Tee it up in Tampa at these must-play courses

By Shane Sharp, Contributor

TAMPA, Fla. - Tony Kornheiser, a columnist for the Washington Post and co-host of ESPN's "Pardon the Interruption," recently referred to Tampa as having a big swamp on one side and some waffle houses on the other. Kornheiser, an avid golfer, missed his approach on this one.

Tampa will never be mistaken for Florida's most aesthetically pleasing city. Naples and Boca Raton vie for that title. But the other "city by the bay" has more to offer than a giant quagmire and a legion of fast food joints.

A revitalized downtown and waterfront area that includes a new multi-sport arena, a sea aquarium, museums, hotels and eateries holds the city's urban and civic fabric together. Local planners, government officials and citizen groups have also banned together over the past decade to create a vision for the city reflecting its Hispanic and American heritage.

A series of residential/retail enclaves make Tampa one of the most unique mid-size cities in the South. Ybor City, former headquarters for the city's cigarmaking business, is now home to a collection of bars, nightclubs and restaurants that pulses with activity and diversity nearly seven nights a week.

The up-and-coming "SoHo" district - named for its location along south Howard Ave. - is home to the young professional crowd and is appropriately adorned with pubs, chi-chi restaurants and coffee houses. And just a chip shot away are the upscale shops, movie theaters and eateries of the Hyde Park area - favorite weekend haunt of the local gentry.

Tampa even stamped its identity into the national conscious recently when the hometown Buccaneers of the National Football League captured their first Super Bowl with an emphatic shellacking of the Oakland Raiders.

The city also claims a National Hockey League franchise, the Lightning, and a Major League Baseball team, the Devil Rays. While some locals deny the existence of the latter, the Rays appear to be on the up-and-up with the hiring of fiery manager Lou Pinella. The Senior, er, Champions Tour is no stranger to the Bay area either, as the Verizon Classic gets underway at the TPC of Tampa Bay this week.

Alas, athletic accomplishments may come and go, but Tampa can always cling to its three greatest assets: a jaw-dropping location along the tranquil blue waters of the Gulf of Mexico, some of the world's best weather, and a bountiful supply of resort and daily fee golf.

Tee it up in Tampa - The Must Plays

Pine Barrens and Rolling Oaks Courses, World Woods Golf Club: World Woods is situated an hour north of downtown Tampa, but any extended golf gorge to the bay area warrants the trip up I-75 to sample these two critically coddled Tom Fazio designed courses.

Pine Barrens is considered one of the top modern courses in the Unites States and draws more comparisons to Pine Valley and Pinehurst than it does other Sunshine state layouts. Fazio carved the course from towering pines and rolling, sandy hills and the result is a visually stunning layout that is one of the better tests of golf in the entire state.

Rolling Oaks is a softer, more traditional layout that sports an East Texas Hill Country feel. The course is a stunning collection of elevated tee boxes, massive fairway landing areas and a-natural green complexes. Stately, Spanish Moss covered Live Oaks are sprinkled throughout Rolling Oaks' 6985 yards, giving it a decidedly older ambiance.

Coppherhead Course, Westin Innisbrook Resort: Copperhead, the flagship track of the wildly popular Westin Innisbrook Resort in Palm Harbor, remains one of the Bay area's best. It was once ranked in Golf Magazine's "Top 100 You Can Play" and is the host course for the PGA Tour's Tampa Bay Classic.

The flavor of the layout is summarily provided by the par 5 opening hole - a sweeping dogleg right with a tee box perched some 50 feet above the fairway. Copperhead is frighteningly long from the tips (nearly 7300 yards), but refreshingly forgiving off the tee.

The TPC of Tampa Bay: A vintage TPC course with dramatic finishing holes and loads of stadium mounding. Designer Bobby Weed routed the 6898-yard par 71 course through the wetlands and cypress trees north of the city. The TPC of Tampa Bay is one of only two Audubon certified cooperative sanctuary courses in Tampa.

Solid Seconds

Island Course, Westin Innisbrook Resort: Considerably shorter and tighter than Copperhead, the Island Course is the quintessential Florida track. Fairways are lined with palms trees and greens are tucked into gnarly palmetto groves. Water is in play on almost every hole and driver is strictly optional. Call it a shotmakers course, a thinking man's course, or whatever you like. But the Island Course has that unique ability to challenge low-handicappers from the tips while providing an enjoyable golf experience for recreational golfers from the forward tees.

Palmer and Saddlebrook Courses, Saddlebrook Resort: Tampa's premier conference and group outing facility is home to two 18-hole Arnold Palmer designed courses. The Saddlebrook Course is the property's original layout and is the preferred track of many members. The Palmer Course sports a few more modern touches and plays a couple strokes harder. Both tracks are conveniently accessible from a slew of golf villas located at the center of the resort.

Highland East and West Courses, Westin Innisbrook Resort:When Westin and Troon purchased Innisbrook from Hilton in the late 1990s, they immediately added nine holes to the existing 27 hole Sandpiper course and created two new golf courses. The Highland North Course (formerly Hawk's Run) was part of the original masterplan for the resort, finally coming to fruition under the new ownership and management. And Highlands South (formerly Eagle's Watch) was the final piece of the puzzle at Innisbrook, and it now houses the longest par-5 in the state, the 650-yard 13th hole.

Off Course

Part zoo, part amusement park, part brewery, Bush Gardens is the place to kill a little time away from the links. The park is conveniently located in north-central Tampa off the Bush Blvd. Exit on I-275. There's always plenty to do in downtown Tampa these days, with the Florida Aquarium, Harbor Island, Ybor City and the shops at Channelside leading the way. If visiting in early February, don't miss Tampa's annual Gasparilla celebration. Sit back in awe with a cold beverage and watch as a mach band of buccaneers aboard an antique pirate ship invade the Bay. Attendance topped off at 450,000 this year, so get there early.

Eating Out

A visit to Tampa necessitates the sampling of both the local seafood offerings and a true Cuban sandwich. The staple fish of the Bay (and the state for that matter) is Grouper. Most seafood joints serve it fried, broiled or blackened. For a tasty version of the eye-watering, sniffle-inducing blackened variety, try Jackson's on Harbor Island.

As for Cuban sandwiches, you can find them at local sandwich shops and even larger chain restaurants, but just make sure they are the real deal - sliced ham and roast pork slathered in mustard, cheese, and sliced dill pickles, all pressed together on a Cuban roll. To sample some of the Bay's local brew, slide into the Tampa Bay Brewing Company in Ybor City and quaff a fresh, homemade pint. The Bay area's bastion of fine dining is the famous Bern's Steakhouse, located in the SoHo district.

Stay and Play

Saddlebrook is an ideal place to stay and play, with two 18 hole courses and easy access north to World Woods and south to downtown Tampa. Also, should you need to hone your skeelz, the onsite Arnold Palmer Golf Academy's World Headquarters is the place to do it, under the tutelage of top instructor Brad Brewer. The resort caters to corporate clients, but recreational golfers are pampered as well. For more information, log on to www.saddlebrookresort.com or call (800) 729-8383.

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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