My brother-in-law, Chris, who was my partner on this perfect three days of golf in sunny Jacksonville, Fla., in March, can tell you all about what happens when you hit it short on hole 17: It goes in the water. I can tell you all about what happens when you hit it left on 17: It goes in the water.
Maybe I was feeling a little cocky. Two good shots on the par-five 16th hole put me in position A. It was just a nine iron to the green.
Then I made the mistake of looking to my right, and there it was: the most famous hole in golf. Not the prettiest, not the best, and certainly not the most challenging. But the most famous: the par-three, island-green 17th hole on the Stadium Course at Sawgrass, in Ponte Vedra, Florida.
Hole 17 is a dartboard with only a bull’s-eye. Tune in to the PGA’s Players Championship on TV and watch professional golfers curse it. It’s the brainchild of Pete Dye, famed golf course architect and renowned sadist.
My brother-in-law, Chris, who was my partner on this perfect three days of golf in sunny Jacksonville, Fla., in March, can tell you all about what happens when you hit it short on hole 17: It goes in the water. I can tell you all about what happens when you hit it left on 17: It goes in the water. The Atlanta father we were playing with can tell you all about what happens when you hit it long at 17: It goes in the water. And his teenage son can tell you all about what happens when you hit it just right at 17: It lands softly on the green, then you take your two putts for par, and you’ve got golf bragging rights for the rest of your life.
It’s intriguing to play a course that you watch the pros play on TV –– and a course that’s consistently rated one of the best in the world. You get a better sense of the tests tour players face every week. A day of golf at Sawgrass is the picture of perfection that you’d expect from a first-class resort, from the manicured beauty of the course to the warm welcome of the staff.
Playing Sawgrass is a once-in-a-lifetime treat for a golfer (and with the greens fee — about $400 during peak season — once-in-a-lifetime may be just about right). But while you’re there, try out some lesser-known gems.
On our first day in Jacksonville, we hit the Palencia Club in nearby St. Augustine, a lovely course that takes you right into the heart of Florida’s natural beauty. Between holes, the cart ride along the sun-bleached boardwalks sometimes feel like a mini-Jurassic Park tour: You’re enveloped by gorgeous, seemingly prehistoric trees with angular limbs draped in the iconic Spanish moss of the South. The light moistness in the air combines with the sun to create a Petri dish for beauty. Flora and fauna flourish.
The signature hole at Palencia is the par-three on the 3rd. The tee is nestled back about 160 yards from the green, with a chute of a fairway framing the course’s unique and defining feature: a tree that defies gravity, growing horizontally across the front of the green. This agricultural snaggletooth has become Palencia’s logo.
The 3rd hole may be Palencia’s signature hole, but the 6th is just as beautiful. Another par-three in a natural amphitheater surrounded by trees, it’s just a 150-yard shot to a generous green. While you’re waiting to putt, you can catch more than a glimpse of the Intracoastal Waterway behind the green, a calm and beautiful marsh cutting a jigsaw pattern into the lush wetlands.
For Chris and me, it was a quiet and perfect 75-degree day without a soul in sight.
We got the same exclusive treatment on our last day in Florida, playing the exquisite Omni Amelia Island Plantation’s Ocean Links. We were the first twosome out, and there was no one behind us for a hole or two, so we had the sense of seclusion that makes these kinds of escapes so relaxing.
And it didn’t hurt that we were playing as beautiful a course as I have ever seen. The name tells you all you need to know. And you hear it before you see it — the ocean.
After enjoying the first three lovely holes, you drive your cart up to the fourth hole tee box. Turn off the motor and you hear it: waves crashing on a beach. As you grab a club and head up the dune embankment to the tee box, you’re pretty sure you’re about experience something special. And you’re right.
Standing on the tee, facing the hole, the Atlantic Ocean rolls in on your right, crashing waves glistening in the morning sun. Our very early tee time may have been an inconvenience earlier that morning, but now we were reaping the rewards: We were alone on a golf course that snakes along the Atlantic, offering exquisite ocean views on an 80-degree day in March. It was hard to imagine loved ones back home still dealing with the remnants of the worst winter in recent memory. You try hard to concentrate on your golf, but your gaze and your mind wander, distracted by lovely views.
Jacksonsville may not be the first city you think of when it comes to fine dining, but we found a couple of restaurants that offered gourmet-caliber American cuisine.
-- Palm Valley Fish Camp in Palm Valley: A camp? Hardly. It’s a charming little restaurant — funky but refined. The menu evolves to suit the season. Our flounder and red snapper specials were five-star perfect.
-- Bistro Aix in Jacksonville: This seems to be the new hot spot in downtown Jacksonville. It’s trendy and upscale. You’ll taste French and Mediterranean influences. The grilled tuna is a favorite.