The Golf Club at South Hampton

By Derek Duncan, Contributor

The Golf Club at South HamptonST. AUGUSTINE, FL - In the ever-increasing and ever-improving golf scene of northeastern Florida there is a new name on the market that is boldly making its own statement toward originality and distinctiveness while adding to the overall quality of golf in the area. The course is The Golf Club at South Hampton, an 18-hole design that opened for play in December of 1999.

The Golf Club at South Hampton is owned and operated by Hampton Golf Inc, the same company that also owns Grand Haven Golf Club in Palm Coast, a course designed by Jack Nicklaus.

With a third course, North Hampton, in the works north of Jacksonville and designed by Arnold Palmer, the Hampton Group is working toward its goal of becoming the leading name in golf from south Georgia through north Florida, the I-95 corridor.

The course, located just northwest of St. Augustine and ten miles south of Jacksonville off I-95 (virtually across the street from CimarrĂ³ne Golf Club), is designed by Mark McCumber. McCumber has made as much a name for himself as an architect as he did as a tour player. His designs are found throughout the region, including Ravines, Queen's Harbor, and a co-design at the Golf Club of Jacksonville. This design, however, might be his strongest to date.

Chris Rocha, the Head Golf Professional at South Hampton agrees. "I think it is his best work," Rocha says. "His use of contours, the way he uses the land here, is what really stands out. He's done some spectacular bunkering."

McCumber had a great site to work with. Many regional courses boast that their site is "unique" to Florida, which really only means that the earth is not completely flat. At South Hampton there is actual undulation in the terrain and the design incorporates the movement magnificently. In fact, the slope and contour here is the golf course's trademark, its beautifully recurring motif.

Rocha is correct in drawing attention to the bunkers. Heavy, dramatic bunkering is nothing new to Florida golf courses, but the true skill of sculpting and shaping sand traps has become something of a lost art. McCumber has done an admirable job of not only positioning traps strategically and in massive numbers, but also of crafting them so they are visually stunning, conducive to the shape and style of the hole.

"Most of the fairway bunkers have very steep faces," Rocha says, "and if you're too close to the front [of them] you might have to play out sideways."

South Hampton is a formidable test that measures 6,952 from the championship tees, 6,479 to 6,005 yards from the men's, and 5,462 from the women's. The front nine in particular promotes a brand of picturesque, naturalistic golf that is a welcome relief from the "development" courses that are so popular in this state.

The holes on this side move sweepingly through a wooded, private area of the course offering views of ponds and streams and wide-open sky. For now, at least, there are no homes or buildings anywhere near these holes and it would be a major plus if they remained un-built. This degree of remoteness is a rare treat for Jacksonville area golf and is something that very few competing courses can offer.

The better holes incorporate and play off of the pitch-and-swale topographical movement that Rocha refers to. Though there is little change in elevation, South Hampton seems to roll; there is an activity of undulation in both the fairways and on the massive greens.

The true nature of the front is embodied in the 417-yard fifth. A large bunker defines the left side of the hitting area and the fairway rolls over an edge out of sight on the right. There is movement and sway in this fairway and an intoxicating interplay between grass, bunkers, and small, strategically placed groves of trees. The sway and ripple of the fifth makes it one of the prettier holes on the course.

Another wonderful hole is the seventh, a lengthy par three of 205-yards from the championship tees. Trouble is on the right where a swampy area, trees, and sand guard a shallow, sliding green that slants to the left toward free, less worrisome space. Mounds around the green obscure parts of the surface and add to the unbalanced visual intrigue. This is largely a long-iron shot built around trust - of yardage and direction.

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.”

The back nine is less intriguing, its thrill based more so in shot values than beauty. This part of the course is developed, lined with new homes and some streets, and though the holes are strong, it is somewhat disappointing coming off a special front side.

The strongest holes are the final three. The 374-yard 16th is a classic, strategic short par four. The hole runs diagonally away from the right to left, and the tee shot needs to negotiate a gauntlet of fairway bunkers both short and long of the landing area. Big hitters may choose to pound giant draws around the corner, but water and trees punish miss-hits on that side.

The 17th is a tremendous par five, 571 yards with two bends. This gorgeous, penultimate hole sweeps right around a lake skirting a series of large fairway bunkers, left around a tight corner bordered by forest, straight past another series of imposing bunkers on the right, and finally curls left into a massive, breaking green.

The 18th, a 410-yard par four, plays from an island-like tee box over swamp to a fairway that doglegs left and is lined to the left by more marsh. The green, perched near the clubhouse-area hub, is one of the more difficult on the course to hit. These three holes combine to form a difficult, rousing climax.

The par fives at South Hampton are superb. These four holes in particular highlight the manner in which McCumber has incorporated the natural, expansive terrain into his holes here as they sweep and bend like massive, slow moving rivers. Take the time to absorb their style.

The design and site at South Hampton already put this course among northeast Florida's elite, but it also offers a final touch that no other course can match: a set of true beginner tees that begin 60- to 200-yards out from each green.

These family tees are regulation tee boxes that set up just as the other sets of tees and give first time players the opportunity to play each hole legitimately, offering the same experience as more advanced players without the feeling of intimidation or slowing play. South Hampton has taken the initiative on this type of beginner accommodation that other courses would do well to imitate.

"The tees are strategically placed for full enjoyment and to complement pace of play," Rocha says proudly. "We really feel that with this we've helped to take ours and the PGA's commitment to growing the game to a new level."

Though young, the course is already beginning to make a name for itself on the tournament circuit. As well as playing host to the American Junior Golf Association Qualifier, hosted by three courses nationally, South Hampton has seen the North Chapter PGA Shootout come through as well as the Player's Championship Saturday Series Shootout last May, an event participated in by tour players missing the cut at the Player's Championship at the TPC at Sawgrass.

A full range of amenities are offered as well, including a double-ended driving range, the Mike Wine Golf Academy, a comprehensive short game area, and an ultra-modern full-service clubhouse that will be completed toward the end of 2001. "We feel that we compete on service with any course," Rocha says.

It's not hyperbole. The Golf Club at South Hampton has already made a significant name for itself. With exposure, anticipate that the course will etch its name in among the first rank of northeastern Florida golf courses. Rates range from $55 in October to a high of $75 in March and April. Rates for the family tees begin at $15. Please call for current rates.

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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