Saddlebrook Resort corners the corporate market, looks to the traveling golfer

By Shane Sharp, Contributor

TAMPA, Fla. -- They come from business centers like New York, Dallas, Chicago, Atlanta, and Washington, D.C. They gather in one of Saddlebrook Resort's spacious conference rooms, eyes glued to a colorful pie chart. They listen intently while a serious looking gentlemen in a dark suit gives a sermon on quarterly profits.

There they will stay, until the school bell effectively rings and it is time for recess on one of Saddlebrook's two resort course playgrounds. Some will choose the Palmer Course, with its severe mounding and multi-tiered greens. Others will opt for the breezy Saddlebrook Course with its thick strands of Cypress trees and sleepy opaque lagoons.

High scores will be the rule, going low the exception. But a good time will be had by all.

Al Martinez-Fonts, Jr., Saddlebrook's director of marketing, says he believes it's a perfect marriage of rest, relaxation and business.

"There has to be an element of relaxation and enjoyment to any successful corporate outing," says Martinez-Fonts, Jr. "But there also has to be a 'let's accomplish our goals' environment as well. Saddlebrook accomplishes both of those things and that is why nearly 80 percent of our business is corporate."

Since opening in 1980, this 480-acre golf and tennis headquarters has emerged as one of the state's most popular destinations for corporate meetings and group outings. Meeting planners relish Saddlebrook's proximity to a major airport (35 minutes north of Tampa International Airport), its accessibility to the Interstate (I-75 is a chip shot away), and its 82,000 square feet of meeting space. Attendees covet the 36 holes of golf, 45 tennis courts 7,000 square foot spa, and the spacious guest suites.

A seamless blend of business and pleasure would be impossible to pull off without a heavy dose of efficiency. Saddlebrook's Walking Village is a logistical panacea, allowing guests to shuffle between meetings, tee times, meals and swimming pools within minutes.

"You check your car at the door," says Martinez-Fonts, Jr. "You go to some other resorts and you have to take shuttles here and there or even get in your car and drive. The Walking Village takes the guess work and stress out of logistics so guests can focus on business and relaxing."

The Saddlebrook experience has been amplified in recent years by a series of major overhauls. The resort underwent a multi-million dollar renovation in 1996 including the refurbishing of restaurant interiors, the main lobby, and the addition of the spa, Sports Village and 18,000 square foot Grand Pavilion meeting and conference area .

"We can handle a group of ten or we can handle a group of 200 and make them feel just as comfortable," says Martinez-Fonts, Jr.

Comfort comes in the form of one of Saddlebrook's 800 bedrooms and suites. Suites are available in one, two and three bedroom varieties and are fully equipped with kitchens, data ports, stocked bars, cable television and individual climate controls.

"Completely self contained with your every need attended to," says Martinez-Fonts, Jr. when asked to summarize the Saddlebrook experience.

Golf at Saddlebrook

Jerry Couzynse, Saddlebrook's director of golf, knows the question is coming, and he's ready for it.

"Guests always want to know which course they'll enjoy more, or which course is better," he says. "Well, you really can't say that one course is better than the other. As far as which you'll enjoy more, it's a matter of personal preference."

Ed Seay, Arnold Palmer's lead designer, refurbished the Saddlebrook Course in 1986 when laying out the neighboring Palmer Course. Saddlebrook represents everything golfers have come to know and love about "traditional" Florida golf courses: Pancake-flat fairways, gently sweeping doglegs, large, subtle greens and plenty of water.

"There's more emphasis on the tee shot on the Saddlebrook Course," says Couzynse. "It is not that it is really tight, but there are preferred spots to land the ball in the fairways that set up easier approach shots.

Saddlebrook finishes strong, culminating with the knee-knocking signature 18th hole. The 425-yard par-4 plays to a green complex nestled against the outdoor patio of the Cypress Restaurant. Water runs along the entire right side of the hole and will come into play if you peel your tee shot off to the right.

"It is a dramatic finishing hole, especially if there is an audience on the patio," laughs Couzynse. "The key is to keep your drive down the left side so you don't have to fly the ball over the water on the approach. The hole becomes nerve-racking when you are hitting long or mid iron over water."

Across the way at the Palmer Course, approach shots are the name of the game. Seay's putting surfaces never met a flat spot they liked, and hitting the correct portion of the green is the only way to get down with bride or par. There's also plenty of mounding along fairways and around the greens.

"Seay and Palmer wanted to move a lot of dirt on the Palmer Course to set it apart from Saddlebrook," Couzynse says. "Because of that it is more visually stunning than Saddlebrook."

Case in point: The 347-yard par-4 16th hole. The medium length two-shotter requires a tee shot over a glimmering lake and an approach to a stately, Tillinghast-esque green complex. The narrow, hourglass shaped green houses five different pin placements and is a major factor in the hole's No. 7 handicap rating.

The par-71 Palmer Course plays a couple shots harder than the par 70 Saddlebrook Course despite tipping out 100 yards shorter. Couzynse says the Palmer Course's combination of diabolical greens and fairway "moguls" makes it the tougher test, but both courses are widely considered to carry the proverbial "player friendly" tag.

"They both play in the mid-6,000 range which I think is idea for resort golf in Florida," says Couzynse.

The Arnold Palmer Golf Academy

Brad Brewer barley has time to touch his breakfast at the Cypress Restaurant on a warm, dry January morning. The Golf Magazine Top 100 teacher and Palmer protégé is too busy talking about Saddlebrook's state-of-the-art Arnold Palmer Golf Academy. Brewer moved the operation down from Orlando a few years back and the results have been staggering.

"We are tying golf instruction into the corporate meeting mentality and it is emerging as a great fit," Brewer says. "Traditional thinking has been to provide corporate groups with recreational golf. We are changing that thinking by offering a chance to improve your game while improving your business."

The Arnold Palmer Golf Academy has all the bells and whistles you'd expect from a top notch teaching facility. Students have access to computer swing analysis, take-home video tapes and even continuing education and correspondence with Brewer via the Internet.

"We have personal development profiles that document goals for fundamentals, fitness, mental toughness and equipment," Brewer says. "We are developing a system where students who have been through the Academy can have their swings videoed at home and streamed to us through the Internet so we can provide continuing analysis."

The Arnold Palmer Golf Academy offers a variety of different instructional programs geared towards all skill levels. The New Player Academy is reserved for beginners only and includes comprehensive instruction and a basic introduction to the rules, etiquette and equipment of the game.

The Brad Brewer High Performance Golf Weekend is geared towards mid to low handicappers looking to shave those elusive two or three strokes off their game. Brewer describes the High Performance Golf Weekend as an "intense coaching experience," and says the regimen is utilized by a number of PGA touring professionals.

Off Course

Dining: Nary a need to leave campus with Saddlebrook's dining options. The Cypress Restaurant offers award-winning fine dining, with an emphasis on market fresh seafood. Dempsey's Steakhouse is the place for land lubbers, where the 24-ounce aged Porterhouse steak and the roast prime rib are the house specialties. TD's Sports Bar, right next door to Dempsey's, keeps sports fans happy with eight big screen TV's, a solid selection of micro brews and a limited dinner menu.

Entertainment: 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, with the Florida Aquarium, Harbor Island, Ybor City and the shops at Channelside leading the way. If visiting in early Feb., don't miss Tampa's annual Gasparilla celebration. Sit back in awe with a cold beverage and watch as a mach band of buccaneers invade the bay on an antique pirate ship.

Did You Know?

Saddlebrook Resort has gone wireless. Guests can now access email or surf the Internet while sitting in their suites, balconies, meeting rooms, restaurants or poolside. The new, high-speed wireless access is available for $9.95 per day or $49.95 per week. Guests access the network via an antenna plugged into their laptop computer or personal data assistant.

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 from 1997 to 2003.

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