With its scenic coastline and sunny climate, Northeast Florida has attracted attention since 1565, when the first European settlement was established in St. Augustine. The area’s legendary past and natural beauty set the stage for what has become a premier golf vacation destination. Today, Florida’s First Coast—a five-county region starting near the Georgia border at Fernandina Beach and stretching south to St. Augustine—attracts golfers from around the globe.
“Many first-time visitors are astonished by our number of courses and diversity of playing conditions,” says David Reese, president of Florida’s First Coast of Golf, a not-for-profit organization that serves as a resource of regional golf information. “There’s an unusually high percentage of outstanding layouts and the highest number of coastal courses in Florida–39 holes border the Atlantic Ocean or Intracoastal.”
Attracting Global Attention
The First Coast’s reputation as a hub of golf activity had much to do with one man’s vision. In 1978, then PGA Tour Commissioner Deane Beman began transforming 415 acres of Florida wilderness into TPC Sawgrass, home of The Players Championship Tournament. Broadcast annually since 1982, The Players ushered the First Coast onto the international golf scene. TPC Sawgrass is also headquarters for the PGA Tour and the birthplace of the Tournament Players Club Network. Designed with respect for the environment, Sawgrass blends beautifully into the Ponte Vedra Beach community. Sawgrass is also home to The Players Stadium Course, one of the most renowned and challenging courses on the PGA Tour. The infamous par-3, 17th hole has been the tipping point for success or defeat for many golf professionals.
It Takes a Village
Just south of Ponte Vedra is another golf destination that sets the region apart. The only venue of its kind in the world, the Hall of Fame at World Golf Village in St. Augustine lives up to its name. According to Senior Vice President and COO Jack Peter, “The Hall of Fame was a collaboration between international golf organizations to preserve the history of the sport and to tell the stories of golf legends.” One of the Hall’s most popular stops is the soaring trophy room with its displays of championship cups. Professional golfers are accepted into the Hall through an internationally broadcast induction ceremony. The next induction is May 4, 2015.
World Golf Village features 36 holes of championship golf between two courses. The Slammer and the Squire can be played from different lengths, making it worthy of expert players yet playable for novices. The second course, The King and Bear, is the only one in Florida designed by Nicklaus and Palmer. The Village is also home to the newly renovated PGA Tour Golf Academy, which provides golfers with the latest teaching technology.
A Course for Every Player
Northeast Florida’s impressive number of challenging and scenic courses keeps golfers returning, year after year. Golfers can play by the ocean and Intracoastal, beside rivers and creeks and nestled among woodlands. Some courses have rolling hills and bluffs not generally found in Florida. And unlike much of the state, some courses are set away from houses. (St. Augustine’s Palencia Club is one example.) The Stadium Course at Sawgrass is unique because it’s an internationally recognized tournament course that’s also open to the public. Another well-known Sawgrass destination is Dye’s Valley, which hosted the 2013 Web.com Tour.
While Sawgrass and World Golf Village attract ample attention, golfers shouldn’t overlook lesser-known gems, such as Ocean Links at Amelia Island Plantation and the Conservatory Course at Hammock Beach Resort in Palm Coast. A Tom Watson design, this course has dramatic elevations, 76 acres of lakes, water features and 143 bunkers. The private course offers playing privileges for resort guests as well as non-property owner memberships.
Like most aspects of American life, golf was affected by the economic downturn. First Coast courses adapted, offering a greater variety of golf-vacation incentives and family-friendly golf packages. Another lifestyle trend—lack of time—is also influencing golf. According to Jack Peter, “You’ll see shorter clinics as opposed to five-day schools.” The time crunch is changing tee times, too. “The trend around the U.S. is toward shorter booking windows and online booking. We’re doing everything we can to ensure that our guests have a seamless process,” Peter says. Streamlining the process helps golfers fit more fun into their visit. “When people arrive, they want to do everything,” Peter says. On the First Coast, that means visiting the beach, sightseeing, shopping and, of course, golfing. As Richard Goldman, executive director of St. Augustine, Ponte Vedra & The Beaches Visitors & Convention Bureau, comments, “Many of the courses in our area are on every golfer’s ‘bucket list.'”