Florida's Emerald Coast Provides Unforgettable Vacation

By: Steve Habel


There is something oddly familiar about the Seagrove Beach community on the Emerald Coast of the Sunshine State - even if you've never been there, it seems like a town stored in your memory bank.

And then it hits you: you've seen this place in the movies.

This region, which is sandwiched between Fort Walton Beach to the west and Panama City to the east, was the location for shooting of the Jim Carrey film "The Truman Show." And it is as pretty and meticulously planned as a movie set on a sound stage.

And here, hard by the strikingly calm blue waters of the Gulf of Mexico and sand so white it seems like powered sugar, you can find rest and relaxation, entertainment on a grand scale, world-class accommodations and - oh yeah - an off-the-charts golfing experience.

More than 600,000 acres of this area has been developed by the St. Joe Company, with seven of the company's 10 towns in the state located in the Florida Panhandle. The communities offer captivating beaches, beautiful bays and rivers, rolling hills and quiet woodlands - and sport dozens of authentic, imaginative and inspiring places for visitors (many of whom become eventual residents) to discover.

The hub of the Emerald Coast region is the WaterColor Inn and Resort. This vacation property is situated on 499 acres, with 1,400 linear feet of beachfront on the renowned Beaches of South Walton County and coastal pine forests alongside Western Lake. Nearly half of the property is devoted to open space and preservation areas.

The inn, designed by famed architect David Rockwell, captures the essence of a tranquil getaway and is the perfect combination of Florida family resort and warm Southern hospitality.

Voted one of the "Top 50 Mainland U.S. Resorts" by readers of Condé Nast Traveler and "Best Hotel in Florida" by the readers of Travel + Leisure, the exclusive 60-room WaterColor Inn and Resort offers a myriad of options - luxurious waterfront accommodations, award-winning dining, a full-service spa, camp WaterColor for kids and a multitude of recreational activities. With the intimacy of a bed and breakfast and the fun of a classic beach house, WaterColor creates the ideal setting to relax - and to play. And playing (golf that is) is what drove us to the area. When you stay at the inn, you are granted exclusive access to three great tracks owned and operated by The St. Joe Company in this region - Camp Creek Golf Club, Shark's Tooth Golf Club and The Origins Course at WaterSound, collectively creating one of west Florida's great golf destinations.

Camp Creek

Since opening in 2001, Camp Creek has been consistently cited as one of Tom Fazio's most thought-provoking, aesthetically-stunning design credits. Featuring a unique "dunescape" appearance, the course was created as a private club for members who are owners of St. Joe selected communities and resort guests of WaterColor and WaterSound Beach resorts.

There was a lot of dirt moved at Camp Creek (more than a million cubic yards according to Will Hopkins, Camp Creek's director of golf operations), and this is one of the toughest tracks this reporter has ever played.

From the back green tees, the course plays to a championship caliber yardage of 7,159 and a formidable slope rating of 152. Many shots require precision off the tee to sloped landing areas, and the huge greens (sometimes as many as three clubs' difference in depth) offer few flat landing areas. Camp Creek's five-tee configuration, which also includes gold (senior) and red (women's) tees, accommodates players of all skill and experience levels. Camp Creek was, in 2006, named "America's Top Golf Course" in the Zagat Survey. Camp Creek was selected by the United States Golf Association and Florida State Golf Association to host a U.S. Open Local Qualifier in 2007, and the course will host a 2008 U.S. Amateur Qualifier in July. In selecting the courses, the USGA and FSGA cited their championship-caliber layouts, commitment to conditioning and ample practice facilities.

Travel + Leisure Golf recently recognized Camp Creek as "Florida's No. 1 Course of the New Millennium." There is a lot to like about Camp Creek - the course is picturesque, flawlessly maintained and lush to the nth degree - but you better have your game intact and your confidence high when you step to the first tee box.

Note to players: after the first two holes, Camp Creek gets incrementally tougher. And if the wind is up (hey, this is Florida and the track is less than a mile from the Gulf), prepare to be humbled.

Shark's Tooth

Purchased by St. Joe in 2007 as a companion course to Camp Creek, Shark's Tooth is every bit as good as the Fazio track and a lot friendlier to the average golfer. Designed by Greg Norman and voted the second best new private course by Golf Digest after its 2002 opening, Shark's Tooth Golf Club stretches 7,209 yards from the tips and features five fairways that border scenic Lake Powell, two holes that play toward the water, and numerous wooden cart path bridges that cross over streams and estuaries.

Tucked among the oaks and pines along the shores of the historic lake, which has been designated an Outstanding Florida Waterway, Shark's Tooth is a challenging course that co-exists with its surroundings. Grass from the Greg Norman Turf Company was used on the fairways, approaches and rough.

The greens are TifEagle. Norman's design relies heavily upon the natural lie of the terrain, sand dunes and ridges, not just to preserve the natural environment, but to also add definition and character.

Shark's Tooth is both forgiving and punishing - thanks to a combination of often generous landing areas that encourage the use of the driver and tight approaches (some no more than five or six yards wide) that makes the greens approachable only with a perfect shot over the guardian bunkers Norman is so famous for. The bump-and-run will not work here.

The Origin's Course

The Origins Course at WaterSound's aim is to make golf more fun, accessible and attractive to families, beginners and casual golfers. It offers a nice change of pace to those players waylaid by the challenges at Camp Creek and Shark's Tooth, but this track is not a pushover and is well worth the time to play.

A six-hole regulation course that alternatively plays as a nine-hole executive course and a 10-hole par-3 layout, The Origins Course was conceived with the "short course" concept at its core.

Designed by Love Golf Design, which was founded by PGA Tour player Davis Love III, the course is consistent with the Scottish origins of the game, in which six, nine and 12-hole courses were commonplace.

The Origins Course appeals and caters to novices via its non-penal design and manageable distance of approximately 1,800 yards. Yet its regulation-length holes and traditionally wrought green complexes provide enough challenge and strategy to retain the interest of experienced golfers. The Origins Course is turfed with "Sealsle Supreme Paspalum," which requires fewer chemicals for weed and pest control and supports St. Joe's commitment to environmental sensitivity and preservation.

The Emerald Coast is often given second or third billing when golfers consider a vacation that includes great courses and options. Given the quality of the courses at Camp Creek, Shark's Tooth and The Origins, forgoing a trip to this part of the country would be a huge mistake.

Steve Habel is an Austin, Texas-based journalist. Since 1990, he has traveled around the globe covering news, business and sports assignments for various news bureaus, newspapers, magazines and websites. He also contributes to Business District magazine in Austin as managing editor and is the Texas football beat writer and a contributing editor for Horns Illustrated, the Austin-based magazine for University of Texas sports. Habel writes a weekly golf column for The River Cities Tribune in Marble Falls, Texas, and is a member of the Texas Golf Writers' Association.


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