Most golfers are familiar with Tom Watson the PGA Tour golfer, winner of eight major championships, including five British Opens and out-dueling Jack Nicklaus on several occasions. He certainly was fun to watch.
Not as many people are familiar with Tom Watson the golf course architect. As a golfer, Tom Watson was praised for his passionate play, attention to detail and outstanding course strategy. His company, Tom Watson Design, employs the same integrity, dedication and focus to each of their designs. The company only builds one or two courses each year using a few fundamental requirements: beauty, variety and challenge. Each course design will challenge a golfer’s mental and physical skills and at the same time provide a memorable golf experience. This is especially evident at the Watson-designed Conservatory Course; part of the Hammock Beach Resort in Palm Coast, Florida.
In their January 2008 issue, Golf Digest ranked The Conservatory third on its elite list of America’s Best New Public Courses. And with good reason. As you meander through the course, you will encounter some breathtaking sights: waterfalls, babbling brooks and veneered field stone work.
Not finding a suitable set of tees to play from is not possible; there are seven of them ranging in distance from 7,740 yards to 5,168 yards. From the back tees, The Conservatory is the longest course in Florida. Move up to the fourth (White) set of tees, and you’ll have a manageable distance of 6,281 yards. Ladies typically play from the Red Tees (5,225 yards).
There is a lot of mounding and undulation at the Conservatory, not only on the greens but all down the fairways and roughs. Conservatory is anything but your typical Florida course and for this reason some players may find it too much. If that’s the case, my suggestion is to relax, take a deep breath and look around you. Looking back on the previous hole provides every bit as much of an inspiring view as what lays before you!
For me, what sets this course apart from any other I have played around the world is the bunkering; there’s sand everywhere. And it comes in all shapes and forms: there are your typical greenside bunkers and coquina-shelled waste bunkers which are fairly easy to navigate. But then there are a number of pot bunkers – some visible off the tee, some not – that can wreak havoc with your score not to mention your mind. Some of these are sod-walled, which adds a true Scottish feel. Most are penal in nature; one in particular on the first hole is in play off the tee if you hit it right. The face of this bunker has to be 5 feet high and about 140 yards out. Find this bunker and you can say goodbye to par – or even bogey – on this hole! Not a great way to start.
Most Memorable Hole: Number 15, Par 4, 377 yards (White Tees). With a Tom Watson course, what you see isn’t always what you get; many shots appear more difficult than they actually are. Case in point is the 15th hole, a par 4, dogleg right. The waste bunker that runs up the right side of the fairway blends in with the bunkers on the far side of the fairway, creating the illusion that the landing area is miniscule. Trust me, it’s not; there’s plenty of room out there. The large multi-tiered green is also surrounded by sand, so it will take an accurate approach shot to get it close.
Favorite Par 3: Number 8, 134 yards. The shortest hole at The Conservatory is also the signature hole. At only 134 yards from the White Tees, the island green looks inviting. If your nerves are already shattered, there’s plenty of room to bail out to the right. The green is wider than it is deep and has plenty of undulation. Don’t get too greedy with a left pin placement.
Favorite Par 4: Number 14, 431 yards. Regardless of the tees you decide to play, this is the longest par four on the golf course and offers a great risk/reward opportunity. Longball hitters can cut off a significant amount of yardage off the tee by playing to the right of the fairway bunkers. Water guards the entire right side of this behemoth hole. For us mere mortals, it’s either a long iron or fairway wood into the green. For many, your best shot at par is to get on the green in three and one-putt.
Favorite Par 5: Actually, there are two of them. Number 4 plays 497 yards and is fairly straight away. From the back tees, number 4 stretches out to 621 yards; it’s sheer length makes it a formidable opponent. From the White Tees, it’s a manageable par 5. Off the tee, water is in play on both sides. The layup is the toughest shot on the hole and requires both accuracy and distance control. The water creeps in very close on the right while strategically placed pot bunkers on the left side and middle of the fairway make you choose to either layup short or go over them. An approach shot from the left side opens up the green. A good wedge player can score well on this hole.
Number 18 is a dogleg left that plays 592 yards from the Back Tees; 502 from a humane distance (White Tees). Pot bunkers and Florida wetlands dot the landscape up the right side, while water guards the left. Watson has provided a generous landing area at the bend in the dogleg, which will require a mid-length iron into a long and narrow green guarded tightly on the left with water and on the right with sand. Find the fairway off the tee and you’re well on your way to a good score.
Last Word: For my money, this course rates as one of the top tracks in Florida; far and away Tom Watson’s best work in the state. His use of bunkering is unrivaled on any course I’ve played; they are plentiful and penal. Avoid them if you want to score well.
Although this course can play very long for the men, ladies enjoy many benefits. From the Red Tees, the majority of hazards faced by the guys off the tee are taken out of play. All they will need to deal with are the rolling fairways and undulating greens. In building The Conservatory, Watson’s two major goals were to create course that was both beautiful and playable. He has succeeded on both fronts.
These are just a few of the memories I have of the Conservatory Course at Hammock Beach. The best way to experience this course is to book at vacation at Hammock Beach Resort in Palm Coast, FL. When doing so, be sure to package it together with a round on the newly renovated Ocean Course. Combined, these two courses offer the best one-two punch of any two courses in the state. For more information, visit their website at www.hammockbeach.com.