Looking out to a lake edged by scrub vegetation from the floor to ceiling windows of my capacious hotel room, my attention is suddenly attracted to the bank immediately below.
One of several floating objects I had noticed in the dwindling daylight has hauled itself out of the water and flops down on the grass near a fire pit.
What I thought was a small log turns out to have been the snout of a huge alligator,
its body hidden below the surface, just like the others that remain motionless in the lake.
Even the surrounding landscape, cradling three epic golf courses punctuated by towering dunes, swathes of sandy waste areas and deep ponds, is not what it seems. This wilderness is entirely man-made, created by decades of scouring the land for phosphate to use in fertiliser products. After mining ended in the 1960s, the site lay barren for 50 years before being turned into a unique, world-class golf resort set amidst 16,000 acres in the heart of Florida.
Today, Streamsong Resort is the golfing jewel in the crown for Central Florida’s Polk County, a triangular-shaped area in the geographic centre of the Sunshine State located between theme park capital Orlando and Gulf Coast city Tampa.
Larger than the state of Rhode Island and the fourth-largest county in Florida, it offers golfers plenty more opportunities to play besides Streamsong, boasting more than 40 public-access golf courses with 612 holes of golf.
Central Florida is a true hidden gem; perfectly positioned for a holiday combining golf and other activities that’s close enough to use as a base for exploring yet far from the madding crowds of the nearby cities and mega theme parks.
Stay in the area to visit nearby attractions such as Walt Disney World and Universal Studios and the beaches of Florida’s Gulf and Atlantic coasts. However, it also weighs in with numerous attractions of its own, including LEGOLAND, plus a wealth of outdoor sport, activities and adventures in addition to art, architecture and wildlife.
Since it first opened in 2014, Streamsong Resort’s courses and its 216-room ultra-modern guest lodge have won numerous awards and plaudits.
Recruiting some of the world’s top golf architects, the first phase by long-time owner The Mosaic Company – one of the world’s largest Phosphate fertiliser producers and one of Florida’s largest landowners – saw Tom Doak lay out Streamsong Blue and famed design duo Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw design Streamsong Red. Streamsong Black was added in 2017 with a design by Gil Hanse, who created the golf course for the 2016 Rio Olympics.
Among latest honours, Golfweek’s 2019 Best Courses You Can Play rated Black, Red and Blue at numbers two, three and four respectively, while Black was named 2018 Best Course of the Year by Golf Digest.
When you’re at Streamsong, it feels like you’re in the middle of nowhere and its remote setting does take some finding, with the resort tucked in the sparsely-populated south-west corner of Polk County. But at just 90 minutes from Orlando International Airport and an hour east of Tampa’s airport, it is easily accessible.
Golf can be played year-round at the resort and throughout the rest of Polk County. It’s pretty steamy when I arrive to play and stay in early June and the afternoon clouds have already started building.
I join a PGA pro visiting from a Palm Beach golf club for a round on Streamsong Blue. Other than the heat and humidity (not to mention the lurking alligators and sunbathing turtles) the wild grass-covered dunes, elevated tees, large greens and wide contoured fairways pockmarked by bunkers give the course more than a hint of links golf about it, like a small piece of Scotland or Ireland transplanted in Florida.
It’s a feeling enhanced by the fact that walking is not only encouraged on Streamsong’s courses but is also mandatory from January 1 until the end of March and before 11am from October 1 to the end of December, although I use a buggy because of the heat.
The rollercoaster dunes and fairways make this a Florida course like none I have experienced before and exhilarating to play. I love the layout, which is very playable but requires strategy, and the variety of holes. One of my favourites is the par-3 7th, where you hit over a lake to a green hemmed in by grassy dunes and reached via a curved wooden bridge.
I’m playing one of the rounds of my life when it is cut short after my drive on the 14th as the lightning klaxon sounds and our caddies advise that we have to return to the clubhouse. Within minutes of seeking sanctuary the heavens open and the angry skies spit a constant stream of lightning bolts at the ground. It’s too late to resume playing once the storm passes.
Bill Coore says the Streamsong Red course he co-designed has “some of the most unusual, interesting and dramatic landforms we have ever encountered”. Largely encircling the Blue, at 7,148 yards off the back tees it is marginally shorter than its sibling, with which it shares the same modernist clubhouse that offers nine more guest rooms and a restaurant, and also has the rolling terrain, lakes and dunes characteristics of that while incorporating expanses of savannah.
Streamsong Black is another links-like layout, its big, brassy design featuring sand ridges and expansive waste areas that take a cue from the Melbourne Sandbelt courses in Australia. Aussie golfers should feel right at home on the par-4 9th, where an Outback-style windmill behind the punchbowl green serves as the target for the blind approach shot.
The par-73, 7331-yard Black course is set away from the other two layouts and has its own clubhouse, complete with the Bone Valley Tavern that offers panoramic vistas. In addition, it features a two-acre putting course, The Gauntlet, and a free-flowing practice area with several green complexes and practice holes, called The Roundabout.
Other than its trio of golf courses, Streamsong offers six restaurants, a grotto-inspired spa, a lakeside infinity pool, hiking trails, clay pigeon shooting, archery and trophy bass fishing.
OTHER GOLF COURSES
Central Florida’s rich golfing heritage stretches back almost a century. Five of its courses form part of Florida’s Historic Golf Trail, a collection of 53 public-access courses across the state dating from the 1930s and earlier recognised by the Florida Department of State. Two of those feature the handiwork of legendary designer Donald Ross, who began his golfing career as an apprentice to Old Tom Morris at Scotland’s hallowed St Andrews.
Municipal facility Bartow Golf Course, known locally as the “Tow”, originally opened as a nine-hole course in 1919 before being expanded and transformed into a links-style, 18-hole design by Ross in 1926. The small and challenging elevated greens have all recently been renewed.
Lake Wales Country Club, in the city of Lake Wales, opened in 1925 with nine holes designed by renowned architect Seth Raynor. Following his death less than a year later, the club turned to Donald Ross to complete the final nine holes, which he did tweaking Raynor’s original design.
Cleveland Heights Golf Course (also opened in 1925), in Lakeland, Lekarica Hills Golf Course (1927), near Lake Wales, and Wedgewood Golf Club, built on the site of a national retirement home for carpenters near Lakeland in 1929, are the other three historic trail venues in Polk County.
Southern Dunes Golf & Country Club is a testing 7,200-yard course in Haines City on 350 acres of land occupied by a citrus grove until that was destroyed by a catastrophic freeze in 1989. Originally called Lost Grove, the Steve Smyer-designed course features a dramatic hillside layout with natural dunes giving elevation changes of 100 feet, rolling fairways and large, undulating greens.
The Club at Eaglebrooke, near Lakeland, is another of Central Florida’s premier courses. Oak trees, numerous lakes and strategically-placed mounding frame the rippled fairways while large greens are guarded by bunkers and waste areas.
Stay in a rental home in Davenport, in the north-west of Polk County, and you’re within a 30-minute drive of 100 golf courses.
CENTRAL FLORIDA ATTRACTIONS
With close to 7,000 rooms in accommodation types spanning everything from family-friendly hotels to a dude ranch offering glamping in tepees and another 7,000-plus vacation homes and condominiums, Central Florida makes a great base for a golf-based family or couples holiday.
Here, you’re less than 30 minutes from Walt Disney World, under 40 minutes from Universal Studios and Busch Gardens, less than an hour from the Gulf and Atlantic coast beaches and 75 minutes from Kennedy Space Centre.
Families with youngsters aged between two and 12 will find everything is awesome when they visit the area’s very own theme park resort, LEGOLAND Florida. Located in Winter Haven, the resort offers more than 50 rides, shows and attractions with several themed zones including the LEGO MOVIE World, LEGO Ninjago World and Miniland USA. Almost 65 million LEGO bricks have been used to create more than 28,000 models throughout the park, which also has special areas for toddlers, rollercoasters and a water park.
It currently has two on-site accommodation options – the LEGOLAND Hotel with 152 themed rooms and the village-style LEGOLAND Beach Retreat, which has 83 beach-themed bungalows sleeping up to five. A third hotel, Pirate Island Hotel, will open in spring 2020 with 150 rooms and LEGO character experiences.
A National Historic Landmark, Bok Tower Gardens features a 205-foot-high “Singing Tower” with a 60-bell carillon surrounded by more than 150 acres of gardens. Short carillon recordings ring out across the gardens every 30 minutes while concerts take place twice a day. New attractions include a Wild Garden and the Hammock Hollow children’s garden.
Take a camel tour past rare animals and herds of game animals at Safari Wilderness, named One of the 10 Best Safaris in the US by Fodors. Tours operate seasonally at 9am and 1pm with sunset safaris at certain times of the year.
Discover your inner cowboy at the 1,700-acre Westgate River Ranch. The largest dude ranch east of the Mississippi, it features a weekly rodeo as well as activities including horse and pony riding, hiking, archery, airboat and swamp buggy rides, trap and skeet shooting, boating and fishing. Guests can even tee off next to a herd of buffalo on its Joe Lee-designed, nine-hole golf course while there is also mini golf for the whole family.
The ranch has Wild West-themed accommodation ranging from luxury tepees and tent camping and glamping to private cottages.
Outdoor lovers can revel in Central Florida’s numerous recreation opportunities, whether taking to the water to go kayaking and canoeing on paddle trails, go stand-up paddle boarding, flyboarding or water skiing, or hiking, cycling or mountain biking on nearly 400 miles of trails.
Sling your hook on more than 500 lakes occupying over 135 square miles. Polk County is known as the “Largemouth Bass Capital of the World” for their abundance (the largemouth bass is Florida’s freshwater state fish) and the size they reach.
Central Florida’s low population density means that it’s a wildlife haven, too. The Circle B Bar Reserve has been named as one of the “51 Great Places to See Wildlife in the US” by USA Today.
Polk County also has five wildlife management areas, 11 environmental preserves, three state parks and one state forest.
For culture vultures, take a tour of Frank Lloyd Wright architecture at Florida Southern College in Lakeland, which has the world’s largest single-site collection of buildings and works by the famed American architect. Also in Lakeland is the Polk Museum of Art, with eight galleries, a permanent collection of Pre-Columbian artefacts and a sculpture garden.
Foodies are well catered for in Central Florida. A wide selection of dining options range from lakeside venues and family-friendly eateries to stylish fine dining. The area’s growing culinary scene has local independent restaurants specialising in seafood, barbecues, local-raised beef, pork and poultry as well as ethnic options including Cajun, Asian and Indian. The craft beer scene is growing fast with new microbreweries and brewpubs opening up all the time.
I’ll drink to a return visit!
By Peter Ellegard
WEB LINKS TO FEATURED GOLF COURSES & ATTRACTIONS:
Southern Dunes Golf and Country Club
LEGOLAND Florida Resort
Westgate River Ranch
Bok Tower Gardens
Visit Central Florida