5 Fabulous Florida Golf Destinations
Forget everything you’ve ever heard about Florida golf. The courses at these resorts challenge the pros on tour—they’ll give you a thrill, too.
By Dave Donelson
We took some members of our Golf Guide players’ panel to perform a selfless act of on-site research in Florida this winter. After a strenuous effort, we came up with five great golf resorts in the Sunshine State. Florida has 1,067 golf courses, according to the National Golf Foundation, and these five should be at the top of your list. The courses at these resorts aren’t flat, they aren’t featureless, and they sure aren’t fit to be played only by retirees trying to fill up their day. In fact, every one of these destinations hosts a PGA Tour or other professional event. All rates, by the way, are for peak season.
Doral Golf Resort and Spa, A Marriott Resort
Miami (800) 713-6725; doralresort.com
Nearest airport: Miami (15 minutes); Golf package: $369 includes room and breakfast, one round on the Blue Monster with forecaddie for one golfer, and other amenities. Also available is a one-hour introductory golf clinic at no additional charge.
The Blue Monster is like a mugger in a Brooks Brothers suit; it looks harmless but it will hurt you when you least expect it. The 7,288-yard course (from the tips) looks benign on paper. From the blue tees, only four of the par 4s are over 400 yards and the longest is 416. Even the 131 “slope rating” (a measure of difficulty) isn’t particularly daunting, so you stand on the first tee expecting to put some good numbers on the scorecard.
Then the course defenses kick in: more than 120 bunkers—some larger than a two-bedroom apartment; water in play on 12 holes; greens that roll up, down, and side-to-side like a careening roller coaster. Consider the 3rd hole; how can water threaten both shots when the hole is only 382 yards? Or the 528-yard 10th, a par 5 that curls around a lake like a question mark.
The gem of the track is the 18th hole, which played to the toughest stroke average (4.625) on the PGA Tour at the 2007 WGC-CA Championship. From the mortal tees, it’s only 414 yards. But when you play it into the wind, it’s more like 474—with water on your left all the way until it cuts almost completely across the front of the green to drown any hope you may have had of getting home in two. Your trials and tribulations aren’t over when you finally make it to the green, either—Mark Calcavecchia putted right off it into the water last year. It makes you wonder how even Tiger Woods won here three years in a row (2005, 2006, and 2007).
Doral’s Great White Course is arguably the Blue Monster’s equal. Greg Norman’s design makes it a totally different golf experience, though, so playing both courses during your stay is a definite must. A major remodeling in 2006 has made the Great White much more playable, according to Golf General Manager Darrin Helfrick, with 125 pot bunkers removed and the crowned green on the extremely challenging 6th hole re-contoured. At 7,171 yards, the Great White is about the same length as the Blue Monster, but fewer of the greens are elevated, so it doesn’t play quite as long. Still, you need a wide variety of approach shots—from high soft short irons over trouble to laser-guided long irons or hybrids.
The course also technically has no rough, but don’t let that fool you. The short grass runs right into fairway-defining waste areas dotted with sawgrass, trees, and other ball-blocking vegetation. And, because there’s generally no long grass to stop them, errant shots may run a long, long way on the hard coquina sand in the waste areas. They also can slip quite easily into bunkers and water hazards, so you have to plan not just the direction but the distance of your shots with care.
The Great White offers an excellent mix of demanding holes from the blue tees, ranging from the 577-yard 14th, which is a four-shot hole for most golfers when it plays into the wind, to the 161-yard island green 8th hole. The 374-yard 10th has a wide but shallow green that forces you to lob a high, soft approach exactly the perfect distance—three steep bunkers guard the front while water awaits just off the back edge. The first and last holes are reachable par 5s, too, depending on the wind, which makes for some interesting matches.
There are three other courses at Doral, but the undiscovered gem is the Silver Course, a 6,557-yard tract located a short
shuttle ride off the property. It’s an excellent second-round-of-the-day and gets very little traffic. Two of us buzzed through it in less than three hours. It’s no pushover, either, with a high slope rating of 143 from the tips.
Beyond golf, Doral is also an oasis of luxury. Guest rooms and suites are in lodges arrayed near the main clubhouse, and the Spa at Doral can only be described as palatial. There are loads of activities for the family, too, with Camp Doral offering everything from arts and crafts to volleyball.
Sawgrass Golf Resort & Spa,
A Marriott Resort
Ponte Vedra Beach (800) 457-4653; sawgrassmarriott.com
Nearest airport: Jacksonville (35 minutes); Golf package: $469 includes room and breakfast, one round on THE PLAYERS Stadium Course for one golfer, forecaddie and other amenities.
You know you’re at TPC Sawgrass (“TPC” stands for “Tournament Players Club,” a designation of the PGA Tour) when you look out your hotel room window and see the miniature island green in the lagoon. It’s a model of the famous 17th hole at The Players Stadium Course, one of five courses totaling 99 holes of fine golf at the Sawgrass Golf Resort & Spa in Ponte Vedra, Florida.
There are 18 holes on The Players Stadium Course, home of the Players Championship since 1982, but the 17th hole generates 99 percent of the excitement. It’s only 128 yards—the pros play about the same distance but from a slightly different angle—but the tee shot is like trying to land a ball on half of a tennis court. And when the swirling winds come up, it’s more like trying to hit a ping-pong table at the other end of a football field. Players lose 120,000 balls in the lake surrounding the green every year. Maybe that’s why it’s known as the most frightening hole in golf.
But there are 17 other challenges designed by Pete Dye on the course, including the sand-plagued par-5 16th (where over 200 eagles have been recorded in the tournament) and the sturdy par-4 18th, a 426-yarder with a fairway that wraps around one of the dozens of water hazards on the course. There are also 98 bunkers, many of which seem to stretch from tee to green. The 2006 rebuild of the course made it firmer and faster, but it sure didn’t make it any easier, according to Director of Golf Billy Detlaff. A word to the wise: select the right tees for your game—every hole on the course plays longer than the yardage on the scorecard.
The other course at TPC Sawgrass operated by the PGA Tour is Dye’s Valley Course, a 6,864-yard test of golf that’s slightly more forgiving but just about as much fun to play. Resort guests also have three other courses to choose from: the 27 holes at Sawgrass Country Club across the street, the original home of The Players Championship; Marsh Landing, a 6,841-yard private course often likened to a nature preserve; and the Oak Bridge Club, a short course that measures a tight but amusing 6,345 yards, with water in play on every single hole.
Florida has plenty of good—and great—golf courses, but only TPC Sawgrass offers the “Tour Players Experience,” where you get the chance to see how it feels to play inside the ropes. For $1,295 per person per night (double occupancy), you’ll put your shoes in a personalized locker in the pro’s locker room, then walk through the Tunnel of Champions that helps Tiger avoid the autograph seekers as he makes his way to the practice area.
Your caddy will wear a bib emblazoned with your name as you play the course. For $500 more per person in your foursome, a former PGA Tour great like Bob Duval will meet your group for breakfast, play the round with you, and join you for lunch afterwards.
Even without The Tour Players Experience package, your caddie or forecaddie will be one of the best you’ve ever met. Ours, Robert Spidle, not only kept track of four wildly struck balls, but he told us story after great story about shots played—well and otherwise—by the pros on almost every hole. His commentary itself was almost worth the price of admission.
Another attraction at TPC Sawgrass is the chance to see The Tour players outside a tournament setting. We saw Vijay Singh and Fred Funk one day on the range.
The Sawgrass Golf Resort & Spa provides all the amenities a tired, hungry golfer could want. There are five restaurants on the property, including the Augustine Grille, where you can treat your homesick palate to a serving of Hudson Valley foie gras before tearing into a fine steak. The 25,000-square-foot spa is the place to go after your round for a soak in the whirlpool or the Sawgrass Grand Slam, which includes a hydro and color therapy bath, a deep cleansing exfoliation, and, for the grand finale, a full-body massage.
The Ritz-Carlton Golf Resort, Naples
Naples (239) 593-2000; tiburongcnaples.com
It’s hard to say which is more enjoyable at The Ritz-Carlton Golf Resort, Naples, the golf or the posh hotel. There are two championship-caliber golf courses, both designed by Greg Norman and both highly playable by golfers at all skill levels; there’s also the Rick Smith Golf Academy. And then there’s the magnificently appointed Ritz-Carlton—goose-down comforters and pillows, Frette linens, marble baths, and Bulgari toiletries in the luxurious rooms—where guests are pampered with premium-class service.
But golf is why we were there, and it was some of the best we played in the Sunshine State (or anywhere else). The Gold Course (from the tips) is a 7,288-yard gem, where they play the Merrill Lynch Shootout during golf’s silly season each December. It offers mostly wide fairways leading to generous greens, but watch out for the sprawling bunker complexes, or water, or both on every hole. The par-3 172-yard 8th hole is a prime example of how Norman used both elements—water on the left and sand in front off the tee and on the right all the way to the green—to create a hole that’s both pleasing to the eye and challenging to the swing.
The Black Course at Tiburon may not host a professional golf event, but it’s the harder course, and better in my book. At 7,005 yards, it’s shorter, but the landing areas are considerably tighter. It’s also a more scenic course, with many holes framed beautifully by Spanish-moss-draped live oaks and stands of majestic pines. Even the ball-gobbling waste areas are picturesque in a Southern Gothic kind of way. The number one handicap hole on the Black Course is the 2nd hole. Just step onto the tee box and you’ll see why it’s rated the most difficult hole on the course: your drive has to thread a pine-lined chute the width of a single lane in a bowling alley to find the fairway.
On top of all this are the accommodations at the Ritz-Carlton. Actually, there are two Ritz properties to choose from in Naples. The beach hotel is a short shuttle from Tiburon so you can catch a few rays on the sand (instead of blasting out of it with a wedge). There’s also an expansive, exquisite spa there. The Ritz-Carlton Golf Resort has a small but opulent spa as well, and offers five restaurants.
Innisbrook Resort and Golf Club
Tampa (800) 456-2000; innisbrookgolfresort.com
Nearest airport: Tampa (30 minutes); Golf package: $299 per person, four days, three nights, includes condo-style suite and breakfast, four rounds of golf, daily golf clinic, and other amenities.
Anyone who says Florida golf is flat and water-bound hasn’t played one of the four fine courses at Innisbrook, on the Gulf Coast near Tampa. Both the Copperhead, the 7,340-yard (from the tips) home of the PGA Tour’s PODS Championship, and the newly-renovated Island Course, with a tight 7,310 yards, have elevation changes as dramatic as any you’ll find at your favorite Hudson Valley course—and there’s nary a palm tree in sight. Instead, fairways are sharply and picturesquely defined by cedars and pines, with plenty of Spanish moss to give them a Carolinas’ feel.
Both of these courses, as well as the North and South Highland tracks, have lots of water and sand, though, which make you earn your pars. The Island Course has all new greens and several new tees, the result of a $1.7 million renovation that started the day after resort owner Sheila Johnson closed on her purchase of the property in 2007. With tighter fairways, water on nine holes, and some dramatic doglegs, it’s actually a tougher course than the Copperhead (as reflected in the 73.5 rating and 140 slope from the back, Green tees).
Copperhead is no pushover, of course. It rewards strategic play, with well-placed trees, water, and bunkering on many holes. The 535-yard 1st hole, for example, calls for either a 270-yard drive to carry the bunkers (and the rough) on the left side of the fairway or a 210-yard lay-up to the safest landing area. Either way, it’s still going to play as a three-shot hole because there are two more sets of fairway bunkers to navigate before you get to the green, which is tucked away behind a stand of pines, some water, and two greenside traps. Greens on both courses are huge and rolling, some quite steeply. They roll true, though, which is one reason Ernie Els called Copperhead “the best course we play in Florida.”
The renovation of the Island Course is the first step in Johnson’s plans to revitalize the property. The resort’s first full-service 12,000-square-foot spa is scheduled to open in 2008. Instead of a central hotel-style lodging facility, at Innisbrook you stay in roomy, comfortable low-rise condos scattered around the 900-acre resort, with a remarkably responsive shuttle taking you anywhere you want to go on the property.
Omni Orlando Resort at ChampionsGate
Orlando (407) 787-4653;
Nearest airport: Orlando (30 minutes); Golf package: $367 per night (for two persons double occupancy) includes room and breakfast, and as many rounds on both courses as you can play in one day. After dark, the lighted par-3 course is included, too.
At least one of your Florida golf trips has to be a family affair, doesn’t it? And where else would you go but to Orlando, home of more kid-friendly attractions than anyplace on earth. You can do the whole Disney thing (and there are some fine courses in Mickey land), but a destination worth considering is one that’s sort of under the radar in Orlando—but it shouldn’t be. It’s ChampionsGate, home to two world-class courses designed by Greg Norman, David Leadbetter’s Golf Academy, and the magnificent Omni Orlando Resort, all just six miles away from the Magic Kingdom. There are multiple dining choices, too, including my favorite, David’s Club, an upscale sports bar and steakhouse.
But first things first—golf at ChampionsGate. You’ll experience two completely different style courses, both of which are worth your time and attention. The International, which plays host to the DelWebb Father-Son Challenge around December, carries one of the highest rating and slope (a whopping 76.3 and 143 from the tips) of any course in Florida and measures 7,363 yards. It’s no pushover from the blue tees, either, stretching 6,792. Norman designed a true links course, with windswept, treeless fairways, run-up approaches to hard, fast greens, and a plethora of pot bunkers in truly inconvenient locations. The 18th hole, a 528-yard par 5, is a great finisher. It wraps around a lake on the right, forcing you to shape your tee shot just ever so if you want to have any chance to get home in two. It also has so many fairway bunkers on the left side that I ran out of fingers and toes trying to count them.
The National is a (somewhat) kinder and gentler parkland layout. It’s a little shorter at 7,128, but much, much tighter. One of the most distinctive par 3s you’ll ever see is the 14th. It’s only 171 yards from the blue tees, but it’s all carry over a swamp and past a tall, lone pine that threatens any shot that’s not perfectly shaped to a green that is almost too small to see. Fortunately, the green is much larger than it looks from the tee. The National is due for a $3 million facelift this summer.
Mom doesn’t have to entertain the kids while Dad plays golf at ChampionsGate, either. There’s the Camp Omni Kids Club to keep them occupied. For whole-family fun, the Omni offers the 850-foot Lazy River tube-float, lighted tennis and basketball courts, a family activity pool, a sand volleyball court, and a really entertaining lighted nine-hole par-3 golf course. On second thought, who needs to fight the crowds at Sea World?
Dave Donelson readily admits that assignments like this one turn his golf buddies green with envy.