DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — It may be the only thing, but there is one key similarity between playing golf and car racing:
Every course - golf or race - is different, and the best racers, like the best golfers, adapt to their diverse competitive venues better than their opponents.
Cleaving to the "horses for courses" adage might lead some golfers to seek out similar layouts wherever they go, but the avid traveling player who visits the Daytona Beach area would do well to take in the surprisingly diverse course offerings in the area. In my own recent visit, the four courses I played served as a solid sampler of enjoyable golf: a modern, two-course upscale daily-fee complex; a family-owned midcentury hidden gem beloved of locals; and a fairly accessible private club with more than a century-long history.
LPGA International: Daytona's flagship
With 36 holes and a unique association with the professional game, LPGA International is Daytona Beach's main golf facility. Also home to the headquarters of the LPGA, it hosts LPGA Tour Qualifying every year and is a hub of activity, both in and out of season, for some of the best female golfers in the world. Not only that, it serves as the home facility for local colleges and universities like junior college Daytona State and the Division II Embry-Riddle. Young, talented golfers are always taking advantage of LPGA International's expansive practice facility - with not just a driving range, putting green and short game area but three full practice holes as well - giving the facility an infectious energy.
The (Rees) Jones Course opened in 1994 and is very typical of both its designer and era. The 1995 opening of Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw's Sand Hills Golf Club in Nebraska ushered in the current minimalist movement in golf course design, but before that, architects felt very free to push around a lot of dirt in order to make compelling golf courses, especially on relatively flat and otherwise undistinguished sites.
The Jones Course is a study in this sort of golf course architecture: rows of large mounds line most fairways, giving each hole something of a stadium feel and corralling some wayward tee shots. Water comes into play on ten holes. The greens, which were resurfaced with TifEagle Bermuda last summer, are very firm and roll nicely. Many holes are solid if fairly straightforward tests of execution, but the 10th really impresses with its strategic concerns. The way one should play the hole is entirely dictated by the day's hole location on what is a Maiden-style green: two high sections left and right with a swale running from front to back across the middle. If the pin is on the left, you'll want to keep right off the tee. If the cup is cut on the right, vice versa. The firmness of the Jones greens makes approaching the elevated 10th green from the proper angle absolutely essential to a player who wants to make a birdie on a hole that requires no more than a wedge approach in most cases. It's a superlative short par four.
The 10th at LPGA International's Jones Course is a complex short par four, and the best hole on the property. (Tim Gavrich/Golf Advisor)
The Jones Course serves up some quality eye-candy on the way in. The par-3 17th has a two-level green guarded short, left and long by water, which reflects the setting sun beautifully (for this reason, try and schedule your round for the afternoon). The 18th is a long par four with water all down the left, surely the sight of a number of dashed dreams of LPGA Tour would-be qualifiers.
The other course at LPGA National, which I came away preferring to the Jones, is the circa-1997 (Arthur) Hills Course. Given ten rounds at LPGA, I would go 6-4 in the Hills Course's favor. It's a bit narrower off the tee (by no means claustrophobic, however) than the Jones Course, but I appreciated the greater diversity of hole lengths and green shapes at the Hills, as well as the relative lack of visible housing. Hills' par fives, in particular, impressed me. The eighth is a strong split-fairway hole where taking the left-side route, close to a lagoon, can mean a shorter approach to the green and the prospect of an eagle or easy birdie. Playing to the right allows you to tack around in conventional three-shot fashion to the small green.
Do take note that there are a handful of forced carries at the Hills course, so you might be in danger of losing a couple golf balls if your ball-striking isn't on point. Also, The Hills Course's greens are waiting their turn for resurfacing and regaining their original perimeters, so make sure to save a few minutes of your pre-round practice time for short chip shots from the rough.
Whether you're playing 36 in a day at LPGA International or dividing your rounds there, be aware that the on-site restaurant, Malcolm's, is a good one (their burgers are particularly strong). And spare a few minutes to check out the LPGA memorabilia placed throughout the clubhouse. Green fees top out around $90 but deals can be found and stay-and-play packages can be assembled through DaytonaBeach.golf.
Riviera: Gem of gems
To put it bluntly, if every county had a golf facility like Riviera Country Club just north of Daytona on the border of the communities of Holly Hill and Ormond Beach, there would be a lot fewer complaints about golf's alleged decline. The course, owned since it opened in 1953 by the Meyer family, is practically everything an everyday, local-treasure golf course should be.
First, it's fun and challenging without being a bruiser. At only 6,200 yards from the tips, Riviera will test your short clubs without making you suffer. If you hit lots of fairways and greens, you will have some birdie (and even eagle - the par fives are quite short) putts. If you miss on the wrong side of the crowned, undulating greens, though, you will rack up some bogeys. Best of all, while water comes into play on a handful of holes, there are no forced carries, meaning you should need no more than one or two golf balls to get all the way around. Furthermore, Riviera is one of the most pleasant walks in Florida golf. I teed off at dawn with a trio of locals and we were finished by 10:15 am. Regular golf carts are available, but you'll see a lot more pull carts here than elsewhere in the state.
Second, it's one of the best values in golf. Florida's seasonal population increase causes a lot of Sunshine State golf course green fees to skyrocket in the winter, but Riviera's inflation is low; rates top out in the winter at $47.95. What's more, there are no formal tee times; 41-year head pro Mike Boss and his staff field calls from players and manage player traffic so that no one has to wait long to tee off. It's as much a clerical quirk as anything, but it lends a private club conviviality to the scene and is an integral part of the course's charm.
Third, there's everything else. Riviera is home to one of the longest-running professional golf tournaments, the Riviera Open, which dates back to 1960 in uninterrupted fashion, save for 1968. Golf nuts will recognize many names from an eclectic list of past winners: seven-time PGA Tour winner Bert Yancey (1963), current PGA Tour Rules Official Slugger White (1974), Morris Hatalsky (1987, 1992), past PGA Tour player and current Embry-Riddle coack Kenneth Staton (1997), recent PGA Professional National Champion Rod Perry (2003, 2006, 2007) and PGA Tour winner Billy Hurley III (2009). Another Tour winner, Matt Every, grew up playing at Riviera but never bagged a Riviera Open title, finishing runner-up in 2004, 2011 and 2012.
Riviera's clubhouse is full of midcentury charm, too. Its restaurant is not just popular among golfers, but generally hungry locals as well, especially for breakfast. There's a separate bar area downstairs that is a perfect place to swap stories post-round. Between the quality and value of the course and the general ambiance, Riviera is a piece of everyday-golf heaven. If you come to Daytona to play golf, do not miss it. It is good for a golfer's soul.
Oceanside: Playably private with plenty of history
The evolution of the private golf scene has been a boon to traveling golfers, especially those with a membership of their own somewhere. General reciprocity among private clubs means that a number more doors - and first tees - may be open to you than you realize. A head-pro-to-head-pro call is a great way to kick a golf vacation up a notch, and if you're in the Daytona area, Ormond Beach's historic Oceanside Country Club would make a great courtesy-call add-on to an area trip.
Oceanside is one of Florida's oldest courses, dating back to 1907 and originally laid out by Alex Findlay. Like Riviera, it has considerable tournament golf-hosting history, with the Women’s South Atlantic Amateur Championship - known in competitive circles as "The Sally" - having been played since 1926. Past winners of The Sally include Patty Berg (1938, 1939), Babe Zaharias (1947) Cristie Kerr (1996), Lexi Thompson (2009), Jessica Korda (2010), Moriya Jutanugarn (2012; sister Ariya finished second) and Brooke Henderson (2014).
Like Riviera, Oceanside is terrific not just for elite competitive players but for rank amateurs as well. The open front nine of the course, renovated by Bobby Weed in 2003, features parallel fairways where a miss in the right direction off the tee can work out, but poor play around the greens can lead to frustration. The old-school bunkering, cleverly undulated greens and ever-present wind keep things interesting, and one gets the sense that playing the course repeatedly confers a good advantage over the newbie. As it should be with any private club.
The back nine narrows up a little bit, with holes partially routed through typically attractive, bright Florida beach-community homes. The boomerang-right short par-4 13th is a heck of a fun hole, where the right wind and a heroic lash from the tee box can bring eagle into play. Three holes later, though, a pond guarding the front of the par-3 16th green can take away those gains if you misjudge the ocean breezes.
Reciprocal play is arranged at the discretion of the pro shop at Oceanside, and fees are in the $125 range for such rounds. But in a state overrun with relatively uninspiring modern golf courses, the chance to play a fun, low-key, turn-of-the-20th-century classic a block from the beach is worthwhile, especially if combined with some of the area's other premier courses.
More golf and other considerations
Daytona Beach is a good base of operations if you don't mind doing a little bit of driving to a particular course. Other layouts within the general orbit that I would look to play next time include Victoria Hills in DeLand, Venetian Bay in New Smyrna Beach, as well as two Donald Ross-designed munis in the area: New Smyrna Beach Golf Course and the South Course at Daytona Beach Golf Club. Even the upscale layouts at Hammock Beach are not too far away - about 50 minutes or so. You can go in a few directions for golf in Daytona, but I would include Riviera on any itinerary without hesitation.
Being that Daytona is second only to Myrtle Beach among Southeastern beach towns with a party vibe for those who want it, there are plenty of accommodations for a range of budgets and tastes. I stayed in a quieter spot: a spotless, comfortable oceanfront Residence Inn in Daytona Beach Shroes, a little south of Daytona proper but convenient to all the courses I played. The hotel has some two-bedroom suites, a pair of which would make a great option for a visiting foursome. Just two minutes' drive from the hotel, I stumbled on DJ's Deck, a terrific and authentic Florida seafood shack with the best gumbo I've ever had outside New Orleans. The blackened shrimp and scallops were killer, too.
Race fans regard Daytona as a mecca, and every year for a week in February, the place is one of the biggest parties in the U.S. I visited the week after, when the area seemed to be catching its breath. Other non-golf activities in the area include a huge Tanger Outlets shopping center, an art museum and the Ponce DeLeon Inlet Lighthouse, among other diversions.
Despite its racing fame, Daytona Beach flies a little bit under the radar overall, at least for golf. Tee times are fairly easy to come by...at least for now. Two massive residential communities - one of which is a Latitude Margaritaville (yes, that means a Jimmy Buffett connection) - are set to bring thousands of new residents to the area in the next few years.