers who bought the course in 1986 from Oxidental.
Carl and brother Claude have made recent attempts to upgrade the course.
"It holds its own," Carl said. "We haven't put too much into it, but now we have Todd (Carter) up there, a full-time employee, it's probably in the best shape it's ever been in. We used to just send somebody up there a couple times a week to take a look at it."
This is a good course to tune up before you face the Live Oak course. It's short, open and throws few obstacles or strategy at you. In short, it's easy.
The new owners did install new cart paths and put a roof on the clubhouse. Built for expansion, St. Marie said they may some day make it an 18-hole course.
"I've got plans made for expansion many years back," Claude said. "With Hamilton County growing, we're thinking about doing something."
The Suwannee River offers all kinds of water sports, from fishing, snorkeling, tubing and canoeing to cave diving - the region has some of the clearest, fresh-water springs in the state.
There is also the Suwannee River Canoe Trail and the Florida Folk Festival at White Springs, which can attract national caliber folk singers.
But venture away from the river, and it's mostly hunting, attending the local high school football games or hanging out in convenience store parking lots.
The Dixie Grill in Live Oak is where you will get the best, down-home cooking at good prices, along with waitresses who will call you "honey." As everywhere in the South, you can always find good barbecue joints, like Ken' s in Live Oak.
Stay and Play
There aren't many interesting hotels or motels in the area, just your usual interstate layups. However, there are several bed and breakfasts in nearby Monticello, about 15 miles from Madison on U.S. 90.
Also, try Bonnie's Bed and Breakfast on the Suwannee or White Springs B&B.
July 11, 2004