Southern Dunes: One of the Most Unique Courses in Florida

By Derek Duncan, Contributor

HAINES CITY, FL - If the golf courses of Florida were diagramed as a family tree, with similarly styled courses aligned along similar lineages or threads, Southern Dunes would occupy its own prominent branch, a wild promontory jutting permanently out and away from the mass of like courses that comprise the center.

The trunk of the golf tree might consist of the older, rather traditional courses sprung from a venerable seed such as Seminole, but which have grown narrowly and imitative, showing little true variation. The diagram would appear as a succession of common themes, lacking in originality, and so the tree would be shaped like a poplar.

The old-school resort courses, for example, would form a solid, weight-bearing interior branch and Pete Dye's Stadium Course at Sawgrass might be the only significant alteration to the evolution, and by now that would have sprung its own offshoots and variations. It should be hoped that the renegade bough of Southern Dunes (along with Tom Fazio's Pine Barrens at World Woods) does the same. It's a course worthy of its national audience, one that could ruin Florida's reputation as a state with only two-dimensional golf courses.

For years the country has been under the impression that there were no hills or elevation changes in Florida. It might as well have been true because the accessible golf courses that were held aloft as the state's standard were flat, largely featureless tracks usually routed around man-made lakes, cookie-cutter sand traps, and palm trees.

That style of golf still dominates the landscape, but when a course with as much movement and swale as Southern Dunes is beheld, the understanding that the best golf courses are predicated by good land is truly revelatory. And while it will always be possible to fashion solid, even inspiring, courses out of a swamp, not every course can find the construction budget or the architect to do it uniquely. What results in a state with lots of swampland and dozens of courses that may look slightly different but play the same.

But it's not always like that. There is a vast sandy ridge that traverses the west-central part of the state through western Orange County, Polk County, and onward south. It is on this landscape, in the small, unassuming town of Haines City, that architect Steve Smyers was given the property to create something much needed in Florida: the engaging, explicitly shaped Southern Dunes.

Smyers is an architect whose talents inspire comparisons to those from an era when thoughtful, strategic designs were not as rare as they now are. He builds holes that derive their character from the soil of the site, are heavily influenced by wind, and that can be attacked rightly or wrongly from a variety of positions. Judging from his portfolio of 34 courses, his repertoire at this point in his career appears to be virtually unlimited. His ability to consistently deliver golf courses that deliver both aesthetic and intellectual satisfaction, places him squarely in the top tier of golf course architects.

This reputation was forged through a steady stream of successes that include Southern Dunes, Old Memorial in Tampa, Wolf Run in Indiana, and Chart Hills south of London. Southern Dunes is currently ranked 91 on GolfWeek's 100 Greatest Modern Courses and it has appeared as high as 51 on the list since it opened in 1993.

The golf course is a throwback in the sense that it calls for decision-making on nearly every hole and offers the heroic opportunity on a level that has been vastly underutilized during the modern era. It is a bold, daring design that constantly stimulates, constantly offers variations and temptation, so much so that many have called it a gambler's golf course.

From the championship markers, Southern Dunes is a sizable 7,227 yards, but offers reasonable alternatives down to 4,987 yards if length is a concern. As with the best strategic courses, the fairways are prodigious allowing for a variety of angles to be played, but the breadth of these often appear tighter than they are due to the size and artistic shaping of the bunkers that border and influence nearly every shot.

Southern Dunes is an example of Smyers' penchant for building courses that reflect whatever innate characteristics are presented in the land. "Every site is unique and offers something different," he says. "What we had naturally on that site was a high, sandy ridge with a lot of wind, so we wanted to utilize those features." Smyers says Southern Dunes is contextually similar to the great courses of Australia's Sand Belt region. The sandy soil of the site reminded him of courses such as Royal Melbourne and Kingston Heath, courses that have greatly influenced his design style.

These conditions create potentially speedy playing surfaces, and Southern Dunes is therefore ideally suited to low, running golf shots. To make the most of the property however, Smyers and his team had to move a fair amount of earth, in the neighborhood of 400,000 cubic yards. It was an unusual amount for an architect who prefers to work with existing landforms and contours. "The next three courses we did, didn't move that much land combined," he notes.

In addition to open holes that beckon the ground game, the greens range in size from enormous to humongous to further open up pin positions and avenues of play. They are generally maintained to accept aerial shots as well, but high balls will often be susceptible to the prevailing winds. Once taken, there is enough contour on them to challenge every putt on both line and distance.

The first hole is a straightaway 426-yard (back tees) introduction through a shallow valley of oddly configured bunkers, an omen of what is ahead. The first nine plays out and back in two loops, offering itself in a variety of ways to the wind and naturally sloping land.

The defenses of the course are manifold, but they begin with the bunkering (there are nearly 200 bunkers at Southern Dunes, many of which never come into play). Smyers' great use of cross-bunkers and diagonal bunkers force players to make decisions that test their gumption and mettle. Holes such as the 555-yard fourth and the 378-yard fifth have clusters of bunkers that enter play diagonally from left to right toward the green. The second shot on four must play lay-up to the left of these in an area that provides the most direct angle to the green, or challenge them directly over the top and to the right where a small patch of appealing chipping fairway awaits, thereby shortening the hole greatly if one wants the risk.

The drive on the fifth confronts the player with the same conundrum. The obvious play is to the unblocked field on the right of the line of bunkers that split the fairway, but this angle necessitates a treacherous pitch over a pond that guards the green entirely short and right. For the player who can muster a hearty blast over the shortest of the bunkers on the left, an upper fairway awaits those with a view of the green without obstruction.

The same strategic quandaries are encountered at the 15th, a tantalizing 369-yard par four that plays from a slightly elevated tee to a basin fairway. A grouping of bunkers interjects into the fairway from the right at 150 yards, roughly halving the hole's width. The tendency is to play at and perhaps challenge these bunkers, a task only the longest are fit for. The second from this side is partly shaded by the long pampas grasses in the hazard, but the angle is fair. An alternative route is provided down the left, where strong drives can roll clear of the bunkers to leave a short chip into the tilted green. Certainly this decision can pay off, but the gap is narrow and bordered by trees on the far left, and the short shot can be delicate.

The sprawling bunker behind the tee (not an uncommon feature here) will raise eyebrows. High handicappers who have worn out their sand wedges may take it as a kind of "rubbing it in" from Smyers, but it's more of a playful jest and an aesthetic touch, and an immediate reminder that trouble is always looming.

Southern Dunes features a stellar quartet of short holes. Each of the par threes offers a distinctive look, plays slightly downhill but into a different wind pattern, and showcase some of the more riveting bunkering on the course. Each green is spacious, but the penalty for missing them can be maddening.

A notable design feature Smyers uses is a large "blocking" mound, first encountered on the gamy 187-yard sixth. From the elevated tee the long, bean-shaped green appears in a valley protected right by a trio of full moon bunkers cut into the hillside and hidden on the left by the large, sloping mound. Actually there is ample room behind the mound to fly it, but another choice could be to knock down a long iron and bank it off the mound to access a right-hand pin position. Such a play would eliminate the threat of the bunkers and keep the ball under the wind that rushes over this, the highest point on the course.

This blocking mound, rarely employed in current golf architecture but found frequently in classic designs, appears in different forms on the left side of the titanic 461-yard, uphill 13th and again in front of the green on the 548-yard 16th. It's exciting to see this type of feature make an appearance on such a risk-reward golf course - it is perfectly at home - and it can be thrilling to use the banks to hold and influence shots.

Southern Dunes is the type of course that could be played a different way on each day of the week depending on wind conditions, pin placements, how well the player is striking the ball, and what choices he makes. "It's so important, the most important thing," Smyers says of strategy. Due to the increase in equipment technology, he says, "we have to emphasize strategy in our designs. You have to make players examine the hole, the slope, the lie, the angle, and emphasize each contour and how it affects the shot along with the wind, and then make them hit the right shot for the occasion."

As important as Southern Dunes is for Florida, it's initial impression is duplicitous. The primary entryway to the course is through a shopping plaza, literally, just east of Highway 27. This road moves the golfer through a development and if several holes from the course weren't visible from the street one would assume they'd made a wrong turn.

Yes, there are homes, plenty of them, surrounding Southern Dunes. It must be noted however, that these residences are set a good bit back from the course and are often hidden by dunes, small pines, and the uncountable bunkers.

While the development surrounding the course might disaffect some who are after a pure separation from civilization, hundreds of courses in Florida more isolated than Southern Dunes cannot begin to match it for intrigue and golfing merit. Under any examination, Southern Dunes is one of the top ten golf courses in Florida, and possibly its most unique.

Due to the millions of tourists who visit the region every year, one of the most popular questions asked in Florida golf is, "Where should I play when I'm in Orlando?" There are certainly a variety of courses in and about Orlando deserving of the attention they receive, and many offer looks and experiences that others in the area cannot. Southern Dunes offers what few other course in the state can. To those who ask this popular question, Southern Dunes should always be an answer.

Green fees at Southern Dunes vary throughout the year, but for most of the off-season (May-October) they are $60 Monday through Thursday, $65 Friday through Sunday, with twilight rates available at certain times. Florida residents are eligible for a 20% discount. Call the pro shop to confirm rates.

In addition to the plethora of hotels and accommodation in Southwest Orlando and the Disney World area located just twenty minutes north of Southern Dunes, there are numerous smaller hotels at the I-4 and Highway 27 exchange near Baseball City, and in Haines City. Lodging is not an excuse to by-pass this course.

Southern Dunes
2888 Southern Dunes Blvd.
Haines City, FL
Phone: 800 632-6400

Southern Dunes is located on Southern Dunes Blvd., east of Highway 27 in Haines City, six miles south of I-4. Look for the Southern Dunes sign near the Wal-Mart.

Derek DuncanDerek Duncan, Contributor

Derek Duncan's writing has appeared in,,,, LINKS Magazine and more. He lives in Atlanta with his wife Cynthia and is a graduate of the University of Colorado with interests in wine, literary fiction, and golf course architecture.

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