September 29, 2017 By: Erik Matuszewski – An old windmill stands behind the ninth hole of the new Black Course at Streamsong, giving golfers a directional frame of reference for a blind approach shot into the punchbowl-shaped green. Once atop the ridge that surrounds the putting surface – which sits a good 8-10 feet below – golfers are struck by one of the biggest and most undulating greens they will ever encounter in golf.
There are so many humps, bumps and hollows, it almost looks like a massive painters’ tarp has been thrown over all the furniture in a living room.
The sheer scale of the putting green at the incredible par-4 ninth hole sums up what architects Gil Hanse, Jim Wagner and their energetic team have created at Streamsong’s third and newest layout. The Black embraces a creative mind – a big, bold and strategic course that perfectly complements the existing Blue (Tom Doak) and Red (Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw) courses at the resort, which sits amid an old phosphate mining property in the middle of nowhere in Florida.
In some respects, Hanse and Wagner have taken a risk with the Black course. Not that it’s slightly unorthodox as a par-73 (it is), but because they’ve designed a resort course that they acknowledge takes some time to figure out. Even though it’s a property where some guests may only be staying for a couple days, there’s unquestionably a learning curve at the Black; particularly figuring out where to play and, perhaps as importantly, where not to play.
“Is it a risk? It is, to a certain extent,” says Hanse, who is one of the most sought-after architects in the game, having recently designed the 2016 Olympic course in Rio de Janeiro as well as the stellar Mossy Oak course that opened last year in Mississippi.
“If you build golf courses that aren’t necessarily evident the first time you step out on them, you might get people walking away saying, ‘Hmm, it wasn’t that great.’ But I think if you think about the greatest golf courses you’ve ever played, you never figure them out on the first go. It takes time and patience. We hope we’ve built a golf course that takes patience and time to figure out. We certainly had a great piece of ground to work with.”
While the Blue and Red courses are almost intertwined, the Black course sits alone and boasts its own modern clubhouse, much of which is comprised of glass windows that look out on all 18 holes. There may not be as many soaring scrub-topped dunes as at the Blue and Red courses, yet the abundant sand that’s the signature of Streamsong is even more prominent and visible at the Black course. The region was mined in the middle part of last century, with an estimated 100 million tons of phosphate rock pulled out of the Bone Valley region.
It’s not necessarily an easy place to get to – over an hour’s drive from Tampa and almost 90 minutes from Orlando — but neither are golf destinations like Bandon Dunes in Oregon or Cabot Links in Nova Scotia. And since opening with the first two courses in 2013, Streamsong has seen golfers play more than 250,000 rounds. That’s only going to go up with the addition of the Black.
Rich Mack, the visionary force behind the property, couldn’t be more excited about what the future holds. Mack is chief financial officer for Streamsong’s ownership group, The Mosaic Company, which is a leading global producer of crop nutrients and Florida’s seventh-largest private landowner (250,000 acres).
“The project wasn’t a slam dunk,” says Mack. “When we started this, people said, ‘There’s no way people are going to travel from Tampa or Orlando all the way out to southwestern Polk County. You’ve got to be crazy.’ I think we’re proving to be wrong on that assertion.”
“At Streamsong, we’re all about the people, product and the service,” Mack added. “But it all starts and ends with the golf. If we don’t get the golf right, we’re DOA. Luckily, on Red and Blue we got the golf right. Selecting Gil Hanse, Jim Wagner and their team, we got the golf right.”
The Black course has a different feel than its siblings right from the start, which fittingly is a par-5. From the tee, the golfer’s eye is drawn to the big sandy fairway bunkers down the left side; the immense width of the fairway itself isn’t readily apparent. The tiered green is framed by bunkers, with the putting surface blending almost seamlessly into the sand on the side. In our group, two players were just off the green to the left and were able to putt from the bunker.
Hanse before the round encouraged everyone to have fun and “hit crazy shots.” It was exciting to see some nontraditional strategy right from the opening hole.
Hanse wants players to embrace the ground game at Streamsong Black and golfers will often find themselves debating whether to putt, chip or try a bump-and-run from off the greens. The green complexes are perhaps the signature characteristic at Black, and the reason they’re so massive is because the green contours need to be big and bold to match the overall scale of the property.
The epic size of the punchbowl green at the 9th hole probably encapsulates that best, but it frequently seems that each green is bigger than the last. The par-4 13thhole even has two separate greens — a design characteristic that’s reminiscent of the famous 8th hole at Pine Valley. But while the twin putting surfaces at the New Jersey gem are tiny and terrifying, the two greens at Black’s 13th hole are enormous and rolling.
Not to be outdone, the course’s second par-5 hole has two separate fairways.
There isn’t a par-3 hole at the Black that’s quite as visually spectacular as the most memorable of the one-shotters at Blue and Red, but the 17th is certainly unforgettable with a backdrop of Florida’s version of “snow-capped” mountains in the distance: massive white-topped sand dunes.
I was fortunate enough to play with a couple members of Hanse’s team, including Neil, who told me the par-5 holes can be the most challenging to create. And while there’s a terrific mix of tough and driveable par-4 holes at the Black, the five par-5 holes might be the layout’s most indelible group. As a bookend to the start, Hanse’s course concludes with another par-5 — a classic risk-reward hole that features a long approach shot over a pond and fearsome bunkers in front of a green backed by soaring hills.
The Black course has a few more bells and whistles too. There’s a 2-acre putting course called The Gauntlet, a practice facility, a short course and an alternative ninth hole called the Roundabout.
The course may just be opening, but construction has been finished for more than a year. The course’s maturity is a testament to the resort’s desire to let it fully grow in before the official unveiling. Hanse was quick to credit course superintendent Rusty Mercer and his crew, saying that while maybe 3-to-5 percent of golfers appreciate good design, 99.9 percent appreciate good conditioning.
Hanse and Wagner’s names are forever immortalized on a plaque inside the clubhouse for the Black course. While they’re the latest dream design team to create a masterpiece at Streamsong, the conceptual credit for the resort goes to the unassuming Mack, who has turned a remote Florida location into the only golf facility in the world with courses designed by Hanse, Doak and the duo of Coore and Crenshaw.
“To have the vision and ability to walk out on a piece of ground like this in its raw form and envision there could be one of the most special places in this game takes a special set of eyes,” says Hanse. “It also takes a special gut to take it to people and sell that concept. Rich Mack is a true visionary. He somehow conceptualized that this could happen. We’re forever thankful that we could build a golf course next to two of the groups we respect the most.”
After a lengthy wait, golfers making the trek to Streamsong will now be equally thankful.