Palisades Golf Course
CLERMONT, Fla - In the 1940's and '50's when Robert Trent Jones used to modify classic courses such as Oakland Hills outside of Detroit for upcoming U.S. Opens, a typical modernization tactic of his was to move fairway bunkers out 270 yards from the tees, precisely the distance most pros would drive their balls, and pinch them in. He would further tighten the landing area by recommending that the rough be grown into the fairway even further to nearly cut off the direct passage. The pros would either have to drive short of this small gap or try to thread a drive through it.
This redesign technique was called a "wasp waist," referring to the tiny tissue that connects two bulbous portions of an insect.
There is a "wasp waist" at the 13th hole of Palisades Golf Club in Clermont, FL, but it's on the green.
This remarkable green is actually two very small circular greens linked by a segment less than five paces across. A putt from the front of the green to a back left pin placement might be blocked by the waist and the bunkers that flank it.
As unconventional as this may sound, by the time the 13th is played, the quirkiness of its green is hardly noticed. Palisades is an odd, often eclectic golf course that can't quite seem to make up its mind what it wants to be. The raw materials are here for a very good golf course-and certainly there is nothing offensive about it as it is-but it undergoes strange character shifts that amount to a rather uneven playing experience.
Joe Lee, whose career overlapped Trent Jones's for several decades, but whose work is seldom compared to the late architect, designed the 7,004-yard Palisades in 1994 and inherited a nice piece of property. The land is interesting, something one might rightfully expect from a country-esque Lake County location such as this.
Lee gets off to a great start with the first nine, a rural-seeming set of holes that include elevation changes and scenic overviews of Lake Minneola to the south. The northeast corner of the property features the highest elevation and holes four through seven traipse up and down this slope. Three other holes hug the shores of the smaller Spring Lake inside the property's boundaries.
After a long, downhill par four opener Lee immediately tests the player with a long (199 yards from the championship tees) one-shotter over part of Spring Lake. Next is the dynamic third, a hole representative of what Palisades should be, a portent, we think, of the good things to come. This 542-yard par five horseshoes left around the lake and commands the player's attention on both the drive and second shots. Deciding how much of the lake to cut off here is a test of courage. Brave drives that challenge the water directly will leave a second shot over the hazard again, shortening the hole and affording an opportunity to get home in two.
Bunkers through the fairway and a tall grove of trees short and right of the green complicate angles, but the real intrigue is at the green itself. It is tiny and sloped back-to-front, side-to-side, a ticklish target braced by bunkers short and long.
When the green at the 427-yard fourth is eventually had, we begin to see what Lee is doing. Throughout the first nine holes, he presents very little trouble off the tee other than a basic fairway bunker here and there and some undulation, but that roominess needs to be used wisely because these greens are as little as they come. The fourth green is the shape of a lima bean and not much larger, only eight paces across at its center. With a mid-iron and the wind, it is almost impossible to hit, and missing it left or right magnifies the problem because there is simply no depth to it chipping in from the sides.
It's fascinating, even riveting, to play to such small, stamp-sized greens. In the era of epic, flowing putting surfaces that could comfortably sleep hundreds of napping children, these dainty spots of slippery Bermuda are delightful.
The first nine is like this, a test of nerves and irons, a peaceable walk through a quiet, unencumbered setting. It's like little else Lee has done in these parts-these parts being Central Florida, and he's drafted over a dozen courses in the Orlando area alone-and such a reprieve from the messy glut of Orlando swamp/community courses.
Ten continues this train of holes, a ribbon of grass 521 yards long to another smallish green, this one slightly larger than the previous several, but for the first time we really notice the row of houses on the right. Then, suddenly at the 11th, there are wetlands, a drive that must carry them, and a small lake that is dramatically in front of a green supported by bulkheads. It's placement golf, and we are back in Florida.
This 365-yard hole is a test, to be sure, and likely one of the membership's favorites, but after the fresh and natural qualities of holes three through nine, why? And at 12, a prodigious 458-yard uphill par four lined by middleclass housing replete with backyard jungle-gyms, we feel we could be absolutely anywhere in the country. What happened to the other Palisades? In fairness, the 12th hole finishes strongly because of it's small, well-protected green, but the course is taking a step backward.
So this is why the cool, bizarre green at 13 isn't shocking. We are use to it by now, use to not knowing what to expect.
What is shocking is the 15th, an absolutely banal par three with a large wavy green completely at odds with everything else on the course. Surrounded by homes, the hole is so average and out of place that it is nearly depressing. The16th runs parallel to the 12th and has a similar feel, and is another hole with a bulkheaded green perched over a lake. Tee to green it's typical Florida, but it's green is one of the best at Palisades, a small, circular disc with serious back-to-front break. Unfortunately the routing of this portion of the course feels mandated and the style of the holes is out of context to what we were initially introduced.
The final two holes play through a grove of old trees, just to throw in something completely different.
If there is chagrin, it is because Palisades has so much potential, as exhibited through the first 10 holes. As serious players, we lament missed opportunities, when golf courses or architects have the chance to present something different from all the other cloned courses in the state and fail. In and around Orlando this seems to be a tag that hangs on Lee. He has been given some sites with real interest, but he has too rarely produced 18 holes that work really well within their environment, or are otherwise notable.
As such, most of the holes on Palisades second nine are solid golf holes in their own right, but they seem to come from far-flung places and conflicting ideas, wedged into Palisades to make it a buckling, ill fitting puzzle. The greens are so sporty and novel he wouldn't have had to do much to the rest of the holes leading up to them, other than following the land.
Still, Palisades deserves credit because it is a diverse golf course with attractive elevations, those remarkably small greens, and is close enough to Orlando (twenty-five minutes west) to be an attractive excuse to get out of the city. It fits in thematically with the other golf courses off of Highway 27 and, consistent or not, has plenty of aspects to enjoy.
Palisades Golf Course
16510 Palisades Blvd.
Clermont, FL 34711
Palisades is located less than a mile west of Highway 27 on State Road 561-A, northwest of Clermont.
Fees begin at $28 weekdays, $35 weekends. Florida residents may be eligible for discounts. Ask about a $13 twilight rate. Call pro shop to confirm prices.
Walking is not generally permitted at Palisades, but if you can convince them to let you, it is a casual stroll, with some elevation on the front side. Carts are included in the green fees.