Streamsong Blue
Florida, United States of America

Is this…. Florida?!

Until Streamsong, no resort has ever featured multiple courses where players were equally torn as to their favorite. If ten golfers were asked, three would respond that the Black Course is their favorite, three Red, and three Blue. The deciding tenth vote could go any way. What a dream scenario for a resort! Some might say Bandon pulled off a similar feat and while Bandon Trails is the author’s favorite course, he understands that he’s in a minority. Pinehurst came close in the mid 1930s but No. 4 never quite achieved the popularity of No. 2 or No. 3.

How did Streamsong manage it? The visionary for its creation is Richard Mack of the Mosaic Corporation, which had been mining for decades 16,000 acres in Polk County, Florida for phosphate. By law, the company was required to remediate the land and certainly, Mosaic could have returned it to a series of deep water fishing holes and walking trails. However, the drawback to that environmentally friendly approach was that it would have meant a minimal economic impact for the area. Instead, Mack lobbied internally to develop a golf resort that ticked both boxes by paying tribute to the landscape and creating a tax base for the county. Today, over 500 people are employed by the resort, many of whom drive nearly one hour to work.

Its path to success seems straightforward: offer 16,000 acres to the two premier architects of the past thirty years to build courses without an allowance for homes. Initially, Bill Coore did a preliminary 18 hole routing on what he determined to be the best land. He found playing corridors that largely became Red 7, 9, 14-18 and Blue 3-6, 8 and 15 as well as bits of other holes. Because the property is enticingly removed from a population center, Mack was adamant that it be a 36 hole resort. Visitors needed to not only play but spend the night, eat, and drink to make the resort financially viable. So, it became Tom Doak’s turn to peruse the vast acreage. He concurred that Coore had identified the superior topography, soil and features. The question became: could the identified area support 36 holes? The two architects fanned out and found what would become Red 10-13 and Blue 9-11.  Subsequently, recently mined land was designated Red 2-4. Ultimately, the two architects became convinced that two courses of comparable quality could emerge.

And that’s what happened. The Red and Blue opened to great fanfare in January, 2012 and were complemented by Gil Hanse’s Black in the fall of 2017. In the interval, a luxe, minimalistic lodge was unveiled consisting primarily of glass, wood and stone that’s as nice as any 200 room accommodation in golf. This remarkable, sure-footed, high standard facility has transformed golf tourism in Central Florida.

That’s the big picture but equally important are the details that the resort gets correct. It’s hugely important to the author how the resort steadfastly proclaims that golf is a walking sport. No asphalt paths mar the rural landscape and all three courses are walking only during the prime playing season, October through May. Given Florida’s heat, allowances are made for carts during the summer but the optimal time to visit is winter when the Bermuda fairways are dormant. Rusty Mercer, formerly the Greenkeeper at Coore & Crenshaw’s Cuscowilla in Georgia, became the resort’s Director of Agronomy in 2010. If anyone knows Bermuda grass, it is he.

The fairways, seeded with 419 Tiff Bermuda, develop a gorgeous tawny color during the winter months. Kyle Harris, an intern on Doak’s crew, stayed behind after the completed project and became the Golf Course Superintendent for the Blue/Red. These men and their crew strive to present the fastest, bounciest surfaces possible. Dormant Bermuda is an ideal playing surface, especially on sandy loam. However, it must be remembered that this site is straight mined sand lacking in all nutrient capacity and structure. Thus, what has developed is because of the work done to improve the soil, something that any environmentalist would laude. Importantly, the return of nutrients into the ground gives Mercer and team more latitude to stress the turf and seek optimal playing conditions. Does that mean that the courses play bouncier today than they did seven years ago? Yes.

The sandy texture of the property and the exquisite hues of the dormant Bermuda fairways provide an ideal environment in which to enjoy the game.

When the resort opened, one could be forgiven for questioning if the golf would be, for lack of a better word, ‘authentic.’ Building courses on an abandoned phosphate mine sounds gimmicky but this land was, in fact, a mix of oceans and exposed landforms millions of years ago. Just one look at the five foot jaw of the Megalodon in the lobby of the lodge confirms the property’s pre-historic roots. Resort literature makes reference to ‘Thick forests and grassy plains provided refuge for shovel-tusked mastodons, hornless rhinos, humpless camels and 30-foot crocodiles.’ It goes on to chronicle the property’s evolution,

‘Glacial activity caused the oceans to rise and fall again and again over a 50 million year period. At times, Florida was twice its current width. At other times it was less than 100 miles long and 10 miles wide.
Man’s activities here trace to early Indian tribes living in native villages throughout the region. Hernando DeSoto and his army camped on or near this property in 1539. Early settlers endured incredible hardships to tame Central Florida’s vast, wild lands for ranching and farming. Their story is chronicled in the award-winning novel, A Land Remembered, which is found in every guest room of Streamsong Lodge. In the late 1800s came the discovery of massive phosphate rock deposits that had formed 10 to 15 million years earlier when the oceans receded and the remains of sea life settled into the deep sediment layers that were left behind. An industry was thus born that would become the economic backbone of Central Florida for more than a century. To this day, the land surrounding Streamsong is known as the Bone Valley region of Florida. By the early 1990s there were approximately 20 companies in the region mining phosphate, a critical natural resource and essential crop nutrient required by farmers throughout the world to feed our planet’s growing population. Small phosphate “company towns” provided inexpensive housing for employees and their families in the late 1800s and early 1900s. There were village swimming pools, company hotels and hospitals. Eventually, with the economic vitality of the phosphate industry as a driver, employees began moving to nearby cities that in turn grew and prospered. One descendant of those early phosphate companies, Mosaic, is now the world’s leading producer of phosphate crop nutrients—and also the proud developer and owner of Streamsong Resort. Our aspiration—and inspiration—for this former mining site was to create a world-renowned luxury resort and golf destination, one that celebrates the heritage of the land…’  

Should one still be skeptical about golf on a former phosphate mine, remember that it was a mine for less than .000006% of its life! For the majority of the time, the property was a mix of sea and land, about as authentic a natural golf setting as one could hope. Sand is a byproduct of phosphate mining and if there is one attribute crucial to great golf, it is sand.

The history lesson is important because it’s integral to the golf. Specifically, the Blue Course enjoys some of the most luscious random fairway contours found in the region. And it is this topography – the random, lumpy-bumpy movements and how they were incorporated – that allows the holes to hold their heads high in the company of courses situated beside large bodies of water. Only nature can produce such landforms and hopefully the architect and his crew are adept at preserving and embellishing them during construction. Bruce Hepner (in his last project for Doak) led an all-star cast of shapers including Mike McCartin (who built the superb sixth green), Eric Iverson, Brain Schneider, Brian Slawnik, and Matt Hunter.

The rumpled fairways of the Blue distinguish it from 99.99% of the golf in the Southeast.

This gentleman’s approach to the 12th is made immeasurably more interesting by his awkward stance with the ball well above his feet. Any lover of links golf will relish the opportunity to make the necessary adjustments.

With improvements in agronomy, playing surfaces in all sorts of climates can be made firm and fast. Sometimes such surfaces can release the ball too quickly with the unfortunate and unintended result that balls don’t hang on slopes (i.e. all balls collect in the same low points). As seen above, these Bermuda fairways provide just enough stickiness for balls to rest on a variety of wonky locations across the rolling terrain. The importance of this can’t be overstated.

Regardless of approaching from Tampa or Orlando, one drives through small towns that offer an unadulterated view of central Florida and stand in contrast to the elegant resort. Overall there is a refreshing, genuine feel that is largely absent from either of the state’s glittering coastlines. Two clubhouses (one for the Black and one for Blue/Red) and the lodge complete the offering. All three structures were designed by Albert Alfonso, whose intent was to have the property’s evolution represented by the architecture. While the structures and golf are modern, only time-honored design principles have been applied throughout the resort.

Remarkable how the lodge compliments the texture and colors of the course.

Golfers obtain only fleeting glimpses of the Red/Blue clubhouse during play as it is snuggled among the biggest dunes.

To commence play on the Blue, the golfer clambers up a 100 feet dune to the first tee, the high point of the property. All around there’s a pure golf landscape, something unheard of in Florida. It makes for a rousing start – and makes the golfer glad he came here.

Long views of pure golf are rare in Florida, except, that is, at Streamsong.

Holes to Note

(Please note: the distances below are from Black tees, which yield a 6,700 yard course. The green tees stretch over 7,150 yards and would overwhelm most resort play).

Second hole, 530 yards; The author grew up playing a course with four par 5s that had one common feature: a cross bunker approximately sixty yards short of the green. Though those four bunkers were in the direct line of play, they had a muted impact. Too often, people routinely laid up to their favorite wedge distance (from 80 to 110 yards) and went about their business, unperturbed by those bunkers. Compare that to this scenario where cross hazards lie in wait from 210 yards to 115 yards from the green. The tiger going for the green isn’t worried about such features (just as he isn’t concerned with bunkers 60 yards short). However, the rest of us must deal with these physical and mental hazards. Pity, more architects don’t make the second shot as interesting.

Plenty of hazards are found within the Blue’s broad fairways. This dunescape was created 150 yards short of the 2nd green and golfers of all abilities enjoy a sense of accomplishment when they get past it in two.

Third hole, 370 yards; In architecture, the obvious runs the risk of becoming tedious. The author vividly remembers a round in 1999 at Doak’s newly opened Riverfront course outside of Williamsburg wherein the clear play was to the outside of the dogleg seventh. This became a revelatory moment to the author and it took a while to sink in but what a fine departure from the norm to play to the outside versus the inside of a dogleg. The same strategy occurs here: the worst trouble and a lumpy fairway dominate the left while an ‘Elysian Field’ extends long right.

Despite the dramatic landscape, there is a good chance of playing multiple rounds on the Blue Course without losing a ball. That’s an odd statement to make with a lake down the left of this hole but, in fact, the play is to the outside of the dogleg.

The angled green is best approached from the right center of the fairway but one must skirt this pesky solitary bunker 150 yards from the green.

Fourth hole, 415 yards; Bill Coore and Tom Doak share many more similarities than differences in their approach to architecture. Therefore, as previously mentioned, it is no surprise to learn that Coore also routed a hole over much of the same ground as today’s final version. Differences exist in length (Doak’s hole is longer) and green placement. Still, both architects saw the virtue of incorporating a long low ridgeline into the hole. As deans of the Second Golden Age, both architects embraced and drove the return to greens open in front that enabled ground options, especially on long, tough two shotters. That’s fine and dandy but they also know that rules are meant to be broken or how deadly dull things would be if all designs followed prescribed rules. At the fourth, a brute of a two shotter with a miniature cliff thirty yards short of the putting surface produces an uncompromising approach. A bunch of two shotters similar to this would overpower the golfer but as a standalone, it shines. As with many world-class holes, there’s the obvious (its heroic nature) and what’s learned (an ocean of short grass on the upper level surrounds the small putting surface and makes the hole immensely playable). The author places it in Doak’s eclectic best 18 holes – and it isn’t the only hole on the Blue that garners that accolade. The hole’s epic nature seems out of place in Florida, which makes us like it even more.

What a sight. A draw off the tee that hugs the bend in the fairway leaves the golfer the best angle into the green that’s on top of the ledge.

‘Thrilling landscape’ and ‘Florida golf’ rarely go together but the 4th defines the exception.

Many golfers lie two, facing this 80 yard pitch should their drives not find the fairway.

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