In the spirit of election season, a simple poll to gauge your core values as a golfer:
Question 1 – Yes or No: Would you pay $32 to play a golf course ranked by Golfweek as the fourth-best public track in all of Florida, built by the most respected design team in the business, on property so hilly it’s been compared to North Carolina?
Question 2 – Yes or No: Would you pay $32 to play a course with threadbare Bermuda fairways, weed-infested rough and bunkers riddled with footprints?
Now here’s the tricky part: What if these two courses were one and the same?
Welcome to Sugarloaf Mountain Golf Club in Mineloa, Fla., where this far-fetched scenario is all too real. It’s also a sad sign of the times, and a tale of bad timing.
Here’s a brief backgrounder:
Sugarloaf Mountain GC was conceived as the centerpiece to a residential development near Clermont, a town of about 30,000 in the rolling hills west of Orlando. To their credit, the brain-trust selected the design duo of Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw, whose work at Sand Hills, Bandon Trails, Cuscowilla and elsewhere helped define “minimalist” architecture.
But a funny thing happened on the way to worldwide acclaim and big-time home sales. The bottom fell out of the housing market, and the rest of the U.S. economy collapsed in short order.
Still, the course opened on schedule in 2008, though membership sales couldn’t support the original plan to remain private.
Naturally, Sugarloaf Mountain earned universal applause — best-of this, best-of that. If Coore and Crenshaw build it, top rankings are sure to follow.
Only this time, golfers didn’t.
Course conditions went steadily downhill, as did rates. The central Florida housing market has yet to recover; today, only a handful of homes dot the landscape around Sugarloaf Mountain. While golfers playing the course have generally praised the layout and setting, some have left scathing reviews on the web. “Pathetic,” wrote one, while another termed the conditions “laughable.”
Well, I played Sugarloaf Mountain on April 15, and while it pains me greatly, I must concur.
My first three shots into bunkers (there were many more) collected in footprints. Bare patches marred the fairways, which – insult to injury — suffered from weed infiltration too. To be fair, the area has been stricken by drought. Yet other courses are doing much better.
Worst of all, the trademark Coore/Crenshaw bunkering – rough-hewn, misshapen masterpieces, just like Alister MacKenzie used to build – was rendered artless by encroaching plant life and general neglect. The saving grace was the course’s greens, which were reasonably healthy and true-rolling.
Luckily, I was prepared for the sorry state of Sugarloaf Mountain before teeing off; I’d read those reviews, after all. I decided to give it a try anyway, having been heretofore deprived of the Coore/Crenshaw experience. The price was certainly right — $29.95 plus tax, for a grand total of $32.05 for 18 holes, cart included.
To me, the choice was a no-brainer. And I found exactly what I expected: A thoughtful design blending seamlessly with the land; tee shots that challenge the golfer to choose high-risk/high-reward routes over safer options; greens so subtle and complex you could play 100 rounds here and learn something new every time; a variety of ways to play any shot from near the green; elements imported from Scotland, like the “Spectacles” bunkers in the middle of the 12th fairway; and an amazing piece of property that defies all stereotypes of Florida golf.
The experience left me asking a question of myself: Would I play Sugarloaf Mountain again?
My answer is “yes” – but I wouldn’t pay more than $40 with the course in its current state.
I guess that’s a sign of where my personal golf values lie. If yours align with mine, I suggest you give Sugarloaf Mountain a try, and soon.
Sadly, its days may be numbered.
Daniel Mitchell is a golf writer and Golf-Newz.com contributor who lives in Jupiter, Fla., a few miles from Tiger Woods as the crow flies but worlds away in every other respect. An avid golfer since age 12, Mitchell carries a (shaky) single-digit handicap, investing far more time in his dogs than his swing.