Ocean Hammock Golf Club: Nicklaus Brings the Atlantic into View

By Derek Duncan, Contributor

Palm Coast, FL - Golfers are drawn to courses built on the edge of things. Many of the world's most revered layouts are found at the ends of continents, on the edges of seas and oceans, or border lakes, cliffs, or quarries. The most stunning of all courses are those on the edges of cliffs on the edges of oceans. We find these courses inspirational and moving.

Ocean Hammock, just north of Palm Coast, Florida, is the newest member to the planet's elite "golf courses on oceans" club. Though not situated on cliffs (there really aren't any cliffs in Florida), the course sneaks up as close to the Atlantic as is physically and legally possible. It is also the most recent addition, the pièce de résistance, to the Palm Coast Resort's eclectic line-up of golf courses.

What players will notice immediately as they approach Ocean Hammock is that they can hear the ocean, they can sense it, but can't see it. A strip of dunes grown thick with native shrubbery and course grasses rises higher here than it does along much of the Atlantic coast and blocks the view of the ocean from land level. You could throw (or lob wedge) a golf ball over the dunes and hit the ocean, but it's nearly impossible to get yourself up and over them without a machete.

Ocean Hammock is a Jack Nicklaus Signature course and offers further proof that Nicklaus gets some of the best property in the world to work with. Though certainly excited about the opportunity to build a course in such an inspiring setting (almost every golf course architect dreams about designing seaside), the "view problem" persisted: though the ocean is right there, can it really be called an ocean course if the ocean can't be seen?

Nicklaus and his firm understood the importance of bringing the Atlantic into view. Ocean Hammock was to be billed, after all, as the first true oceanfront course in Florida in more than 70 years. The last time a course opened that breached the dunes without condominium interference was in 1929, and the only thing that site produced was the legendary Seminole Golf Club in North Palm Beach (with a little help from Donald Ross). And in actuality, Seminole plays below dune level, the ocean visible only from a few select places on the course.

But who could predict when another opportunity to build on this part of the Atlantic might come about? Another 70 years? To take advantage of this valued property, Team Nicklaus excavated large quantities of earth from the inland parts of the site to create lakes and transported the fill to the holes along the ocean, thereby building them up above the dunes.

The results are breathtaking. The six holes created along the dunes that offer unfettered views of the Atlantic Ocean are as inspiring as any in Florida. Only the most jaded and spoiled of golfers will not appreciate the beauty this massive land rearrangement has afforded.

Why so long between oceanfront courses, and why this property? The land here is no different than most of the Atlantic coast, which is to say it is flat and rife with dense vegetation. Jeff Yost, Assistant Manager at Ocean Hammock, says real estate has much to do with it.

The property, developed and managed by Destination Hotels & Resorts, Inc., was turned over to Nicklaus before any housing was considered (yes, there will be homes on the course). Nicklaus, in effect, was given total freedom to route the course as he saw fit. "Most places along the coast will block the oceanfront sites for homes or condos," says Yost. "They can't turn down the value so they put the course inland a ways. Here, we gave Nicklaus the land and said 'Do what you want. We'll build around the course.' Not too many places are willing to sacrifice several million dollars in lots on the ocean to prioritize the golf."

"Will we make that money up from the course? We'll see."

Nicklaus and Co. created a gorgeous golf course, making the most of the land and the construction tools available. At 7,201 yards and an incredible rating and slope of 77.0/147, the course can appear to be a monster. That is, when the wind blows. "It [the rating] is one of the highest I've seen, right after Kiawa," notes Cary Coleman, 2nd Assistant Pro, speaking of Pete Dye's Ocean Course at Kiawa Island in South Carolina, a 78.0 rating and a 152 slope. (For perspective, Pine Valley's slope is 158). "This course plays similar to that in the wind." Without a ripping wind however, due to the wide fairways and monstrous greens, the course doesn't come off as overly difficult. Naturally, there are four shorter sets of tees to play from, ranging from 5,115 yards to 6,723 yards.

But like all great seaside courses, Ocean Hammock's character is directly influenced by the wind. Eleven of the eighteen holes are situated parallel to the coast in a north-south direction, with or against the prevailing winds. The stunning ninth hole, one of the most photographed on the course, with the ocean on the right, usually plays into the wind's teeth. At 468 yards and par four from the back (402 to 452 for most), with dunes crowding right, a cross bunker 240 yards on the right, and an elevated plateau green, the hole can play as a full three shotter.

Conversely, the equally long 466-yard par four 18th, running south along the dunes, plays downwind in the same conditions, and is a slightly more favorable hole with the push from behind. These north south holes can play differently as the wind changes, day-to-day or hour-to-hour.

And rest assured, the wind will blow.

Nicklaus routed Ocean Hammock in similar fashion to his noted seaside design at Cabo del Sol in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico. Rather than trying to over-involve the course with the ocean, skirting parts of many holes close to the edge but preventing any from absorbing it fully, both courses take full advantage of the coast on some holes (8, 9, 15-18 at Ocean Hammock) while forsaking it on others. Each nine loops away from the coast and the clubhouse before returning to it for the climax holes, making for a powerful reward.

The inland holes are strong, typical Nicklaus in design. They are big and well structured, offering plenty of opportunity for aggression and bold play while providing generous bailout options both in the fairways and off the fortressed greens. Stylistically these holes are similar to his 1998 Grand Haven design, ten minutes away to the south of Palm Coast.

The holes on the lower terrain of the site curl through pines and the dense, omnipresent twisty thicket scrub indigenous to these coastal regions. This creates a very different look from the coastal holes, a separate, enclosed experience. "Those [holes] play different everyday," says Golf Shop Manager Mary Anne Weber. "One day they'll play like you're in Scotland, the next they'll remind you of Bermuda."

The excavated lakes provide most of the strategy inland. Two, four, five, six, eleven, twelve, and fourteen all provide risk/reward scenarios, requiring either an all-or-nothing carry over water to a prime position or a distinct cautionary play to a wide side.

Of course it's the coastal holes that set Ocean Hammock apart from every other course in the state (and most in the world). The emergence from the lowlands to the eighth tee, and the spectacle of at last seeing the Atlantic Ocean that you've heard rumbling in the background throughout the first seven holes, is the type of feeling one has to experience to understand. Golf momentarily plays second fiddle here, although it shouldn't because the eighth, a 185-yard par three over a cavernous waste area and deep, deep, bunkers, into the ocean view, an angled, elevated green, and probably the wind, is perhaps the best hole on the course.

If it's not, then the fifteenth is. The 450-yard par four plays out of a grove of trees in the lowlands directly west. A long tee shot is needed to have a chance to reach the green, which is much more uphill than pictures reveal. Anything short of the green will roll back down the hill some forty yards into a collection fairway leaving a tricky pitch back up the hill, especially if the pin is cut to the front. If the wind is blowing in from the ocean, forget about it-two nutted woods might not even do it.

As for beauty, the fifteenth green is as good as it gets. "The green on fifteen is one of my favorite places," Yost says. "Sometimes I'll just stand there and look out to the ocean, and then I turn around and look down at this beautiful hole. It's amazing."

"When you hit your approach shot into fifteen, stop and look back," Coleman echoes. "Once you do it, you'll know what I mean." Cresting the massive hill at the fifteenth green is one of the true scenic golf highlights most will ever encounter. After all the difficulty of the hole or of the round, the payoff of the ocean and the serenity of the view are transcendent to all scores.

For these reasons, few courses in the country opened last year with as much anticipation and notoriety as Ocean Hammock. Golf Magazine just named the club its "Top Ten Places You Can Play" list for the year 2000.

Since you probably can't get on Seminole Golf Course, intensely private but widely regarded as the best course in the state and one of the top thirty in the world, Ocean Hammock is your next best bet. And the view is better. If you can't enjoy the setting and beauty of this course, you're probably incapable of enjoying golf, or you're a member of Cypress Point.

Green fees are $175, but guests of the Palm Coast Resort may be eligible for a discounted rate. Call 800 654-6538 or (904)445-3000 for Resort information.

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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