Matanzas Woods Golf Club: Prepare to be Impressed

By Derek Duncan, Contributor

PALM COAST, FL - The course that receives the most recognition of the four tracks owned by the Palm Coast Resort is Matanzas Woods. Between Jacksonville and Orlando Matanzas, Woods is considered one of the premier layouts. This is due in large part to the fame of its architect, Arnold Palmer. Since Palmer's name on a product (as well as his partner's, Ed Seay) is a virtual guarantee of its popularity and quality, it can rightfully be assumed that this course earns its high degree of praise.

Matanzas Woods Golf Club
Matanzas Woods Golf Club
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It does and it doesn't. Certainly Matanzas Woods is a bold, beautiful golf course with enough scenery and enjoyable shots to keep everyone happy. There are several holes that will thrill any golfer, but there are holes that are basic as well. This is the burden that an Arnold Palmer golf course bears: it is expected to amaze at every turn, and when it doesn't it leaves one wondering why. Courses with such a signature on them (likewise for Jack Nicklaus, Pete Dye, and Tom Fazio) are held to a higher standard. With a great name comes great expectation, but sometimes the purpose, even for these architects, is to design a course that is playable more than it is "amazing." Matanzas Woods falls into this category, and golfers should be thankful for such successes. Losing golf balls at the TPC at Sawgrass might be fun for a day, but everyday?

The course was not designed to enthrall and excite for eighteen holes. True, there is enough diversity in the later holes to make the round memorable, but this is a course built for accommodation. Unlike at Pine Lakes (the other Palmer/Seay design in the Resort lineup) where difficulty and defense seem to have been the intent, Matanzas Woods is more congenial. Golfers of all handicaps will enjoy playing here, and will especially appreciate the wide fairways, particularly on the outward nine. The forgiving nature of so many tee shots on the course more than makes up for the handful of shots where a carry over water is necessitated.

Palmer and Seay put together a layout here that is sharp and attractive, with nines that are significantly separate and distinctive. The course opened in 1985 and measures 6,894 yards from the back tees and 6,297 yards from the men's. The front nine is flat and sprawling, extending out to the farthest reaches of the vast property before winding back in.

The backside features holes that are tightly lines by trees, an adventurous elevation change, and holes that dangerously flirt with water hazards. Within these two differing sides there are nine superb holes (4, 11-18) and nine basic holes (the rest). The collection of par fives is as memorable and titillating as on any course in the state.

The front nine is rather innocuous. Any trouble off the tee is easily spotted, and the landing areas, though often appearing narrow, are consistently large. Everything has been done to discourage balls from missing them. A number of playing tactics can be used to negotiate these first nine holes; there is little demand for shot shaping or precision. Since the greens are open in front and large enough to catch most approaches, this is a blaster's paradise. The outward holes are as much suited for the high handicapper as they are for the free-swinging, aggressive player.

The most serious defense the front nine has is an invisible one. Several years ago these holes were lined with pines that helped block the prevailing winds. In 1998 forest fires ravaged the area and consumed most of the trees on this part of the course and nearly the entire clubhouse along with them. The result is that the nine are now wide open and play like a prairie course subject to the steady breeze. The layout wraps around fields of scorched earth that only now are beginning to sprout new vegetation.

The fourth hole is praiseworthy. From the blue tees it is a monumental par five of 579 yards. At 535 yards from the whites, it is still virtually unreachable in two as it zigzags through a theme park of trouble. A grove of pines stand on the banks of a lake to the left off the tee, blocking any attempt to slice yards off the dogleg, and a catch-all bunker gobbles up drives pushed too far right. From here the fairway snakes toward a second lake and a long lay-up shot must be placed as close to this as possible.

This sets up a mid- to short-iron third over the water to a wide, shallow, and elevated green with bunkers grabbing anything long. This is a powerful hole that implores you to follow its guidelines and rewards patience rather than risk taking.

The basic, open style of the front nine extends to the tenth hole (it is geographically part of the front nine and shares a green with the eighth). Number eleven truly begins the back, the more picturesque and challenging of the nines. Missed shots on this side are punished more than on the front nine, the water is in play more frequently, and the undulations on the greens are more severe. Everything in the round builds toward the series of holes beginning at the thirteenth, and this home stretch alone is worth the price of the round.

Holes thirteen, fourteen, and fifteen play around and over the Jefferson Davis Waterway and a hazard known figuratively as Lake Success. Thirteen is a 178-yard par three where the tee shot must be played over an inlet of the waterway to a green that cants significantly toward the water on the left. The next hole, the 554-yard fourteenth, is one of the better holes in northeast Florida.

The downhill tee shot is a fairway wood, or a driver for the bold, out to an island/peninsula fairway bordered by the waterway on the left and Lake Success on the right. A channel intersects the fairway as a far boundary for the drive, and tee shots that are not hit far enough will have to lay-up short of this again. The next shot is over the water and dramatically uphill to a point some 50 to 150 yards shy of the green, again keeping the ball out of the channel down the slope on the left and dense trees that are now crowding the right.

The large fairway bunker positioned left of the fairway is more a guide for this blind shot than a penalty. At the top of the hill the mammoth, deep, two-tiered green becomes visible, and getting the ball close to the back pin placement is the final task on this epic hole. The fourteenth at Matanzas Woods contains enough golf to compensate for any lack of excitement missed front nine.

Fifteen through seventeen are exacting holes bordered closely by trees, featuring difficult bunkering and fast, slick greens. Then it's eighteen, the last of the tremendous par fives. This finishes at 529 yards and induces temptation rather than the foreboding feeling that four and fourteen do. A well-struck tee shot will hug the tall pines on the left steering clear of the aptly monikered Lake Hope and Pray that appears to the right and accompanies the entire right side of the hole.

Once clear of the tee boxes, the rest of the hole appears, including the green waiting far ahead on a large island in the middle of the lake. Those who have not hit substantial drives will hit their seconds up the left side of the fairway, setting up a short approach over the water out to the island. Power players will want to take a shot at the green. It's a long, bold carry, but there is some room around the green once the hazard is cleared.

Palmer won his only United States Open at Cherry Hills in Denver, a course featuring a similarly styled island green on its par five17th hole. It's possible that fond memories of that hole influenced the design of this. It is a great decision hole, a chance to end the round with either flourish or flop. The attraction of this hole is undeniable, and its benevolence, really, is so positive that any ordinariness experienced on the front nine is forgiven if not forgotten by the time the 18th is played. This climax of holes is a redeeming masterstroke by Palmer and Seay.

Matanzas Woods has been a PGA Qualifying School course and is where Gary Nicklaus earned his card for the 2000 season. Expect it to be in gorgeous shape, the greens to be wonderfully groomed, and the wind to blow across the front. This course and Cypress Knoll are strong efforts, courses that can match up to almost any resort course in the state for playability and satisfaction, and are alone worth the stay at Palm Coast Resort.

Derek DuncanDerek Duncan, Contributor

Derek Duncan's writing has appeared in,,,, 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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