Every so often, proposals will crop up in favor of splitting Florida into two states, north and south. It makes some sense; Tallahassee and Miami often feel like they're on different continents, much less the same state. Even around where I live, in Vero Beach - close to the proposed border of South Florida and North Florida - it is often said that to go South, you have to go north.
It's true of the golf, too. Northern Florida has much more of a seasonal transition than the more consistently tropical down-peninsula reaches. There are a heck of a lot more live oaks intermingled with the palm trees, too. If you want the tropical, quasi-Caribbean golf experience, you'll get it around the Palm Beaches and points south. But if you want a warmer version of what you get in the Carolinas, the region that calls itself "Florida's First Coast" is the place.
Two two-course golf resorts - the World Golf Village and Hammock Beach Golf Resort & Spa - anchor the region between Daytona's NASCAR- and beach-bums tourists and Jacksonville's urban sprawl. It's far enough south that you can still virtually guarantee pleasant golf weather in every month of the year, but it's still well within a ten-hour drive or so from several population centers, including Atlanta and Charlotte.
Hammock Beach Golf Resort & Spa is big and beachside
Palm Coast is home to Hammock Beach Golf Resort & Spa, a grandiose oceanside property with 36 holes split among two facilities. The Jack Nicklaus Signature-designed Ocean Course sits out the back door of a 12-story edifice with 213 multi-bedroom villas and hotel rooms built in a nouveau-Mediterranean Style. This may be the South but it is still Florida, after all.
The Ocean Course ($295) enjoys as much Atlantic frontage as any in the state, with the views getting particularly Instagram-worthy on holes 8, 9, 15, 16, 17 and 18. Original property developer Bobby Ginn knew how to make an impression, and Jack Nicklaus' design takes advantage of the fact that Ginn resisted the urge to devote most of its coastline to homesites. In fact, the ocean is closer than ever after Hurricane Matthew eroded down some of the dunes that border the beach, and a subsequent course renovation raised some of the seaside green sites and tee boxes. Even if you're not playing the tips, go stand on the very back of the 16th tee and take in the view and smell of the ocean for a moment.
Part of the renovation effort on the Ocean Course included converting the entire turf sward to Paspalum grass, which is particularly salt-tolerant. Even though Paspalum's leaf structure typically makes it difficult to play shots along the ground, the agronomy staff at Hammock Beach do a great job of making it as firm as possible. The typical strong winds that buffet the course help, too. The grass conversion did away with the course's maintained rough - all prepared grass is closely mown now, giving golfers plenty of shot options around the elevated greens.
Opened in 2007 at the height of golf's pre-Recession obsession with enormous shaping, flashy features and gaudy course length, the nearly 7,800-yard Conservatory ($180) is the consummate maximalist golf course and while it must be hell on any superintendent, the course has a lot of fun and interesting shots. If you’re willing to meet it on its own terms, you will enjoy it. A recent $1-million-renovation project reduced the number of bunkers by about 40 in order to increase playability and ease some of the burden on the course's greenkeepers. The Conservatory remains plenty challenging, though the spacious fairways and huge greens keep golfers feeling like they've got plenty of chances to card pars and birdies, especially when they play the correct tees. The Conservatory's clubhouse is what gives the course its name - a large, airy building with plantings shooting up through the atrium and specimen photos of flora and fauna on the walls. Just like its very big and long golf course, it is meant to make you feel a bit small.
HAMMOCK BEACH RESORT - CONSERVATORY— Tim Gavrich (@TimGavrich) April 26, 2022
Palm Coast, Fla.
Tom Watson, 2007
Something of a museum piece at 15 years old, it is probably the clearest example of pre-Recession golf course development and architecture, a style unlikely to return. A fun adventure in maximalism. pic.twitter.com/K1j2QVmRX7
Off-course, Hammock Beach is similarly grandiose - high ceilings and large doorways lend it semi-tropical gravitas. The rooms and villas are oversized, with big furniture that makes them feel a bit cozier. If you have an ocean-facing unit, it's a treat having the rising sun help wake you in the mornings. In addition to its main towers, the resort has several cottages in its rental pool that work very well for buddy groups or clusters of couples.
World Golf Village is in transition but the golf remains strong
When news came down earlier this summer that the USGA will partner with the World Golf Hall of Fame in Pinehurst, it confirmed what many golfers suspected: that St. Augustine's days as its home were numbered. A spring visit - my first - to the Hall was enjoyable but ultimately a little scatterbrained. There was plenty of important memorabilia on display, and the concept of giving each inductee his or her own locker in the central locker room is a clever one. Unfortunately, the whole place didn't feel cohesive, and there were other elements thrown in that didn't fit, like a putting green with new PING putters to try. The derelict replica of TPC Sawgrass' famed island green behind the main Hall building was a sad sight, and a harbinger of the transition. Golfers can fully expect the new Hall of Fame to hit its stride in Pinehurst.
If anything, the Hall of Fame's move should allow World Golf Village's two golf courses stand proudly on their own. The King & Bear ($249), a joint-effort by Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus that opened in 2000, winds through a nice residential neighborhood, with the houses well back from play. In terms of looks, neither contributing architect's style comes through particularly strong. One might expect it to vacillate between them, but instead it has a generally comfortable, smooth 1990s/early-2000s look. Live oak hammocks give the course a Southern look, and beach bunkers meander into lakes and lagoons on four holes. The greens are particularly friendly for a course associated with either architect, as they have many gathering slopes and often dip down to low-slung back tiers. Palmer and Nicklaus' shared love of Augusta National - and 10 Masters victories between them - was brought to bear here.
Even though the King & Bear gets a little bit more attention, the Slammer & Squire course ($229) is slightly more interesting to play. Renovated in 2018 by Bobby Weed, who collaborated on its original design in 1998 with Sam Snead and Gene Sarazen, the course has greater shot variety and a deeper sense of mischief and adventure than its sister course. Pete Dye's influence on Weed's design style and strategy stands out several times, including at the par-5 11th, with its sunken green hidden by a fronting bunker excavated out of an abrupt mound; and the short par-3 15th, whose long green is wedged between grass hollows and bunkers on the left and a pond on the right. The greens mix subtle and overt contours nicely, making several holes play quite differently as the hole locations rotate. If you had three rounds at World Golf Village, sandwiching two Slammer & Squire rounds around one at the King & Bear would be my recommended way to go.
More notes and tips on Hammock Beach and World Golf Village
- Both properties have strong memberships, which makes them feel more like smooth-running private clubs than some resorts do. Visitors are integrated well into the flow of things.
- In order to play the golf courses at Hammock Beach, it is necessary to stay on property. So if you're planning on playing all four courses in this story, Hammock Beach is the place to stay. The two properties are roughly 40 minutes apart.
- If World Golf Village is more your focus, there is a wide range of accommodations, from a large Renaissance hotel on site to a solid variety of villas and cottages meant more for group travel.
- Like many resorts, Hammock Beach has raised its culinary acumen considerably in recent years. On my first visit, in 2015, I found the food to be very disappointing. But in 2022, it's very good, and quite varied. The seafood-centric Atlantic Grille above the Ocean Course clubhouse pairs nice local fare with great ocean views, while Loggerheads Sports Pub is one of the better casual eateries I've been to at a golf resort. There's even a sushi bar called Stix and Delfino's Italian Chophouse serves up well-made steaks. Hammock Beach's Lobby Bar turns from a coffee hub to a convenient spot for a drink every day at noon.
- World Golf Village is right with Hammock Beach in its own culinary improvements. WGV Eats, a mobile food truck, sits at the King & Bear clubhouse and offers a twist on typical halfway-house fare. Both of its clubhouse restaurants lean on local farms for as many of their ingredients as possible.
- The presence of pools, the beach and a well-appointed spa makes Hammock Beach a great choice for a family vacation that involves golf, or a buddy trip where 18 holes a day are enough. If maximizing golf and minimizing lodging expense is your group's sole purpose, World Golf Village might be a more attractive choice to you.
- World Golf Village's location opens up the historic city of St. Augustine as a potential diversion. The Castillo de San Marcos, built in the late 1600s, is the oldest of its kind in the United States, a great destination for history buffs. St. Augustine is a solid foodie town, too, thanks to its Spanish influences and coastal location. In the main tourist district, the 115-year-old Columbia Restaurant is both popular and actually excellent, with a Spanish/Cuban menu. Just off the center of town, the St. Augustine Fish Camp is a great hangout spot with terrific seafood and local craft beers and inventive cocktails.