If birthdays become more special the older you get, imagine turning 450; especially if you are one of the fortunate few Floridians that call the charming city of St. Augustine home.
The celebration, parties and fireworks have already begun along Florida’s Historic Coast as 2015 marks the milestone year when General Pedro Menendez, and a thousand Spanish settlers, first set foot on the sandy shores of the area on September 8, 1565.
Fast forward a few centuries, and the area’s proud history prevails making St. Augustine the oldest, continuously occupied European settlement in the United States. A walk along the brick-paved streets will reveal one of the city’s 60 historic sites including Castillo de San Marcos, the oldest masonry fort in the U.S., and the Fountain of Youth, the location of the original Spanish settlement of St. Augustine.
No party would be complete without mention of food and the delectable dining options available. In addition to its quaint neighbourhoods and historically significant sites, St. Augustine is quickly gaining a reputation for its eclectic and diverse restaurants. Ask any of the locals, and they will tell you that this is a foodie paradise renowned for its mix of authentic Spanish and seafood cuisine.
And then there is the golf scene that starts a few miles north in Jacksonville, extends south through Ponte Vedra, before ending in St. Augustine. General Menendez would be proud of Florida’s “First” and “’Historic” Coasts, a 50+ mile stretch that encompasses several of the best beaches in Florida and includes many outstanding golf courses. The best way to get here from Toronto or Montreal is by flying to Jacksonville, Florida’s often overlooked and under-appreciated city renowned for its greenery, parks and famous JAX beaches, where living the “salt-life” is more than just an expression – it truly is a way of life.
Most avid golfers would agree that the kingpin of the area is one of the game’s most preeminent addresses – TPC Sawgrass. Located in Ponte Vedra, TPC Sawgrass may be home to the most famous eighteen holes in the U.S.; certainly during the first week of May, when the world’s best golfers convene to contest The PLAYERS Championship on Pete Dye’s diabolical Stadium Course.
Built in 1982, TPC Sawgrass is the brainchild of former PGA TOUR commissioner Deane Beman, who paid one dollar ($1) to transform over 415 acres of gator-infested swampland into one of golf’s most feared and revered designs. His vision was simple – build a “college bowl game” atmosphere for golf. After watching Rickie Fowler win an epic, three-hole playoff battle on the infamous par 3, 17th island green earlier this year, I think both Beman and Dye can deservedly relish in their accomplishment.
While the golf course rightfully attracts most of the attention, be sure to include a wander through the Mediterranean-inspired, 77,000 sq. ft. clubhouse as part of your TPC Sawgrass experience. As you enter through the grand lobby, you will be welcomed by one of TPC’s friendly Storytellers, who will be more than happy to take you on a tour of the clubhouse where you’ll see plenty of golf artwork, The Presidents Cup and FedEx Cup trophies, and the original $1 cheque Commissioner Beman paid to the Fletcher brothers for the property. There is also a $100 bill on display that came from the naysayers at the old Sawgrass Country Club who bet Beman would never fulfill his dream and complete his “course in the swamp.”
Despite hosting the world’s best golfers for more than 30 years, a four month lead time is required as preparation for the May gala starts every year in January. During my visit prior to this year’s championship, I had the pleasure of meeting longtime General Manager Bill Hughes who knows more about TPC Sawgrass than anyone else. Like a kid on Christmas morning, Bill’s passion for this place is obvious. When I asked him to describe what it is like to be part of one of golf’s greatest events every year, his response was straightforward. “This isn’t just a golf tournament, it’s a community event. It’s all about the charities and giving back to the area. Last year the tournament raised more than $7 million for over 100 local North Florida charities, including the First Tee, and we expect to exceed this amount next year. That’s what I’m most proud of in my role here at TPC Sawgrass.”
After fully immersing yourself in all that TPC Sawgrass has to offer, continue south along Florida’s Historic Coast and visit St. Augustine’s World Golf Village and the World Golf Hall of Fame and Museum. More than 4,000 golf artifacts, old and new, are on display tastefully showcasing the history and traditions of the game. A highlight for me included a tour of the Member Locker Room where the likes of Nicklaus, Palmer, Player, Watson, and Mickelson (just to name a few) have each left mementos behind in their own personalized locker for fans to see and appreciate.
There are two “official” golf courses at the World Golf Hall of Fame; the King & Bear and Slammer & Squire. The former is the only golf course in the world designed in collaboration between two of the game’s greatest – Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus. The latter was designed by architect Bobby Weed along with golf legends Sam Snead (the “Slammer) and Gene Sarazen (the “Squire”). Both are certainly worth playing and were recently listed among Golf Digest’s Top 75 Golf Courses in Florida.
While the three aforementioned courses receive most of the accolades, there are some excellent, lesser-known layouts I would recommend. Depending on who you ask, there may be as many as 70 golf courses sandwiched between Jacksonville, Ponte Vedra and St. Augustine for you to choose from. To simplify things, I suggest reserving your tee time through Florida’s First Coast of Golf. Several good courses I played using this booking platform included Windsor Parke Golf Club, St. John’s Golf and Country Club, and the Palencia Club.
2015 is an auspicious year for the northeast coast of Florida. With 450 years of history there is plenty to celebrate for anyone interested in discovering the Fountain of Youth and playing some of the best golf courses the Sunshine State has to offer. Whether you decide to visit this year, or sometime in the future, Florida’s Historic Coast is its indisputable First Coast for golf.
Happy 450th Birthday St. Augustine! General Pedro Menendez would be pleased to know that the area of Florida he discovered many years ago has become much more than a great golf destination.
Great Places to Stay
Casa Marina (Jacksonville)
Sawgrass Marriott Golf Resort (Ponte Vedra)
Renaissance Resort at World Golf Village (St. Augustine
Great Places to Eat
Moxie Kitchen and Cocktails (Jacksonville)
Vernon’s at Sawgrass Marriott Golf Resort (Ponte Vedra)
Columbia Restaurant (St. Augustine)
Great Courses to Play
TPC Sawgrass Stadium Course
King & Bear
Slammer & Squire
St. John’s Golf and Country Club
World Golf Village and World Golf Hall of Fame & Museum
For More Information About Florida’s First and Historic Coasts
St. Augustine Ponte Vedra, Florida’s Historic Coast