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Playing Among Legends

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A trip to the World Golf Village near Jacksonville, Florida is a golf adventure that’ll test your game, pamper your soul, and bring you closer than ever to the celebrated legends in golf’s Hall of Fame.

Two years ago I experienced one of golf’s true thrills—walking across the ancient Swilcan Burn Bridge on my way up the 18th fairway of the Old Course at St. Andrews, Scotland. Recently I had the chance to walk across the famous bridge again, but this time I did it in St. Augustine, Florida.

No, golf’s most recognizable stone bridge hasn’t been dismantled, packed-up and Fed-Ex-ed to America as was once similarly done with England’s London Bridge and more recently with the original Old Course starter hut. Instead, the Swilcan Bridge has been replicated with painstaking accuracy as part of a beautiful exhibit at the World Golf Hall of Fame.
When the original World Golf Hall of Fame was established decades ago at the historic but rather sleepy Pinehurst Resort in North Carolina, there were good intentions to make it a worthy place to honor golf’s legends. It didn’t work. It fell into physical disrepair and spiritual obscurity.

The new Hall of Fame is still in its infancy, and there are times when you could chip a bucket of range balls near the front door of the Hall and never hit a soul. But that is changing, and as word circulates on what a splendid venue this place is, chipping balls at the turnstiles will be out of the question.

Say Hello to History

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The Hall of Fame sits in a magnificent setting in the heart of the World Golf Village along the I-95 corridor between Jacksonville and St. Augustine. This delightful place includes The Renaissance Hotel, a conference center, retail shops including the PGA TOUR pro shop, places to eat including the Murray Brothers’ Caddy Shack, and golf to play. The shrine to golf and individuals who have contributed so much to it is housed in the most prominent building on the complex—a 190-foot New England-esque tower that rises above all others, can be seen from miles away and sits as an invitation to come and explore golf’s beginnings, its growth and its heroes.

Don’t be scared off if you’re not what some would call a “museum rat.” The Hall is just the centerpiece of a greater golf experience along what’s been called Florida’s First Coast and it is so masterfully designed and managed that even the most anxious player will lose himself in the stories and spirit of the place. I love golf history and I could have spent a full day surrounded by the magic, but the Hall can give just about anyone the historical chills in less than an hour.

Ever try to make a putt with a wooden-shafted club and a gutta-percha ball on an 1880’s style green? You can give it a shot at the museum. This is part of the Hall’s interactive approach to helping golfers grasp the game’s history.

But the Hall shines best when it sheds some light on the unique personalities of the game’s greatest players. In a rather eclectic collection you’ll find items like Jack Nicklaus’ favorite fishing rod, Babe Zaharias’ harmonica, and Nancy Lopez’s Barbie Doll. The Hall asked inductees to donate an item that said something more about their overall lives rather than just statistics, clubs and trophies.

The Barbie Doll story, by the way, is one of the more intriguing. As a young girl and developing junior player, Nancy Lopez’s father gave his daughter an incentive by rewarding her with a new Barbie Doll outfit whenever she accomplished something in golf—won a junior tournament, for example—and that doll turned out to be the center of her early motivation. She outgrew Barbie when her rewards more frequently became trophies and checks, but Nancy credits Barbie with helping to put her on the path to become one of golf’s greatest.

The Hall of Fame also includes a version of Alan Shepard’s “lunar club” from the Apollo 14 mission to the moon, golf shoes from President Eisenhower and even a golf-related etching by Rembrandt. You can test your knowledge of the game’s rules on interactive computers, analyze your own swing next to golf’s greats, and stroll through the portraits and crystals that describe the career highlights of each inductee. In 2001 the Hall inducted, among others, Greg Norman, Payne Stewart and past president of the USGA, Judy Bell.

Time to Play

The Hall is truly golf’s Cooperstown, but it is certainly not the only draw at the World Golf Village. Golfers don’t want to stand around talking golf all day, they want to play it.
A good place to start is with the two golf courses at the WGV—the Slammer & Squire and the King & Bear, plus the brand new, first ever, PGA TOUR Golf Academy run by one of the Golf Magazine’s top-100 teachers, Scott Sackett. I got to experience it all including a comprehensive video analysis and lesson from Scott.

The Slammer & Squire was built as a tribute to Sam Snead and Gene Sarazen. It was designed by architect Bobby Weed but included a fair amount of input from the two legends. This golf course has some superb beauty and a couple of the best short par-4’s I’ve had the chance to play. It runs at just over 6100 yards from the blue tees and that makes it quite playable for everyone. But if you want to play it like the Tour players do, stretch back to the “Scratch” tees at face 6939 yards.

Although the first tee for the Slammer & Squire is just steps away from the entrance to the Hall of Fame and the center of the Village, a number of the course’s fairways are tucked neatly into the natural woodlands and wetlands that surround the WGV. The middle holes are the most impressive. They allow for a bit of serenity and stunning views. The Slammer & Squire technically may be considered a “resort course” but it has few of the traditional, negative trappings of one.

The newer of the two WGV courses is the one and only course co-designed by Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus. If you know anything about the distinct features of a Palmer or Nicklaus layout then it is easy to see when Arnie or Jack got the upper hand on a particular hole. The front nine has a Scottish feel to it with the back nine filled with huge, old oak trees and much tighter fairways. This layout is the tougher of the two WGV courses but is still quite playable. The layout has five sets of tees and if you play from the correct ones for your ability you’ll have an enjoyable day on this one-of-a-kind design by two of golf’s greatest ambassadors.

Remember to take a big bite out of the enormous Red Delicious apples in the barrels placed around the golf course. It’s a Jack Nicklaus signature.

World Class Lessons

One afternoon during my stay at the Village, after 18-holes at the Slammer & Squire, my photographer, Eric Cotton, and I were anxious to take part in what turned out to be one of the best experiences of the visit—a personal lesson from one of America’s best teachers. Scott Sackett is one of those guys that completely looks the part of a PGA Professional. He’s tall, lanky, and wears a neatly pressed blue golf shirt and expertly draped slacks. He wears what appear to be blue Oakley sunglasses surrounding his eyes and a PGA Tour cap on his head. Why is it that PGA Professionals can look so completely together and magnificently comfortable in the clothes of their chosen profession? Golf writers, on the other hand, tend to look like, well, guys that slept in the clothes of their chosen profession.

We spent two hours with Scott going over our individual style of play, our ball flight tendencies and videotaping our swings. We studied the takeaways and follow-throughs in slow motion in front of a computer screen and found, in clear view, what ails us. Scott gave us some basic, fundamental ideas to work on and we headed back to the range where he watched us hit balls and helped remedy our swing faults and crooked club positions. His encouragement and simple philosophy on teaching was a joy to encounter and I am convinced that approach is what makes him one of America’s best. Scott was clearly born to teach golf.

The PGA TOUR Academy was still under construction when we visited WGV, but it is now complete and running at full speed under the directorship of Scott and his staff of teachers including the WGV’s resident TOUR instructor Calvin Peete. Calvin was on the range when we were working with Scott and was quick to give a number of students a few pointers. It’s pretty nice to have a 12-time winner on the PGA TOUR as part of your staff and one of the many reasons this golf academy is going to be a success.

First Coast Golf

The World Golf Village sits in a marvelous area for golf. After you’ve challenged the Slammer & Squire and the King & Bear you can head out to knock it around on some the best tracks in the land. We played Laurel Island Links just over the border in Georgia, Cimarrone Golf Club in Jacksonville and, the biggest thrill, the Stadium Course at the Tournament Players Club in Ponte Vedra.

Laurel Island is designed by Davis Love lll and is in the little community of Kingsland, Georgia. It’s about 25 minutes from the Jacksonville airport, but seemingly miles away from civilization. Laurel Island feels incredibly remote. The course covers 125 acres along the Crooked River and is in the middle of woodlands, salt marshes and wetlands. I can’t remember playing a golf course that was as starkly quiet as this one. The setting at Laurel Links allows for a wonderful silence in striking natural terrain.

Cimmarone Golf Club is not nearly as quiet, but still allows for good golf. The course sits close to a golf community, but doesn’t feel as if you are trapped inside a housing development. This is one of many Jacksonville golf courses that give you a very nice day of golf without costing you a bundle.

One of the highlights of the trip was our day at the Sawgrass Marriott Resort. This is the home of the Tournament Players Club, Pete Dye’s Stadium Course and of one of the most famous holes in golf—the 132-yard, par-3 17th featuring that treacherous island green.
We’ve all heard about how tough this course can be, had seen the TOUR players struggle on TV and we were a bit worried about getting around the course without hurting ourselves. It’s one of the tightest layouts I’ve ever played, but at the same time, one of the most beautiful. Pete Dye’s reputation for diabolical designs has come directly from this golf course and you will certainly find no mercy here. The fairways are like driving through the eye of a needle, the greens are like riding a roller coaster at Great America and visually the golf course is outright intimidating. But, let me tell ‘ya, the Stadium Course is absolute ecstasy to play. I was lucky enough to break 90 and to par the 17th, but for most middle-handicappers just breaking 100 is a very good day at the Stadium Course.

Hall of Fame Food

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After a day of golf, and certainly a day at Sawgrass, one needs good nourishment. The World Golf Village and the entire St. Augustine area have some absolutely scrumptious ways to fill up your empty tummy. Many times on golf trips, your buddies are happy to load up on your typical bar food. Well, that can certainly be done, but I might suggest a different approach—get out and try some of the best food in Florida. And whatever you do, don’t miss out on the crab cakes. I’m pretty sure I had some version of crab cakes nearly every day.

I did mention I like crab cakes, didn’t I?

You really must begin the eating part of your trip at the Murray Brothers Caddy Shack restaurant in the middle of the WGV complex. The ultimate golf eatery is run by Bill and his brothers and features everything from nachos to burgers to barbeque to a good steak in an atmosphere that oozes golf. The Hall of Fame’s Chief Operating Officer, Bruce Lucker hosted a wonderful dinner for us at Caddy Shack on our first night to the Village and made sure we ordered the onion rings as an appetizer. Bruce insisted they were “the best you’ve ever had.”

I did mention I like crab cakes, didn’t I?

You could make your way back to Caddy Shack most every night and be happy, but I suggest a bit more adventure. Definitely do the 20-minute drive into the heart of St. Augustine and take in some of the best seafood in America’s southeast. St. Augustine is the oldest city in America and is packed with colonial charm that immediately puts you in that laidback, “Margaritaville” state of mind.

When you consider many of the great venues and golf resorts of the world, The World Golf Village and the Hall of Fame have some growing up to do. But with youth comes enthusiasm and there is a definite sense that this complex has a solid future ahead of it. Yes, there are plenty of tremendous places around the country to take a golf trip, but there is only one spot where the courses are top-notch and the history and legends of the game get top billing.

For information about a World Golf Village vacation: 1-800-228-9290

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Last Updated: 6/3/02