Bowling Green, Fla. — Take a stroll to the first tee at Streamsong’s Red Course and you want to crush a drive, high into the heavens, from a 50-foot bluff and watch it soar past flanking fairway bunkers to the turf below.
But you’re tempted first by another choice at a wildlife-rich resort 45 minutes south of the Tigertown complex in Lakeland.
It was 8:15 a.m. when guide Tyler Ramsdell steered our 16-foot Mako boat into a shoreline cove smothered by overhanging cypress branches. With a Shimano spin-reel cooperating, I flipped a purple plastic worm, threaded through a No. 4-hook, into dark water thick with lily pads.
A bass of 3-4 pounds smashed the worm in what appeared to be a blend of rage and hunger. Inside of a minute we had boated a lovely largemouth, with charcoal-colored dorsal lines that bled into silver flanks and a milk-white belly.
“Notice how dark they are,” said Ramsdell, a graduate of St. Leo University in Tampa, who works as a bass guide and sporting-clays instructor at Streamsong, which opened in 2013 when it unwrapped two of the top-three-ranked golf courses in Florida.
“It’s a combination of the deep water (50 feet in places) and the food chain here. They’ve got millions of bait fish in these lakes.”
Twenty minutes later, Ramsdell hooked a bass that would have cracked six pounds — until it did a surface somersault and flipped the hook and brown-gold plastic worm he was casting.
In an hour on a gray, misty, 65-degree February morning, we took six largemouths, all of which were freed for a long life of swimming and gorging in the rich water on this 16,000-acre site in central Florida.
Streamsong once was laced with surface mines that began digging here in the late 1800s. But a half-century after the last phosphorus (used primarily as farm fertilizer) was sucked from these sands and scrub, The Mosaic Co., a Fortune 50, Minneapolis-based group that owns this land and had begun returning it to nature, decided its terrain was too wild, too elevated in places, too suited to birds and reptiles and fish, not to make it one of the more intriguing golf-and-recreation developments in North America.
That it is a relatively easy 27-mile drive from Lakeland makes it one more option for Tigers players, beginning with Justin Verlander, who has a home a half-hour from Streamsong, and former Tigers pitcher David Price.
“Ooh,” Price said, in a voice that was one part awe, another part pained. “Great course. Has to be walked to be experienced. But it’s even a tough walk.”
Verlander, who has played in the PGA Tour’s pro-am event at Pebble Peach, and who slightly prefers the Red Course to the Blue, said: “It’s definitely in my top 10, for sure. I like it. Both courses. Very challenging. The day I was playing, the greens were flying (fast).”
Streamsong’s sun-and-fun options extend beyond golf, but a pair of uniquely sculpted courses are the site’s stars. Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw, whose designs are unfailingly fabulous, scored again with one-half of the resort’s 36 holes, the Red Course. It might be ranked a notch higher, but to most critics it is hardly superior to the Blue Course, which is another world-class jewel crafted by Tom Doak, the Traverse City artist who has done some of the most thoughtful and enduring golf architecture since Donald Ross and Alister Mackenzie etched for-the-ages work.
Lakes. Ravines. Hills created by excavation that can reach 90 feet on otherwise flat terrain. Sand and waste areas. Scrub and grasses that can seasonally change color from rich red to green, brown, or even white.
Landscape that looked like it was borrowed from both the moon and the Australian Outback became for some gutty Mosaic executives a way to turn a desolate stretch of old Florida into an international destination. Playing golf here has become so trendy that only two years after the courses opened, Streamsong did 50,000 rounds in 2014 and almost 55,000 in 2015.
“Not a palm tree out here,” said Tom Parkes, Streamsong’s former sales and marketing director, as he drove a utility car along paths that were more like wagon trails. There is no asphalt on these courses. In fact, there are no cart paths. Golf cars are disallowed. Ball-washers are likewise no-shows on an inland links-grade layout.
It is why you walk Streamsong. With a caddie. And those caddies do more than haul clubs.
They also hunt golf balls that might have slipped into deep grass. And, especially during summer, that grass houses the occasional Florida eastern diamondback rattlesnake. No golfers have been bitten here, but two caddies were nicked (they recovered), and it’s no coincidence Streamsong’s logo “S” depicts a snake.
“No, it wasn’t going to be one of those logos with two golf clubs crossed,” said Parkes, whose caddies, and golf shop, carry snakebite kits and antivenin. “We strongly coach golfers to leave those (scrub) areas alone. It’s why we have caddies. They’re trained in the event anything happens.”
Visitors can relax. You’ll likely have a double-eagle before you have a bad day with a rattler. It’s no reason to spurn a place where golf, for all the spectacular holes here, is no more beguiling than nature’s sights and sounds.
Hence, the name: Streamsong. It connotes birds singing and squawking, wind rustling tall grasses, as well as an audio mix true to the wildlife on its 20-plus lakes. Across these acres live deer and river otters, bobcats and foxes, wild pigs, quail, hawks, and ospreys, any of which you’ll see on a given day.
That it is balanced by so many comforts makes this year-round getaway an intercontinental destination. The clubhouse is 300,000 square feet, with more than 200 rooms, four restaurants, and beautiful in its minimalism. The exterior profile is low, thanks to the landscape’s recesses, and can scarcely be detected from the golf course, as Doak insisted.
Exterior and interior design was meant to blend with the spare, earthy geography: stone, wood, glass, bare concrete. But this remains a posh retreat, complete with a spa, and with some of central Florida’s better dining (one-third of the dinner traffic is local).
Private planes loaded with golf clubs and bags generally fly into Lakeland ahead of the half-hour drive to Streamsong. The highest percentage of overnight guests come from Naples (170 miles), and then from Tampa (47 miles), and Orlando (83 miles).
Once you’ve followed signs and a road that had to be cut through the wild stuff for visitors to ever have reached this oasis, you prepare to play. In various ways. On a resort that doesn’t sell real estate or timeshares, you either golf, relax at the lodge, treat yourself to the spa, or maybe opt for shooting sporting clays (12-gauge Mossberg over/under shotguns are provided) at stations woven along a winding, nature-trail circuit.
Flooded with bass
Of course, you can also buy a few hours of guided bass-fishing.
Streamsong’s lakes either are natural and spring-fed, or byproducts from those decades of mining. Holes were dug spanning acres, until sand gave way to clay. Rain and ground water filled the clay-lined holes and created lakes that were stocked with bass in the 1970s when Florida Fish and Wildlife joined Mosaic in making a former business a nature preserve.
Any bass of eight pounds or more is recorded with the Florida Bass Fishing Hall of Fame. Fifteen of Streamsong’s guests have so far cracked the club, with a 10-pounder the best yet. But bigger bass are here. Another of Streamsong’s guides, Erik Prinz, of Leesburg, Va., has caught a largemouth that hit 101/2 pounds.
So, lunkers lurk, and not only when it comes to fish. As we worked the shoreline, flipping plastic worms into lily pads and beneath cypress branches, someone else also was fishing: a six-foot alligator, which gently swam, head-half above the water’s surface, until we drifted to within 10 feet, at which time the gator dipped into deeper water.
It’s a swirl of animal, fish and birdlife at this tribute to old Florida and its natural treasures. But remember that it is first a golf experience, and the golf is so unique and challenging here that it is no wonder, only three years after it opened, that a third Streamsong course and second clubhouse will be arriving in the autumn of 2017.
The designer of Streamsong Black will be Gil Hanse, the Pennsylvania-based architect who is crafting the 2016 Olympics golf course at Rio de Janeiro.
He’ll find this terrain enticing. Everyone else has, human and otherwise.
Where: Bowling Green, Fla., 27 miles south of Lakeland, base for Tigers spring training
Golf: Two 18-hole courses, Streamsong Red and Streamsong Blue, are the resort’s flagship features. They are ranked by Golf Digest as the No. 1 and No. 3 public courses in Florida (TPC Sawgrass is second). They are ranked 18th and 24th on Golf Digest’s list of Top 100 Public Golf Courses.
Accommodations: A hotel lodge with 200-plus rooms and suites, designed with posh but minimalist décor, is the main guest housing. Another dozen rooms (with a private party room, stocked with billiards and card table, bar, etc., is also available) at the golf clubhouse. There are four restaurants, combined, at the facilities.
Fees: An overnight stay, with 18 holes of golf, can run $139-$349 (double occupancy) based on season. An 18-hole walking round (non-overnight stay) costs $115-$225, depending on season. Caddie fees run in the $100-per-round range.
Other activities: Super bass fishing is available ($50 age 12-under or $80 per person, per hour, based on options). Boats, equipment and guides are furnished. Sporting clays, at a variety of stations on a wild and woodsy circuit, can be experienced for $70-$200, determined by number of stations and clays selected. Mossberg 12-gauge over/under shotguns and shells are included, as well as eye and ear protection, and trained assistants. Archery is available from $25 to $80.
Also: The Spa provides a full array of luxury options.
Contact: (863) 428-1000 or streamsongresort.com