Super Oversees Natural and Groomed Beauty at World Woods
By Terry Moore
Let's face it. Fall golf in Michigan is superb but it never lasts long enough. Before you know it, we're all knee-deep in snow and imprisoned by another long winter. The only escape is a golf respite in a Sunbelt state where Michiganders can bring out the rusty swing and marvel at a well-struck drive after a two month hibernation. Often, however, the winter courses in the south and especially Florida seem hard-pressed to live up to our state's high standards for championship, turf-friendly, venues. Oh sure, there are loads of resorts and real estate-driven courses in Florida that will welcome "us northerners" with their high prices, mediocre conditions and numbing condo-strewn layouts. For the most part, it's usually hard to get excited about the large majority of courses in Florida. Of course, that's why I'm not editor of Florida Golfer. There's undoubtedly scores of worthy tracks in the Gator State. And with this as a belabored intro, I just played one last January. It's called World Woods GC. And due to the efforts of its designer Tom Fazio and the current Director of Grounds, Steve Hritsko, it's a hurry-up-and-pack-your-bags traveler's marvel. It's like no other Florida course and may be unparalleled in the south for its scale and scope. And guess what? It's neither a real estate development nor a mega-golf resort. It's just 36 of some of the best golf holes you'll find outside your winter-induced reveries.
To begin with, World Woods is located in the middle of nowhere near Brooksville, an hour-and-a-half-drive west of Disney World or about a half-hour or so drive north of Tampa. Off the beaten path, the rolling topography of the region is quite unique to the state. Hritsko says the area is commonly referred to as the "mountains of Florida" which sounded to me like an oxymoron. But Hritsko should know the local lore. In fact, he was the first employee of World Woods. In 1991, Hritsko was hired to oversee the building and critical "grow-in" stage of facility. Rumored to have cost upwards of $48 million, this facility consists of two superb 18 hole championship courses, Pine Barrens GC and the Rolling Oaks GC. On top of that, there's a 2-acre Practice range, a two-acre Putting course, three complete "warm-up" holes, and finally for good measure, a 9-hole Short Course. I mean there's more grass to golf your ball here than found in most foreign countries! And Steve Hritsko is the generalissimo here who's in charge of keeping it all green, natural and playable.
A native of Wisconsin and a devoted Packer "cheesehead," Hritsko came to World Woods after a successful stint as Superintendent at Bardmoor North GC. Before that, Hritsko managed the construction and grow-in of the Bayou Club, at the time a sister course of Bardmoor which had hosted the Tour's JC Penney Classic. "Bardmoor/Bayou was such a great training ground for my career," said Hritsko. "They had everything: a nationally televised golf event, public golf, private golf, and a construction/grow-in practically all at the same time. It was hectic at times, but what a great golf experience."
And a great golf experience is what one will find at World Woods. Given nearly an unlimited budget, Fazio has fashioned two thrilling yet distinctively different layouts. Pine Barrens is Fazio's tribute to famed Pine Valley, a natural beauty that needs little or no make-up to be captivating. "Yes, there's a Pine Valley theme here but we have different vegetation," said Hritsko. With native sandy soil as an ideal base, Pine Barrens is set within a planted pine forest which places a premium on driving accuracy. Bunkering and waste areas abound along with tall, wild grasses and shrubs. For amateur botanists, Pine Barrens offers a treatise. "There's Japanese black pine here that's not native, plus wiregrass, broom and wax myrtle," said Hritsko, who earned his Turf Management degree at Massachusetts. And over at the number one handicap hole 12th, you'll find an enormous Youpon shrub in a greenside bunker that devilishly ensnares wayward shots. With the exception of possibly the claustrophobic finisher, there's not a weak or odd hole at Pine Barrens. A favorite is the driveable (for some) par four 15th hole whose tees range from 260 to 330 yards. With dual fairways split by an enormous wasteland hazard, this hole offers a classic risk-reward option. Hritsko says he watched a visiting Nick Faldo strike three consecutive laser-accurate drives from the back tee onto the green a few years back. Oh yes, the 15th is the territory of red-tailed hawks nesting nearby. So as you're attempting a vainglorious Faldo imitation, watch for the hawks' lazy soaring flight overhead.
Pine Barrens rugged exterior is in sharp contrast to its manicured, well-coiffed sister course, Rolling Oaks. With rye grass seeded wall-to-wall and finely attended to conditions. Rolling Oaks is mindful of a luxurious Midwestern, old-money, country club. Or should I dare say it? Yes, even a bit of Augusta National with its meticulous horticulture. There's lots of grass here to welcome your shots, especially of the off-line variety. With some wonderful elevation changes, Rolling Oaks offers wide fairways, expansive greens and majestic trees, especially oaks. Sounding little like Bubba the shrimpaholic in Forrest Gump, Hritsko ticks off the list: "There's oak pine, live oaks, turkey oaks and laurel oaks." The pride and joy of the course is a 200-year-old Live Oak that regally guards the 18th green.
One more item: for pristine conditioning the trademark for Rolling Oaks is the triplex-mown diamond design on the 11th fairway. Hey, that's World Woods in a nutshell: both a diamond in the fairway (Rolling Oaks) and a raw-cut diamond in the rough (Pine Barrens.)
All in all, when seeing the enormous and demanding acreage under his aegis, suffice to say Steve Hritsko is performing his duties with winning efficiency and skill. On this playing field, he's a Brett Favre.
For tee-times and current rates, call World Woods GC at 904-796-5500.
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