Sarasota Golf: Old guard opens up to Great Unwashed and great Florida golf courses

By Tim McDonald, Contributor

SARASOTA, Fla. - It used to be that when you thought of Sarasota, you thought of rich, blue-haired ladies driving around in Cadillacs with their noses in the air while they unwittingly ran you off the road. Not unlike most of coastal Florida, in fact, where prime, beach-front lots have been sold out to wealthy, Northern retirees for decades.

Venetian Golf and River Club
At the Venetian Golf and River Club, architect Chip Powell designed a course that rewards the bold.
Venetian Golf and River ClubLongboat Key Club's Harbourside Golf CourseHeron Creek Golf and CC - Oaks Hole 4
If you go

But Sarasota had a different aura about it. Unlike most of the rest of the state, it had an aversion to growth. It just said no to developers. This is unheard of in the state. The area had an insulated, almost incestuous quality about it: They had a quiet, little paradise down here and they wanted to keep it that way.

That was back in the 1990s. In this century, Sarasota has boomed. Construction is up, businesses are moving in and people less than 100 years of age are having a say. Slowly, the old guard caved in to the notion that if you want better restaurants, healthcare and all the trappings that come with growth, you ought to let in the great unwashed. And Sarasota was and remains prosperous, no doubt about it - even the nursing homes are elaborate high-rises.

It all started with a marketing lie, like much of Florida development. They marketed Sarasota to Scotland in the 1880s and the Scots bought it and sailed over - only to find there was very little to keep them. But one, a Scot named John Hamilton Gillespie, stayed and built what is believed to be the first golf course in Florida and one of the first in the U.S., a nine-holer that sat where downtown is now.

Then came John Ringling, who brought famous works of art and, for his day job, circus elephants. Sarasota came to be known as a "Paradise for the pampered" and the rich folk liked it that way.

Ringling built the first bridge to what is now the ritzy St. Armands Key. Between Tampa to the north and Fort Myers to the south, Sarasota is wrapped by 35 miles of beachfront, and with its average temperature of 73 degrees, its symphony, ballet, theaters and art galleries, it's a small, wealthy and culturally active enclave. Only bigger.

Sarasota has always had some good golf, and now the birthplace of Florida golf has even more.

Must-play Sarasota golf courses

Venetian Golf and River Club is fun right off the bat, with its lake driving range. Architect Chip Powell designed each hole with one of his architect role models in mind, which makes for some fairly outrageous green complexes. No. 9, for example, would make Pinehurst No. 2 look flat and dull.

Like the great architects from whom he draws inspiration, Powell has designed a course that rewards the bold, with most of the shortest routes to the green either over or close to obstacles, either large fairway bunkers of water. But, he still leaves room for the player who wants to play it safe.

• Rarely has such a good golf course been played in such lousy surroundings. Even for Florida, where condos out-number insects, the Legacy Golf Club stands out - or down. The course itself is one of the best in this part of southwest Florida, but its stature is diminished by the long cart rides through the shadows of looming condo buildings. Still, the golf is terrific.

"These are some of the best golf holes in the area," said Alistair Campbell, a transplanted Scot who now lives in Sarasota, and who plays the course once a week with his buddies. "But, I hate all the driving through the condos."

• Every now and then you run into a golf course you've never heard of that surprises you, either for good or bad. The Harbourside course at the Longboat Key Club is one of the former. Harbourside, with its sweeping views of Sarasota Bay, was designed by Willard Byrd, and noted Florida architect Ron Garl did a $2 million renovation in January of this year.

"Challenging, definitely challenging," said Harbourside Head Professional Matt Neapolitano. "Especially the blue course. The aesthetics are really something, just because of the property it sits on."

Heron Creek Golf and Country Club is a top draw in the area. It's 27 holes of Arthur Hills-designed elevation changes, atypical of southwest Florida. All three nines - the Marsh, Oaks and Creek courses - are well-groomed and imaginatively laid out.

Sarasota golf courses: Solid seconds

Pelican Pointe Golf and Country Club is a Ted McAnlis design and it's easy on the eyes as well as the ladies and seniors or even for those who can't or don't want to whack it a mile. It's a fun, 27-hole layout, with more cognitive than bench-press strength required.

• The Islandside golf course at the Longboat Key Club looks like one of those old-time Florida courses you used to see on postcards. You can picture Jackie Gleason teeing off here, martini in hand. Of course, that's back when you could actually see the Gulf of Mexico just to the west.

There are multi-story condo building there now, this being Florida, but there are still the palm and banyan trees framing the holes, and pink and white Oleanders blooming along the fairways and canals. Water is on every hole and the egrets and herons take full advantage, stalking the narrows like photogenic predators.

• The Bobby Jones Golf Complex is a 45-hole, city-run complex, an ode to Jones, but designed by Donald Ross. Jones himself was there for the grand opening, in 1927. The course is popular because of its excellent conditioning and low green fees, though there have been complaints about the staff.

Sarasota: Off course

Sarasota has more than its share of islands - Siesta Key, Longboat key, Lido Key, Casey Key, Manasota Key, Venice, Englewood and North Port - all with their special attractions. Fishing is big in the area, both light and heavy tackle, inshore and offshore.

There's also canoeing and kayaking, especially the water trails at South Lido Park, and hiking at the Myakka State Park.

Sarasota's art scene is worthy of bigger cities. There are museums showcasing everything from Reubens masterpieces to Asian art to circus memorabilia. Try the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, the Mote Aquarium and Sarasota Junge Gardens.

Stay and play

The Longboat Key Club sits so close to the Gulf of Mexico you can hear the grouper groaning and literally see the wind blowing patterns over the saltwater. If you fell off the balcony, you'd almost land on the beach. The sun sets in your picture window like a painting.

Water sports are the big deal here, with boating and fishing excursions available, or if you don't want to go that far, the resort has sailboats, kayaks, boogie boards and snorkel equipment. If that's still too much activity, umbrellas and cabanas are available, or just lounge by the pool or sit at the outside bar and stare at the Gulf until another hurricane hits.

Sarasota dining

Longboat Key Club has no less than six restaurants and lounges, starting with Sands Pointe, with the broad sweep of the Gulf as a backdrop. The Grill at Harbourside serves seafood and steaks for dinner and the Dining Room at Harbourside offers a buffet. Barefoots is the poolside lounge where you get the pink drinks with umbrellas, and Spike n' Tees overlooks the golf course.

If you want to make the short drive in to Sarasota, there's a wide variety of restaurants.

Tim McDonaldTim McDonald, Contributor

Veteran golf writer Tim McDonald keeps one eye on the PGA Tour and another watching golf vacation hotspots and letting travelers in on the best place to vacation.

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