Course Review: Royal St. Augustine Golf & Country Club
ST. AUGUSTINE, FL - For years the residents of St. Augustine were limited to two adequate but uninspiring golf courses: St. Johns County to the west of town and the abysmal St. Augustine Shores. They could also chose to work the resort angle at either the Radisson Ponce de Leon or the handful of posh tracks in Ponte Vedra thirty minutes to the north, but these expensive options hardly seem appealing for the everyday player. For a state so overrun with golf outlets, St. Augustine was stuck on the hind tit.
In the late 1980s, the development of the Palm Coast community courses 15 minutes to the south alleviated some of the pressure, but St. Augustine's halcyon days wouldn't begin until the late 1990s. Happily, they are still enjoying them as 99 new golf holes have been constructed since 1997, all within a 20-mile radius from downtown.
World Golf Village got the area jumping with The Slammer & The Squire course, followed next by The Golf Club at South Hampton, nine new holes at St. Johns County, The King & The Bear course at World Golf Village, and St. Johns Golf Club. These courses are all situated along the I-95 corridor just west of town, no more than 15 minutes apart from each other. The course that immediately appeals to most St. Augustinians, however, is Royal St. Augustine, which opened for play in May 2001.
Royal St. Augustine brings the city up to date with everything that is happening in golf course architecture at the beginning of the 21st century, both good and bad.
On one hand, the course is, for the most part, visually intriguing, with elevated, sprawling greens, a variety of bunker shapes and sizes, and splendid conditioning.
On the other hand, the course is horribly routed, disjointed, and packed into acreage far too small for a golf course of its type. Because it's crammed into various segments of property ill-suited for golf, many of the holes feel tight and claustrophobic, at times bordering on the unplayable.
This is not entirely the fault of architect J. Christopher Commins. Royal St. Augustine suffers from the same malady as many modern golf courses that are built primarily to sell houses, apartments and condominiums: in tight corners the developer will sacrifice golf course land for lots.
A University of Florida graduate who learned the business under Mark McCumber and played valuable roles in the design and construction of many Jacksonville-area courses, Commins is certainly capable of designing strong, vigorous golf courses given adequate room and resources. But with environmental restrictions added to predictable land shortages, Commins must have felt as if his hands were tied. To make up for space, he slathered the holes with every conceivable feature, moved earth, and shaped extensively. Water or wetlands come into play on 16 holes.
Incidentally, tied hands are what the player feels far too often at Royal St. Augustine. At the 5th, 6th, 12th, and 13th holes there is hardly room to play. The targets are small and deceptive, and missed shots are penalized in the extreme.
The 151-yard 6th is not a bad par three, nor a difficult one, just awkward. An iron must be played from an exposed tee over a wetland and through a gap in the trees. Depending on the markers, part of the green might be obscured from view, and the shallow putting surface, angled left-to-right, is fronted by a bunker and backed by another. In some ways it's an attractive hole, one that was probably influenced by the 12th at Augusta National, but it lacks any real presence or grace.
The 12th, at 504 yards, is a reachable five par along a dense wall of trees on the right. The fairway is exceedingly narrow for the drive with no rough left or right to speak of. Anything slightly off line will kick irretrievably into the thorny underbrush (you can try to go in there, but bring along plenty of band-aids). To the left, the trees give way to water on the second shot, so nothing but extreme accuracy will work here.
Where the 12th was only suffocating, the 13th is simply awful. Of all the new holes built in St. Johns County, this has to be one of the worst. No hole at Royal St. Augustine better illustrates the negative effect of over-development. It's a par four of 399 yards that doglegs 90º left around a lake at the 200-yard mark.
To make matters worse, there is another lake through the fairway to catch anything hit too far or too straight, practically ensuring a long iron or fairway metal into the bunkered, elevated green. Apartment complexes and the visitor's center, protected by a massive safety net, adorn the hole's left side, and busy Highway 206 serves as the backdrop. Something is terribly wrong with the planning if safety nets are required on golf holes.
It's difficult to say if the routing could have been executed any differently or if the land could have been better used, but playing Royal St. Augustine is akin to riding with a teenager learning to drive a stick shift.
The first hole is down the street from the clubhouse, and one through four run naturally in a loop before returning to near the first tee. The fifth tee is actually closer to the fourth tee than it is to the fourth green. The fifth, a short par four, is another hole that's wedged into an area too small. It's situated mysteriously on it's own piece of land and crowded with perimeter mounding and two water hazards, the second of which is in the line of play but can't be seen from the tee. The tight and elevated green is tucked into a point at the end of the hole where anything missed in either direction will bound sideways into the scrub.
The sixth and seventh are found several hundred yards from the fifth, across a road and backwards, and the eighth and ninth are across the road again in the central area of the course. The par three 14th, like the fifth, is a sore thumb that requires a backtrack from the previous hole to the tee, a drive up through the condos to the green, then another drive back past the tees and across another street to the 15th tee. Yes, it is confusing.
Yet in all of this there are some fine holes and features that reveal Commins understanding of some finer points of golf design. The shaping of the first green and chipping area behind it is commendable, as is the shaping of the fourth green and the area directly in front.
It would have been impossible to build a long golf course on this site so Commins and crew didn't try. They settled for a comfortable championship distance of 6,529 yards and a par of 71, including the unconventional outward nine of 35 that includes three par threes. There are two wonderful, short par fours, the 3rd and the 16th.
The 357-yard third challenges big hitters to cut over or around the pines on the inside corner of the dogleg right, a high carry of about 250 yards. Most players will hit an iron out to a position in the fairway and wedge it in from there.
Sixteen is even better at only 339 yards. Drives play out over a lake to a broad, undulating fairway. A wide bunker fronts the right of the green and makes a right side pin placement a tricky up and down. The best angle in is from the left, but a fairway bunker guards this route, so accuracy is rewarded, but not mandatory.
Royal St. Augustine should be exciting to St. Augustine residents who have awaited such a course for years. There are nice features here and so far the conditioning is everything one could desire. Commins has probably done as much with the flat, restricted land as possible, but one gets the feeling it was a no-win situation from the beginning. Once its newness wears off it will be difficult to recommend the course to travelers over the other fine and equally modern layouts only minutes away. Regretfully, the space confinements and several terribly forced holes might become too much of a handicap to overcome.
Then again, perhaps no one else will notice.
The golf course is located off of Highway 16 five miles east of I-95.
Green fees are $38 weekdays and $46 Friday through Sunday. St. Johns and Duval County residents pay $29 and $37 for weekends. Twilight, member, and senior discounts are also available.
It's tragic. Royal St. Augustine might at times allow players to carry their bags, a rarity among Florida courses, and the course is short enough to make walking an appealing alternative. But because of the fragmented routing, long stretches between holes and too many double-back paths, it's recommended that carts be taken.