Plan your golf getaway

In the late autumn a golfer’s thoughts turn to…golf down south.

And so I have a few modest suggestions for those readers who are already imagining a long, cold winter without golf. Hey, even in these days of global warming we still aren’t able to play golf in Canada during the winter. I say that with all due respect to my friends in British Columbia, the Hawaii of Canada, as they like to say. Why, even they travel to Palm Springs or Arizona.

Ah, Arizona. I’d play the North course at Talking Stick Golf Club just outside Scottsdale anytime. Two-time Masters champion Ben Crenshaw designed this “minimalist” public course along with his partner in architecture Bill Coore.

Crenshaw and Coore are big fans of strategic golf, which means that they provide options for players. The fairways are wide at Talking Stick but that doesn’t mean you can hit it anywhere. One side or another is generally preferred so as to get the best angle into the area on the green where the hole is cut that day.

Meanwhile, the designers provided all sorts of humps and hollows and ridges and bumps from where a ball can bounce this way and that. This course allows for golfn the ground as well as in the air. I’ve been there only once but I’d love to get back there.

Splendid design

In fact I’d enjoy playing any Crenshaw/Coore course. These fellows met in the early 1980s when they were asked to collaborate on a project. The course never got built but Crenshaw and Coore, who was heading for a job as a university professor before he was drafted into the U.S. military in the early 1970s, found they were kindred spirits. Each had read the same classic books of golf course architecture. They enjoyed working on properties where they wouldn’t have to move much dirt. Their philosophy was simple: Listen to the land and move dirt only where necessary. At Talking Stick they moved only enough dirt on a dead-flat property to introduce contour into the property. As Crenshaw says, quoting the British writer and golfer John Low, “undulation is the soul of golf.”

“I’ve always been firmly in the natural camp,” Crenshaw says. “Talking Stick was an exercise for us in starting with nothing but dead flat land. We wanted to see if we could concentrate on strategy and try to induce optional routes.”

They did that well, in my opinion. I was fascinated with how a flat piece of property could generate such stimulating golf, and I also enjoyed the look of the ragged, big bunkers. Crenshaw and Coore appreciate the bunkering at Australian courses such as Royal Melbourne and Kingston Heath; here the bunkers truly look like what one old-time British writer called “scrapes” in the ground. They’re hazards, right? Why shouldn’t they look fierce?

Golf in Florida

What about a course or two in Florida? Well, I’d suggest the Southern Dunes club near Orlando. Steve Smyers, a superb young designer who has played in the United States Amateur, designed this course. It’s on a bold scale what with its massive bunkers that also suggest those at Royal Melbourne. There’s plenty of movement in the land and plenty of swing in the greens, because Smyers believes in what he calls “strategy through contour.” I’d put him in the Crenshaw/Coore camp of course design, for sure.

Southern Dunes is just a fun place to play golf. The facilities are very good without being ostentatious—simple but efficient clubhouse and an excellent driving range right outside the front door.

This also applies to another Florida course I enjoy playing, the Golden Bear club at Hammock Creek in Stuart. Jack Nicklaus II designed this eminently playable track, which is about 35 miles north of Palm Beach. I’ve played there frequently and always feel I get good value. One thing about the courses to which I’ve referred: it feels good to be there. These aren’t stuffy courses. They’re golfers’ golf courses where one inevitably makes a friend or two during a round.

This also applies to the World Woods Golf Club in Brooksville, Florida. Here you will find two Tom Fazio-designed courses and an astonishing practice facility, on a property all of 800 acres. The Pine Barrens course evokes feelings of the famous Pine Valley Golf Club in Clementon, New Jersey, near Philadelphia. It has huge sandy waste areas, shrubbery and tiny bunkers that swallow golf balls — in all, a rugged look. The Rolling Oak course is more of a parkland feel and is meant to evoke feelings of the Augusta National Golf Club, where the Masters is held each April. Here one finds holes that play along avenues cut in the forest.

Perfect practice facilities

World Woods also happens to have the best practice facilities I’ve seen. It boasts three fine holes — a par-5, par-4 and par-3 — good enough to be actual holes on the course. There’s also a two-acre putting green and a massive wrap-around practice range that allows the golfer to hit balls in all directions and incorporating all wind directions. I could hang out on the practice area for a month or so and never tire of the place.

“I knew this was a dream world,” Fazio told me about the time when he first saw the property. “And here I was being asked what I would do with 800 acres. There were two distinct areas that I could see would suit two different types of courses. On the elevated eastern side the property had been a forest that wasn’t logged, and it was full of big oaks, magnolias and pines. I figured we could use these trees and the setting with its elevation changes, and frame the holes with vegetation. You had the framing and vegetation and trees that would give the course an Augusta National look in a setting with sandy soil. And on the west side there was this land that had a Pine Valley or Pinehurst #2 feel.”

So there are some choices for winter golf. None of these courses will break the bank, as each one provides exceptional value in these days of inflated prices for so-called “high-end” public golf. I’d go back anytime. Heck, just writing about these fine courses makes me want to return. And I just might do that this winter.