August 1, 2018 By: Tom Ferrell — Close your eyes and imagine your perfect version of Florida. Perhaps you are in the dunes on a beach overlooking the Atlantic. Or maybe your vision leads you to the sugar-sand paradise of the Gulf coast, or to the wealthy enclaves surrounding West Palm and Jupiter. You could even find yourself on a sultry night among the beautiful people of South Beach. But it’s safe to say that only the most hardcore golfers and aficionados would see themselves almost smack dab in the middle of the state, in 15,000 acres of Florida prairie more than 20 minutes from the nearest Wal-Mart and at least an hour away from the Magic Kingdom or the gleaming high-rises of Tampa-Clearwater.
Those intrepid souls, however, have a vision all their own. They imagine themselves in a fantasyland of emerald fairways, sandy scrapes, towering dunes and thrilling golf shots. They imagine Streamsong.
Streamsong doesn’t have the breathtaking ocean views of Bandon Dunes. It lacks the old-country Nova Scotia charm of Cabot, the opulent luxury of Whistling Straits or down-home ‘Sconnie hospitality of Sand Valley. But with the opening of the Black Course in the fall of 2017, Streamsong has something that no other golf resort in the world can claim: courses by each of the Big Three of modern golf architecture—Coore & Crenshaw, Tom Doak and, now, Gil Hanse.
“It’s always been part of the plan to have the three world-class courses,” says Scott Wilson, the PGA Director of Golf at Streamsong Resort. “The Black provides a totally different look from the Red and Blue. It’s big and expansive. Bring your imagination.”
It took a lot of imagination to envision a golf resort in the landlocked center of Florida, set amid over 200,000 acres of mining land. But a small team of executives at the Mosaic Company (the world’s largest supplier of phosphate and potash) did envision it. From that point, it took a lot of work, and a lot of persuasion on the part of former Mosaic CFO and Streamsong project lead Rich Mack.
“There was a lot of debate within the company about the project,” Mack says. “It’s certainly not the core business of Mosaic to own and operate resorts. But we did believe in it, that it was the highest and best use of a former mining site, and that it would provide another economic engine for Polk County. But we knew that to make Streamsong a viable operation, we needed a third course.”
The first two courses at Streamsong—Red and Blue (designed by Coore & Crenshaw and Tom Doak, respectively)—opened, along with the sleek and seemingly out-of-place modern clubhouse in 2013. The following year, the 200-room Lodge at Streamsong opened. Now the hard-edged modern motif began to work, as multiple buildings created symmetry and melded visually with the striking sight lines and contours of the golf courses.
In short order, Mosaic announced that Gil Hanse, arguably the hottest designer in golf, would build the Black course, utilizing a vast expanse of land to the south of the existing courses. Hanse, for his part, knew that his work would have to be something special.
“For years, I’ve studied what Bill (Coore) and Ben (Crenshaw) and Tom (Doak) do with shaping, with strategies, with routings,” Hanse says. They’re the best in the game. So to have a course placed alongside their work is a huge honor—and a lot of responsibility.”
The Red and Blue courses maneuver through huge dunes created by mining operations and naturalized over 40 years, with significant elevation changes, water and trees. The land assigned to Hanse may appear somewhat bland by comparison—at first glance, that is. But Hanse, his design partner Jim Wagner and their Caveman Construction team have never shied away from a bulldozer, nor from the belief that golf is at its heart a social game where friends can challenge themselves and each other and have a heroic moment or two to recount later in the bar.
Wilson, who oversees all the golf operations at Streamsong, believes Hanse and his team succeeded on all levels. “The first thing you notice is how unique the Black course is,” Wilson notes. “It anchors an entirely new section of the property (complete with its own stunning glass and steel clubhouse, the Gauntlet putting course, a state-of-the-art practice facility and a short course) and it’s just huge in scale. But the greatest benefit is the added debates over drinks at the end of the day. I love hearing how our guests rank the three courses. They really are three unique experiences.”
Like its Streamsong siblings, the Black has little traditional rough. Instead, native sand and vegetation border the fairways. Hanse begins the journey innocently enough, with a friendly par-5 that introduces the risk-reward elements of the course, the dramatic bunkering style and the wild and rollicking greens that characterize Black. Take the opportunity to get off with a par or even a birdie, because you are going to need that cushion as you begin the toughest stretch on the course.
Short par-4s have become something of a design showcase in the modern game, and few are better than Hanse at creating short holes with character. Number 2 is case in point. Options abound off the tee, although only the longest and boldest can take a shot at driving the green. Most will play a long iron and challenge the left fairway bunker for a better angle at the sliver of elevated green. Those who play directly at the pin will likely bound over the green and face a daunting up and down. Listen to the caddie and play safely to the right of the flag for a shot at gaining a stroke.
Full disclosure: I have played Black four times now, and I love the course. I love the size and heaves of the greens. I love the blind and semi-blind shots. I love the shotmaking options. But if Black has a weak hole, it is number 4, a stout par-5 that is unnecessarily penal and severe. The hole begins with a drive into a ribbon of fairway notched between a high dune on the right and wetlands on the left. Succeed at that, and you get to play a mid-iron to an awkward slice of fairway set over the wetlands and well above the tee shot landing area. Those who can navigate the first two shots then encounter a semi-blind pitch to a massive green that has several clear no-go zones. Play to limit disaster and then move on to the spectacular fifth.
The first time I played the fifth I looked up to the sharply elevated green and saw the tiny flag fluttering in the breeze, and I asked my caddie: Can you drive this one?
He laughed and said, “I hope so. It’s a par-3.” A huge expanse of fairway runs up the hill to the green, and a 30-foot blowout bunker protects the right side. It’s one of those memorable shots that Hanse pursues with every project, with an exhilarating tee shot and a long walk up to reveal the result—all that is good in golf!
A round at Black ebbs and flows easily, with scoring opportunities mixed in among genuinely unique tests, like the par-4 ninth with its blind punchbowl green. One of my playing partners looked all over the green and surrounds for his ball, only to find it in the cup.
Both nines at Black have Figure-8-like routings, so you’ll interact with plenty of golfers during your round. And you’ll all want to tell the stories of how you finished at the wildly entertaining par-5 18th. Take your drive down the left side and then make your decision—lay up or go for glory on an almost 90-degree turn across the gator-filled lake. The lay-up demands a tough pitch as well. Either way, it’s a fitting end to the round.
Don’t rush off when you finish your round at Black. Instead, grab a cold one from the Bone Valley Tavern inside the clubhouse and settle your bets on the Gauntlet putting course while you plot your way back to Black.