I had been sitting at the bar long enough, nursing a cup of coffee and looking out the window at the 11th green on Gil Hanse’s Streamsong Black. It was almost showtime, and I hadn’t even as much as thought about my bag since I dropped it off at the curb in front of the clubhouse.
I needed to hit a few putts. So I ambled off the stool to my bag, grabbed my putter and ruffled through to find three junk balls in a front pocket. I walked back inside, through to the other side of the bar and to the door. The wind was blowing so hard, it was hard to push it open.
Finding one of those handy putting course stands complete with cup holders, I snuggled my coffee cup in one holder and my putter cover in the other. Then I dropped the first ball. It bounced slightly off the turf. And then the wind blew it 12 feet away from me.
At that point, I knew I was in for a unique day.
This was my first trip to Streamsong, and so many people had told me I had to see it for myself. Given the opportunity before the PGA Merchandise Show to stay at the on-property lodge and play the Black Course, I made my way to Bowling Green, Fla., about an hour southeast of Tampa. I dropped off my things and checked in at the gorgeous lodge, which boasts a modern industrial aesthetic I didn’t get to appreciate enough with the packed 24-hour stay on the docket. I hopped in a luxurious mini-bus — very much like the one I rode on from my wedding ceremony to my reception — and got a ride over to the Black.
The Black has its own clubhouse, and it’s on its own part of the 17,000 acres Mosaic has opened up for Streamsong from the 100,000 they own in this part of central Florida. Yeah, Streamsong could be more than a golf resort; it could be a whole golf town.
On the ride, the driver said, “I haven’t seen it this windy in a year.” It wasn’t hard to notice the wind since my Nissan Versa rental was dealing with a two-way miss in the breeze that was a constant 30-35 mph. The responses I got on social media when I did my best Jim Cantore from the ground led me to believe this kind of thing can happen at Streamsong. What other choice should a golfer make but to embrace it?
However, this wasn’t a normal resort day. The Streamsong Invitational was wrapping up on this day, and a few dozen country-club-based teams from around the country were ending their three-day round robin on the Black. Of course, that meant the Committee (whoever was on it) set up the Black to be its testiest: greens running 13 on the Stimpmeter, ground plenty firm and some choice hole locations. In a 30 mph downwind breeze, you hit a putt and hoped to whatever holy thing you adore that it would stop. It usually did, eventually. With the same breeze in your face, you took the putter blade back an extra half-inch and prayed just the same. Fortunately, we were warned beforehand.
We had four groups, and we shotgunned at 2 p.m. from the first and 12th tees, both par 5s. My group went off first from No. 12, and I was joined by the acclaimed Tom Coyne and Sassa, an overseas journalist. I’d met Tom virtually before, having him on my podcast to talk about “A Course Called Ireland.” We put a name with a face. Sasha couldn’t have been more fun to play with — talented with pithy commentary and a delightful mastery of English cuss words and timing. We pegged it and let drives fly downwind on the first hole.
I don’t normally hit driver, 7-iron into a par 5 that’s more than 530 yards, but that’s what happened in that breeze. The wind created the dramatic effect of blowing out bunkers and waste areas, with the sand spilling into the massive fairways to create the illusion that playing areas were smaller. However, Hanse designed a course that has huge swaths of fairway and seemingly even bigger targets for putting surfaces. There’s plenty of sand to catch bad drives, and true hazards — er, penalty areas — really only come into play on three holes. From tee to green, it’s pretty difficult to lose a ball. By no means does that make the golf course easy. It’s not even close to a resort course in the typical sense that you shoot your best round and wonder, Golly, why don’t I score this well anywhere else?
Each of us, at different points in the round, definitely yelled, “What the…?!” That’s because the green complexes on this course make you completely rethink the meaning of the term “green in regulation.”
If you’re reading this, you’ve probably heard how big the green complexes are at Streamsong Black. They are even bigger than advertised, and they were done that way to maintain the desired aesthetic and playability of the course. However, taking the Donald Ross notion of building greens and expounding on that, Hanse made enormous green complexes dotted with pockets where a good shot can be hit. Miss those spots and you’re going on a putting adventure. There were a handful of times throughout the round when I would hit a green and walk up thinking I might have a chance to make a birdie. I would find I had missed on the wrong side of the hole location, and I would have to putt defensively to save par. At first, that was infuriating. It’s not the kind of golf I see every day. But after a while, it became clear that the strange bounces and jolting hole locations were the defense of the course. In a sense, Hanse’s Black is a modern take on the old Robert Trent Jones Sr. easy-bogey-tough-par mantra. Every par felt like an achievement, even though getting to the putting surfaces didn’t take a whole lot of work — even in a constant three-club wind. From tee to green, the Black can equalize golfers of any skill level much more than just throwing down five sets of tee markers each day.
When I got to the par-5 10th in two (driver, pitching wedge, all downwind) and arrived at the green, it all kind of clicked. After hitting my semi-blind shot, I found my ball had trickled to the edge of the putting surface. I faced a putt up to a pin that was practically impossible to find with any combination of line and speed. A two-putt would have been a big win. I made par.
If you try to get meta with your golf — and it doesn’t always have to be that way — then I guarantee you will undoubtedly return to the Black in your mind time and again, thinking about the nature of the game, the bounces you got that day, the surreal putts you faced. I believe Hanse, who looked to emulate links-style golf in the dead middle of Florida, wanted to restore the value of luck and fate in a golf experience.
Even a remarkably exact golfer, which I’m not, can play the Black very well and still not get rewarded for every great shot they hit. On No. 13, I hit a wind-assisted 360-yard tee shot into a guarding bunker. My 20-yard second shot hit perfectly where I aimed on the very front of the green, and it rolled off the back into another bunker. At the second hole, I struck a beautiful fairway bunker shot pin-high, and my ball rolled off the green’s ledge on the left to make a birdie impossible (and a par feel gratifying).
On a common course, those outcomes would leave me dejected. On that day, with good company and an unrelenting desire to play as efficiently as possible, it was all OK. Have a laugh, try again and keep going. That really is the point of golf. After all, you have to be a twisted soul to fall in love with this game. You’re having an argument you’ll never win, and all you’re trying to do is a make a good point here and there. I’m convinced that’s why so many of society’s most revered people (rightly or wrongly) play golf. It helps them understand losing.
Streamsong Black is a course you have to play multiple times to really get. You can’t just play it once and truly appreciate its subtleties, particularly around the greens. If you could take the time to walk the greens and surrounds and see the possibilities, the 1s and 0s in the matrix would form a clearer picture. In a rush to play before the sun set and my body collapsed from holding itself up too long, I missed some of that quality time.
The complexes have to be learned, perhaps more than any golf course I’ve played, before you can work back toward the tee box to plot your way around the course. In that way, it’s a reversible golf course. Surely, you can mindlessly make your way around from tee to green, but that absence of thought catches up with you again and again.
It’s a course where your imagination is thoroughly tested, even if you have to suspend belief that you control the outcome of your choices and execution.
Whether it’s your first time or your 10th, the Black is a great, almost absurdist match-play course. It would seem almost impossible to halve more than four or five holes, and that’s being generous. Get to the green, see what you can conjure and find out who prevails.
And then when it’s all done, you can take the short mini-bus ride back to the lodge, grab some drinks around a fire pit and laugh at your foolishness under a huge, crystal-clear moon. The accommodations are spacious and modern. The rooftop bar is the perfect place for a nightcap or two, and the sheer quiet outside late at night is something I loved. It gave me more time to let my mind wander back to the Black.