When you walk into a place as golf-serious as Streamsong, a remote 36-hole golf resort in Polk County, Fla., you don’t tell the pro shop attendant that you need to buy a new golf glove because yours just fell out of the back of your skirt and into the toilet (but don’t worry sir, your plumbing’s still OK because I plucked it out before I flushed). I’m maybe the only person who’s ever described that scenario to the poor guy behind the counter, but at least he laughed.
That opening bathroom fumble and subsequent, awkward golf shop explanation led me to an important observation about Streamsong: I wasn’t the only female on the property. In fact, far from it. I usually feel conspicuously out of place at testosterone-heavy golf meccas, but this place was noticeably co-ed. It was both welcoming and playable.
When there’s a golf destination like Streamsong relatively in your backyard, you figure out how you can afford to play it as often as possible. My fiance and I cashed in on summer Florida resident rates over the Fourth of July holiday. It was his first play and my second, and we’ll go back (for one thing, the resort’s third course, the Black, opens later this fall). There isn’t another course in Florida that I’ve been so eager to see again and again. But Streamsong, which is now nearly five years old, isn’t really a Florida course. The general complaint I hear that they all look the same doesn’t apply.
I built Streamsong up in my mind as a rugged, Bandon Dunes-like golf resort that was going to present a deeply physical challenge and addictive experience. It both fit that bill and it didn’t. Streamsong works because it demonstrates what Florida golf is capable of at its very best. There was sand and waving grass and intense heat but also expansive views and elevation change. It wasn’t quite so physical as a round on a blustery coast tends to be, but there were certainly natural elements at play (that heat and those dunes). Searching for a physical challenge in the middle of nature is probably a thirtysomething take on the game, but it clearly fits a current trend.
THE NEW MODEL IS ADVENTUROUS
The celebrated opening of Sand Valley earlier this year in remote Wisconsin makes it clear to me there’s a new formula for golf resorts. It’s obviously modeled after the original middle-of-nowhere, grow-your-beard-out-and-play-as-much-as-you-can golf destination on the southern coast of Oregon: Bandon Dunes (and I don’t think that’s any secret). Maybe the appeal is that golfers want to be removed from everything when they take a golf vacation. Maybe it’s a need to feel adventurous and like you’re really earning your post-round meatloaf and beer.
Whatever it is, I get it. The night before I played Bandon for the first time, I slept in a car parked in an elk reserve because we ran out of steam trying to get there in the middle of the night. We only had 46 hours to spare in the very general vicinity of Bandon, but of course we capitalized on that opportunity.
Getting to Bandon was a thrill nearly equal to playing the courses. Golfing in a bone-chilling wind off the Pacific completely changes the game. It feels like the course is fighting back. This is how I describe my only experience playing golf in Scotland. It’s “playing the course” in a very literal way.
And it helps if you’re not driving through a subdivision as you’re doing this.
I think I’ve been trying to recreate that experience ever since I realized it existed. In so many ways, Streamsong does it. But here’s the major difference for me between Streamsong and Bandon/Scotland: the Central Florida landscape is less traditionally golf. In cold climates, it’s kind of thrilling to pack on as many layers as will still allow me to functionally swing. It’s sort of like you’re playing in the Open Championship. (I haven’t seen Sand Valley, but having played the majority of my college golf in Iowa, Minnesota and the Dakotas, I can only imagine there’s a real element of nature at work there in Wisconsin, too.)
SHOT-MAKING AT ITS GNARLIEST
At Streamsong in the middle of July, my senses register the overwhelming heat, the stillness of a day when there is no air moving, and sometimes the disorienting brightness of a cloudless sky reflected on the white sand expanses that are incorporated into nearly every hole. It’s not so much majestic -- no ocean, no cliffs, yet still some elevation changes leftover from this property’s history as a phosphate mine -- as it is just raw. I’ve lived in Florida eight years and have come to appreciate the ferocity with which the land will try to take itself back. It’s hot, soupy swamp and grasslands that you’ve got to beat back and tame constantly. (Driving onto the property, I’m struck by the sheer amount of grass that has to be maintained here -- it must take a small army.)
The Streamsong courses are all golf -- no frills, just rugged, wild, modern golf. You get this from the minute you round the final curve in the road and see the club house carved subtly into the mounds that make up the starting holes of each course. There’s still a scoreboard standing from the 2016 U.S. Women’s Amateur Four Ball, which I find refreshing -- here’s a place obviously proud of a USGA assignment within its first few years of opening.
I was initially frustrated by the lack of tee options -- I played both courses at over 6,000 yards for lack of a better yardage, and that’s a lot of course for me. There were a handful of par 4s on both courses that were longer than 400 yards that I didn’t have a prayer of reaching. It wasn’t those holes that drove up my score but the easily reachable ones. After I walked away with my first double bogey on Red No. 3 (a hole made considerably easier by an elevation drop off the tee), I remembered something I’m often told on Pete Dye courses: It’s not the long holes that get you, it’s the short ones.
Our caddie Nick, young and local, tried to explain on the first tee that I shouldn’t judge the difficulty of the course by the length, and he was right. Nick was laid back and southern and had a penchant, we soon discovered, for playing top-100 courses. (Who doesn’t?) And he was right about everything. There’s no experience quite like having a good caddie, and Nick greatly enhanced our round. He seemed to know every subtle hill and valley in Streamsong’s vast greens, sometimes without even looking.
To compare them, the Tom Doak-designed Blue felt much more walkable even though it played longer. Green complexes often faded into the next tee box. The elevation changes were much more noticeable on Blue, but Red seemed to call for a better variety of shots (maybe because I wasn’t hitting 4-wood into all the par 4s). Red, a Bill Coore/Ben Crenshaw design, also presented the only biarritz I’ve ever played. It was my most memorable hole. I hammered a 4-wood right at the flag, which disappeared in the crevice and set up a three-putt bogey.
Without a doubt, the mounded landscape is the thing that separates Streamsong from what I know to be typical Florida golf. That’s the most common sentiment I hear about these courses. Outside the fairway, there are really just more obstacles than there are opportunities to lose balls. You’ve got to hit an extreme miss to lose a ball. This means the opportunity for heroic recovery-shot-making is greatly magnified, and frankly that’s the kind of thing you’re going to take to the bar post-round anyway. Plus, Nick was always there to rein us back in to avoid the quad. He was successful every time (but I did have one triple).
Streamsong was an adventure, and where the golf was concerned they nailed every detail -- right down to the quality of barbecue and tacos in the halfway houses (added since my first trip in 2014). I don’t just remember holes at Streamsong, I remember shots as they related to the specific challenges thrown at me. I’m here to tell you the model works.