Truth be told, I do not like golf. Yet, to my surprise, across the country golf fans stand along roped fairways hoping to catch Tiger or Vijay sink one. This was [unfortunately for me] the case in a small golfing town I once lived in.
Well, the town, Ponte Vedra Beach, is small. Its golf connection, on the other hand, is huge. Each spring master golfers on the PGA Tour stop in to compete in The Players Championship (TPC) at Sawgrass. This year, the tourney, aka the PGA's "fifth major," will take place from May 12-15.
When I moved to Sawgrass at age 13, I couldn't have cared less about that David Duval guy who won that year. Having come from the D.C. area (where I moved back a year later) I was busy figuring out what exactly this speck of a town had going on. I can imagine that first-time visitors have a similar sentiment. But, after more than a decade of summers spent back at Ponte Vedra Beach, I came to love it, and think I have it figured out.
Living a Leisurely Pace
Ponte Vedra Beach is a small community. It inhabits an island bounded by the Intracoastal Waterway and the Atlantic, and is a 30 minute drive from downtown Jacksonville and 40 minutes from the airport. Ponte Vedra may be a slow town, but that's because residents enjoy a leisurely resort-type life. Getting around is often done via golf cart, gentlemen still meet up for drinks and the tennis ladies enjoy long lunches at the club after morning matches.
The clubs, though they may be members only, are the best way to experience the beach. Visitors to town can slip in the back door by booking a room at the AAA five diamond Ponte Vedra Inn and Club (200 Ponte Vedra Blvd.; 904-285-1111) or its sister hotel The Lodge and Club (607 Ponte Vedra Blvd.; 904-273-9500.) The Inn – as it is in local lingo – dates back to 1928 and is a local landmark. The Lodge, just a bit further south, is newer, though still a great place to enjoy the ocean or sip afternoon tea. Guests at either are entitled to use of all club amenities like two golf courses, tennis courts, multiple pools, gyms and a spa. (Rates vary; call 800-234-7842 or 800-243-4304 for reservations.)
A view of the Cabana Club clubhouse and beach.
The best bet for hotels during TPC is the Sawgrass Marriott (1000 PGA Tour Blvd.; 904-285-7777,) located right outside the gates of Sawgrass Players Club – the gated residential community housing the TPC facilities. Aside from this proximity perk, hotel guests enjoy complimentary access and shuttle service to the Cabana Club. This private beachside retreat features two full service restaurants, a snack bar, pool and beach rental service. Lying on the beach is nice, but the ocean's even better when experienced from a rented surfboard, ocean kayak or catamaran – just look for the straw umbrella and charge it all to your room. (Rates vary; call 800-228-9290 for reservations.)
For those who aren't into the club scene, a public beach and parking lot is available at Mickler's Landing at the south end of Ponte Vedra Boulevard, or via public access points along the same road.
Wining and Dining
Aside from the many restaurants at the beach clubs, there's a handful of good restaurants throughout town. For breakfast, a popular spot is the Beach Diner (880 A1A North; 904-273-6545) with its standard pancakes and omelettes fare and coffee mugs advertising local businesses. Breakfast options around town are pretty slim – but Elizabeth's Café (1500 Sawgrass Village Drive; 904-543-7677) next to the Hilton Garden Inn and Players Café (262 Solana Rd.; 904-273-5595) behind the Library also have standard breakfast menus.
For my favorite lunch, I head right to the grocery store deli. Located just outside Sawgrass, Publix (600 Sawgrass Village Dr.) features a well stocked deli counter with made to order subs. All manner of Boars Head meats and cheeses are available to stuff into a house baked roll. The addition of zippy Boar's Head horseradish mustard is a must. For the table service inclined, Bogey Grill (150 Valley Circle; 904-285-5524) serves no-fuss American food and Napoli's Pasteria (3787 Palm Valley Rd. 904-273-0006) bakes up a pretty good pizza pie.
When the sun sets, do as the locals do – head down tree lined Roscoe Boulevard to Lulu's Waterfront Grille (301 Roscoe Blvd. North; 904-285-0139.) This watering hole is popular with locals, tourists and golf celebs alike, and owners Pat and Anna can almost always be found chatting with customers on the front porch.
There's something for everyone on the menu that heavily features Florida coastal cuisine. Creamy New England clam chowder and a basket of Lulu's famous fried shrimp are always a sure bet. As are Wednesday's all-you-can-eat snow crab legs. For those flying solo, grab a seat at the front bar where bartender Alan is known for great drinks and conversation.
When in Ponte Vedra...Golf
Golf is an inescapable factor of life in Ponte Vedra – a town boasting no less than nine 18-hole courses. During TPC, both the Stadium and the Valley courses at Sawgrass are closed. But, there are other places to hit the links. Guests of the Marriott can make a tee time at Sawgrass Country Club (10034 Golf Club Dr.; 904-273-3700) and guests at the Inn or Lodge can play at the Inn's courses.
The famous 17th hole at The Players Stadium Course. philipshannon/Flickr
Sawgrass Players Club is also home to another course and club, Ponte Vedra Golf and Country Club (254 Alta Mar Dr.; 904-285-5552.) Formerly Oak Bridge, it's in one of the town's original developments, making it feel much more low key and intimate. Open during TPC, Ponte Vedra Golf and Country Club allows non members to make tee times up to a week ahead. An 18-hole round of golf will run $53 plus tax on weekdays and $63 plus tax on the weekend.
Still trying to perfect that swing? No problem, enlist the services of golf pro Tommy Aycock for private lessons. For $50 for a 45 minute session, he'll have you shooting like Tiger, and navigating town like a pro.
I asked Aycock for tips for Ponte Vedra first timers. For those who can't make it to Ponte Vedra Golf and Country Club he suggests St. John's Golf and Country Club (205 St. Johns Golf Dr.; 904-940-3200, $54 weekdays, $69 weekends,) about 30 minutes away in nearby St. Augustine. And, he says, visitors should try out the local fishing and "definitely have to make time to go to the beach...it's a great place to surf."
It's true that the beach is the place for those who, like myself, consider driving the cart a tough day on the course. And, if it's any consolation to those golf widows, the surfer guys in Ponte Vedra are darn good looking. So, I'll be at the Cabana Club if you need me.