Windy Harbor Golf Club in Mayport: A mission far greater than golf

By Lisa Allen, Contributor

MAYPORT, Fla. -- Part of the appeal of Windy Harbor Golf Club at Naval Station Mayport is its ambiance. At few golf courses can you get a healthy inhale of jet fuel, 8 a.m. revelry, a loudspeaker blaring "The Star-Spangled Banner," and the soft drone of cadence in the distance.

18 Holes | Military | Par: 72 | 6395 yards
Windy Harbor Golf Club - No. 12
The par-5 12th hole at Windy Harbor Golf Club gives you plenty of room at the tee, but a marsh pushes in from the left at the green.
Windy Harbor Golf Club - No. 12Windy Harbor Golf Club - No. 6Windy Harbor Golf Club - No. 16

If that's not enough, helicopters often fly overhead and there is an incessant hum of shipyard cranes. F-18 training is a scream. That's the beauty of Windy Harbor.

If you're looking for enticement of the golf variety, Windy Harbor is a spunky golf course that requires finesse, not force. The tips clock in at only 6,395 yards and the land-locked course has done what it can over the past 60 years to eke out some more yardage, but it's pretty tapped out.

Don't think for a minute that it's a piece of cake, though, especially as you get a few holes under your belt.

"It's a very fair test of golf," said Jon Fine, head professional since 1993 and occasional cook. ("It's the military, everyone does a little of everything," he said, apron around his waist.)

Only about 5 percent of the golfers are civilians, the rest are active-duty military members, their families and retirees, Fine said. Everyone is welcome, he said, but you can't just drive onto the station. You have to be sponsored by an active or retired sailor or apply for an MWR card (morale, welfare and recreation), which includes a background check. It's good for a year and a pretty darned good deal.

Not that Fine -- a Department of Defense employee -- isn't pleased to see military families and retirees, but he said, "My job is to take care of the kid off the ship" and help him or her relax.

"I remember after Sept. 11, 2001, and everything on the base shut down. Two days later, we reopened and we had only two golfers. I asked one kid, 'What are you doing here?' He told me had had worked 48 hours straight and just had to get away for a few hours and relax." That's when Fine realized he was more than a golf pro. "It still gives me goose bumps."

Windy Harbor Golf Club: The course

The first hole gives one wide berth off the tee, perhaps giving people a chance to get their golf legs under them. And it should come as no surprise that there's water on the course, being on a Navy base. Liquid first appears left of the first green and rarely goes away.

The course is full of surprises. For one, there are hills, elevated greens and valleys, unexpected traits at sea level. For another, where you think you can depend on a fairway to be there for you, it up and leaves. Take the par-5 fourth hole, for example, where the fairway shuts down about 80 yards from the green and you have to figure out how to fly the ball over trees to the above-your-head green. It's the same story on No. 9, where you have only an aerial option to get on the green.

The unpredictability is what makes Windy Harbor Golf Club so much fun. The eighth hole is a good example. It has a raised tee to a dogleg right with military-like bunkers marching right, left, right starting mid-fairway. But don't forget about the water that wraps around the back of the hole.

The course gets a little tougher as it crosses a main thoroughfare for the back. The holes tend to be straighter, longer and drier. The par-5 12th hole includes bunkers that drift over from the right into the fairway, pushing you toward a marsh left of the green. Anything in that direction will tumble into it. The left side of the 13th green is blocked by trees and ringed with bunkers. The 15th fairway drops down to a valley in front of the green guarded by a single bunker.

The last hole is a par-5 dogleg left with lots of trees lining the fairway. Then it's up to the green with a massive bunker dominating the right front. It's a memorable finishing hole.

Sid Bishopp has played the Windy Harbor Golf Club hundreds of times and never tires of it.

"It's open and easy to play," Bishopp said. "It's not simple, but the fairways are big, so you don't have to get into the junk."

Windy Harbor Golf Club: The verdict

You'll want to play Windy Harbor Golf Club so you can tell people about it for years to come. You can recount the aircraft overhead, the drone of shipyard work, the clusters of sailors out on PT calling cadence and brotherhood at the course. As for the golf, there are several holes you'll remember, too, because they don't follow the rules of what a golf hole, a golf course should be like. At Windy Harbor, it's all about providing entertaining golf for the good of our sailors, soldiers, pilots and Marines. It's a mission few courses are called to. That alone makes it a special place.

Lisa AllenLisa Allen, Contributor

Lisa Allen is a golf, travel and business writer based in Beaufort, S.C. She has edited newspapers, magazines and books in Michigan, Indiana and South Carolina. Follow her on Twitter @LAllenSC.

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