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Amelia Island, Florida

Part raffish, part Ritz-y, the waterfront world of Amelia Island, Fla., offers a bounty of soul-stirring golf

By: Derek Duncan

Appeared in January/February 2005 LINKS

Part raffish, part Ritz-y, the waterfront world of Amelia Island, Fla., offers a bounty of soul-stirring golf.

I know an almost perfect golf spot on Amelia Island. You can pause there between oak hammocks and tumultuous shoreline, hearing a dense woodland hush in one ear and the sea’s quiet roar in the other. Our game is full of blessed spots like this—points on the landscape that rumble a golfer’s soul. I linger in this pleasing nook between No. 3 green and No. 4 tee at Amelia Island Plantation’s Ocean Links course, aware that over the dune crest a pounding surf and Atlantic winds dutifully carve and shave the beachfront.

This barrier island, measuring 13 miles north to south, lies just below the Georgia border some 20 miles up from Jacksonville. Amelia’s history is marked by alternating periods of prosperity and privation. Its economy is split between traditional industries on the island’s west side and recreational beaches along the east, likewise between the quaint commerce of Fernandina Beach to the north and the grand resort presence at the south end.

In 1974 Amelia Island Plantation helped transform this place from a sleepy regional getaway into a premier golf-and-recreation destination. Today the resort is a 1,300-acre compound with more than 660 guest rooms (including 249 in the oceanfront Inn & Beach Club), eight restaurants, a spa, shopping, a market, labyrinthine walking paths and three 18-hole golf courses.

Pete Dye crafted the original 27 holes, discovering three routings that drift from inland forest seclusion to open scenes of shoreline and marsh. The two nines that climax with expansive Intracoastal Waterway views are today played as the Oak Marsh course. The third nine was extended to 18 holes and renamed Ocean Links in 1998.

The land used for that latter project had to be gathered up piecemeal, using several pods of real estate scattered throughout the property. Fortunately those parcels included some stunning seafront acreage that allowed the architect, Bobby Weed, to build two of the most provocative ocean holes in the South—the majestic par-3 15th and par-4 16th—giving Ocean Links an unbeatable five holes directly on the Atlantic (the middle holes on the front nine round out that quintet). Greens and tees for these holes aren’t merely next to the coastal dunes—they are the dunes. Weed also renovated the remaining Dye holes (including Oak Marsh), infusing these relatively short courses with putting surfaces of three-dimensional nuance.

Tom Fazio’s Long Point Golf Club opened in 1987 with its own set of watery adventures, including the graceful par-4 second along the edge of the marsh and the bounding par-4 12th, which creases another broad inlet. Back-to-back oceanside par-3s at 15 and 16 are spectacular, even set as they are slightly below dune level. A renovation project in 2003 vaulted Long Point into the elite of pristinely conditioned courses.

Several hours after my Ocean Links outing, I’m seated in a private booth, watching seven—no, make that eight—chefs bustle beyond the glass, orchestrating our dinner. The courses have been arriving one after another, each a spontaneous creation from head chef Robert Ciborowski, each paired unerringly with a wine.

In my world, heaven is a Ritz-Carlton, and I’ve found a slice of divinity here at the Ritz-Carlton Amelia Island, a luxurious 444-room resort on the crashing Atlantic shore. The resort’s Grill is one of only six AAA Five Diamond-rated restaurants in Florida, and the resort also owns a Five Diamond rating for overall excellence, making it one of only 21 resorts nationally to hold two such honors.

Hotel guests have access to the Golf Club of Amelia Island, an elegant and tasteful Mark McCumber design punctuated by a wind-sheared oak forest and five powerful closing holes winding through wetlands. Guests of Summer Beach, an adjacent beachfront condominium property, also share golf privileges.

My next Amelia experience takes me back in time, to 1956 and an era of genuine architectural minimalism. Back then, Fernandina Beach Municipal Golf Club’s short, funky North Course was the only game in town. Three years later, then-head professional Ed Matteson added the brutish 3,683-yard West nine, and another head pro, Tommy Birdsong, designed the South nine in 1972, marking it with deep bunkers and subtle playing angles accentuated by stately trees. A sentimental favorite, Fernandina Beach reminds us that sometimes the soundest strategies are the simplest.

More recently, Royal Amelia Golf Links materialized across the road. This five-year-old Tom Jackson design, set on a small but pristine parcel of land between the Amelia River and the airport, uses indigenous vegetation and continuous changes in direction to keep the wind fresh and the holes isolated, despite their close proximity. The rhythmic routing almost makes me forgive the overdone island green at No. 17.

Over on the mainland is the four-year-old Golf Club of North Hampton, a breezy and brassy Palmer Course Design project. Unapologetic green contours and man-made dunes make the course seem almost roguish, but I suspect it will make the where-to-play lists of golfers visiting Jacksonville for Super Bowl XXXIX.

Speaking of Jacksonville, the bustling dining-and-entertainment complex of Jacksonville Landing is only a short drive away and I contemplate heading there for dinner. But I’m in the mood for local flavor, so I opt to explore the historic town of Fernandina Beach instead. There I learn it’s possible to tarry too long sniffing whiskey at O’Kane’s, a rambunctious Irish pub, or sipping wine and listening to vinyl jazz records at Centre Street Café. In doing so I miss the last seating at a couple of intriguing downtown restaurants—Le Clos, where the French-trained chef serves Provencal dishes, and Beech Street Grill, whose fresh ingredients and award-winning wine list are offered at a romantically restored Victorian home. Neither of these serve particularly late so I have to settle for fish sandwiches at The Surf, a casual patio setting overlooking the beach. Of course I could have skipped dinner entirely in favor of dark liquors at the Palace Saloon, purportedly the oldest drinking establishment in Florida, but that just seemed to be asking for trouble.

The next morning brings checkout time, but even as I cross over to the mainland, my thoughts begin cycling back to Amelia. I’ll recall soft beds and delectable meals, old golf and new, a secret place of seeping light and the steady, soft thunder of the surf.  

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