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One can only guess what Spanish explorer Ponce de Leon must have felt in 1513 when he came ashore at what is now St. Augustine, Florida, only to learn there were no golf courses yet. Can you imagine his disappointment? Lugs his clubs all the way from Spain and there's no place to play? No wonder he began looking for the Fountain of Youth. But even if he had found it, four hundred years is a heck of a long time to wait for a tee time. Although - as golfers who have visited here can tell you - it would have been worth it.
In addition to being America's oldest city - and a haven for tourists who love history and heavenly weather - St. Augustine is home to a number of outstanding golf courses. Two of the most attractive - and challenging - layouts can be found at the World Golf Village, a unique destination for visitors who enjoy the game's history as much as they enjoy playing it. The first course to be built at the World Golf Village was the Slammer & Squire (1997), a beautiful collaboration between architect Bobby Weed and World Golf Hall of Fame members Sam Snead and Gene Sarazen. Measuring 6,939 yards from the back tees, the Slammer & Squire features generous fairways, large greens, plenty of H2O, and four the best par threes in the state. In 2000, the Slammer & Squire was followed by the one-of-a-kind King & Bear - the only joint design effort in the world by Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus. The King & Bear is even longer from the tips than the original course at WGV (7,279 yards) but, fortunately, both offer five sets of tees to allow you to play from markers that will match your ability and make it fun. Choose wisely; both these beautiful courses are sturdy enough to have been the host site for the Liberty Mutual Legends of Golf tournament on the Champions Tour and a match on "Shell's Wonderful World of Golf." The game's greats have played here; you can, too. And when you're finished, make sure to check out the World Golf Village and its many attractions. You can experience golf's past, get a peek at its future, or spend some time going over the memorabilia at the World Golf Hall of Fame. You'll also find superb dining, sensational shopping - even an amazing IMAX Theater - right here on-site. For golfers and non-golfers alike, the World Golf Village is a worthwhile side trip during a visit to St. Augustine.
Two other courses in the area that you should consider are St. Johns Golf & Country Club and Royal St. Augustine Golf Club. St. Johns is a Clyde Johnston creation that opened in 2001. Carved out of a thick pine forest just north of town, this gorgeous 7,100-yard tract is arguably the architect's best work yet. Rolling fairways, native foliage and frequent wetlands combine to make St. Johns a very pretty and very challenging layout. Thanks to six sets of tees, however - including a set for beginners - it can be as fun or formidable as you want it. Not nearly as long but equally challenging - in a different way - is Royal St. Augustine, a Christopher Commins design that also opened in 2001. Built within a residential community, Royal St. Augustine features narrow fairways, forced carries and some rather sharp doglegs. And like St. Johns, it's known for its excellent condition.
Twenty-five miles south of America's oldest city is one of Florida's newest: Palm Coast. Hardly new, however, is the area's reputation for providing visitors with lots of sun and tons of fun - including great golf. The Grand Club offers visitors to the area three distinctly different championship courses from which to choose. Most recently renovated in 2006, the long and challenging Pines Course , an original 1982 design by Arnold Palmer and his long-time collaborator Ed Seay, is ranked among the top 50 in Florida. It's big (7,074 yards from the tips), tough (there's water on ten holes) and intimidating, but still very playable if you pick the right tees. The same can be said for the Matanzas Course , another Palmer/Seay original layout, built in 1986. The course is named for a Spanish fort that was constructed along the coastline between 1740 and 1742 and the moniker is appropriate for this challenging tract. In Spanish, Matanzas means "massacre." But just like the Pines Course, the Matanzas Course is manageable if you don't try to take it on at its full 6,894-yard length. Choose the right tees and keep it in play, and you'll have a chance to conclude your round with a smile on your face at the signature hole at Matanzas Woods: the par-5 18th. The finishing hole here - with its small, island green - is not only one of the most photographed in all of Florida but one of its best. It's an exciting end to an always-enjoyable day at the Matanzas Course. Rounding out The Grand Club trio of championship courses is the Cypress Course . The Cypress Course was originally designed by Gary Player, and many thought the original design was too difficult for the average player. The course underwent an extensive renovation and redesign in 2005 to "soften" the course and open up the landing areas, and now offers a much more playable experience for all golfers. A word to the wise, however. All three of Grand Club courses are semi-private clubs, so it's very possible that blocks of morning tee times will be reserved for the members, so be sure to call ahead and secure your slot. Also, due to the influx of visitors that come to this part of Florida during the week of the Players Championship up the road in Jacksonville in May, these courses might be booked solid for those seven days. Plan your visit to Palm Coast the week before or the week after, and you won't have trouble obtaining tee times.
Did somebody say "trouble"? Welcome to the Jack Nicklaus-designed Hammock Beach - Ocean Course course here in Palm Coast. Opened in 2000, Hammock Beach - Ocean Course immediately began to receive rave reviews from guests and major publications alike. Links Magazine called it a "modern classic." Golf Digest and GOLF Magazine quickly placed it on their lists of "Best New Courses" available to the public. And no wonder. Set along the dunes land that borders the Atlantic, this gorgeous, wind-swept golf course features more play on the ocean than any other layout on Florida's east coast. Beautiful? You bet. Calling it the "Pebble Beach of the east" is not an exaggeration. But if you know Nicklaus, you know that Hammock Beach - Ocean Course is no bear cub of a course. Factor in the normal breezy conditions and it's a lock that this 7,201-yard layout would be a large pain for even the best players on the planet. For that reason alone, leave the back tees alone and pick a set of markers that are much less demanding. Believe it: you are going to need all of your strength for the final four holes at Hammock Beach - Ocean Course. To regular players here, this sturdy closing stretch is known as "The Bear Claw." Does that sound grrreat or what?
If you're in search of an exciting new golf destination - especially one that's filled with all kinds of history - don't miss the boat like poor Ponce de Leon. The time to discover St. Augustine is now.