Perfect Places to Practice

By Derek Duncan, Contributor

ORLANDO, FL - Some say the state of Florida, with an excess of 1,200 golf courses, offers the best golf in the country. Others disagree, claiming lack of variety and too many flattish courses keep it out of the top spot. What is less debatable, however, is that Florida is the ideal locale to practice the game.

As testified to by the large number of professional golfers who make this their home, Florida is in a league of its own when it comes to year-round climate, access to first-rate instructors, and modern, high tech practice facilities. Some of the country's largest and most versatile practice areas are located in Florida- most built in the last 10 years - and perhaps only Arizona can offer competition when it comes to offering so many quality venues at which to perfect your game.

Furthermore, most of the better practice facilities are open to the public. Fittingly, one of the best practice areas in the United States is located at one of the best public golf clubs in the United States, World Woods Golf Club in Brooksville (approximately one hour north of Tampa).

The World Woods range, built in 1993 along with its two courses, Pine Barrens and Rolling Oaks, was innovative among Sunshine State facilities for its configuration. The immense circular range covers a full 23 acres and is surrounded by tees playing in four different directions toward the center. As if this spacious complex weren't enough, World Woods also provides a 9-hole Short Course featuring seven par 3's and two par 4's, a 3-hole Practice Course, a large chipping green with several bunkers, and a 36-hole Putting Course over two acres in size. Combine this with putting greens near the first tees of both courses and a wooded, secluded golf-only environment and World Woods must rank among the greatest practice outlets in the country.

What World Woods doesn't have is a nationally recognized and respected golf academy like The Phil Ritson Golf Institute at Orange County National near Orlando. Ritson, a native of South Africa who has been teaching golf for over half a century, helped to create Orange County National as the ultimate expression of public golf and practice.

Trumping the World Woods Practice Park for sheer size, the 42 acre, 360º range can handle up to 600 players and is where Tiger Woods filmed his "bouncing wedge" commercial for Nike. Students are videotaped religiously and can have their swings digitally broken down in one of several media rooms adjacent to the range. Accompanying this sprawling facility is a 9-hole, par 3 course called "Tooth" and a lighted 22,000 square foot putting green.

When it comes to instructors, one of the better-known teachers is David Leadbetter who runs his academy out of the Greg Norman-designed ChampionsGate Golf Club near Disney World. ChampionsGate is another public 36-hole facility (with The International and The National Courses) with an impressive practice range, expansive putting green, and family putting green. Leadbetter, ranked #1 among Golf Digest's "50 Greatest Teachers", heads up the operations here and it's not uncommon to see professional golfers, celebrities, film crews, and dozens of other serious golfers working out with him.

It's not the largest practice area in Florida, and it doesn't boast an instructor with a show on The Golf Channel, but the range at Ocean Hammock in Palm Coast must be the most scenic. As players hit balls off a long elevated tee toward the undulating range below, the Atlantic Ocean breaks continuously against the dunes and beach less than 100 yards behind them. The taste of salt is tangible in the air and when the wind is up, and it usually is, this can be one of the more useful places to practice and an unforgettable setting.

If the practice area at the Tournament Players Club at Sawgrass is good enough for the PGA Tour players, we're guessing it will suffice the average golfer. At this double-ended, awesome expanse of green it's not uncommon to see Ponte Vedra Beach residents like Vijay Singh, David Duval, or Rocco Mediate working on their game, or Jim Furyk hitting shot after shot from one of the practice bunkers or putting on the large adjacent green. This is a serious players' range for both serious students and star-seekers.

If there's one individual who is directly responsible for some of the state's best practice facilities it's golf course architect Ron Garl. Where many architects tack on ranges to their courses as a perfunctory afterthought, Garl takes practice range design to a new level. For several years he's been building what he terms the "Mega Practice Complex" which features unique formations and target placement with names such as the "Compass Rose", the "Practice Diamond", and the "Bermuda Triangle". Many of these concepts are found at the Garl-designed Faldo Golf Institute at the Marriott Grande Vista Resort in Orlando.

One of the best examples of his innovative concept is at Victoria Hills in Deland. For starters the practice area is huge, a long range working from both sides replete with several areas devoted to the short game, where Garl says 70% of the golfers strokes are found. Another of his systems, called "The Scoring V", is found at Victoria Hills consisting of a phalanx of distinct flags set at staggered distances between 50 and 100 yards, each with a small green designed to either capture or repel wedge shots. The idea is that instant feedback - the ball either makes the target or doesn't - will cure the common epidemic of hitting shot after mindless shot with no clear intent.

"This is probably the best practice complex in the state of Florida," says Garl of the tree lined range that exudes a distinct mountain character. "There may be a couple bigger, even though this one is mega - almost twice the size of a normal range."

"I've designed these places that are aesthetic and beautiful to look at, plus you get really great feedback practicing here. Modestly speaking, we're probably the best in the world at this. People build them bigger, they just don't build them better."

World Woods Golf Club
17590 Ponce DeLeon Blvd.
Brooksville, FL 34614
Phone: (352)796-5500

Orange County National Golf Center and Lodge
16301 Phil Ritson Way
Winter Garden, FL 34787
Phone: (407) 656-2626
800 727-3672

ChampionsGate Golf Club
1400 Masters Blvd.
ChampionsGate, FL
Phone: (407) 787-4653

Ocean Hammock Golf Club
The Ocean & 16th Rd.
Palm Coast, FL 32137
Tee Times: (904) 447-4653
Clubhouse: (904)447-4600

Sawgrass Marriott Resort
1000 PGA Tour Blvd.
Ponte Vedra Beach, FL 32082
Phone: 800-457-4653
(904) 285-7777

Victoria Hills Golf Club
300 Spalding Way
DeLand, FL 32724
Phone: (386) 738-6000

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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