2006: A World of potential - World Golf Village

By Jay A. Coffin

St. Augustine, Fla.

Unless you are a history buff, or did a little research prior to your journey, you’d never know Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leon wandered these parts nearly five centuries ago. It seems like the outskirts of the oldest city in the United States should be ripe with homes and shopping malls as far as the eye can see. But only 15 miles from downtown, the fledgling World Golf Village is an off-the-beaten-path community.

Historian or not – in this case, not – the task was simple. Pull out the company credit card and spend a few days making a no-holds-barred inspection of the World Golf Village.

I arrived late in the afternoon and checked into the 300-room Renaissance Resort, then wandered the Walk of Champions, a large, half-mile track that connects most major elements of the World Golf Village, including the Slammer & Squire golf course, lodging, the colossal PGA Tour Stop retail store, restaurants, the World Golf Hall of Fame and an IMAX theater. (The PGA Tour Golf Academy is located on the opposite end of the course’s practice range.) The circle is paved with bricks inscribed with the names of each Hall of Famer.

I felt an overwhelming need to spend a few extra seconds at Byron Nelson’s spot since Lord Byron had died only 30 hours earlier, and was surprised that nothing significant had been done to commemorate his death.

Dinner the first evening was at the Renaissance’s Cypress Pointe. This proved to be the best dining option the World Golf Village had to offer, though the open-air setting in the lobby feels more like a sprawling bar than a cozy eatery. If you do elect the convenience, the St. Augustine Chowder is a must, blending conch, clams, crab and smoked gouda.

Thick fog greeted me the next morning when I opened the curtains, but it didn’t delay my tee time at the King & Bear course, a three-mile shuttle from the Renaissance. Post-round, I decided it had been one of my most enjoyable golf experiences. The weather was ideal, the course was in pristine condition and my playing partners were delightful. It helped that I scored well, just missing my career-best round with bogeys on the final two holes.

The track, named for co-designers Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus, opened in 2000 and is the first collaboration between the two legends. The picturesque, 7,279-yard layout is eminently playable and sits among loblolly pines and 200-year-old live oaks. Chilled apples on the first and 10th tees are an excellent touch.

Twenty-four hours later, the itinerary called for a morning tee time at the Slammer & Squire, the 6,939-yard Bobby Weed design named after Sam Snead and Gene Sarazen, which sits near the Hall of Fame. It didn’t take long to realize that this day would be nothing like the previous. As my tee time neared, the starter told me I’d be going off alone and that the twosome originally paired with me arrived 45 minutes earlier and already were well on their way. Problem was, four foursomes were in front of me, all four of which I could see on the first two holes while I was alone on the tee box.

With it painfully obvious that I wouldn’t be able to pass all four groups, I suggested going off the back side, which was empty. I was told that my best option would be to go off the first. Although the course was in great shape and the weather again perfect, I bailed after nine holes when the Global Positioning System told me I was 13 minutes behind pace. Slotting in singles can be a challenge, but there had to be a better solution.

Like the golf, accommodations and dining were vastly different experiences. Some great, some decidedly less so.

The Renaissance was pleasant, although the extra $9.95 for Internet access felt like piling on when added to the $169 daily room fee.

But I switched to the nearby Grande Villas the next two evenings and found the two-bedroom, two-bathroom spread a much better option for price, convenience and luxury. This property sits along the Slammer & Squire and is a Bluegreen Vacation Club Resort, meaning to book a room one must go through timeshare agents at the home office in South Florida. It’s ideal for families or a group of golf buddies looking to escape for a few days.

Dining options are not what you’d expect from a destination called the World Golf Village. Murray Bros. Caddyshack and Augustinos are located on the Walk of Champions, but neither was impressive. You’d be better served to drive 15 minutes toward downtown St. Augustine if you’re looking for a quality meal.

Caddyshack, the flagship restaurant of Bill Murray and his five brothers, is typical bar food. I ordered outside the box, choosing the baby back ribs, which were mediocre. My wife, Susan, ordered a cheeseburger – which should be every restaurant’s go-to meal – but the cheese was burnt and the french fries rubbery. Dessert was surprisingly good, but it’s best not to enter the joint with high expectations.

Expectations, however, were lofty for Augustinos, an Italian steakhouse that claims a relaxed, upscale atmosphere. Although I don’t consider myself a picky eater, there were two disasters in our party. The oak-grilled chicken on an order of chicken fetuccini alfredo was ice cold, and my filet mignon was undercooked.

It was sent back to the chef and returned 10 minutes later burnt to a crisp, leaving one dining companion to say, “I’d have rather gone to Olive Garden.” Ditto. I’ve subsequently asked three other friends their opinions of the Italian joint and all three gave it an emphatic thumbs-down. Upgrading the eateries shouldbe a WGV priority.

An experience that received rave reviews was the PGA Tour Spa Laterra, the World Golf Village’s indulgence center located at the Laterra Resort and Spa, adjacent to the King & Bear clubhouse. Susan, who had given birth to our son, Brady, just five weeks earlier, found it relaxing from the minute she walked into the circular lounge, where visitors are comforted by the sound of the waterfall flowing from the ceiling both before and after treatments. Susan’s 60-minute organic tropical fruit facial that went longer than scheduled and included all top-of-the-line products.

When it was time to load the car and head for home, my mind wandered back to Ponce de Leon. The spa experience at the World Golf Village was something of a fountain of youth, but I wonder where he ate?

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