Florida’s Eco-Friendly Golf Course

C.H. Colby Corbis-Larry Lambrecht

Streamsong, outside Tampa, spearheads the coming era of golf played on reclaimed land.

What would you call a luxury golf resort built in a post-industrial backwater? This was the challenge before focus groups as the Mosaic Company, the world’s largest supplier of phosphate- and potash-based crop nutrients (and one of Florida’s largest landowners), prepared to enter the golf-and-hospitality business on the site of a defunct mine in the sticks 50 miles southeast of Tampa. They came up with the name Streamsong, which is one of those Altria-like appellations whose real-world connection between signifier and signified is tenuous at best. Mostly, it represents an effort to highlight a positive PR message—under state law, every acre Mosaic disturbs must be returned to nature, and there’s something to be said for taking an approach that adds jobs and tax revenue in rural Polk County. “Some people are concerned about mining,” said Richard Mack, the Mosaic executive who headed up the resort’s development. “We wanted to show what you can do with a piece of property if you’re creative.”

Since its opening in January, Streamsong has been the most-talked-about new golf property in the country. It may not be “the next Bandon Dunes,” as some have rushed to anoint it, but it’s hard to overstate the appeal of an easily reached winter destination that also offers top-shelf golf design—something that’s lacking in Florida, at least on the resort side. Architect Alberto Alfonso’s designs for the Clubhouse and 216-room Lodge (set to open this fall) employ stone, cedar and floor-to-ceiling glass in what feels like a minimalist study in luxury—but out on the golf courses, the spirit of the place could best be described as uncanny. On the one hand, Streamsong’s landforms are totally unnatural; the site is dominated by massive ridges and mounds of spoils created by draglines, with deep ponds filling the voids. On the other, because the mine was abandoned some four decades ago, natural processes have had time to mount a reconquest. Dunes have been wind-sculpted and covered over with shaggy, rough grasses, and wildlife abounds—it wouldn’t be Florida without a few gators lounging by water hazards.

Streamsong comprises a pair of courses, the Red and the Blue, from two of the leading firms in golf architecture today. Despite the routings being intertwined on a single large site, each layout has its own distinct character. Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw’s Streamsong Red course is loaded with long, bruising par fours and challenging forced carries. It might be the most difficult course the duo has ever created. Streamsong Blue, meanwhile, was created by Tom Doaks of Renaissance Golf Design. Wide and forgiving from the tee, it consistently offers fascinating strategic options. The epic par-five 17th, for example, crosses the aesthetics of the Melbourne Sandbelt with the playing qualities of the legendary fourth at Long Island’s Bethpage Black Course. After the tee shot, golfers must decide if they have enough muscle (and bravery) to carry an enormous and intimidating bunker complex carved into the side of a ridge. The Blue defends itself at the greens, where Doak’s wild slopes make putting something like the sporting equivalent of a calculus exam.

As a general rule, it seems that preference breaks down along handicap lines. Skilled players often prefer the Red, while average golfers enjoy the Blue. The former is a starkly beautiful ball-striking challenge, while the latter—by no means the easier course—possesses an agreeable tendency to keep everyone in play, even if three and four putts await at the end of the hole. The greens on both courses are slick and true, thanks to superintendent Rusty Mercer, who has performed some kind of turf wizardry in producing Bermuda-grass putting surfaces without the sticky graininess that’s so vexing to players from outside the southeast.

Depending on the property, reclamation projects involve either building up or digging down, and the two produce markedly different results. The former approach is more common and much more expensive; these are landfill courses (see “Greener Pastures: Four to Play”). The dig-down method describes Streamsong and other layouts on former mining sites, like the private Pete Dye Golf Club in West Virginia (which even connects two greens via mine shaft) and Chambers Bay, the 2015 U.S. Open venue near Tacoma, Washington. At heart, Streamsong and its reclamation brethren are really just 21st-century incarnations of an ancient tradition in golf design. The original Scottish links came forth only because the nutrient-poor soils of coastal dune lands were unsuitable for agriculture. In this country, we typically picture courses built on prime estate land near major cities. This was the norm during the interwar period, when many of America’s finest clubs formed, but those days are over. Today’s layouts require more land in order to accommodate players armed with titanium drivers, and rising real estate costs have made development an expensive proposition. These factors have driven a move (back) toward unconventional sites, as has a shift in taste—call it the Bandon Effect—toward the firmer playing surfaces best provided by fast-draining, sandy soils. As Streamsong offers further evidence that reclamation projects can yield not just good but great courses, it’s possible it may inspire a new wave of similar development. Someday, playing through these surreal landscapes may come to seem almost normal.

Rooms start at $495 a person per night and include greens fee; 1000 Dunes Pass, Streamstrong; 863-354-6980; streamsongresort.com.

Greener Pastures: Four to Play

Courses on landfill sites present a different set of challenges from mining sets: The gases produced by decomposing material must be piped out, and as architect Tom Doak explains, “You have zero latitude to dig or make cuts in the ground. You have to build everything out of fill.” Still, prominent courses have emerged from the process, and more are on track to open soon.

Bayonne Golf Club, Bayonne, New Jersey

Dredgings from New York Harbor were used to build up this rugged, linksy Eric Bergstol design. The course feels much less manufactured than neighboring Liberty National, and it’s often eerily reminiscent of Irish links like The Island. Members only; bayonnegolfclub.com.

Ferry Point Park, Bronx, New York

Situated near the Whitestone Bridge, Ferry Point’s course has a long and sordid history dating back to the Giuliani administration but appears on track to open next year. Architect John Sanford parlayed his Granite Links gig into collaborating on a design with Jack Nicklaus. nycgovparks.org.

Granite Links, Quincy, Massachusetts

The course, opened in 2006, was an extra-complicated site, as it required work on both landfill remediation and formerly mined areas. Architect John Sanford molded 12 million cubic yards of fill from Boston’s “Big Dig” into a 27-hole facility. Greens fees start at $70; granitelinksgolfclub.com.

Liberty National, Jersey City, New Jersey

With a construction tab of $250 million, it’s among the most expensive courses in history. The PGA Tour quickly noted that the views of New York Harbor and the eponymous statue are made for TV—The Barclays will return to the club in August. Members only; libertynationalgc.com.