From race cars to golf carts: Chasing pars around Daytona Beach and the Space Coast

By Jason Scott Deegan, Senior Staff Writer

PALM COAST, Fla. -- Ira Gold was planning to stay at a Best Western during his visit to the Daytona International Speedway for the Grand American Road Racing's Rolex 24 at the end of January.

Hammock Beach Resort - Conservatory Course - 18th
The 18th green of the Conservatory Course at Hammock Beach Resort shimmers in the morning sunrise.
Hammock Beach Resort - Conservatory Course - 18thVenetian Bay Golf Club - 12th holeHammock Beach Resort - Ocean golf course - 15thLPGA International - Champions courseVenetian Bay Golf Club - 13th holeWalkabout Golf Club - hole 5
If you go

Then he and a friend discovered Hammock Beach Resort, a place he says he had never heard of or seen advertised.

"It is gorgeous," said the Boston-area resident while sitting on a comfy couch in the grand lobby, enjoying coffee and the morning paper. "It is quite a resort. We just stumbled upon it. It's a nice place, like a diamond in the rough. When you drive here, you would never expect this here."

Daytona Beach can be full of surprises for golfers (even if they're not motorheads or NASCAR nuts). Beyond bike week, the beach shops and gentlemen's clubs, golfers can relish a handful of top tracks that compare favorably to the strongest resort and public golf courses in Orlando, Jacksonville, Miami and Naples.

Yes, there are pockets of cheesy tourist spots and obnoxious high rises, as well as some run-down communities. Certain small towns are completely isolated from others by desolate Florida swampland. But with some driving, the smorgasbord of courses, restaurants and accommodations are good enough to keep golfers happy for a week or more.

Since moving to Debary, Fla., Alan Pardoen has toured area courses such as LPGA International, Cypress Head Golf Club in Port Orange, and The Preserve at Turnbull Bay and Venetian Bay Golf Club, both in New Smyrna Beach.

"Once you get here and spend some time, you can find a number of good courses," he said.

The marketing consortium touting Daytona Beach's golf scene never really got off the ground a decade ago, but that's not a knock on the product. Turns out, golf carts and race cars fit like a bikini on a supermodel.

"These are beach towns, but the golf courses here are some of the best-kept secrets in central Florida," said Lenny Varacelli, the head professional at Venetian Bay. "You've got a core of good courses here in the Daytona Beach area. What we experience on race week [for the Daytona 500] is people bring their clubs, the drivers, crew and fans."

Where to stay

Enjoy the spoils and solitude of Hammock Beach Resort, located a half-hour north of Daytona Beach. Big-name developer Bobby Ginn, who flamed out spectacularly during the recession, spared no expense building the resort's 12-story tower of ocean-view luxury suites.

There's an intimate 20-room lodge closer to the beach. Children will love splashing about in the multi-level water and swim pavilion and the indoor atrium pool. The dining, especially at the Atlantic Grill in the lodge, and spa are first rate as well.

Kevin Helm, the executive director of the Michigan PGA Section, said he got so much positive feedback from amateurs and golf pros who participated in a pro-am in January at the resort, that the group will likely return next year.

"It has a little bit of everything," he said. "It is a perfect family place. People appreciated the good golf."

Race to play near Daytona Beach

It's certainly a stirring debate about which is the better course at Hammock Beach Resort. Six holes of Jack Nicklaus golf along the breezy coast highlight the Ocean Course, including the murderous four-hole closing stretch called the "Bear Claw."

The Conservatory Course by Tom Watson is every bit as good. At 7,776 yards, the Conservatory might be the longest courses in Florida. Ponds, wetlands and native scrub trees and brush converge upon a serene environment filled with tricky greens, ominous bunkers and treacherous up-and-downs. Ryan Palmer won the PGA Tour's Ginn sur Mer Classic there in 2008.

LPGA International, located at PGA Tour headquarters in Daytona Beach, counters with Arthur Hills' Legends Course and Rees Jones' Champions Course. Both are relatively Florida flat, accented by mounding. The Champions Course plays slightly longer, although the Legends Course remains tougher. Narrower corridors, smaller greens and wetlands as cross-hazards make it so.

The 7,072-yard Venetian Bay started out as a private club but opened up completely public this year. Thank the wide fairways for forgiveness off the tee. Sins on approach shots to large, well bunkered greens are not treated so kindly.

Blast off down the Space Coast

Lesser known -- but equally fun -- venues stack up farther south of Daytona Beach along Interstate 95 heading into Florida's Space Coast, named for its proximity to the Kennedy Space Center, site of all those shuttle launches.

Walkabout Golf Club, a 2003 Perry Dye design in Mims, features a 19th green shaped like Australia, a tribute to the consulting designer, former LPGA player and Aussie Jan Stephenson.

Mike Herrero and his wife, Gina, who live in Westchester County, N.Y., visit their second home in Melbourne every winter. They claim a trio of favorites: The impeccable Duran Golf Club in Viera, Habitat Golf Course in Malabar and Harmony Golf Preserve, a Johnny Miller beauty managed by Troon Golf located in Harmony.

A recent round added the Viera East Golf Club in Viera to their top tier. The 6,669-yard course by Joe Lee opened in 1994. Water creeps into or crosses a couple fairways. Elusive pars come courtesy of the coastal breezes and elevated greens.

The Majors Golf Club, an Arnold Palmer course in Palm Bay, remains an option, too.

Herrero said the only thing holding back Daytona Beach and the Space Coast from being a more popular golf destination is life away from the game.

"I don't think it's a problem with the courses," he said. "It's about the areas where you stay. If my wife doesn't play golf, what can she do [for entertainment]? If you go [farther] south, all the [best] courses are private. There are a lot of great courses [here]. I don't mind it because we have a house here, but there is no draw. The only draw is you're close to Orlando."

Then he quickly alluded to the golfer's creed: If there are enough decent places to play, we'll tee it up anywhere.

"Golfers just want to play golf," he said. "We like to play courses with nobody on them."

Jason Scott DeeganJason Scott Deegan, Senior Staff Writer

Jason Scott Deegan has reviewed more than 700 courses and golf destinations for some of the industry's biggest publications. His work has been honored by the Golf Writer's Association of America and the Michigan Press Association. Follow him on Twitter at @WorldGolfer.

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