Busted Golf Trip: 24 Hours of Unexpected Golf in Jacksonville, Florida

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A busted trip and busted glove…sometimes the golf gods just don’t let it happen.

Sometimes plans for an epic golf trip fall apart and leave you stranded with your clubs and no place to play. That happened to me and my friend Fritz recently when we attempted to meet up with some college friends in Dallas, Texas for a guys trip. Unfortunately, the folks at American Airlines couldn’t get our plane to fly so we found ourselves cemented in Jacksonville, Florida with time on our hands and an itch to play golf. Despite the disappointment in not making the trip, we found a few stops to get some swings in on short notice. It wasn’t the trip we had planned for, but I had lots of fun hanging with an old friend at some awesome golf facilities that I may have never discovered otherwise.

Jacksonville is best known to golfers as the home of the Players Championship and its host course the TPC Sawgrass. Beyond those famous fairways, there are many golf offerings spread across the sprawling city and its surrounding areas. With no shortage of courses in the communities of Jacksonville, I was sure that we could find some golf to make our busted trip a little more tolerable. That search began after sunset on the day our flight was delayed and it led us to a unique setting for some night golf.

The first outlet for golf that we came across was a lighted driving range on the campus of the University of North Florida. Signs on the golf building read “Home of the Ospreys” and there were banners denoting the past success of the UNF golf program. The facility is a popular spot for students and it also serves as home the university’s golf teams. There is a driving range along with a short game facility that is all lighted and it stays open until 10pm each night. Inside the golf building, there are buckets of beer available along with balls and other supplies. When my friend and I pulled up we found a golf-loving crowd pounding balls away into the darkness of a North Florida night.

Hanging with the range regulars at the UNF golf complex

At this point, we thought we would still be going to Dallas early the next morning. Our hopes that the seldom dependable American Airlines would get us to our destination were slim but other than the Bud Light bottles at the “Osprey nest” we didn’t have much to hang on to. It seemed like the perfect play to work on our game a bit under the lights before we had to rise for an early wake-up call and head back to the airport. After a bucket of balls and some shot shaping contests, we made our way over to the putting green for a little closing time competition.

The putting green needed a little work, but considering the circumstances of our situation, we were not in a place to complain. The cold beers went down quickly as we cracked jokes and rolled putts over the illuminated surface. Our trip had started out as a means for reconnecting with old friends and as we laughed aloud that night I suppose we found that still intact. The UNF golf facility isn’t exactly the luxurious private club we set out for that morning, but nevertheless, we had a fun night and made some new memories.

The next morning we woke up before sunrise to get to the airport for an early morning departure to Dallas. Before I could even rub the sleep out of my eyes I saw the notifications on my phone that spelled disaster for reaching our destination. The 6:30am flight was now looking more like noon and our tee times in Dallas were slipping away. Fritz and I made an executive decision to pull the plug on the travel and try and find some golf in Jacksonville before we had to crawl back home with our still packed bags. I made a couple of quick calls and fortunately remembered that the Jacksonville Beach Golf Club had recently been renovated. The pro shop was incredibly accommodating and was able to pair us up with some fine folks later that morning.

The Jacksonville Beach Golf Club has gained some notoriety in recent years as the unofficial home of the No Laying Up collective, one of golf’s most popular group of content creators. The guys from NLU all live in Jacksonville Beach and have adopted the city’s municipal course as their new home track. Through stories, tweets, and Instagram posts they have helped shine some light on the course and its recent renovations. Fritz and I rolled up to the golf course and were immediately struck by the friendly small town coastal vibe of the place.

Jax Beach Golf Club is top notch muni golf. A great place to play when in Northeast Florida.

All of the locals call it Jax Beach Golf Club for short and the facilities are a good fit for the setting. If Jimmy Buffet hung out a municipal golf course this would likely be the place. The driving range is one of the first things we noticed as we pulled in because the beach themed targets are hard to miss. Instead of flags or poles on the range, there are lifeguard towers, surfboards, and even a rather large fishing boat. I had a chuckle when I laid eyes on this setup, but it was easy to see that those who were warming up or just smacking balls were having a lot of fun aiming at these beach town targets.

Fritz and I got ourselves checked in just in time for our slot on the tee sheet and met our playing partners. We were paired with a father and son who were regulars at the course. They were quick to fill us in on some of the details of the recent renovations. The original Jax Beach Golf Club was designed by Sam Snead in the late 1950s and over the years the course had lost some of its luster. In the past few years, the city and a number of local golf boosters worked in tandem to create a plan for a significant renovation aimed at creating a more interesting and attractive course for local golfers.

Those plans came to fruition in 2018 and resulted in a $2 million renovation project that closed the course for 10 months. The renovation was led by local resident and golf architect Harrison Minchew. Minchew’s vision was carried out by the contracting team at MacCurrach Golf Construction who also regularly works at the TPC Sawgrass. As part of the renovations, all of the greens were rebuilt and many were moved to new locations as Minchew made adjustments to the routing. A number of holes were lengthened and the finishing holes of 16,17, and 18 have a completely new look.

The new greens feature Platinum Paspalum grasses and are undoubtedly the most impressive aspect of the reimagined course. One of the aims of the design team was to create firm and fast putting surfaces with surrounds that offer a variety of shot options. They succeeded mightily. The greens and short grass approaches are made particularly challenging by the swales and movement that has been incorporated into the ground. The course feels like a municipal facility for sure, but the greens give everyday players the opportunity to experience first class design features.

The Jax Beach Golf Club features some great strategic holes where players are asked to decide between playing on hazard lines for distance or laying back for proper positioning and an accessible approach to the green. I found that the new greens allow for the ground game to be played as I chose to hit a bump and run shot on many of the shorter par four holes. There is a fabulous group of par three holes that provide for exciting moments in the round. The par five holes require an aerial approach as the site’s many water hazards come into play for anyone daring to attempt the green in two swings. The appeal of the course culminates with an exciting new closing stretch leaving Jax Beach golfers of every level something to remember.

Fritz and I made our way around the course with our new friends at a blazing pace. We finished our round in just over three hours which was refreshing to find at a busy municipal course. We both played to our handicaps for the round and enjoyed seeing the new golf course. Jax Beach is an incredibly fun track, but make no mistake it has some teeth. Each of us fell victim to a few big numbers at the hands of the looming hazards and contoured greens, but there were also many highlights from the day. Fritz hit some stellar approaches through the round and after all of our troubles with a failed trip to Dallas, I was thrilled to see my eagle putt drop on the par five 18th hole.

A fist pump felt good as I watched that eagle putt fall and all we could do was laugh as we noticed it was nearly time for us to tee off in Dallas. As Fritz and I were walking off the course we both got notifications that the flight was finally canceled and we were comforted to know we chose wisely in playing golf versus waiting at the airport for more disappointment. We had set out on a golf trip 24 hours earlier and even though we completely missed a luxury golf experience we still found some great places to get our golf in before returning home to our wives and the sadness of not seeing our other college friends.

As we walked to the car I looked up to see Tron Carter and DJ Piehowski of No Laying Up taking aim at the big boat on the driving range. I walked over and struck up a chat about their home course. They asked me what I thought about the place and I told them that after the roller coaster of missing a trip their course looked like paradise. It’s good to know that places like Jacksonville Beach are investing in golf for the everyman and its even better to see that some of the golf’s leading millennial voices are all in to support it. If you get a chance to play there you should make a tee time and go.

Fritz and I trekked back across Jacksonville and I dropped he and his still packed bags off at his house. We said some quick goodbyes and I was on the road back to my house a few hours away. Our plane to Dallas never got off the ground, but we were still able to have a golf trip, it just wasn’t the one we intended. Jacksonville is a big town with lots of golf offerings and I’m glad I got to sample a few that I wouldn’t have made it out to in other circumstances. When life gives you golf, you take it, no matter how it comes your way. Fritz and I may never make it to Dallas for golf, but we’ll always know about a few good hangs in Jacksonville.

 

 

Champions Retreat prepares for its partnership with the Augusta National Women’s Amateur

Augusta, Georgia is a golf town in which the legends of the game are remembered with a particular reverence. Each Spring, Augusta welcomes the world to the Masters tournament and the unofficial beginning of golf season. No other event or host community celebrates the game and it’s champions on a grander scale. It is in that spirit that a unique golf club called Champions Retreat was founded just outside of Augusta.

Champions Retreat is a private club with a direct connection to some of golf’s greatest ambassadors. The club was founded at the turn of the century with the idea to create a retreat near Augusta with golf courses designed by three of the most beloved Masters Champions. Today, Champions Retreat is the only golf club to feature designs by each of “The Big Three”; Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, and Gary Player. The club is widely known in corporate circles and among golf personalities as the premier place to stay and play during Masters week.

This Spring, there will be a new tradition in championship golf beginning in Augusta and Champions Retreat will play a major role. The week before the Masters will now include a new tournament called the Augusta National Women’s Amateur in which a different crop of the world’s best golfers will compete over the fairways of Augusta. The event will be produced and hosted by the Augusta National Golf Club and the opening rounds of the tournament will be held at Champions Retreat.

I believe the Augusta National Women’s Amateur(ANWA) is already one of the most important tournaments in golf and not a single shot has even been struck. The Augusta National Golf Club is changing how it interacts with the broader game of golf and this new championship is a big part of that. The ANWA is a bold initiative and it will undoubtedly have an impact on how golf fans see the women’s game. I am fascinated that Augusta National is adding a tournament to its calendar and that they have partnered with another club to make the event a reality. This April the world will be watching as the best women amateurs in the game play in the inaugural ANWA and the majority of the competition will be at Champions Retreat.

I know the event will be a resounding success and as a father to a young daughter I’m excited to see where the tournament goes in the future. I’ll be there in April to see it all first hand and in order to better understand the setting I traveled to Champions Retreat to get to know the course and club as they prepare for the ANWA. After spending some time on site, I’m happy to report that the ingredients for something special are all in place.

A culture of comfort and camaraderie

When I arrived at Champions Retreat I was immediately struck by the old world setting. Instead of a large clubhouse, Champions Retreat has a collection of rustic buildings that create the feeling of a small village. The pro shop, locker rooms, and grill occupy the main buildings that surround a small green space and each has a wraparound porch that offers views of the club’s golf courses. The golf village at Champions Retreat will serve as the hub of all activity during the ANWA and the setting will certainly create a memorable ambiance for both players and patrons.

Everything about the setting of the club is designed to inspire members and guests to enjoy their stay. The cottages are all within short walking distance of the golf village and there is a beautifully crafted barn that serves as a gathering place and event space. During my stay I couldn’t help but feel as if I was at someone’s private estate with an invitation to make myself at home.

I greatly enjoyed the opportunity to speak at length with Cameron Wiebe, General Manager at Champions Retreat. When I asked Cameron about the culture at Champions Retreat he told me that his mission was to “lower the barrier to comfort” for anyone who comes on property. I can attest that he and his team are succeeding in that work.

Beyond the buildings in the village and the cottages, the laid back culture extends to the golf courses as well. I was thrilled to discover that the golfing members of Champions Retreat have created a culture that is built on the traditions of the game and decorated with their own tastes. For example, members are inclined to play matches not for money, but for the pride of taking their opponents golf ball. The loser of a match at Champions Retreat signs his or her golf ball and offers it to the victor as a memento of the match. Many members maintain bowls full of balls in their homes and offices to remember their victories and the friendships in which they forged.

There are also a number of rituals at Champions Retreat that the members regularly participate in. When a guest or potential new member plays the course for the first time they are invited to hit a drive over the Savannah River from the tee box of the sixth hole on the Island course. The river serves as the border between Georgia and  South Carolina and this ritual offers players the chance to hit from one state into the next. There is also a large cast iron bell at the golf village that is intended to be rang only when a hole in one is recorded. Typically this signifies to all members and guests that the bar in the grill house is open until further notice. I imagine it will be a memorable scene should  a competitor ring the bell during the ANWA.

The Island, the Bluff, and the Creek 

Champions Retreat has many splendid amenities, but the main reason for visiting the club will always be the golf. The story of how the club came to be has become a legend of sort for those who know the place. In 1999, Gary Player approached his good friends and fellow Masters champions Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus with the idea of creating a new club near Augusta. This conversation at the champions dinner led to each of them and their respective design companies coming together for a one of a kind project.

As the story goes, Player devised a blind draw process for who would get which pieces of land to design their nine holes over. Player drew up three index cards to denote the varied features of the property. Arnold Palmer pulled the first card as the most senior member of the group. His card read “the island.” Jack Nicklaus went second and drew a card that read “the bluff” and finally Gary Player was left holding a card indicating “the creek.” Each team had their land and set forward to design a course that spoke to their varied approaches to the game.

The three courses share similarities, but they are also decidedly different from each other. During the ANWA the competition will take place over the Island and Bluff courses. That decision was made largely due to logistics and should not be viewed as any indication as to preference of the designs. I played both the Island and the Bluff courses to experience what the players will see during the ANWA and I was impressed by the routing.

The composite of these course creates a layout that will take players across the property in an adventurous fashion. The Island course will serve as the front nine and the Bluff as the back. Players will venture from the golf village down towards the confluence of the Savannah and Little Rivers where they will play over the small island that is created there. Palmer’s Island course features fabulous views of the rivers that run through the property. These will be the holes that many will remember from watching the ANWA on television.

The Island course returns to the golf village and players will move over to the Bluff and its pine covered hills. The Bluff course has a rolling topography and the Nicklaus team created nine beautiful holes that climb and dive over and down through the wooded landscape. This is the course that most resembles the Augusta National Golf Club. Player will be challenged here with uneven lies and testy greens as they come down the stretch in search of a score good enough to make the cut for the final round.

Players competing in the ANWA will finish their rounds on the final hole of the Bluff course which ends adjacent to the golf village. As I walked up this hole, I was delighted to imagine the area filled with patrons and surrounded by the excitement of the inaugural ANWA. Those who earn their way into the event will surely walk away with a collection of special memories at Champions Retreat and a select few will exit the courses knowing that they have punched their card to the final at Augusta National.

Welcoming the ANWA

Champions Retreat has built a strong reputation for providing world class hospitality to its members and guests. The club is home to a fine collection of cabins and amenities that fill up each year during the Masters and now the club will have an opportunity to showcase their hospitable nature on a grand scale when the ANWA begins in April.

Every golf fan knows of Augusta National and their reputation for precise execution and for them to choose Champions Retreat as its partner for the ANWA is quite the endorsement. The event is large in its scale and ambition yet it is clear that the aim is to create a intimate environment for the competition to unfold in. In that effort, Champions Retreat will be the perfect paring to Augusta National.

The format for the event will undoubtedly create some drama for both players and patrons. The field will be comprised of 72 competitors and after 36 holes at Champions Retreat only the top 30 will advance to the final round at Augusta National Golf Club. There will be no ties for the final 30 spots so it is highly likely that a playoff will occur to determine who gets to move on.  The team at Champions Retreat is paying special attention to insure the staging of the tournament and its early rounds is as perfect as possible.

Players will be greeted by a world class staff and a first rate environment for golf. The team at Champions Retreat is preparing an ideal setting for this important new championship to be held. Although competitors will be playing with the hopes of reaching Augusta National for the final, most will only have their time competing at Champions Retreat to remember the event by. Cameron Wiebe and his staff are well aware of this and they are on a mission to make sure every moment at Champions Retreat is unforgettable.

The Augusta National Women’s Amateur may be the most intriguing new golf event in the world. As time draws nearer to the opening shots, golfing enthusiasts are starting to turn their attention to this ground breaking tournament. Champions Retreat will take center stage as golf fans will be watching closely to see which players earn the right to play at Augusta National. Because of the ANWA, Champions Retreat will soon be known as an integral part of an important and unfolding chapter in the history of golf. After a few days on the property, I am convinced that the club will flourish in that reality.

Be sure to tune in this April for the Augusta National Women’s Amateur as the event is broadcast on Golf Channel and NBC. The tournament takes place April 3-6, 2019.

If you are interested in learning more about why I believe this event is so important for golf, you might enjoy a previous piece I wrote about my perspective as the father of a young daughter. See Winnie Could Win at Augusta for more.

-J

 

Florida Field Trip: Golf at Black Diamond Ranch

Golf in Florida is about as varied as the population at your local zoo. There are some really fascinating and highly interesting stops, but there is also a lot of stuff you just pass by because you’ve seen it somewhere before. Some Florida courses are expensive and not very good and others are cheap and incredibly enjoyable. There are great private enclaves with prestigious courses and there are plenty of low key munis. Golf in the Sunshine State is a total grab bag. As a lifelong Floridian and an eighth generation native of the state, I find it part of my duty as a citizen to help educate folks on where to look for the good stuff.

That being said, I’m kicking off a new series called “Florida Field Trip” where I’ll show you a few interesting stops while I’m scooting around my home state. To kick things off I take you to the private club of Black Diamond Ranch which is home to the renowned Quarry Course. The Quarry at Black Diamond Ranch is a Tom Fazio design that has been recognized as one of the top courses in the state and heralded for its scenic routing around a unique landscape.

I was invited to visit Black Diamond Ranch as part of a charity event benefiting the Florida Coastal Conservation Association. Events like this can make for a great way to experience otherwise private clubs like Black Diamond. The club is located in the town of Lecanto, Florida which is about an hour north of Tampa. I made the trip down and back from Tallahassee in a day but felt the drive was well worth it to see such a heralded  course. I’m certainly glad that I made the trip.

The Quarry course at Black Diamond Ranch is very much a part of a housing development. The project was built in the late 1980s as an upscale community for retirees and the Quarry course is the centerpiece of that strategy. Developers hired fabled course designer Tom Fazio to craft a course that could incorporate the varied landscapes of central Florida along with a former rock mining quarry. In addition to the Quarry, there are two other Fazio courses on property.

I arrived at Black Diamond Ranch on a cold December day, but I was warmly greeted by friendly staff and delightful bloody Mary. The club and its trappings are certainly top notch and its appeal to retirees, local club members, and seasonal guests is certainly evident upon arrival. After a quick warm up and a brief browsing of the clubhouse, we suited up for some golf.

Ideally, I would prefer to not play a course with a reputation like the Quarry in a scramble format, but I was pleased to be invited to participate and the tournament was run quite well. Like most charitable events, the teams were ushered onto the course in a shotgun start. I was surprised to see that our squad would be headed straight to the quarry holes to begin our day.

The quarry itself is a massive crater filled with a sprawling lake at its center. This startling land-form is one of the most interesting sites I’ve ever come across for golf. I’ve simply never seen anything like it. Holes 13 through 17 cross, enter, climb, and bend around the quarry making for the most visually stunning five hole stretch in Florida.

I began my round at Black Diamond Ranch in the midst of the quarry holes where we teed off on number 15. It is hard to decipher  which of the quarry holes would be the “signature” hole for the course, but 15 would likely get a lot of votes. The tee shot is from the rim of the quarry and a well struck ball will fly high and mighty to a tight fairway that straddles the crater lake. The green sits tucked beneath the quarry wall and any hollers of joy will echo through the limestone canyon. The routing is meant to reach a crescendo here, but for my group it felt like we jumped right into the guitar solo of a rock anthem.

The fun doesn’t stop at 15, The 16th hole snakes around the top edge of the quarry and players are dared to take off as much as they can handle. Miss your mark and face certain doom. This par four wraps around the quarry and provides stunning views of the preceding hole. From this perch the wilder side of Florida golf is well within sight.

The final hole in the quarry is the 17th. A one shotter played across the back end of the quarry to a green in the most troubling of hollows. There is simply no room to miss. The shot requires precision and is made even tougher because the views are decidedly distracting.

The quarry holes came to and end quickly in my round, but I knew I would get to revisit the remaining holes there later in the day. After leaving those curious cliffs the course turns back to the prevailing features of the property and finishes with a fun par five in a parkland setting that is much more on par with the norms of other nice courses in the state.

Leaving the quarry and returning to a more lush and predictable setting for golf is jarring.  Holes 1 -12 and 18 are vastly different from the showstoppers on the quarry and they can seem quite pedestrian compared to the stars of the course. These holes are in immaculate condition and are not without interest, but you can’t help but feel that you have played two wildly different courses that happen to share the same scorecard.

After a quick stop back at the bloody Mary bar, we were ready to take on the remaining parkland holes. Most of these holes are pretty good and on the day we played the course was presented incredibly well. As we made our way through the more pedestrian holes at Black Diamond we were eagerly anticipating a return trip to the quarry.

We reached the Quarry again when we climbed the steps to the 13th tee box. Peaking over the hill top of the 13th revealed a remarkable view of the entire quarry ecosystem. Despite the quarry being a man-made landscape, its features feel as if they were carved by god for the express purpose of building a golf course. I was glad to return to that corner of the course.

We finished our round on the 14th hole. The 14th is  deceivingly difficult par five that plays alongside the cliffs of the central crater. We took our time and took in the views as we approached the final green. The angle to the putting surface is semi-blind and the shots required to score well there are demanding. Although the routing does not typically end at this point of the course, I’m glad we saw it this way.

Before heading for the clubhouse we decided to play the 15th one more time for good measure. We backed up to the tips and let a big drive go over the cliff and towards the fairway. As the course cleared of teams in the scramble we walked down one last hole in the quarry. A few swings and a yell to test the echos of the canyon walls was a good way to end it.

Back at the clubhouse we had a cold adult beverage to settle ourselves and collect a few thoughts on the round. The team came up short in the scramble, but somehow I managed to win the long drive championship. I got a nice plaque to pair with some good memories from the day. Shortly after a quick meal we said our goodbyes and prepared to part ways from Black Diamond Ranch, but before I could leave I had to pay my respects to Tommy Bolt.

Tommy Bolt was the 1958 U.S. Open champion and in his fading years he called Black Diamond Ranch his home. Lecanto, Florida sounds like an obscure place to settle in for the sunset of you life, but after a turn around the quarry holes I can see why Tommy made his final years there.

Black Diamond Ranch is home to one of the best five hole sequences in golf. The course is more than just those holes around the rocky edges, but make no mistake they are the main attraction. Tom Fazio’s portfolio contains both the wonderful and the unheralded. That does not make him unique, but his eye for building world class landscapes is always worth seeing in person. Black Diamond is a fine example of Fazio’s range as an architect and I’m glad I finally got to see it.