When the notion of dreamy Florida escapes enters a migrating northerner’s mind, Jacksonville generally is kept at a safe remove from serious consideration. Though it is Florida’s largest city and is enjoying a fairly high profile nationally due to an NFL franchise and a prominent jazz festival, “Actionville” it is not. It is, however, the port of entry for visits to one of the most exhilarating golf resorts to be found anywhere.
Tucked in the northeast corner of the state on a barrier island just across the St. John’s River from Georgia, Amelia Island is comprised of ancient coastal forests, miles of unspoiled shoreline and the lavish golf resort known as Amelia Island Plantation.
In perfect harmony with its pristine surroundings, Amelia Island Plantation’s three 18-hole layouts offer a combination of miraculous scenery and highly demanding shot making. Make no mistake, these are not the typical championship (wink-wink) courses found at many resorts. To enjoy yourself you must either be a serious golfer or a masochist. These courses have no interest in falsely flattering you.
The accommodations at this sprawling resort consist of condominium / villas and a main high-rise hotel. The luxurious villas are set back from the shoreline amid lovely old oaks and pines. The hotel, however, is situated hard against the coast, only buffered by five incredible golf holes which roll on top of the dunes, but are anything but a day at the beach.
These holes comprise the most spectacular portion of the Ocean Links course. The rest of the layout travels through dense woodland or alongside large lakes, with narrow fairways accentuating the value of every shot. No such thing as a good miss here. Most of the greens are elevated, undulating and tend to shrug off putts which are not dropped dead center. Four of the holes wend their way through a condo cluster, and although not pretty, are likely to leave the real eyesores on your scorecard.
Ocean Links lays down its first gauntlet at No. 3, a 397-yard par 4 that bends sharply to the left on approach. If the tee shot lands anywhere but long on the right side of the fairway, the second shot is seriously imperiled. If you’re short, there’s no angle to the green at all, with the dogleg beginning 270 yards from the back tees. Even if your tee shot is hit dead center, your next shot is a killer. The elevated green slopes front to back, with most shots landing in the middle of the green rolling off into a punishingly deep swale. Only a draw played from the right side of the fairway has any real hope of glory on this severe hole.
The front nine’s trio of beach holes begins with No. 4. This is a tremendously exciting par 4, with the back tees perched in the dunes overlooking the Atlantic. At 347 yards, the hole is short but fraught with obstacles. Not only is there out of bounds left and right, but a pair of palm trees show up quite uninvited, one on the left and one in the left-center of the fairway. They can be played over, but prevent a clear view of a green which undulates so much, it appears to wobble.
A massive waste bunker sprinkled with nettlesome vegetation fronts the green on the 6th hole, the second of the two oceanside par 3s. This hole plays directly in front of the hotel, so try to keep the invisible gallery out of your head. At 178 yards from the back, a long and narrow green requires a fade in, as the green has a steep bank which forces draws into a shallow swale. As is the case throughout the course, mid-range putts that appear to have an excellent chance of dropping are disinclined to stop until eight feet past the hole.
The front nine concludes with a bedeviling par 5. The no. 1 handicap hole is a straight and narrow 537 yards that gives nothing back. The drive must clear and carry marsh grass to a fairway protected by wetlands left and a cluster of oaks too close for comfort to the right. The course’s nasty streak can be acutely felt here as long draws on the second shot are pushed sharply left by a tilted fairway and just keep going and going until you fear you’ve found water. Mercifully, an out-of-sight catch bunker spares you total incredulity at your bad luck. If your second shot is fortunate enough to hug the right side, a large fairway bunker backed by a high mound obscures the green and all but the top of the flag from view. Hitting this green is no picnic either; it is one of the smallest on the day.
From the blue tees what you see is water, white tees, water, a waste area, and water in succession before the landing zone becomes friendly on the par 5 11th. Another pond 100 yards out protects a green with funhouse full of breaks.
The fiendishness continues on no. 13, where 211 yards of water and then a little sand separate the back tees from, get this, an elevated green. What’s more, there is no bailout area to speak of. The course booklet says, not immodestly, “one of the toughest par threes ever when the pin is back left.” My question is, why qualify it? The no. 10 handicap hole, a level infrequently accorded a par 3.
The course becomes a little tattered looking with scruffy tee areas and condos all around on holes 11-14. Though the aesthetics may suffer here, the golf doesn’t. No. 14 is a good example. A straight and long par 4 of 414 yards from the tips, there is plenty of water to the left and on approach. A roomy greenside catch bunker is your ally; it will spare you water left and backyard long.
At the 15th tee you will hear the surf crashing beyond and below your target as you stand inland contemplating how best to hit the uphill green 187 yards away. With dense forest on the left and nothing but an expanse of waste bunker in front of you things are tough enough. But this daunting par 3 plays also directly into the wind. You’ll forgive your score, however, when taking in the view that awaits up top of the green.
Sandals are an option and not a bad one on the walk to the 16th tee, as wooden steps alternate with sand. Once up there, however, the casual atmosphere immediately ceases. One look out at the most exacting tee shot of the day will curdle your blood with trepidation. Your drive ideally plays out to the left above the dunes and slides back over deer fencing to a safe landing in the fairway, which begins 180 yards from the back tee. A little too much fade, though, and you’ll slither off the fairway, down a slope to a horribly fitting death among the mangroves, whose wind-conditioned tops look like the Bride of Frankenstein’s coif.
Even more sinister is what happens to drives in the 170-190 yard range. They are afforded exactly 18 yards of landing area between out-of-bounds stakes. On the other hand, if you’ve survived your tee shot course architect Bobby Weed does throw you a rare bone. This is one of the few holes which allows a low running approach shot to hit paydirt, as the fairway travels downhill to a somewhat concave green.
As you come upon the 17th tee, the initial reaction is, “Whew! An open hole!” This, despite the fact that 140 yards of water lie between you and the fairway. Still, it feels as though the course has relaxed its grip a bit since an erratic shot can remain in play. The tee shot comes at the fairway from a 45-degree angle. Once the water is cleared there is an immense landing area to play with. Three shots are the smart way to go on this brawny par 5 of 528 yards. The green dangles precariously by the lake and cants steeply from right to left toward the water with negligible greenside rough in between. When the pin is back left, a direct play at the flag is fool’s gold.
At the 18th an island green on a bite-size par 3 is a fitting coda to end the round. The sixth par 3, it, like all the rest, demands precision off the tee. Course designer Weed as a compassionate parting gesture places a catch swale between the back of the green and the lake beyond, so a real effort can be made to go after the flag. At just 135 yards from the back tees, this is a fun hole to put the wraps on a singular experience that on reflection feels more like a saga than a round of golf.
Of course the pleasures at Omni Amelia Island Plantation are not limited to golf. The spa is state-of-the-art and a principal reason Conde Nast’s Traveler calls the resort, “One of the best places to stay in the whole world.” Tennis, bicycling and fishing enthusiasts will have a ball here as well.
There is no shortage of excellent dining options either. We chose the casual Verandah for dinner and after the success of our meal were surprised to find out it is most visitors’ second choice for fine dining at the resort. Verandah’s seafood-oriented menu offered starters like sautéed shrimp in mango sauce with a soy ginger glaze. It was a spectacular harbinger, with the shrimp plump and juicy and the sauce and glaze executing a lovely pas de deux.
The toasted-sesame vinaigrette on fresh greens continued this dinner on its merry way toward culinary nirvana. Chinese noodles added crunchy texture. The salad was so good it aroused a “don’t talk to me, I am eating” impulse.
The main course was excellent. Sauteed snapper sprinkled with shaved pecans accompanied by tender-crisp green beans was a little piece of heaven, even if the mashed potatoes, soaked a bit too liberally in oil, brought the dish ever so slightly back to earth. The ambitious elements of the dish, particularly the pairing of snapper and pecans, worked beautifully. The presentation was happily restrained as well. No showboating from this chef. Just sublime ingredients complementing one another in ways both subtle and grand.
No less comforting are the immaculately maintained villas at Amelia Island Plantation. Our balconied three-bedroom unit with a cathedral ceiling contained spacious everything: baths, living room, bedrooms. The walk-in closets alone were the size of most European hotel rooms. Decorated smartly in white and off-white with effective splashes of color throughout, the rooms whispered southern gentility at every turn, from the sunroom accessed by sliding doors to the hearth with the white-streaked black marble inlay. Each room had individual furnishings, but all shared fluffy bed pillows, rustic cabinetry and well-coordinated night tables. Naturally, the oval-shaped master bath had a tiled platform leading into the tub.
The following morning brings a new golf adventure and one no less memorable. On this day the challenge comes from Pete Dye, whose magnificent Oak Marsh layout does nothing to soften his reputation as designer of imaginatively diabolical courses. Tree-lined fairways are occasionally tree-canopied as well. Water carries might have you looking around for a ferryman. And the greens? Well, on the odd chance you hit one, don’t dare expect your shot to funnel toward the hole. In short, his trademarks are all in place, but absent this time are the tricks he’s famous for importing to sites that could use a gimmick or two. At Amelia Island his layout recognizes that all the treacherous elements he could wish for nature has already provided.
Take no. 6 for example. How’s this for a detail from El Diablo? Should your approach on this 428-yard par 4 veer a little to the right to stay away from greenside water, you may have tree trouble, but not of the usual sort. You can be twenty feet from the trunk of an ancient oak, but Spanish moss draping off a branch manages to lilt across your face like a windshield wiper on intermittent as you concentrate on a delicate touch shot. This green is no picnic either as it slopes so steeply toward the water that NASCAR drivers facing this bank would double their grip on the wheel.
All but the most undaunted souls will feel defeated even before striking their tee shot on the villainous par 3 7th. 184 yards and all carry over water from the back tees, the hole plays even longer than it looks as a prevailing wind and pin placement back left conspire to mock your tee shot.
After eight asphyxiatingly tight holes, no. 9 comes as a welcome breath of big sky. Here the marsh character of the course is illustrated to dramatic effect. A par 5 of 527 yards, the fairway is yawningly wide, with low country views relaxing the noose of the first eight holes. A driver can be followed by a three wood and if each is a little off, a par is still highly achievable. A chance to locate confidence heading into the turn.
Two tight holes open the back nine but yield to a wondrous par 3 at the 12th. The hole is just 168 yards from the blue tees, but never mind that. To your left is a panorama of wetlands and marsh grass so beautiful it qualifies as the maritime version of amber waves of grain. Par 3s without island greens don’t come any lovelier.
The 15th has to be seen to be believed. The back tees are set so far back they nearly don’t make the course booklet. Once there, you are faced with this mission: Clear a pond of 120 yards, while at the same time keeping your drive low enough to whizz under a layer of tree branches. Good luck Mr. Phelps! More trickery lies ahead. The approach shot appears to be faced with expanses of sand fronting the green, but it’s an optical illusion. Two small traps are made to look much larger by clever mounding beginning 80 yards from the green.
If this sounds unique, you ain’t seen nothing yet. The par 3 16th features tee boxes at right angles to each other. From the blues you come straight over the tidal marshes to the green 163 yards away. The whites, on the other hand, play with the water lateral on the left from nearly the same distance, 159 yards. The whites arguably require a more difficult play, as a large oak fronts the left side of the green and must be played over when the pin is back left.
At the 441-yard par 4 17th, golfers seem to be invited to walk a plank en route to their tee shot. A thin isthmus projects into the marshlands 195 yards from landfall, or at least the fairway. Owing to the height of the marsh grasses the shot is also somewhat blind and, on this day, played into the wind. Goodbye, Mr. Bond.
At least the driver gets some sun at the 17th and 18th tees, with wide open fairways bordered by wetlands left and trees comfortably right. Each requires deft shots to the green, however. The 17th demands either a long draw or a riskier fade over the marsh, while the par 5 18th calls for a lay-up second shot and a delicate pitch over wetlands on approach.
The two holes are a rousing finish to a course which celebrates the splendid natural setting it plays in, around, and occasionally under. Truly a course to Dye for.