When I first moved to Florida in 2014, I had a fairly limited and rather stereotypical view of what the state was like: an enormous dredged swamp that had been either Disneyfied, turned into retirement communities or littered with absurdly expensive high-rise condos. Palm trees everywhere that wasn't paved.
In some places, the stereotypes are accurate. But there's plenty more than meets the eye. Orlando isn't just theme parks; once you get away from the touristy areas, it's a diverse and interesting city. And as you head north, Florida starts to resemble the Deep South as palms give way to live oaks.
My initial impression of Florida's golf was fairly simplistic, too. Outside of a junior tournament at Doral in 2006, I had not played much golf in the Sunshine State. I figured it was pretty much all modern, subtropical and flat, with holes lined with rows of homes and lagoons.
Having expanded my Florida courses-played list to nearly 150 in the last eight years, I have had the chance to sample the full range of golf experiences the state has to offer, from the high-brow (and very high-dollar) flashy resorts to muni and mom-and-pop "third places" for all.
Even though there is an overwhelming sense that Florida golf hews modern - thank the building boom from the 1980s through the mid-2000s - much of my favorite golf in the state predates 1960.
Why historic Florida golf courses should be on your radar
If you're a curious traveling golfer who is looking for something a little different, a Florida trip that focuses on some of the state's older gems will remind you that for all the surface-level obsession with modernity, there's a great deal of history.
Classic golf courses everywhere have several built-in advantages over modern ones, and that's no exception in Florida.
They're more playable. In most cases, golf courses built before 1960 or so were designed with the challenge loaded more toward each hole's green than is the case today. With rare exceptions, big forced carries off tees were a non-starter in the days of persimmon-headed woods and shorter-flying, spinnier golf balls. As a result, you are generally less likely to lose a ball on an older golf course than a newer one, and the contours of the greens and the features surrounding them tend to be more interesting than on courses where just getting off the tee successfully can be a nightmare.
They're more walkable. Courses laid out before the advent and widespread use of golf carts enjoy compact routings and short green-to-tee distances. Because so many hundreds of Florida courses were built from the 1960s onward, they're spread out to the point where they're often unwalkable, winding through housing developments more often than not. If you value the exercise value of golf like I do, walking one of Florida's classic courses feels extra special, especially on a mild winter day.
They're (generally) less expensive. Both factors above make golf courses less maintenance-intensive, which typically translates to lower green fees, at least in the case of daily-fee or municipal courses. Some of Florida's classics are among the pricier courses to play, but several are very budget-friendly, to the point of appearing on our Top 100 Under $100 list.
10 great classic Florida golf courses you can (and should) play
I haven't yet played all of the classic public and resort golf courses in Florida that I'd like to, but of those I have played, here are my top 10, listed from south to north in the state.
Biltmore Golf Course (Coral Gables)
Donald Ross was one of the most prolific and influential golf course architects of the first half of the 20th century, and he left a mark on Florida. I'm a sucker for historic hotels and resorts, and while far from an inexpensive experience, both the Biltmore hotel and golf course hit all the marks. Originally laid out by Ross in 1925, the course was restored by architect Brian Silva a few years ago, and is the type of layout you'll never tire of playing during your stay.
Green fee: $236 (peak rate) | Click here for golf package information
Miami Springs Golf & Country Club
Miami Springs might be the most historic course you've never heard of. Gene Sarazen, Walter Hagen and Sam Snead played tournaments there. Byron Nelson won the fourth of his record 11 straight PGA Tour events there in 1945. None other than Jackie Robinson desegregated the course during his professional baseball career. Nine holes - including the eye-catching "Volcano" par-3 16th - were laid out by William Langford and Theodore Moreau, a team of classic architects whose notoriety continues to increase as golfers fall in love with their Midwest courses. And Miami Springs' head superintendent, Laurie Bland, is one of just a few dozen women leading a course's maintenance team nationwide. Miami Springs is Old Florida golf incarnate. Practically next door to Miami International airport, it's a perfect spot for a first or last round in town.
Green fee: $75
Miami Shores Country Club
Just a few miles northeast of Miami Springs, this locals-favorite course was laid out in 1939 by Robert "Red" Lawrence, who is known more for his work west of the Mississippi, but also worked on a small handful of courses in Florida. Miami Shores' elevated greens play small, and Lawrence used the canal that cuts across the northeast part of the property to great effect on three holes.
Green fee: $125
Fort Myers Country Club
The second of three Ross courses on this list, Fort Myers is the quintessential city muni. It's right in the middle of town, it's inexpensive to play, it's tons of fun and it has been fixed up in recent years, thanks in large part to a hybrid restoration/renovation by Steve Smyers. If every city had an affordable course of the quality of "The Fort," golf would be even more popular than it already is.
Green fee: $55
The Breakers Resort - Ocean Course (Palm Beach)
The Ocean Course at The Breakers dates back to 1897, making it one of the oldest in the state. Sitting on four paddocks bracketed by local streets, the course's ambiance is unique, both for the feeling of being woven into the fabric of Palm Beach and the realization of the value of the surrounding real estate. Rees Jones' recent renovation gave the course a more modern feel, but the Old Florida atmosphere still remains.
Green fee: $250
Winter Park Golf Course (Orlando)
Dating to 1916, "Winter Park 9" is a great symbol of the ongoing American golf "Munaissance." At the relatively modest cost of just over $1 million, up-and-coming architects Keith Rhebb and Riley Johns overhauled the 2,400-yard course from a straightforward and tired relic into something fun and just a little quirky. The result: my second-favorite golf course in the Orlando area.
Green fee: $25
New Smyrna Golf Club (New Smyrna Beach)
Donald Ross laid out the plans for this golf course near the end of his life, though it wasn't completed until several years after his death. Even so, it is a fine example of his work, which puts a premium on thoughtful approach play and diverse skill around the greens. The putting surfaces themselves enjoy all sorts of gathering and shedding slopes, and their relatively modest size amps up the feeling of adventure. Playing here regularly can make you a pretty good reader of greens, as evidenced by legendary looper Jim "Bones" MacKay, who grew up playing the course.
Green fee: $50
Riviera Country Club (Ormond Beach)
There's nothing like a friendly, long-standing family-owned golf course. Located just north of Daytona Beach, "The Riv" is one of the best, dating back to 1953 and owned by the Meyers family since inception. A rare public course without formal tee times, Riviera's atmosphere is a total throwback, as is the golf course, with its small, turtlebacked greens.
Green fee: $51.60
Mission Inn Resort & Club - El Campeon (Howey-in-the-Hills)
More than a century old, El Campeon has long attracted golfers looking for a bit of a departure from the typical modern Florida golf course. Laid out by George O'Neil in 1917, El Campeon has changed relatively little over the years, and although trees have encroached a bit on a few holes, it remains playable and enjoys some pleasantly hilly terrain.
Green fee: $85 | Click here for golf package information
Mount Dora Golf Club
This course brings together several threads that make the game great. Laid out in 1947, it was built by World War II veterans and serves as a reminder of the joy the game has brought our heroes for decades. It is also among the state's quirkiest courses, laid out on some decidedly unFlorida-like terrain about 30 minutes northwest of Orlando. It's the antithesis of the resort golf that most people come to Florida to play. If you consider yourself open-minded to different types of golf experiences, it is well worth playing.
Green fee: $42
My classic Florida golf course wish-list
If the list above looks somewhat biased towards the southern and eastern portion of the state, it's because that's the area in which I live. Here are 10 classic Florida public and resort courses I've heard good things about and look forward to exploring soon (alphabetical order):
1. Capital City Country Club (Tallahassee)
The only A.W. Tillinghast design in Florida? Sign me up.
2. Cleveland Heights Golf Club (Lakeland)
This 27-holer includes 18 William Flynn holes mixed in with later additions.
3. Clewiston Golf Course
Clewiston is remote but busy, as it's the home of U.S. Sugar. The course was designed by Wayne Stiles and John Van Kleek, who laid out several solid courses in New England.
4. Dubsdread Golf Course (Orlando)
I love city munis; shame on me for not making time for Orlando's yet.
5. Eglin Air Force Base - Eagle Course (Niceville)
Langford & Moreau are responsible for this course on heaving terrain in the Panhandle.
6. Ocala Golf Club
Ocala is best known for horses, but there's a good amount of golf in town, too, including this parkland course that dates to 1920.
7. Osceola Municipal Golf Course (Pensacola)
This course was finished in 1930 by its pro, "Wild Bill" Melhorn, who was a member of the first Ryder Cup team in 1927. Longtime Arnold Palmer associate Harrison Minchew gave the course a facelift in 2011.
8. Palatka Golf Club
One of a few courses in Florida that has been billed as a Donald Ross design but really isn't, I'm nevertheless interested in playing in the annual Florida Azalea amateur golf tournament held here each March. Bobby Weed renovated the course about 15 years ago.
9. Pinecrest Golf Club (Avon Park)
Another not-a-Ross example, this course was designed by Bert Way, who is not exactly a household name but does have one famous course to his credit: Firestone Country Club in Akron, Ohio.
10. Ponte Vedra Inn & Club - Ocean Course (Ponte Vedra Beach)
PVI is one of Florida's historical resorts, and its original course, a Herbert Strong design, dates to 1931, with renovations in 1947 by Robert Trent Jones, Sr., and more work from Bobby Weed as recently as 2020, giving it an interesting architectural history.
4 classic Florida golf courses ripe for newfound glory
Plenty of pre-1960 Florida golf courses have suffered from benign neglect over the years, but golf's resurgent popularity has given them the promise of new life. Keep these four courses in mind:
1. Bobby Jones Golf Club (Sarasota)
Donald Ross expert Richard Mandell is currently honing this previous cramped, tired 36-holer into a dynamite 18 holes, plus a versatile short course down the street and a comprehensive practice facility. Once completed, it should be a terrific community amenity.
2. Dunedin Golf Club
This Ross design sits on two sides of Dunedin's Palm Boulevard, and boasts one of Ross' stoutest opening stretches. Plans to rehab the greens and bunkering reveal tremendous promise for this community course.
3. Lake Wales Country Club
Like Palatka and Pinecrest above, Lake Wales has billed itself as a Donald Ross design in the past. That has been debunked lately, in favor of an equally enticing truth: the course was actually laid out by Seth Raynor, who designed the nearby Mountain Lake. Lake Wales' routing is excellent, and it's under new ownership that seems eager to improve the golf course. Architect Joe Jemsek is involved, and if a modest-scale renovation ever comes to fruition, Lake Wales could be an absolute gem.
4. Delray Beach Golf Club
Ross built the first nine holes here, and Dick Wilson furnished the rest. Perhaps the much-anticipated West Palm Golf Park up the road will inspire Delray's overseers to embrace the opportunity for a unique dual restoration.