(Bowling Green, Fla.) When celebrated golf course architect Bill Coore received a phone call several years ago about designing a destination resort course in Florida in the middle of nowhere, he balked at the idea. Firmly. Given the struggling state of the golf economy in general and the sheer number of courses in Florida specifically, he just couldn’t get too excited about the idea. This in spite of it being proposed by the deep-pocketed Mosaic Company, the world’s leading producer and marketer of phosphate-based crop nutrients and one of Florida’s largest landowners. But before making a final decision, Coore decided to visit the site in Polk County, nearly 50 miles northwest of Tampa. To his amazement, the architect found a stunning piece of property—once a phosphate land mine—amidst an eye-popping 16,000 acres.
Afterwards, Coore called Ben Crenshaw, his design partner and two-time Masters champion. “Ben, you gotta come down here,” he said. Firmly.
The rest, as they say, is history. Or should I say history in the making, as that land has been transformed into Streamsong, a spectacular resort featuring world-class golf (18 holes each by Coore & Crenshaw and Renaissance Design—Tom Doak), clubhouse, lodge and spa. Only opened since January 2013, Streamsong has received such rave reviews, accolades and buzz it seemingly borders on hyperbole. I mean, Golf Digest’s rankings included it among the “Top 20 U.S. Golf Destinations” last year. And this ranking appeared before the lodge was even opened!
Could it be true: is Streamsong really that good? Well, after experiencing it recently on my way north from Naples, Fla., I can emphatically say, “Yes!” And although “brevity is the soul of wit and lingerie,” permit me to elaborate.
With time only to play one of the courses, I opted for the Blue Course designed by Tom Doak of Traverse City in my native Michigan. (Note: I did a cart tour of the Red Course by Coore & Crenshaw. More on that later.) As introduction, let me say the scenery, surroundings and topography of the golf course were beyond all my expectations. In fact, just getting to the resort was a journey in itself but there’s good signage to guide the way. Normally, when planning to play a high profile new course I try not to read too much background information. Why spoil the surprise? Accordingly, I’ll try to limit my remarks to a few holes on each side and general overall impressions.
- Paired up with a couple (Ron & Mary) from Dallas, I tackled the Blue with a seasoned and knowledgeable caddie, Steve aka “Wheels,” whose nickname was apt as he expertly guided me around this notable track. (Streamsong has a strong caddie program and it’s a vital element of the experience.) After an aerobic walk to the elevated first tee, my heart kept pumping from the view. The terrain is vast, open and wide and virtually void of buildings and man-made construction other than the golf resort itself and a few mines far off in the distance. If you’re looking for a quiet, isolated and unique setting for championship golf, it’s evident and compelling right there on the first tee box. As a bonus, the starting hole is a smart and sure-footed par-four that gets play moving along.
- My impressions of the par-four third hole will always be colored by the memory of my second shot which found the left greenside bunker where a large alligator was basking in the sun. Wheels sized up the precarious situation and suggested a safe drop outside the bunker. But Brent, the other caddie in our group, promptly approached the reptile from the rear and slapped its tail with a towel which jolted it out of the sand, slithering down into a nearby pond. Note to self: “Do not attempt. Professional caddie on course.” As with many Florida courses, alligators are a common sight here but the resort does a vigilant job of monitoring them for player safety.
- One of my favorite holes on the front is the 417-yard 4th. It’s a testing and uphill par-four where the green is naturally perched atop a land formation and guarded by yawning massive bunkers, scooped out of the hillside, on both the right and left sides. It’s a shot that screams, “don’t be short left or right or you’re dead.” In fact, Wheels said just that. I hit a good, high shot that carried up near the hidden green. Minutes later, I walked up to find my ball just over the green and thankfully no gator. In reaching the green, I was struck by its understated simplicity and wholeness, perfectly in synch with the land. To me, the entire hole summed up Doak’s genius for discovering and creating a winning hole out of native terrain. Nothing contrived, forced or alien.
- A signature hole on the Blue is the par-three 7th. From our tees, it played at 188 yards while Mary’s forward tee was a more apt 97 yards. Despite the scenery—elevated tee, carry over water, walking bridge to a green nestled near a large dune, and a hillside in the distance marked by mining remnants—it’s a terror. And the green was no slouch either with movement and a back shelf that held the flagstick. It was probably one of the toughest pins of the day and it made two-putting a triumph. A downside to this lovely and devilish green site is a slight backup in play because groups must not only clear the putting surface but also cross back over the walking bridge toward the next hole. It’s a minor routing concession to the rewards of a playing an exhilarating golf hole.
- Not giving too much of the plot away of this golf journey, I also liked how the nine ended and made its turn. Faithful to an old-timey out-and-in routing, far from the clubhouse, the 9th is a stout par-five that features a few trees (a rare sight here) near the green. More trees help to define the par-three 10th while also hiding a comfort station near the tee. It all works and fits beautifully, like an oasis in the desert.
- The short par-four 13th is another charmer. Less than 300 yards from our tees, it’s a temptress with a small, narrow and well-guarded green. At Wheels’ urging, I hit a 5-iron off the tee to take a bunker out of play which left me only a gap wedge to the green. It was the right call but I wish I had taken a crack with a driver. It would’ve been a feeble attempt to match Streamsong’s caddie master who aced it from 293 yards with a three-wood.
- The caddies warned us the closing holes on the Blue were a bear which they were although a few pars were had. My admiration for the uphill and long par-three 16th hole was tempered by seeing an annoying fairway bunker well short of the green. It appeared to be an unnecessary and too penal obstacle for the average and forward tee player. The 18th is a wonderful yet stern closer and it flows beautifully toward the clubhouse. (At Doak’s urging, the clubhouse was not sited behind the green.) I loved how a strong drive over the rise picked up added length by catching a downward slope. And the ingeniously conceived green and its contours demanded a proper approach to the flagstick, as Wheels wisely pointed out.
Walking off the final green, the consensus of our little golf fraternity was that we had just played an inspired and most uplifting course, one we’d jump at playing again. Mary’s forward tees were thoughtful and forgiving and she managed her round well. Due to the speed, movement and contours of the greens, putting was onerous and often deflating. As mentioned, tough pin placements that day compounded the problem. Earlier, I spoke to a player who had played the Blue several times and he regularly incurred a rash of three-putts. But he also said his playing companion—“a very good putter”—handled the greens without difficulty.
In fairness, the demands of the greens are offset by wide, generous fairways and frequent open approaches to the putting surfaces. And Doak’s famed minimalist design philosophy—a deft discovery and shaping of natural land forms—is marvelously on display. The grassy dunes left over from mining excavation (pre-1960s) lend an epic Irish links look and appeal to the experience. And in spite of the rise and fall of the elevation throughout the round, the Blue was still a comfortable and soul-stirring walk over firm, fast and healthy turf. Kudos to Head Superintendent Rusty Mercer.
Taking a cue from the movie critic parlance, I’d confidently give the Blue four shining stars. Expertly conceived and directed, its plot and setting deliver suspense, surprise, joy and heartbreak. You just gotta come down to see it.
As noted, I didn’t have time to play the equally inviting and highly touted Red Course by Coore & Crenshaw. I did receive, however, an extensive and insightful cart tour by the Head Golf Professional and fellow Cleveland sports team sufferer Matt Jordan. I also spoke to a number of players then and afterwards about the Red and how it stacked up against the Blue.
The Cliff’s Notes version is this: Both courses are worthy of their accolades and agreeably fit and complement one another with their design sensibility. In general, the Blue is more forgiving off the tee while the Red is more forgiving on the greens. For turf quality, Blue currently has an edge because the first six holes on the Red were the last to be grassed on the property. But that difference will even itself out over time. As a side note, my brother played the Red course recently and he compared it favorably to Sand Hills Golf Club, the Coore & Crenshaw masterpiece in Nebraska.
I particularly liked the short par-three 8th, only 147 yards from the championship tees but with plenty of teeth and guile. And like the Blue’s 13th, the Red has a reachable par-four that offers both risks and rewards. “Both the 7th and the 9th holes are favorites because they allow players the chance to score but they’re not pushovers,” said Jordan.
Jordan related the story about the how the courses were named. When the dual design teams were reviewing topography maps of the property, they alternated their selection of holes by using a red (Coore/Crenshaw) or a blue pencil (Doak.) Just those two primary colors. Now that’s minimalism.
Designed by Alfonso Architects with unprecedented input by the golf course architects, Streamsong’s golf clubhouse features 12 guest rooms (accommodating 16 guests); 4,500 square-feet of meeting space, a three-meal steak and seafood-themed restaurant with private dining, a lounge and golf shop. Like everything else at Streamsong, it’s a story onto itself.
For more information about Streamsong resort, golf and spa, visit www.streamsongresort.com