Standing on the ninth green at the new Streamsong Black Course on a chilly and drizzly December afternoon, I couldn't believe the challenge that awaited me.
My nine-iron approach shot had gone just a little left, but the ball had landed on the wrong side of the massive and dramatic two-tiered green and bounded away from the hole. What remained was a putt of maybe 90 feet, up a steep embankment of several feet before heading sharply downhill to the cup not far beyond the crest. It was the type of putt you would never see on courses with more conventional greens. But on Streamsong Black, where the wildly undulating putting surfaces average more than half an acre apiece, it was only marginally more difficult than several other putts I would face that round.
Open since last September, Streamsong Black is the third course at the Streamsong Resort, which boasts what I and many others believe is the finest publicly available golf in Florida.
The resort's Red and Blue courses, open since 2012, are respectively ranked as the best and third-best public courses in Florida by Golf Digest. Only TPC Sawgrass in Ponte Vedra, host of the Players championship on the PGA Tour each spring, prevents them from occupying the top two spots.
The sprawling resort encompasses 16,000 acres in what qualifies as the middle of nowhere by Florida standards. Tampa is an hour to the west, Lakeland about 40 minutes to the north. Surrounding the resort property are miles of largely undeveloped land.
Black Course designer Gil Hanse, who most famously designed the Olympic Golf Course in Rio de Janeiro, wasn't gifted with the dramatic 90-foot high sand dunes that frame the Red and Blue courses. Remnants of the property's days as a phosphate mine between the 1960s and the 1990s, the dunes were the obvious place to locate the original Streamsong courses.
What Hanse did have to work with was an enormous 300-acre site on gently rolling terrain just above the more rugged-looking Red and Blue courses. Out of it he crafted an exceptionally distinctive layout, marked by beautiful bunkering, huge fairways and those one-of-a-kind greens that are all but sure to produce multiple three-putts, and perhaps some four-putts, as well. I've played golf around the world, but I've never played a course that is quite like Streamsong Black.
While those greens do have a few detractors, the Black has mainly received raves since its opening just three months ago. Notably, Golf Magazine named it the top new course of 2017.
The course is blessed with several memorable holes. The fourth, for example, is a long, split fairway par-5 on which the golfer must eventually cross over a hazardous hill of native tall grass in order to reach the green level. The foolish can try to drive into the upper left fairway off the tee. But the smart play is to drive down the right, then conquer the hill on the second shot when a shorter carry is required.
I also loved the 15th hole, a short par-3 with a wide but shallow green that is beautifully framed by rugged native rough and intimidating bunkers.
Virtually everything you see in this photo is the putting surface of the enormous, two-tiered, punchbowl-shaped ninth green. Photo Credit: Robert Silk
The par-4 ninth, where I faced that rigorous putt that is so distinctive of Streamsong Black, opens with a straightforward tee shot but calls for a blind uphill second to the huge punchbowl-shaped green.
Afraid of getting too cute with my putt up that steep rise, and possibly ending on the lower tier yet again, I attempted a miniature-golf type shot. I intentionally banged the putt some 20 feet past the hole in order to climb the steep embankment that makes up the right side of the punchbowl green. Then, I watched as the ball rolled back down that slope, stopping about eight feet from the cup. As I paced to mark my ball, I congratulated myself for the smart decision. Of course, I proceeded to miss that eight-footer anyway.
For me, part of the joy of the Black, and indeed all of Streamsong's courses, is the traditionalist golf culture that the resort has created. In sharp contrast to most Florida resort courses, which require the use of carts and seem to have forgotten that golf, at its soul, is a walking game, Streamsong actually requires walking during the winter.
In addition, players are encouraged to take advantage of the resort's robust caddy program. I played rounds on the Red and Black during my stay with the assistance of Remy Reid, who came to Streamsong this winter from the New York caddying circuit. Though he might have been put off at times by my tempestuous behavior as I made everything from an eagle to a quadruple bogey over the 36 holes, our two days in partnership reminded me yet again that there's nothing like golfing with a caddy.
Streamsong's hotel is a pleasant place to return to at the end of a day of 18 holes or more. Its 216 spacious rooms sit on isolated Little Payne Creek, a couple of miles from the golf courses. The hotel boasts three restaurants, a lakeside pool and a spa, where golfers can soak off the soreness of the day. The resort offers a number diversions besides golf, including a 12-station clay pigeon range, where lessons are available for the uninitiated.
Fees for each of the Streamsong courses range from $85 to $255.
For hotel rates and reservations, tee times and other information, visit streamsongresort.com.