THE LAYOUT: There are dozens of options on Florida's "Golf Coast," but for the price and experience, St. Johns is one of the best. Architect Clyde Johnston carved a magnificent 7,236-yard track out of a pine forest that winds through natural wetlands, playing to a par of 72 with a USGA rating of 74.7 and a slope of 132. However, only low-handicappers can play from the gold tees and must get permission in the pro shop. There are five other sets of tees, down to a 2,500-yard family layout, that make the course enjoyable for players of all abilities. St. Johns, considered by locals to be the equal of its higher-priced neighbors near Interstate 95, has been host to the PGA Tour qualifying school in the first round five times, the 2006 PGA Level II Qualifying School and U.S. Amateur Public Links Championship local qualifying the last several years. Before heading out onto the course, warm up on the state-of-the-art practice facility, which includes a 10,000-square-foot putting green, a double-sided driving range and several practice bunkers. GENERAL MANAGER: Dan Zimmer. LOCAL KNOWLEDGE: Even though there are 63 bunkers on the course, plus several waste areas, and water comes into play to one degree or another on 14 holes, St. Johns offers wide driving areas and spacious yet challenging green complexes. After a relatively straightforward opening hole, a 400-yard par 4 where the primary obstacles are a large oak tree and fairway bunkers on the left, Johnston challenges the golfer with a meaty 552-yard par 5. Get past the fairway bunker on the right side of this slight dogleg left and there is water along that side of the fairway all the way to a green guarded by sand and grass bunkers. After a beautiful 210-yard par 3 with water and sand to the right, the fourth hole is a tantalizing par 4 at 382 yards from the tips, but the lake on the right comes into play off the tee and on the approach. The front nine wraps up with two magnificent holes. The 565-yard eighth, rated as No. 1 on the card, plays through a corridor of trees, and even though the water is almost out of play on the left near the green, seven bunkers pockmark the trip home. Don't be fooled by the traps short of the green because the putting surface is actually 40 yards beyond. If you are ever going to hit a straight drive, No. 9 is the place, with water on the left and sand on the right. Hit the fairway and more bunkers plus mounding provide a challenge on the approach to the green, but take a peek at the magnificent view of the stately clubhouse across the water behind the hole. There is only a trace of water on the first three holes of the back nine, but the par-3 13th, which plays 194 yards from the tips, is almost completely surrounded by it. Even a breath of wind makes club selection dicey, with a single bunker protecting the front of the green. As good as the rest of the course is, St. Johns is one of those layouts that saves the best for last, starting with the 557-yard, par-5 16th, where water is reachable on both sides of the fairway from the tee. The fairway narrows so an accurate layup shot is required, and the wraparound bunker behind the green on the left is not a bad spot compared to the water beyond. The 212-yard par-3 17th is a dangerous beauty, with water and sand to the left, a steep slope and grass bunkers on the right. Make par and run to the final tee. No. 18 is considered the best finishing hole in the area, other than the famous one on Pete Dye's Stadium Course at nearby TPC Sawgrass. Right is the sensible path off the tee because the lake from No. 17 runs all the way down the left side of this hole and three bunkers sit in the middle of the fairway. That's also the best angle from which to approach the green without having to carry the water, which protects the left side. Into the wind, this hole can play two or three clubs longer. Add up your score and enjoy post-round refreshments in the Grille Room or on the back patio overlooking the ninth and 18th greens. OTHER COURSES IN THE AREA: St. Johns is located in what might be called the golf capital of the United States, because the headquarters of the four major golf tours in the country are nearby. Not only that, the World Golf Village and the World Golf Hall of Fame are only a few miles away, also in St. Augustine. Located there are two championship courses, the Slammer and the Squire (designed by Robert Weed and named for Sam Snead and Gene Sarazen), and the King and the Bear (named for Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus, who collaborated on the design). Right down the road in Ponte Vedra Beach is TPC Sawgrass, home of the PGA, Champions and Nationwide tours. On the property are Pete Dye's Valley Course and the Stadium Course, with its infamous island 17th green, site of the Players Championship this week. About an hour's drive down Interstate 95 in Daytona Beach is LPGA National, home of the LPGA Tour, with the Legends Course designed by Arthur Hills, and the Champions Course, designed by Rees Jones. Also in the area are Royal St. Augustine Golf and Country Club, St. Augustine Shores Golf Club, the Golf Club at South Hampton in St. Augustine, Ponte Vedra Golf and Country Club at Sawgrass, the Ocean Course designed by Jack Nicklaus at Hammock Dunes Resort in Palm Coast, Queens Harbor Yacht and Country Club in Jacksonville, Magnolia Point Golf and Country Club in Green Cove Springs, and Eagle Harbor Golf Club in Orange Park. WHERE TO STAY: Stay and play on the grounds of the World Golf Village at the Renaissance Resort, the Comfort Suites, Laterra Resort and Spa or the Grande Villas, which all offer golf packages for the Slammer and the Squire, and the King and the Bear. Historic St. Augustine is the oldest European settlement in the United States, first visited by Ponce de Leon in 1513, and there are numerous hotels and B&Bs in and around the city. Among the best are the Bayfront Marin House, the Casa Blanca Inn on the Bay, Casa Monica Hotel, the Bayfront Westcott House, St. George Inn, Our House Bed and Breakfast, Alexander Homestead Bed and Breakfast, the Pirate Haus Inn and the Carriage Way B&B. In Ponte Vedra Beach are the Sawgrass Marriott Resort and Beach Club, Ponte Vedra Beach Inn and Club, Augustine Inn, the Lodge and Club at Ponte Vedra Beach, the Hilton Garden Inn and the Fig Tree Inn. Golf resorts in the area include the Hammock Beach Resort in Palm Coast and Amelia Island Plantation. ON THE WEB: www.stjohnsgolf.com/index.php. THE LAST RESORT: Hawk's Landing Golf Club in Orlando, Fla. THE LAYOUT: The Hawk's Landing course, which wraps around the Orlando World Center Marriott, opened in 1985 and was designed by Joe Lee, who also created the Magnolia, Palm and Lake Buena Vista courses at Disney World. However, Hawk's Landing was reworked in 2001 by Robert Cupp II and is much different than the original course. Four sets of tees, modern architectural techniques and water on 15 of the 18 holes provide a fun and challenging round for players of all abilities. The 6,602-yard course is relatively flat and plays to a par of 71, with a USGA rating of 72.6 and a slope of 131. The greens are slick and the breaks subtle. This is one of those immaculate resort courses that make you wonder why every layout cannot be groomed like this, with aquatic vegetation, native grasses and Chinese tallow, palms, oak, pine adding to the landscape. Hawk's Landing is home to the renowned Bill Madonna Golf Academy, and you can book a lesson with Madonna, one of the most respected instructors in the nation. DIRECTOR OF GOLF: Mike Hodgins. LOCAL KNOWLEDGE: There seemingly is water everywhere at Hawk's Landing, but not to worry, because there are exceptionally long forced carries off the tee and all the hazards are considered to be lateral, so take a drop and add only one stroke. After three straight-forward holes to start, welcome to Hawk's Landing on No. 4, a 535-yard par 5 where two large water features come into play all the way to the small green -- where birdies are available if you get there in regulation because you won't have a long putt. Nothing fancy about No. 7, a par 3, except that it plays 229 yards into the prevailing breeze. Don't be fooled by the three bunkers to the left because they are 35 yards short of the green, but you can't see that from the tee. The ninth hole, a 407-yard par 4, is another one where water stares the golfer into face on every shot, although the pond in front of the tee should not come into play. But be careful on the long approach shot because there is water left and behind the green. No. 12 is 412 yards from the back, but considerably shorter from the other tees, to a tight driving area guarded by another pond and a waste bunker on the left, and out of bounds on the right. But a precise tee shot down the left side and an accurate approach can lead to a rewarding birdie. Hawk's Landing saves the best for last, a 565-yard monster that rates No. 1 on the card. After a tee shot over a large body of water, the second shot must be squeezed between bunkers on the left and a lake that begins at 125 yards out and protects the full width of a wide, shallow and undulating green. OTHER COURSES IN THE AREA: Disney offers golfers five courses, including the Magnolia and Palm, where the PGA Tour's Children's Miracle Network Classic is played in November. Also at Disney are the Lake Buena Vista, Osprey Ridge and Oak Trail courses, the latter a nine-hole walking course. Celebration Golf Course is not on Disney Resort property, but is a nearby cousin designed by Robert Trent Jones Sr. and Jr. in the town of the same name built by the Disney Corporation. Also in the neighborhood are Royal St. Cloud Golf Links, Kissimmee Bay Country Club, Mystic Dunes Golf Club and Falcon's Fire Golf Club in Kissimmee, the Crooked Cat and Panther Lake courses at Orange County National Golf Center, and 45 holes at the Grand Cypress Resort, all in Orlando. Not far are ChampionsGate Golf Club, designed by Greg Norman, just west of Orlando, and Reunion Golf Club, with courses designed by Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Tom Watson -- another new development west of Orlando on Interstate 4. WHERE TO STAY: The Orlando World Center Marriott, built on 220 lush acres of tropical landscape, is only a mile and a half from Disney World and near Orlando's other tourist attractions, including Universal Studios, Sea World and Discovery Cove. In addition to its 2,000 hotel rooms and suites, the largest Marriott in the world offers its guests fine dining, a full-service spa and fitness center, and a convention center. Guests at Disney's Grand Floridian Resort and Spa, Contemporary Resort, Wilderness Lodge, Polynesian Resort, Caribbean Resort, Beach Club Resort, Animal Kingdom Lodge, Boardwalk Inn and Yacht Club Resort receive vouchers for free cab rides to and from the Disney courses. Also nearby are the Celebration Hotel, the Wyndam Orlando Resort, the Renaissance Orlando Resort, the Omni Orlando Resort and Spa, the Grand Cypress Resort, the Grande Lakes Orlando and at Universal, the Portofino Bay Hotel, the Hard Rock Hotel and the Royal Pacific Resort. ON THE WEB: www.golfhawkslanding.com.
By The Sports Xchange October 15, 2012 11:20 AM