Florida officials have proudly touted the state's award-winning park system for years. The parks, hailed as the best in the nation, offer everything from rivers for kayaking to beaches for soaking in the sun to forest trails for extended hiking.
But two state legislators think Florida's parks are missing something crucial: golf courses. And not just any golf courses —— courses designed and built by the Golden Bear himself, Jack Nicklaus.
Bills filed last week by Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, and Rep. Patrick Rooney, R-West Palm Beach, would require the state Division of Recreation and Parks to hire Nicklaus Design to build courses in state parks in every region of the state, creating a Jack Nicklaus Golf Trail around Florida.
The goal of SB 1846 and HB 1239: "to stimulate the growth of tourism and the state economy by enhancing the state's reputation as a premier golfing destination and encouraging the location of public golf facilities within Florida's existing state parks."
The bills both call for at least one Nicklaus-designed course to be built in state parks in all five regions of Florida. Rooney's version specifically names one park that has to get a Nicklaus course: Jonathan Dickinson State Park in Martin County on the east coast.
The bills also say each course "shall be designed and built in an environmentally sensitive manner" but also "may include a hotel." The new courses also will be eligible for liquor licenses, according to the two bills, and they will be exempt from any city or county regulations.
Andy McLeod of the Nature Conservancy finds the golf course idea unsettling.
"We would make a very strong case that a huge component of Florida tourism is its natural beauty," he said. "We would hope that proposals of this type could be made for places other than a state park like Jonathan Dickinson."
Neither Thrasher nor Rooney responded to a call seeking comment. But Nicklaus' lobbyist, former Attorney General and Secretary of State Jim Smith, said Nicklaus came up with the idea during a chat with Gov. Rick Scott about how to boost tourism — and that it's been endorsed by Scott.
Nicklaus, a Golf Hall of Fame inductee, has long lived in Jupiter and he "wanted to do something for Florida — it's a legacy thing," Smith said. That's how he and Scott came up with the Jack Nicklaus Golf Trail, Smith said.
"Florida has never hosted a U.S. Open, and he wanted to build the kind of a golf course that would attract a U.S. Open," Smith said. Scott's office did not respond to a request for comment.
Smith said the idea for the Nicklaus Trail came from a similar project built in Alabama that has proved to be a big success. However, a spokesman for Alabama's golf trail said none of those courses was built in state parks.
Normally Nicklaus charges $2.5 million to design a golf course, the lobbyist said. But for the Jonathan Dickinson State Park course, Nicklaus, 71, would waive his fee, Smith said. For the other four courses called for in the bills he would charge only a quarter of his fee, or $625,000 per course.
Construction costs would be paid by borrowing money through bonds, which would be repaid through greens fees and other profits from the courses, Smith said.
The provision calling for hotels is just an option, he said. As for being exempt from local development rules, he said, "we didn't want to have to get snarled up with local government."
However, Smith said, he may get the bills amended to broaden the search for golf course land.
"There is a concern about doing something like this in a state park," Smith said. Other options he named included using university campuses or land owned by water districts, which is generally purchased to preserve groundwater recharge areas.
Environmental groups usually regard golf courses as part of the problem, not a solution. They often complain about how golf courses use too much fertilizer and consume too much water, as well as replacing naturally significant swamps and marshes with artificial water hazards.
Manley Fuller of the Florida Wildlife Federation said the Nicklaus idea could work — but only if the golf courses were built far from environmentally sensitive areas, perhaps in places that were already torn up by prior development such as parking lots or buildings.
Florida already has more golf courses than any other state —more than 1,000, according to the National Golf Foundation, which also happens to be based in Jupiter. The World Golf Hall of Fame is near St. Augustine. The classic golf comedy Caddyshack was filmed on Florida courses.
Recent years have been tough ones for the golf course industry. Overall revenue for 18-hole courses falling more than 5 percent between 2008 and 2009, the foundation reported.
Information from the Orlando Sentinel was used in this story.