The Golf Club at Fleming Island: Florida's First Coast Adds Another Gem

By Derek Duncan, Contributor

Hole No. 12ORANGE PARK, FL - This is an exciting period for golfers of Florida's First Coast, the name given to the northeast portion of the state stretching from the Georgia border south through Jacksonville to Daytona Beach.

A garland of spectacular new courses have opened in the last 12 months, most prominently the December 2000 debuts of The King and The Bear-a collaborative effort of Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer at World Golf Village in St. Augustine-and Ocean Hammock, a breathtaking Jack Nicklaus design on the shore of the Atlantic Ocean in Palm Coast. Add to these the opening of Palmer's Golf Club at North Hampton, the December 1999 opening of the Golf Club at South Hampton, and even late 1998's Arthur Hills' Legends Course at LPGA International in Daytona Beach, and the First Coast can persuasively claim to be the hottest golf destination in Florida.

Golf Magazine thinks so highly of the area that it ranks it the number one golf destination in the state over Central Florida/Orlando, Tampa/Sarasota, and South Florida. The same publication rates the First Coast the sixth fastest growing golf destination in the country.

Much of the draw has to do with the Ponte Vedra area-headquarters to the PGA Tour and home to some of the most renowned courses in the state, if not the country, including the Stadium Course at Sawgrass-and the aforementioned World Golf Village and the Golf Hall of Fame. These may be the keynote attractions, but the roux, the basic concentrate of the area's success, is in the magnificent plethora of complimenting daily fee golf courses.

Somewhat lost in the hoopla of these prestigious openings and golf landmarks is the recent debut of a surprisingly impressive course in its own right, The Golf Club at Fleming Island, located southwest of Jacksonville in the growing city of Orange Park.

The reason for its relative depravation of attention compared to these other "event" courses is mystifying; put Fleming Island in South Orlando, or even twenty miles west in Ponte Vedra for that matter, and critics and media would scramble over themselves in proclaiming it to be the "next best (fill in the blank) course."

Troy Albers, Director of Golf at Fleming Island, understands the difficulty of attracting attention to the course, which opened in September 2000. "It's difficult to get noticed, especially when there are so many great courses opening across the country," he says unfazed. "Somebody like Ron Whitten (Senior Editor for Golf Digest) gets calls everyday from people saying he needs to come check out this or that great course.

There just isn't enough time. Naturally he's going to go see the Tom Fazio course, or the new Pete Dye course first. That's the nature of the business. We'll get noticed, but it might take longer."

It's not as if Fleming Island's architect is a nobody. Bobby Weed, former lead designer for the PGA Tour and author of praised TPC courses such as The Canyons (site of The Las Vegas Senior Classic) and The TPC at River Highlands in Connecticut (Canon Greater Hartford Open), is responsible for this one.

As a long time resident of Ponte Vedra with local roots and designs, including among others The Slammer & The Squire at World Golf Village, to his credit, it's fair to say that nobody (with the possible exception of Mark McCumber, who also has had great design success in the Jacksonville area) knows the area and how to reflect it intrinsically in a golf course as well as Weed does.

With Fleming Island he has again captured the essence of the northeastern Florida landscape, routing the front nine through the notorious low wetlands of thick palmetto bushes and Spanish dagger, weaving it dubiously through a smattering of lakes and marshy quarters, and cutting the awesome back nine out of the thickets of thin pines and elms that grow like weeds in this part of the state.

"He seems to have a feel for what courses should be like in this part of the state," Albers says, "and that's an asset.

Not only does he know the land, but he knows the market and the type of course the clientele wants here." The client here is Landscapes Unlimited, a national golf course design firm. They did more than merely encourage Weed to make a strong, charismatic course-in this case they absolutely turned him loose. He used the latitude to fashion an impressionable and challenging 18 holes and to mold every nook of it to his inquisitive specs. At Fleming Island, golfers will find every kind of depression, hill, swale and hump, and then some.

No portion of the course is left untouched by Weed's imagination-you may not find a busier, more detailed crafting in the area (outside the Stadium Course).

Weed's other best-known First Coast design, The Slammer & The Squire, a richly contoured course in its own right, is smooth and voluptuous in comparison. Fleming Island plays like a banshee. It screams along, demanding high, accurate shots to strategically selected targets. Balls rise and drop over the fairways and greens, disappearing out of sight and back again. One can envision Weed, mad with scalpel in hand, meticulously slicing away earth and carving haphazard ridges and mounds on each hole.

This attention to the minutiae will remind many golfers of Pete Dye courses, a man with whom Weed apprenticed.

The contouring and the elevated, convex Donald Ross-like greens make for difficult shot making and odd stances. Tee shots are an interesting (or sadistic, depending on your view) challenge, featuring "bowling alley" fairway corridors. The short-grass is raised one or two feet above the rough to pitch and deflect slightly errant balls off the "lane" into the "gutters," sometimes into trees or bunkers. Fleming Island sits just west of Highway 17, set back in a yet to be completed development.

At par 71 and 6,801 yards from the championship tees (additional tees of 6,575-4,881 yards for suitable handicaps), the course is not long. The front nine is designed like a southern California TPC course - long, fast, and relatively open with steep, treacherous bunkers and several daunting water hazards. The par three eighth and the just plain mean par four ninth, seen on the drive in toward the clubhouse, would seem at home in a desert environment.

The back nine is something different indeed, a marquee nine-hole stretch not just for Fleming Island but for the entire First Coast region as well.

This is a stunning, natural nine borrowed directly from the pure forest so familiar to the area. "There aren't any homes back there," says Albers with an ominous accent on the 'back there.' "And there won't be, ever." (Actually there are a few, but they're inconspicuous).

Each hole is memorable, from the inviting tee shot at the theatrical 157-yard 10th that seems as if it could be struck from the pro shop, to the tantalizingly short go-for-broke 316-yard 12th, to the behemoth 13th, a 468-yard par four that would be unfair if it weren't so beguiling.

The nine's climax is a focused, gorgeous 540-yard par five, a tight, narrow hole set beautifully against the backdrop of trees and the neo-classical clubhouse.

Criticisms of the course pertain primarily to aspects of the front nine. In places there is a tendency to over-manipulate the environment. This is necessary to a degree as elevation and contour are not naturally found in this type of planed terrain, but the first five holes seem a bit gimmicky with it.

Lack of fairway definition and target orientation on these holes is also a concern, but this is nit picking compared to the treat of the wooded back nine, where any frustration left over from the front is quickly washed out.

What the addition of Fleming Island does is make the West Jacksonville scene intriguing enough to balance out the lure of the coastal courses.

This side of the city, with Fleming Island, Eagle Harbor, Ravines, and the Golf Club of Jacksonville (a Weed/McCumber joint design) among others, is suddenly a very attractive destination, a primary alternative to the outrageous rates of the crowded Ponte Vedra resorts or a quick getaway for those looking for tremendous golf in a low-intensity environment. As for its place among the feature attractions of the First Coast, there is no reason to think that it won't be garnering it's own accolades once the rest of the hype dies down, if not sooner.

"There are great golf courses around here," Albers says. "Having so many of them nearby is good for us because it draws golfers to the area. We're not competing against them because golfers want to play as many good courses as they can."

Those traveling to the First Coast will want to see Fleming Island, a top ten course in the region, and can do it for a fair price. Fees are $45 Monday through Thursday and $50 on the weekends. Twilight rates and other specials may also apply.

Directions: The Golf Club at Fleming Island is located just west off Highway 17 in Orange Park, approximately eight miles south of I-295.

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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