From Florida, With Love
A Canadian’s relationship with the southern states of the USA is entirely dependent on which side of the country they grew up on. It is not exactly rocket science; those on the west coast have easier access to the southwest desert—whether that be Palm Springs or Arizona—while those in Ontario and Québec—central Canada, some might say—head to Florida. There are those who cross the continent, but it is a further journey and the airlines make it more difficult.
And so, as a born-Western Canadian, my relationship with Florida is not like some of my co-writers who are from Ontario and Québec. My preference is Arizona. The ball flies, and the juxtaposition between the prospect of a morning frost delay before it burns off into a mid-70s day is beautiful. No humidity, better city than Tampa, Orlando, or Jacksonville (I have not yet been to Miami, so I anticipate this could change), and nostalgia is one hell of a drug.
In fact, my first time to Florida came at age 17, at least a dozen trips behind of Arizona. I had allllll the stereotypes ready to go, and Orlando certainly did not help that. In my view, Orlando feels like one of those malls where the stores are old, and you can tell it’s dated, yet it is somehow always open. It’s not the marquee mall; it’s the one you go to because they have the socks your grandfather wears, and you need to pick them up for his 85th birthday.
My first trip included Reunion’s Watson course for a tournament, certainly not what I was expecting for Florida golf as I heave up and down the sandy scrub on the back nine. I was ready for flat, life-less, alligator-infested waters on either side of the holes. It is not of the calibre of Streamsong’s Red course or World Woods Pine Barrens, both were additional golf courses on my maiden voyage to America’s basement, but it did not really feel like traditional Florida golf.
It took me six years to get back to Florida. Partly because it was a very long way from anywhere in my life until recent, and partly because I prioritized other things. My first winter trip out east, I instead opted for Pinehurst, North Carolina, to no remorse. Nevertheless, I was back in Florida in 2021 for a family holiday split between Daytona Beach for some much-needed laziness on the beach, and Orlando for the amusement park rigmarole that is expected with that wasteland city. I chose Winter Park (“the greens are much better than typical Florida”), Calusa Pines (“It is not typical Florida, it has elevation change”), all three at Streamsong (“The land is too good, you wouldn’t expect it from Florida!”), and World Woods Pine Barrens for the second time before it closed (“This isn’t typical Florida”) for my own addition to the family vacation, because I need golf and it literally consumes me at this point. At each place, it was evident the local lore was it was better than typical Florida for reason x, y, z. All justified, but I was beginning to sense a pattern.
Which brings us to (almost) present day, where I watch THE PLAYERS wrap up roughly three weeks and change from my third visit to the Sunshine State, and the one that changed it all. Sure, I enjoyed my first two visits; but I never left feeling like it was Arizona, where I truly enjoyed every minute on and off the golf course. Watching the sun set against the Mad Max: Fury Road-esque background is not the same as inland Florida, although the ocean gives it a much better battle (even if the west coast of Florida doesn’t hold a candle to the east).
The third trip was golf-heavy and golf-focussed: Cabot Citrus Farms media day to start, followed by the PGA Show and then the GCSAA show two weeks later, with golf in between. That included Winter Park again, White Oak, Seminole, Timuquana, a triple dip at PGA National with the Match, Champion, and Staple, both at TPC Sawgrass, and finally, West Palm Golf Park. PGA National’s Champion course and TPC Sawgrass’ Dye Valley course would be “traditional Florida,” the rest continued the pattern of people saying “not like Florida” for a variety of reasons.
Elevation change is an easy cop out for those who choose to go elsewhere for their golf trips. It is a decent point. There are courses where elevation change is present, but nothing like a North Carolina, for example, and it doesn’t hold a candle to the mountain courses of California or Arizona. Nonetheless, it presented a different hurdle for architects to overcome. Take Jacksonville’s golf scene, for example. Specifically, TPC Sawgrass’ Stadium course and Donald Ross’ Timuquana are both exciting, different examples of architecture that both arrive at a “Doak 7” somehow, but they are virtually dead flat. In Orlando, Winter Park is a wonderful nine hole golf course with a rather terrible routing through houses on dead flat ground, but the greens are so good that it is easy to overlook its other shortcomings. Likewise for PGA National’s The Match, which is plagued by the ghost of Fazio’s Squire, although Andy Staples overcame this to produce similar results to why Timuquana is worth a look: the greens.
Water is a reasonable complaint in the state. After all, Florida is essentially one big alligator swamp farm. But at great golf courses, they are used in a way that is rather exciting. We just watched TPC Sawgrass’ use of it. Seminole also uses it in a way that does not exactly feel inorganic to the site, especially on holes like the par 5, 15th with its split fairway divided by bunkering and trees, where water is more in play up the right and more direct route. Then again, Seminole is very obviously the best in the state; anything it does, from its Donald Ross routing skateboaridng back and forth between the sandy pipeline at the edge of the Atlantic Ocean, to the green complexes and surrounds, to the bunkering schematic, is first-rate. Weak move to argue about a state’s depth while using the #1 course, but alas.
West Palm Golf Park has had its fair share of coverage on this site even before opening, and it, too, is not a traditional Florida layout. In fact, it is almost the antithesis of such labels. There are no water hazards, and there is elevation change. Oh, and there is not a single house on the property or surrounding area. In fact, Seminole, TPC Sawgrass’ Stadium, all of Streamsong, Cabot Citrus Farms, Timuquana, Calusa Pines, do not have housing on their holes. Huh, I thought that was a precurser to Florida.
Virtually everything I’ve played in Florida, minus elements of Reunion’s Watson course, PGA National’s Champion course, parts of The Match, and TPC Sawgrass’ Dye’s Valley, are considered among the “not typical” crowd. But at some point, maybe we have to consider that Florida is, well, typical? Typical in the sense that there are good and bad golf courses, no different than other states like California and New York. There are highs and lows in Florida, with the upper echelon of courses breaking those negative stereotypes more times than not.
Florida has more golf courses than every country other than the United States, England, Canada, Japan, Australia, and Germany, yet it feels as if the state has been plagued by the reputation of the Doak 2’s, 3’s and 4’s that are readily available for those that want to retire in a golf course housing community. Further, Florida has more golf courses than all of Western Canada combined, or British Columbia, Alberta, and Québec combined (Canada’s next-three biggest golf provinces following Ontario). If we stereotype Western Canada by the worst golf courses, I imagine it would be dreadfully unattractive, yet it is Tobiano, Victoria, Wolf Creek, Banff Springs, Dakota Dunes, Elmhurst, and more who are what we associate golf in those places with.
“From Florida, With Love” is a Drake song in which he is nostalgic, recapping listening to Lil Wayne’s Tha Carter III with Kobe Bryant (seems suspect given Tha Carter III came out in 2009 and Drake was certainly not who he is now in 2009 pre-debut album), mentors along the way, and turmoil. I enjoy listening to songs that have locations attached to them (have you ever listened to “5AM in Toronto” while it is “5AM in Toronto”?), and so, “From Florida, With Love” was a song on rotation during my three weeks in the state. But the song got me thinking: perhaps Florida deserves more love, and while the title would have worked better if I had written this in Florida sending it home, the PGA TOUR’s Florida Swing can count, right?
I have been lucky to play a handful of very good golf courses in Florida, and yet, it feels like I have barely made a dent. Classics like Pine Tree, Mission Inn’s El Campeon, Mountain Lake, and Indian Creek are hanging out, rightfully bathing in the reputation as some of the more intriguing options in the state; modern golf courses like Dye Preserve, Lake Nona, and Jupiter Hills have always garnered high praise and similar labels of not being a traditional Florida layout for various reasons. In our post-modern, perhaps renaissance era, the list of exciting golf courses is growing. I count four under-construction or recently completed Gil Hanse designs, from West Palm Beach to Naples. Tom Doak is a busy man as well, with a public golf course in the Panhandle and a private club in Martin County on the drawing boards. Bill Coore & Ben Crenshaw are at the hands of McArthur’s 2nd course and Streamsong’s new short course. That’s just the beginning. Riley Johns & Keith Rhebb have a project in the Panhandle as well, Citrus Farms will obviously bring attention, there’s more to come in Martin County, and so much more.
I guess the point of this stream of consciousness is golf architecture critics have irresponsibly branded Florida. It might not have the lineup of New York, Michigan, Wisconsin, or California, but in my travels and view, it should rightfully be viewed and discussed among the powerhouse golf states.
Optics be cancelled, there is a lot of good golf in Florida for those who seek out the classics and new builds. Perhaps a Nicklaus or Player or Palmer course in Florida might not fit the bill all the time, but like North Carolina, or Massachusetts, or anywhere really, you can’t go wrong with a Donald Ross in Florida. Find that Dick Wilson and enjoy it. Obviously, find the Modern Renaissance architects like Doak, Coore, Hanse, Franz, Nuzzo, Johns & Rhebb, and more will produce engaging layouts. There is a lot of poor golf in Florida, but a lot of good, too. It’s time we start ignoring the ones that deserve to be ignored, and rightfully return Florida to the forefront as a golf powerhouse. From Florida, With Love: my perspective has changed, and I’m ready to give the state it’s praise. It’s had a tough time, reputation wise, and I think it has unjustly stumbled into that.