Kenny Knox’s Dream 18: Northwest Florida's best golfing
Kenny Knox’s Dream 18
Pro golfer Kenny Knox is your guide as you take a tour of his 18 favorite public golf holes in Northwest Florida By Linda Kleindienst and Daniel Mutter
The day is mild, a gentle breeze blows off the Gulf of Mexico, and the emerald waters just beyond the green are sparkling in the sun.
What better day to tee off from one of Northwest Florida’s long roster of public golf courses, many of them nestled close to the Gulf?
Up north, the cold bite of winter has set in. Down in South Florida, where flattened courses sport manmade lakes and scrubby pines, it’s still hot and humid — and not nearly as scenic.
"The Gulf, the pine trees, the oak trees with the hanging moss — from the standpoint of being naturally beautiful, nothing beats Northwest Florida," says Kenny Knox, who attended Florida State University on a full golf scholarship and has three PGA tour victories to his credit.
Across the region, tourists, local residents and business leaders — yes, deals are still often sealed with a handshake on the 18th green — flock to the local golf courses year-round.
And now there is a move under way to tell the area’s golf story to the world through an official Northwest Florida Golf Trail that will highlight the best that the region’s public courses have to offer and encourage tourists to "Golf THE Beach."
"We’re simply trying to get courses to realize that if you want to increase your business we need to get the word out," says Nick Watson, general manager of the Santa Rosa Golf and Beach Club, adding that the golf-trail idea is still in its early stages.
Getting the message out is particularly important now, in light of the scheduled May 2010 opening of the new Northwest Florida-Panama City International Airport and the region’s focus on luring more Northern and European visitors to the area.
But what would particularly attract outsiders to play golf here? To find out, 850 Magazine asked Knox, who lives in the Jefferson County town of Monticello and plays on the PGA’s senior circuit now, to pick out what he considers the top 18 golf holes on Northwest Florida’s public courses, which are open for anyone to play.
His favorite? Hole No. 2 at Panama City Beach’s Hombre Golf Club. Rounding out his top four: Camp Creek, Hole No. 17; Emerald Bay, Hole No. 8; and Summerbrooke, Hole No. 17.
Hombre’s 457-yard Par 4 is one of the most challenging holes at the PGA Qualifying School, which the course hosts each November.
"It is one of the best golf holes, private or public, anywhere in the world," Knox says. "There’s a lake in front of the green, which is an extremely small target that slopes from the back to the front. The wind off the Gulf is in your face, and you need a heroic carry. A lot of people don’t want to play it."
Here is a closer look at Kenny Knox’s Dream 18 public golf course holes in Northwest Florida.
Hombre Golf Club | Panama City Beach | Hole No. 2 | Par 4, 457 yds
This club features 27 holes on three 9-hole courses: "The Good," "The Bad," and "The Ugly." No. 2 on "The Bad" is Knox's top choice. A demanding hole that often creates nightmares for the golf professional attempting to gain a PGA playing card. The hole is a subtle dogleg right but can be played as a dogleg off the tee for only the longest hitters in the game. For most golfers, the tee shot must be played straight, as a forest of tall pine trees and a lone bunker line the left side of the fairway and another forest of pine trees and a lake guard the right side. The lake sits just a few feet from the green, and a greenside bunker will catch an errant shot off to the right.
Warning from Knox: Unless your drive is ideal, play this as a Par 5.
Emerald Bay | Destin | Hole No. 8 | Par 3, 200 yards
A very penalizing hole unless the shot is struck solidly to maintain its direction. The wind plays a big factor. The green is guarded by two sand bunkers on either side and one large grass bunker. A large water hazard on the right runs the entire length of the hole.
Warning from Knox: Big numbers are easy to come by on this hole.
The Moors | Pensacola | Hole No. 9 | Par 4, 455 yards
This long, demanding Par 4 on the Scotland-style golf course generally plays into a strong prevailing breeze. The ideal tee shot is a long one to the right of center. Tee shot must be struck solidly, as the approach must carry a large marsh area fronting the green. The green is further protected by bunkers, front left and back right. A plateau running into the green from the back edge offers a very interesting hold location.
Burnt Pine Golf Course | Sandestin | Hole No. 14 | Par 3, 212 yards
Players face a daunting yet inviting task: Ignore the incredible view of Choctawhatchee Bay, battle a prevailing bay breeze and then strike a crisp shot to a sloped green that is entirely encircled by marshlands. As much as 200 yards of carry may be needed over the marsh of Choctawhatchee Bay to reach the green. A small stand of pines and the glorious expanse of the bay just steps from the tee box highlight this hole. For the faint of heart, or those who just don’t have enough club, a drop area is provided left of the green, making bogey a much easier task.
Tiger Point East | Gulf Breeze | Hole No. 4 | Park 3, 183 yards
This medium-length Par 3 plays over an inlet of Santa Rosa Sound. The Gulf breezes, the intimidating inlet, a wide but narrow green and a large fronting bunker make this an exciting but challenging hole. The right pin location offers an accessible pin and birdie opportunity, while the back left pin location is particularly demanding and par is difficult.
Camp Creek | Panama City Beach | Hole No. 17 | Par 5, 555 yards
Long and straight is a must off the tee. (Only the longest hitters can get to the green in two shots.) Weave your tee shot through the pines, but watch the second shot. You’re going to have to deal with the expansive bunker on the right to get to the "garden spot." With the green set up right to left — and heavily guarded on the left — you’ll want to favor the right side. This hole also plays continuously uphill, giving it a unique feel for this area.
Warning from Knox: Undulating greens on this course add an extra challenge.
Links Course at Sandestin | Sandestin | Hole No. 9 | Par 5, 536 yards
The front nine finishes with perhaps the most dramatic view on any course in the area. Choctawhatchee Bay runs wide and stunning the entire length of the hole, with nothing between the course and the incoming tide but bulkhead. Intermittent bunkers, mounds and palm trees down the right side of the fairway keep errant shots from straying too far right. Solid shots are required because players may face three forced carries — one over the bay, one over the marsh and another over a small beach.
Tiger Point East | Gulf Breeze | Hole No. 3 | Par 5, 510 yards
A truly great risk-reward hole. A drive down the right side, which flirts with a lake that runs the entire right side of the hole, will give golfers a chance at the green in two. That shot will carry over the lake to a green well that is protected by the lake and numerous bunkers. The lay-up is well to the left and narrows the closer one tries to get to the green. The easier or shorter one wants the approach shot, the more demanding the lay-up will be.
Meadows Course at Bay Point | Panama City Beach | Hole No. 9 | Park 5, 509 yards
Three straight shots on this classic Willard Byrd-designed hole is all that’s required. Although it’s a double dogleg, cutting corners isn’t recommended. Two fairway bunkers challenge the left side off the tee, while numerous sand pines and palmetto bushes guard the right side. For a long hitter, beware of going for the green in two. Water hazards and sand bunkers defend the green. >>
SouthWood | Tallahassee | Hole No. 12 | Par 4, 455 yards
One of the longest Par 4s on the course. Playing downhill will help slightly. The first test comes with a series of bunkers across the fairway. You’ll need to drive over these to set up your approach to the green. Avoid the large bunker right of the green with your second shot. A two-tiered green awaits you, making this hole a complete test.
St. James Bay | Carrabelle | Hole No. 5 | Par 4, 411 yards
The No. 1 handicap hole on the course presents a challenging tee shot with multiple wetlands to overcome. The fairway slopes from left to right. The right side of the bunker is a good aiming spot off the tee. The second shot should land on the front right side of the green to set up a good putt. The long, narrow green runs with and slopes toward the wetland.
The Golf Club at Summerbrooke | Tallahassee | Hole No. 17 | Par 3, 174 yards
A beautiful hole that plays over water (including a waterfall) to a large, diagonally shaped green with scenic landscape features. A chain of lakes in the area flows into a pond behind 17, and the water spills over into a channel that almost encircles the green. Short is not an option here. The back, the left and the front are protected by water.
Warning from Knox: To avoid water, you need enough club. But you need to be accurate off the tee so you don’t go through the green.
Holiday Golf Club | Panama City Beach | Hole No. 14 | Par 4, 387 yards
This dogleg-right hole will be a temptation for the longer hitters. They will want to carry the trees and pond that guard the right side. If successful, a very short iron remains for the second shot. The average player is forced to play down the middle, carry the small creek in front of the tee box and avoid the same creek that continues down the right side and cuts back through the fairway about 125 yards from the green. The green is protected by a large, deep bunker on the left. Many slopes make putting very tricky.
Nicklaus Course at Bay Point | Panama City Beach | Hole No. 5 | Par 4, 398 yards
A picturesque view of the Grand Lagoon makes this dogleg-left hole spectacular. The fairway is an island that is oblong in shape, widening in the middle. The ideal tee shot should favor the left side of the fairway. Once on the island fairway, there is another shot back to the mainland to a putting green that is surrounded by water running along the front and right side. Go long or short and you’re in water or marsh.
Scenic Hills | Pensacola | Hole No. 13 | Par 4, 375 yards
This medium-length Par 4 rolls gently from right to left. It fits beautifully on the natural terrain and requires a right-to-left tee shot that lands left of the roll in the fairway to get optimum roll and a better view into the green. The green sits on a hillside and is protected by a bunker on the left side.
Santa Rosa Golf and Beach Club | Santa Rosa Beach | Hole No. 4 | Par 4, 360 yards
The backdrop behind the green is the Gulf of Mexico. The smart play is to hit a 220-yard drive. If you get aggressive and try to knock it closer to the green, it puts a fairway bunker to your left and natural vegetation to your right. The green slopes from front to back and there is not much of a backdrop. There is a lot of wind to deal with.
Camp Creek | Panama City Beach | Hole No. 18 | Par 4, 450 yards
This hole offers a dramatic view off the tee, where one can see the ridges of the entire golf course. The hole plays alongside a lake on the right. You might want to favor the left side slightly to avoid the lake and to get the best shot onto the green. The green is bunkered left and right, and a back left pin placement can be very tough.
Hidden Creek | Navarre | Hole No. 9 | Par 4, 405 yards
This straightaway Par 4 demands an accurate tee shot. The narrow fairway is guarded by a shoot of trees off the tee and a lake on the right. The small green is protected on the left side by a large bunker and the lake on the right. The exposed green is susceptible to the winds, so judging the approach shot can be difficult.
Kenny Knox is a professional golfer who lives in Monticello, Fla., and plays on the PGA’s senior circuit.
850 Magazine gratefully acknowledges the assistance of Tom Weaver, Steve Dana, Jerry Pate, Marcus Beck, Sid Matthew and Tony Ruggiero, who were instrumental in researching the hundreds of public golf holes across the region for this story.