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Windy Harbor Golf Club near Jacksonville, Florida: A port in the storm

MAYPORT, Fla. -- It's pretty clear what sets Windy Harbor Golf Club apart from other golf courses. It's in the middle of a Jacksonville-area Navy base.

It's not set apart, pushed off in a corner away from the commotion. It's right in the thick of things at Naval Station Mayport, within sight of shipyards and equipment sheds and along the route of PT runs.

Windy Harbor is in earshot of loudspeakers, cadence and the steady hum of shipyard machinery. It's even more exciting during touch-and-go training for F-18 Hornets. The public is welcome, providing they are sponsored by a sailor or retiree or pass a background check after applying for a civilian pass.

The golf course was built in the 1950s to give sailors a four-hour reprieve from duty. When golf professional Jon Fine was hired in 1993 by the Department of Defense, the commanding officer told him his assignment was to provide a diversion for "the kid off the ship." It's still his top priority.

Fine and his staff oversee a scrappy 6,395-yard course squeezed onto the base that is packed with surprises and challenges.

"It's a very fair test of golf that winds through a lot of water elements," Fine said.

The course, updated in 2000, has a variety of tricks up its sleeve. For example, sometimes it doesn't provide an easy way to the green. On the par-5 fourth hole, the fairway stops about 80 yards from the green, requiring you to fly over some bushes to an elevated green. The ninth hole does pretty much the same thing.

The eighth hole has a few blind spots if you land your drive in the wrong spot. Then you have to deftly get your ball down to the green while avoiding a right bunker and water to the left and rear. That's a fun hole.

The second half of the course is across a thoroughfare. It opens up a bit and gets longer. The 10th hole is a tricky par 4. Trees jut out from the right, so you have to avoid them, then get your second shot past a collection of bunkers short and right of the elevated green. It sounds easier than it is, given the possible side-hill lies for your drive.

The 15th hole is another tricky one. It's lined with trees and falls down and right toward the green. A few bad bounces and you could be blocked out, particularly from the left side.

The 16th applies pressure on the second half of the par 4 with water right and a bunker on the left of the offset green. It might pay to become friends with who sets the pin position on this hole.

Windy Harbor Golf Club concludes with one last test, a par 5 with a tree-lined fairway that dogs right to an elevated green. Positioning yourself for the approach is key, due to the arching trees on both sides of the green, plus a large, deep bunker on the right.

That's Windy Harbor: a challenging, thought-provoking golf course on a naval base. But it's more than that. It's an emotion-evoking glimpse into the life of active-duty sailors, Marines and soldiers, down to the noise, the smell of jet fuel and the vibrations from helicopter rotors. It's not an easy life. Fortunately, thanks to people such as Jon Fine and his crew, they can have a tiny respite chasing after a small, white ball.

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