The Ravines Golf and Country Club: You May forget you are in Florida
MIDDLEBURG - There are those who say that a golf course is only as good as the land that it's built on, and unless you're Jack Nicklaus or Pete Dye (who have never met a bulldozer they didn't like), you might agree. Certainly some ground is more completely endowed than other. The real estate on which Ravines Golf and Country Club is situated is quite rich, definitely a "have" amongst Florida golf landscapes, but this information is nothing new.
Ravines has consistently been ranked among the top twenty courses in Florida since it opened in 1979. Mark McCumber, who designed the course, must have had to pinch himself when he walked the land for the first time, a veritable kid in a candy shop deciding how to situate eighteen holes though the woody, hilly, and yes, ravined territory. How could a designer go wrong?
One problem with having such an intriguing chunk of earth upon which to route a golf course is that you might not take advantage of it all. After all, it's not the size, er, topography of the land, but how you use it. McCumber chose to route the course over the wide, deep ravines in certain places creating dramatic and often difficult golf holes. This is where Ravines has staked its reputation, and why golfers travel from south Florida and elsewhere to play here, because this isn't Florida.
The layout at Ravines takes the golfer on a ride, mounding over gentle hills, through dense stands of trees, near Black Creek and over small streams, and right up to the brink of the trademark deep ravines. This can be very exciting if you are accustomed to prototypical state sanctioned golf on flat, wide courses with too much sand and water. For the difference alone, it is worth the visit.
Ravines can stretch out to 6,733 yards from the championship tees, but for a more moderate challenge you can play at 6,214 or 5,779 yards (4,817 yards from the forward tees). There are four holes here that require significant carry shots, three over deep ravines and one over the river. These are the holes the course stakes its reputation on and that garner the most attention. Tom Doak, a golf course architect and writer, said that the ravines could have been better used as diagonal hazards rather than forced carries, providing golfers with an option rather than pure intimidation. I agree.
For my money only one of these holes is worth the effect, the second. This is a 330-yard dogleg left par four where your drive must carry 180-yards over the foliaged ravine. If well struck you'll have a short shot into a deep green. With the carry and trouble all along the left side, this hole measures accuracy and placement, not just nerves.
The fourth hole is an unyielding penal hole. I've never enjoyed forced carries to greens on par four holes because it denies alternate ways to play the hole and tests your tee shot more than the approach. Standing on this tee I knew that the ravine crossed the fairway but did not know how far out it was and could only see a portion of the fairway out to about two hundred yards. To be safe I hit a tentative three-wood and squirreled it down the left side.
When I arrived at my ball I saw that the ravine was far enough away that I could have let it rip, but instead had a downhill, side hill lie from the rough. My tee shot was not great, but it wasn't terrible either, and now I had to either wedge out short of the ravine to 125-yards and make a two from there to save par, or go for the green 160 yards away and all carry from this poor lie. Naturally I gunned it, came up short, and made double bogey.
My lamentation is that this is not a risk/reward type of hole-there isn't an option. There is high risk and no reward-two good shots only gets you on in regulation. That said, the fourth is one of the signature holes and its challenge is a reason why golfers travel to play Ravines.
Nine is like an amusement park ride. From the back tees this is the most dramatic and intimidating tee shot on the course. All you see in front of you is Black Creek and a narrow gap through the trees 220 yards away through which you must hit your drive. From there your ball disappears as it rolls down a severe slope in the fairway (hopefully) and comes to rest either on a tier which will act as a launching pad for your second shot on this par five, or it will roll all the way to the bottom of the hill. If you're not on the cart path that crosses the center of the fairway you can have a go at the green situated at the top of the next hill in front of the clubhouse, a la the eighteenth at Riviera. Beware water on the left.
The eighteenth is the last of the four "carry holes," a 415-yard par 4 with a little of everything to it. The tee shot is a carry over a ravine to a blind landing area. If the ball is advanced far enough you'll get a look at the green across another massive gully. Anything short of the green will roll back to the bottom of the ravine, where, unlike on the other holes, you can still play it. But don't be down there. Don't be left either. Trouble abounds everywhere.
This is not to say that these holes aren't fun to play, but there are other equally exciting holes here that use the land more conventionally. Ten and eleven are two marvelous par fours, narrow, dogleg rights from elevated tees. No trickery here, just two tight holes that demand precision and well-struck shots. Seventeen is a fine golf hole, a par 4 of 366-yards. The tee area is situated on a peninsula over a pond, and from here you will drive the ball to a generous, well defined landing area. The second shot is slightly up hill to partially hidden green, so check pin placement carefully.
Three of the four par fives have uphill second shots and are pinched considerably by trees near the green, demanding accuracy from long hitters. Three par threes play downhill and thus shorter than the yardage on the card indicates, so be wise in your club selection. In general, the greens at Ravines are large and undulating, and were very slow to putt on when I was there.
The front nine is definitely parkland golf, hilly and tree-lined, and controlled despite the threat of the ravine holes. An exercise route borders the cart path, and though there were no fitness buffs using it at the time, it did beg the question, "Does one get relief from the chin-up bars?" The backside has a more "mountainous" feel, a wildness and picturesque quality that I enjoyed more. The home nine seemed to roll with the terrain more naturally and comfortably, and was the better conditioned of the two nines.
Don't expect to walk this course. A cart is necessary to play Ravines, not only to traverse the layout, but also so you can drive ahead and scout the landing areas on the numerous blind shots. There is usually a gracious landing area on these holes, but it helps if you drive up and take a look before you swing. I was told that guests who stay at Ravines usually play the course several times during their stay. I too would like to play it again now that I have seen the course and have an understanding of where to drive the ball.
My primary concern with this course is its conditioning. Apparently when I played in mid-March the greens were transitioning from winter to summer. On many holes they were virtually void of grass, and to make matters more confounding, at least three pin placements were situated on the most barren part of the green, making holing any putt nearly impossible. I was told that this is normal and in a few months the greens will fill out. Hopefully this is true. The fairways were generally soft and in fine condition, but the rough, the tee boxes, and particularly the areas around the green were alarmingly sparse. I'm not sure what to attribute this to. Missing a green by a few yards sometimes meant chipping or pitching from dirt or hardpan.
When it comes to course condition, compared to other courses in Florida's top 50, Ravines falls a bit short. Ravines is a complete golf and lodging facility. A 17-unit inn makes this a unique getaway for a golf retreat. Weekend overnight packages are $99 per person per night, and this includes 18 holes, breakfast, and drinks (two night minimum). The weekday package is $79. With full practice facilities including a par 3 course and an 18 hole natural grass putting course called "The Himalayas" there is plenty of golfing to explore. Ravines offers full banquet capabilities, and the clubhouse, restaurant, and staff are also first rate, amongst the best I've encountered in Florida so far.
Golfing green fees are subject to seasonal change, but expect rates to be at or near the following: Monday through Thursday until 11 a.m. is $48 (cart included), 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. is $32, and 1 p.m. on is $28. The weekend rates are $58, $38, and $32 respectively for the same time brackets.
Ravines doesn't lack for excitement and drama. There are shots and holes here that cannot be found or replicated on 1,000 other Florida golf courses. Certain holes will seriously challenge you and make your heart beat a little faster, and stick in your memory when you're through. This is definitely a unique and natural golf course with a little bit of the wild in it, and worth the visit to Middleburg especially if you are going to make a weekend out of it.
Middleburg is approximately 40 minutes southeast of Jacksonville on state road 21. For banquet information at Ravines Inn and Golf Club call 904.282.0028, or visit their website: www.theravinesclubandlodge.com
April 24, 2000