Royal Oaks Golf Club: Be King for a Day in Florida
Everything about this 6,703-yard championship course in the heart of north central Florida is royal, from the well-manicured fairways to the bluebirds who nest at the 150-yard markers.
The Royal Oaks Golf Club is just over two years old, but has the polished look of a course that has been reigning over the kingdom of Oak Run for decades. Located eight miles west of fast-growing Ocala, this 5,000-resident community provides a cozy backdrop for 18 challenging holes that make playing golf a joy.
When you factor in a royal blue March sky, the temperature easing towards 80, and a sweet afternoon breeze, the result is an experience guaranteed to make future dreary days at the office more tolerable.
Course designer Terry LaGree obviously had the average player in mind when he laid out fairways generous enough to forgive the occasional ball straying from its intended straight and narrow path to the green. A prime example of his foresight is the 3rd hole (128 yards from the white tees, 95 from the red), a short par 3 with baby berms that deflect the ball back to a playable position if it threatens to sneak off into the pines.
If you find yourself scouring the woods for an errant ball in spite of these natural barriers, don't be intimidated by the huge squirrels that live on the front nine. They look like small monkeys but are actually player-friendly fox squirrels.
While the Royal Oaks is Terry's fist solo championship design, he gained immeasurable experience in golf course architecture during a stint with Tom Fazio. Together they created Black Diamond Ranch, one of the most impressive courses in Florida. Terry's skill in bringing out the best in nature is evident in his use of undulating fairways, eye-pleasing landscaping around greens, and tiered tee boxes.
Four sets of well-maintained tees allow a challenging start for players of every level, from the ladies' reds at 66.7 to a 71.3 rating for the blacks. The white tees are rated at 67.4 with a total yardage of 5,835 and the blues come in at 69.3 with 6,288 yards. The course has four fairly short par 5 holes, split across the front and back nines, the longest being the 2nd with 490 yards from the white tees.
The first thing you'll notice about the 2nd hole is the large, Sahara-like waste area on the right side. These sandy mini-deserts are prevalent throughout Royal Oaks and are not treated as hazards (club grounding is allowed) even though in times of heavy rainfall they will accumulate water. They add a dimension to the course not unlike a good-sized lake would except that balls are easy to locate.
The waste area on the 2nd also comes into play on the 8th, where its 10-yard depth appears as an abyss below the ladies tee box. It is 298 yards to the green from here on this bunker-laden par 4, but a straight shot if you make it through the desert.
We were so used to straightforward holes that we almost missed the green to our oblique left.
One of the few dog legs at Royal Oaks is in evidence on the 9th, another par 4 with 363 yards from the white tees. There's a substantial ravine below the red and white tee boxes to overcome and another big white wash of sand on this one. The Bermuda fairways are all in beautiful shape and the rough is clipped, so don't worry too much about impossible lies.
The greens, on the other hand, are full of tough situations. The most consistent thing about them is that they are all different. Most of them are fairly fast, especially because of Florida's prolonged drought this year, but some are faster than others.
My favorite is the saddle-shaped green on the 14th, a par 5, with 401 yards from the reds and 437 from the whites. That's because I chipped up from down where the stirrup would be and watched in awe as my ball rolled up the pin and disappeared. That lucky birdie shot primed my playing partner's competitive pump and he went on to gain a two-stroke edge, but not before we went up against the mysterious No. 15.
A par 5, with 474 yards to the pin, it has two round eyeball-like bunkers waiting at the top of the fairway. It looked simple enough, shoot straight up the middle, avoid the Mohave, and pop over the evil eyes to the green. We were both at the nose in two, looking around for the flag. Oh, there it is.
We were so used to straightforward holes that we almost missed the green to our oblique left. We both hit wedges, plopped onto the green, and had 12-foot putts ahead of us. My partner took sure aim and fired a slow but deliberate stroke toward a quaking flag. Passing inches from the hole, his ball squeaked to a stop a good foot on the upside of the middle pin placement. I let out my breath and lined up to putt.
I tried all the tricks, drawing a mental line from the hole to my ball and back, aligning the logo with my mental line, seeing the ball into the hole, aiming at the back of the cup. Then I let go with a smooth, easy stroke, My ball rolled straight as a flaming arrow, wavered, then slopped into the cup with a gasp. We were even after more than three hours of golfing ecstasy.
I pulled ahead on the 16th with a par and my partner set up for the 17th with renewed determination. All he had to do was avoid the oak trees on the right and stop short of the only true water hazard at Royal Oaks. He landed between the green and the lake in a nest of thick green grass and chipped up near the martin house on the far side of the pin. I eventually landed on the green and missed one tricky and one easy putt. He two-putted to go ahead by one stroke.
As we walked onto the par 4 18th, it was bathed in a golden light cast by the settling spring sun. We basked in the glow of a round well played and took a moment to watch the rays dancing on the lake before teeing up for our final hole. We both hit well-placed drives, missing the shimmering water by a good margin. I pulled out a 7 wood and scooped the ball up toward the green where it bounced into a bunker, burying my chance of pulling even again. Oh well, I was ready for the 19th hole by then anyway.
That's the great thing about golf - there's always another day and another course to play. If I had my way that would mean an instant replay at the Royal Oaks on a spring day where the sky was a sovereign blue and my drives were long and true.
Fees: Every day before 2 p.m. greens fee and cart are $30. After 2 p.m. the price drops to $25.
Directions: From I-75 take Exit 68, head west on Highway 200 4 1/2 miles to 60th Avenue. Turn south, driving through the community of Oak Run, approximately 3 1/2 miles. Follow golf club signs to guard house, then turn right to club house.
Royal Oaks Golf Club
11220 SW 69th Circle
Ocala, FL 34476