Florida's Grand Haven: Challenging and Scenic Layout

By Derek Duncan, Contributor

Stepping onto a Jack Nicklaus designed golf course is like going to see a film directed by Martin Scorsese: it's a justifiable cause for excitement and anticipation. Sometimes we're fortunate enough to be given a "Raging Bull" or "Goodfellas", or a course with the theatrics of Sherwood Country Club, examples of creative highs from these renowned innovators.

Grand Haven Golf Course
Grand Haven Golf Course
Grand Haven Golf CourseGrand Haven Golf Course
If you go

Other times we get less epic, but nevertheless wonderful creations such as "The Color of Money" or Shoal Creek. This is the category that Grand Haven, twenty-five miles south of St. Augustine, falls into. It is not a Nicklaus masterpiece so to speak, but it is certainly entertaining, challenging and scenic.

It's an excellent golf experience, delightfully understated for Nicklaus, and a joy to play.

The newest addition to the Palm Coast golfing community, Grand Haven is a baby of a golf course, celebrating its second birthday in the spring of 2000. I am surprised that this course, despite its youth, does not show up on more maps or receive more recognition than it does.

A course this solid should not have to wait long to break into the traditional "must play" circles. Grand Haven exudes confidence and quality and is destined to find its place among the top golf outings in North Florida.

In fairness, this beautiful course is not intended to be a masterpiece. As a designer Nicklaus has a reputation for dramatic, severe layouts that seemingly only he is capable of playing, courses that are manufactured and often too penal for the everyday golfer.

I confess I was prepared for a typically sinister design, but there is a subtlety and gentleness to Grand Haven that makes it imminently playable. The course is quite restrained by Nicklausian standards, designed with a deft touch. Don't get me wrong - there are still signature obstacles and plenty of trouble, but a general feel of comfort persists. The real challenge comes from the back tees that play at 7,069 yards and bring into play more hazards and bunkers than do the middle tees at 6,363 yards.

So while this is not the sensational, manipulated challenge of say, Grand Cypress, it isn't intended as such. Rather it fits in ideally to the upscale Palm Coast golfing scene, a harmonious addition to go alongside Palmer's Matanzas Woods course and the exclusive Hammock Dunes design by Tom Fazio. Nicklaus has a second course under construction here as well.

The layout is superb. It winds through a relatively flat landscape, spreading out in several places through thick stands of woods while only occasionally approaching the expensive, mostly-still-under-construction houses. The golf course is at its best when it plays for aesthetics. As you might expect from a Nicklaus design there are contoured fairways, severely tiered greens and high-faced bunkers on nearly every hole, but the best holes at Grand Haven are the simplest. When elements of the natural terrain are used as their own defense, some remarkable holes are created.

When the objective of the design is beauty, certain spots on the golf course have a strong, lasting effect, leaving the kind of impression that transcends merely striking a ball on grass. It is the same effect that a powerful movie scene can have: long after the entirety of the film has faded from memory there remains the isolated scene, a mesmerizing moment that defines itself unconnected to anything else. There are a few holes at Grand Haven that affected me in this way.

The second hole is a short par 5 of 471-yards (middle tees), potentially reachable in two. It is a pretty hole that curls to the left, lined with trees and water, rich with greenery. To get there with your second shot you must be accurate and long off the tee, avoiding the water that runs along the left all the way to short of the green where it juts into the fairway.

Trees and sand guard the right side of the landing areas. If you are in the fairway you must still hit a powerful shot with plenty of carry to reach the green. The best play might be to lay up to 100 yards short and right. This will give you a good opening to the green. Take a look backwards at this striking hole as you leave the green.

The third hole is the number one handicap, a 399-yard par four that requires the tee shot to carry a vast marsh. The fairway doglegs right at the landing area thus making this an option shot. The farther you choose to carry the hazard, the better the angle is to the green. Here is a prototypical risk/reward hole, challenging and dramatic, and the tee shot is one of the most memorable on the course.

The marsh spreads ominous and seemingly endless in front of you, disappearing into the woods to the right, and the fairway looks like a sliver of green in the distance with a backdrop of dense trees beyond. Don't be fooled though - there is plenty of room to land your ball.

The eighth hole is currently, and will continue to be, the most photographed hole on the course, a short (124-yard) par three with an island green. It plays downhill, making it shorter than the yardage indicates, and the elevated tee boxes provide a wonderful station from which to view this memorable hole. Although a penal hole if you don't carry the water, the green is very large with a favorable fringe of short rough around the collar, so there is a little room to miss, but not much.

Number ten is wonderful, gorgeous hole. It is a 352-yard par 4 that bends right around water and sand on the inside elbow. Tall pines line the entire left side of the hole and stand stately behind the long, narrow green that is perched precariously close to the water. This is a lovely hole that should be admired for a few moments before playing your shots. Favor the left side all the way here.

My favorite hole on the course is the par 3 fourteenth. Simply put, this is one of the most charming, pretty par threes anywhere. Completely encircled by woods, its setting is perfectly serene and secluded. The backdrop of trees is nearly haunting, dominated by a large, sprawling, ageless oak tree that stands poignantly behind the green.

A large pot bunker rises guardian short, as does another to the right, and the green itself has in it one of the largest tier differentials on the course, so be sure you're on the appropriate level. It also plays slightly longer than its 142 yards. To me this is a better par three than the eighth hole which receives all the notoriety. This is a hole you'd expect to find not on postcards, but in heaven.

The last of the impression holes at Grand Haven is the sixteenth, a 383-yard par four that weaves through fairway bunkers and then gently doglegs uphill and left. I like it because it is not tricked up, it's in the open, and possesses a natural aura as if it has always been there, just waiting to be played.

When you arrive at your approach shot you'll see a green that sets up like on a throne. Indeed, there is a majestic quality to this hole. The grove of straight, thin pines standing squarely behind the green seem somehow regal. I wrote in my notes "Augusta", for the sixteenth has that type of hallowed feel to it, reminding me of the seventeenth hole at that most renowned of golf courses. Overall unassuming, the subtle beauty and power of this hole make it remarkable.

The starter on the first tee welcomed our group with some friendly advice pertaining to certain holes. Listen to what he says because it is true, especially regarding putts. There is little if any break on these greens. Unless you are putting on a severe incline, don't get the ball outside the cup.

The greens are large and multi-tiered, as stated before, but they putt well and, again, straight. They are in great condition, as are the fairways. The course rolled a little slow overall, the grass a bit long when I played, perhaps kept purposely that way due to its youth. If desired, though, the superintendent could shave it all down and make this course very slick. It's nice the way it is now.

Green fees are not inexpensive at $95 before noon (seven days a week, includes cart) and $75 after noon. But you get a lot of golf for your dollar: a great course, full practice facilities, professional service and a very friendly staff. It all adds up to money well spent, and sooner or later you're going to have to get out to Grand Haven.

The anticipation of playing this course, like going to a great director's movie, was worth it. Though the reward is not the amazement you might have walking out of "Taxi Driver" you'll nevertheless be very satisfied. It's not a Muirfield Village or a Castle Pines for Nicklaus. And there's nothing wrong with that because it doesn't try to be. It's subtler than that.

Grand Haven is like a good movie with great scenes. It's an entertaining and challenging design with several holes that for me left a greater impression than the course as an entirety. At any evaluation, I believe Grand Haven will only get better, justly receive more notoriety, and be considered one of the top courses in North Florida.

Grand Haven (at Palm Desert Resort)
2001 Waterside Parkway
Palm Coast, FL 32137
(904) 445-2327

Derek DuncanDerek Duncan, Contributor

Derek Duncan's writing has appeared in TravelGolf.com, FloridaGolf.com, OrlandoGolf.com, GulfCoastGolf.com, LINKS Magazine and more. He lives in Atlanta with his wife Cynthia and is a graduate of the University of Colorado with interests in wine, literary fiction, and golf course architecture.

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