Cue the trumpets: Palencia Club a private golf jewel

By Tim McDonald, Contributor

ST. AUGUSTINE, Fla. - When you pull up to the clubhouse at The Palencia Club, you may think you've mistakenly arrived at a grand hotel. The thing is massive, all four stories festooned with the oh-so-tasteful amenities you'd expect from an exclusive private golf club - and sorry, rabble like you can't get in the members-only dining room (although you can get a Heineken at the bar and grill overlooking the ninth and 18th holes).

The Palencia Club's No. 3
Oak grows sideways at The Palencia Club's No. 3.
The Palencia Club's No. 3The Palencia ClubAn Arthur Hills design
If you go

This is the kind of place that's never even heard of tank tops. You walk through the high gates past the bag drop and think you've entered a Roman arena - you half expect trumpets. The layout spreads out below you like Shangri-La, green and inviting - a golfer's paradise.

The golf course is in Palencia Village, where the moneyed elite cavort, and there are some very big, modern buildings up on high, looking down at the course. But the excellence of the track itself lies in its naturalness. It was designed by Arthur Hills, a 40-year veteran with a reputation for incorporating natural elements in his work. Keep those keys to the bulldozers - if God had wanted elevation in his celestial golf course, he'd have put it there.

The conditioning, of course, is immaculate, the fairways the very definition of the word lush.

"There are some places you go where the greens ain't this good," said Thomas Watson Cain, a high-handicapper from Pittsburgh who now lives in Jacksonville.

It's a beautiful layout, winding through the low country just to the west of the Intracoastal Waterway, with elevated tee boxes and greens affording views of gnarled, centuries-old oaks and, on some holes (especially No. 6), of the waterway itself and its surrounding marshes.

The dirt cart paths take you over bridges through natural wetlands and by trees whose limbs frequently overhang the course. On the par-3 No. 3, an old oak grows almost parallel to the fairway. Don't worry, it doesn't obstruct your shot, unless you hit a low line drive.

The course opened in May 2002 and was an instant hit. Head Professional John Upton said he fields calls from all over the country from pros at other private clubs, asking if their members can get on.

"We came out of the box fully grown and really made a statement about the quality of the golf course," Upton said. "Obviously, we're very proud of what we've built. It's a unique piece of property. There are ocean hammocks on the front nine and open areas with pine, and it has views of the Intracoastal Waterway from both nines."

Hills used his imagination at Palencia, with nearly every hole throwing something interesting at you. Some greens have what appear to be fairways encircling them.

Stay and Play

"Arthur is known for raised, small and undulating greens with different kind of mow-ins," Upton said. "If you miss the green, you still have a shot on quality grass. Nos. 3, 6, 7 - they all have that unique flair. And 16 is one of the prettiest holes I've seen anywhere."

They've tweaked the course a bit since its opening, after some members complained about the difficulty of the greens on Nos. 8 and 13, tempering the pitch so they are now more receptive to approach shots.

The Verdict

Palencia is always mentioned when talk gets around to the best courses along the First Coast, and its reputation is deserved. It isn't overly difficult; even from its 7,071-yard back tee, the slope rating is a manageable 138. And one beautiful hole follows another, many dramatically framed by the dense woods.

There are some houses along its perimeter, tastefully set back, though construction, which can be grating, is ongoing. But the Palencia Club's setting, routing, layout, service and conditioning make it a must-play if you have a chance to get on.

"Wonderful," an impressed Cain said. "My best golfing experience. It's comfortable, too - no rushing or pressing. Very tranquil."

Stay and Play

In spread-out Jacksonville, location is the key in lodging; it can be difficult getting around to the courses on the First Coast. There are a couple of good places to stay near Interstate 95, which will take you north or south, and Butler Boulevard, which heads east to the beaches.

The Best Western is at the intersection of I-95 and Butler, eight miles from downtown and about 15 miles from the beaches. The six-story motel has in-room, high-speed Internet access, free continental breakfast, pool, fitness center and sauna. It also has meeting space that can handle 150 of you business types.

The Hilton Garden Inn is another good, centrally located place. It offers free in-room Internet, a business center, whirlpool and a fitness center. The rooms have microwaves and small refrigerators. There are plenty of other accommodations in the area.

Dining out

The Hilton has the Great American Grill restaurant, which serves breakfast, and there are a bunch of restaurants within walking distance. One of them, the Seven Bridges Brewery, provides room service to the hotel (try the flame-grilled meat loaf). Also nearby: Don Pablo's, Tony Roma's, Jacksonville Ale House, Jason's Deli, Copeland's and the Gallery Bistro.

Fast Fact

The course has five sets of tees, down to 4,936 yards from the forward tees.

Tim McDonaldTim McDonald, Contributor

Veteran golf writer Tim McDonald keeps one eye on the PGA Tour and another watching golf vacation hotspots and letting travelers in on the best place to vacation.

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