Sarasota starting to heat up as golfing hotspot

By Joel Zuckerman, Contributor

SARASOTA, Fla. -- Sarasota will likely never be known as a premiere golfing destination. It's not the lack of good golf in the area, far from it. It's just that this petite city of 50,000 residents on the Gulf coast has far too many attractions to simply be pigeonholed as a golf getaway.

Begin with the beaches. The quality of the sand in the area is nothing short of legendary. Crescent Beach on Siesta Key, one of the most popular sunning spots in the region, is considered one of the finest beaches in the world. Long-time residents swear that the county has its own micro-climate, and when rain is falling in Tampa, some 60 miles north, or down toward Fort Myers, the skies remain fair over Sarasota. The gentle curve of the landscape, or "sand-scape" gives the beach its name. Add in the temperate waters of the Gulf of Mexico, wide expanses of powdery sand with abundant people-watching opportunities, and it's easy to see why the shoreline holds such appeal.

Although Sarasota County is home to 300,000 residents, the city itself is barely in the state's top 10 population centers. Nevertheless, the eclectic mix of restaurants, nightlife, shopping and cultural activities available here will satisfy even the most jaded of visitors. Sarasota has plenty to offer, and golf is as worthwhile an attraction as anything else.

Must Plays

One of the toughest tracks in town is called Stoneybrook. This is a formidable Arthur Hills design in an area called Palmer Ranch, an area replete with many of Sarasota's best private tracks. Playing 6,560 yards from the back tees and 6,130 from the middle markers, length here is less of a factor than keeping the golf ball dry. There's water in play on every hole but one, little of it incidental. There are 15 holes that require both a tee shot and approach steered toward terra firma, and several holes have water in play repeatedly. Beware the staunch ninth hole, 420 yards from the tips and loaded with trouble. Also the tough 12th, a par 5 requiring more than 200 yards of water carry from the tips, usually playing into the breeze. Thankfully, there are more red stakes than white on the course, recently revamped with smooth-rolling Tifdwarf greens, so wayward shots will require the stroke but not the distance. Be thankful for small favors.

Bob Tway has eight Tour wins including a PGA Championship, but has yet to make an indelible mark as an architect. That's destined to change if he continues to produce courses like Bobcat Trail, south of Sarasota in North Port. Again, water is a major factor here, present on every hole but two. Large, undulating greens provide additional challenge on this 6,750-yard course. There's a wide variety of par 4s on the property, ranging from less than 300 yards to more than 440 yards in length. Tee shots need to be shaped in both directions to avoid the strategically placed fairway bunkering. The routing is strong as well; the course commences in a counter-clockwise direction and then becomes a figure eight down the homestretch. Not to worry though, a state of the art GPS System will keep you from getting disoriented.

The Waterlefe Golf and River Club has one of the most spectacular settings in the area. This Ted McAnlis design is hard by the scenic Manatee River in Bradenton, a bit north of Sarasota. This 6,900-yard dazzler has four holes that border the river, and the island green finale on the par-5 18th is almost worth the price of admission itself.

Solid Seconds

Other worthwhile courses include Arnold Palmer's Legacy at Lakewood Ranch. This course is absolutely super-sized, situated on 5,500 acres of land, which includes a 165-acre lake. Heron Creek is a fine Arthur Hills design with that rarest of Florida features, a bit of elevation change. Also check out Serenoa, a petite water-park less than 6,300 yards from the tips, with narrow ribbons of fairway separating a seemingly endless series of lagoons and ponds.

For those with the requisite connections, a round at the all male Gator Creek Club is a must. It's a perfectly nice Joe Lee design, but the private club's membership is what truly makes the day memorable. Hall of Famers like Mike Schmidt and Carlton Fisk tee it up here occasionally, and you never can tell who might be tottering up an adjacent fairway. At any other club it would most likely be some retired executive, but at Gator, it could have well been football legend Otto Graham, a long-time member prior to his recent passing. Women and children are welcome just down the road at one of the area's classiest private enclaves known as Laurel Oak, a 36-hole, Gary Player signature design.

Off Course

Sarasota, as noted earlier, has plenty of compelling non-golf options available to visitors. Circus Sarasota (941-355-9335) showcases the art and history of one of our most enduring entertainment forums. John Ringling (of Ringling Bros. fame) first visited Sarasota some 95 years ago, and the rest, as they say, is circus history. The Mote Marine Laboratory (941-388-2451) is home to more than 200 varieties of fish and invertebrates of the sea, including two West Indian manatees, along with several sea turtles at the Marine Mammal Center. The Marie Selby Botanical Gardens (941-366-5730) features more than 6,000 orchids. Selby's 8.5 bay front acres are an open-air and under-glass museum of more than 20,000 colorful plants, many collected in the wild on more than 150 scientific expeditions to tropical rain forests by the Garden's Research and Conservation Department.

Dining Out

Fandago Café (941-346-1711) offers eclectic Middle-eastern cuisine in a casual atmosphere on Siesta Key. Captain Curt's Crab and Oyster Bar (941-349-3885) is a casual spot for fresh seafood, also on Siesta Key. Shell 's Restaurant (941-924-2568) has excellent seafood in a more upscale atmosphere. These are three of perhaps three hundred worthwhile restaurants in the area.

Stay and Play

Captiva Beach Resort (941-349-4131 is one of the best locations on Siesta Key, located only 400 feet to the world famous white sand beaches. The Ritz-Carlton (866-816-9330) in downtown Sarasota offers an entirely different sensibility, at an entirely different price range. These are just two of at least two hundred reputable hotels and inns in greater Sarasota.

And lastly, let's add a word of caution regarding pace of play, or lack thereof. In prime season, roughly defined as December through April, a four-hour round in Florida is as rare as a hickory shaft. There are exceptions, of course. Private courses or high-end daily fee clubs will usually offer a brisker pace. Inclement weather, an early starting time or a rare lull in the action, perhaps on a major holiday, will cut the time on the links substantially. But bear in mind that the majority of golfers on many of the semi-private or resort facilities in the state are a virulent combination of inexperienced and elderly. Sarasota, home to tens of thousands of snowbirds, is no exception. Patience, along with wind and water, will test your game in Florida through the winter months, which have thankfully come to an end. Gird yourself for a five-hour round, and be thankful to come off the 18th green 20 or 30 minutes "early".

Stoneybrook: 941-966-1800 for tee times.
Bobcat Trail: 941-429-0500 for tee times.
Waterlefe: 941-744-9771 for tee times.
Serenoa: 941-925-2755 for tee times
Heron Creek: 941-423-6955 for tee times.
Lakewood Ranch: 941-907-7067 for tee times.

Joel ZuckermanJoel Zuckerman, Contributor

Joel Zuckerman is based in Savannah, Georgia and Park City, Utah. He is the author of five books, and his golf and travel stories have appeared in more than 100 publications around the world, including Sports Illustrated, Golfweek, Travel+Leisure Golf, Continental and Golf International.

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