Ocala National Golf Club has exceptional conditioning in a spectacular north central Florida setting

By Ed Schmidt, Contributor

OCALA, Fla. -- Set in the middle of Ocala's "horse country" near spectacular horse farms and ranches, Ocala National Golf Club is located about 70 miles from Orlando and 30 miles from Gainesville.

Ocala National Golf Club - hole 5
Ocala National has hosted several prestigious tournaments, including the 2009 U.S. Women's Mid-Amateur Championship.
Ocala National Golf Club - hole 5Ocala National Golf Club - hole 9Ocala National Golf Club - hole 14Ocala National Golf Club - hole 17Ocala National Golf Club - hole 3
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Ocala National at Golden Hills Country Club

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The 18-hole Ocala National at Golden Hills Country Club is a semi-private golf course that opened in 1964. Designed by Charles Pace and Lee Popple -- and later redesigned by Rees Jones -- Ocala National measures 7,364 yards from the longest tees and has a slope rating of 134 and a 75 USGA rating.

18 Holes | Semi-Private golf course | Par: 72 | 7364 yards | Book online | ... details »

Formerly known as the Golden Hills Golf & Turf Club, the course recently underwent a management transformation and enhancement program to coincide with its name change to Ocala National Golf Club.

"With all of our changes, we've really improved all aspects of the golf experience here," Stan Cooke, Ocala National's general manager/director of golf, says. "According to our long-term members, these are the best course conditions ever."

Cooke credits the exceptional conditioning to grounds superintendent Jimbo Rollins, who came to Ocala National from World Woods Golf Club in Brooksville. Rollins has also worked at highly acclaimed McArthur Golf Club in Hobe Sound and The Bear's Club in Jupiter.

Ocala National Golf Club: History and setting

Originally designed by Charles Pace and opened in 1964, the course was renovated in 2004 by Rees Jones, who was recruited by Bernadette Castro, the owner at the time. A friend of Jones' since they were teenagers, Castro selected Jones for the renovation after they worked together on the 2002 U.S. Open at Bethpage State Park in New York. Castro was then Commissioner of State Parks and Jones did a comprehensive restoration of Bethpage Black.

Known as "The Open Doctor" because of his U.S. Open course restorations, Jones has 16 Florida designs, including Waldorf Astoria Club and Falcon's Fire Golf Club in Orlando and the Breakers Rees Jones Course in West Palm Beach.

Jones updated the greens, tees and bunkering at Ocala National to create a links-type feel. The terrain at Ocala National has natural ridges and valleys surrounded by mature oaks with Spanish moss and tall pines. At 500 feet, the course is the highest elevation in Marion County. Most of the greens are elevated and undulated.

Ocala National has hosted a wide variety of prestigious tournaments over the years, highlighted by the 2009 U.S. Women's Mid-Amateur Championship.

How to play Ocala National Golf Club

Stretching to 7,302 yards from the championship tees (black), the par-72 Ocala National is a worthy tournament-tested layout.

The course plays 6,839 yards from the blue tees, 6,430 yards from the whites, 5,747 yards from the golds and 4,942 yards from the greens.

"Various elevation changes create different lies, which golfers who play flat Florida courses have to adjust to," Cooke says. "Jones is a genius at bunkering and the inside edge of his dogleg holes are protected by bunkers."

The greens at Ocala National stand out, too. Two of the more memorable are at the par-4 10th and par-3 11th, which have greens that slope severely from back to front. Hit an approach to the back of the green and you'll have a downhiller that might run all the way to downtown Ocala if you don't get the speed right.

Ocala National Golf Club: The amenities

Evoking a Pinehurst ambiance, the white Colonial-style clubhouse -- with its columns, green shutters and rocking chairs on the veranda -- is an inviting place before and after a round.

The walls of the lounge/casual restaurant are dotted with framed, colorful jockey silks representing Ocala horse farms. Home to hundreds of thoroughbred horse farms, Ocala has produced six Kentucky Derby winners, 20 Breeders Cup champions and six horse-of-the-year award winners.

A great place to enjoy a post-round libation, lunch or dinner, the comfortable dining room has a high-end sports bar appearance with several big-screen televisions and views of the 18th green, practice putting green and practice range.

Lunch is served seven days a week, and there's a daily happy hour from 5-7 p.m. Dinner is served on Mondays and Fridays with live entertainment.

For those who want to enjoy lunch after a round, the most popular selections include the blackened fish sandwich, Buffalo chicken wrap, fish & chips and grilled eight-ounce sirloin steak.

Ocala National Golf Club: The verdict

Cooke says the course is fair and playable and an exceptional golf experience if golfers play from the correct set of tees for their skill level.

"It's a great tournament test, but also very enjoyable for every type of golfer," Cooke says.

With a top-notch golf course superintendent and a prideful and dedicated management team, Ocala National is a superbly maintained and magnificently designed layout, providing a great north central Florida golf experience.

Ed SchmidtEd Schmidt, Contributor

Ed Schmidt, publisher of The Golf Travel Guru Blog, is the author of two books on Florida golf and more than 2,500 articles and columns on golf resorts, courses and destinations around the world. Follow Ed on Twitter at @golftravelguy.

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