The Golf Club at North Hampton: A Truly Ambitious Layout in Northern Florida
FERNANDINA BEACH, FL - The Golf Club at North Hampton can be rather startling if you're not expecting it. The address is Fernandina Beach (analogous to Amelia Island), but North Hampton is just a matter of miles southeast of the low-key town of Yulee, 20 minutes north of Jacksonville. The area is small town and sleepy. There is nothing in the surroundings to indicate there is something exciting here.
While not everyone might agree that North Hampton is an exciting golf course (some high handicap players will feel it's too damn intimidating to be exciting), there is little debate the course is flamboyant.
In fact, North Hampton is easily one of the most engineered golf courses in northern Florida and is a bolder expression of course design than The King & The Bear at World Golf Village in St. Augustine. The reason these two courses stand comparison is because both were constructed by Arnold Palmer Course Design (The King & The Bear in collaboration with Jack Nicklaus Design; North Hampton is an Arnold Palmer Signature Course) at roughly the same time. Though The King & The Bear has received more publicity, being billed as a challenging, championship venue on the national level, it seems almost modest next to the spectacle of North Hampton.
In certain places, particularly the second nine and the holes surrounding the neo-classical clubhouse, North Hampton displays a wild and raw appearance. Much of the dirt that was excavated during construction was pushed up to the sides of the holes to create rugged-looking dunes. This gives the course an unfinished appearance and a profile uncharacteristic for this part of the state. Those who have seen the Greg Norman International Course at ChampionsGate in Kissimmee will be familiar with this exposed feature.
More that 1 million cubic yards of soil were cut and transplanted in the construction of North Hampton, a staggering amount for such a flat site. "Shaping" doesn't begin to describe the work here; this is a lesson in earth overturn.
The Golf Club at North Hampton, which opened for play in March 2001, is owned and operated by Hampton Golf, Inc., the same owners of The Golf Club at South Hampton (an underrated Mark McCumber design near St. Augustine) and Grand Haven (Jack Nicklaus) in Palm Coast. Of the three, North Hampton is the most ambitious and should begin to garner the most attention.
By all accounts the course was destined to be a breed apart from the very beginning.
Ed Seay, Arnold Palmer's partner since 1971 and prime mover at Palmer Course Design, says, "M.G. (Orender, president of Hampton Golf, Inc,) said, ‘Give us something exciting.' We told him we were thinking about Ireland or the Scottish heathlands, and some of it even looks like the linksland and the dunesland. He liked that."
At least it looks like dunesland now. Many of the holes have simply been upheaved, churned from the earth. They were turned over, dug in or piled up, rearranged, and grassed in. What was formerly a pretty standard chunk of level North Florida land a few miles inland from the Intracoastal Waterway is now an amusement park of golf, a theatrical wash of sand, grass, pines and scrub featuring 30 to 40 feet of elevation change, large, monstrous bunkers, and savagely undulating greens.
The course can be as long (7,171 yards) or as short (5,173 yards) as it needs to be, but the real beauty of it is in the greens. Most of them are slightly crowned containing two, three, or four distinctly pinable segments, and the movement in them is such that they appear active, molten, as if they're experiencing difficulty in settling. As severe as they are, however, "They're large enough that they can handle [those] contours," Seay says
Little is typical here. Fairways are crowned, bunkers are either sugar sand or crushed coquina shell, and everywhere the liberally redistributed terrain provides a rich visual text. The elements can be quirky (the green at nine), brutish (the water-fraught 460-yard 16th), and innovative (the drive on eleven plays downhill to choice landing areas left or right of a center-cut fairway bunker, the second back uphill and left to a partially hidden green tucked between two man-made dunes). The tricky 440-yard 13th looks like it was made from every other hole's leftovers.
The overall arrangement is brisk and intelligent. When back-to-back holes hold the same par, they are set-up in varying ways to require different modes of attack. The four one-shot holes are distinct from one another, playing across wetlands and bunkers, all-carry to a peninsula green, slightly downhill and open, and downhill over water to an angled green nearly 60 yards deep and a mere fifteen paces wide (the wonderful 17th).
The quartet of par fives are also notable. These daring holes range from a monstrous 625 yards, where angles of approach are craftily used, to a splendid and potentially reachable downhill 531 yards over stream and pond, to the winding, uphill twelfth through lakes and bunkers.
The final par four, the 583-yard 15th, is expansive and engaging. Gigantic tee shots that carry the lake and bunkers off the tee and catch the downslope in the fairway will tempt a second shot over another body of water to a well-bunkered green. Traditional second shots are no bargain either as they must be played to the right around the water's edge to set up a delicate third over the field of bunkers into yet another sprawling green.
The theme at North Hampton is bold, but nothing here is revolutionary, and nothing is un-golf. The hazards aren't deadly, just numerous, and most are placed off to the sides. Only on four holes can the shot not be run up to at least part of the green. As with most Palmer courses, scoring strategy boils down to playing angles. The closer the hazards are contended, the better the angle will be for the following shot. Steering wide of hazards more often than not results in added difficulty on the next.
When speaking to Seay, the conversation turns at several points to the topic of hole repetition, such a silly notion in view of the dramatic circumstances of North Hampton. "Do you think that's [merely] a repertoire of holes out there?" he asks pointedly. "I think the strength of the game of golf is that challenge of variability. [To not] start creating over and over the same stuff. [To] make sure every hole, every tee shot (is different from the last)."
No, there is not a repetitive or indifferent feature in this design. It may possibly overwhelm some golfers or offend purists (which would be a shame), but it is not ordinary. Its strength is in the presentation, like it or hate it. But any way it's measured, there is far too much stimulation at North Hampton for it to be easily dismissed.
In fact Seay believes it to be among the best courses Palmer Course Design has built. "North Hampton. You let that grow in like it should be and we get that proper dunes look, and get all that soil amendment out of those dunes…let all that start to deteriorate and get that wind-swept, natural look by the end of this summer, I think it can hold its head with any of them."
In addition to providing rousing golf, North Hampton will continue Hampton Golf, Inc.'s movement to grow the game by offering special discounts and free clinics for newcomers and young players, as well as installing a "family" set of tees that plays 2,914 yards for the full 18 holes (these are also found at South Hampton).
"That's one thing I'd really like to see happen," General Manager Mark Tutor says, "for us to be known as the golf course that brought in all these new players to golf and helped teach them how to play. We want to be the first to grow the game. My goal is to bring in 1,000 new golfers in our first year."
The Golf Club at North Hampton is located approximately 1 mile south of Highway A1A, just east of Yulee on Hampton Drive (105A). The nearest accommodations are five miles east on A1A in Fernandina Beach on Amelia Island. There is also a hotel at the A1A/I-95 exchange.
Fees for North Hampton are $55 for Florida residents, $65 for non-residents in the off-season and are expected to go up marginally in October. Twilight fees are $39 between 2 and 4 pm, $29 after 4 pm. Call the pro shop for confirmation on fees.
North Hampton is a challenging but not an insurmountable course by foot. The greatest obstacle is in the space between green and tee, particularly holes one, two, and three. Unfortunately, only members are allowed to walk, and then only after 3pm, which is a shame.