The Conservatory, a Tom Watson course at Hammock Beach Resort on Palm Coast, is the longest track in Florida — a whopping 7,776 yards from the back tees. Most women golfers never even see the course from there, having the good sense to “play it forward.”
But, suppose just once, we tried playing a course the way it’s set up for the PGA Tour pros? Would a golf vacation still feel like vacation, or sudden drudgery?
The Conservatory’s par-5 10th hole, the No. 1 handicap hole for men and women, measures 636 yards from the blacks. The course that day was not at all crowded and we had no one behind us. I had been driving pretty well, so why not give it a go?
Up on the back tee, an elevated view down the rock ’n’ roll fairway (with the red tees so far out there that you needed binoculars to find them), I could see tall pines and wetlands along the right and menacing bunkers reaching out like magnets looming along the fringe. The GPS showed a sod-faced bunker and a coquina bunker in front of the green.
Doesn’t look too bad, I thought. I just needed a 210-yard drive to clear the forward tee. Then I’d have a reasonable shot at a bogey.
I lined up, wound up and went for it, but the extra adrenaline I infused into my swing predictably backfired and I landed just short of the reds. No worries, a tad humiliating. But then I was, after all, going for a bogey, not a par.
Trying to recoup, I overswung again and mishit my second before finally nailing a soaring 4-iron. Perfect! Except that it caught the top of the shaggy-edged bunker guarding the front of the green and rolled down into the sand. Eventually I holed out with a triple bogey 8. From the 11th to the 18th, I stepped forward where I belonged with an even greater respect for what the pros can do and why everyone should play from the tees best suited to their game.
This isn’t the first time I have tried this stunt. Once, I did a fun story about trading places with a burly, single-digit handicapper at Turning Stone’s Atunyote Golf Club. He played from the forward tees; I played from the tips on Tom Fazio’s 7,482-yard design.
Turning Stone, just outside Syracuse, N.Y., has been home to the PGA Professional National Championship and the BC Open. If I even managed to carry the hazards spread out in front of many of the Atunyote back tees, I was left with a horrific 2nd shot coming in low and hot to the greens. Worse yet, my short game never showed up and I lost badly in spite of the many shots I was given. Still, playing this graceful layout was a treat, one I appreciated all the more when I later walked the course following the pros in the Fall Series tournament.
Length isn’t the only challenge, of course, when playing a tough, tournament-ready course. Take The Champion course at PGA National, home of the Honda Classic and considered the strongest of the resort’s four excellent tracks.