PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. -- One could argue the only element keeping The Players Championship from a "major" designation -- it's certainly not the field, the venue or the prize money -- is its relative short history compared to golf's four other majors.
The PGA Tour's marquee event, The Players Championship is rapidly amassing a resume of moments to compare with the other four majors. Its locale, on the other hand, takes a back seat in history to nowhere on the eastern seaboard. Ponce De Leon spotted land just north of the old town in 1513, and the original settlement in 1565 has now become the site of the Fountain of Youth, which blends a little tourist kitsch with a pleasant, shaded archaeological park along coastal wetlands.
For golfers looking for a hearty dose of old America, down to forts and old colonial villages along with an array of golf options highlighted by the TPC Sawgrass, historic St. Augustine is a fine combination.
The TPC Sawgrass, St. Augustine connection
Whereas Deane Beman is credited for the vision of the TPC Network, molding the Players Stadium Course out of 415 acres swamp land with architect Pete Dye, it's 19th-century oil tycoon Henry Flagler who gets credit for making north Florida a tourist destination. Flagler built a magnificent hotel in 1888, the Ponce de Leon Hotel, which drew Northerners down the rail line to Florida for warm winters. It was known to be the first hotel with electricity, and guests who stayed here were so unnerved about using the light switches, employees were hired to perform the past.
The grand, Spanish Renaissance Revival architecture of the hotel was the primary inspiration for the 110,000-square-foot clubhouse at TPC Sawgrass built in 2006. The clubhouse towers above the 18th green, and its insides are no less grand. Even if you don't have the time or cash to play the Stadium, anyone can walk into the clubhouse and receive a free guided tour. The facility is full of great artwork and pieces of history from past Players Championships. In fact, each winner of The Players donates a club to the clubhouse display.
Celebrating golf's history at the World Golf Hall of Fame
In terms of golfing history, Scotland, of course, trumps all. But St. Augustine serves as home to the World Golf Hall of Fame, a collaboration between the world's many tours and golf organizations. Here, guests can tour an impressive display of the game's memorabilia. Each inductee has a locker adorned with whatever belongings they wish to share, and there are also interactive exhibits like an Sawgrass-inspired island green outside that visitors can take a swing at.
It would, in fact, seem practically insulting to the game's past to spend a day browsing the Hall of Fame without playing a round of golf or two yourself. Surrounding the Hall of Fame grounds is the World Golf Village's original Slammer & Squire Course, a player-friendly track with generous fairways designed by Bobby Weed in collaboration with Sam Snead and Gene Sarazen.
Just down the road is the newer and more challenging of the two at World Golf Village, the King & Bear, a collaboration between Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus. The course blends wonderful old mossy oaks framing holes with championship difficulty with big traps and a length over 7,200 yards from the back tees. Compared to the Stadium Course, however, Jack and Arnie's layout is entirely more playable for the average golfer.
More golf around St. Augustine
World Golf Village's two courses are an obvious complement to the courses at the TPC Sawgrass for those who want the area's signature tests of golf. But the options are certainly not limited to them alone (Dye's Valley at TPC Sawgrass is closed for renovation for most of 2014). There are more than 70 courses in northeast Florida, many of which are public, so you can practically name your price and location to find a round of golf.
One of the top-rated courses in St. Augustine on GolfAdvisor.com is St. Johns Golf & Country Club, a semi-private course that scores high on value and conditioning, and it's also a Cooperative Sanctuary by Audubon International. The Clyde Johnston design, opened in 2001, is a regular PGA Tour Qualifying School host.
Another St. Augustine-area course earning four-plus stars overall is the Golf Club at South Hampton. This semi-private facility earns particularly high marks on GolfAdvisor for value and staff friendliness.
St. Augustine lodging and golf packages
Ponce De Leon Hall was converted from a hotel into a multi-use building for Flagler College in the 1970s. St. Augustine's lodging scene is now predominantly made up of small, wonderfully charming B&Bs. Even the Hilton St. Augustine, located on the bay front, has just 72 rooms, the brand's smallest hotel in fact.
For the full St. Augustine historic experience, you can stay in one of numerous charming B&Bs set well off the beaten path. Today, woodworking and textile shops are rare compared to a collection of restaurants, bars and cigar bars. The food scene here is as good as there is in Florida, and it certainly helps that each restaurant space, usually set in old or recreated colonial buildings, is so unique and cozy. Horse-and-carriage rides click-clack through the festively lighted brick roads day and night.
For those who want more of a golf-centric place to stay, look no further than the World Golf Village. Here, you can stay at the recently remodeled Renaissance World Golf Village Resort, a Marriott-operated resort located on the grounds of the Slammer & Squire and Hall of Fame. The hotel has numerous places to dine, as well as a complimentary shuttle to the old town.