Best of the Best: Florida's Premier Golfing Venues

By Shane Sharp, Contributor

Best Florida Golf CoursesTAMPA, FL - Golfing and Florida - the state and the game have almost become synonymous with each other over the years. And why not? There are over 1200 golf courses dotting the state from the southern fried reaches of the panhandle to the art deco architecture of South Beach.

Over the years have developed three distinct flavors of Florida golfer: the first are the locals who cringe every time they see a New York license plate while running for their local municipal course. These motley crew ranges from retirees on fixed incomes, to Gen-Xer's who have taken up the game at their local course.

The second type of Florida golfer is perhaps the most common - the Yankee Doodle Dandy who gets down to Florida from New York or Ohio once or twice a year looking for the cheapest golf courses and closest all-you-can eat Grouper house.

The third group? Well, the third group, albeit the smallest, is the faction of golfers than high-end golf destinations such as Orlando and Amelia Island feed off of - the no costs barred, unabashedly pompous, golfing snob.

These are the players that check Golf Magazine's Top 100 you can play list before setting out on any vacation. Yes, these are the type of golfers who will scream bloody murder if their round of golf is not costing them at least three bills, with a ten dollar egg salad sandwich at the turn.

So whether you make three figures, or you are cashing out junior's college fund to hit the links in the state affectionately dubbed the "Sunshine State" by the Chamber of Commerce, but more commonly known as "some swamps and some gators" by locals, here is a must play list from a sampling of the Florida's major geographical areas.

The Panhandle

Freshly opened along the white sandy shores of Destin is the Sandestin Resort's Raven Course. Designed by Robert Trent Jones Jr., the Raven has been hailed as the flagship course of a resort that already is home to three other pretty solid layouts.

The Raven features water on 11 of 18 holes, and makes its way through thick strands of pine trees and wetlands. Jones, in all his modesty has touted the course as having, "a run of some of the best par 3s, 4s and 5s in the Southeast," and prognosticated that "the Raven Golf Club at Sandestin is destined to be the Southeast's premier golf experience." Strong words from a region that fronts some pretty remarkable tracks.

Orlando

Need one selection from Disney that is the must play when in town? Try Arnold Palmer's Bay Hill and test your mettle where the PGA pro's do each year in the Bay Hill Invitational. The course is located within 10 miles of the Walt Disney World Resort in southwest Orlando, is one of the most prestigious semi-private clubs in the country, if not the world.

The facility actually has three nines -- the Challenger, the Champion, and the Charger -- but the tournament is held on the Challenger/Champion mix, which plays a long 7,204 yards from the tips (75.1 rating/139 slope). The Charger nine is the shortest of the three at 3,409 yards. Close to a dozen current and former PGA Tour players call Bay Hill home, so you never know whom you might run into at the 19th Hole.

Tampa

Looking for a classic south Florida course complete with no hills, 100 ponds, alligators and some palm trees? If you want to tee it up at the Copperhead Course at Westin's Innisbrook Resort in Palm Harbor, you won't find any of the above signature sunshine state golfing elements. What you will find is layout more reminiscent of North Georgia, or even North Carolina.

"Quite frankly it's a Carolina course, and we take great pride in it," says Innisbrook Golf General Manager and professional golfer Jay Overton. "There are only two pieces of land like it in Florida - Copperhead and Jupiter Hills. I have played in fifteen majors, and it's in the top ten tracks that I have ever been around."

Best Florida Golf CoursesMiami

The Doral Golf Resort . . .what else do you have to say. The Blue monster, the No. 1 golf resort in the country as ranked by Golf Magazine in 1996, $220 greens fees in the peak season; this is the golf snob's ultimate destination. Throw in the fact that there are four other top shelf layouts on the property, in the form of the Gold, Red, Green and White Courses, and what better place could there be to spend the entire month's paycheck than this south Florida bastion of upscale resort golf.

The Dick Wilson designed Blue Course is the obvious play, but the Greg Norman designed White Course is an interesting play, what with its coquina sand borders and moon like landscape, and the Green Course is a popular choice amongst beginners.

Best Florida Golf CoursesJacksonville

Think island green, think Pete Dye, think about the toughest round of public golf available outside of Kiawah Island's Ocean Course and Pebble Beach. Think about a second mortgage at this point in the vacation, but don't think about the wind and water at TPC of Sawgrass on a blustery north Florida afternoon.

Best Florida Golf CoursesThe Stadium course set the standard for TPC golf courses around the country, and is still regarded as the premier layout of the TPC family. Not to be outdone by Bay Hill or Doral's Blue Course, the Stadium course plays host annually to the Players Championship - considered by many to be the fifth major.

A complete compendium of Florida's best golfing venues, this is not. But you should be well on your way to sleeping on the couch for the next month when the credit card bill arrives.

Shane SharpShane Sharp, Contributor

Shane Sharp is vice president of Buffalo Communications, a golf and lifestyle media agency. He was a writer, senior writer and managing editor of TravelGolf.com from 1997 to 2003.


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