John’s Island Club is located on the Atlantic east coast of Florida, a few miles to the south of Palm Bay. John's Island itself is a huge 3,000-acre Intracoastal Waterway barrier island, situated within the quaint town of Indian River Shores in Vero Beach. The private and exclusive John’s Island Club is home to a unique Tom Fazio design called John’s Island West and opened for play in the early 1990s. Additionally there are two other 18-hole courses (North and South) designed by Pete Dye and Jack Nicklaus.
Unfortunately few people will get the opportunity to appreciate the West course at John’s Island but it’s worth doing your very best to befriend a member. The golf course is routed across delightful terrain with tall sand ridges which rise up some fifty feet or so from the property. Many tees and greens have been thoughtfully placed on the higher ground and the fairways routed across the flatter areas of the property. This technique was used extensively in the Golden Age of golf course design and has stood the test of time from the perspective of both playability and aesthetics.
The opening hole at the 6,819-yard John’s Island West gently breaks you in before the stern golfing examination that follows. Avoid the lonesome pine on the right side of the fairway and the solitary bunker on the left side of the green and walk off with a par or better on the 1st. Then brace yourself for a thrilling strategic test of golf where sand traps and pine-flanked fairways focus the mind. The par five 4th is a great example, playing through trees and acres of sand to a high green perched atop one of the several sand ridges that make John’s Island West such an enjoyable and unique Floridian golfing experience.
I used to play college golf in Florida from 2013 to 2017, which gave me the opportunity to experience 50+ golf courses in the Sunshine State. The state does offer some of the world’s most impressive courses, but in general there is more quantity than quality to be experienced, once you’ve seen enough of flat fairways routed between endless houses and ponds, leading up to heavily bunkered greens protected with some penalizing water.
The greed of the landowners has not given most of the course designers much of a choice, but to draw the golf courses with the future housing developments as the top priority, often leading to compromises in the design that affect the playability and aesthetics. Another problem is the pancake-flat terrain in almost all of South Florida, further challenging the designer to create any special character to their golf courses. Thankfully there are a few exceptions that have had the privilege of a very special piece of land, combined with a large budget and a world-class designer. The West course at John’s Island Club might give you the best example of such projects.
The club is very private and almost impossible to spot from outside the well protected estate. Apart from the fantastic golf course, the members may enjoy a superb wedge game facility located right beneath the car park, a practice area that even most of the big name championship golf courses lack.
The 18-hole layout itself might be one of the best in the country, if not the entire world when it comes to variety of the holes and shot-making skills required to post a good score. The course is not too long even from the tips, making the par 5s reachable (depending on the wind) and even two of the par 4s for many better players. The only negative I would list (that was actually very hard to come up with) would be regarding the first 3 holes. I personally think they lack part of the unique character what the rest of the holes represent. The thoroughly exceptional quality of the layout makes it equally difficult to name the holes that stand above the rest, the entire course from the 4th hole onwards is just so good. The 17th is truly a hole that splits opinions. I’ve personally always enjoyed bold design features that are both unique, playable and rewarding, which is why I find it hard to dislike this hole.
Overall, I would say that John’s Island West well deserves its spot as the #8 in Florida and should be listed as a candidate for the U.S. top 100 in the future.
John’s Island Club has two other great 18-hole courses as well, these two are located on the barrier island between the Indian River Lagoon and the Atlantic.
I have been going to The Sunshine State for golf for over 40 years and have played well in excess of 100 courses and I've developed over that time frame a strong belief that much of what calls itself "golf" in Florida fails for the following reasons:
1). Housing is the priority - with golf simply an appendage to that end. As a result - layouts are compromised endlessly and often featuring power cart usage that is beyond excessive.
2). The involvement of water as a hazard is grossly overused and impacts on playability for the fullest range of players.
3). The banal designs are often the result of topography that offers little in terms of meaningful differentiation and if man's hand is involved -- the net result is plastic golf surgery attempts utterly grotesque in failing to blend in sufficiently.
Fortunately, there are exceptions to what I just stated -- but you'll need to be especially judicious in your selections. One of the finest that I am reviewing here is also one of the most private but should you wiggle a way to play I wholeheartedly urge you to do so.
Tom Fazio is often decried by die-hard traditionalists as the architect who perfected course designs hailed primarily for their "look" rather than how they "play." In my experience -- over 100 TF courses played -- there's little question the tagline is a fair criticism for a healthy portion of his top tier efforts. However, make no mistake about this -- Fazio is fully capable in delivering courses combining both the "look" and "play" elements.
One of those is John's Island West.
What's striking about the layout is the isolation you get when playing. There's no bombardment of having some person's backyard cookout intruding with one's time on the course. Being free of housing is so rare in Florida that when you finally can enjoy that dimension the liberation is certainly much appreciated.
Fazio has smartly provided sufficient elasticity to provide entertaining golf for the usual assortment of members and their guests but the layout is not another of his protypical efforts where the "eye candy" alone is the dominant feature and the shot-making challenges simply pedestrian. The design spices things up considerably with an inventive routing featuring constant twists and turns in conjunction with various hole types constantly requiring clear adjustments from all playing levels. Players have to show high levels of skill in being able to work the ball as situations warrant. And, more importantly, Fazio has crafted a rich mixture of greens -- many perched above ground level and providing different shapes, sizes and playing angles. Short game dexterity is clearly tested here.
The course is just over 6,800 yards but the daily wind velocities, as with many southeast Florida courses, can vary on a daily basis. The bunkers at the course are adroitly placed, some small, others much larger. The appearance of the surroundings is also a plus -- more natural in character -- with the golf fitting in, not standing apart as is wont for so many Florida courses. The presentation is the course shows a fine artful melding of closely cropped turf and the natural indigenous grounds -- far from the usual gussied up private clubs Fazio has created elsewhere.
The back nine is better than the front but only by a shade. I really enjoyed the par-4 10th with a solitary tree in the left bunker. The green is also shaped like a reverse "C" -- so when the pin is placed in the deep far left corner the requirements for success present a very high threshold. The short par-4 11th which follows is a quality counterpoint -- plenty of decision to reach at the tee because the risk is there for a high reward. But the execution must be spot on.
There was mention in an earlier review of the par-5 17th and I do concur the desire to hit the green in two blows must carry a series of trees placed in a bunker complex along the right side. Nonetheless, I found the positioning to be totally fair. I also salute Fazio for tapering the fairway considerably for those opting to lay-up. Strategic calculus is very much a central dimension at John's Island West.
The closing mid-length par-4 18th is a fine finisher. It's not the usual 460+ yard slog found at so many courses. The hole turns left in the drive zone and players have to think carefully how much they wish to chew off when standing at the tee. The approach must also be gauged correctly because the green is well contoured -- very capable in repelling all shots not hit with conviction.
The turf quality rates with the best in Florida and the general presentation is a testament to the superintendent and the hard working crew. A few years back the club hosted the USGA Mid-Amateur Championship and having the opportunity to host such a prestigious event clearly ratifies the many fine features the club and course provides.
John's Island West can certainly make a very strong case for inclusion among Florida's top ten courses, however, I am not so quick to say it's a certainty but I would not rule it out by any means. The sad part about golf in The Sunshine States is how little imagination has been applied to countless number of courses that inhabit the area. John's Island West clearly rises well above the vapid clutter and does so admirably.
M. James Ward