Sandestin Golf and Beach Resort: Never a Dull Moment
DESTIN, FL -- Sandestin seems to encompass everything a guest could wish for, both geographically and personally. Since opening in the mid-1970s, the resort has grown to the size of a small kingdom and now touches both the Gulf of Mexico to the south and the gaping Choctawhatchee Bay to the north. It's one of the uncommon places where the name is interchangeable, indeed it overshadows, that of its namesake town.
Sandestin is the resort, but it might as well be the name of the county. And aside from a riveting beauty and amenities that exceed those of anything in the Panhandle, there is enough golf to last for a week of more.
"I tell people all the time, if golf wasn't important to Sandestin it wouldn't be the second word in our name," says golf sales and marketing manager Craig Falanga.
For as long as anyone can remember, this frighteningly white stretch of beach has lured humans. Creek Indians used the land for hunting and ceremony for nearly a millennium. Wealthy families throughout the South and East later bought and sold the land amongst themselves, using it alternatively for recreation and sustenance. Disney reportedly showed interest here before deciding to exploit Orlando, and later it was nearly the site of an international-caliber racetrack operated by the owners of the Indianapolis Speedway.
Sandestin was finally conceived as a beach resort in 1971. Though it started small and even changed ownership numerous times early in its existence, Sandestin seemed destined to grow from the beginning. A modest attraction in 1973-18 holes of golf (what is now called The Links Course), a Sheraton Hotel, and eight tennis courts on 435 acres-the resort has expanded exponentially. It's now owned by Intrawest and encompasses 2,400 acres, features four 18-hole golf courses, 15 tennis courts, 800 rooms, a 98-slip marina, two full-service restaurants (including the award-winning Elephant Walk), five lounges, four swimming pools, on-site shopping, a health club and spa, 33,000 square feet of meeting space and a soon to be completed ballroom which will be the largest in Northwest Florida.
If it seems exhausting, it can be, but there's never a dull moment for those who want activity, and Sandestin continues to expand. Since purchasing the resort, Intrawest, primarily known for owning and operating mountain resorts, has already developed The Raven Golf Club (2000), and by 2003 will open an additional 42 retail shops and restaurants known as The Village of Baytowne Wharf.
As for golf, Sandestin's 73 holes comprise the largest single-site collection of holes in the Panhandle, highlighted by courses from brothers Robert Trent Jones, Jr., and Rees Jones.
"Over the years, golf and the resort have grown together, hand in hand," Falanga says. "These courses can go up against any. From north to mid to south Florida, the quality speaks for itself. From the architects to the red carpet service, we offer golf in a way that no other courses can."
To find out what kind of golf these courses offer, click here: Golf at Sandestin.
Sandestin is located on Highway 98 just east of Destin, 25 miles west of Panama City Beach. From I-10 exit number 14 south on Highway 331 to Highway 98 and turn right (west). Sandestin is approximately 15 miles on both sides of the highway.
Golf at Sandestin-Both Beauty and Diversity
Sandestin boasts of not only a high number of golf holes (73) but of a rich variety as well. The diversity in terms of both playability and visual appearance is a match for nearly all other resorts in the South.
Sandestin golf sales and marketing manager Craig Falanga agrees. "We've got four unique golf courses at Sandestin. You don't have to even leave the resort to get completely different golf experiences."
Sandestin opened in 1973 with one course, designed by Tom Jackson of Myrtle Beach, known simply as Sandestin. The original course embodied the essence of coastal golf in the Panhandle as it flirted with the then unencumbered flora and wetlands on the shores of Choctawhatchee Bay, as well as being one of the few courses in the area at the time. When additional holes were added later, the Sandestin course came to be called The Links Course. Though the build-up of the resort has robbed it of some of the purely natural appeal, it remains a wonderful and scenic golf experience almost 30 years later, and its holes along the Bay, including the 9th, 14th and 15th, are striking.
In 1986, Jackson returned to create 27 holes known as the Baytowne Course. Baytowne stretches from the far north end of the property across Highway 98 to almost touch the Gulf shore. As Falanga says, "It's the only course around that plays on both sides of Highway 98, so you get both the beach and several views of the Bay when you play there."
Where The Links Course is "target golf with water and a course where smart golf pays off," according to Falanga, Baytowne is the busiest of the four courses and appeals to the widest sampling of golfers. The course is tamer than the others and remains the recreational choice for casual and high handicap players.
The two courses at Sandestin that continually light the marquee, however, are Burnt Pine and The Raven, designed respectively by the two sons of Robert Trent Jones, Rees and Robert, Jr.
Burnt Pine came first, opening as a private club in 1994 (Sandestin guests are allowed to play but tee time priority is given to members). Like The Links course, Burnt Pine covers flat but natural terrain, punctuated by three holes near the shores of the expansive Choctawhatchee Bay.
While impossible to pin a distinctly recurring architectural style on Rees Jones, Burnt Pine does appear to be an assemblage in what can be called his "mounding" mode. His critics cite an unnatural reliance on perimeter mounding along the lines of many of his holes as well as blatant contouring of fairways and greens. From 1992 to 1994, Rees spent much of his time in Florida overseeing construction of four golf courses, two of which - LPGA International Champions Course in Daytona Beach and Falcon's Fire in Kissimmee - display what some consider an egregious overuse of earth-moving and caricaturist dirt loading.
Burnt Pine is also from this era, and while there was little attempt to downplay the necessarily manufactured quality of the layout, it's carried off with far less aplomb than the architect is capable. No one will mistake Burnt Pine for a minimalist design, but there is functionality and working juxtaposition between its comely natural features - tall standing pines and often-dense underbrush - and the eerily compelling linear shapes the architect has created.
Not entirely reflective of its surrounding, Burnt Pine's symmetry and boxiness work better than they often do elsewhere and in a way not unlike how certain Golden Age courses seem natural by contrast. Jones' bunkering is uncomplicated to say the least (it consists primarily of circular discs and large amoeba shapes akin to those seen in recent aerials of Bethpage Black), but it fits well with the more or less hectic shaping at the edges of the course.
Its strength is in its opening eight holes, the most isolated of the bunch, and in particular the 1st, a highly visual 404-yard par four that clings to its water hazard on the left. And for a hole that's almost cartoonish in its unnatural shaping, especially the grossly two-tiered green with lower front bowl, the 356-yard 8th is stirring in both appearance and play.
Unfortunately Burnt Pine loses its evocation around the 12th hole when the routing detours into less peaceful property, crossing roads and fronting homes. This includes the literally all-or-nothing 14th, 212 yards (from the tips) over the beef of a marsh along the Bay. The 18th is a long and broad par five that borders the 11th hole of The Raven.
To say that Burnt Pine seems older than The Raven is less accurate than to say The Raven embodies all the fashionable styles of the industry today. The Raven is not better, but it is newer if also typical in its modern attempt to blend seamlessly into its environment with softer lines and more visible forms of hazards, to provide an aura of long-standing existence (Burnt Pine too, it must be remembered, was at the forefront of modernism as defined by Rees Jones when it opened).
The Raven is both a forward and backward looking course from Robert, Jr., also known as Bobby. Detailed construction methods were utilized to give the impression that everything is subtle and natural, even though it's all man-made. Either softly shaped mounds or stark hazards frame each hole, and every existing wetland or vegetation that could be incorporated is.
This is a brawny course that his father could be proud of. Though it isn't the 7,000 plus yard monster that Robert Trent Jones, Sr. made popular (it tops out at less than 7,000 yards), The Raven features wide fairways with hazards lining the landing areas, massive undulating greens, and several demands for puckering carries that includes the 203-yard shot to the island green at the par three 6th and a long, angled carry from the rear tees on the 604-yard 7th. Other chances for heroism and risk/reward options arise off the tee at the 4th, the 14th, the 15th, and the 18th.
Jones also tips his hat to the past with bunkering that couldn't be more different than that of Burnt Pine. Bobby's bunkers are large and irregular, featuring MacKenzie-esque capes and bays. They're intended for sight purpose as much as for function, arranged less randomly than Rees's. Falanga says of the bunkering: "Let's just say it's a great resort course in that it fits nicely with the beach - there's a lot of sand."
The Raven opened in 2000 and operates out of the same clubhouse as Baytowne. In fact Bobby inherited the easternmost nine holes of the Baytowne Course and basically used them for The Raven's first nine in greatly revised form. He added his own nine on the undeveloped land to the southeast of Burnt Pine and these holes are easily the more inspired of the eighteen. In contrast to Burnt Pine, where only slightly misplayed shots can lead to disaster, The Raven allows players to rev it up - in fact at times it demands they do so. One of the great discrepancies between the courses is that where Bobby's bunkering at The Raven acts as a virtual road map for when and where not to play, the bunkering at Burnt Pine offers no such advice. And where the scale of The Raven is impressive, especially to its humongous and frequently highlight-reel greens, it's the slightly obtuse aspects of the Burnt Pine putting surfaces that continue to intrigue and even infatuate its contingent.
Perhaps the difference is between the obvious and the not so obvious, and what is remarkable is that while one course appears to be natural and the other manufactured, it's not the course you might think that achieves subtlety. It also could be the difference between the need for a resort "Wow" course and a members' course that must stimulate the same players over and over.
Sandestin Golf & Beach Resort
9300 Highway 98 West
Destin, FL 32550
Who's It For?
Sandestin is the largest resort in the Panhandle and as expected, the service, not only at each golf course but also throughout the resort, is top-notch. Anyone seeking the finest side of resort, service-oriented golf will find these courses to their liking. For variety and natural beauty, it's difficult to beat The Raven and Burnt Pine when in the area.
Though The Raven often appears more dramatic, Burnt Pine is probably a sterner test for low handicap players. Golfers of all levels will find The Raven exciting if they play from the appropriate set of tees.
Resort guests pay $85 to play either The Links or Baytowne from February 15 to November 14, and $65 the rest of the year. Public rates are $105 and $85 for the same months. Green fees for The Raven and Burnt Pine are $125 for resort guests and $145 for the public during the warm months, and $85 and $105 respectively for the public during the winter. The resort offers discount fees to juniors and the second round of the day.
July 18, 2002