The Top Three Most Challenging Courses in North Florida

Let’s get one thing straight -- This is my humble opinion. I have played every course in North Florida and I am a huge North Florida golf enthusiast. These three courses are my “go tos” for when it’s time to step up my game. I usually play all three of these back to back before tournaments because they help me identify my weaknesses.

Let’s get one thing straight -- This is my humble opinion. I have played every course in North Florida and I am a huge North Florida golf enthusiast. These three courses are my “go tos” for when it’s time to step up my game. I usually play all three of these back to back before tournaments because they help me identify my weaknesses.



1. The Conservatory at Hammock Beach (Palm Coast, FL)

Perhaps length does matter! If so, I would rank this course one of the more challenging and most beautiful courses I have played in North Florida to date. Many of the holes have long dynamic fairways and even the one’s that appear to be short are likely fooling you. This is, in fact, Florida’s longest course!

However, along the way, you are gripped by the changes in elevation and views that overlook the coquina rock barrier mouldings, babbling brooks and peaceful waterfalls (which you’ll likely have a love-hate relationship with, since you’ll be cautiously avoiding them through narrow fairways...).

The challenge really begins on hole 2, with a tight driving area and steep sod faced green side bunker. Hole 3 will be relatively easy if you make the green, but if you don’t, prepare for a challenging up and down fight out for most of the 202 yards.

Once you hit hole 5 you will begin a series of three long par fours, laden with narrow greens that call for accuracy with a mid-iron shot and even an island green on hole 8. This is no joke folks! But you can spend all day on this course happily perfecting your irons.

This is a beautiful place to be and anyone of any level can play this course. It’s challenging -- yes, but this is the kind of course that will make you a better golfer. The last hole offers a beautiful panoramic view of the entire course from the elevated teeing ground. By then, you’ll be prone to hit long shots, but watch out for the water. You can land a birdie on hole 18, if you can make it past the stone bulkhead guarding the green.

This is a Tom Watson Signature course and in January 2009, it was ranked #3 on Golf Digest’s elite list of America’s Best new Public courses. Oh yeah… did I mention it’s public? Pretty great, right?

These next two courses are private courses, but well worth the money if you are seeking a real challenge and ways to take your game to the next level.


2. Hidden Hills (Jacksonville, FL)

Hidden Hills used to be the site of the Greater Jacksonville Open, a tournament that takes place today in Ponte Vedra and is referred to as The Players Championship (heard of it?). Thus, this Arnold Palmer Signature Course has seen the likes of most major golf pros since the 1970s, but in 1986 this course was re-designed by Palmer to become one of the most challenging and magnificent courses in North Florida.

The first thing you’ll notice about this course is that it doesn’t look like it’s in Florida. It lives up to it’s name with incredible rolling hills and elevation changes throughout.
Hidden Hills starts off strong and can be a little intimidating. The large and mature pine trees and presence of water on every hole will have you second guessing your typical habits.

At hole 1, water runs to the left and leads down to a double-tiered green that slopes right to left. So despite the water, favor the left side; in fact, favor left for hole 1 & 2, but try a straight middle shot on hole 3 until you're near the green; then favor left again).

By the time you hit hole 5, you will actually be at one of the highest points of elevation in Duval County and you’ll be facing an awkward putt unless you hit below the hole so you can aim uphill. After the most stunningly picturesque hole 8 at Hidden Hills, you are going to meet your first fairway bunkers on hole 9.

The green on hole 9 is elevated so if you come up short, a chip shot won’t work. Bring a lob wedge and try using a flop shot here. Or, you know, you could just make the green!

Hole 10 will give you a bit of a break, but by the time you’re at hole 11, hold your breath, this one is going to be the most challenging and it’s also the most favored hole at Hidden Hills. This par 5 hole needs a 210-yard carry over water. Yikes! There is no room to be short (you’ll have to re-tee) and you are hitting to a beautiful elevated island green (which is pretty level); so try to get in a position for a short iron to the green.

After hole 11, the course eases up. You have now found your bearings, gotten used to the water and trees, and you’ll find that the game starts to really fly on this smooth course. Make sure to pack a lot of clubs. You will need to vary up tee box choices and on the last hole, try out a fairway wood instead of a driver.


3. King & Bear at World Golf Village (St. Augustine, FL)

I have found that almost anything designed by Arnold Palmer can be challenging and raises my game to new levels, and King & Bear doesn’t disappoint. It was co-designed with Jack Nicklaus and it sits within World Golf Village, where it’s sister course, Slammer & Squire also offers a slightly less challenging counterpart on this incredible piece of historic land where the World Golf Hall of Fame and Museum lives.

King & Bear is quite famous for it’s mid-fairway bunkers, and water on 16 out of 18 holes. I mean, this is Florida.

The fairways are wide, but the pines and mature live oak trees make for more narrow landing areas.

Hole 9 is the #1 handicap. It keeps a large lake in play all along the right side and on a little room on the left of the green. Be cautious and hug the right edge as the hole becomes more narrow.

The back side of King & Bear has water on both sides, but the left side is easier. If you hang right, you’ll be battling a pretty serious greenside bunker.

The last hole is appropriately named “Bear’s Claw” as it is one of those holes that sort of strikes a little fear in the risky long hitters, and yet, they stand the most to gain. If you play it safe on the right side, this hole is a relatively easy par; BUT if you hit long and hug the left side, you could conquer this hole in two. Or, you could end up hitting the giant waste bunker or ending up in the wetlands and you’re sunk.

Challenge Yourself and Step Up Your Golf Game!

I love these courses because I owe so much of my development to them. Don’t be intimidated by the challenges and try not to take the easy way out of each hole. Hug the curves, try out new clubs and strive for mastery. As Palmer puts it, “The secret of concentration is self discovery…”