Southern Oaks Golf Club: A hometown favorite owned by a hometown 'country boy'

By Tim McDonald, Contributor

LAKE CITY, Fla. — You can always tell if a golf course owner is a local, hands-on guy or one of those aloof, corporate types, by the morale of the members.

Fairways at Southern Oaks GC
Southen Oaks lives up to its name, with oak-lined fairways.
Fairways at Southern Oaks GCSouthern Oaks Golf ClubSouthern Oaks Golf Club
If you go

The Southern Oaks Golf Club here in north-central Florida is the former: a happy, active place where on any given day you might see owner Ron Brooks out on the course, operating a backhoe or one of those big, industrial mowers. Or you might see him stop during a round, get down on his knees and yank out a clump of goose grass.

"I'm just an old country boy who's worked hard all my life," Brooks said.

That puts him in good stead with the hard-working people of Lake City, a hard-scrabble town between Jacksonville and Tallahassee where most people hunt or fish when they aren't working the 9-to-5.

The fact that Brooks has had several serious operations recently hasn't seemed to slow him down. During a recent round, his game was constantly distracted by pointing out what needed to be done.

There was a lot to be done when Brooks bought the place in 2002. The previous owners had not kept it up to Brooks' standards and he's been at work ever since, trying to get Southern Oaks to the point where he can play a round and not be distracted by the goose grass.

The results are obvious. I played this course several years ago, and it was in decent shape then. Now, it's in very good shape — the result of Brook's efforts and that of the maintenance staff.

The greens are probably the best in the area. The course still has problems with drainage, especially during heavy rains, and Brooks has tried to combat that as well, like putting in an expensive injection well on No. 4, where he once rowed a boat over the green after a particularly grievous flood.

"When I bought it in 2002, it was in pretty bad shape," Brooks said. "I had to shut down one green and I ought to have shut another one down. The fairways were pretty bad, they didn't have much grass. And there were a lot of trees — they would not cut a tree down."

Brooks did. In fact, he's cut about 400 down, by his estimation. The result is a course that has a healthy, open feel and a lot of lush grass, now unencumbered by the constant shade.

Still, the course lives up to its name with those spreading, stately and oh-so-Southern oak trees that line the perimeters of many holes and occasionally, provide obstacles in the fairways.

The aesthetic highlight of the course comes during the middle of the front nine, which wraps around Harris Lake that is expanding now due to the rains. It's also well back from the interstate that lies adjacent to part of the course, offering the peace and serenity that largely rural Columbia County is known for.

The Verdict

Green fees here are $45, which is a good deal for what you get. It's an interesting course, designed by Willard Byrd, with plenty of risk-reward options and some elevation that is atypical of Florida courses. Brooks continues to make improvements, so the course will most likely only get better.

No. 9 is a fun hole, a dogleg right that can be cut by carrying the tall oaks, but you can easily end up in a deep ravine in the middle of those trees if you don't make it.

No. 10 is a doozy from any of the tee boxes, a long par 4 that requires two of your best shots to make par. John Daly cut the dogleg here, but you ain't no John Daly so don't even think about it.

The course draws in a lot of people from the interstate, and my guess is they'll come back for more. If you're headed south on I-75, stop in. You'll be glad you did.

Stay and play

The Hampton Inn and Suites is a good, central location — at the intersection of I-75 and U.S. 90 — to explore Columbia County golf and its other attractions. This is where folks live it easy down by the Suwannee River, near Stephen Foster State Folk Culture Center.

Lake City calls itself, along with Jacksonville, as the "Gateway to Florida." Lake City doesn't have the beaches like Jacksonville does, but it does have some of the best, natural springs in the state and thus the country. Hiking, kayaking, birding, fishing and other outdoor pursuits are all part of the attraction here.

The Hampton's rooms, in Lake City anyway, are nicer than most other higher-priced hotels and the service is as good if not superior. It's got all the amenities you'd expect to find in a higher-priced hotel, like high-speed Internet access.

Fast Fact

The club has the largest meeting facility in Lake City, a conference room/banquet hall that holds 250 people.

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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