Florida Golf Safari – Streamsong, Grand Cypress & Bay Hill


Strolling across a long, crescent-shaped wooden footbridge, my caddy Kent stops suddenly, puts his index finger across his lips, and points to the dark blue waters and swaying bullrushes along the shoreline. Just there, laying in the weeds under our feet is the armored 10-foot, half-ton Florida gator who guards entry and exit to Streamsong Blue’s signature No. 7, one of the most-breathtaking par-3’s in the world of golf.

“You wanted to see alligators, this close enough for you?” he asks with grin.

The gator is impressive, but so is the spectacular resort he calls home deep in the heart of Central Florida’s fossil rich prehistoric Bone Valley, where a phosphate mining giant has given birth to 54-holes of world class links golf at the luxurious Streamsong Resort.

Ninety minutes south of Orlando, Streamsong (opened in 2014) is the brainchild of The Mosaic Company, the world’s leading producer and marketer of phosphate-based crop nutrients, and consists of three links style golf courses (Blue, Red & Black) and a luxurious minimalist chic 216-room lakeside lodge built on 16,000 acres of reclaimed mining areas.

These breathtaking courses, designed by Tom Doak (Blue), Bill Coore & Ben Crenshaw (Red), and Gil Hanse & Jim Wagner (Black) are works of art sculpted out of sand, water, grass and rock. Compared by many to one of the world’s most scenic and iconic links courses, Ireland’s mystical seaside Ballybunion, the experience of playing the Streamsong triumvirate is more ethereal than worldly, more of a “trip” than a round of golf.

Streamsong Blue

Photo courtesy of Larry Lambrecht

At 7176 yards from the back tees, Streamsong Blue’s soul-expanding trippiness hits you right from the get-go. Tom Doak’s elevated tee deck on par-4 No. 1, sits atop a 50-foot sandy behemoth overlooking a large unadulterated expanse of pure Florida nature. This zen-inducing vista makes the golfer feel like he’s standing on top of a lotus blossom. The placement of this spirit awakening first tee is no coincidence, it’s a statement, an invitation to breathe in the divine beauty of the 360-degree vista of the surrounding Blue course, and neighboring Red, that seem to open on up like lotus petals on the horizon.

This first tee enlightenment opens the gate to a physical golf plane highlighted by frequent changes in elevation, wide rolling fairways lined with majestic sand dunes that transform into deep, naturally shaped, trench-like bunkers or waste areas. Trees are few and far between on Streamsong Blue, but there’s enough scrub in the form of wild grasses and bushes, and an assortment of bottomless ponds to keep even the cockiest of big hitters honest.

The greens on Blue as well as the other two courses are some of the most original and visually appealing you’ll ever play. Fast but fair, and in some cases the size of moon craters. One that stood out in particular was the green on No. 4, which my scribbled scorecard notes described as, “An art piece. Looks flat but not flat at all. Doak has created an illusion of flatness on a three dimensional undulating surface, turning the tables on Leonardo da Vinci, toying with depth and perspective on a canvas made of grass.”

Since we’re on the subject of Art History, let’s jump ahead a few centuries to the French Impressionist period for a closer examination of Streamsong Blue’s signature No. 7 par-3. This jaw-dropping hole brought Monet’s Water Lillies series of paintings to mind as soon as I walked onto the green. If you could hang a par-3 in the Louvre or the Musée D’Orsay, this would be the one. Everything about this little gem is perfection. From the sheer grandeur of the 203-yard expanse over water from its elevated tee deck, to the long sweeping wooden bridge guarded by a toothy green gator, to the giant water lily disguised as a golf green. This hole is high art, a bucket-list must that has to be seen to be believed.

Streamsong Red

Photo Courtesy of Nile Young

When you’re crossing the bridge at Streamsong Blue’s No. 7, take a look up to your left and gaze at the glory of Streamsong’s Red’s signature No. 16 par-3. As mentioned earlier, I don’t think coincidence is a concept that’s useful in describing the origins of the magnificent layouts at Streamsong. Cabal is probably a better word related to any discussion connected to the location of these two conjoined masterstroke’s of golf hole design. Streamsong-lore suggests the sharing of notes and ideas between Mr. Doak and the dynamic design duo of Bill Coore & Ben Crenshaw during the creation of the resort. Looking at the proximity and undeniable harmony of these two treasures, it’s clear that Doak, Coore & Crenshaw were in cahoots.

The prettiest of the three courses in my humble opinion, is Streamsong Red. This 7148-yard par-72 course is like a 3-D 19th century landscape painting you can hit balls on. Everything seems to pop on this track. The 419 Bermuda Grass fairways are a study in deep green. The naturally shaped sand bunkers meandering along the contours of almost every hole are whiter than white. The lakes and ponds shimmer like dark pools of indigo glass.

The par-3s on Red are a dream to play. The fun begins on No. 6, a 185-yard slight dogleg right that looks like an African savannah off the deck, before magically transforming into a hidden emerald green that could easily be the set of a kitschy 1970s Irish Spring soap commercial. The sweeping giant sloped bunker on the left is a thing of beauty that you’ll subconsciously be drawn to, but don’t fall prey to it’s siren song, getting out will be an odyssey you don’t want to embark upon.

No. 8 is a very challenging 147-yard par-3 with an elongated lighting bolt shaped green surrounded by bunkers on all sides. Red’s pièce de resistance however, is the aforementioned No. 16. This majestic par-3 requires a 208-yard drive from the back tees over a deep watery chasm, onto an elongated Biarritz-style green with a deep swale that surreptitiously dissects it in two. Did I mention the horrifying tarantula-shaped bunker complex guarding the front of this hole? This beauty is a true beast, and one of the best holes you’ll ever play.

Streamsong Black

The newest course at Streamsong, Black is a 7331-yard par-73 Gil Hanse & Jim Wagner beauty that doles out pleasure and pain in equal measure. A giant of a course in every sense of the word, everything is big on black, from the sky, to the 11 acres of greens and surrounds, to the huge iron windmill that towers over the gargantuan green at the 9th hole.

Set apart from the Blue and Red courses, Black has some of the widest fairways you’ll ever have the pleasure of not missing. This course may look easy on paper, but those very reachable par-4s (Numbers 2, 6 and 14) on the scorecard are a tough slog in windy conditions, and hint-hint, there’s a windmill on this track for a reason.

Black is flatter and more sandy than its two cousins, but like Red and Blue, has a chocolate box of massive greens that are fun to navigate despite making one and two-putts an almost impossible task. Black’s signature hole is No. 9, a 450-yard par-4 with a blind approach shot into a massive punchbowl green that sits under the watchful eye of the towering black windmill.

This course also has its own practice complex. The Gauntlet, a two-acre putting course, and the Roundabout, a free-flowing practice area are perfect for working out the kinks in your game, before or after your round.

Villas of Grand Cypress Golf Resort – The New Course

Jack Nicklaus’ love affair with the Old Course at St. Andrews began in 1970 when he won the 99th Open Championship in an electrifying 18-hole Sunday playoff against Doug Sanders. Nicklaus won there again in 1978, and continued to play on the course known as “the home of golf” competitively until 2005 when he took his final bow, and posed for one last photo on the iconic ancient stones of the Swilcan Bridge.

Having played the Old Course after spending a damp and chilly night in line outside the Old Pavilion for one of the few open tee times allotted to walk-ups, I thought it would be fitting payback to play it’s Florida cousin, The New Course at Orlando’s Grand Cypress Golf Resort, without pulling an all-nighter. So after a late night of sipping Piña Coladas by the tropical pool complex near my luxurious Club Suite at the Villas of Grand Cypress, I woke up to a delicious plate of Eggs Florentine at the resort’s clubhouse. Moments later, I was teeing it up at the Golden Bear’s 18-hole homage to the oldest golf course in the world.

Designed by Jack Nicklaus, The New Course opened for play in 1988. At 6851-yards from the tips, this course is a delight to play, especially if you want to get a little taste of St. Andrews links-style golf without flying to Scotland.

The course itself is tricked out with all the bells and whistles you’ll find at St. Andrews Old Course. Double greens, stone bridges and walls, gorse bushes, winding waterways (known as “burns”) and 150 cavernous pot bunkers just waiting to gobble up your drives and approach shots. While there is little or no rough to contend with, the burn that runs through the Bermuda Grass fairways on holes 1, 8, 10, and 18 make you think twice when it comes to picking the right club to avoid this nasty, serpentine water hazard.

One of my favorite driving holes was No. 2 a 513-yard par-5 onto a fairway mined with deadly bunkers (some as deep as 12-feet) and lots of scrub bushes that can obstruct your view if your drive isn’t placed perfectly. The large pond on the right of the fairway is easy to avoid, but the bunkers and mound guarding the green will spell trouble if you don’t judge your approach shot properly.

Greens were medium-fast on the day we played and are roomy and fair. Just make sure you aim at the proper flag as some are on double greens, and easy to confuse if you don’t pay proper attention.

“It’s like the Epcot of golf courses,” my old friend and swing coach Stephen White gleefully confessed as we posed for our picture on The New Course’s very own Swilcan Bridge doppelgänger.

“Makes complete sense that someone would have the brains to replicate the most famous golf course in the world in Orlando. Epcot has the Eiffel Tower, and the Grand Cypress Resort has the Old Course in the guise of the New Course, it’s genius!” he added.

Arnold Palmer’s Bay Hill Club & Lodge

For most visitors to the Sunshine State, the word “Kingdom” is usually prefaced by the words Magic or Animal, and often involves a day of rollercoasters and photo ops with Mickey and Minnie Mouse. There is a third kingdom in the Orlando area though, the famed Bay Hill Club & Lodge, the Florida home of golf’s one and only monarch, the late, great Arnold “The King” Palmer.

The King was a giant of the game who grew up under the tutelage of a father who was a head professional and greenskeeper in Latrobe, Pennsylvania. Bay Hill’s PGA Tour quality, ultra-manicured 27 holes are testament to Mr. Palmer’s roots as a champion, and as the son of a golf club manager. Not a blade of grass or speck of sand was out of place on the 18-holes that make up the Challenger & Champion nines we played while visiting Bay Hill.

Photo courtesy of Evan Schiller

There is a definite “walking in the footsteps of champions” vibe all around this magnificent golf resort, and it was truly inspiring to play the same holes Rory McIlroy had dominated to win the PGA’s Arnold Palmer Invitational a mere four weeks before we hit our first shots. But the real treat about a stay and play holiday at Bay Hill (play is reserved to club members and resort guests) is feeling like you’re staying over at Mr. Palmer’s actual home with free reign to peek and poke around The King’s incredible collection of golf memorabilia. Guests who are fans of Mr. Palmer will be blown away by the “inside-the-ropes” access they’ll have to the life and times of one of the titans of the game. Personal photos, golf equipment, championship trophies, and a host of other keepsakes and souvenirs from Mr. Palmer’s illustrious career decorate almost every elegant room and hallowed hall of this hotel.

Originally designed by course architect Dick Wilson, Bay Hill opened for business in 1961. The club’s current 27-hole configuration – the Challenger, Champion and Charger nines – were redesigned by the Arnold Palmer Design Company in 2009, and successfully embody Mr. Palmer’s philosophy of creating tough but fair courses that would appeal to the golfing everyman.

The par-72 Challenger and Championship course combination used by the stars of the PGA every March is a true test for big hitters at 7381-yards from the tips – but can also be navigated by mere mortals at a much friendlier 6201-yards by using Bay Hill’s “Combo” selection on the scorecard that mixes yellow and red tee yardage options.

Standout holes include the Challenger’s 474-yard No. 1, a dogleg left par-4 that true to the name of the course, is very challenging. Par on this hole requires a perfectly placed drive on a snug landing area flanked by fairway bunkers on the right and O.B. on the left. The slim-fit 22-yard green is fairly flat, and like all the greens we played, rolls true – but only after you penetrate the horseshoe-like chain of bunkers that guard the pin like an iron halo.

Water comes into play on No. 3, an attractive boomerang-shaped 434-yard par-4 and is a factor on almost half the holes on Challenger & Champion combined. My favorite liquid-affected holes were the very telegenic 555-yard par 5 No. 6, and the 438-yard par-4 No. 11. I’m sure many of you have marveled at players like Tiger Woods and Dustin Johnson bending 330-yard drives around the water that hugs the crescent-shaped fairways of these two spectacular holes, and fantasized about doing it yourself. That’s the beauty of Bay Hill, its accessibility as a place where lovers of the sport can see and feel the game as if they were pros themselves. A living, breathing monument to the spirit of the people’s king, who may be gone, but is clearly not forgotten.

WHEN YOU GO:

STREAMSONG RESORT – To book tee times and hotel reservations at Streamsong Resort go to: http://www.streamsongresort.com/

VILLAS OF GRAND CYPRESS GOLF RESORT – To book tee times and hotel reservations at Villas of Grand Cypress Golf Resort go to: https://www.grandcypress.com/

ARNOLD PALMER’S BAY HILL CLUB & LODGE – To book tee times and hotel reservations at Arnold Palmer’s Bay Hill Club & Lodge go to: https://www.bayhill.com