Stoneybrook West Golf Club: A Perfect Blending of Themes in Winter Garden
Chip Shot: US Homes is making a major play in golf course developments, strengthening their portfolio with the November 2000 opening of Stoneybrook West Golf Club in Winter Garden to accompany the original Stoneybrook Golf Club on the east side of town. With these two clubs, the name Stoneybrook now becomes even more significant in the greater Orlando golf scene. Bracketing one of the strongest golf markets in the state, the two Stoneybrook courses offer very different styles of golf.
Winter Garden, FL - If Stoneybrook Golf Club (East) seems typically Floridian, Stoneybrook West is decidedly not. The first thing one notices driving toward the course is how level it all seems. While this is nothing unique in a state that specializes in flatness, this property seems unusually linear on the approach.
The land that was to become the championship length 7,101 yard Stoneybrook West was originally a citrus grove. The small town of Winter Garden, sits among this type of prime citrus property. Existing orchards can be seen to the west and south of the course, sometimes with the trees so overburden with fruit that oranges collect in heaps at their base. And while there are gentle hills and slopes nearby, they are basically absent on this stripped property.
Designing courses over flat terrain always ignites questions as to how the land should be treated and how the golf course can best be imbued with intrigue and variation where none exists intrinsically. Should earth be shoveled around to the point where there are at last hillocks and slope, clashing with the profile of the environment, or should the flatness be embraced and incorporated strategically into the design? Naturally there are differing schools of thought and multiple paths of execution to each.
The answer at Stoneybrook West is a type of middle ground, a blending of themes. Arthur Hills has designed here a desert-style course on the type of open, agricultural site common to the Midwest. It's evident that a tremendous amount of earth was relocated, but not to the point that the course seems overly artificial or manufactured.
Extra turf was deposited along the edges of fairways and around the greens to ostensibly create a sense of isolation on each hole, and the whole course seems "built up" above the land in this way. Yes, nothing silly or overly gimmicked has been done, just the creation of modern golf holes. In this sense Stoneybrook West is like desert golf-swaths of man-made green twisting around otherwise featureless land.
Like its brother course on the eastern side of Orlando, Stoneybrook West is owned and managed by US Home (along with a third Stoneybrook course in Estero, Florida). What homeowners and golfers alike will see here is a completely different type of golf, a course susceptible to the wind, that plays as fast and challenging as any in the area. As of now, the home construction hasn't really taken hold, so for those golfers averse to development, the best time to play the course is now through the fall.
The course opened for play in late November of 2000 and has been a critical success and a unique compliment to its immediate high-end neighbors Orange County National and The Golden Bear Club at Keene's Point. A large portion of the course's notoriety is due to the conditioning of its greens, seeded with a relatively new variety of bermudagrass called TifEagle (first used on golf greens in the South in 1996).
"We have some of the finest greens in Orlando [because of it]," says Head Pro Ian Shepherd. "TifEagle doesn't go completely dormant in the winter like most bermuda, so it doesn't have to be overseeded. When the temperatures were really low here [in mid-January], they got a little off-color, that nice brownish-purple, but they were still growing and they came right back."
Shepherd explains that TifEagle grows very tight, meshing laterally to better handle lower and more frequent mowing heights. It also develops less thatch buildup underneath which means it can maintain a more uniform surface than TifDwarf, the bermudagrass common to most Florida greens.
All this is might be mumbo-jumbo to most golfers, but the truth is in the roll. Shepherd said that during the month of January, green speeds were hitting an incredible 14 on the Stimpmeter. Stoneybrook West's greens will normally be maintained at about 9, a speed de rigueur for TifEagle. At any speed, the greens roll excellently and it's hard to envision them getting choppy.
Those familiar with Arthur Hills will know that he is capable of designing golf courses that can be incredibly difficult, but that he generally delivers something unique as well. Stoneybrook West is a typically cool Hills product. In certain conditions (namely high winds) the course can be absolutely brutal, but he has managed to inject a fairly bland property with a determinedly robust character.
Stoneybrook West is a roaming blend of gutsy, penal holes, picturesque par threes over water, reachable par fives (527 and 522 yards from the tips, then 578 and 605), and several short, sporty par fours that cover all corners of the site. Without anything natural to work with (the only trees on the course are a grove of pines off the second tee and new cluster plantings of young Sabal palmettos) Hills needed to create his own signature features. Those features are the green complexes.
Perhaps more that any major architect in today's field, Hills is willing to angle his greens in directions other than back-to-front. Several of the greens here fade away toward the rear and the sides into chipping areas, and there are a handful of approaches in which only parts of the putting surface are visible.
On holes one, seven, ten, and fifteen, the greens are sloped away from lateral bunkers toward water hazards, forcing either incredibly heroic approach shots or complete safety plays to the high side, toward the bunkers.
Holes seven through eleven all feature water hazards in line short of the green. Stoneybrook West's greatest challenge can be evidenced on these five holes where aerial approach shots over the water are necessitated, but the firm greens are nearly too tight to hold. If the holes are played downwind, it might be necessary to deliberately play long or into a greenside bunker.
The firmness of the greens will improve, Shepherd says. "A lot of that has to do with the thatch layer, which on most courses can be pretty deep so it makes the greens softer. Our greens don't have that, so they putt better, but they're firmer. As the course matures they'll soften a little." Firmness, however, might always be the course's personality, which is fine. If so, then its reputation will revolve around the challenge of the gauntlet holes seven through eleven and how successfully golfers navigate it.
The design constantly demands negotiation, forcing the player to choose a side to avoid various hazards. If one shot needs to favor the right, the next will probably need to stay left. Of course the highest reward is afforded to those who challenge the hazards, lessening the angle of the next shot.
The first hole is the traditionally quirky offering that Hills seems to begin so many of his designs with. This one is a medium-long (408 yards from the back tees) par four that plays between bracketing mounds. The tee shot must stay right of the two bunkers 240 yards out. The second must flirt with the bunker that guards the front left of a green that slopes left to right and isn't completely visible from the fairway.
The second and third holes (578 yards and 212 yards) equal the demand of the first, but the tone changes dramatically at the fourth, a reachable 329-yard par four (291 yards from the men's tees). There are minefields of bunkers between the tee and the green, and though savvy players may check pin placement and play for position with an iron, for most there is no use in holding back. What the fourth holes does psychologically is more important (and more tangible) than what it does for the scorecard as it keeps the round balanced and encourages inventive, thoughtful play (as well as a chance for a birdie).
And so it goes at Stoneybrook West, a course that will get you talking to yourself. A series of difficult holes where balls skid and slide maddeningly off the slick greens are followed by short reprieves and chances to both refresh mentally and perhaps get shots back. The design is excellent this way, and by the end of the round the truest appreciation arrives not from a splendid walk (or ride) through a beautiful, well-endowed natural habitat but from a far more personal relationship with not only the brawny course, but with the game of golf and all its whims.
Stoneybrook West will challenge golfers in ways that other Florida courses cannot, and that is its strength. The course would, however, benefit from a slight softening of the greens, at least to the point where they hold iron shots that must carry hazards since there is no room for run-ups.
The course is marketing itself aggressively to find its niche in the Orlando golf scene, and Shepherd is taking a modern approach to selling the course. "We're doing it more high tech and marketing the course over the internet," he says. "We want to reward the people who visit our website." Discounts are often available on-line at the address listed below.
Most of all he wants to take care of the people who take care of the course. "We really cater to the locals, because they're the ones that are going to keep us going."
For those visiting the Orlando area, particularly the Disney World complex, Stoneybrook West is just a matter of minutes up the road to the north. For those who frequent the Orlando golf circuit, Stoneybrook West is a course that must be seen to be measured against the other name courses.
Rates vary per time and day of the week. Florida residents pay a twilight rate low of $32 to a high of $60 on weekend mornings. Non-residents pay a twilight low of $40 and a high of $75. Call the pro shop for more information.
To get to Stoneybrook West turn west of State Road 535 three miles south of Highway 50 and Winter Garden.
Stoneybrook West Golf Club
15501 Towne Commons Blvd.
Winter Garden, FL 34787