(Editor’s Note: This story originally appeared in the Jan. 23, 2017 issue of Golfweek.)
BOWLING GREEN, Fla. – Shortly before Streamsong Resort opened four years ago, KemperSports, the Chicago firm that manages the resort’s golf courses, invited Golfweek’s staff for a visit. The invitation included something odd: GPS coordinates, which were a necessity as we tried to pinpoint America’s next must-visit golf resort in the middle of a 16,000-acre open mining site.
The new resort, in fact, seemed so remote that our managing editor, who lived 30 minutes to the north in Lakeland, felt the need to make a reconnaissance trip and relay detailed directions to the rest of the staff.
These days Streamsong still seems remote – though accessible, as the staff always insists. “Is this it?” asked my pal Sean Fitzsimmons, who was making his first visit, when we saw a small sign for the turnoff to the resort this month. No, I had to tell him, still a few more miles to the entrance.
Sean and another buddy, Pete McQuaid, were visiting from New Jersey. Pete had heard good things about Streamsong from fellow members at Plainfield Country Club, so it didn’t take much persuading when I suggested that he and Sean tag along on my visit.
These days, out-of-state guests are the norm. Scott Wilson, the director of golf, estimated that as many as 75 percent of guests during the current high season are not Floridians.
The lesson, Wilson said, isn’t so much “if you build it they will come,” but simply that “people will gravitate toward fun, old-school, traditional golf. It doesn’t have to be wall-to-wall rye grass, it doesn’t have to be watered and green all the time. . . It’s the fun factor. It’s fun to play it on the ground.”
Many of those fun-seekers fly commercial through Tampa or Orlando, though some have arrived through Lakeland Linder Regional Airport, located 26 miles from Streamsong. Gene Conrad, the airport’s executive director, said the resort has contributed to a significant uptick in private jet traffic.
Just a few weeks ago, Conrad said, the management team of a large pharmaceutical company arrived in Lakeland on a fleet of G5s and G650s, golf clubs in tow. The airport occasionally welcomes a chartered 737
out of Chicago or some other city.
“When we see these large birds come in, we definitely know where they’re going,” Conrad said.
Conrad added that by fall, Lakeland Linder will install U.S. Customs facilities because of demand from international travelers who want to visit Streamsong. He said a Customs facility would have been added eventually, but because of Streamsong, “we’ve accelerated it.”
The airport staff also is considering whether to offer helicopter service to Streamsong so guests can get there faster, though their bags would arrive separately by ground.
Cindy Barrow, executive director of Bartow Municipal Airport located 21 miles away, told a similar story, describing Streamsong’s impact on jet traffic as “very positive.” She estimated that private jet traffic has increased more than 25 percent because of Streamsong, though she said the airport staff does not track customers’ destination.
Officials at Mosaic Co., the Minnesota mining firm that built Streamsong, sometimes have tried to draw analogies between their resort and Bandon Dunes. That always has seemed inapt, especially because Bandon’s clifftop location along the Pacific Ocean is an overwhelming trump card.
“I see it more as a comparison to inland places in parts of the country,” said Josh Lesnik, president of KemperSports. “You could say in some ways Bandon is to Pebble Beach what Streamsong is to Pinehurst.”
We arrived midday Thursday and, after warming up and getting lunch, met our caddies, Danny “Doc” Reed and Mike “Irish” Sheehan. If you’re visiting, book these guys; they combine high golf IQs with good conversation.
“This is the most memorable opening tee shot in Florida,” Doc said as we walked up the hill, 85 feet above the fairway, to the Blue course’s first tee.
We didn’t plan it, but this is a good place to start the Streamsong experience. From there, a first-time visitor can get a good panorama of the Blue and Red courses and also get a glimpse of the new Black course that opens this year.
What you quickly learn on the Blue (No. 53 on Golfweek’s Best Modern Courses list) is that you can hit it anywhere, but brace yourself when you reach the greens.
“Sometimes it feels like we’re not even putting on grass,” Sean said.
This is a touchy subject, because supposedly everyone loves fast greens. The faster, the better, right? Well, to a point. When Pete stopped his approach five feet above the hole on No. 4, then four-putted, we got an idea of what we were in for. On No. 7, a picturesque par 3 across a canal, we learned that putts coming off the upper tier have been known to roll off the green, down the slope and into the water. The next day, when Sean’s tee ball on Red’s delicate, par-3 eighth landed 8 feet left of the hole, Irish foresaw the outcome: “It’s going to roll back in the bunker.” Which it did.
Watching this, I was reminded of a visit to Streamsong a year earlier, when we putted up the slope on Red No. 9 several times only to watch our balls roll back down the slope. Finally, we picked up our balls and walked to No. 10. So, yes, everyone likes fast greens, but there’s such a thing as too much of a good thing.
Our group agreed the Red is the stronger layout, and that seems to be the consensus. It’s ranked No. 35 on Golfweek’s Modern list, 18 spots ahead of the Blue.
The Red requires slightly more precision off the tee, has arguably the toughest opening hole in the state and, like Blue, has some fearsome greens. Pete’s downhill putt on No. 2 drew a one-word description from Doc: “Yikes!”
There are a series of fun, memorable holes on Red, such as the short par-4 fourth, the lovely par-3 sixth near the clubhouse and the par-5 seventh, which is made more interesting if you play the back tees for the diagonal drive. And Red’s back nine, highlighted by the pronounced Biarritz green on No. 16, might be the best nine on property, at least until the Black Course opens.
The clubhouse is located about a mile from Streamsong’s striking 216-room lodge that opened three years ago along Little Payne Creek. Because of its isolated location, the resort has worked hard to add amenities – fishing, sporting clays, archery, a lovely pool, a dramatic spa, along with four restaurants – to keep guests occupied and happy. Because once guests arrive at Streamsong, there’s nowhere else to go locally until they check out.
Given the remote setting, it’s especially important for the staff to be at its best at all times – to show guests that the considerable effort they took to get there is appreciated. We found that the staff was on top of its game, with one exception: Fragmentary Blue, the lodge’s rooftop bar. The bar takes its name from an eight-line Robert Frost poem, which, we were told when the lodge opened three years ago, the staff would be trained to recite to guests. Now, that might seem trite, but that sort of attention to detail means something to guests.
The first week the lodge was open in 2014, a Fragmentary Blue staffer charmed a large group from the Southern Seniors Golf Association by reciting the poem. That was his job, part of the training. “Whether you’re a poetry fan or not, it says something about the way they’re going about creating experiences,” Dulany Hall of the SSGA said at the time.
Well, apparently they’re no longer worried about “creating experiences” at Fragmentary Blue. When I asked a bartender and waitress if they could recite the poem, they gave me a flat “No.” What do you want to drink?
You know what I want? I want the experience. I want the staff to wow me. I want their words and action to say: We’re excited you’re here! I don’t want them to say: Here’s your Bulleit. That will be $11. So learn the poem. It’s part of the job. And when a customer asks, recite it. With feeling.
Those seemingly minor details will help ensure that all those out-of-state customers return to Streamsong again and again.