LAKE WALES, FLORIDA | Golfers tend to use the words “hidden gem” recklessly when talking about course design. Often layouts described in that way are neither hidden nor gems. A recent trip to central Florida, however, reminded me that the term quite accurately applies to the track at Mountain Lake.
The hidden part is easy to reconcile, set as it is in a remote part of the Sunshine State where cell service can be spotty and towns are separated by miles of blacktop. So is the use of “gem” for the celebrated, par-70 course that Seth Raynor designed on the same sandy soil that is perfect for orange and grapefruit trees.
The land at Mountain Lake is also endowed with contours rarely found in such a famously flat region. Raynor took advantage of those features to produce deft renditions of the great old-world template holes, whether Eden or Redan, Biarritz or Punchbowl. In doing so, he gave golfers interesting angles off the tees that rewarded those who took risks on their drives. Raynor also provided players with a nice mix of holes that compelled them to use every club in their bags. In addition, he gave the opportunity to run shots onto greens on all but one hole (the Short at No. 9).
“Mountain Lake is a terrific routing that has elegant balance and flow,” said Anthony Pioppi, an author and golf historian as well as the executive director of the Seth Raynor Society. “Raynor made great use of the land he was given and produced a fun and interesting course that challenges the better player while ensuring that it remains eminently playable for the 20-handicapper.”
Adds head professional Jonathan Powell: “The course will test you and delight you at the same time. And it gives you that rare chance to play a Golden Age design in the state of Florida.”
Pioppi and Powell are exactly right. And it is little wonder that Mountain Lake is regarded as one of the best layouts in Florida, right up there with Seminole, the three courses at Streamsong and TPC Sawgrass. It is also rightfully ranked among the finest in the country.
The story of Mountain Lake in many ways begins with the founding of the nearby town of Lake Wales. That occurred in 1911 when the Atlantic Coast Line railroad reached the area, 50 miles south of Orlando, which had previously been accessible only by sandy trails.
The arrival of the railroad brought people to Lake Wales. Among them, a Baltimore businessman named Frederick S. Ruth. He had a notion of creating a retreat in the region for northerners looking to escape the winter. And to make that happen, he hired Frederick Law Olmsted Jr., the noted landscape architect and city planner, to produce a scheme for the property and its residences. He also engaged Raynor to lay out a golf course. The year was 1915. Those were courageous moves considering that World War I had broken out the year before. But Ruth was confident he could establish something quite special.
According to Pioppi, Mountain Lake was among the designer’s first individual efforts after he separated quite amicably from Charles Blair Macdonald and hung out his own shingle. By December 1916, Raynor had completed nine holes at Mountain Lake, Nos. 1 through 6, and also the 16th, 17th and 18th. But funds were tight and labor scarce as a result of the war. He did not finish the other nine holes until 1921.
By that time, Olmsted was done with his land plan for the property, across which some 125 residences would eventually rise. One of the early homeowners was Edward W. Bok, who was editor of the Saturday Evening Post and The Ladies Home Journal, two of the most popular periodicals of that time. Bok also built the Bok Tower that remains a Lake Wales landmark and can be seen from the Mountain Lake course. In addition, Olmsted designed and constructed a three-story, Mediterranean Revival structure called the Colony House. Featuring a red, barrel-tiled roof, it served as both an inn for members and their guests (with 36 rooms) and the clubhouse.
The club hired Ron Prichard as its consulting architect, and he worked extensively on the bunkers and green complexes, rounding off many of the former so they were not so linear while regrassing and recontouring the latter.
Raynor’s creation at Mountain Lake remained more or less untouched for decades, though his longtime design associate, Charles Banks, made a few minor changes in the late 1920s, after Raynor had died of pneumonia at the young age of 51. Among those was adding the par-3 ninth.
Other alterations appear to have been made in later years. “The greens seem to have gotten flatter and rounder, as if someone had taken out the contours that had initially made them so interesting,” says Pioppi. But little work of note or substance was undertaken until the turn of the 21st century, when Mountain Lake members brought in architect Brian Silva to lead a restoration of the Raynor track. Using old aerial and ground photographs, he squared off many of the bunkers, recontoured most of the putting surfaces and brought back the swale on the Biarritz green on No. 5.
Several years after that, the club hired Ron Prichard as its consulting architect, and he worked extensively on the bunkers and green complexes, rounding off many of the former so they were not so linear while regrassing and recontouring the latter.
As well-received as those efforts have been, Mountain Lake, which these days measures nearly 6,700 yards from the tips, is not resting on its laurels. In fact, community leaders have asked Gil Hanse to begin working on a new master plan this summer that will cover tees, bunkers and fairways.
So, the restoration process continues, as it often does with golf courses, for they are living, breathing things that change and evolve over time. The good news is that at Mountain Lake, the alterations have made a great course even better – and ensured that it continues to be one of golf’s hidden gems.
An aerial shot of Mountain Lake’s 18th hole. Photo: Courtesy Mountain Lake
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