Innisbrook Golf Resort knows the meaning of stay and play

By Shane Sharp, Contributor

Westin Innisbrook Golf ResortPALM HARBOR, Fla. - High-ranking Westin Innisbrook Golf Resort employees were hard to come by on this sunsplashed February afternoon. Jay Overton, director of golf emeritus for the resort, was in contention at the Champions Tour's ACE Group Classic three hours south in Naples.

Current director of golf Chris Card and his staff weren't about to miss Overton's Florida debut.

"We all went down to see him and it was great to see him play so well," Card said. "He was on his game the first couple days but he couldn't quite carry it through."

Overton finished in a tie for fourth, despite having started Sunday's final round in a tie for second. Even if he'd finished in a tie for 20th, no one at this semi-tropical golf playground north of Clearwater, no one would have minded.

"Everyone is proud of him for dedicating himself to playing," Card said.

Overton - long a fixture at the Westin Innisbrook Golf Resort -- had dabbled in the PGA Tour off and on over the years. His dedication to the resort often prevented him from developing enough game to hang with the flatbellies. He recently decided to pour his heart, soul and guts into a twilight run on the Champions Tour - a decision that will keep Card and his crew plenty busy back on the homefront.

"Jay will be here in spirit," laughed Card. "We'll keep a light on for him. But if we don't see him as much around here, it means he's getting it done out there."

Should his Champions Tour run go south, Overton, like so many of the thousands of guests who've stayed and played here over the years, will come back to the resort's friendly confines. Since the Island Course first opened for play in the early 1970s, the Westin Innisbrook Golf Resort has garnered more repeat business than a Golden Tee machine. It does so via its emphasis on service and attention to detail. But its arsenal of golf courses, swimming pools, and eateries doesn't hurt its cause, either.

Westin Innisbrook Golf ResortThe 1,100-acre property houses seventy-two holes, four restaurants, six pools, tennis and racquetball courts, cycling and walking trails, convention and meeting space and even a wildlife area.

"Totally self-contained," Card said, when asked to describe the concept behind the resort.

The resort does little to tip its hand with its unassuming entrance off of the throbbing artery that is U.S. 19. Yet within a two-minute drive of Palm Harbor's ubiquitous strip malls are two of the state's best resort golf courses. The Copperhead Course, designed by Roger and Larry Packard, is the former site of the LPGA/PGA J.C. Penny Classic and the current home of the PGA Tour's Chrysler Championship.

With elevation changes and thick strands of Pine trees more reminiscent of North Carolina than Florida, Copperhead is unabashedly the crown jewel of the property. The course plays to a meaty 7,200 yards from the championship tees and is home to one of the area's most talked about holes - the 458-yard par-4 16th.

"The draw of the course is that it is like nothing else you'll find around here or the entire state," Card says. "It is almost impossible to describe it someone who hasn't been here because they just wouldn't believe it."

The first hole is a stout, 560-yard double dogleg par-5 that tumbles down to the right from an elevated tee box. It culminates with one of the Bay area's best finishing holes, the uphill 445-yard par-4 18th. In between golfers will find a memorable collection of strong par 4s, strategic par 5s, and picturesque par 3s.

Westin Innisbrook Golf Resort"If you like to drive the ball, you'll like Copperhead," Card says. "It's not that there's no strategy involved, because you can get in trouble if you don't think about what you are doing. But this course wasn't designed for irons off the tee."

That would be the M.O. of the aforementioned Island Course, the resort's other prized possession. Where Copperhead is muscular and open, the Island Course is sinewy and tight. Call it a shotmakers course, a thinking man's track, or whatever you like. 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 member tees.

"When you describe the Island Course, you have to break it up into three parts," said Card. "The first six holes play around the lake and there are lateral hazards everywhere. The next six holes are inland and hilly and actually include the highest point on the entire golf course. The final six holes have a mixture of everything and they are just incredible."

According to Card, the Island Course is the preferred track of the golf staff. Well, depending when you ask.

"Some days we sit around and talk about how the Island Course is our favorite," he said. "The next day, we'll all say the Copperhead is our favorite. We can't decide and I don't think we ever will."

So what about the resort's other two 18-hole layouts? Where's the love?

"Highland North and Highland South are good resort courses but they weren't intended to be the crown jewels of the resort," said Card. "They are shorter and they are enjoyable courses that are designed to be complementary to Island and Copperhead."

When Westin (Starwood) purchased Innisbrook from Hilton in the late '90s, nine holes were tacked on to the existing 27-hole Sandpiper course to create two new courses. The Highland North Course (formerly Hawk's Run) was part of the original masterplan for the resort and finally came to fruition under the new ownership. Highlands South (formerly Eagle's Watch) was the final piece of the puzzle at Innisbrook, and now lays claim to the longest par-5 in the state, the 650-yard 13th hole.

"It is the perfect mix because you have a challenging, championship course, a scenic Florida course and two resort courses that are affordable and won't beat up on the guests," Card said.

Stay and play

Westin Innisbrook Golf ResortThe Westin Innisbrook Golf Resort has 600 guest suites in four different layouts, ranging from the practical junior suite to the posh presidential and penthouse units. The resort (and the entire state's) peak season is from January to late April. Off-season rates are available from May through December. Three different golf packages are available - the Preferred, the Platinum and the Diamond - each offering different levels of golf, transportation, access and accommodations.

A pool would be good for you

There's a friendly rivalry at Westin-Innisbrook Golf Resort between the pools and the golf. The pools (six) out number the courses, and guests arguably spend as much or more time lounging in them as they do traversing the resort's fairways during the summer. All are temperature controlled and equipped with lounge furniture and guest bathhouses. The Copperhead and Island pools also include a hot tub for our guests' enjoyment.

The largest pool, Loch Ness, is located in the center of the Resort in the middle of a three-acre fun park. Loch Ness offers two sand beach areas, a plunge pool with bubbling jets and fountains, a 15- foot waterfall, two large, winding water slides, a pavilion grille for pool-side dining, sunbathing areas and a monster-sized spa, seating up to 36 persons!

Chow

DY's Steakhouse in the Copperhead Clubhouse is a favorite with golfers. The d├ęcor and service concepts were fashioned after the popular Shula's Steakhouse and the menu includes a wide variety of aged, Angus beef cuts and fresh seafood. Casual dining options include Bamboo's Caribbean Cafe in the Highlands Clubhouse, the Grille at Loch Ness (poolside), and the Turnberry Pub at the Island Clubhouse. Viva Italia at Toscana Ristorante upstairs at the Island Clubhouse.

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 Feb., don't miss Tampa's annual Gasparilla celebration. Sit back in awe (or a cold adult beverage) and watch as 1,000 mach buccaneers invade the Bay on antique pirate ships. Attendance topped off at 450,000 this year, so get there early.

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.


Reader Comments / Reviews Leave a comment
  • Was nice

    Jim wrote on: Jun 11, 2010

    I stayed for 2 nights and played 1 round of golf and enjoyed my stay.
    Jim

    Reply

  • Golf employee trying to pick up my wife

    Don W wrote on: Jun 7, 2010

    I frequent Pinellas county often with my family which includes my wife and 2 boys. I especially enjoy playing golf at Innisbrook so we try to stay for at least a week every year. My last visit was in May 2010 and I played 2 of the courses with my wife and boys who also enjoy some of the other activities. We visit Bush Gardens for 2 days and then the rest of the time we stay at the resort. I have noticed the changes that have been made to the property in the last few years and I approve. My 2 boys love golf as well so it makes a complete family outing. My wife has always been very cheerful and full of joy. I noticed one of the golf employees in the pro shop getting a little close one day. I thought that he was just being friendly until he noticed me coming around the corner. My wife said that he told her that he lives local and that she should come out with him to a local bar. We got back to our room and she explained to me that he has been asking her if she was happy in her relationship with me and that she should call him. She was shocked. I am not sure if she gave him the wrong immpression but he persued her for 2 days and I noticed the other guys in the pro shop the next day looking at her after he was pointing and saying that's the one. I felt rather uncomfortable at this point so I asked for the address for the Owner and General Manager during checkout and sent a letter to them explaining everything that happened and stating that we will not be returning to the resort again. I have always enjoyed our stay at Innisbrook but after this experience with Justin E****, who is the employee in question, we will not be returning again. His behavior towards my wife ( a resort guest) was unforgivable.
    Don W

    Reply